March 19, 1891
COMPANIONS: When as comrades in the army and navy in the war for the Union we meet to consider the lives, the deeds and the traits of character of beloved companions who have passed from the seen to the unseen, we find that our meditations often take a very wide range. All of the departed who were in the great war are in our thoughts, from the sentinel to the commander-in-chief, from the faithful soldier and sailor to the martyr whose fall in the moment of victory, so ennobled and so consecrated the mighty conflict. Whenever old comrades come together as we do here there are some names that are always recalled - always present. However limited the scope of a military history or biography, Grant and Sherman, Sheridan and Thomas, Farragut, Porter and Foote, must surely fill in its pages honored places. The more we reflect the greater our admiration and surprise at the long and shining list of noble patriots who were called into service of our country by the opportunities and demands of the war. In these treasures of precious character and talents devoted to the divine cause of Liberty and Union no part of our land was more fortunate than the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Rallying under the flag on Lincoln’s call her sons left colleges, pulpits, offices, and farms to risk all in the strange, hard life of war on land and sea. Among them were jewels from the happiest homes-the purest and staunchest patriots of the Mayflower stock. Who shall be named as a fit type, an altogether worthy representative of this unsurpassed New England contribution to the loyal army? When Charles Devens died there came from the press, from his professional brethren, from his college classmates and friends, from his associates in every walk of life and from the veterans who knew and loved him, an unbroken testimony to his many sided and well-rounded life and character-to his talents, scholarship and accomplishments, to his soldierly courage and devotion, that places him abreast of the most fortunate and beloved – the very favorites of history and fiction in ancient and modern times. From the spontaneous tributes thus poured out the honor of the scholar, the orator, the jurist, the statesman, the soldier and the gentleman, I quote these short sentences:
His post of the Grand Army of the Republic records this tribute:
“A life has ended which was an inspiration on the field of battle, and in peace a life so much above our ordinary lives, that we are grateful for its rounded period, and for its memory that will gladden us in the future as did his voice and presence in the past. The bench justly praises his uprightness, the bar his impartiality, the soldier his bravery.”
Judge Endicott said:
“He had the rare and peculiar qualifications for the judicial office; a singular balance of qualities and powers essential for the wise, pure, impartial administration of justice; a serene patience and good humor; a sense of justice intuitive, an absolute regard for truth and right, and an exquisite courtesy to those who appeared before him. He had a strength of will and courage that bore him through many a grave crisis, whether it called him to perform a duty imposed on him by the law but repugnant to his feelings, or to hold a division in line of battle or lead it in a desperate charge.”
Mr. John C. Ropes said:
“It is an error to suppose that only those who devote themselves ostensibly to the work of reforming their own and other countries, leave the world better than they found it. They, also, whose private lives are above reproach, and whose public work has been thoroughly, honestly and patriotically done, are entitled to this praise. Such men as Gen. Devens equally advance the good cause, equally promote their welfare of their country and the race, because they gave their strength, their talents and their lives to the public service. He had been for many years the spokesman of the city and commonwealth on public topics. Whatever the occasion Gen. Devens always rose to the full height of it; he was always serious, earnest, and strong; and he was always felicitous, His fine presence, his singularly harmonious voice, his mastery of the subject and the occasion secured the undivided attention and appreciation of the people.”
Mr. Winthrop said:
“He was a man who seemed to find the precise place for which he was particularly fitted in each one of the varied public offices he successfully filled. One might say that he was born to be a general, or he was born to be a judge, or than he was born to be an orator. He was plainly born for all, and was eminent in all. But he was born also for good fellowship, and for that kindest and most agreeable association and intercourse with his fellow-man.
My intimate acquaintance with Gen. Devens was during the four years from 1877to 1881, when he was Attorney General of the United States. It has been said that the duties of his office were not entirely congenial to him. This perhaps is true, but if true the fact did not come to my notice. I can however readily accept it. He had just left the Supreme Court of Massachusetts-an ideal place for a man of his character and training, of his mind manners and temper-and the change from such a place to the confused, embittered, and vindictive partisan and factional controversies which then prevailed to an unprecedented degree at Washington might well have perplexed and tortured a more storm-loving nature than belonged to him. His duties were diverse and many of them grave, difficult, and to him unfamiliar. Criticism sharp, severe, and not always free from ill temper was always lying in wait for him, as it ever does for any man who has a share in political duties, especially if they involve in even the smallest degree the distribution of offices under the evil system which is now slowly but surely traveling the road to its final extinction.
