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It has become widely accepted that reconciliation quickly spread across the North and South after Appomattox, and that white Americans from both regions agreed to play down the importance of slavery and emancipation in an effort to heal wartime scars. Speeches delivered by Union veterans at Gettysburg in the late 1880s afford a perfect opportunity to test this idea about postwar attitudes.

A number of loyal states placed regimental monuments on the field between 1887 and 1889, most of which involved ceremonies with one or more lectures. Speakers alluded to reconciliation with their former Rebel opponents in many instances, but they also celebrated the Union and its citizen soldiers, deprecated the Confederacy and oligarchic slaveholders, and spoke of emancipation as a salutary outcome of the conflict.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain participated in the dedication of the 20th Maine Infantry’s modest marker on Little Round Top in October 1889. “The organization of the army of the Union was a counterpart of that of the Union itself,” he told the crowd, with an eye toward the importance of the American democratic example. “….Our thoughts were not then of States as States, but of the States united—of that union and oneness in which the People of the United States lived and moved and had their being. Conceding Rebel courage, Chamberlain left no doubt that advocates of Union had been right. “[T]he cause for which we fought was higher; our thought was wider,” he affirmed before taking aim at the slaveholders’ memory of the conflict: “The ‘lost cause’ is not lost liberty and rights of self-government. What is lost is slavery of men and supremacy of States.”

Citizen soldiers who had left comfortable civilian pursuits to take up arms received extensive praise. In June 1889, Michigan Governor Austin Blair spoke at the National Cemetery with both Union soldiers and their cause in mind. “Our men engaged here were not mere soldiers,” he commented, “they were also fellow-citizens engaged in a mighty struggle, and with a definite purpose in view. They were volunteers who had enlisted in this great war with an intelligent sense of patriotic duty….”

Theodore A. Dodge made a similar point in remarks at the 119th New York Infantry’s monument along the line of the XI Corps near the Carlisle Road. “From and after the first three days of July, 1863,” said Dodge, “the tide of secession receded, until, after another two years, a million and a half soldiers melted back into the population from whence they came, and the Union was…pronounced one and indivisible.”

Many speakers gloried in the success of a democratic republic against what they characterized as an oligarchic enemy. A former officer of the 73rd Ohio Infantry, speaking in September 1887, deplored the Confederacy, with its “ambitious dream of the Southern Empire, of aristocratic government, founded upon caste and slavery as ‘the chief cornerstone,’ and coupled with this chivalrous ambition for the establishment of aristocratic government, that one race might be supreme at the cost of the brutal degradation of another….”

Arrayed against that model “was pride in the glory of the Republic and in its free institutions….faith in democratic government…and as the outgrowth of these, there was the living and sublime purpose that freedom, and not slavery, should be the ruling power in the future government of these United States.” This man opposed the idea of erecting Confederate monuments at Gettysburg: “I do not believe there is another nation in the civilized world that would permit a rebel monument to stand upon its soil for a single day, and I can see neither wisdom nor patriotism in building them here.”

Comparable anti-Confederate blasts appeared regularly in the regimental orations. A New Jersey colonel characterized the nascent slaveholding republic as a “military despotism born amid the throes of war, overthrown by the shock of arms, without history save four years of bloody strife, impelled by the twin furies of slavery and treason.” Another speaker termed the Confederate cause one “we can never admire,” while Rev. James H. Botts of the 6th Michigan Cavalry blamed the war on “the growing power of slavery, the anticipated glory of secession and the vauntings of personal ambition.” The Union cause, insisted Botts, justified the soldiers’ “valor and sacrifice…compared with which the ‘lost cause’ will ultimately be lost in contempt in the impartial verdict of future generations.”

A former captain in the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry remembered comrades who thought the Confederacy so evil “[t]hey were willing to wash out the footprints of the rebel foe with their blood, and count it a joy to die.”

Emancipation figured in many of the speeches at Gettysburg. Colonel John Ramsey of the 8th New Jersey Infantry, a unit that fought in the Wheatfield, spoke of “the memory of the brave men who died…for the safety and perpetuity of the Republic; died that four millions of human beings with their unborn generations should be free….” Union victory meant that “the shackles of the slaves should be sold for old iron. That the auction block should be burned. That all men should breathe the fresh air of heaven direct, and not by inhalation from a master.”

Brigadier General William Hobson addressed veterans of the 17th Maine in October 1888. The regiment had lost 38 percent of its men on July 2, 1863, according to Hobson, so that “none but free men should live in a free country, and that they all should have equal rights and power under the laws.”

Taken as a group, the dedicatory speeches at Gettysburg show that most Union veterans extolled the supremacy of their cause. They would welcome ex-Confederates back into the national fold—but not at the cost of forgetting what they had accomplished in saving the Union and killing slavery.


Originally published in the December 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here