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It Is Over

May 26, 1879 — Decoration Day, Dansville NY


“Methinks it is good to be here;
If thou wilt, let us build — but for whom?
Nor Elias nor Moses appear,
But the shadows of eve that encompass with gloom,
The abode of the dead, and the place of the tomb.”
“Shall we build unto sorrow? The dead can not grieve;
Not a sob, not a sigh meets mine ear,
Which compassion itself could relieve!
Ah! Sweetly they slumber, nor love, hope nor fear,
Peace, peace is the watchword, the only one here.”

Yes, Mr. President, citizens, mourners, soldiers: It is good to be here; it is good that ye meet to build an altar and deck it with your offerings; and throughout our vast land, and from zone to zone, from sea to sea, there rises not the question in any mind: — To whom do ye build?

All the world knows to whom our nation builds its altar on the 30th of May, and all approve. Truly, when she set apart and made holy this day she did well, and builded better than she knew.

It is well that not only the nation pay this great tribute of respect and gratitude once every year to those who fell in defence of its liberties, but that those who struggled in the same noble cause, and survived, should meet and in some manner live over again the scenes which constitute and forever must constitute to them, the most important era of their lives. For their is no true, loyal soldier today, who served his term of enlistment in the war of the rebellion, who, if asked for some portion of his past life to be taken out of his record and remembrance, would not say: “Take whatever three or four years of my existence you will, but leave my army life untouched; I did in those days what you never did, and I can never do it again. Leave that to me.”

But time rolls rapidly, and the events we meet to revive are already history. Eighteen years ago it was — comrades! Can you realize it was so long — that the white blossoms of May fell on our young untried armies forming qickly to the call for 75,000 men. They fell unheeded, too, on the bowed heads and tear-dimmed eyes of the mothers, wives and sisters, who gave up their bravest and their vest to that new, strange call.

Terrible days of misgiving were those. Still, all were coming back; all would live; and all would come home the same, with the glory of a soldier added; it was only a separation, and only for three months.

Ah! Bright days; bright uniforms; bright eyes; bright hopes, and bright blossoms! The May went bravely and cheerily on, — and July, and July! Ah! that checked a little. Bull Run told us something we had not taken into our estimate — and the Peninsular and the campaigns in the west.

But the hopes grew and strengthened under trials and adversity, and in answer to the second call, rolled back the mighty chorus: “We’re coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more,” and the next May blossoms fell on uniforms less bright, but more soldierly, and they fell, too, on the new-made graves that by this time began to stud the distant lands. We had learned the would not all come back.

Shall we follow our marches another year, and that where they lead by field and river, and shore and sea? Bittsburg [sic] Landing, Shiloh, Fort Pillow; Corinth; grim Ben Butler in New Orleans; bold Farragut lashed to the rigging.

“Where scare a cable’s length from the fortress,
Mid case-shot, shell and ball,
Lo! The Hartford slowed her engines,
And lay there, wood to wall!”

Williamsburg, Fair Oakes, “Seven-days-before-Richmond;” Malvern Hill, with its spiteful fire; Cedar Mountain, second Bull Run; Chantilly, with its rain and darkness, its mingled artillery of heaven and earth — Webster and Kearney dead! South Mountain, with its stubble hill-side, burning September sun and its gallant Reno.

Antietam, with its eight miles of camping armies face to face, two hundred thousand men to spring up at dawn like the old Scots form the heather, its miles of artillery shaking the earth like a chain of Etna’s, its ten hours of uninterrupted battle, its thunder and its fire, its sharp, unflinching order — “Hold the bridge, boys, always the bridge!” — at length the quiet, the pale moonlight on its cooling guns, the weary men, the dying and the dead, the flag of truce that buried our enemy’s slain — and Antietam was fought and won and the foe turned back.

The long Autumn March down the mountain asses; Falmouth and Old Fredericksurg with its pontoon bridge, sharp-shooters, deserted streets, its rocky brow of frowning forts, the broad glacis, one vast Aceldama.

