The following is the text of a speech given on Confederate Memorial Day, May 1, 2021, in Elmwood Cemetery, Columbia SC.
“I have come to join you in the performance of a sacred task.”
I borrow these words from Jefferson Davis. It was 1885, and he was speaking at the dedication of a monument at the cradle of the Confederate government in Montgomery, Alabama.And now, 130 years later, we meet together this day, in this place in the performance of a sacred task.
Our solemn commission this day is to honor and remember those brave and most extraordinary men who composed what Great Britain Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, declared the finest army ever assembled in world history. We certainly do not disagree with him, and we understand just how important it is that we be here to carry out this important endeavor.
William H. Trescot of South Carolina was a 19th century diplomat and assistant secretary of state in the administration of President James Buchanan. He went on to serve with the CSA, General & Staff. He lived in the years 1822 to 1898 and so was witness to the events leading up to and culminating in the South’s struggle for independence. In 1870, he spoke at a tribute to General Johnston Pettigrew, and his words that day speaks to us even now:
“We who are vanquished in this battle must of necessity leave to a calmer and wiser posterity to judge of the intrinsic worth of that struggle, as it bears upon the principles of Constitutional liberty, and as it must affect the future history of the American people. But there is one duty which we owe alike to the living and the dead, and that is the preservation in perpetual and tender remembrance of the lives of those who died in the hope that we might live. Especially is this our duty…”
This is true for not only those who died but also for those who were willing to die – for all those who served with undaunted courage in the stark and sobering understanding that it might be their last and greatest contribution. And these men did so without hesitation.
What was in the minds of these gallant men as they enlisted to place their very lives in danger. What was before them was completely unknown. They came from all walks of life – from the simplest existences as laborers and farmers with nothing immediately at stake – to the sophisticated, who could have exempted themselves because of their statuses and connections. But they didn’t! They were willing to cast themselves off to an indefinite, hazardous and deadly existence.
Confederate veteran, Robert Stiles gives an answer to this question in 1904 in his famous book, Four Years Under Marse Robert: Here, then, we have the distinctive spirit of the Southern Volunteer. As he hastened to the front in the “…spring of ’61, he felt: ‘With me is Right; before me is duty; behind me is home.’”
With Me Is Right
How could these men NOT know they were right. The principles which stirred them to move to the killing fields of war were taught them by their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, who served in the American Revolution. Their own country’s Founders and founding documents - the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of 1787 - taught them they were right.
Their secession document from Great Britain – the Declaration of Independence - plainly states:
“That when any form of government becomes destructive of these ends (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness), it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.”
James Madison, was the 4th President of the US and one of the most important and prominent Founders of our nation. Called the Father of the Constitution, he was THE key figure and leader in the Constitutional Convention of 1787; the one delegate who wrote more about the proceedings and intentions than any other, and was considered the foremost authority on the Constitution. He had this to say as though he were previewing events less than 80 years in the future:
“If there be a principle which ought NOT to be questioned within the United States, it is that every nation has a right to abolish an old government and establish a new one. The principle is not only recorded in every public archive, written in every American heart, and sealed with the blood of a host of American martyrs, but is the only LAWFUL tenure by which the United States hold THEIR existence as a nation.”
Secession, he says, is the way we achieved our independence. How, then, could it not be legal?
You will notice Mr. Madison called secession and self-determination LAWFUL. The ONLY LAWFUL tenure (tenure meaning contract) – “by which the United States hold THEIR existence as a nation.” And he did not say ITS existence as a nation. This is a direct affirmation of the Founders most cherished and prized posession: “their State’s freedom, sovereignty, and independence – free, sovereign, and independent to determine their own way.
Having these few mentioned doctrines imbedded in their minds since childhood, what other opinion or conclusion could they possibly have had – other than that they were right.
