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Major-General Stephen D. Ramseur: his life and character. an Address before the Ladies' Memorial Association of Raleigh, North Carolina, May 10th, 1891.

by Hon. William R. Cox.
Mr. President, Ladies and gentlemen:

When Xerxes looked upon the countless hosts of Persia, he is said to have wept when he reflected that within one hundred years from that time not one of those then in his presence would be living. It is with similar emotions every survivor of the war between the States must be moved, when called upon to pass in review and comment upon the heroic deeds and still more heroic sufferings, of those who participated in that fierce and unrelenting conflict.

It is now over a quarter of a century since the last hostile gun of the war was fired; the laws are everywhere respected and obeyed; and every citizen, irrespective of section or service, recognizes it as its first duty to march to the defence of his government, whenever menaced by foes either from within or without. [218]

To such as may question the policy or propriety of these memorial reunions, and inquire why these gatherings of the people, which may keep alive the estrangements of the past, we commend the remarks of that eloquent New Yorker, Chauncey M. Depew, who, upon a similar occasion, forcibly and truthfully declared that ‘vapid sentimentalists and timid souls deprecate these annual reunions,. fearing they may arouse old strife and sectional animosities; but a war in which five hundred thousand men were killed and two millions more wounded, in which States were devastated, and money spent equal to twice England's gigantic debt, has a meaning, a lesson, and results which are to the people of this Republic a liberal education, and the highest chairs of this university belong to you.’

The ladies of this association, have a just appreciation of the necessity for preserving the truths of history for the future historian, who, with a juster prospective which distance may give, shall write a history of our common country. They have wisely decided that at each annual reunion, an active participant of the war shall be called upon to portray the life and character of some distinguished comrade, who in the late war yielded up his life in obedience to the laws of his State, and for a cause his conscience told him was right. The necessity for preserving the data thus collected, becomes more important from the fact that in every war, whatever may be its original merits, writers will always be found to misrepresent and belittle the vanquished; while with fulsome adulation they sing paeans to and crown with laurels the brow of the victor. Even distinguished participants in such strifes are not slow to yield to importunity, autobigraphic memoirs of colossal achievements scarcely recognizable by their friends, the effects of which are misleading. In the late war, and by the chroniclers of that war, we were denounced as rebels and traitors, as if the promoters of such epithets were ignorant of the fact that in our Revolutionary war Hancock, Adams and their compeers were denounced as rebels and traitors, while Washington and Franklin threw up their commissions to join this despised class. Indeed, the very chimney-sweeps in the streets of London are said to have spoken of our rebellious ancestors, as their subjects in America. Therefore, with a conscience void of offence, while we would not and should not forget our hallowed memories of comradeship and of common suffering, we cherish them alone as memories, and seek no willows upon which to hang our harps, no rivers by which to sit down and weep, while we sing the songs of the long ago.

Wars have existed from the beginning of time; and, despite the [219] spread of Christianity and the growth of enlightenment, will probably continue until time shall be no more. In the war between the States there was but little of malice, of vengefulness and vindictiveness. As to its origin there is little probability of our agreeing, so long as it is insisted that the North fought chiefly for the eradication of slavery and the South for its perpetuation. At the formation of this government


Slavery

existed in every State. New England, which ultimately became the principal theatre of free-soilism and abolition agitation, was at one time more interested in the slave trade than any other section of our country. It is not mere speculation that prompts us' to declare that had her soil and climate been adapted to the cultivation and production of the chief staples of the South, she would have recognized it as a great outrage to have been compelled to relinquish so profitable an institution without her free consent. By prospective enactments our Northern friends gradually abolished slavery, and large numbers of their slaves were sent South and sold. The money arising from such sales was carried North, invested in manufactories, ships and brick walls. Their section prospered, and we rejoice in their prosperity as a part of our common country. In an address delivered by Mr. Evarts before the New England Society he said that, the Puritan believed in every man attending to his own business, but he believed every man's business was his own. There is a great deal of truth portrayed in this sportive suggestion. Having profitably escaped from this ‘great iniquity,’ their restless intellectuality early prompted them to express their abhorrence of slavery. The great body of the American people really cared very little about this institution, or, at least, if they deprecated its existence they recognized it as a matter of local legislation, for which they were not directly responsible; therefore, the question of its abolition for over half a century made but little headway, and only became a potential element of discord, when it was discovered that its agitation would have the effect of securing the ascendency of one of the great political parties of the country. As slavery only obtained in the minor section of the Union its agitation, on sectional grounds, ultimately had the effect of promoting a crisis, which enabled ambitious and aspiring politicians to inflame the passions of their followers, until they were prepared to see their country plunged into a war, which the border States, led by Virginia, did all that lay in their power to avert. Recognizing the weakness [220] of this institution, as well as the fact that they were numerically greatly in the minority, the slave-holding States simply asked to be ‘let alone.’ But as it was threatened that they should be surrounded by a cordon of free States until slavery had ‘stung itself to death,’ and that this government could not exist ‘half free and half slave,’ the purposes of the dominant section became so manifest, the Southern States felt that, in justice to themselves, they could no longer remain quiet. The causes for this agitation had their existence in the colonial era, when slavery was universal; and the settlement was postponed on account of the difficulty of arriving at a satisfactory solution. Two irreconcilable theories of