“Where slaughter strewed the purpose plain,
With torture and dismay,
‘Till strength seemed weak and valor vain,
And grim and ghastly with the slain,
Full many a hero lay;”

The falling back, the night retreat across the Rappahanoc [sic] — and Fredericksburg was fought and lost!

“For victory fled our banner bright,
Upon that dreadful day,
O! let me call the shades of night
To drown in black the morning light
And shield forever from your sight
The horrors of that fray.”

Then followed the winter of defeat, discontent and discouragement which wrung from us, willingly or unwillingly, “Let the oppressed go free!” — and the white May blossoms of ’63 fell on the glad faces, the swarthy brows, the toil-worn hands of four millions of liberated slaves. Unconsciously America had freed a race. It was then she builded better than she knew.

Shall we go on? Ay; ye are only in the middle of that march so gaily taken up in ’61. The tide of battle rolls to the west. The bombardment of Fort Hudson and the siege of Vicksburg (always), Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Fort Donaldson [sic], Lookout Mountain, “Fighting Joe” [Hooker] above the c louds, and the two great captains challenging the admiration of the world! “All quiet along the Potomac” became a mock-ord. Charleston sits like a haughty queen with Sumter, Moultrie, Wagner, Gregg, the watch dogs that growl before her door — and the siege goes on. Morris Island, bare and shelterless as “lone Tybee” fills her hot, drifting sands with soldiers’ graves. Ever the growl of the forts, ever the answer of the fleet, as it wheels and circles into line and sends it broadsides; the deep-toned thunder of Old Ironsides as she leads in; the quick, sharp crack of the Paul Jones; and the ready music of the graceful Pawnee, with all the ringing shot on her armor of chain. Comrades! it is a comfort to me that your eyes have seen, your ears have heard and your lips can testify to the things whereof I speak.

But the “quiet on the Potomac,” what does it signify? To the foe it signifies much, and he creeps ever northward, and northward, until we, who sent armies out to meet him on distant fields, at length receive him on our own, and for three days the tide of destruction and the engines of death and hell rolled over the peaceful valleys of the old Key State. The green fertile slopes of Gettysburg, ploughed with cannon, harrowed with fire, watered with blood and planted with the bodies of six thousand slain! “What shall the harvest be?” Mr. President what shall the harvest be?

Another winter of discontent and gloom. Ever the lessening ranks, ever the recruiting forces, and the May blossoms of ’64 fell on a world-renowned army of veterans — har brown faces, sinews of steel, tread of iron, and hearts as soldierly and brave as the “old Guard of Napoleon.” Uniforms still bright? Uniforms! Heaven knows if you had any. It were well if you had shoes. But the weary Spring brought the Great Captain to the East, to “fight it out on that line if it took all Summer,” aye, and all Winter, too. The country lost it little pet refrain of “all quiet along the Potomac” — it perished in the flames of the Wilderness, was buried on the bloody fields of Chancellor[s]ville, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Deep Bottom, Front of Petersburg, the trenches of Richmond, the mine, the Alley of the Cumberland, Winchester, Cedar Creek, “with Sheridan twenty miles away.

Southward lay Atlanta, bare and terrible, without one stone left upon another that had not been thrown down, and its vanished army the mystery of the world. But the armies of the Potomac, Cumberland and James, and the old 9th Corps that lost itself many times over but never lost its flag, are no mysteries. Pressing on, pressing on through mud and blood, and shot and shell, nearer and nearer. Shorter and shorter that “all Summer” line, when lo! on the 9th of March, 1865, there falls indeed , a “quiet on the Potomac,” and the flame-tipped pen of history writers light upon the scroll of fame a single word — Appomattox!

“Appomattox and the surrender of Lee,
For Grand has marched to Richmond
And Sheridan has marched to the sea.”

