SPEECH TO 72ND OHIO VOLUNTEER INFANTRY

 

September 2, 1886

Fremont, Ohio

 

MR. PRESIDENT, COMRADES, AND FELLOW CITIZENS: I understand very well that in the closing hour of such a reunion as this has been anything like an attempt at an elaborate discussion of the larger topics which belong to all soldiers’ reunions would be wearisome and out of place. I have therefore, left on my table at home such notes as I had chosen to make, and now only ask you, comrades and friends, today, to bear with me, while according to that familiar quotation of Gov. Corwin, “we discuss and discourse as becometh comrades free, reposing after victory.”

 

The latest and in some sense the greatest honor that it has happened to me to enjoy is to be the last recruit of the 72nd. Beginning quite early in another regiment, I may truly say that if I were not a comrade of the 23rd Ohio, I should very much want to be a comrade of the 72nd.

 

The 72nd we have heard about, from its members, until we can almost trace it from the day it left Camp Croghan until the day that it returned with these old banners, four years afterwards. And therefore I am not to go over that ground. It is fully occupied. I have enjoyed the reunion as much, I am sure, as and member of the 72nd. No one listened with more pleasure than I did to the talk of Comrade Dr. Rice, last evening; to the talk, to-day, especially, of Comrade Lemmon. I looked at him with a little admiration, as with that sober, may I say it without offense, Presbyterian face, he told those singular stories; some of them seeming large, and yet we all believed them, Why that man whose face and head were mashed out of all recognition and smashed up as large as that stove, and yet he recovered; we believe all that. And then when he told that my total abstinence friend Gen. Buckland had a head quarters wagon, and that its chief freight was a barrel of whiskey; I believed all of that. And then when he told us that under the circumstances, that the barrel of whiskey was to the 72nd like a reinforcement of five thousand men; I believed all that. And so I can pass on to the more sober topics, not talking much about the 72nd, and yet I must say a word.

 

The 72nd was in one respect like every other regiment; it was simply a unit. The regiment, you know, in all armies, is the unit of organization. It is like an individual in a city. In war no one knows what the regiment does. The credit and the honor goes to the brigade and the division, to the army corps, to the army; and when we come to the larger history which tells the tale for the future, regiments are forgotten; and yet it is the good fortune of the 72nd, perhaps, of any regiment that I know, to have been so connected with the great transactions that what it has done and what it has suffered attracts the admiration and sympathy of all who read general history.

 

We hear occasionally a citizen upon the corner of the street say that the 72nd cannot come together without fighting over again the battle of Shiloh. No man can write of this war without writing of that singularly important, interesting and decisive battle. No one can write the biography of our greatest general, Grant, without fighting over that battle. No man can write of Sherman or of Buell, of our own martyred citizen and soldier, McPherson, without fighting over the battle of Shiloh. Albert Sidney Johnson died there, and they must explain all about his death; for, as all the world knows, when he died, he was, in the estimation of all, the greatest leader they had. He was the destined leader of their armies, when he died. They have their controversies about who at Shiloh was to blame. To be sure they claim Shiloh as their victory, and yet they come to contend, the question is, who was to blame? Was it Bragg, Beauregard, Hood, Polk or Breckenridge? And so whether you read a history from the Union side or the rebel side, the battle of Shiloh is to be talked about.

 

Now it happens that it is the fortune of this regiment, of which Sandusky County is so proud, it is the fortune of this regiment to have been at the key point of the fight. It is the fortune of this regiment to have been at the pinch of the battle; better still, it is its merit to have exhibited, at that point, a courage, a tenacity, a prowess that has covered it with immortal honor. So that whenever Shiloh is talked about, everyone who investigates it, to the last syllable of recorded time, is bound to discover that Buckland’s Brigade, and the 72nd regiment stood on the extreme right of the attack where, if they had behaved as too many behaved on that critical day, the day would have gone against us; and that is due to their pluck, raw, and green, and undrilled as they were then, that Shiloh turned out to be a battle we are glad to talk about.

