Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Frederick Douglass on Decoration Day, 1871

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on May 30, 2016

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 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.



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.

6 Responses

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  1. OhioGuy said, on May 30, 2016 at 12:18 am

    One of my favorite writings of one of my most favorite Civil War era people. And, my favorite passage in this speech is: “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 attended a Memorial Day service today conducted by my SUV camp. During the ceremony we sang among other things a song entitled “Faded Coat of Blue.” This is the GAR version of that song. I always find it very moving. I’ll try to post it tomorrow.

    • OhioGuy said, on May 30, 2016 at 5:24 pm

      Well, in looking for the words to “Faded Coat of Blue,” I actually found an article I wrote back in 2012 for the Buckeye Bugle, the state newsletter for the SUV. This article contains the first verse of this song. If my fingers don’t get too tired, I might later today type in the other two verses. It’s a short article, and I’ll post it here, because yesterday’s ceremony followed the same script:

      Townsend Camp celebrates “Decoration Day” at Frost GAR Hall
      By Br. Carl Jón Denbow, Townsend Camp

      Sunday afternoon, June 3, John S. Townsend Camp 108 held a delayed Memorial Day celebration at Centennial Church in the southeastern Ohio Athens County hamlet of Frost . About 35 people, including SUV Brothers, families, re-enactors, and community friends attended. Highlights included patriotic songs by the Camp’s choir, a talk concerning holiday traditions by Camp Commander Martin W. Lowery Sr., a musket salute in the church graveyard, and decorating graves of veterans with flowers.

      A song performed during the ceremony, “The Old Blue Coat,” has special significance. The song’s sheet music was found inside Frost GAR Hall on a faded page from a 1903 GAR songbook. Both the choir and those who attended joined in singing the song with gusto:

      “Father’s musket, rusty and brown, hangs inside his study door;
      Just above it, worn and faded, is the old blue coat he wore,
      When he marched with dashing Sherman, from Atlanta to the sea,
      ‘Neath the tatters of ‘Old Glory,’ in the war to make men free.

      “Yes, the old blue coat is faded,
      Tells me a story true,
      How a soldier fought for freedom,
      When the dear old coat was new.”

      After the indoor ceremony, which included singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a reading of the Gettysburg Address, a responsive reading based on Longfellow’s poem, “Decoration Day,” and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, attendees relocated outdoors to the cemetery. Following the ceremony there, participants retired to Frost GAR Hall for a potluck meal and fellowship. Conversation among Brothers and guests dwelled upon the service of veterans – – particularly that of the “Boys in Blue.”

  2. Neil Hamilton said, on May 30, 2016 at 9:34 am

    The thing all Heritage advocates need to get pass is that there WAS a right side and a wrong side during the Civil War. As an NPS ranger said in a presentation, “How can one lament the fall of the Confederacy and still love the United States?”

    Thanks for posting, Andy. Very much appreciated.


  3. Brad said, on May 30, 2016 at 12:59 pm

    It is always wonderful to read this speech and I look forward you to posting it every Memorial Day.

  4. chancery said, on May 30, 2016 at 6:46 pm

    Andy, thank you for posting this always moving speech.

  5. Reed (the original, accept no substitutes) said, on June 1, 2016 at 3:32 am

    Yes, thank you for this annual reminder. A great speech and, it seems, more relevant with each passing year.

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