Col. Alonzo W. Slayback's Memorial Day Speech

ADDRESS AT THE DECORATION OF SOLDIERS' GRAVES,

Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery

Near St. Louis, May 30th, 1873.

 LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: When the feelings of the heart are touched, the utterances of the lips are imperfect. Bear with me then, my friends, to-day, if my words seem poorly chosen. The grandeur and solemnity of this scene could borrow no impressiveness from displays of declamation, and figures of speech would impair the dignity of your own reflections. This assemblage is only one of thousands like it throughout the United States, whose hands and thoughts are busy in decorating the resting places of the gallant dead who perished in the late war. But our observance of the day is distinguished from the generality by a feature of rare and exquisite signification--a feature that is local now, but destined, as we hope, to become national hereafter--a feature worthy of a place in history, as a sign of the times in which we live, and of the feelings which animate our community.

It is this:

The Union soldiers and officers of St. Louis having in charge the preparations for this celebration, passed a resolution, prompted by their own lofty and humane generosity, to the effect that surviving Confederate soldiers are invited to participate with them in the ceremonies of the day, and that the graves of the soldiers who died in the one cause should be decorated the same as of those who fell for the other. This beautiful and heroical action has met with a response as sincere and spontaneous as the invitation was characteristic.The Committee on Speakers have selected me, as one who served the Confederacy during the war, to deliver one of the addresses at Jefferson Barracks, and, apprehensive as I was of my inability to perform the exalted duty thus imposed, I could not shrink from the responsibility. I come with you upon a pilgrimage of respect to the memory of brave men, who yielded up their lives to their honest convictions of duty.

We cannot approach this spot without feelings of deepest awe. Jefferson Barracks is suggestive of important historical incidents of the war, and in this cemetery Union and Confederate soldiers slumber side by side, in the long, last sleep of death. And here, about these sacred resting-places, are gathered the reconciled survivors, and the faithful and beautiful beings who love the soldier when living, and honor him when dead--the victors and the vanquished paying a mutual homage at the tomb of courage, and the fair hands and graceful forms of matron and maid dedicating the choicest offerings of spring at the shrine of valor.

O, my countrymen! What a spectacle is this! What a scene for the painter! What a theme for the poet! What a study for the historian of the future! In the annals of human warfare, where can you find the record of any behavior more chivalrous and admirable than the conduct of the Union soldiers and the officers of St. Louis in this affair? It is true that from the most remote antiquity ceremonies similar to these have been celebrated by every cultered nation. Flowers have had a delicate, universal language of their own, so ancient that is origin is lost in the fables of mythology. But it has been reserved for the climax of Christian civilization, and the crowning illustration of American magnanimity, to make the floral pageantry of this day and hour the occasion for turning the wrath of enmity into praises, and the bitterness of mourning into the sweet uses of forgiveness and reconciliation. The arguement of superior force may sometimes be unanswerable. But to bring harmony out of discord requires a regard for the nobler and better feelings of our nature, and the exercise of the higher intellectual faculties.

When conciliation comes mingling with our reverence for the dead, it subdues the heart and propitiates the understanding. And what nobler tribute could be paid the dead than this, that not those alone who had been friends, but those who had been adversaries too, should come to do honor to the hero in his grave? Not that our words can reach the sleeper. Ah! no,

"His blade leaps not at the long, loud cry,

Nor starts and streams with crimson dye;

He no more shouts 'Charge!' nor the brave line leads,

For he sleeps in the grave of his glorious deeds."

But here, at a moment sacred to his memory, those living can meditate upon the fleetingness of life, look into each other's faces for compassion, and entreat that for all future time the dwellers in our fair and bounteous land may be brothers and friends, and countrymen, indeed. It matters not, now, upon which side these brave men contended. They were, and the war has decided that they should ever remain, our countrymen! No bosom is so callous as to comprehend that word and look upon  their grave without compunction. At the graves of those we venerate, our thoughts peer deepest into immortality. The fact that these still live in our affections is the strongest proof we have that our own souls can never die. It is here we feel nearest to their actual presence. And if the disembodied spirits of men are permitted to revisit their abodes on earth, it is not stretching the imagination far to see the shadowy hosts hovering over us to-day as we are assembled upon the hallowed ground where their bodies repose, and realize that they are influencing our thoughts and feelings with angelic inspiration.

O, gallant spirits! Reproach us not that we have anticipated a

pleasure of your calm existence by having ceased to hate on earth. We

feel that what we do is prompted by your own heroic wishes. We lift our

hands to you and invoke your co-operation. If you are gifted to guide the

thoughts and actions of your survivors, let the purity of our motives in this

our tribute at your shrine make us welcome, when our time shall come, to

dwell in your starry regions.

