Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Declaration of Independence: An Apple of Gold in a Picture of Silver

Just recently, I spent a few days in D.C. visiting some sights with my Mom who was stopping by Maryland for a visit. Included in the many sights we saw were Ford's Theater, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Arlington Cemetery, and the many memorials and monuments to the greatest figures in American history. We also spent some time visiting the National Archives, where we stopped by to see the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. While standing there, just inches away from these documents, I couldn't help but think of the immense significance these pieces of paper have had on world history. The Declaration of Independence signalled the first time in human history that a nation was founded on the principle of a basic moral equality among men with rights stemming entirely from God. The Constitution was created so as to protect that promise of equality and liberty from the inherent evil and corruption that has befallen nearly every government in history. Of course, while standing there viewing these documents, I couldn't help but think Lincoln and how important these documents were in his understanding of American freedom.
The principles of freedom and liberty which Jefferson enshrined in the Declaration had an enormous impact on our 16th president's political philosophy. Lincoln understood these principles much as our founder's understood them; the Declaration on its own was but an ideal, a flag planted firmly in the soil of liberty for all to see. It took the framework and protection of the United States Constitution and the republican government it established to firmly safeguard those liberties. Certainly, these two documents did not solve all of America's problems, as Lincoln's own presidency reminds us. However, they managed to create a nation with the idea of liberty at its very core, a nation freer and more prosperous than any other in the history of the world. Lincoln understood this, and he spoke of its importance quite often.

Perhaps his most eloquent explanation came during a speaking trip through New England around the time of his famed Cooper Union Address, in the early months of 1860. While no historians can agree on an exact date for this fragment, the general time frame in which it is thought to have emerged is in the immediate prelude to Lincoln's election as president. It is clear that, in 1860, as the nation was bursting at its seams with sectional tensions and debates over slavery, Lincoln clearly understood the ideas that had created the Union in the first place, ideas which needed to be preserved, protected, and defended for generations to come.

All this is without accident. It has a philosophical cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of "Liberty to all"--the principle that clears the path for all--gives hope to all--and, by consequence, enterprise, and industry to all.

The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate. Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity. No oppressed people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters.

The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, "fitly spoken" which has proved an "apple of gold" to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple--not the apple for the picture.

So let us act, that neither the picture, or apple, shall ever be blurred, or broken,

That we may so act, we must study, and understand the point of danger.

--Abraham Lincoln, 1860

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

August 1998 to July 2011...

Two photographs, 13 years apart

An 11 year old Civil War enthusiast outside the Manassas Visitor Center in August of 1998. While it appears as though the young historian is frowning in the picture, I think we can chalk that up to the sunlight, especially if you knew how badly he one day wanted to work as a Park Ranger at a Civil War battlefield...

That same 11 year old, now a bit older and in a different outfit, working at Manassas for the 150th commemoration events, Saturday, July 23, 2011.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The 150th at Manassas

On July 21, 1861, the first major land battle of the American Civil War erupted on the plains of Manassas in Northern Virginia. 150 years (and 2 days) later, I had the great honor of journeying to those same plains, NPS Ranger hat in tow, to spend the day outside greeting visitors and helping to explain the significance of those same events.

With temperatures soaring above 100 degrees, it was a day best spent inside for many. Not so for yours truly. I spent the day traversing between different stations on the Henry Hill walking tour of 1st Manassas, answering questions, helping folks fill up on water, and providing whatever interpretation of the battle that I could. For the majority of the people I met, their first and only interest was in staying hydrated and stopping to chat about the days events. Others had routine questions about where Jackson was when he earned his famous sobriquet, what happened to Judith Henry of Henry House, who commanded which army, what the deal is with different names for the same battle... you get the idea.

For most of the day, I was positioned at Ranger stops near the spot where Jackson's line stood on the afternoon of July 21. These stops saw few visitors, giving me lots of time to take in the days events from afar. Even though events between 2 and 6 were cancelled because of the heat (heat index was 115), it was still an amazing thing to sit on the battlefield and think about the experience of battle 150 years ago.

Of the many pictures I took, here are some of the best which I thought might give you an idea of what my day at Manassas was truly like...