The white Spring blossoms fall again, and still on marching armies, but with steps reversed, arms at rest, and faces no longer toward the foe. And they fall again on the bowed heads and sorrowing heart of the widows and orphans in the old Northern homes; on an army of worn out, sick and wounded men from hospital and barrack; on an army of skeletons dragged from prisons, of which it shames humanity to tell; on the graves of any army of martyrs, and on one solitary bier, flag-draped, borne reverently through the land with a mourning nation weeping in its train: — Let us pray!

Yes, it is over! The calls are answered, the marches are ended, the nation saved, and with the glory of gladness in her eyes, the shekinah of victory on her brow, she covers her tree-stained face, and with grief-bowed head, sits humbly down in the ashes of her woe to mourn her loss — to weep her dead. Victory! — yes; but O! the cost, the desolation, the woe and the want that spread over our whole land.

I recall an incident which might serve as a type of all those days, if you will kindly permit me to relate it. Having occasion to pass through the streets of a somewhat western city, during the Winter of ’65-’66, my attention was one day attracted by the figure of a singularly attired, weird looking little boy, with a basket on his arm, standing in front of a baker. A soldier’s cap and pantaloons, in which his tiny form seemed nearly lost, and the faded, light blue cape of a storm-beaten overcoat, with the once bright button still striving to adorn its tattered edge, reaching to his knees, completed the uniform of the shivering little hero. He stood perfectly motionless, evidently unconscious of any presence save the large, warm, nut-brown loaves within the window.

As I could not pass such a picture, I stopped and asked if he were hungry. “Not very,” he said, hesitatingly. “Not very, but Annie is.” Who is Annie?” I asked. “My little sister.” “Have you no father and mother?” “Father was killed at Chattanooga and Ma’s sick. (His voice trembled a little.) “No brothers?” I asked. “I had three brothers,” (and his little voice grew smaller and trembled more), “But they all went to the war. Willie was shot in the woods when they were all on fire” (He meant the “Wilderness”) “and Charlie, he starved to death in Andersonville, and Jamie, he was next to me, and he went for a drummer-boy and died in hospital, and then there were only Ma and I and Annie. Annie was a baby when they went away, and Ma’s grown sick, and Annie is often hungry and cold, for I can’t always get enough for her. I pick up wood and chips, but Ma doesn’t like me to ask for victuals; she says it is a bad habit for little boys to learn.” And the tears slid quietly down his child-cheeks, wan and careworn.

I went home with him, far on the outskirts of the city, long beyond the reach of sidewalks, through alternate frost and mud. A cheerless room. And as we entered, a thin hectic woman partly rose from her bed to greet me. Her story was only a confirmation of what I had heard. Her boys enlisted first and early, and the father partly to try to be near them, and partly through dread of the draft which he could not meet, followed them.

“One by one they met their fate,
One by one, her idols broken,
One by one her hopes had died,
Till, with bleeding feet and breaking heart she had trodden the wine-press alone.”

As she talked on quietly and tearfully, baby Annie stole out of her hiding-place and was peering wistfully into the basket, and the little military guardian drew up to my side with simple, child-like confidence as he said: — “This was Jamie’s cap and cloak. They sent them home from the hospital when he was dead, but they didn’t send Jamie home.” “Nor Willie, nor Charlie?” I asked. “No! nor Papa; there’s only Ma and I and Annie, that’s all.” And there are more than there will be long, poor child, for already the pale messenger waits at the gate and his weird shadow falleth even nearer.

Decorated graves! White May blossoms of ’79! Who lays a flower on those little lost graves to-day? Who on the thousands and thousands like them all through the land?

“Far down by the yellow rivers,
In their oozy graves they rot;
Strange vines, and strange flowers grow o’er them,
And their far homes know them not.”