Popular Government

were at the outset proposed. The one advocated by Mr. Hamilton contemplated a strong centralized authority, fashioned after that of a limited monarchy; the other, which was proposed by Mr. Jefferson, recognized the people as the source of all power, and insisted that they should be left as free and untrammeled from governmental control as its exigencies might demand. The one contemplated a magnificent central government, with that ostentation and parade that keeps the masses in awe; the other a simple, economic, democratic government, regulated and governed by the people. The followers of these statesmen were known by the party names of Federalists and Republicans. The elder Adams was the first President of the Federalists, and during his administration and with his approval the Alien and Sedition laws were passed, the effect of which was to abridge, if not imperil, the freedom of the press in its criticism upon public officials. This measure, with others of an unpopular nature, so outraged public sentiment as to elect Mr. Jefferson, the apostle of Democracy, to succeed Mr. Adams by an overwhelming majority, and the views he entertained and ably advocated laid the foundation for that great popular approval which maintained his party in power, with but brief intervals of interruption, from that time up to the beginning of the war. The student of history will discover that the institution of slavery played a minor part in the political agitations of this country, so long as our politics related alone to questions of mere national policy. The first serious difficulty of more than local significance which threatened our institutions, arose from the imposition of an excise tax on distilled spirits, and was known as the ‘Whiskey Rebellion.’ The second, from the hostility of the New England States to [221] the War of 1812, which seriously interfered with their commercial traffic. So great was this discontent that a convention was called to meet at Hartford, Conn., which had in view the secession of the States there represented from the Union. In 1820 was passed what is known as the Missouri Compromise, which in effect was simply a truce between two antagonistic revenue systems, while the nullification movement was directed against the tariff system. So that up to this time the chief complaint against any legislation of our country, arose from dissatisfaction to its economic system.

Prior to the war the North had devoted herself chiefly to trade and manufacturing, to mechanic arts and industrial pursuits, while the South, owing to its easier lines of life, the fertility of its soil, with its genial climate and ‘peculiar institution,’ had turned her attention to the science of politics and a consideration of governmental affairs, the consequence of which was that the controlling voice and influence in the councils of the nation rested with her. As the North, by its industry and enterprise, grew in wealth and the development of a more liberal education, she became impatient and restless under this control, and resolved at all hazards to escape from it. Free-soilism and abolitionism, which up to this time had been the obedient hand-maid to any party that would lend its co-operation, were believed to be the potential elements by which to arouse the apprehensions of the South as to the security of slavery, and thus tend to the arrangement of parties on sectional lines. From this time forward the leading statesmen of the South were denounced and vilified as aristocrats and slave-drivers; and on the recurrence of every national contest, this new party resorted to every device to create animosities between the sections. At this time the Democratic party was so strong it became factional, and was finally disrupted through the political jealousy of its leaders. In consequence of its division, in the ensuing election four presidential candidates were offered for the suffrage of the people, and Mr. Lincoln was elected. As it was the first time in the history of our country that a president had been elected by a purely sectional vote, and a large portion of his followers were believed to be intent on either the abolition of slavery or a disruption of the Union, the gravest apprehensions were felt. The situation at that time is so lucidly and graphically described in the memoir of Richard H. Dana, recently prepared by Hon. Charles Francis Adams, Minister to England under Mr. Lincoln's administration, I cannot better present the matter than by using his language: ‘Looking back on it now, after the lapse of nearly thirty years, it is curious [222] to see how earnestly all played their parts and how essential to the great catastrophe all those parts were. The extremists on both sides were urging the country to immediate blows, regardless of consequences, and by so doing they were educating it to the necessary point when the hour should come. Had the Southern extremists prevailed, and the Southern blood been fired by an assault on Fort Sumter in January, the slave States would probably have been swept into a general insurrection while Buchanan was still President, with Floyd as his Secretary of War. Had this occurred, it is difficult now to see how the government could have been preserved. The Southern extremists, therefore, when they urged immediate action were, from the Southern point of view, clearly right. Every day then lost was a mistake, and, as the result proved, an irreparable mistake. On the other hand, had the extremists of the North prevailed in their demand for immediate action they would in the most effective way possible have played the game of their opponents. Fortunately they did not prevail, but their exhortations to action and denunciations of every attempt at a compromise educated the country to a fighting point.’

That large and respectable body of patriotic citizens who were wedded to the Union and dreaded war, and above all things a civil war, were in favor of any compromise which might result in preserving harmony between the sections. It is difficult at this time to appreciate the excitement of those stormy days. Moderation and silence was but little understood or appreciated. The firing upon Sumter fired the hearts of both sections, and followed, as it was, by a call of Mr. Lincoln for troops to make war upon the States, promptly welded the States of the South into one common bond. They felt that if they must fight they preferred to fight strangers rather than their neighbors who were contending for the maintenance of their own rights, and that to yield to the party in power at such a juncture was but to invite further aggressions on their rights, for that this would involve their subjugation and the overthrow of their most cherished institutions. That no permanent compromise was practicable; that war at some time was inevitable must now be clear to all; that the war has taken place; that the abolition of slavery has occurred; that the South has been thrown open to settlement, to free and unembarrassed communication to the outside world; that the greatness of our section and the capability of our people to maintain free institutions has been manifested, and that the war has proved a great educator to all, is now conceded. In turning over the government to our Northern friends, the much misrepresented people of the South can [223] point with pride to the fact that the declaration that ‘these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free,’ was penned by a Southern statesman; that this declaration was made good under the leadership of a Southern general; that ‘the Father of the Constitution’ was a Southern man; that through a president, a Southern man, our boundaries were extended from ocean to ocean and from the gulf to the lakes; and that prior to the late war all assaults against the integrity of the Union were compromised and accommodated mainly through Southern statesmanship. When, after fifty years of its existence, the government was turned over to the statesmen of the North, in the language of one of her gifted and eloquent sons, the South surrendered it to her successors ‘matchless in her power, incalculable in her strength, the pride and the glory of the world.’

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