Before Me Is Duty
Ambassador William Trescot continued in his remarks at the Pettigrew service by speaking to the unique character of our people when duty bound:
“It is almost impossible for anyone not familiar with the habits and thoughts of the South to understand how completely the question of duty was settled for Southern men. Shrewd, practical men who had no faith in the result…had their doubts and misgivings, but there was no hesitation as to what they were to do…The fathers and mothers who had reared them; the society whose traditions gave both refinement and assurance…the very land they loved…were all impersonate, living, speaking, commanding in the State in which they were children. Never in the history of the world has there been a nobler response to a more thoroughly recognized duty; nowhere anything more glorious than this outburst of the youth and manhood of the South.”
Again, his own Declaration of Independence proclaimed to him: “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their DUTY, to throw off such a government, and to provide new…”
Indeed, the response of these men to sacred duty make them worthy of more than the salute we give them here. They are truly due the merit of martyrdom when one considers the cause for which they moved to the killing fields at the front. They met the challenge of the invader and did so with an unparalleled response to duty from which they did not flinch for even a moment.
Behind Me Is Home
General Stephen Dill Lee gave beautiful insight into the minds of the men he led in this regard: He wrote after the War:
“It has not seemed the whole truth to me that the Confederate soldier went into battle to vindicate a constitutional argument. He went to war because he loved his people, because his country was invaded; because his heart was throbbing for his hearthstone. Here was the land which gave him birth; here was his childhood’s home; here were the graves of his dead; here was the church spire where he had learned it was not all of life to live nor all of death to die. NO hostile foot should EVER trod this consecrated ground except over his dead body.”
You listen to those words and then understand the martial tenacity of the Confederate soldier. You understand his tenacious dedication to PLACE. He was there for his neighbor, there for his home, there for his family, there for his future; there for OUR time in this place.
Confederate veteran, Bennett H. Young, spoke the following at a Confederate Veterans convention in 1901:
“In ages to come there will be no page in human history with brighter or fairer record than was written by the people of the Confederate States in the four years of their struggle for independence. The courage, patience and gallantry of its men; the devotion, constancy, and sublime sacrifices of its women, contributed to the world’s history a priceless treasure.”
And it is that priceless treasure that is our duty to protect and defend.
A well-known war historian challenges us to the guardianship of that “priceless treasure:”
“…remember that this greatness was won by men with courage, with knowledge of their duty, and with a sense of honor in action…they gave their bodies to the commonwealth and received, each for his own memory, praise that will never die, and with it…a home in the minds of men, where their glory remains fresh to stir to speech or action as the occasion comes by…(and) lives on far away, without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other men’s lives.”
Thucydides was this historian. He wrote of the soldiers of the Peloponnesian War over 1500 years ago, and what he had to say then pertains just as much to our Confederates.
Obviously, our noble Confederate warriors have a home in our minds……..their glory remains fresh with us and stirs us to speech and action………… and their story is certainly woven into the stuff of our lives, evidenced by the fact that we are here this sacred day.
But we are challenged by Thucydides as their heirs and descendants:
“For you, now, it remains to rival what they have done and, knowing the secret of happiness to be
freedom and the secret of freedom to be a brave heart, not idly to stand aside from the enemy’s onset.”
These are thousand-year words that were as pertinent in 1865 as they were over a thousand years earlier, that challenge us to protect the priceless treasure – not only of our soldiers – but also our history, our culture, our Southland. The fight for freedom and liberty never age; never change; never grow dormant.
In closing, if they could speak to us what would these exceptional men say; what would be their message to us considering the lives they lived, the lives they gave, and the sacrifices they made:
I think they would beseech us in words by Archibald McLeash:
We were young. We have died.
We have done what we could but until
It is finished it is not done.
We have given our lives but until it is
Finished no one can know what our lives gave.
Our deaths are not ours; they are
Yours, they will mean what you make them.
Whether for peace, a new hope or nothingd
We cannot say; it is you who must say this.
We leave you our deaths, give them
We were young. We have died.
Mr. Chambers of Columbia, SC, is a Vietnam veteran and author of And Were the Glory of Their Times, about the South Carolinians who gave their lives in defense of their homeland.