Arriving on the field just before 8 AM, I had the place nearly all to myself. I was truly in awe when I first walked onto the field. The day was just beginning, yet it was still unbelievably hot. I took a few moments to take pictures and simply enjoy being there before I began to make my way out to my stations. There were many tents, chairs, and a stage set up right behind the Visitor Center, signifying the importance of the four day commemorations for the battle.

A beautiful sky over the field in the morning.

You know you are somewhere important when C-SPAN shows up...

The guns from James Rickett's Battery, sitting near the Henry House, a rebuilt version of the same home guns in this position fired into on July 21, 1861 to rid it of Confederate sharpshooters, killing 85 year old widow Judith Carter Henry in the process.

One of the many NPS tents doubling as a Ranger and water station.

Living history reenactors' tents complete with battle flags near the Henry House

Monument to the Union soldiers who died at First Bull Run, dedicated on June 13, 1865, making it one of the first Civil War monuments to be created.

One of the several living history groups on Henry Hill performing a musket firing demonstration for visitors

Stop 1 for my day, the Henry Hill overlook. In the distance, one can see Matthews Hill, where the fighting began in earnest at around 9:30 in the morning on July 21, 1861. Union troops from the divisions of David Hunter and Samuel Heintzelman were ordered on a flanking movement by commanding Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell. The Confederate brigade of Nathan Evans was notified of this movement and shifted west from their position at the Stone Bridge to attempt to block this flanking force. It was on this hill where Col. Ambrose Burnside's brigade met Evans men that morning. It was also on this hill where Major Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers, author of the famous letter to his wife professing his love of country and the premonition of his death, was mortally wounded.

Ranger Dan with the Stone House and Matthews Hill in the background.

Stop 2 for my day was the site of the Robinson House, where only the foundations remain. James Robinson was a freed black man who lived on the 1st Manassas Battlefield. While his home and family escaped harm that day, the house was lost to suspected arson in 1993. Only the foundation still exists, with little else to signify the importance of this spot.

Stop 3 for me, where I spent most of my afternoon, was the small Ranger tent located behind Jackson's statue. It was here, on the downward slope of the hill, where Jackson made his famous stand. Nathan Evans's brigade, along with the brigades of Barnard Bee and Francis Bartow, were pushed off Matthews Hill, leaving few Confederate troops in the way of a Union victory. However, without orders, Thomas Jonathan Jackson, a professor from VMI, had moved his brigade of Virginians over to Henry Hill to support Evans, Bartow, and Bee and to make a defensive stand. Here, Jackson would firmly hold the Confederate line that day through several hours of fierce back and forth fighting between regiments and batteries of both armies. It was here where Jackson earned his famous name of "Stonewall" when Brigadier General Barnard Bee proclaimed to his men, "Look, men, there is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer! Follow me!"

Shortly after this now famous episode, Barnard Bee was mortally wounded. He succumbed to his wounds the next day. Not far from where the statue of Jackson sits, famously echoing Bee's words and pointing towards Jackson's destiny of being one of the most revered figures in American history, there is a marker signifying the spot where Bee met his own fate.

Out at Jackson's line, I had an excellent view of the artillery demonstrations taking place at the Henry House.

Always an awesome sight to see artillery pieces fired on a Civil War battlefield.

All in all, my day at Manassas was quite enjoyable. My final stop was at the Henry House, where I had begun my day many hours earlier. It was a bit busier at this site, as I had the chance to talk to a few folks about what happened during the battle and what its significance was, but again, the main interest of many folks was in drinking lots of the cold water we were providing. While I was dissapointed I did not have more opportunities to discuss the history and significance of the battle and to do interpretation, looking back on my experience, it was still a remarkable day. While not what I had expected and prepared for, it was amazing to simply be out on the battlefield as a Park Ranger for the 150th anniversary of the battle. Greeting people, chatting with visitors, and experiencing the events and the atmosphere are things I will never forget. The heat and the nearby reenactment drew some visitors away from the park, but it was still a great place to be with a good crowd of nice people hoping to learn a thing or two about history and to pay their respects to those who sacrificed for us.

