Site Logo
Home Page | Descendants | Find A Soldier | Units | Site Map

Introduction

Bibliography - Links

Resources

Reunions

AN
ORATION
BEFORE THE
RE-UNION SOCIETY
OF
VERMONT OFFICERS,
IN THE
Hall of the House of Representatives,
MONTPELIER, VT.,
OCTOBER 31, 1878.
By Sergt. LUCIUS BIGELOW, 5th Vt. Vols.

MONTPELIER,
Printed by J. & J. M. Poland
1879.

ORATION

Mr. President and Comrades:

I have consented to accept the honor tendered me in your invitation to serve you as orator on this occasion, not because I have any right to this compliment, through my own short term of fellowship in the field with you, but because I believed that you thought, not of the poverty of my performance, but of the sincerity of my spirit. You believed that I had at least seen enough of the actualities of a soldier's life, so that I could speak to you understandingly of that tremendous time, when your business was war, and your manly bosoms were the bucklers of the nation.

No spirit-stirring drum in angry note sounds to-day along our shores; above our heads the "tethered flame" of no battle banner "sails like a meteor kindling in its flight;" no blue ride of Union soldiers lifts and stretches its mountain barrier of unbroken bayonets between North and South; no rumbling cannon channel our fields; no bugle call summons the swarming skirmishers to the front; no shell flies past the wrathful cry of bursting rage; no singing flight of leaden bees is stinging to death our bravest and our best; and where once floated a thousand colors from a thousand masts mid the shoutings of a mighty soldiery, no more warlike sound than the rush of the river breaks the beautiful peace of nature along the Potomac.

These stern notes and stimulating scenes of stout war are no longer with us. A more hallowed and gracious time is your hour, ad you have insisted on making me its man. I shall oppress you with nothing of the sort; orations are for senates, not for a circle of comrades in sweet council, for an assemblage that knows no party but the nation.

Two forces push the world forward; self-interest and moral ideas. Self-interest in healthy development means thrift, economy, wealth, commerce, ships, agriculture, houses, cities, steam-cars, and boats, means the high materialities of this life, honestly won, and wisely and virtuously enjoyed; but the morbid, diseased exaggeration of this force means fanatical utilitarianism, luxurious cynicism, and splendid scoundrelism; means thrift and honest trade melting into avarice, speculation and thievery. Moral ideas mean justice, humanity, honor, honest, magnanimity, tenderness, purity and self-sacrifice. Now a healthy and desirable social state is where these tow forces are in equilibrium; where indolent idealists, drifting into the dissipation of mere dreaming, and utilitarian fanatics, withering through the corrosion of insane acquisitiveness, are equally absent. That is, we should be a race like our Revolutionary Fathers, who had an honorable moral dread of poverty, but sought justice before wealth, nobleness before happiness, believing, as they did, that not what dies with your century, but what shall always survive it, is the test of the level of your civilization. They knew that the contemplation of moral ideas added nothing to the commerce-extending, money-getting capacity of a country, but they saw in them the antidotal enemy to the poisoning power of the force of self-interest in a diseased, exaggerated form, and therefore, they were

"timely wise,

Laughing not when this one steals and that one lies."


They believed in the existence of most divine and lofty powers that add nothing to our materialities, but must go beyond and find their free play in the spiritualities of that unknown sea, whose faint glimmerings are our intimations of immortality. They prized purity first, then peace; truth first, then power.

The healthy equilibrium of these two propulsive forces, self-interest and moral ideas, is the realization of a perfect social state.

Now

"Set these two forces foot to foot,
  And any man knows who'll be winner--
Whose faith in God has any root
  That goes down deeper than his dinner,"


and it was this superiority of the moral to the material forces that in times of tremendous stimulus made you forget the self-preservation instinct, made the nation flame welding into one keen sword sighing for a wielder; made every trader a soldier. Dickens somewhere tells us of a rough, hard-featured, sorrow-clouded woman, whose latent humanity, hard to reach, he likens to one toiling painfully up many a winding, dark and dirty stair, and rapping on a low door-way to see it open with words of gentle greeting.

