Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Frederick Douglass on Decoration Day, 1871

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on May 30, 2011

On Decoration Day, 1871, Frederick Douglass gave the following address at the monument to the Unknown Dead of the Civil War at Arlington National Cemetery. It is a short speech, but one of the best of its type I’ve ever encountered. I’ve posted it before, but it think it’s something worth re-reading and contemplating every Memorial Day.

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 hat 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.


Image: Graves of nine unknown Federal soldiers in Pontotoc County, Mississippi. Photo by Flickr user NatalieMaynor, used under Creative Commons license. Text of Douglass speech from Philip S. Foner and Yuval Taylor, Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings.

4 Responses

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  1. Reed said, on June 1, 2011 at 1:38 am

    Andy, thank you for this.

    Douglass’s eloquent remarks make the subject plain.

    Yet here we are, 140 years later, and the decades of Lost Cause myth-making and States Rights politics have dulled so many to the essence of the war and its aftermath.

    I wish all fellow citizens understood our nation’s defining struggle as clearly as he.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 1, 2011 at 4:33 am

      I think it’s one of Douglass’ most elegant, and prescient, pieces. Unfortunately it’s not widely known at all today, and your have to go digging in anthologies of his work to find it.

  2. Dedicated_Dad said, on June 13, 2011 at 1:43 am

    Slavery was abhorrent – as any sentient being must recognize, and all decent, honest ones admit.

    More abhorrent was the waste of so many lives and so much property in a conflict that need not have happened. Even if ending slavery WERE the true reason for Lincoln’s war – rather hard to argue when every slave in the US remained enslaved for 8 full months past the end of the fighting – the goal could have been accomplished through other means that would have cost less in monetary terms and INFINITELY less in moral, societal and human ones.

    The victors (as always) wrote the histories, but ample evidence remains to prove that most volunteer “rebels” were fighting for homeland and principles – not the evil of slavery – and most volunteer “loyals” were fighting for citizenship and Union – not the end of said evil.

    It’s inarguable that slavery ended ~8 months after the last shots of the war, but our Founders’ Republic ended less than two months after the first – when Union troops first invaded Virginia.

    No matter what opinion you may hold about the “Civil War”, it is inarguable that today’s out-of-control Federal Leviathan was conceived the moment the first “Union” boots touched Confederate territory, birthed at Appomattox, and matured into horrid adolescence through the period of “Reconstruction.”

    It is also inarguable that had none of these things ever happened – had secession not been violently put down – slavery would have died its natural death within a decade or two as it did throughout the rest of the “western” world. The hatreds thus created – which color attitudes to this day – would never have existed, and G*d only knows what wonders of progress and beauty may have blessed our world had their million-plus potential creators not had lives ruined or ended by the unspeakable horrors of needless internecine conflict.

    Personally, I join those who believe that the divisions which led to secession would have healed – and Union been thus restored – before the turn of the Century. That said Union would have been infinitely more healthy, and all our people infinitely more FREE without the curse of the income tax which led to the 16th Amendment and the myriad tyrannies born thereof should be obvious to all with the intellect to connect the obvious dots.

    The bottom line is that this war didn’t need to happen. Its only arguable benefits would have happened – in time – without it, and the countless unintended consequences made the “cure” far worse than the results of allowing the “disease” to run its natural course.

    I absolutely agree that 140+ years of myth-making and politics HAVE dulled most to the essence of the war and its aftermath – but I believe your opinions of this “essence” are sad proof of the results of victors writing the histories.

    We’d ALL be infinitely better off if it had never happened.

    Sincerely and respectfully…


    • Andy Hall said, on June 13, 2011 at 1:08 pm

      DD, there’s a lot of really boilerplate stuff here, tropes that have been repeated so often they’re taken as unchallenged fact.

      the goal could have been accomplished through other means that would have cost less in monetary terms and INFINITELY less in moral, societal and human ones.

      How, specifically? I’ve never yet seen an example of a major Southern political leader laying out a serious proposal by which to phase out slavery, or provide a firm plan for gradual emancipation, prior to the war. If you go back and read the editorials and speeches of the day — let alone the articles of secession — it’s abundantly clear that the South was not interested in anything less than both preservation of the institution where it existed, and expansion into the territories.

      The victors (as always) wrote the histories


      your opinions of this “essence” are sad proof of the results of victors writing the histories.

      People who write histories write the histories. There is no, and has never been, a dearth of history written from the “Southern” perspective.

      slavery would have died its natural death within a decade or two as it did throughout the rest of the “western” world.

      Again, I would ask for an example of any prominent Southern politician who actually claimed this prior to the war. Indeed, prior to the war, there was an active group, the Knights of the Golden Circle, actively conspiring to expand the institution into Mexico and other parts of the Caribbean. It’s easy to say that obviously something “would have” happened, but there’s nothing in the historical record to suggest that the slaveholding states of the Deep South would have simply allowed that to happen, and ample evidence to the contrary.

      all our people infinitely more FREE without the curse of the income tax

      The Confederacy passed an income tax very soon after the North did. Indeed, there are plenty of examples of the Confederate government in Richmond imposing the same sort of overbearing, big-government overreach that the Lincoln administration gets tarred with.

      We’d ALL be infinitely better off if it had never happened.

      That’s only arguably true if we take your hypothetical what-ifs at face value.

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