Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

The Other Speech on Decoration Day

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Media by Andy Hall on March 6, 2011

In my last post on George Hatton, I included a newspaper account of his participation in a Decoration Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. The story noted that Hatton made “a short but eloquent address” that has, apparently, been lost. Sharp-eyed readers may have also noticed that, buried in the text of the article, was a passing reference to the presence there of one Frederick Douglass. You may have heard of him.

Oddly, the newspaper makes no reference to the speech Douglass gave that day, at the memorial to the Unknown Union Dead (above), which must surely rank as one of the most compelling of its type ever offered there. It’s a short address, worth reproducing in full.

The Unknown Loyal Dead

Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, on Decoration Day, May 30, 1871

Friends and Fellow Citizens:

Tarry here for a moment. My words shall be few and simple. The solemn rites of this hour and place call for no lengthened speech. There is, in the very air of this resting-ground of the unknown dead a silent, subtle and all-pervading eloquence, far more touching, impressive, and thrilling than living lips have ever uttered. Into the measureless depths of every loyal soul it is now whispering lessons of all that is precious, priceless, holiest, and most enduring in human existence.

Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable.

Those unknown heroes whose whitened bones have been piously gathered here, and whose green graves we now strew with sweet and beautiful flowers, choice emblems alike of pure hearts and brave spirits, reached, in their glorious career that last highest point of nobleness beyond which human power cannot go. They died for their country.

No loftier tribute can be paid to the most illustrious of all the benefactors of mankind than we pay to these unrecognized soldiers when we write above their graves this shining epitaph.

When the dark and vengeful spirit of slavery, always ambitious, preferring to rule in hell than to serve in heaven, fired the Southern heart and stirred all the malign elements of discord, when our great Republic, the hope of freedom and self-government throughout the world, had reached the point of supreme peril, when the Union of these states was torn and rent asunder at the center, and the armies of a gigantic rebellion came forth with broad blades and bloody hands to destroy the very foundations of American society, the unknown braves who flung themselves into the yawning chasm, where cannon roared and bullets whistled, fought and fell. They died for their country.

We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.

I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my “right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict.

If we ought to forget a war which has filled our land with widows and orphans; which has made stumps of men of the very flower of our youth; which has sent them on the journey of life armless, legless, maimed and mutilated; which has piled up a debt heavier than a mountain of gold, swept uncounted thousands of men into bloody graves and planted agony at a million hearthstones — I say, if this war is to be forgotten, I ask, in the name of all things sacred, what shall men remember?

The essence and significance of our devotions here to-day are not to be found in the fact that the men whose remains fill these graves were brave in battle. If we met simply to show our sense of bravery, we should find enough on both sides to kindle admiration. In the raging storm of fire and blood, in the fierce torrent of shot and shell, of sword and bayonet, whether on foot or on horse, unflinching courage marked the rebel not less than the loyal soldier.

But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic. We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest beneath this sod flung themselves between the nation and the nation’s destroyers. If today we have a country not boiling in an agony of blood, like France, if now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage, if the American name is no longer a by-word and a hissing to a mocking earth, if the star-spangled banner floats only over free American citizens in every quarter of the land, and our country has before it a long and glorious career of justice, liberty, and civilization, we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.

The remarkable thing about this text is how well it resonates, how well it presages the ongoing arguments about how we remember the war even today, almost a century and a half after the guns fell silent. Douglass’ admonition — “we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic” — must necessarily ring as true today as it did then. This is what Confederate apologists do not, can not, accept: that regardless of their ancestors’ courage and sacrifice, and regardless of their individual beliefs and motivations, at the end of the day they fought for a nation founded on a terrible premise. To honor our ancestors demands that first we see them as they were, not as we’d wish they’d been.


Text of Douglass speech from Philip S. Foner and Yuval Taylor, Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings. Image: Monument to the Unknown Dead f the Civil War,  Arlington National Cemetery. Library of Congress.


10 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Commodore Perry said, on March 6, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    Hindsight being 20/20, Douglass’s words are not only very moving but ring very true. No doubt a CSA victory would have ended the influence of the United States at the time, and who knows what kind of lingering effects would have persisted; there is no guarantee that that USA would have been the same kind of nation, only smaller, that it would have retained its Founding documents/ideals amidst such a shock.

    But you open yourself up to the usual arguments regarding how an ancestor “was” at the time. If by “terrible premise” you mean the destruction of the Republic, remember that many Confederates sincerely believed that they were in fact saving the republic. If you mean slavery, then remember that many Unionists fought for Union and not abolition. In 1861, nobody had a crystal ball; just because Douglass was correct about the end of the Republic and the continuance of slavery had the rebels won doesn’t mean they all saw things that way at the start. If a “Confederate apologist” is simply honoring his/her ancestors with this understanding of perspective, I don’t see what the problem is; but if “Confederate apologist” means someone who actually wishes the CSA had won the war, well, that’s a totally different issue, and, in my opinion, the better one to counter through Douglass’s eloquence.

