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  • Suzanne Horn

'Let Freedom Ring' Honors Our Fallen Heroes on Memorial Day

Suzanne Horn

Master Rosarian, Pacific Rose Society

This article was originally published in the June 2020 issue of the Pacific Rose.

Roses & You, July 2020

'Let Freedom Ring', photo courtesy Suzanne Horn

This week our nation honors the memory of the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military in all of America’s past wars. Memorial Day is the most solemn and reverent of American holidays, and roses are frequently placed on military graves at Arlington National Cemetery in remembrance of the service of those buried there. This practice inspired me to write about an exquisitely beautiful hybrid tea rose that commemorates the freedom for which our fallen military heroes sacrificed their lives, ‘Let Freedom Ring’.

‘Let Freedom Ring’ (WEKearman) is a stunning strawberry red rose, which was bred in 2004 by World War II veteran and amateur hybridizer, Mr. Ernest Earman, Jr. of Alexandria, Virginia. Mr. Earman was born on March 31, 1921 in Brunswick, Maryland. He was a proud United States Army veteran of World War II. He was also a member of the American Legion Post 24 in Alexandria, Virginia as well as the Arlington Rose Society.

Known to his rose friends as “Ernie”, he was an avid and ultimately successful rose hybridizer. His crowning achievement was the spectacular red rose, ‘Let Freedom Ring’. The rose was honored with multiple national and regional awards, including the Portland Rose Society Gold Medal Award in 2009, the American Rose Society (ARS) David Fuerstenburg Award for 2013, and the ARS Trial Ground Certificate Silver Medal Award. Mr. Earman passed away on October 9, 2016 at the ripe old age of 95. He leaves behind a legacy of love to his many close friends and rose enthusiasts in Arlington. He will always be remembered by the magnificent rose he lovingly created that will forever celebrate the spirit of our nation. It is the perfect rose to commemorate Memorial Day.

Honor. Remember. Never forget. These are the sentiments that have become traditional on this most somber of holidays. Traditions are important. They're a form of living history passed down from generation to generation. Each year on Memorial Day Americans pause (traditionally at 3:00 p.m. for a one-minute National Moment of Silence) to remember the fallen from the ranks of the Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Navy and to honor their sacrifice. Many people visit cemeteries and memorials on this solemn occasion, and it is traditionally seen as the start of the summer season. In spite of the increasing celebration of Memorial Day as a summer rite of passage, other formal rituals include that the American flag should be briskly raised and hung at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day, then raised to the top of the staff for the remainder of the day until sunset, at which time it should be slowly and ceremoniously lowered. Memorial Day is the only day that observes both positions on the flagpole.

This holiday was first established as Decoration Day after the Civil War, and it was set aside for families and friends to visit and decorate the graves of troops lost in the conflict. As time went on, the observance instead became known as "Memorial Day," until 1971, when Congress declared it an official holiday set to fall annually on the last Monday in May.

Memorial Day is not to be confused with Veteran’s Day, which is a day set aside to celebrate all veterans. Memorial Day is a somber holiday dedicated to honor military fallen, with a special focus on those killed during military service or through enemy contact. It is dedicated to our American heroes. As writer and professor Joseph Campbell so eloquently wrote, "A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself." The defense of our freedom is one of the highest aspirations of our American military, which is why ‘Let Freedom Ring’ is such an appropriate rose to honor our heroes.

While researching this article, I found that Memorial Day and its traditions may have ancient roots. Although the first commemorative Memorial Day events were not held in this country until the late 19th Century, the practice of honoring those who have fallen in battle dates back thousands of years. The ancient Greeks and Romans held annual days of remembrance for loved ones (including soldiers) each year, festooning their graves with flowers and holding public festivals and feasts in their honor. In Athens, public funerals for fallen soldiers were held after each battle, with the remains of the dead placed on display for public mourning before a funeral procession took them to their internment.

The first national commemoration of Memorial Day was held in Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868, where both Union and Confederate soldiers are buried. Several towns and cities across America claim to have observed their own earlier versions of Memorial Day or “Decoration Day” as early as 1866. However, thanks to an extraordinary discovery in the late 1990’s in an old Harvard University archive, historians learned about a Memorial Day commemoration organized by a group of freed black slaves less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865. Professor David Blight of Yale University was afforded an opportunity to peruse two boxes of unsorted material from Union veterans. The file was labeled “First Decoration Day” and was a narrative handwritten by an old veteran, plus a date referencing an article in The New York Tribune.