Think not, my friends, that one of these has passed away in vain. In the economy of God, no death is premature where a human life is dedicated to an honest purpose. But those of us who outlive them are responsible for the use we make of the lesson of their lives. In the olden time it was allotted to some to perish in the wilderness--to others to reclaim and beautify the promised land. It has been the fate of these to die. It is ours for a little, a little, while to live. We have not given the fatal proof of fidelity to the cause we thought  the right. We cannot share the martyr wreaths they wear, but we can honor their memory by leading stainless lives. But it remains for us to make our devotion to the welfare of our country as faithful, since it is denied us to make it as glorious, as theirs. And God grant that when we come to take our places with them we may not slumber in dishonored graves.

Posterity will look--a generation already half-grown since these brave men fell is already looking--to us for the moral and political import of the war which convulsed this continent, and in which we took part, some on one side and some on the other. Its results are not all known as yet. Far in the future they will exert a powerful influence upon the destinies of our country. But this we do know. That the modern prophets have been much at fault about the results thus far. Of these results none can be counted more remarkable than the tranquility the country has already reached. This has sorely perplexed the sages. Such a strife and such a pacification were never witnessed in the world before. It is unprofitable to speculate about what might have been. It is wiser to recognize the irresistible logic of established events.

The war has demonstrated that no matter what construction the American citizen may place upon the Constitution, so jealously does he regard that instrument as the only safeguard of the liberties of his country, that rather than submit to what he considers an infringement upon its provisions, he is ready to die. The love of constitutional liberty is his grand ruling passion. It is apparent that outside of a few heartless agitators each party was sincere in the belief that the other party was inimical to the principles of the Constitution. It was this devotion to Constitutional liberty, as the respective sections had been educated to regard it, that impelled each party to the dreadful onset, and it was this same principle that made peace possible after the sanguinary encounter was over. It may be that wise statesmanship could and should have averted the conflict. But it was not done, and we can only deal with the facts as we find them. In the settlement of complicated difficulties, it is sometimes necessary for States as for individuals to have a fight before they can come to a satisfactory and peaceful understanding.

In just such a complication the sections of this country were involved in 1861, and it, perhaps, was incumbent upon the men of that day to fight. But now that the controversy is over, it is not incumbent on us to keep up enmity. Two knights once disputed as to the color of a shield. One said it was blue; the other said it was green. The code was appealed to and both were mortally wounded. Then the by-standers discovered that both were right, and both were wrong. The shield had been suspended between them. One side was painted blue; the other, green. Each had stated correctly the side he had seen, and of course had misstated the side he had not seen.

Missourians have just cause for State pride in seeing their sons step forward in initiating complete fellow-citizenship. There is no valid reason why it should be deferred. The Missouri troops, on both sides, were distinguished for being the foremost soldiers in battle, and they can afford to let those who did not gain any distinction in the field quarrel now. Missourians are done with that, and are going on now at something else. Life is too short. They have no time to waste. The present urges. The future beckons. They have something better to do than to cherish revenge. They cannot recall the past. They cannot bring back the dead. They cannot be enemies, and since they have determined to be countrymen, they have resolved to be friends. This day decides that resentment shall not mar the future of our beloved country.

In 1865, the enemies of our institutions abroad made sage predictions that the banner of the Southern Cross was only furled for a time; but our own poet said that it was furled forever. And furled forever let it be! (See Note 1) Toward the close of the war there was a deeper dread in the mind of  the Southern soldier than his customary encounter of superior numbers of armed men. It was not that he stood one of eight millions facing thirty millions that cause him to succumb; it was not that he felt unwilling to starve and go ragged; it was not that his faith was shaken in his generals; and it was not the ships, the money, the iron or the splendid munitions of war arrayed against him that reconciled him to abandon the unequal contest in which he had so often and so freely hazarded his life. It was not that he had forgotten his provocations, or underrated them, and it was not that he was a traitor to his cause. Then why did he surrender? you will ask.

My friends, I will tell you why: and this day and hour presents the first fitting opportunity for a true Southern man to make such a disclosure without having his language or his motives misconstrued. I will tell you why the Southern soldiers grew weary of the contest and surrendered their arms. It was because, after all their privations and losses, and cruel grief over the bloody graves of their fallen comrades, they began to look to the future, and to say: "Well, what then?"