I think when I look back upon my day at Manassas, what I will remember most won't be the heat, the sparse crowds, or the logistical difficulties of the day. Rather, when I look back, I will remember how amazing it was to be on the same field where 150 years earlier Thomas Jonathan Jackson became "Stonewall" Jackson, where JEB Stuart led a Confederate cavalry charge for the first time, where William Tecumseh Sherman led troops against Henry Hill, and where Americans began to realize that war was not a quick and easy affair.  While other battles had more casualties than 1st Manassas, few had more long reaching implications. Not only did 1st Manassas erase hopes of a quick end to the war, but it sparked the Civil War careers of some of that conflicts most famous officers and generals. In commemorating the 150th anniversary of 1st Manassas, we are remembering far more than the battle of July 21, 1861; rather, we are remembering that day, and the many days like it over the next four years which would forever change America.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

July 21, 1861: The Battle of First Manassas and Major Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers

150 years ago today, the first major land battle of the American Civil War was fought outside the Manassas railroad junction, roughly 30 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. General Irvin McDowell's Army of Northeastern Virginia met the Confederate forces of Joseph Johnston, freshly arrived from the Shenandoah Valley, and Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, and a fierce and confusing fight ensued. Today, on the fields of Manassas, the Park Service is staging the first of their four days of commemoration ceremonies, which several of my Antietam colleagues have the honor of taking part in (I will have that same privilige on this upcoming Saturday).

While the numbers of casualties from First Manassas are far fewer than the numbers who would soon line the fields near towns named Sharpsburg, Gettysburg, and Spotsylvania Court House, the impact of the casualties from 150 years ago today were still immense. From April through July of 1861, Americans had been convinced that the war would be an easy affair, quickly won with one grand charge against the enemy. Many thought of war as only the romantic event it was portrayed as in books, stories, and folklore. It took the Battle of 1st Manassas to shake loose the notion that the war would be easy and quick. Manassas signaled that the Civil War would be a struggle far longer, far bloodier, and far more devastating than any had dared to imagine.

On this date 150 years ago, roughly 4,700 men fell in battle as casualties. Armies of civilians fought against each other in a desperate struggle. Men wore uniforms of every style, make, and color, making it nearly impossible to distinguish friend from foe on certain parts of the field that day. Civilians came from Washington with picnic baskets, prepared to watch the grand battle that was sure to decide the whole matter of secession quickly and decisively. Those same civilians, along with many of the Union soldiers, found themselves scrambling to get back to the safety of Washington by days end, shocked and terrified by the terrible reality of war. The order of battle for 1st Manassas reads as a "who's who" listing of famous Civil War names. Not only were McDowell, Johnston, and Beauregard present, but so was Longstreet, Jackson, Stuart, Early, Ewell, and Burnside, Sherman, Howard, Richardson, and Franklin. Many of these men would go on to have brilliant and distinguished careers during the war. Thomas Jonathan Jackson would rise to fame after standing upon Henry Hill "like a stonewall," only to be cut down at the height of his fame and glory at Chancellorsville in May of 1863. Ambrose Burnside would leave his mark on many a battlefield of this war, leading troops over a small three arch bridge along Antietam Creek, as well as ordering troops to assault heights overlooking the quiet town of Fredericksburg. William Tecumseh Sherman led a brigade of troops against Confederate forces on Henry Hill that day, a much smaller force than the one he would lead through the state of Georgia in 1864, burning cities, foraging crops, and bringing the realities of war home for the entire Confederacy. J.E.B. Stuart, who led a dramatic cavalry charge at Manassas, rocketed to fame as the Confederacy's fearless cavalryman, leaping into the hearts, minds, and imaginations of an entire people, only to be mortally wounded at Yellow Tavern in 1864, dying at the young age of 33.

For all of these men, their journey through the American Civil War began 150 years ago today.

Yet, while Jackson, Burnside, Sherman, and Stuart went forward from 1st Manassas to achieve fame on other fields of battle, many men never left the field that day. One of those men was Major Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers.

The story of Sullivan Ballou, much like so many other stories of individuals who fought and died during the Civil War, reminds us that the war was not a romantic sport, nor was it a weekend hobby for those who fought it. It was a life and death struggle for the future of their lives, their families, and this country. It was a fiery ordeal which touched both the battlefield and the home front, exacting a terrible price from all who experienced it.

