Fellow Comrades, Ladies and Gentlemen:
This day belongs to our soldier dead; not of one war, but of all our wars; and particularly here, in this cemetery, where on these shafts and stones we read names that illumine so many periods of our history.
But while it belongs to all who have at any time or place upheld the flag on land or on sea, yet it had its origin in the sorrow and gratitude that filled the heart of the Nation, as it emerged from the Civil War, stricken with grief, but crowned with glorious triumph.
For these reasons it is no disparagement of others to speak here today chiefly of that conflict; its character and results.
We have reached the time when this can be done dispassionately.
As the traveler sailing away from the land sees the shore, the trees, the houses, and the hills receding, blending and disappearing until only the mountain peaks are longer visible, so have the details and minor features of that great struggle blended and faded out of sight, leaving, as we look back to it across the forty years that have since elapsed, only those strong and commanding facts that have taken permament places in history.
We no longer see regiments, brigades, divisions, corps, or even separate armies, but only one mighty and invincible host, wearing the blue and relentlessly pressing on and on, and ever onward, through success and adversity alike, from battlefield to battlefield, until, with waving flags, flashing sabres and gleaming bayonets, they marched home flushed with final victory.
It would be interesting and inspiring to recall that time and review in detail those days of sacrifice, of hardship, of battle, of death, of heroism, of patriotic devotion, of thrilling triumph; and here in this presence there comes an almost irresistible impulse to do so. But all that would be only repeating familiar history.
I shall, therefore, say but little in an abstract way of our heroes and their deeds of daring, that I may speak more fully of their great work.
As we behold the
people of this land to-day all at peace, all prosperous, all happy, all
imbued with love for our flag and our
Government, it seems almost incredible that so recently we should or could have been distracted and brought to the very brink of destruction by one of the most ruthless wars of modern times.
CAUSE OF CIVIL WAR.
It seems so strange and unnatural that we instinctively inquire, what was it all about? And what has happened that those who were at fatal war with each other should so soon become friends and be bound together in common interest and common aspirations.
It is unnecessary to trace the development or discuss the respective merits of the differences that made our country sectional and almost destroyed it. It is sufficient to recall the fact that, plainly stated, we had two questions about which we differed. One a moral question, and the other a legal question; one slavery, and the other secession; one appealing to the conscience and the other to the Constitution.
Both demanded settlement, but we strove to confine the war to the settlement of only one. Even Abraham Lincoln said he would save the Union with slavery if he could; without slavery if he must.
But on that basis we did not make much progress. So long as the war meant no more than whether a State had a right under the Constitution to secede from the Union and thus break up and destroy it, we did not get along very well.
Manassas, Balls Bluff, and other defeats and humiliations, one after another, overtook us, with only enough of success and victory interspersed to keep us from becoming utterly discouraged and abandoning the field.
Finally Lincoln saw, as in due time most men saw, that if the Union armies were to be successful the Union cause must be based on something broader and more important than a cold legal proposition, important as that might be and was.
Our fathers of the Revolution commenced their struggle merely to redress grievances and enlarged their purpose to include and secure independence only when more than a year after Lexington and Concord they learned the necessity for a more inspiriting cause.
In the same manner we learned and progressed. Not until after Antietam did the Nation see, appreciate and rise to its opportunity. Then it was the war for the preservation of the Union was placed on a basis that appealed to the moral sentiment of the people by the declaration that the bond should go free, thus striking at the root of all our differences and making it possible to conquer a lasting peace and establish a durable Union. From that moment the Union cause had a new strength and the Union soldier a new life. He marched with a firmer tread and held his musket with a more determined grasp. He felt that he was on God's side of the great contest, and that if he should be called upon to make the highest sacrifice it would at least not be made in vain.
It was a long, hard struggle. It cost hundreds of thousands of lives and hundreds of millions of treasure. It filled the land with mourning and piled up colossal burdens of debt, not only to creditors who took our securities, but to the pensioners who constitute the Nation's roll of honor.
It was a tremendous price to pay, greater than any language can adequately portray; but so too was the reward that followed.
When the smoke of battle cleared away it could be seen that not only was slavery gone forever, but that some things had been settled that it was of transcendant importance to have settled. In the first place, it was made plain that there was a right and a wrong side to the great controversy that had been so long in progress, and that the right side had triumphed and been vindicated. And that is as true to-day, and will be forever, as it was then. The fact that those who fought against the Government fought bravely and gallantly, and believed that they were right, does not change the fact that they were nevertheless in the wrong, and that their defeat was a blessing from them as well as for us and all concerned.
It was also settled that American heroism and valor were the same no matter under which flag displayed, for neither side could justly charge the other with any lack of these high qualities of vigorous manhood; and in this fact, that cost us so much at that time, was another blessing; for since then there has been profound mutual respect, where before there was so much lack of it as to make impossible any true feeling of real homogeneity.
It furthermore settled for all time to come that this is a Nation, not only in the sense that the Constitution is our supreme law, binding the States together in perpetual union, but also in the sense that our Government is invested with all the powers that properly belong to sovereignty.