Made wiser by the stern education of war, their love of constitutional liberty made them tremble for the consequences of final success. They saw that the end of the war in that way would be but the beginning of others. They cast their eyes upon the government at Richmond, and its constitution recognizing the right of any State in certain contingencies to set up a separate nationality for itself, with its little President and its little Senate, its little Supreme Court and its little Navy, with its Palmetto, its Pelican, or its Lone Star for its flag, and the soldier began to ask himself, "For what am I fighting? Will my children be better off when the wrongs I am redressing shall have been succeeded by others of greater magnitude? Will my constitutional rights that will remain to me in either event be as safe under the new nationality as under the old? And what can posterity gain by exchanging for still another experiment the illustrious fabric that Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson and Adams, and the brave, wise and good men who shared their counsels and their dangers, established and bought with the blood of my ancestry of the revolution of 1776?" ( see note 2)

It was this appalling logic which fastened upon the minds of the Southern soldiers. "Like a phantasm, or a hideous dream;" and then, and not until then, did their hearts begin to fail them. Hence it was that when they laid down their arms they did so with the full expectation, wish and understanding that the flag they had fought should become the emblem of their chosen nationality, and that from thenceforth and forever these States should be in fact, as in name, THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. And hence it was that when the Southern soldiers gave up, they surrendered in just as dead earnest as they had fought.

The generalship, the courage, the patience, fidelity and fortitude of the Southern army awakened the wonder and admiration of the world. They had performed prodigies of valor, and these prodigies the Federal soldier had overcome. The magnificent energy of the struggle was at an end, and the country had stood the test of a general civil war. The war was over. But there yet remained the problem of pacification. Could such armies be disbanded without the destruction of social order? Would those who had won let victory suffice? Would those who had lost resort to guerrilla warfare? Would there have to be maintained a standing army in every city, a garrison in every village, to hunt down human tigers in every thicket, swamp and mountain? Was there to be a gibbet in every churchyard, and bushwhackers in the tangled breaks of every river bank?

The question was of profound concern to everybody. It had to be decided, then and there. A mistake would have been fatal; delay, impossible. It was a critical moment. The spirit of American civilization is broad and generous. The very air we breathe is electric with magnanimity. The strength to overcome brave men in battle is stimulated by a heroism that scorns to strike down an unarmed foe. But beyond any of these considerations, the American soldier was swayed by a sense of political duty, and in this trying crisis, once more DEVOTION TO THE PRINCIPLES OF CONSTITUTIONAL LIBERTY lifted him above the passions and madness of the hour. The surrender had been unconditional. But history will record that the conditions exacted were as honorable to those who imposed as to those who accepted them.

The treatment of General Lee by General Grant at Appomattox, and of General Joseph E. Johnston by General Sherman at Durham Station, shed a lustre upon those great leaders that will only brighten with the lapse of time. And on the other hand the conduct of General Lee and General Johnston from that time forward excelled all praise. But it was the whole-souled character of the soldiers themselves that carried into practice the illustrious examples of their commanders.

Since the war the victors have conducted themselves with moderation--the vanquished with manliness. On the one hand there has been clemency and forbearance akin to sympathy. On the other, acquiescence in the new order of things, and an honest endeavor to repair the damages of the war. The sword of the stronger, flushed with victory, has been sheathed in its scabbard. The hand of the weaker has not reached out for the sword of which it has been disarmed. The one has disdained advantage. The other has detested revenge. The one has been tenderly generous. The other has been proudly grateful It would be hard to say why such men should not forgive each other. Animosity can only mar the happiness of both, and narrow indeed must be the soul which could desire to keep it up.

When Rome's immortal orator was reproached for defending a former enemy, he exclaimed: " Neque me vero poenitet mortales inimicitias sempiternas amicitias habere." And why should not we too boast that our enmities are mortal as the garlands that we bring, and our friendships as enduring as the grave that they adorn. Empires rise, flourish, crumble and decay. The marble of the new is exhumed from the ruins of the old. The destiny of nations is guided by a Power above and beyond the will of man. They are born, grow old and die as individuals by an inscrutable law ordained by the All-wise Lawgiver of the Universe. For some reason beyond our search, mankind have always been at war; and while the laws governing human nature remain the same, wars will go on until the millenium. The war-making capacity of a nation determines its rank among the nations of the world, and the military genius of its people is a test of its durability. The individual must be willing to perish that his nationality, through his devotedness, may live on. And no first-class power has ever yet existed so supreme that it could afford to alienate the affections or disregard the rights of any considerable number of its citizens.