Before the war, Sullivan Ballou was an attorney and politicain, serving in the Rhode Island House of Representatives. He was a Republican and a supporter of Abraham Lincoln. On October 15, 1855, he married Sarah Hunt Shumway, with whom he had two boys, Edgar and William. He volunteered to serve in the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers at the outset of the war, which brought him to the fields along side Bull Run Creek on July 21, 1861. On that morning, while riding into battle out in front of his troops, a 6 pound solid shot severed Ballou's right leg below the knee and killed his horse. Ballou was carried from the field in severe pain, and though surgeons did what they could for him, he succumbed to the terrible nature of his wounds one week later.

On July 14, 1861, exactly 1 week before he was mortally wounded at 1st Manassas, Ballou wrote a letter home to his wife explaining his feelings in the event that he would be killed in battle. Ballou seemed to have a premonition that his death was near, and his letter serves as final testimony of his love for his wife, his children, and his country. The letter was never sent. It was found in Ballou's trunk after his death, and was given to his wife by Rhode Island Governor William Sprague. The letter which Ballou wrote stands as one of the most remarkable letters any soldier from either side wrote during the war. It captures a deep love for family and country. Ballou's Christian faith shines through in his words, and his profession of faith, love, and patriotism remind us why it was that so many left their safe and peaceful homes to fight in a deadly struggle which was so greater than themselves.

Major Sullivan Ballou, 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers

July the 14th, 1861
Washington D.C.
My very dear Sarah:
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.
Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure—and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine O God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.
But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows—when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children—is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.
The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar—that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.   
Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.
But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the brightest day and in the darkest night—amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours—always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again.
As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father's love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers his and hers I call God's blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Going to Manassas...

When I was growing up, I remember many long vacations spent in the car going to Civil War battlefields and historical sites. I remember my Mom driving 11 hours in one day down to Charleston so I could see Fort Sumter and the Hunley, as well as Savannah, Georgia, Andersonville, Atlanta, Chickamauga and Chattanooga. I also vividly remember traveling to Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, the Wilderness, Antietam, Gettysburg, and last but not least, Manassas.

If you would have told the younger version of me when he first visited Manassas that he would be working there as a Park Ranger for the 150th Anniversary of the battle of First Bull Run, I doubt he would have believed you....

Henry House, one of the several places I will be stationed on this Saturday, July 23

Stonewall Jackson's statue, sitting along the line he held on the afternoon of July 21, 1861, earning his famous name.

This week and upcoming weekend, I, along with many of my other colleagues from Antietam, will be traveling south to work at Manassas to assist our NPS friends down there with their events for the 150th anniversary of the battle. I will be working at Manassas on this upcoming Saturday, July 23. It is a great honor and privilige for me to get this opportunity. I will be out on Henry Hill, moving between several different interpretive stations, speaking to visitors about the battle of Manassas and the American Civil War. While it will be hot (forecasts are ranging between 96 and 102 for Saturday), I won't be complaining, as this is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity.

I plan on taking as many pictures as my camera can possibly hold, and blogging extensively about the event and all that happens. It will truly be a remarkable day filled with incredible experiences. The fact that I get to wear a Ranger uniform and talk to visitors as an official representitive and NPS Ranger makes it so much more amazing.

If you are in the area and are free, stop by on Saturday to say hello. There will be a crowd of several thousand, so get there early, bring water, and be prepared for lots and lots of Civil War buffs.

I hope you can make it out to Manassas for the 150th this weekend, but if you can't, stay tuned here for full coverage!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

NPR Story on Unknown Soldiers of the Civil War

Researcher IDs Remains Of Unknown Civil War Soldier

I came across this story (link is above) and thought it was worth sharing. It comes from Georgia, where a researcher claims to have identified an unknown grave on the Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield. Given my particular interest in this battle and this campaign, I had to look into it. The grave which is discussed is the one which I photographed while visiting this site this past January.

The story discusses unknown soldiers during the Civil War and how some are still searching for their identities. The main focus is on Brad Quinlan, a researcher who is claiming to have discovered the identity of an unknown soldier still buried on the Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield. Quinlan is suggesting that this soldier was "Mark Carr, 34th Illinois, 21-year-old day laborer and farmer from just outside of Dixon, Illinois." He arrived at this conclusion through studying first person accounts from the National Archives, as well as doing a process of elimination through various regimental records.

