On a sunny day in May, Confederate commander J.E. B. Stuart sits on horseback against a deep blue sky with billowing white clouds. His horse has a front leg reared in mid-air poised to gallop.
The statue of Stuart is in Richmond, Va., on Monument Avenue, a broad parkway with grassy medians and regal statuary commemorating Confederate leaders. It is the only street in the country to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Farther down the avenue, a statue of General Robert E. Lee anchors the center of a large roundabout. Lee, too, is on horseback, sitting ramrod straight in the saddle, the head of his horse gallantly bowed. The commemorative plate simply says, "Lee."
In the next stretch of avenue is Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Davis is standing at the base of a large monument with one arm raised and outstretched as if giving a proclamation.
Genteel homes with manicured lawns border the avenue. They are mostly brick, two-story, with plantation shutters. Many have small balconies with trailing ivy and flower-filled porches. The stately homes reveal nothing of the battles, the bloodshed or the carnage that filled the countryside more than a century ago.
Stonewall Jackson is on horseback high atop his monument. The final Confederate monument is that of Matthew Fontaine Maury, commander of the Confederate States Navy.
When I watched the Ken Burns "Civil War" series I would occasionally drift off then reawaken to the narrator's voice intoning, "And on this battlefield thousands died." Over and over the process repeated itself. "And on this battlefield, thousands more died." The staggering loss of life and stench of death from both the Confederacy and the Union are impossible to grasp.
Even now as our soldiers serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is hard to grasp the ripples of death, the number of hearts that break for every soldier that falls.
The first Memorial Day was declared to honor Union Soldiers who died in the Civil War. The South, wishing to distance itself from the northern holiday, called their memorial Decoration Day.
In long-standing tradition, there will be a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery this week. Flags will be placed on graves and a wreath laid at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A bugler will play taps, that sorrowful close-of-day melody that came into being in a Union camp near Richmond during the Civil War.
As the origins of Memorial Day fade into the shadows, it has become less a day for honoring fallen soldiers and more a day for sales, pool openings and cookouts with family and friends. Hopefully, we will take a moment to give thanks for those who gave all for duty and honor in previous wars and conflicts, and an extra measure for those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln said that we cannot dedicate, consecrate or hallow the ground on which men died. He was right. The way we best honor the war dead from all generations, is to honor that which they died for to cherish freedom and to purpose ourselves to protect liberty.
In Lincoln's words, the greatest living memorial a nation can offer is to see that a "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."