    • Andy Hall said, on March 6, 2011 at 9:13 pm

      Thanks for taking time to post a thoughtful comment. Yes, the “terrible purpose” I referred to was the preservation of the institution of slavery and its potential expansion into other territories. The individual men who went to war did so for a variety of reasons, most of which have gone unrecorded. It’s really important to distinguish here between national objectives and individual ones.

      You also wrote, “remember that many Unionists fought for Union and not abolition.” Dead right, and a good many Union soldiers wanted nothing to do with abolition, and chafed bitterly when the Emancipation Proclamation established abolition as an explicit war aim.

      It’s all a horribly complex business, and there’s plenty of criticism to share on all sides. I’m reminded of the scene in Glory where Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington have a one-on-one discussion and come to understand each other a little better. Shaw, a through-and-through abolitionist, expects the angry Private Trip, a former runaway slave, to see the greater glory of the Union cause. He even offers for Trip to carry the regimental colors:

      Trip: I ain’t fightin’ this war for you, sir.

      Colonel Robert G. Shaw: I see.

      Trip: I mean, what’s the point? Ain’t nobody gonna win. It’s just gonna go on and on.

      Shaw: Can’t go on forever.

      Trip: Yeah, but ain’t nobody gonna win, sir.

      Shaw: Somebody’s gonna win.

      Trip: Who? I mean, you get to go on back to Boston, big house and all that. What about us? What do we get?

      Shaw: Well, you won’t get anything if we lose.


      Shaw: So what do you want to do?

      Trip: Don’t know, sir.

      Shaw: It stinks, I suppose.

      Trip: Yeah, It stinks bad. And we all covered up in it, too. Ain’t nobody clean. Be nice to get clean, though.

      Shaw: How do we do that?

      Trip: We ante up and kick in, sir. But I still don’t want to carry your flag.

      • Sherree said, on March 11, 2011 at 7:00 am

        This is a great post, Andy–as well as riposte in the comments’ section.

        In the movie Glory, the character Trip was right when he said “Ain’t nobody clean”.

        In looking up information on Sheridan in an attempt to assess what Sheridan did or did not do in the Shenandoah Valley, I inadvertently found out what Sheridan most definitely did do in the “Indian Wars”. Here is the link:

        It is impossible to understand the Civil War and its aftermath without including the actions of both Confederates and the Union in relation to the “Indian problem”. I think that Frederick Douglass would have understood that, had he been confronted with the issue. Douglass may, in fact, have spoken about the “Indian problem” and I am not aware of it. At any rate, good work that you are doing!

  2. corkingiron said, on March 6, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    Andy, you do such an excellent job of revealing – and indeed revelling in – the complexities. God may not exist in the details, but History – good, solid, explain- the -past- to- the- present – History? Damn son, you got it nailed!

  3. Neil Hamilton said, on March 7, 2011 at 8:55 am


    This post of yours reminds me of the time I took my two grandchildren, Corey and Paige, to Gettysburg when they were very, VERY young.

    I took them all around the battlefield, especially to Little Round Top and the Devil’s Den, taking great care to explain the fighting that took place at each spot, proud that I knew the events of the day in such detail and that I could pass this on to both of them.

    When I was finished explaining the actions of those brave men from so long ago to each of them, they stood looking out across that battlefield, silent for a time. Then Paige turned to me and asked, “Pappaw, WHY did all these men come here to fight?”

    Out of the mouth of babes…


  4. Ron said, on May 30, 2011 at 11:20 am

    As far as I know, the survival of the union is not in the US Constitution. The right of states to govern themselves is a key compromise. While the outcome of the Civil War mey be viewed as better than the alternative, it set the stage for the massive, all powerful, overreaching Federal Government we have today.

    Just as many of the Union soldiers were not fighting for abolition of slavery, many of the Confederate soldiers were not fighting for it. Rather, they were fighting for their states rights and the right of self determination. I cannot disagree.

    • Andy Hall said, on May 31, 2011 at 9:01 am

      Ron, thanks for commenting (and subscribing).

      The permanence of the Union is not explicitly in the Constitution (though the previous Articles of Confederation referred specifically to the United States as a “Perpetual Union”), but that document is also silent on how, or even whether, states can leave the Union once they’ve joined it. There’s nothing there, one way or another. The right of secession was then, and remains now, a matter of contentious interpretation.

      Regarding the motives of individual soldiers, North and South, there are many reasons why soldiers volunteer to go to war, sometimes reasons they themselves cannot fully articulate. But we should not confuse those with the motives and objectives that their governments have in embarking on conflict, which are often very different that those of rank-and-file soldiers.

  5. JSmith said, on July 27, 2011 at 11:35 am

    “We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic. ”

    How is that? Was the Union so despicable that no one wanted to be in it without the South? The South had no designs on the North, nor on changing the united State’s form of government.

    • Andy Hall said, on July 27, 2011 at 11:52 am

      Douglass was very dubious of Lincoln and the Republican party, especially early on, as I’ve described elsewhere. However, like them, he saw the Republic as an indivisible whole. It’s a fundamentally different view of the nature of the United States as a nation than that held by the South as a principle that validated secession.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: