Monday, May 27, 2013

The City of the Patriot Dead

On Monday, May 30th, 1870, the citizens of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania observed Decoration Day. The morning dawned with low and threatening clouds, but in the afternoon the dull gray melted away, giving way to a warm sunshine. At about 5:30, the Gettysburg Zouaves, hoisting the tattered remains of the 87th Pennsylvania's flag, led a procession to the National Cemetery that included a number of children from the National Orphans Homestead. The procession included a wagon draped in the National Colors and filled with flowers for the graves of the dead.

Unknown graves in the National Cemetery. Likely members of the 114th Pennsylvania.
The ceremony at the National Cemetery included music and an opening prayer. Then, Dr. Charles A. Hay rose to address the crowd. Hay was a graduate of Pennsylvania College and the Lutheran Theological Seminary. He was later a professor at the Seminary and pastor at Christ Lutheran Church. Here is his address:

Friends and Fellow Citizens: Assembled in this peaceful city of the dead, we lift up our eyes upon a scene of quiet rural beauty well nigh unsurpassed. From this commanding eminence we behold stretched out a pleasing panorama of alternate grove and open plain--there the solitary Liriodendron, that has for more than a generation stood prominently forth as the most striking landmark in all the country round--there the quiet village whose name recent events have made familiar to the ear of the world--in the distance the circling hills that but lately echoed back and forth the horrid sounds of war.

This lovely landscape, now clothed in the fresh and fragrant habliments of spring, exhibits scarcely a trace of the fearful scenes that were here so recently enacted. Then the hill upon which we stand was scored with entrenchments, his brow scolloped with the lunettes, from whose partial shelter the deadly shot and shell were flying in the face of the foe entrenched on yonder heights.--The murky cloud of battle hung gloomily, as a huge death-pall, overhead, and the air was filled with the groans of the dying.

Those were days of terrible anxiety for all true lovers of our country. The fate of our nation was hanging in the balance. Traitorous hordes, flushed with victory and seduced by promises of aid and comfort upon northern soil, had crossed the border of our Commonwealth and were sweeping triumphantly through our fertile valleys, when they learned that the Army of the Potomac was upon their track. They turned to give battle, and here was then heard that fearful crash of arms that resounded throughout our land, and we may say throughout the world. For then, and here, the proud waves of the southern inundation were stayed; then and here the tide of war was turned; and from the hour of Pickett's repulse, on yonder hill, the doom of the Slaveholders' Rebellion was sealed.

But, O, at what a fearful cost was that victory secured! Could silver and gold have purchased it, how freely would the Nation have poured forth its richest treasures! But such a triumph was to be gained only by the sacrifice of many precious, precious lives. The Nation shouted for joy when the wires flashed through all the land the news of victory; but amid all these exultations there was heard the sound of lamentation, wailing and woe, "Rachael mourning for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they were not."

This photograph showing Frank, Frederick and Alice Humiston,
was found in the clutched hands of Sergeant Amos Humiston,
who was killed during the first day of the battle.
It was reproduced and printed in newspapers across
the north in an effort to identify the fallen soldier.
Photo by author.

Humiston died, with the pictures of his little ones clasped in his stiffening fingers and pressed to his heart. Ah, how many a father, stretched here upon this reeking sod, clasped his trembling hands upon a heart just as full of tender affection for the dear ones at home, who were even then, and here, thus unconsciously offering up a priceless sacrifice upon their country's alter?

My fellow citizens,--do we feel that there, and here upon this bloodstained soil, we incurred a debt that we can never repay? Those mourners are the Nation's true creditors! They have a right to say, as they see us luxuriating in the fruits of those awful contests: "We have suffered that you might triumph and rejoice."

Yes, widows and orphans of our brave defenders, our Nation acknowledges the obligation. Never, indeed, can its value be repaid; but our heart rejoices at every fresh proof of the fact that our Republic is not ungrateful. As Pennsylvanians, we have reason to congratulate ourselves that our dear old Commonwealth was the first to inaugurate a practical plan for the sustenance and education of the orphans of our brave defenders. In many of the States this noble example has been followed. And here there rises up before our sight one substantial and comfortable dwelling after another, a National Soldiers' Orphans Home--here, alongside of the graves of their fathers--a tribute of patriotism and gratitude mainly from the Sunday School children of the land.
Photo by author.

In honor too, of the memory of the patriot dead who slumber here, this splendid monument has arison, where the war-worn Veteran, resting from the toils of battle, is recounting to the Muse of History the scenes of thrilling interest that here occurred; where, as the fruit of the victory here achieved, we see represented honest Industry, resuming his honorable daily toil, and smiling Peace opening her bountiful hand and dispensing plenty around. High over all the Genius of Liberty holds forth the victor's wreath and smiles complacently upon the peaceful scene below.

But why are we assembled here today? Who has summoned us to this consecrated ground, this city of the patriot dead? Their comrades in arms; who, passing with them through these scenes of carnage, have escaped to tell the tale. To keep alive the patriotic memories of those fearful days, they have banded themselves together in the Grand Army of the Republic. Long may they live and flourish! May the day never come when they shall need to draw the sword again in our Country's defence. But, if ever traitorous hand be raised again to insult that flag--thick as autumnal leaves the serried ranks of this noble army will start into view, with the stirring shout--"Rally round the flag boys, rally once again!" In your hands, patriot soldiers of the Grand Army of the Republic, we know that we can surely entrust it!

Photo by author.
To this noble army of the defenders of the Nation's life nothing is more dear than the memory of their fallen comrades. And this they will ever cherish, fresh and green. It was a happy thought, suggested by some grateful, graceful, loving heart, annually to dedicate a day especially to their memory, and we trust this will ere long be set apart by legislative enactment and universal consent as a national holiday. Let us assemble to recount their deeds of valor and hold forth their illustrious example to stimulate the patriotism of the youth of the land, gratefully cherishing their memory and strewing their graves with flowers. 

These soldiers' graves may well be held in perpetual, honorable remembrance, and annually crowned with fresh and blooming tokens of a Nation's gratitude.

They fell in a noble cause! Not every soldier's final resting place can be contemplated with feelings akin to those that stir in our breasts as we stand here among these circling granite tablets, that mark the spot where the ashes of our honored defenders now repose. No mad scheme of plunder or conquest called them to arms. It was the sublime uprising of a free people to resist the traitorous attempts of a slaveholding aristocracy to destroy a beneficent government that would no longer submit to be administered in the interests of inhumanity. "Rule or ruin," was the treasonable motto. The answer of our patriot heroes was, "You shall neither rule nor ruin--the Union must and shall be preserved!"

They fell contending against greatly superior numbers. They lie entombed by the hands of a grateful people.

If a soldier's grave is ever to be the lot of any one of you, my hearers, may it be one as honorable and as deservedly cherished as that of those by which we are now surrounded!

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