The sentiment, the deep divinity of the shrewd, hard American nature is about as difficult of access, but through our so-called selfishness, through the thick dust of trade, through the vain and sordid ambitions, through the blubber-fat of carnalities and gross animalisms, the warm, red blood of primitive manhood rose surging to the surface, when the dread hour came and men for the hour were wanted. For years before the late war the foremost men of the time preached the utilitarian doctrine of selfishness, that declares that civilization has nothing to do with anything but property, its increase and preservation; thrift first, justice at our convenience. Webster always talked in his last days as if a man's liberty was nothing compared with coal, cotton and corn, with lands, banks and bullion, with ships and stocks; and with solemn sneer tried to sap the creed of the opponents of human slavery by calling it a "rub-a-dub-dub agitation." But ten years after his death his own eldest son fell in battle, a willing and eager follower of that tremendous drum-beat, whose call to quarters at last the whole North obeyed, whose incipient roll was this "rub-a-dub-dub agitation," that the sneer of the great expounder never snuffed out.

The utilitarian theory of government, -- first thrift and safety, then justice, -- seemed to have the popular assent, when suddenly the shot against Sumter roused us from the state of moral syncope, and we rose beyond the sphere of human selfishness to the highest level of self-sacrifice. The impulsive force of this grand passion of the nation was an influence that these old-time navigators never knew how to measure, for it was the manly blood of the North welling up from the deep places where cold logic never enters. Charles Reade in one of his eloquent novels tells us of the electric effects of a skylark's song on a group of rude miners in Australia; the coarse, brutal voices hushed still as death as the bird began his matchless warbling, until finally, as his melody rose higher and higher, all the rocks and trees and brooks, and sweet fields of their innocent youth in old England seemed to rise on their sight as though following the Orphean music of that thrilling song, and hard eyes moistened that had not shed a tear for many a long day.

And so it was with this hard-faced, grasping American people; the shot at the flag broke the spell of this false philosophy, long taught, and the peddler nation's heart of ice became a sea of fire.

Patriotism as a moral duty, not as an impulse, inspiring you to sacrifice away from the sights and sounds of war, is only felt by a fine nature. The delicate, impalpable bloom of the plum is part of the perfect brightness of its beauty; the fragrance of the flower is the balmy breath of its lovely life, it is most ethereal and consummate charm. The bloom cannot be clutched by our fingers, and the scent of the roses comes not to the eye, but they gladden your soul. So moral enthusiasm and fervor for something, whether it be humble or high, so it be square, is the very bloom and fragrance of a humane nature, its most impalpable and yet its most immortal attribute.

And this was the quality of your patriotism when in 1861, you followed the screaming fife and thundering drum that were calling you to a war whose hostile smoke you could not see, whose blackened fields reached not to your frontier, whose angry shots did not startle your mountain air. You went, not because of your babies, but in spite of their little hands tugging at your heartstrings to hold you back. You went to fend danger not from your family, but from millions yet to be.

In the ordinary affairs of life one acute Yankee peddler mind is worth more for service to his day and generation than forty poetic souls, but when the storms and strifes of politics split states, and we are where steel and not gold will get us honorably and honestly out, and the word is war, then it is that the sentiment side of human nature, that poets and thinkers feed, steps to the front and leads where the peddler nature dares not clear the way. The men who hold the widest sway in the hearts of humanity, who have defended liberty when assaulted, who have poured oil and healing balm into her wounds after battle, are the men of this sort, men of this deep, poetic instinct, this moral tenderness, this appreciation of the immortal. It is all that survives of the influence of Greece and Rome, of every ancient state. Sparta, like the old South, a land of soldiers and slaves, gave us nothing, but the airy-minded Athenian, the antique dreamer, holds the ear and the eye of the race to-day. Philip and his phalanx drove Demosthenes to death, but to-day Philip and his phalanx are phantoms, while Demosthenes touches the lips of every fiery-souled orator that has ever stirred us to tears, to mutiny and rage. It is Plato's page against the sword of Sparta. It is the difference between Hamilton, the financial savior of a poor and struggling nation, and Jay Gould, the mere dancing bear of a stock market, the statesman versus the speculator. It is Napoleon at Wagram riding up and down his shot-riddle ranks, to save his crown, fighting for his own hand, as opposed to Winthrop leading the assault to save a country. It is the man who thought and fought for all time as opposed to the man who thought and fought only for himself and his little hour. It is spirituality against sordidness; it is high thoughts against low; it is the palpable against the impalpable; it is the dollar against the whole duty of man.

