Monday, May 25, 2015

The Unknown Loyal Dead

Just around the corner from Mrs. Lee’s famed rose garden at Arlington house lays a nearly-forgotten monument that was the first Tomb of Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Erected in 1866, this massive crypt houses the remains of 2,111 Union war dead that were removed from hastily dug mass graves on the battlefields stretching from Manassas to the Rappahannock River.
Tomb of the Civil War Unknowns.

On Decoration Day of 1871, Frederick Douglass was invited to come and consecrate this memorial.

His words, given below in their entirety, offer a valuable glimpse into how postwar Northerners viewed their Civil War.
Friends and Fellow Citizens: 
Tarry here for a moment. My words shall be few and simple. The solemn rites of this hour and place call for no lengthened speech. There is, in the very air of this resting-ground of the unknown dead a silent, subtle and all-pervading eloquence, far more touching, impressive, and thrilling than living lips have ever uttered. Into the measureless depths of every loyal soul it is now whispering lessons of all that is precious, priceless, holiest, and most enduring in human existence. 
Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable. 
Those unknown heroes whose whitened bones have been piously gathered here, and whose green graves we now strew with sweet and beautiful flowers, choice emblems alike of pure hearts and brave spirits, reached, in their glorious career that last highest point of nobleness beyond which human power cannot go. They died for their country.
No loftier tribute can be paid to the most illustrious of all the benefactors of mankind than we pay to these unrecognized soldiers when we write above their graves this shining epitaph.
When the dark and vengeful spirit of slavery, always ambitious, preferring to rule in hell than to serve in heaven, fired the Southern heart and stirred all the malign elements of discord, when our great Republic, the hope of freedom and self-government throughout the world, had reached the point of supreme peril, when the Union of these states was torn and rent asunder at the center, and the armies of a gigantic rebellion came forth with broad blades and bloody hands to destroy the very foundations of American society, the unknown braves who flung themselves into the yawning chasm, where cannon roared and bullets whistled, fought and fell. They died for their country.
Frederick Douglass, ca. 1870.
We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice. 
I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my “right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties to hat terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict. 
If we ought to forget a war which has filled our land with widows and orphans; which has made stumps of men of the very flower of our youth; which has sent them on the journey of life armless, legless, maimed and mutilated; which has piled up a debt heavier than a mountain of gold, swept uncounted thousands of men into bloody graves and planted agony at a million hearthstones — I say, if this war is to be forgotten, I ask, in the name of all things sacred, what shall men remember? 
The essence and significance of our devotions here to-day are not to be found in the fact that the men whose remains fill these graves were brave in battle. If we met simply to show our sense of bravery, we should find enough on both sides to kindle admiration. In the raging storm of fire and blood, in the fierce torrent of shot and shell, of sword and bayonet, whether on foot or on horse, unflinching courage marked the rebel not less than the loyal soldier. 
But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic. We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest beneath this sod flung themselves between the nation and the nation’s destroyers. If today we have a country not boiling in an agony of blood, like France, if now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage, if the American name is no longer a by-word and a hissing to a mocking earth, if the star-spangled banner floats only over free American citizens in every quarter of the land, and our country has before it a long and glorious career of justice, liberty, and civilization, we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.

1 comment:

  1. Today the crypt of these unknowns is surrounded by walls of boxwood shrubs and almost invisble to cemetery visitors, as if the groundskeepers were trying to hide it in an attempt to restore Lee's garden to a pre-war apperance. Tour guides who even bother to mention it state that both Union and Confederate soldiers are buried there but that is a complete fabrication. This was a tomb exusively designed for holding the remains of Union soldiers that were collected from the battlefields of Northern Virginia. Burial crews could easily tell if skeletal remains were Union or Confederate by simply looking for buttons and bits of uniform among the bones. In the immediate wake of the war there was a good deal of anger among Unionists that the Confederates had adopted an unofficial policy during the war of not burying federal soldiers where the South had won victories; places like Manassas, Chancellorsville, Chickamauga, and Cold Harbor. The reason for this was so that southerners who visited the battle sites would only see dead "Yankees", a method of using the dead as propaganda. And yet today, neo-Confederates get all bent out of shape that National Cemeteries were not originally intended to hold the remains of Confederate soldiers. This tomb of the unknows needs to be restored to its original intent, to honor Union soldiers. The boxwoods need to be removed and tour guides must stop over-emphasizing the fiction that Confederate remains are buried there also. Burial parties were not so stupid as not to be able to tell the difference between Federal buttons or belt buckles and Confederate ones. Arlington has a section and monument for Confederate veterans elsewhere in the cemetery. That's their place. This monument and tomb is for Union soldiers.