While this story is quite interesting, I have some doubts about these claims. Without further details on how this conclusion was reached, it is impossible to say with any degree of certainty, barring DNA testing, who is buried in this grave. There were dozens of Union regiments which fought in this area, making it difficult to pinpoint the 34th Illinois as the only unit whose dead fell on this spot. Nevertheless, it is an interesting story.

Stories such as this one remind us that far from the romanticized war of film, art, and tourism, the Civil War itself was a terrifying ordeal for the men who endured it. It remains important to remember that the Civil War was so brutal and vicious that some individuals simply ceased to be known as a result of it. Not only could the combined effect of shot and shell dissolve bodies with their force, but severe wounds could make recognizing and identifying soldiers difficult, and strange terrain could make finding some bodies impossible. Thus, when traveling to Civil War battlefields, remember that they still serve as cemeteries for men from both sides, and they should be treated accordingly.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Prayer at the Dedication of the 125th Pennsylvania Monument at Antietam

One theme which you will notice on this blog from time to time is the discussion of the religious history of the Civil War. There is no doubting that the generation which fought this war was a Christian generation. Soldiers used their faith to understand what they saw and did in battle, and their abiding belief in a Christian God helped them to justify the causes for which they fought. It is not uncommon to read memoirs and letters of soldiers and to find continual discussions of prayer services, Christian revivals, and references to the eternal fates of those who had fallen in battle.

In the course of researching various units at Antietam, I recently came across some of the speeches and ceremonies from the dedication of the 125th Pennsylvania monument. Located behind the Dunker Church, the monument depicts Color Sergeant George Simpson of Company C from Huntingdon, Pennsylvania with the flag he was killed while holding during the battle. This regiment, recruited from Huntingdon, Blair, and Cambria counties in August, 1862, received its baptism by fire in the West Woods at Antietam. The story of the regiment is a fascinating one, as these men had just left their homes and loved ones behind when they suffered the terrible experience of battle on September 17, 1862. A part of the 12th Corps, the 125th PA moved southwards along the Smoketown Road, entering the West Woods and holding their position for some time before being pushed from the field by the brigade of Jubal Early’s men. The 125th PA was one of the only units of the 12th Corps in the West Woods at the time of the Confederate counterattack on that position, and they would lose heavily that day. Starting the day with 700 men present for duty, the losses of the 125th PA came to 54 killed and mortally wounded, 91 seriously wounded, and 84 slightly wounded, totaling 229 casualties.

The following selection is a prayer which was given at the dedication for this monument on September 17, 1904. I found it to be quite moving, and thought it was worth sharing.  It was given by Dr. Theodore L. Flood, a former Lieutenant of Company C., 125th Pennsylvania.

O God, our Father and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we bow our spirits and worship Thee on this ground, consecrated by the blood of our comrades and friends, and where many of us faced death itself that we might perpetuate this nation. We give Thee thanks that we live to see this day—that we may come together to speak of the deeds of valor and of the noble men who fell in our regiment and in our great army on the day of battle more than forty years ago.

We thank Thee that thou didst direct our fathers in the early days of our Nation’s history, and that Thou didst give them wisdom and courage to lay the foundations of this Republic. We give Thee thanks for the wisdom and statesmanship of the great men who perpetuated this nation by their wise action in the halls of Congress, and in the Executive Mansion at Washington. And when we think of the battles that were fought in the Civil War, the defeats that were suffered and the victories won, we raise our hearts to Thee in thanksgiving for the victory achieved on this battlefield, and we thank Thee for the noble part our regiment was permitted to take in that conflict.

And, now, we return to Thee gratitude that so many brave men who fought here survive until this day. We beseech Thee to bless the widows and orphans of our comrades who fell in that battle. Bless all the comrades who remain, and may our gathering to-day be an inspiration of patriotic devotion to our country, and may we here at the altar of liberty, which has been an altar of sacrifice, consecrate ourselves anew to the preservation of this Republic and to the perpetuation of free institutions.

Inspire the men who shall speak on this occasion, and may we all carry to our homes an increased love for our country, and our country’s flag.

Bless our army and navy, the President of the United States and his Cabinet and our National Congress. Bless the Governor of this Commonwealth and our State Legislature. Guide us all in the way or peace that we may never again be called to engage in civil strife, but that we may keep the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace.

These blessings we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, July 4, 2011

July 4, 1861: "This is essentially a people's contest."