If nothing more had been accomplished the victory would have been worth more than all it cost, but its value is to be measured, not alone by what it secured, but also by what it prevented.
Defeat of the Union cause would have meant, not only two governments, but general disintegration, with corresponding sacrifice of that power, prosperity, prestige and greatness that a common country, a common flag, a common interest and a common destiny have brought us.
We know what the
terms of peace were as Grant dictated them; but who can tell what they
would have been had they been
prescribed by Lee?
Where would he have
run the boundary lines? How many States would have gone with the Southern
Confederacy? and who
would have stayed the spread of slavery? How many States would have remained to constitute the Union, if any at all? And how long would it have been until other secessions would have occurred? Who would have assumed the burdens of the public debt, and whose soldiers would have been pensioned? and who would have paid that obligation?
What indemnity would
the South have exacted? and what kind of guarantees would she have imposed
for the safety of her
institutions and the preservation of her domination?
There is no end to the reasonable speculation that may be fairly indulged as to the ruinous consequences that would have followed if the result had been reversed.
In one sense such speculation may be idle, but not until we thus attempt to conjecture can we form any measure of the debt of gratitude we owe to the brave men whom we are here to honor.
But they accomplished more still; as already indicated, they not only prevented all the disasters suggested, and achieved for us the blessings of an indissoluble Union and universal freedom, but they freed us from the paralysis of the doctrines of States rights and strict construction, by which the power of the Federal Government was minimized to the point of helplessness to even save our national life, and gave it in turn that vitality, vigor and scope which belong to full national sovereignty. They made a reality of the belief in that respect of Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall, for, since Appomattox, what they taught has been fundamental truth, and we have been developing our constitutional powers until at last all recognize that our Government is as completely sovereign as any other, and that what others can do we can do, for we are equal in the family of nations to the strongest and the greatest.
Thus it was that we were able to intervene in Cuba and take there all the steps necessary to establish an independent government for another people; and by the same token we had the power, when necessity seemed to call for its exercise, to acquire our insular possessions, and, without incorporating them into the Union, hold them as dependencies to be governed by forms and laws and institutions suited to their conditions and requirements. The time was when the power to build the national road from Maryland to Ohio was challenged, but to-day no one doubts our power to construct a great international highway uniting the oceans and accommodating the commerce of the world.
And so might be specified a great chapter of achievements, both at home and abroad, of which all Americans are justly proud, for which it was denied that our Government had the requisite power until after these men fought and won.
With the Union preserved, slavery abolished, the Constitution amended, our finances rehabilitated, and this national idea fully developed and firmly established, our country entered upon a career of such unprecedented growth of strength and wealth and achievement that the spirit of sectionalism and the animosities of war have been literally drowned out by the ever-rising flood of a common pride in the greatness of a common country.
RETURN OF THE FLAGS.
A striking evidence
of this era of peace and good will was furnished when at the last session
of the 58th Congress a joint
resolution, authorizing the return to their respective States of the Confederate battle-flags, was passed by both Houses without debate and without a dissenting vote. The significance of this action was emphasized by the fact that there was a large Republican majority in each House, nearly all of whom were from the Northern and Union States, and among them many who had served in the Union Army, while the author of the resolution was a Democrat and an ex-Confederate soldier from Virginia. It was further emphasized by the fact that when eighteen years ago an executive order was issued, directing similar action, there was a protest against it so strong and determined in character that the order was reconsidered and revoked. It is only fair to say, however, that that opposition was due largely to the fact there was then no law to authorize such an order and no circumstances to justify it as an executive act, and because the President, who made the order, had not sustained such a relation to the army that captured the flags as justified him in taking any unauthorized liberties with them.
Had the matter been presented to Congress then as it was later, it might not have been favorably considered, for it is probable that public opinion was not at that time ready to sanction such action, but undoubtedly the subject would have been regarded very differently and the disposition of it, whatever that disposition might have been, would have been unattended with any outburst of sectional spirit, because all would have recognized the right and competency of the Congress to deal with the subject as it saw fit, and because there never was in the hearts of the Union soldiers any hatred or ill will toward the men against whom they fought.
They did not fight the men of the South because they hated or despised them, or because they wanted to destroy them or their country, or because they wanted to subjugate or even humiliate them, but rather only because they loved them too much to allow them to separate from us and become a hostile people. They wanted them to remain in the Union where they belonged, because of what they could do for us and what we could do for them, in making this the freest and the greatest country of all the earth, and because of the ruin to both sections and the injury to the cause of free popular government that would necessarily have followed their success. While they were uncompromisingly hostile to the cause they represented and were determined to overthrow and destroy it, yet for the men who represented that cause there never was a moment, even in the darkest days of the struggle, when they did not have for them personally a friendly regard and admiration that made base malice an utter impossibility.
This was impressively manifested by General Grant when in the very moment of his greatest triumph he told General Lee to have his men "keep their horses and take them home with them because they would need them to do the spring plowing with."
