Governor Cummins, Mr. President, Gentlemen of the Iowa Commission, and my Comrades:
I am glad to say, from Iowa (for such we all are) comrades of both contending armies who once fought each other on this field in enmity, but now meet as friends, and ready to move, if necessary, against a world in arms in defense of that flag, which Governor Cummins has so eloquently apostrophised.
When the great battle was fought here so many years ago, the battle in which the men to whose memories this monument has been erected as a testimonial which they so justly deserve, at the time of this battle, it was in no man’s mind, perhaps, that such a thing as this would be done, and least of all was it expected by the men who are thus honored. I, who was then upon the other side, who stood in hostility, if not in hatred, against these fallen heroes, could not have believed then that I would be asked, nearly half a century later, to assist in such a ceremony, and that I would do so earnestly and gladly, with no feeling to mar the pride with which I might remember the valor and devotion exhibited here, except, perhaps, the recollection that these qualities were displayed in civil war; that American soldiers died upon this field in fraternal strife, and not fighting in generous rivalry against a common foe. Nevertheless, in the light of a better understanding which the lapse of years has brought us, we can look back upon that time with more of pride than of sorrow, and with admiration for the courage displayed by our comrades, both of the north and south.
In that terrible ordeal we learned that we were truly the same people, and must remain the same nation. We who fought for the Confederacy discovered that this Union can not and shall not be destroyed; you who fought for its preservation learned that its maintenance would be valueless unless the just rights of all the states be respected. Civil war is a stern school, a dreadful school, but it teaches a discipline and imparts a knowledge which can be acquired, perhaps, in no other way. In that sharp and stern experience, we learned much, as I have said, that was of benefit. It accomplished much of good. All misunderstanding, all sectional misconstruction and jealousy and antagonism were removed from American life and eliminated from the conduct of national affairs, and we realize now that, as a people, we have been fitted by that lesson — painful as it was — to confront and deal successfully with other problems perhaps as grave and dangerous, which may confront us or our children in the unknown future.
But at any rate, we who are here today, and especially those of us who have survived that terrible struggle — veterans of both contending armies, are grateful for the deeds done by the men who then fought here, and who now lie sleeping yonder, and we are stimulated to the fulfillment of higher duties.
And assembled upon this consecrated ground, this field made memorable by brave achievement in the past which shall serve to exalt and to influence the national spirit and character, we can more fully realize the value and full meaning of patriotic sacrifice. The lives that were lavished here were not given in selfish effort for fame or preferment; not even for the glory and aggrandizement of the country of which those who gave them were citizens, but in the honest belief that such sacrifice was necessary to the safety and protection of the land which had borne them.
We often hear comment made upon an occasion like this that it is a strange spectacle which is presented, when the men who confronted each other in civil war, forgetting the resentment which such a conflict might be expected to have created, gather to render mutual tribute of honor and affection to the dead. It is strange in one respect — strange in that it is novel. In all the history of the nations with which we are best acquainted, with whose annals we are most familiar, we find for it no precedent. Just such a thing has never occurred before. Not even in the record of our British ancestors, who more than any other people have been familiar with the exercise of political toleration and amnesty, has just such a thing as this occurred. A war was waged in which an entire people virtually participated — a people of the same blood, of the same speech, sharing the same history, cherishing and loving the same traditions, determined to preserve the same form of government, entertaining in the main the same ideas of the purpose of political institutions; and yet these same people suddenly rushed to arms, and for four years stood against each other in furious and bloody anger. Thousands of lives were lost, the fiercest animosity aroused, and yet, within the span of a single generation almost, all that passion has been allayed. Wrath has given place to amity, and the heroism of both those who wore the gray and those who wore the blue have become the common heritage of a reunited country. I can make no logical presentation of this subject. I believe that the story of this war, its causes and conduct, will furnish the historian and to the thoughtful student of history a lesson and a theme far surpassing anything in civil strife which the world has ever witnessed, of earnest purpose and determination. It was the precursor, the forerunner of the greatness which this country has since achieved. In the first place, it was the most stupendous civil war of which mankind has any record, and, by the eternal, if we Americans have to fight, we want such a war as no other nation has had. It should have been the biggest fight that men ever made.
