Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Confederate Dead Commemorative Oration 1866

One of the most touching ceremonies which has probably ever taken place in this community, was offered by our noble women yesterday to the gallant dead who fell in the defense of the Lost Cause.  Those great men have left us, but their memories will be cherished in the hearts of the South as long as love and affection finds a place in the breasts of the people.  As the mother loves the memory of her child, so will the South cherish the remembrance of her sons who died in the defense of the cause she called them to uphold. There is nothing more touchingly beautiful than to spread flowers over the graves of our loved ones.  The custom is practiced to a great extent in France and Italy, where for years and years the lovely hand of woman weaves floral wreathes for the tombs of the cherished dead.  Those love offerings to the departed are tributes of the noblest minds, and mementoes of the worthiest hearts.  

There was a large number of our worthy women at Elmwood yesterday.  Some to honor the grave of a son, a husband, a father, a brother, a lover--and the stranger was not forgotten.  Mothers and sisters, who live far away, you have the consolation of knowing that your loved one was remembered.  The hand of a sister ornamented his grave with floral offerings, and wept at his fate.  Mothers, your boy is dead, but other mothers have honored his grave and wept the motherly tear over his mound.  While the graves were being decorated a little incident occurred heightened the sadness of the moment.  The young ladies of the State Female Academy, numbering considerably over a hundred, entered, walking two and two, and deposited wreathes of flowers over the head-boards of "our gallant dead."  It was done in silence; but, oh, the action was so tender that it brought the involuntary tear to the eyes.  

The resting place of the Confederate dead is on the eastern slope of the cemetery, and about eight hundred braves lie side by side, "sleeping the sleep that knows no waking."  The spot is regularly laid off.  In the center stands a temporary wooden obelisk, which was tastefully decorated with flowers and evergreens, and on each side were the words --"Our Gallant Dead," skillfully woven in arbor vitae, above which was a beautiful cross of evergreen. Over one of the humble graves were strewn a quantity of lovely white flowers, and a card, which speaks language that only a woman could utter.  It was very tender, and sent a thrill of sadness to many hearts who read it; and it will speak volumes to the mother who knows not where her darling lies.  She will find consolation in the thought that some kind hand has cast flowers over his grave.  The card read:  "I consecrate these flowers to the unknown dead, who fell nobly struggling to be free; while deep in y heart bloom fragrant and imperishable memories of his heroic deeds--Miss Mollie Terry."  

At the conclusion of the tribute offering, the visitors together around a stand placed there for that purpose, and after an appropriate prayer was delivered by the Rev. Dr. Allen, Dr. Ford came forward and delivered the following address.

"Before this gathered throng, which respect for our heroic dead has brought to this sacred spot, I know not what I shall say.  The occasion speaks for itself.  We are amid the sacred mounds where sleep our honored dead, and I would rather listen to the lesson they teach as they speak to us, and to which the world must listen.

In a marble crypt of an obscure chapel near Claremont, England, repose the remains of a venerable man, who for eighteen years held in check the wild passions of France and gave peace to England.  Constantly loving hands weave flower wreaths about his tomb, which syllable these tender words: "Regrets Eternal! Regrets Eternal!"  It is the grave of Louis Phillippe.  In a foreign land, amid crushed hopes and ruined fortunes, the once powerful monarch fell asleep; yet, on his far-off, humble grave affection places its renewed tribute, more touching, more sublime than towering shaft or gorgeous monument.

We have come here today, fair country-women, not to stony crypt nor monarch's tomb, yet with hearts as full and affections as deep as ever mourned for fallen greatness, to wreathe our immortelles on the graves of our dead heroes, and the sweet breath of spring flowers whispers our unspoken sorrow:  "Regrets eternal! Regrets eternal!"  To their memory I dedicate these improvised lines:

  In rank and file, in sad array,
  As thro' their watch, still keeping;
  Or, waiting for the battle-fray,
  The dead are round as sleeping.

  Shoulder to shoulder rests each rank,
  As at their post still standing;
  Subdued, yet steadfast, as they sank
  To sleep at Death's commanding.

  No battle-banner o'er them waves,
  No battle-trump is sounded:
  They've reached the citadel of graves,
  And here their arms are grounded.

  Their hallowed memory ne'er shall die,
  But ever fresh and vernal,
  Shall wake from flowers the soft, sad sigh,
  "Regrets--regrets eternal."

A year has passed since the curtain fell on the dread drama in whose early scenes these dead were actors.  Let us pause a moment, and recur to the opening of that drama.  How fresh are its incidents.  A word reproduces them in all their living, stirring reality.  The country excited!  The call to arms issued!  The young and brave mustering!  We seem them as the day of departure arrives.  Throngs are gathered.  The banner, woven by fair hands, is presented, amid shouts and tears.  Partings.  Farewells.  The mother's fond embrace; the father's tearful "God bless you."  The word to advance is given, and they are gone; gone to the front; gone to the trenches; to the cold and weary watch; to exposure and disease; gone to mingle in the bloody fray, as fearless, as brave, as buoyant hearts as ever bounded forth at duty's call.  Shall they return, and how?  Let the scenes of the last four years answer!

