Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Frederick Douglass on Decoration Day, 1871

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on May 24, 2020

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.


7 Responses

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  1. Rebecca Bruff said, on May 24, 2020 at 12:37 pm

    Thank you for posting this. I think it’s one of the most important speeches in American history.

  2. Neil Hamilton said, on May 25, 2020 at 11:49 am

    I like Douglass. He makes it simple by getting at the heart of the matter. He states a truth when he said there was a right side and a wrong side during the Civil War and we should not ever forget that or lie to ourselves to spare present day feelings.

    We should never forget that we live in a nation provided by those now sleeping heroes, those defenders of Union, who passed on a great legacy and a nation worth saving.

  3. Craig L. said, on May 26, 2020 at 5:32 pm

    That long last sentence starts with a “a country not boiling in an agony of blood, like France,” apparently referring to the Franco-Prussian War which was declared by France and resulted in the birth of Germany as a nation-state. Perhaps when Douglass went to press the outcome was not yet determined? Some of the Forty-Eighters who fought and didn’t die in the American Civil War returned to the continent to settle old scores with Napoleon’s descendants in 1871.

    • Andy Hall said, on May 26, 2020 at 8:07 pm

      That’s an interesting thought. I had always read that as a reference to the French Revolution decades before, that had begun with such high ideals, but spun off into years of terror, recrimination, and bloodshed.


  4. Craig L. said, on May 26, 2020 at 8:22 pm

    “If today we have a country not boiling in an agony of blood, like France, ….” appears to me to be a reference to the Franco-Prussian War, ongoing along the upper Rhine at the time Frederick Douglass delivered this speech. Roughly one fifth of the Union Army consisted of German immigrants who came to the United States following the failed 1848 Revolution. On Juneteenth when the Emancipation Proclamation was finally applied to the State of Texas more than fifty thousand Union troops were on the march from Brazos Santiago to Brownsville along the northern shore of the Rio Grande. Many of them took note of French troops actively patrolling the southern shore, wondering if an armed confrontation was in the offing. Many of the Union troops were recently arrived German immigrants, or Forty-Eighters, who were not yet U.S. citizens. Six years later some of those same Union troops were aligned along the Rhine fighting French troops for unification of what was then not yet Germany. I think it’s interesting that Frederick Douglass saluted those troops, even if somewhat obliquely.

  5. Craig L. said, on May 26, 2020 at 9:08 pm

    The other border that was a bone of contention in 1832, again in 1848 and finally resolved in 1871 was the territory of Schleswig-Holstein, a portion of Denmark ceded with the creation of Germany along the north shore of the Elbe. I suspect German immigration to America was facilitated by unimpeded access to the Elbe. Volume 1 of the Memoirs of Gustave Koerner, one of Lincoln’s campaign managers in 1860 and a pallbearer for him in 1865, is an invaluable resource for understanding the German immigrant experience in the three decades prior to the war. He was a small child the first time he personally saw Napoleon advancing through Heidelburg and a teenager when he witnessed Napoleon in retreat. He came to the U.S. in 1832 and succeeded Carl Schurz as Lincoln’s Ambassador to Spain during the Civil War.

  6. Craig L. said, on May 28, 2020 at 4:04 pm

    Juneteenth 1865 must have been a big day for Benito Juarez. Juneteenth 1867 is the day he executed Maximillian and the Emperor’s two leading generals.

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