The Attorney General of the United States sustains a fourfold relation. As a lawyer he is the counsellor and advocate of the nation and in all of its interests and cases civil and criminal before the Supreme Court. In all matters of doubt and controversies in any department of the government from questions affecting only single individuals up to the weightiest contentions of states and nations he must with the responsibility of a judge, furnish opinions virtually determining momentous questions on which depend the issues of life and death, of peace and war. By settled usage he shares also with the executive department of the government the powers and duties of the politician and the statesman, His semi-official duties, no where set down in precise terms- his place as the representative lawyer of his country for the time being of his fellow citizens, before jurists and other men of learning and from abroad and in general society - are eminent, exacting, and numerous.
How did Charles Devens discharge these high duties? Let me answer this question by another. What candid and intelligent American ever observed Charles Devens in the performance of any duty in his great office either in Court, in the Cabinet, at his desk, or in society who did not feel that even Massachusetts must be satisfied - nay proud to be represented by such a son in the government of the Republic?
Intimately acquainted almost from my boyhood by Chief Justice Waite he was open as the day in his intercourse with me. He often spoke with unstinted admiration and praise of Gen. Devens. His knowledge of him was ample and thorough. He found Gen. Devens industrious, always ready, sincere, conscientious, learned and able-of the best temper, of winning manners and trustworthy to a syllable, and that to the end of the volume. In a word he regarded him as a model attorney general. Is it inappropriate for me to add that in this opinion of the Chief Justice I fully and heartily concur?
At forty-one years of age this admirable character, engaged in the successful practice of his profession heard the call to that dreadful but stainless war for the Union and at the very beginning – on the historic 19th of April- accepted the place of Major in the three months’ service, and in July became a Colonel in the 15th Massachusetts Infantry, a regiment enlisted for three years or during the war. Afterwards in due course of promotion he passed on from the command of a regiment to the head of a brigade and to the command of a division. Whatever of danger, hardship and suffering belong to war he encountered as became a gentleman and patriot of his manliness and self devotion. Grievously wounded again and again, severely enough to warrant his honorable discharge from the service, he stood by his men, and sticking to duty up to its extremist claim, he saw the fight out. At Fredericksburg, in 1863, he charged with his command the impregnable position of the Confederates, and when, after defeat, the difficult and hazardous withdrawal across the wide river was to be made, he begged and obtained permission to command the rear guard and cross last, where the peril was greatest! In 1865 poetic justice rewarded him with the command of the first division of infantry which entered Richmond bearing into the streets of that city the old flag the token and sign that the Union was saved and that liberty was triumphant.
The service of the Union soldier has brought him reward in a host of ways. Strike out of our lives during the last twenty-five years the comradeship of the war-the happy meetings-the associations and recollections traceable to those golden years of our lives and how barren and deprived of interest and joy the last quarter of a century would seem to us. In all this period what a figure General Devens has been! He was full of the spirit of comradeship. He knew and felt that to meet and greet an old commander or the brave good men he had commanded-the trusted comrades of many a camp and march and battle was always like good news from home and filled the heart to overflowing with happiness which words cannot tell. The true comradeship of war is based on qualities unknown and uncalled for in the piping times of peace. Those who are cold and unsympathizing in ordinary life can in war be so no longer. They who find themselves touching elbows with men who are cheerfully but earnestly sacrificing ease, comfort, health and life itself from motives which, however mixed with baser matter, are in the main as pure and noble as they are exciting- men who resolutely mean with eyes open to face perils and endure until life is lost or the good cause triumphs. In such a school the manly and the social traits can not but thrive. The experiences uncover not merely the heroic but the brotherly traits as also. Both are essential to the manhood and comradeship of the war.
When General Devens was appointed Attorney-General in 1877 his name was read to Gen. Grant. The General with unusual warmth, and with a confirmatory gesture exclaimed “I am glad of it. He is a good soldier, and more than that, he makes the best soldier speech I ever heard, and you know,” he added with a characteristic twinkle, “I have had some experience in that way.” The General was altogether correct in his estimate of Gen. Devens’ oratory especially when the comradeship of the war was his theme. We recall, many of us I am sure his last formal address to the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States at Philadelphia, about a year ago. It was full of satisfaction and joy which was the crowning felicity of his life-the gratification of having served the sacred cause and having been spared long to enjoy the happiness and blessing secured to our country by the victory achieved. He spoke of his feeling in these words,
“Time as well as war has been generous to you in this, that for a quarter of a century it has been permitted you to enjoy the just regard of a nation and the full fruition of your deeds. For this bounteous gift, let us render the homage of grateful hearts.”
Speaking of those who had gone before and perhaps thinking of the time when he would follow, he said: “I would remember them as we would wish to be recalled in the year of decent mirth and of social enjoyment when hand clasps hand in friendship and mutual esteem.”
They are the advance of that army of which we are the rear guard. Somewhere they have halted for us. Steadily we are closing up to them. Let us sling on our knapsacks of old, let us cheerfully forward in the full faith that by fidelity to duty, by loyalty to liberty, by the devotion to the country, which is the mother of us all, we are one army still.