 

Then, my friends, it is the fortune of the 72nd that it was where great things were to be done, and that being there they had the merit of doing them.

 

But it was not what the 72nd did alone that gives it a place in our affections, in our feelings. The saddest page in the history of all that great war is the page on which is recorded the sufferings of the men who were in the rebel prisons, and who shall write of that shall fail to discover that perhaps of all the regiments from our state, the 72nd furnished a larger number to that sad roll than any other regiment.

 

Certainly it was a very long and mournful list, and I know of no regiment from our state that furnished more, and that too without any fault whatsoever on the part of the men or the officers of the 72nd. To have been there and to have stood that test is itself a great glory. That was a severe test. In the midst of indescribable temptation and starvation these men stood true against the most dangerous and the most seductive approaches testing their purity and their patriotism that it is possible to conceive of. With perhaps two hundred men at Andersonville we have no authentic proof that one per cent of that number were willing to save life and escape torture, by in any degree turning their back upon the old flag, Then, my friends, the people of Fremont and of Sandusky county—this historic county of Sandusky—the county of Fort Stephenson—the county of Croghan’s victory—the birth place and home of Gen. McPherson, has reason to be proud and is proud of the 72nd regiment.

 

But, my friends, no war can stand the test of a cross examination merely because the men who fought in it were brave, merely because the officers were skillful. The histories of Alexander and Napoleon and other conquerors stand very badly upon the pages of history. But when we turn to this war—I am not here to discuss it—I am not here to begin with the fall of Sumter and go through it—but it is enough to say that this is a war from beginning to end, fought not merely for our country, not merely as a great philosopher of Massachusetts said for little America, but it was a war for all mankind; it was a war in which ideas pointed every cannon and musket from beginning to the end. If ever from the beginning to the end there was a war sacred and divine it was the war in which you and I fought from ’61 to ’65.

 

Wars are tested in many ways. On the commonest plains on which you can put it this war will stand the test. The French proverb is “Success succeeds.” Test this war by its results. Is there any more practical and common sense test than that? Testing it by that rule, it is the greatest war in any history, from the beginning until now. You may lay down this proposition about our war, that never before there was a war in history in which the object of the war was so fully and completely achieved as in the war in which the 72nd fought. Consider exactly what it was you were thinking of—what we thought to do—what we wished, what we hoped for—what we fought for. We need not go into a long discussion. From the beginning the question was, whether these states that came together in the best part of North America had come together to stay, or whether each was an independent sovereign to come and go at its own sweet will. That was discussed from the beginning. Is this a mere partnership? Is this a union from which we may withdraw at pleasure? “Yes,” said many thinkers, and philosophers and constitutional lawyers, and whole sections of people. It is a free love affair to stay together until we are tired of one another and then separate. So held from the beginning up to ’60 many of the ablest men of our country. On the other hand, the plain common sense of the people, especially of the northern states was, that this union of ours is sacred, sacred like holy matrimony: “Whom God hath joined together no man shall put asunder,” is the motto for this people.

 

That is one reason we went to war, to settle that question. Yet Mr. Everett, one of the most graceful orators of our country used to say that never since the battles of Alexander had there been such an important contest as that in the Senate of the United States in which Webster, speaking in behalf of the Union, overwhelmed Hayne, who spoke in behalf of disunion ideas. Mr. Everett, what did it accomplish? No man has read with more delight than I have the great speeches of Webster. They may have convinced the intellects of many people, but it did not hold us together. Nothing from pen and nothing from tongue can save the Union. It was the bayonets that saved us.

We fought then to save the Union. When that war was ended that question was settled forever, and gravel into the granite upon which the nation rests, that hereafter no state of this union will attempt to resist the constitutional authority of the United States.

