Speech of Gen. Garfield at the Andersonville Reunion at Toledo Ohio, October 3, 1879.
My comrades: ladies and gentlemen: I have addressed a great many audiences, but I never before stood in the presence of one that I felt so wholly unworthy to speak to. A man who came through the war without being shot or made a prisoner, is almost out of place in such an assemblage as this.
While I have listened to you this evening I have remembered the words of a distinguished English gentleman, who once said that “he was willing to die for his country, but he would not do a mean act to save both his king and his country.”
Now, to say that a man is willing to die for his country, is a good deal; but these men who sit before
us have said a great deal more than that.
I would like to know where the man is that would calmly step out on the platform and say, “I am ready to starve to death for my country!”
That is an enormous thing to say; but there is a harder thing than that.
Find a man, if you can, who will walk out before this audience and say, “I am willing to become an idiot for my country!”
How many men could you find who would volunteer to become idiots for life for their country?
Now, let me make this statement to you, fellow-citizens: One hundred and eighty-eight thousand such men as this were captured by the rebels who were fighting our Government.
One hundred and eighty-eight thousand!
How many is that?
They tell me there are four thousand five hundred men and women in this building to-night.
Multiply this mighty audience by forty and you will have about one hundred and eighty-eight thousand. Forty times this great audience were prisoners of war to the enemies of our country.
And to every man of that enormous company there stood open night and day the offer-“If you will join the Rebel
army, and lift up your hand against your flag, you are free!”
A voice-“That's so!”
-“ ‘And you shall have food.
and you shall have clothing.
and you shall see wife, and mother, and child.’
A voice-“We didn't do it, though.”
-“And do you know that out of that one hundred and eighty-eight thousand there were less than three thousand who accepted the offer?
And of those three thousand, perhaps nine-tenths of them did it with the mental reservation that they would desert at the earliest hour — the first moment there was an opportunity.”
A voice-“That's so.”
-“But one hundred and eighty-five thousand out of the one hundred and eighty-eight thousand said, ‘No!
not to see wife again; not to see child again; not to avoid starvation; not to avoid idiocy; not to avoid the most loathsome of loathsome deaths, will I lift this hand of mine against my country, forever!’
Now, we praise the ladies for their patriotism; we praise our good citizens at home for their patriotism; we praise the gallant soldiers who fought and fell.
But what were all these things compared with that yonder?
I bow in reverence.
I would stand with unsandaled feet in the presence of such heroism and such suffering; and I would say to you, fellow-citizens, such an assemblage as
this has never yet before met on this great earth!”
“Who have reunions?
I will not trench upon forbidden ground, but let me say this: Nothing on the earth and under the sky can call men together for reunions except ideas that have immortal truth and immortal life in them.
The animals fight.
Lions and tigers fight as ferociously as did you. Wild beasts tear to the death, but they never have reunions.
Why? Because wild beast's do not fight for ideas.
They merely fight for blood.
All these men and all their comrades went out inspired by two immortal ideas: first, that liberty shall be universal in America
; and second, that this old flag is the flag of a Nation, and not of a State--that the Nation is supreme over all people and all corporations.
Call it a State; call it a section; call it a South; call it a North; call it anything you wish, and yet, armed with the nationality that God gave us, this is a Nation against all Statesovereignty and secession whatever!
It is the immortality of that truth that makes these reunions, and that makes this one.
You believed it on the battle-field, you believed it in the hell of Andersonville
, and you believe it to-day, thank God!
and you will believe it to the last gasp.”
Voices-“Yes, we will!”
-“Well, now, fellow-citizens and fellow-soldiers-but I am not worthy to be your fellow in this work — I thank you for having asked me to speak to you.”
Cries of-“Go on!
“Talk to us some more!” --etc.
“I want to say simply that I have had one opportunity only to do you any service.
I did hear a man who stood by my side in the halls of legislation — the man that offered on the floor of Congress the resolution that any man who commanded colored troops should be treated as a pirate, and not as a soldier — I heard that man calmly say, with his head up in the light, in the presence of this American people, that the Union
soldiers were as well treated and as kindly treated in all the Southern
prisons as were the rebel soldiers in all the Northern
“He was a liar!”
[Groans, hisses, and a storm of indignation.] Gen. Garfield
-“I heard him declare that no kinder men ever lived than Gen. Winder
and his Commander-in-chief
, Jeff Davis
And I took it upon myself to overwhelm him with the proof that the tortures you suffered, the wrongs done to you, were suffered
and done with the knowledge of the Confederate
authorities, from Jeff Davis
down — that it was a part of their policy to make you idiots and skeletons, and to exchange your broken and shattered bodies and dethroned minds for strong.
robust, well-fed rebel prisoners.
That policy, I affirm, has never had its parallel for atrocity in the civilized world.”
A voice-“That's so!”
-“It was never heard of in any land since the dark ages closed upon the earth.
While history lives, men have memories.
We can forgive and forget all other things before we can forgive and forget this.”
“Finally, and in conclusion, I am willing, and I think that I speak for thousands of others — I am willing to see all the bitterness of the late war buried in the grave of our dead.
I would be willing that we should imitate the condescending, loving kindness of Him who planted the green grass on the battle-fields and let the fresh flowers bloom on all the graves alike.
I would clasp hands with those who fought against us, make them my brethren and forgive all the past, only on one supreme condition: that it be admitted in practice, acknowledged in theory, that the cause for
which we fought and you suffered, was and is and forever more will be right, eternally right.
That the cause for which they fought, was and forever will be the cause of treason and wrong.
Until that is acknowledged, my hand shall never grasp any rebel's hand across any chasm, however small.”