We Must Not Give Way To This

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Melvin Memorial by Daniel Chester French

It’s always nice to have a decent writing session given how rare they are for me.  I am close to finishing up a magazine article that explores how veterans from Massachusetts framed the war in what I would like to think were fairly local places.  For example, I am looking at private reminiscences, unit histories, some G.A.R. events, and monument dedications as opposed to more high profile events such as reunions between Confederate and Union veterans and other public events involving political leaders and other national figures.  It seems to me that when you focus on the former there are far fewer expressions of reunion and reconciliation.  In fact, you will find some powerful examples of individuals who explicitly see themselves as standing up against the broader trend of reconciliation that had taken hold by the beginning of the twentieth century.  This is a narrative that has all but been lost in a collective memory that prefers stories of former enemies embracing one another at Appomattox and beyond.  I haven’t decided where I am going to send it, but I hope you have a chance to read it at some point soon.

One such example can be seen during the dedication ceremonies of a memorial to Asa, Samuel, and John Melvin of Concord.  All three served in the First Massachusetts Heavy Artillery.  As the one surviving brother, James commissioned Daniel Chester French to sculpt a fitting memorial to his fallen brothers.  The ceremony, which took place on June 16, 1916 included a number of addresses, but this one in particular is quite striking. The speaker is Frank E. Farnham, who at one time served as the president of the First Massachusetts Heavy Artillery Association:

Mr. Toastmaster: I address you and our generous host and all these dear old comrades, and say that I am glad to add a word to a spirit which is getting scarce through the country, but which prevails here to-day, the old spirit of ’61. In doing so, without any malice and without sounding any discordant note, I cannot fall in with the prevailing sentiment over the country, it seems to me, of the press, of the pulpit, the lecture room, the politician, the statesman, and even of some organizations, to obliterate all the difference between the right and the wrong of that conflict, and to assert that there were as much virtue and principle in that war on the other side as upon the side in which the brothers of our host to-day died. I cannot subscribe to that opinion. Apparently their minds have not changed. We must make all the concessions, and it will end, unless checked, — and I hope history will check it, — in putting their cause on a higher plane than ours. I never can subscribe to that, for theirs was the cause of slavery and nothing else.

I know it has become the fashion now to say that that was not the issue, although Alexander Stephens, perhaps the noblest rebel of them all, said it was, that slavery was the corner-stone of the Confederacy. I know it is the fashion now to say secession was the real issue. There have been plenty of wind and water wasted on that, have been in the past, and will be in the future; but there would never have been a drop of blood shed in settling that. And by the way, it is a question that never will be settled, because our forefathers attempted the mathematical impossibility of making a part equal the whole, of giving to the states the same rights as those of the whole nation in some matters, and that will never settle the question of right to secede. The Supreme Court has vacillated all round about it, and it is not settled yet. We are a failure, if that is all we tried for.

I, for one, think that this deluge of perverted sentiment, for so it looks to me, which crops out everywhere, can at least be delayed until we have followed these three departed comrades of ours. We must not give way to this. We cannot do it without stultifying ourselves and without decreasing the honor and insulting the memory of these comrades whom we honor to-day, and of all the others, for ours was the cause of liberty, and liberty not alone, as has been said, to the black man in this country, but to all men, to all races, for all time, and the proof of it would have been, Comrades, if it had gone the other way. Where, then, would Liberty have found a resting place on this footstool for her feet? The progress of the world would have been set back for centuries. Let us live and die in the delusion, if it be one, that there never was a cause more justifiable than the one that called us to arms.

19 comments… add one

  • Larry Cebula Sep 8, 2011

    I have noticed from time to time Civil War memorials in the north that were very explicitly devoted to Union veterans and Union veterans only: https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-aO4CMgu3bw8/SQe3AZbwwGI/AAAAAAAAIHw/HT5g3t66ZTA/s512/IMG_4202.JPG I look forward to reading your article.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 8, 2011

      Thanks for the image, Larry. Nice to hear from you.