It told the story of one of the earliest commemorations, which was organized by recently freed slaves. As the Civil War neared its end, thousands of Union soldiers, held as prisoners of war, were kept in a series of hastily assembled camps in Charleston, South Carolina. Conditions at one camp, a former racetrack and posh country club near the city’s Citadel, Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, were so bad in the track’s open-air infield that more than 260 prisoners died from disease or exposure and were buried in a mass grave behind the track’s grandstand.

When Charleston fell and Confederate troops evacuated the badly damaged city, freed slaves remained. One of the first things those emancipated men and women did was to give the fallen Union prisoners a proper burial. They exhumed the mass grave and reinterred the bodies in a new cemetery with a tall whitewashed fence inscribed with the words: “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

Three weeks after the Confederate surrender, on May 1, 1863, an unusual procession entered the former camp. According to two reports that Blight found in ‘The New York Tribune’ and ‘The Charleston Courier’, a crowd of 10,000 people including more than 1,000 recently freed slaves, accompanied by regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops (including the Massachusetts 54th Infantry), along with some white missionaries and a handful of other white Charlestonians, gathered in the camp to consecrate a new, proper burial site for the Union dead. They staged a parade around the race track, sang hymns, gave readings and distributed flowers around the cemetery, which they dedicated to the fallen Union soldiers.

If the news reports are accurate, the 1865 gathering at the Charleston race track would be the earliest Memorial Day commemoration on record. In time, the old horse track and country club were torn down, and thanks to a gift from a wealthy Northern patron, the Union soldiers' graves were moved from the humble white-fenced graveyard in Charleston to the Beaufort National Cemetery. Until the time that Blight began rummaging through the Harvard archives in 1996, the story of the first Memorial Day had been entirely forgotten.

This holiday as we know it today was founded in the United States by General John A. Logan. Commander-in-Chief of the Union veterans’ group known as the Grand Army of the Republic, General Logan had a long and distinguished career. In May of 1868, he issued a decree that May 30 should become a nationwide day of commemoration for the more than 620,000 soldiers killed in the recently ended Civil War (1861-1865). The holiday now honors those who died in any war while serving with the United States. Logan called this holiday “Decoration Day” and declared that Americans should lay flowers and decorate the graves of the war dead “whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

Suzanne with 'Let Freedom Ring', photo Ray Guilebeau

Even before the war ended, women’s groups across much of the South were gathering informally to decorate the graves of Confederate dead. In April 1886, the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, Georgia resolved to commemorate the fallen once a year. According to General Logan’s wife, this practice seems to have influenced John Logan to follow suit. It was said that General Logan chose May 30 for the holiday because it was a rare day that didn’t fall on the anniversary of a Civil War battle. However, some historians believe the date was selected to ensure that flowers across the country would be in full bloom.

After the Civil War, General Logan served as a U.S. congressman before resigning to rejoin the army, returned to his political career, eventually serving in both the House and Senate and was the unsuccessful Republican candidate for vice president in 1884. When he died two years later, Logan’s body laid in state in the rotunda of the United States Capitol, making him one of just 33 people to have received the honor. Today, Washington, D.C.’s Logan Circle and several townships across the country are named in honor of this champion of veterans and those who lost their lives in battle.

Over the next 100 years, Decoration Day morphed into Memorial Day. By 1968, all of the Civil War vets had died, and Memorial Day belonged to the fallen veterans of all eras. Congress eventually changed the observance of Memorial Day from its traditional observance on May 30 (regardless of the day of the week), to a set day—the last Monday in May by way of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968. The purpose of this was to give federal employees a set of standard three-day weekends and to widen the observance of the holiday.

Many people visit cemeteries and memorials on Memorial Day to honor and mourn those who died in military service. Many volunteers place an American flag on each grave in national cemeteries, and flowers adorn gravesites across the country. For those who grow ‘Let Freedom Ring’, the rose holds an extra special meaning during this solemn and reverent time.

‘Let Freedom Ring’ is clearly one of the best red hybrid teas on the market. It is a cross of a grandiflora named ‘Prima Donna’ and the great exhibition hybrid tea ‘Touch of Class’. It enjoyed a limited release in 2005 under the name ‘2005 Better Homes & Gardens Rose’ and it was also introduced in Australia under the name of ‘The Mandalay Rose’. It was subsequently introduced into commerce in 2006 by Weeks Roses as ‘Let Freedom Ring’, and it rapidly became a favorite of home gardeners and exhibitors alike.

No matter where it is grown around the world, ‘Let Freedom Ring’ presents long, pointed elegant buds, which open slowly into classically formed, beautiful, high centered blooms. This impeccable bloom form was obviously inherited from its parent plant, ‘Touch of Class’. Those bright, eye-catching red blooms are about five inches wide with a petal count between 25 and 32, and they are generally borne one to a stem. They are held on long straight stems and are cloaked with rich, matte deep green foliage, which sets off the delicious red hue of the flowers to perfection.