When we consider the means employed to conduct it, the strength of the armies placed in the field, the immense extent of territory over which it was fought, it far exceeds in magnitude any struggle of like nature which the world has ever seen. I might say that a new people had arisen up upon the face of the earth.
Now, it would be neither timely nor appropriate to discuss the causes which induced the war. It is enough to say that I do not believe that history furnishes an example of any other great war which was fought out simply as a matter of sentiment — a conflict of ideas. I do not mean to say that there were not grave and important issues at stake, but I do mean to say that, looking back upon the past, all of us can understand and believe that all of those issues, economic and political, could have been settled and adjusted really with little difficulty, certainly with no serious difficulty, but for the stubborn spirit and unyielding pride of opinion of the people of both sections; men who were willing to make any sacrifice rather than yield — that was the difficulty in the way of avoiding this war. And looking back upon it I can see, and all of us can see, that it ought to have been avoided. We should not have been cutting each other's throats, yet that old Anglo-Saxon instinct drove us into the conflict. The battle of Shiloh was the first really great battle fought in the war, and it was a remarkable battle in some respects. In that battle, for the first time, these Americans, living on different sides of an imaginary line, found out that they were exactly alike. They were all Americans. We on my side used to boast that one Confederate could whip five Yankees, but we changed our minds before the war was over, and I think the Yankees found some of their ideas respecting us also inaccurate. The fact is that here, in this battle, were people of the same blood who had been living apart for some time and had lost their former acquaintance, and met again here for the first time. They did not shake hands, it is true. They met in a different manner, but were reminded of something that they had forgotten; that they were of the same breed and temper. Yankee and Reb found upon the other side his long lost brother, with the strawberry mark on his arm.
Now, as I have said, taking up the sentimental aspect, it is a very remarkable thing when you come to think of it, and it is what gives to it more than anything else, its peculiar characteristic. It will be a great lesson to us. In that regard, it was different from anything in modern times. Other nations fight about some practical matter, about territory or for some commercial advantage. We fought, as I have said, simply in that stubborn conflict of ideas and opinions. In that respect it resembles more than anything I can think of the European wars immediately succeeding the Lutheran Reformation, when religious sentiment was the chief factor in the strife. Not only had we the greatest civil war in its material aspect, as I have said, that the world ever saw, but never before was there ever a war brought on by such merely sentimental provocation. Other nations and other peoples have had their civil wars, and with those races which have wrought most effectively for human progress which have been able to impress themselves most strongly upon history, such conflicts have been the sternest. It was probably inevitable in the very process of our national development that we should have our civil war. It may be that we have reason to congratulate ourselves that it came when it did. No matter who was wrong and who was right. No matter what we may surmise about the political aspects which induced it. No matter what historians may say about the motives of the statesmen who were responsible for it — no blame can be rightly attributed, no word of reproach can justly be spoken against the soldiers who fought in that war; against the men who stood in the ranks and met the brunt of the battle. They had not sought it, but they accepted it with all its dangers, with all its sacrifices, with all its inevitable sorrows.
“Their’s not to reason why,
Their’s but to do and die.”
Governor Cummins has spoken of one thing: that the men in the war were so young — mere boys — and this is very true, as we know. Most of you who were in the war were boys yourselves. These young men responded to the call, and rushed to arms in defense of the land that had borne them. Think of the wide extent of territory from which they came, all animated by the same feeling, the same sentiment, the same purpose — the highest that men can feel — from the forests of Michigan, from your own prairies of Iowa, from the green fields of Kentucky and Tennessee, from the hills of Vermont, and from the wild plains of Texas, gathered here to battle and slaughter. And where are they now, those boys who wore the blue and the gray? Battle and march have passed, privation and hardship have been endured unflinchingly; the home left, never to be seen again, that the country might be defended, and the boy has looked no more into the loving eyes of his mother. Loosed like young eagles, for their first flight between the mountain and the sky — where are they now? Many of them lie on innumerable battlefields, in unknown graves. The soldiers of the Union are gathered together in that beautiful cemetery, by the banks of the river over which floats the flag which they followed. The Confederate dead remain where they fell, in the glades of the forest. All of these resting places are consecrated by affection and honor. About them cluster memories and associations which are tender and loving. And “Glory guards with solemn round this bivouac of the dead.”
SOURCE: Alonzo Abernathy, Editor, Dedication of Monuments Erected By The State Of Iowa, p. 256-61