June 15, 1882
Military services are not apt to be underrated. Certainly this country does not neglect the men who have fought her battles. We may not always see unerring wisdom in the apportionment of awards and honors bestowed, but taken altogether there aggregate must be accepted as ample, and perhaps, a generous recompense for the services rendered. It will not, however, I trust, be out of place to notice briefly some of the comments which are often made on warlike achievements. It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword, and that peace hath her victories no less renowned than those of war. The general facts embodied in these familiar quotations no one will call in question, The pen, taken as the symbol of the press, the pulpit, and the forum, is an agency in human progress which possesses a vast and beneficial power. Peace, and the works of peace, contain, carry forward and enlarge the best blessing which Providence allots to men on earth. But selfish ambitions and gigantic crimes of oppression and despotism must always rest upon and resort to force. They can be met and vanquished only by force! This is war! Hence it often comes to pass in human history that liberty and justice, and the enjoyment of independence and manhood, are the result of war.
The members of a society like this, based on the friendships and associations of army life, to whom the four years spent in fighting for union and freedom is the most interesting period of their lives, will consider with peculiar satisfaction the question, What does the United States – what does our country owe to the issues of war? Of all the most valuable and inspiring facts, ideas, and assessments which are wrapped up in the phrase “Our Country,” how large a part is the fruit of war! I do not undertake to make even a summary of what is included in the sentiment “Our Country.” Consider a few of its most obvious elements.
Our country embraces within its limits more than three million five hundred thousand square miles – an area about as large as all Europe with its adjacent islands. More than three million miles of this territory is compact and bound together by one hundred thousand miles of railway, and by interior navigable waters, and telegraphy lines almost beyond computation. In the words of John Bright, “it stretches from the frozen north, in almost unbroken line, to the glowing south; and from the wild billows of the Atlantic westward to the calmer waters of the Pacific main.” It occupies in soil, climate, and resources the best part of the best continent. Its whole vast area is open to unrestricted and untaxed commerce, and, without the expense of large armies, and navies, is dedicated to perpetual peace. It bears one name, has one destiny and one hope, and is united forever under one flag.
It has more than fifty millions of people, with advantages of education, employment, and the means of happiness and progress more widely and justly distributed than the world has ever seen before. To this population all other civilized nations are contributing a string of young, vigorous, and enterprising immigrants – a stream constantly flowing and constantly increasing.
It has institutions so free and equal that under them every man has a right to be counted on every public question, and the constitution, laws and government, in their letter and spirit, and in their administration also, must in the long run be precisely such as the people deserve to have.
Our country is the youngest of the nations, but our history, short as it is, furnishes some of the most illustrious events in the secular history of mankind. The achievement of independence and the establishment of popular self-government, of national unity and emancipation, are great events linked with the noble names and deeds, and with a progress in solid prosperity enjoyed by no other country in any age.
Now, my friends, it will hardly be claimed that those great results which united to form our country, as now as it is, are the works of peace or the achievements of the pen.
His countrymen will never forget Mr. Webster’s defense, in his famous debate with Hayne, of the true doctrine of the constitution on the relation between the States and the nation: nor how ably he vindicated the popular conviction that the allegiance of the citizen is not due in part but to a whole: not to a State but to the nation. Edward Everett, a few years before the rebellion, alluding to that debate, made this declaration: “From the wars of the Assyrian kings…down to the one now raging…there was never a battle fought whose consequences were more important to humanity. …Better had Alexander perished in the Granicus; better had Nelson fallen at the mouth of the Nile, or Napoleon on the field of Marengo, than that one link should part in the golden chain which binds this Union together, or the blessings of a peaceful confederacy be exchanged for the secular curse of a border war.”
Mr. Everett did not overstate the value of the Union, but he lived long enough to learn that the power of argument and the matchless eloquence of Mr. Webster could not establish the supremacy of the national government, nor save the Union when secession and slavery took up arms against them. It is now plain that there was no refuge from disunion in the paths of peace; no escape from slavery but war; and no way to maintain a national government strong enough to uphold its authority; to enforce the laws, and to preserve the Union, but an appeal to the god of battles.
Lincoln, the central figure of the war, at the head of the loyal armies of the Union, not with the pen alone, but with the pen and the sword, trusting always in God, got us out of the wilderness, and save for us and for mankind that immeasurable blessing – our country.
It is your happiness, gentlemen, to have served in the Army of the Potomac during the great and inevitable conflict. That army was at the beginning of the struggle the largest army of the Union and at the end of the war it was the oldest, and still our largest army. Its history is an epitome of the history of the war. During all of those long and anxious years it stood guard over the national capitol and over the commercial cities of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, points essential to our country’s life. At the same time it never ceased to threaten and attack the capital of the Confederacy and the Army of Virginia under Lee. The destruction of the Army of the Potomac would have been, according to human foresight, the loss of the Union cause. Its complete success was the complete overthrow of the Confederacy. It suffered the first defeat, it won the last victory. In the face of unparalleled discouragement and disaster, it remained intact with faith and spirit unbroken, firm and confident, as it penetrated a consciousness that the good cause was in its keeping. Gettysburg is on its banners. Richmond and the surrender of Lee complete its history.
I wish to thank the Society for their kindness, and in closing to say that among my most cherished recollections of the war is the fact that it was my privilege and good fortune, in one short campaign, on the march and in the battle, to touch elbows with the brave men of the Army of the Potomac.