And, my friends, just as long as our country remains liable at any time to become involved in war, we owe it to ourselves and our children to preserve the good-will of the soldiers of the republic towards our beloved institutions, and stimulate their devotion to constitutional liberty. And who are now our soldiers? Are they confined to a section? Are they embraced in a creed? Do they belong to a class? No! The army that keeps the outside world in awe is composed of all citizens capable of bearing arms, of all sections, political parties and antecedents. The stalwart and valiant men who are now busy everywhere plying the forge, holding the plow, pushing the industries of every section, and region and State--a self-sustaining host, governing themselves, and capable of defending that government against the combined world in arms--these constitute the true grand army of the republic. And God grant that civil strife may never again darken and desolate our homes; that, whenever duty calls upon the citizens of the United States to repel invasion or vindicate the national honor, no grievances may lurk behind us, but may we all be found side by side in the lists of glory, battling for the sacred principle of constitutional liberty.

Oh, priceless boon! purchased at inestimable cost! For this the men we commemorate to-day have died. They died that we might live in peace, contentment and good-will. Let us hallow their dust. Let us honor their courage. Let us venerate their motives. Let us cherish their memory!


Notes

Note 1 :  Col. Slayback is referring to the poem by Father Abraham Ryan, known as the "Conquered Banner".  Father Ryan and other Confederate leaders rightly preached that the time for hostilities has ended and that the battle flag should never again be used in another war between fellow countrymen. There was a belief, especially in the early post war days, that peace between the States would not be maintained, and a new war would eventually break out.  About the time Col. Slayback made this speech, a national crisis  was averted when occupational Federal troops finally withdrew from the South. The United Confederate Veterans (and its direct heir, the Sons of Confederate Veterans) has always advocated (and does advocate) that the Confederate battle flag (as well as the "Stars and Stripes") should never again be used in violence on fellow Americans, Northern or Southern.  This is what Slayback is referring to, not the display of the flag for a historical or heritage context.
 

It should also be noted that there is a significant difference between the way an original battle flag is treated versus a modern reproduction. The original Confederate battle flags bearing the bullet holes of the battlefield, which had been soaked, splattered, and consecrated with the life blood of the Confederate soldier, are considered sacred and not to be displayed in a casual non-reverent manner. But this does not mean that they are kept from display. During the gatherings of veterans at the reunions, such as for the United Confederate Veterans, these battle flags were always prominently displayed. Even at the great reunions between the "Blue and Gray" at Gettysburg, those of the South always insisted that they be permitted to bring their battle flags along for display. These were, of course, displayed only with the utmost peaceful intentions, that of remembrance, history, and education.


In regard to "furling the flag", In the old days, this was the best manner of preservation for these sacred banners. Today, even though they still need to be protected from direct light,  improved scientific methods and preservation techniques offer superior methods than merely furling or rolling up the flag.  We should not neglect this task. It is important that these original battle flags be preserved as they are an existing testimony of the sacrifice Confederate soldiers made to defend our Constitutional rights, liberties, native States, and families from the forces of a runaway Federal bureaucracy, unchecked by the safeguards instituted by the founding fathers.  back
 

Note 2: Because the South was composed of a diverse people with many differing opinions, as it is now, many Confederate veterans would have disagreed with Col. Slayback's interpretation as to the ultimate reason they personally surrendered. It is doubtful that many veterans believed that they feared the "Consequences of their own success". Interestingly, Col. Slayback, at war's end, was one of the many veterans that were not ready to surrender, preferring to go to Mexico rather than live in a nation that was maintained as a consequence of a Yankee success.  The words of Col. Slayback's is an apparent change of heart, believing now that living in the U.S. after a Union victory is not that bad afterall. It also reflects a general post-war rhetoric that was created to come to help the South come to terms with military defeat. Some veterans adopted it, others didn't.

Going back to late war (1865) documents such as with letters written home, many veterans stated they surrendered simply because they were "starved out" from lack of food. Others gave up when they heard news that their wives and children back home were being subjected to starvation and Yankee "total war" raids.  While secession was the original Confederate "cause", after four long years of war, most were fighting for mere survival for themselves and their families. However, even though this immediate need of survival was the most pending cause, the majority continued to hold dear to the principles of "State Rights" even after surrender.   It is true by war's end most were sick and tired of the struggle, and were ready to, as one veteran put it, "grease and slide back into the Union".  But even after conceding to defeat, when all ideas of secession have faded, "States Rights" continued to be upheld by the veterans in gray. For instance, at the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913, veterans of both the Blue and the Gray expressed that two of the "great lessons" learned during the war were:  that "the Union must be preserved", and the other being, "States Rights must be maintained".

For most Confederate descendants today "national identity" is now the United States of America. While the national flag is the "Stars and Stripes", the flag representing a significant part of Southern national origin is the "Stars and Bars" and all the rest of the national flags of the Confederacy. Let them all keep flying,  forever and in peace.   (Notes by Scott K. Williams)