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.