 

Again, it was always a question which was the greatest government, the state or the nation. To which was the highest allegiance due, to the state or the nation? The southerner held that it was the state that was sovereign, we believed in the sovereignty of the United States. When the war was ended where was the question? There was no question left. It was settled and settled forever that every inch of soil of the United States belongs forevermore to the stars and stripes.

 

And what is the third question? They believed that the corner stone of liberty was slavery. We believed that the corner stone of the republic was the Declaration of Independence, which gives equal rights to all men, and we fought it out, and when the war was ended was there any doubt about it? Never again in this country, nor in any civilized country will the false and fatal phantasy be found, that man can hold property in man. That was settled and settled forever. Now these are three things which we thought and fought about.

 

And was there ever a war in all history in which the results were so exactly obtained as in this war for the Union?

 

But there is another proposition or point which I always make, when talking to soldiers, and that is looking into the dim future we were blind. The veil was yet there, and it was not rent to open our eyes what was beyond. We did not see what now we are beginning to see, better and more clearly as the stream of time flows on. Why is it that Fremont welcomes you to-day, twenty-one years after all danger is passed, and when other great questions are arising now to attract attention? Why is it that we are welcomed to-day perhaps more warmly than ever before? Because it is plain now to all the world that we achieved, not merely what we conscientiously fought for, but the results we obtained transcend beyond measure the wildest anticipations of the friends of the Union. Why take just one thing? Did we think or dream as we were fighting, that it was to make this nation the greatest nation, in every sense that a civilized people can regard it, the greatest nation on the globe? Did we think it was to give us a prestige everywhere that we never had before, and one we could not have had without that war?

 

Such is the organization of kingdoms and empires in the old world that power is what is respected. Justice, truth, humanity, in the national sense, when politics on a large scale in Europe are concerned, are of small moment. It is power that gives respect among the despotisms, the kingdoms, the monarchies of the old world everywhere. We, of America, with no army at all, or just enough to keep the peace at home, like constables or police officers, with no navy worth speaking of, no military power at all commensurate with our size as a nation, they could have no respect for us at all when you come to speak of that which they respected most. “Why,” said a member of the British Parliament, when he heard that the Southern States had gone out, “the bubble republic has bursted.” And they believed it. The fiends of privilege and of aristocratic government, believed it. But when that war ended and North and South came together as one nation, (for they are to be taken together hereafter,) with a million and a half fighting men, well disciplined, we were exceedingly respectable in the eyes of European monarchs.

 

But think a little further; how war wastes, how it destroys property. Why, we heard stories this morning about that. When our men came to a potato patch or a house and helped themselves there was not much left. War is waste. And yet after that war how did we stand? In 1860 our wealth was sixteen thousand millions and for five years after that we were working away destroying it, and yet in 1880, fifteen years after the war, with a united people, where are we? We have repaired the damages, and have forty-four thousand millions. That is a progress unexampled hitherto in any part of the world.

 

Now let me say that over in the old world, next to power they respect wealth, and so prestige comes and power with it.

 

Then again, when they have a war, it piles up a great debt, and that debt continues to pile up to the end of time, eating out the substance of people, and oppressing labor everywhere.

 

They see the United States able to leap on its career again, and in the very lifetime of the generation who fought the war we are able to pay for the debt created by the war. That is exceedingly respectable in the judgment of the people over yonder. And so we might go on through the whole list of what makes up power and prestige in the world.

 

Why, how was it about education? We had four or five millions of people whom it was not permitted to teach to read the bible. We were sending missionaries from all parts, north and south, to the heathen of all the world, and yet we not only had four or five millions of heathen, but we had statutes that compelled us to keep them heathen. It is said that there was a girl, a white girl, that strayed off from New England and went to teach the ignorant colored people to read, who was indicted for the offence. The indictment read something like this: “That, whereas Nancy Jane has been guilty of gathering a few young colored people of both sexes, and has been guilty then and there of reading the bible, etc.,” That was the language of the indictment. And now all over this country, east and west, north and south, among people of every color and nationality the honest effort is making to teach all to have that knowledge and that training that fits them for American citizens, and for Christians in the best sense if they choose to be. And so we might go on clear through if I had the time. It would take my friend Lemmon, who is so concise, a week to even catalogue the benefits of the war.