‘Let Freedom Ring’ is a beautiful garden rose as well as a spectacular exhibition variety. Classified as medium red (MR) by the American Rose Society, its flowers are a unique and dazzling shade of strawberry red. It produces large, florist-type blooms in abundance; and the bright red color holds and doesn't fade as many reds do. I grow my plants next to my plants of ‘Veteran's Honor’ and therefore have been able to compare the two side by side. ‘Let Freedom Ring’ is definitely a lighter, brighter red. Of course, its color may vary with climate, and the blooms appear to be more red in cool conditions.

Like most roses, ‘Let Freedom Ring’ prefers to be grown with full sun exposure to produce its very best, most luxurious blooms. It can be grown in the ground in well-drained enriched garden soil or alternately in a large container. It also has better than average disease resistance, which is always a plus to gardeners.

'Let Freedom Ring' tree, photo courtesy Suzanne Horn

By way of growth habit, ‘Let Freedom Ring’ is medium tall and upright, often reaching in excess of six feet tall and two and a half feet wide. It is splendidly vigorous, having been compared to “Jack and the Beanstalk on Steroids” by longtime rose columnist “Dr. Leda Horticulture”. It creates a stunning display in the garden. At one time I grew twelve of these beauties in a luscious grove of red, as is illustrated by the attached photo of me peeking out through the roses in my garden.

Like many hybrid teas, this rose does not have a strong fragrance, but it is said to present a light tea scent. I would have to classify that as “catalogue fragrance”, as I rarely if ever discern any scent on the rose. However, it certainly makes up for the lack of fragrance in the beauty of its flawless flower form. It makes an exceptional cut flower, and the blooms are blessed with a long vase life. If you are a rose gardener who loves to cut bouquets of long-stemmed roses for your home, this is the rose for you!

Another attribute of ‘Let Freedom Ring’ is its excellent remontance. It continues to bloom throughout the growing season, which for us in Southern California is pretty much throughout the year. Just keep the old flowers cut or deadheaded promptly, and a new crop of bountiful blooms will replace them every seven or eight weeks.

The exhibitors among us know that ‘Let Freedom Ring’ is a great show rose. Its classic, high centered blooms have been sought out by top exhibitors since its introduction. It has been adorning trophy tables and winning the coveted title of “Queen of Show” since it first became available. Its exquisite, perfectly swirled exhibition form and striking color bring to mind the traditional judge’s adage, “When in doubt, vote for the big red rose!”

See attached the prize-winning show blooms of exhibitor extraordinaire Kitty Belendez including a Queen, a Princess and a Vase of Three. She notes that she has utilized it in various winning national and district challenge classes. I incorporated it into my winning Pacific Southwest District Challenge Class entry of the Herb Swim Memorial Trophy, seen pictured here along with ‘Cajun Moon’ and ‘Veterans’ Honor’. It is quite a “banker” (a rose you can take to the bank) for exhibitors, and most grow at least one.

King 'Let Freedom Ring', photo Kitty Belendez

‘Let Freedom Ring’ is not only a great show rose, but it is also an outstanding garden rose that is sure to reward you with beautiful blooms throughout the growing season. So, whether you’re a dedicated exhibitor looking for a superb show rose or simply wish to have beautiful cut roses for the home and office, you can’t go wrong with this magnificent hybrid tea.

In keeping with our Memorial Day theme, ‘Let Freedom Ring’ can often be found in memorial American themed and “never forget” gardens, making it a perfect rose to honor the sacred tradition of this holiday. Its unique and dazzling strawberry red hue makes ‘Let Freedom Ring’ an excellent choice for use in traditional patriotic bouquets. Suggested enhancements to these bouquets would be blue Delphiniums or Hydrangeas and white lilies or Shasta Daisies to obtain the striking red, white and blue color combination.

‘Let Freedom Ring’ is commercially available and can be found in various local nurseries and through mail order catalogues. This would be a great time to add one or more of these lovelies to adorn your garden for spring! They are a constant, poignant reminder of the precious freedom that was so ardently fought for by our fallen veterans, who we honor and commemorate on Memorial Day.

In closing, I would like to quote former President Ronald Reagan, who stated, “Freedom is never more than one generation from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected and handed on for them to do the same.”

As the Gaither Brothers sang in their recording of “Let Freedom Ring”:

Let freedom ring wherever minds know what it means to be in chains.

Let freedom ring wherever hearts know pain.

Let freedom echo through the lonely streets where prisons have no key.

We can be free and we can sing, let freedom ring!

'Let Freedom Ring', photo courtesy Suzanne Horn
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