The airs that blow from the South are full of fraternal words from those who were once armed enemies, but while I would not question captiously the sincerity of these utterances, I observe that they are miserably perverted from their best purpose and office for good, by those who do not yet perceive that the rebellion was a war of ideas; that the North won in the conflict not alone because of her might, but because of her right.

Because you clasp the hand of a Confederate in warm fellowship, honoring him for the valor that put up his life for his cause, for the manly truth that makes him to-day keep both the letter and spirit of his oath, you must not by equivocal conduct or expression confuse the two causes, for if you do you are the exponent of a false and dangerous education. There is sturdy, admirable manliness in bravely dying for error, but there is more than manliness, there is magnificent moral sense in dying for truth. You business is to teach that courage alone is not a patent of nobility, for Macbeth, steeped to his lips in crime, teemed with valor, with desperate, aggressive, Satanic, self-preservation, not self-abnegating instinct. You must teach that martyrdom is of itself no proof of morality; many a so-called martyr's ashes are not worth collection; the smoke of his sacrifice only vexed the sweet air of heaven, and his blood was the seed of no church that was worth humanity's sustaining. We need not oppose the personalities of Union and Confederate soldiers; we need not pit valor against valor, for there is thrilling proof of their honorable equality of sacrifice and heroism; but while we grant them perfect freedom of speech for their heresy, they must grant us perfect freedom of denunciation for their error; and therefore there can be no equality of flags, for there is but one flag; there can be no co-honor of causes, for there is only one cause. What was worth fighting for during four years is worth talking about -- not vindictively, not boastingly, but reverently, forever and forever and forever.

"If law and order, honor, civil right-
If they wan't worth it, what was worth of fight?"


And the loyal common sense of the nation wants and will have at the South a real peace, that means a peace of political life, not the peace of political death.

For the Southern man, suffering, sorrow-stricken, we have an open hand, an open heart, and an open door, but for the Southern idea that might is the rule of right, we are and shall ever be as cruel and inhospitable as that vast grave their foolish hands filled with our precious dead. If tranquillity under tyranny continues to burlesque peace under justice, the turbulent protest of war, in the final event, will again close the debate. Man can afford to trifle with man, but man cannot afford to trifle with God, and the vast spirit of divine justice, that wraps like an atmosphere the entire moral world, cannot be insulted and outraged forever with impunity, and the South, if it insists on spurning the rudder of justice, will surely be ruled by the rock of retribution. Sentimentalism never saves a state; it is belief in the immutable timeliness of eternal justice that does that, and a handful of flowers won't soak up a river of blood. Is the idea so slight you warred for that those who earned but escaped the gallows may take courage to expect a monument? If it is, then how sharp the sting of the loyal death; how barren the victory of the loyal grave.

Ah, no! as long as one monument remains, one soldier's simple slab tells the deathless story of your dead; as long as a musket or a sword of '61 shall hang from the cottage wall in the spot where the brightest light is used to shine, so long this rugged New England soil will have a breed worthy of their bull-dog pedigree, worthy of those stern men who "with empires in their brains were the embattled farmers' line at Concord Bridge." Then, and not till then, when all these insignia of quenchless honor, these tenacious, inspiring memories have passed away, will the soldier, in any regrettable sense, be "played out."

While I do not admire that thoughtless civilian who is too ready to whistle the soldier and his recent services contemptuously down the wind, let me remark that I have just as little sympathy with that foolish and shallow-minded soldier who is always ready to carp at his civilian neighbor, if perchance he may not have rendered the extremity of sacrifice by putting himself in the front of the fight. There were home voices in old Vermont that "rammed our cannon down, edged our swords and sent our stormers shouting on their desperate way." There were bodies in the rear whose souls were always with you at the front. Every man who used brain and heart and voice and purse unselfishly in organizing victory behind you; every maiden or wife, who ruled down her heart, and let her lover go; every mother who kissed her boys with lips that quivered, and whose prayers, in simple words and few, were offered nightly for your success; these and such as these, were to you humane powers, helping in all ways, moral and material, to gird up your sturdy loins for stout battle. Age, or the accident of temperament, or health, may have made their physical nerve smaller and more flaccid than your own; but their moral nerve may have been of the finest and toughest fibre. And of those who seemingly did little, let us believe that their hearts were warm if their hands were weak, for God knows if none of us ever had a noble aspiration than our best deed, we should all stand in deep need of divine mercy. An author is better than his book, an artist finer than his picture, and a man noble in thought and ambition than in deed.