  "The air is full of farewells to the dying,
     And wailings for the dead;
   The heart of Rachel for her children sighing
     Will not be comforted."

Ah! many of them sleep on Belmont's bloody field; around Columbus and Bowling Green, and Chickamauga, and Franklin; as noble, glorious dead as ever died.  And some of them sleep here--General Preston Smith, Colonel Preston, Colonel Kit Williams, Captain Hamilton, Captain Sterling Fowlkes, Major Ross, Captain Eldridge Wright, John Apperson, the two Donaldsons, Willie Flournoy, Hall Flournoy, Bob Cox, Willie Wills, Captain McDonald, Billy Hart, young Stokes, West, Yancey, Rawlings, Harris, Willie Shields, G.W.Dent, Heiskel, chaplain of the 154th, and numerous others we cannot call.

   "Hail! all hail! the patriot's grave--
       Valor's venerable bed:
    Hail! the memory of the brave:
       Hail! the spirits of the dead."
  
   "Time their triumphs shall proclaim,
       And their rich reward be this;
     Immortality of fame--
       Immortality of bliss."

But while we dwell with tender interest on the memory of our own loved dead who rest here, or in their unknown graves at Shiloh or Chickamauga, we will not forget those who lie here with us in our "silent city," far from the home of their childhood.  They came from Texas, from Louisiana, from Arkansas, from Mississippi and Missouri--went forth as ours did, from the towns and cities of their native states, followed by the prayers and blessings of yearning hearts.  They were brought back to our city from Belmont and Shiloh, and died in our midst; in the Overton and the Irving hospitals, and many in your own households, they were watched and tended by the women of Memphis.  Their last farewell whispers were caught by you and transmitted to anxious friends and distant homes.  We closed their eyes in death and followed them to this sad spot.  Away from friends, they were not friendless.  Weeping parents, whose soldier boys sleep here in graves untended by your care, your sons were watched when wounded and dying--are remembered though dead, and on their mounds we place the votive offering of Spring's floral tribute.  Nor will we be censured even by those who opposed us in the conflict, for this token of regard for the fallen.  These men went forth at the call of their states.  They were prompted by a lofty sense of duty.  Their courage and endurance were made glorious by principle.  They believed they were defending their country against unjustifiable invasion, and they acted from this conviction.  And though they had never felt oppression, and though the causes which aroused them to action may not have been sufficient in themselves to have justified the struggle, yet says the great Webster of the revolution of '76:  "Those fathers accomplished the revolution on a strict question of principle.  The Parliament of Great Britain asserted the right to tax the colonies in all cases whatsoever; and it was precisely on this question they made the revolution.  The amount of taxation was trifling, but the claim itself was inconsistent with liberty.  It was against the recital of an act of Parliament, rather than against a preamble.  They fought seven years against a declaration.  They poured out their treasure and their blood like water against an assertion which those less sagacious, and not so well schooled in principles of civil liberty, would have regarded as a bare phraseology or mere parade of words.  On a question of principle, while actual suffering was yet far off, they raised their flag against a power whose morning drub-beat followed the sun, and keeping company with the hours circled the earth with the continuous strains of martial airs of England."

And was that conflict on account of "a bare preamble," "a mere declaration," glorious, and our struggle, for what appeared to us a great principle, criminal?  Tell us, immortal Webster; tell us, ye voices of history, did those who went forth to battle for more than a "preamble," or "a declaration," commit treason, Infamouns, Unpardonable? No! no!! They sleep in no dishonored graves.  They are to us, and ever will be, "the patriot dead."

Standing here today, amid thier quiet resting placed---subdued---sorrowful--feeling "That mystery of woe the tongue can never speak," we solemnly avow that with us, the conflict is ended.  We abide the issue.  Beside our loved dead, in these same solitudes, repose the foemen who met them in the living strife.  These, could they speak, would not be the men to insult the memories of those who so manfully encountered them on the bloody field.  In the words of Scott:

  "The solemn echo seems to cry,
     Here let their discord with them die;
   Speak not for them a separate doom
      Whom fate made brothers in the tomb."

But, if this be denied us, if the discord is not to die, if humiliation and punishment are to pursue us, we ask the poor privilege of cherishing the memory of our dead, and mingling our tears with the flowers we spread over their graves.

On one of Switzerland's loveliest lakes, on an annual festive day, are seen a thousand light boats skimming the waters, and landing at a consecrated spot where stands the chapel of William Tell; the day is spent in festooning with fresh flowers the broken column that perpetuates his memory and records his daring deeds.  So let us come annually here to call up the memories of our brave Confederate dead, and wreathe around their lowly graves flowers that shall syllable:

"Regrets eternal!  regrets eternal!"  The memory of the brave shall never die.

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