  • Bruce Clary Sep 8, 2011

    Mr. Farnham was a courageous and articulate voice. Thank you for sharing it! The excerpt has already has a place among my Civil War memory Evernotes.

    D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” had been released a little more than a year before this speech. I wonder if Mr. Farnham saw it. I note that he makes no mention of the motion picture industry in his list of forces at work trying to “obliterate” the Emancipation Cause. Even if he hadn’t seen it, does it seem likely that the intense public interest in how the war was remembered to which he refers was in large part stirred up the by hub-bub in created by the film?

    • Kevin Levin Sep 8, 2011

      Hi Bruce,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. You make an excellent point. Keep in mind who is in the White House in 1916 as well. In 1914 Wilson took part in the dedication of a Confederate monument at Arlington. While the public statements reflected a reconciliationist push if you dig deeper you can find an undercurrent of objections from various quarters.

      p.s. I wonder how many people Farnham made uncomfortable owing to his choice of theme.

    • Andy Hall Sep 8, 2011

      Probably no way to know if Mr. Farnham saw it himself, but Birth of a Nation figured very prominently in Confederate veterans’ events, being widely advertised and discussed the UCV monthly, Confederate Veteran, and served as an impetus for articles on the Reconstruction-era Klan itself. Special showings of the film were arranged for Confederate reunions at Birmingham, Alabama:

      Every visitor to Birmingham during the Reunion will have an opportunity to see the wonderful picture drama, “The Birth of a Nation,” which will be shown there all during Reunion week. None should fail to see it for its great historical value. In its many scenes of beauty and pathos we live again the days of the South’s glory and humiliation and final resurrection through the strength of a manhood which would not submit to tyranny.

      While Farnham may not have seen the film himself — it was banned in some Northern states — it’s hard to imagine he was unaware either of its content or how it was received by Confederate veterans groups.

  • Ray O'Hara Sep 8, 2011

    I like that speech, call a spade a spade.
    Hollywood, that supposed bastion of Liberalism has done more to enhance the ideal of the Noble Rebel fighting an oppressive government than any other institution.
    movies like ride with the Devil. The Outlaw Josie Wales, and many others push that theme.
    Republican politicians {oh the irony} are also contributing with their constant call for States Rights, except of course when its for social issues like womens and gat rights, then its lets get the Feds to ban/stop/suppress what those Liberal Blue States are trying to do.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 8, 2011

      I would suggest that Ride With the Devil’s narrative is a bit more complex than what you portray.

      • London John Sep 9, 2011

        Since Ride With the Devil has come up, may I ask : that film shows a handful of black members of Cantrell’s (Quantrill’s?) Raiders. Is there any evidence for this?

        • Kate Halleron Sep 9, 2011

          AFAIK, Quantrill had one black scout, a man named John Noland. There’s supposedly a Quantrill Society (http://wcqsociety.com/), but my attempts to get information through email has totally failed (one of my relatives is supposedly the man who actually shot and killed Wm. Quantrill, but I’ve been unable to obtain much information on this).

          • Andy Hall Sep 9, 2011

            Noland’s name turns up frequently in discussions of “black Confederates.” As with so many claims, though, it’s difficult to know how much is based on contemporary documentation, how much is oral tradition, and how much is speculation. Noland did apparently attend reunions of the group, but most detailed, published descriptions of him are very recent, in the last twenty years or so, including fictionalized accounts.

            One early mention of him is in William Elsey Connelley’s Quantrill and the Border Wars, which is a bit ambiguous about Noland’s role:

            That [Quantrill] was thoroughly informed concerning Lawrence and the country around it for some months before the raid there is no doubt. His men, in conversation with me, have implicated one of the prominent men of Kansas in Quantrill’s designs on Lawrence, saying they had seen letters in the hands of Quantrill from him under a name agreed on by them. John Noland, a negro [sic.], now living in Kansas City, had been sent to Lawrence as a spy by Quantrill, but he insists that Quantrill had gone on the raid before he returned.