 

I will close with this one result which separates this war from all other wars of history; and that is: That the conquered people gained more by our victory than victory in any other war gave to the victors. But it does not need argument; you all see it as plain as sunlight. At the South they are set free. Education comes to them all. There was no general education there before. Equal advantages come to all. Wealth comes pouring in. We do not of course have everything within twenty-four hours just as we know it will be in two or three generations. There are some people soon hot and soon cold, that others look to, who think we move too slowly. The southern people are doing very well, both black and white, considering that they had been cursed with slavery so long. I repeat that our lately misguided brethren of the south are doing very well.

 

Well, now, this is something to rejoice over. I ought not to go on a sober talk on an occasion of this sort. This reunion was to be festive, social, and to give an opportunity to swap anecdotes. Sometimes people swap fictions. When we do that we try to be generous, and to have our fictions as large as that of the other fellow. I do not want to interfere with this traffic.

 

There is one thing serious I want to speak of: let no man suppose that I am lacking in the sense of the proprieties of the occasion and what is proper for me, as to criticize what anybody has done, or is doing. I am talking in a general way about this. I fear that there is in the popular sentiment of this country the idea that what the soldier has done and what is due to him is not of very great moment at this time. An individual, the other day, a very popular preacher, whose soundness of judgment is not in proportion to his eloquence as a speaker said: “We have done a great deal for the soldier,” as if he had said, we have done too much for the soldier. He also said: “It is easy to get votes in Congress for pensions,” as if he said it is too easy. Let us see about that. What is due to the soldier? What is due to the prisoner at Andersonville? To him who stayed there through it all? Too much? Is there danger in that direction? My friends, I would deal on this question by adopting the idea of the humane maxim of the English law towards the guilty. “It is better that ninety-nine guilty persons shall escape, than one innocent person shall suffer.” Now I say that it is better among faithful Union soldiers, who were disabled on account of the late war, nine shall be placed upon the pension roll, who, according to strict law do not belong there, than that one disabled veteran shall be driven either to the poor house or to starve.

 

It is in this spirit that I would deal. Talk about this small body of survivors of the rebel prisons! We kept faith clear up to the exacting point with every man in this country or abroad loaned us money during the war. Many a battle I have fought on that question. Now what is the obligation to the soldier? By every form of committal that was possible under the circumstances, we told the soldier, when he enlisted, that if he fell or was disabled, his family should be at the public charge, should be supported by the nation that he was trying to save. Shall we haggle about that? Shall we deal it out as if it was a charity? It is a debt of sacred obligation, and we ought to see it fulfilled. Therefore when the bill comes up that shall pension all who were sixty days or more in rebel prisons, shame on the American citizen that shall oppose that bill. And as time goes along  many and many a brave soldier shall find himself no longer able to make his own support and as the years come and go, if we are wise and just we shall see to it that they are placed beyond the reach of want. I should deal with them as the fathers did with the soldiers of the revolution until the time when every man who fought under the flag shall have his pension. That will be hereafter.  If I were talking to congress I would urge this matter, but I am talking to people, and this people understand very well that there are duties that no law can fully perform; there are tasks that no government is fitted exactly to perform.

 

The war had its victims. The man you meet upon the street who has lost a leg or an arm or an eye gets your sympathy, your hat goes up to him, your heart goes out to him; you cannot help it. There is no fear but I think that this American people will always deal with these sufferers, these victims of the war, as they ought to be dealt with.

