Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Great Cause

Photo by Michael Noirot.
Creative Commons Licensing.
It was a scene that Gettysburgians were beginning to get used to. The special train pulled into the station at around 5:30 p.m., unloading a crowd of about 150 survivors and friends of the 15th Massachusetts. It was Tuesday, June 1st, 1886. The out-of-town party made its way to overnight accommodations, and undoubtedly a lively time was had that evening around the square and at the Eagle Hotel on the corner of Chambersburg and Washington.
The 15th served for three years in the war, from the summer of 1861 to the summer of 1864, and saw a fair share of combat. The regiment recorded more casualties at the Battle of Antietam than any other unit engaged. It had arrived at Gettysburg in July of 1863 under the command of Colonel George Ward. His service had already cost Ward a leg. In the early morning hours of July 3rd, it took his life. After two days of fighting, 143 of the regiment's 239 men were listed as casualties, including 22 dead.

Wednesday, June 2nd, 1886 dawned misty and damp, with threatening rain clouds hovering overhead. Despite the inclement weather, the large party made its way out of town to dedicate the 15th's monument on Cemetery Ridge. The main speaker on this day was Brevet Major General Charles Devens Jr. Devens was a fitting choice to dedicate the 15th's monument. In 1861, he led this regiment to war.

Born in Charlestown, Devens grew up in Boston, and graduated from Harvard. After a number of years practicing law, Devens won election to the State Senate as a Whig in 1848. The following year, President Millard Filmore appointed him the U.S. Marshall in Massachusetts. It was in this role in 1851 that Devens was ordered to hand over the fugitive slave Thomas Sims to the federal troops for a return to slavery. Devens complied, despite his own personal disgust at doing so. He served as U.S. Marshall until 1853, and then moved to Worcester, Massachusetts to resume his private practice of law. Here he remained until the outbreak of war. He was elected Major of a three-month outfit, the 3rd Batallion of Massachusetts Rifles, and then later received an appointment as the Colonel of the newly mustered 15th Massachusetts, a command raised from Worcester County.

Devens and his new command went to war in the summer of 1861. In its first engagement, the Battle of Ball's Bluff on October 21, 1861, the regiment met with disaster, and lost 2 officers and 12 men killed, 4 officers and 57 men wounded, and 8 officers and 219 men missing. Wounded in action, Devens somehow crossed the Potomac River to escape capture that night, aided by three comrades. He returned to the regiment after a brief furlough, but in April of 1862 left for good when he received a Brigadier General's commission and command of a brigade. He continued to serve through the rest of the war, and was wounded at the Battle of Fair Oaks and at Chancellorsville. He rose eventually to division command and at the end of the war was brevetted a Major General. Devens continued to serve after the war, mustering out finally in June of 1866. His postwar career included stints as a Justice on the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and as Attorney General of the United States in the Hayes administration. He also served two terms as Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic.
Charles Devens Jr.

As Devens stood before his comrades on Cemetery Ridge on this gray morning, he prepared to give a speech that would stand in marked contrast to many that the fields of Gettysburg had seen in recent years, and would see for years to come. By 1886, a narrative of reconciliation had taken hold over the memory of the war. At Gettysburg and elsewhere, monument dedications served as a platform to honor the mutual sacrifices and equal honor of soldiers north and south, and to mark the fraternal bonds of soldiers in blue and gray. These speeches highlighted valor and deeds, ignored the causes of the war and the bitterness that remained, and praised the stronger nation that the fires of war wrought. Charles Devens though, would not follow script. Politely, but firmly, he would use his speech to make his own statement about the war, and about its legacy. The monument to the 15th Massachusetts, he argued, had a wider scope than simply remembering the sacrifices of those who lost their lives. "In a large sense," he explained, "it commemorates all the brave men who nobly gave or bravely offered their lives, and testifies to our own devotion to and faith in the great cause which demanded this solemn sacrifice."

But what exactly did he mean by "the great cause"?
"This memorial is reared in no spirit of hostility toward or exultation over the defeated in our late civil war. Let the passions it engendered pass away with the dreadful source from which it sprung. Even if the baffled and beat traitor, around whom gathered all the infamies and horrors by which a wretched cause was rendered even more wicked, still parades himself with feeble utterance to cry out the cause is not dead, secession and slavery are in their dishonorable graves together. The hand of a merciful Providence will extend to them no resurrection.... Yet as we stand by these glorious graves we cannot confound the heroes and martyrs of a noble cause with those whom the twin furies of treason and slavery lead forth to battle, unless by a confusion of ideas worthy of chaos itself. It is the cause which sets our brethren apart among the myriads who people the silent cities of the dead. We should not be true to their just and lasting fame if in any sickly sentimental gush of reconciliation we should hesitate to assert that the principles for which they died were right, and those against which they fought were deeply wrong. That assertion, in no sense unkind or ungenerous to those with whom they were once in deadly strife, this monument makes to-day. It tells of bravery and vigor, but it tells of more than these, for it tells of duty and patriotism, and it summons all who look upon it hereafter to answer their call."
The monument to the 15th Massachusetts which stands today along Cemetery Ridge, says very little beyond identifying its Corps and division, and its position on July 3rd, 1863. Yet, on the day of its dedication, Charles Devens spoke forcefully on the monument's meaning to those who placed it. In 1886, Devens' voice was overwhelmed in a tide of reconciliationist memories of the war that would define its historiography for nearly a century.

In a later post, I will take a closer look at the 15th's monument at Antietam, installed 14 years later.

No comments:

Post a Comment