            To this passage is appended the following note:

            The author has seen Noland, but he would not talk. He seems afraid he might yet have trouble if he should admit that he saw Quantrill after he returned from Lawrence and before the raid. That Quantrill had accurate information of the situation at Lawrence there is no doubt.

            That’s the only mention of Noland in the work. Noland certainly existed, but the current depiction of the man is at least as much informed now by pop culture as by contemporary evidence from his lifetime.

            Noland’s death notice, in the June 24, 1908 Kansas City Star, is a typical description of the time, for African American men who are now retroactively designated “soldiers”:

            HE WAS QUANTRELL’S [sic.] SERVANT.
            The Death of John Noland, a Negro, Who was Devoted to the Guerilla Chief.

            John Noland, the only negro [sic.] member of Quantrell’s band of guerillas [sic.], died last night at the county farm. He was taken there two weeks ago. Noland was devoted to Quantrell and followed the fortunes of the famous guerilla chief as a personal servant.

            Several years ago an organization of the survivors of Quatrell’s band was effected and an annual reunion is held each summer in or near Independence. John Noland was a unique and conspicuous figure in these gatherings.

            I don’t know what the description of Noland as a “scout,” which seems to be a recent designation, is based on other than his assignment to infiltrate Lawrence and report back to Quantrill before the latter’s infamous raid. (Connelley, writing soon after Noland’s death, simply calls him a “spy.”) While the information Noland gathered may have been of great value to Quantrill (or not, if the information never reached him), it’s not really the same thing as being designated a military scout, much less a conventional soldier.

            • Kevin Levin Sep 9, 2011

              Thanks for helping me out with this, Andy. I was eventually planning on addressing this but as usual you nailed it.

              • Andy Hall Sep 9, 2011

                Consider it payback for all the times I’ve worked through a new, hot-topic blog post in my head, then sat down to write, only to discover that you’d just said exactly what I was about to.

            • BorderRuffian Sep 9, 2011

              None of Quantrill’s band were conventional soldiers.

              • Ray O'Hara Sep 9, 2011

                You don’t say. before the war Quantrill was a Jayhawker, an anti-slavery terrorist, after sumter he became a pro-slavery terrorist.
                he just liked killing

              • Andy Hall Sep 10, 2011

                Of course they weren’t. I was imprecise in my wording. I should have been more explicit that Noland, by both the nature of his individual activities and the unit he was with, is a very problematic example to be used to make the case of African American soldiers in the larger Confederate military as a whole. And the one action he’s explicitly credited with — collecting information to enable Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence — is not one that really covers anyone associated with Quantrill in glory and Southron Honor.

  • London John Sep 9, 2011

    I read in some unreliable source or other that Union and Confederate veterans came to blows at Gettysburg in 1913. Does anyone know if that’s true? You have to admire the spirit of those old guys if is. Stuff reconciliation!

  • Mary Ellen Sep 9, 2011

    I really liked this post, so much so that I searched for more information on the dedication ceremony. At a website covering different Daniel Chester French installations, the text says this dedication ceremony was on June 16, 1909. Another website states the same year: http://www.concordma.com/magazine/spring05/melvinmemorial.html. If 1909 is the right year, then the otherwise very interesting and thoughtful comments about Birth of a Nation wouldn’t be applicable to this particular speech, though the novel that insprired it, “The Clansman,” was published in 1905. That said, many thanks to Andy for linking to the notice for showings of the film at the Birmingham Confederate Reunion. I shouldn’t be surprised, given how wildly popular it was, but I hadn’t thought about the idea that showings would have been promoted at Confederate Veterans’ reunions.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 9, 2011

      Thanks for the correction. I don’t know where I came up with 1916 when I have the document in front of me. :-)

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