 

But, oh, my friends, there is a sadder sight to be seen on our streets. The man with an empty sleeve or the man who hobbles along is not the only victim of the war. The young man who rallied to support the flag took out of his life the most critical period, when character is forming, when habits are forming, when an occupation is to be learned, took out those precious years between eighteen and twenty-five, and gave them to his country and by reason of that lost those golden opportunities he might have had, and perhaps fell under the power of evil associations. Do not misunderstand me; I believe that many young men who left their soft couches at home to go on those dreadful marches and to endure the horrid sufferings that we have heard of came back enlarged, manlier, braver, better men than before; and yet there were some victims of the war that are victims in the sense that they have lost their opportunities to form correct habits and to learn useful occupations so as to make life respectable.

 

If you should meet one of those whose habits you regard with regret, do not turn your back upon him, for he too was a victim of the war. Do what you can to lift him up, give him an opportunity to save himself.

 

I notice a man looking at his watch, that advises a speaker that he has gone on too far, and I must not further trespass on your time.

 

It is well for you to say that but you would be very glad if I disregarded it.

 

Sandusky county and Sandusky county’s regiment were fortunate in the commander of the regiment. You agree with me in that.

 

After we pass along in life I suppose there is no harm, even in the presence of your friend, to say in a modest and plain way, something of your appreciation of him, for you do not say it to him but to his neighbors. I have known Gen. Buckland going on almost fifty years. Forty years ago last winter I was traveling with him from Columbus, O., to this place, by stage, as our pocketbooks would show, on the old Sandusky Pike. It was in February and the bottom was out of the roads. The stage was three miles behind us and we were going on foot before. I was then a young lawyer just trying to work into practice and not seeing that I was accomplishing it as rapidly as I wished. The general was then in good practice and I freely entered into conversation with him. Finally he said, “Well, Hayes, can’t we make some arrangement?” and the upshot was that when we reached Lower Sandusky we were partners in the practice of law. I have known him pretty well ever since.

 

I am not going to say to his neighbors and friends that he has no faults, I do not know a man worth a straw who has no faults; but he has the essential virtues of a true man. Now there is an old saying that a good Colonel makes a good regiment. I think I have heard of people that it would trouble a good Colonel to make a good regiment out of. But I admit that of such materials as you had in the Black Swamp, Native Americans and enterprising adopted citizens who had faced the dangers and toils of a new country, of that sort of material a good Colonel will always make a good regiment, and Gen. Buckland did that thing. That is not high praise we will say. Well, but let us turn it over. Can a good regiment make a good colonel? Just think over that history of the Seventy-second at Shiloh, and think of the regiments you saw about you. You happened at that place with your colonel, one whom you know all about and whom you could trust. It would have been happy for some of the other regiments if they had had a commander like Gen. Buckland.

 

Now, my friends, Gen. Buckland has passed through his full share of the vicissitudes of human life. The bright side and the dark side he has seen and known, but I venture to say to his neighbors and friends, especially to men of 72nd regiment, that in all that has happened to him during his whole life that he looks upon with such satisfaction as the four years that he spent with you.

 

Those years are to him all golden, and in part, because, as you well know, of your good conduct.

 

I know not what may be the legacies he will leave to his children, but there is one legacy that goes down, down to the latest descendant that traces his origin to Gen. Buckland, and that is a legacy that he would not exchange for anything that wealth or civil honors can give—the legacy of having the name and reputation of having been true under the old flag, bravely and conspicuously true during the four years of the war.

 

And now for you, the men of the ranks, the men that pointed the muskets—if I have had any object in these remarks it is just this—that every solider may have had a deeper and profounder impression of the great good fortune he had having fought in that holy cause on the right side.

 

I hope that every soldier will feel as I do, that that which will make him happy, waking and sleeping, in the hour of sickness and death, is the fact that it was given to him in behalf of our country’s good cause to march under the old flag, to the tunes that are dear to every American heart, keeping in step to the music of the Union, and touching elbows with comrades like these brave men of the Seventy-second.

 

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