There has been much ineffable nonsense written about the war and its heroes. In books war is most dramatic and poetic reading; in life it is cruelty. The harvest blackens beneath the sirocco breath of war, the sweet, fair flowers cower and wither at its approach, and die "in aromatic pain" under the spurning hoof of the war horse. The springing grass fades under the ceaseless roll of the artillery wheels, or grows rosy red with the blood of the brave. Leonidas, dark with the dust and blood of the conflict was real war, and yet fair ladies who have read his story with glowing cheeks would have thought him no lovely sight in his hour of travail. The hero of a Sunday School book is sometimes a muff or a milksop, sometimes a fair ideal; but the hero of a battle field, grimed with powder, aye, sometimes black with guilt, is life, half humanities, half brutalities. Shakespeare makes Norfolk in the play say,

"As gentle and as jocund, as to jest,
Go I to fight."


There are natures I suppose, occasionally who really feel the joy of the conflict, and go as jocund to a fray as to a feast; but it is honorable to human nature to know that such are not very common, and when found, are seldom admirable as men or able as soldiers. Nobody sane and fairly intelligent, ever went out to try conclusions with death in this dancing humor, and the heroism of our boys had little of pride and pomp, of crashing music and royal banner, and "Vive l'Empereur" boisterousness about it. It was, like themselves, homely and self-contained; they stood up firmly, fought stubbornly; when they dropped, they had grim humor and queer wit quite as often on their lips as groans or cries or prayers. There was gold and there was dross in them. It is not pleasant to think that a man with heroism enough to rally a losing fight by personal exposure should not be noble all the way through; but human nature is often like a pocket mine out of which may come great nuggets, but no continuous yield. So the man who astonishes you by taking his life in his hands and heroically exposing it, may often disappoint you by sordidness when you expect continuous and consistent sacrifice. There was none of the romance of historical heroism about our boys; in camp there was something of the meanness, something of the hypocrisy, something of the cowardice and the boasting that we find among mankind out of camps; but this was exceptional where suffering and privation and peril were daily probing every man to the very marrow-bones of his manhood, separated from all the accidents of wealth, or education, or manner, or personal appearance.

As in all other spheres, the duty of a soldier is best done by those who approach it, not through bursts of emotional feeling, but through the stern resolve and rock-fast daily determination that knows that noble things are difficult; that the cypress and the myrtle are thicker than roses on the road to right; that duty means difficulty and sacrifice always and danger not unfrequently. But to wince under pain is not to cry out or complain; to grow pale at peril is not to fly; and believe me, the soldiers who did their devoir most nobly in the awful solemnities of a great battle were not those who brawled and boasted either before or after the conflict, but those who with a humane hate of bloodshed turned, it may be, pale faces but stout hearts to the enemy, and fixed their unyielding feet firmly in the earth as a badger's claws, and made a badger's bitter fight simply because it was the hard but single road to their full duty. Homely heroes they were, but as genuine specimens as ever fought at the front and fell where they fought.

In is only repeating the world's habit to scatter flowers on the graves of many, whose heads were never crowned with laurels, who in life had both the fate and the courage to be misunderstood.

He who fell in defeat at Fredericksburg, was he less a success than he who fell in victory at Gettysburg? Had not both lives rounded out an equal orb of honor? Ah! success is to see your duty clearly and to do it, whether you rise a living hero from its performance or drop into a grave to sleep among the unnamed demigods of the race, until you stand among those shining ones whose equality of heroism is not the issue of its performance but the integrity of its spirit.

Finally, these men were usually self forgetful at the last bitter extremity, even when their own battle wraith was shrieking, doing offices of unselfishness for suffering comrades.

"The bravest are the tenderest,
The loving are the daring."


Oh! the bitter thought is, the ample vitality, the contagious fire, the verve, the moral force that lies buried in their graves; we sadly speculate how many enterprises of great pith and moment, how much splendid and useful ambition for adventure, how much integrity, how much forceful energy, is beneath the sanctified sods of Spotsylvania, along the slopes of Gettysburg, within the dreadful circle of Petersburg.

This, oh, this is the memory to keep of them; not of their little fleshly weakness you may wot of that lies buried with their heroic dust, but the inspiring recollection of their immortal spirit.

The poet's noble lines rise instinctively to our lips--

"A single drop of manly blood the surging sea outweighs;
The world uncertain comes and goes, but manhood rooted stays."