150 years ago today, on July 4, 1861, a special session of Congress convened in Washington D.C. Lincoln had called for this session so as to deal with the enormous threats facing the Union. For the past several months, Lincoln had been acting alone as Chief Executive, without legislative approval for his acts. This special session of Congress was needed to approve Lincoln's actions in dealing with the dual crises of secession and civil war. Among the acts which they would validate would be Lincoln's highly controversial suspensions of the writ of Habeas Corpus.

While this session of Congress was quite important in maintaining the constitutionality of Lincoln's actions, this date is also important because of the message which Lincoln delivered to that session. These were the days when presidential messages to Congress were not delivered on prime time television with an obscene number of applause breaks and standing ovations to satisfy the cameras and the pundits. Rather, messages were written and delivered to be read without the president making the trip to Capitol Hill.

Lincoln's July 4, 1861 message was among the most important documents he would write as president. In it, not only did Lincoln outline the early actions he took to deal with the crisis facing the nation, but he also clearly elucidated the underlying issues of the burgeoning civil war. Some of the most memorable sections of that message came toward the end, when Lincoln laid out the central principles behind both the Northern and Southern causes. Here is a link for the entire address, if you are so inclined to read it. It is well worth your time. What I have excerpted below are my favorite selections, those parts which I feel speak best to the issues that affected the start of the Civil War, issues which 21st Century Americans would be wise to keep in mind as we attempt to maintain that same Union which Lincoln sought to defend 150 years ago today.

On this Fourth of July, we should remember not only those brave Americans who declared their independence from Great Britain to create a new nation 235 years ago, but also those who bravely stood to defend that Union 150 years ago.

Lincoln Memorial

It may be affirmed without extravagance that the free institutions we enjoy have developed the powers and improved the condition of our whole people beyond any example in the world. Of this we now have a striking and an impressive illustration. So large an army as the Government has now on foot was never before known without a soldier in it but who had taken his place there of his own free choice. But more than this, there are many single regiments whose members, one and another, possess full practical knowledge of all the arts, sciences, professions, and whatever else, whether useful or elegant, is known in the world; and there is scarcely one from which there could not be selected a President, a Cabinet, a Congress, and perhaps a court, abundantly competent to administer the Government itself. Nor do I say this is not true also in the army of our late friends, now adversaries in this contest; but if it is, so much better the reason why the Government which has conferred such benefits on both them and us should not be broken up. Whoever in any section proposes to abandon such a government would do well to consider in deference to what principle it is that he does it; what better he is likely to get in its stead; whether the substitute will give, or be intended to give, so much of good to the people. There are some foreshadowings on this subject. Our adversaries have adopted some declarations of independence in which, unlike the good old one penned by Jefferson, they omit the words "all men are created equal." Why? They have adopted a temporary national constitution, in the preamble of which, unlike our good old one signed by Washington, they omit "We, the people," and substitute "We, the deputies of the sovereign and independent States." Why? Why this deliberate pressing out of view the rights of men and the authority of the people?

This is essentially a people's contest. On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life. Yielding to partial and temporary departures, from necessity, this is the leading object of the Government for whose existence we contend....

Statue of Lincoln at the Pennsylvania Memorial, Gettysburg National Military park

Our popular Government has often been called an experiment. Two points in it our people have already settled—the successful establishing and the successful administering of it. One still remains—its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it. It is now for them to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets, and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal except to ballots themselves at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace, teaching men that what they can not take by an election neither can they take it by a war; teaching all the folly of being the beginners of a war....

Statue of Lincoln in the Capitol Rotunda

As a private citizen the Executive could not have consented that these institutions shall perish; much less could he in betrayal of so vast and so sacred a trust as these free people had confided to him. He felt that he had no moral right to shrink, nor even to count the chances of his own life in what might follow. In full view of his great responsibility he has so far done what he has deemed his duty. You will now, according to your own judgment, perform yours. He sincerely hopes that your views and your action may so accord with his as to assure all faithful citizens who have been disturbed in their rights of a certain and speedy restoration to them under the Constitution and the laws.

And having thus chosen our course, without guile and with pure purpose, let us renew our trust in God and go forward without fear and with manly hearts.

Abraham Lincoln, July 4, 1861