With these simple
words he invited the whole country, victors and vanquished alike, to turn
at once from war to peace--a
sentiment that was shared by every true soldier of his command.
With human nature
as it is it was not possible to immediately have anything like general
accord with respect to even purely
American questions. But it was only a short step from the state of mind indicated, if taken in a way and in a spirit that manifested proper regard for the patriotic sentiment of the country, to the state of mind that found expression in the joint resolution adopted by the Congress.
war was attended with many good results, but one of the best was the impetus
it gave to the restoration of cordial relations and the spirit of union
and Americanism throughout the country. It gave the young men of the South
an opportunity to put on the blue and show their loyalty and devotion to
the flag, and to win, as they did, a heroic share of the glory and greatness
that were added to the Republic; while their representatives in public
life distinguished themselves by the conspicuous and patriotic character of their utterances and services. What has followed is but the natural result, and every survivor of the Union Army should be profoundly thankful that his life has been spared to see such a complete vindication of all that for which he contended.
We are not only again one people, in the sense that we are again all Americans, but even party rancor and acrimony have largely passed away.
In the nature of things this cannot always continue. Men will differ about important matters, and the right of great problems will not always be so plain as it now appears to have been with respect to the great problems that have been solved; but it is not likely that we are to have any new questions that will draw lines between the States and set one part of the country over against the other in even political array, much less in military conflict.
A last remnant of sectional difference yet remains with respect to the RACE PROBLEM but that has been finally dealt with, so far as national legislation is concerned.
Time, patience, patriotism and the education of experience may be necessary to practically, and in reality, secure to the black man, everywhere, all his legal rights and privileges, but his mental and moral growth give the highest assurance that he will eventually vindicate the statesmanship that made him a freeman and a citizen of the Republic; while his loyalty and heroism as shown in every war in which we have allowed him to participate will win for him a triumph over all the prejudices that stand between him and the door of hope.
In this cemetery lie hundreds of his race who gallantly wore the uniform, as thousands are gallantly wearing it to-day, but nowhere, in all this broad land, can a single one be found, among either the living or dead, who ever raised his hand against our flag.
It is not possible that in this country where there is such generous recognition of human rights such a race can fail to achieve success.
No man can do, or is doing, so much to accomplish this as the black man himself. Education, industry and frugality, with his other good qualities, will more and more command respect and secure advancement. His progress since emancipation has been phenomenal, and under all the circumstances he may well take courage for the future; while every comrade of the Union Army may be assured that what he did for that people was not done in vain.
We have other questions,
and many of them, and always will have, for we are an active, energetic,
progressive people, ever
pressing forward to the accomplishment of some great purpose; but whether they are the labor questions the trust questions, the control of corporations, the revision of our industrial policies, or something else, our differences with respect to them are not likely to be affected by State lines, and probably not seriously by party lines, as we have heretofore known them, for the indications are that as to all these subjects a strong spirit of Americanism will determine what shall be done.
This is the most hopeful sign of the day.
Where genuine Americanism prevails there cannot be danger of any very widespread of populism, communism, anarchism, or any other heresy that would undermine and overthrow our institutions. Coupled with the saving common sense of the American people, which has never yet failed us, this national spirit is at once our greatest shield from harm and our greatest incentive to the highest and noblest endeavor.
It is no exaggeration, but only the sober truth, to say that we were never so strong, never so prosperous, never so contented, never so respected, never so powerful to do good in the world, and never doing so much good, either at home or abroad, as we are to-day. And great as is the present, greater by far, exceeding all power of description, is the career that lies before us.
THE UNION SOLDIERS
The men of other wars showed bravery, heroism and capacity for great deeds, and all added glory to our flag, honor to our name and renown to our arms, but no men since our independence was established have done so much for the American people as the men of the Union Army. They were mere boys, most of them yet in their teens, and all of the more than two millions who were enlisted, except less than 50,000, were under twenty-five years of age. But, measured by their work and its far-reaching consequences, they belong among the truly great men of history.
Through good report
and bad, victory and defeat, summer and winter, sunshine and storm, they
unflinchingly and uncomplainingly met every requirement of the great task
that fell upon them. No hardship was too severe for them to undergo, no
loss was too heavy for them to bear, no sacrifice to comfort, or blood,
or life was too great for them to make. They laid all unsparingly upon
their country's altar, and behold the result--this mighty Nation, so full
of honour and so full of promise. Only the shortcomings of ourselves, or
of those who are to come after us can bring their work to naught. Our presence
here to-day is our pledge that it shall not fail through fault of ours,
for we have come, not only to strew flowers on their graves, recount their
deeds, extol their virtues, and pay tribute to their memory, but also that
we may study the lessons they taught, and by these sacred and beautiful
ceremonies consecrate ourselves anew to the great duty of perpetuating
what they preserved. May God give us wisdom and courage to do our duty
as well as they did theirs. If so, the Union they saved and the institutions
they perfected will endure for long ages to come, and with passing years
bear ever-increasing blessings to humanity.
Posted: 21 December 2000