Thirteen thousand dead in one prison! Three hundred thousand dead in one war! Dead everywhere, on every battle-field they lie. In the crowded yards of every prison ground; in the dark ravines of the tangled forest; in the miry poison swamps where the slimy serpent crawls by day an nth will-o’-th’-wisp dances vigil at night:

“In the beds of the mighty rivers
Under the waves of the salt sea”;

In the drifting sands of the desert islands; “on the lonely picket-line, and by the way-side, where the weary soldier laid down with his knapsack and his gun, and his march of life was ended.” There on their strange beds they sleep, till the “morning of the great reveille.” They sleep and you remember. Mourners! They are the dead martyrs, you are the living, and alike should ye be honored. Mothers, wives and maidens! Would there were some testimonial grand enough for you, some tablet that could show to the world the sacrifices of American womanhood, and American motherhood in that war; sacrifices so nobly, so firmly, but so gently and so beautifully made! If like the Spartan mother she did not send her son defiantly to the field, bidding him return only “with his shield or on it” — if she did not like the Roman matron take him by the hand and lead him proudly to the standard of the Republic, like the true Anglo-Saxon, loyal and loving, tender and brave, she hid her tears with one hand, while with the other she wrung her fond farewell and passed him to the State. Then smothering her sighs in her own crushed heart, baring her brow to the storm and the task, — God only knows, history only faintly tells, how she toiled and suffered to sustain him in the holy cause to which she had consecrated him.

American women, how proud I am of you; how proud I have always been since those days to have been a woman. Abraham Lincoln said that without the help of the women the rebellion could not have been put down nor the country saved. Since that time I have counted all women citizens.

Solders, comrades, what shall I say to you? Your sacrifices are known, your testimonials are given, your tablets of renown are already set, you stand in the foremost ranks of the armies of the world, you bear the respect of foreign nations and the love and gratitude of your own. What more can be done than to pray the Great Giver, and Protector of all, to watch over, guard and sustain you in the peerless position you have already attained. But to accomplish this, you have more to do than other men; with you, in no ordinary degree, rests the future welfare of the nation you have saved; the preservation of the liberties you have secured. You are not to forget that the “price of liberty is external vigilance.” Not only are you the men of history, but to a great extent you are the men of our present generation.

Through the dark days of ’61,2,3 and 4, my hope for the preservation of the nation and the rights and liberties of its people rested where it rests to-day — in the truth, patriotism, loyalty and fidelity of all the men who bled under her banners; who when the holy charge was entrusted to their keeping, proved equal to the trust.

You went to war citizen-soldiers, you returned soldier-citizens; and that you are today; and your duties extend not only to your country, but to each other. No disbanded army on the face of the earth ever did so noble, generous, and beautiful a thing as you did, when you reorganized and established your “Grand Army of the Republic.” What charity, wisdom and delicacy it combined! How well you foresaw that only a soldier could properly appreciate a soldier’s necessities. I have honored that organization with a great honor, and loved it with a great love.

And soldiers of Livingston, of Dansville, I regret the circumstances, whatever they may have been, which have caused a suspension of your organization. Let us hope it is only a suspension; that it is to resume, and if in any way one so weak as I can aid or strengthen, command me and I serve.

If I am proud of the women of my country I am also proud of you; and I would have the course of every soldier command the confidence and admiration of every beholder — honor and truth his pass-words — pledged and kind — knightly, like King Arthur’s knights, brave and courteous like “Lancelot,” gentle and Christian like “Sir Galahad.”

Mourners, my last words are to you: be comforted. Your dead are no longer dead, they are risen, and in the bright realms of the just and the glorified, they await you.

“When the faithful had fallen and the combat was ended,
A chariot of fire through the dark cloud descended;
Its riders were angels on horses of whiteness,
And its burning wheels turned on axles of brightness;
A seraph unfolded its doors bright and shining,
All dazzled like gold of the seventh refining;
And the souls that came forth out of great tribulation
Have mounted the chariots and steeds of salvation;
On the arch of the rainbow the chariot is gliding,
Through the path of the thunder the horsemen are riding.
Glide swiftly bright spirits, the prize is before you,
A crown never fading, a kingdom of glory.”



Source: The “War Scrap Book” of Matilda Joslyn Gage: Witness to Rebellion, ed. Peter Svenson (Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press), 2019, pp. 287-294.


Also: Syracuse Christian Advocate