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The life and character of William L. Saunders, Ll.D.

An Oration delivered before the Alumni Association of the University of North Carolina, Tuesday May 31, 1892, by Hon. Alfred Moore Waddell.

[The editor in his modest efforts in behalf of historical and kindred investigation, extending from boyhood, for more than a quarter of a century has been favored constantly with the sympathy of noble men and women, with whom he has enjoyed the privilege of correspondence; a majority of whom he never met, and many of whom, alas! ‘have ceased from their labors.’ With Colonel Saunders he had held friendly communication for a number of years, before he had the pleasure of meeting him; an opportunity afforded by a memorable occasion, and a satisfaction never to be forgotten. On the 28th of October, 1887, the day following the laying of the cornerstone of the grand monument to the peerless patriot Lee, a brief note summoned the writer to the Exchange Hotel, Richmond. He was apprised of the physical disability of Colonel Saunders, who, from a rheumatic affection had been unable to walk for many years; [213] being wheeled about in a chair. In activity the gallant veteran must have been of commanding presence, and, erect, his stature more than six feet. He gave no intimation in countenance or voice of affliction, although he had a short time before arisen from a visitation of prostration and agony. Seated, amidst friends, in an easy chair, not another present was more animated. His habitually cheerful temperament was ever inspiring, and his friends, it is said, made his room their ‘headquarters’ when they visited Raleigh. The writer, by request, remained several hours, during which time, Colonel Saunders held a delightful levee, many gentlemen of prominence calling upon him. With friends from his own State the prevailing familiar appellation was ‘Colonel Bill.’

Onward from this meeting the writer felt that he had a warm personal friend in Colonel Saunders, of whose regard he has cherished memorials, and whose death he deplores as a keen loss.

William Lawrence Saunders, son of Rev. Joseph Hubbard and Laura J. (Baker) Saunders, was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, July 30, 1835, and was of Virginian ancestry; his grandfather James Saunders being a grandson of Eben Saunders a native of England, who settled in Lancaster county, Virginia, about 1675.

His father dying whilst he was a lad, his mother removed, with her family to Chapel Hill, that she might educate her three sons at the university there, and he entered that institution in 1850 and graduated in the class of 1854. He subsequently read law and settled in Salisbury, where he for some time practiced his profession. He married in February, 1864, Miss Florida Cotten, of Raleigh, a sister of Mrs. Engelhard, whose husband, Major Joseph A. Engelhard had been his life-long friend, who was afterward his associate in business, and his predecessor in the office of Secretary of State of North Carolina. His wife died about a year after their marriage. At the beginning of the war, 1861-1861, he entered service as a lieutenant in the Rowan Guards. He afterwards joined Reilly's Battery, and later raised a company for the Forty-sixth Regiment of North Carolina infantry, of which he became by regular promotion through all the grades, the colonel in 1864. He was wounded at Fredericksburg, and afterwards at the second Battle of the Wilderness terribly, and it was feared fatally, in the mouth and throat.

As a guest of the late George S. Palmer, of Richmond, in the familiar residence, which stood on the site of the present handsome Commonwealth Club-House, he was tenderly nursed to recovery. [214]

He served as Secretary of the Senate of North Carolina in 1870 and again in 1872-3.

In 1872 he joined Major Engelhard in the editorship of the Wilmington Journal and so continued for four years.

His services to the people of North Carolina during this period were invaluable. In February, 1879, upon the death of Major Engelhard who had been elected Secretary of State in 1876, Colonel Saunders was appointed his successor. He was elected to the office in 1880, re-elected in 1884 and 1888, and was holding it at the time of his death. It is conceded that so great was his popularity, that there was no office within the gift of the people that he might not have secured, had his physical ability admitted of a personal canvass.

His services in behalf of the history of North Carolina were, as stated in the tribute of his friend, providential; his enthusiasm and his popularity ensured the success of the appropriation as that of no one else might have done, and his peculiar fitness as editor of the ‘Colonial Records’ carried the arduous labor to successful completion.

His devotion to his alma mater, the University of North Carolina, was signally attested. The actual governing authority of the board of trustees of this institution is the Executive committee. Of this body he was chosen a member in 1874, secretary and treasurer in 1877, and was an active officer of it until his death.

A tablet to his memory with the following inscription has been placed in the memorial hall of the university by the board of trustees:

William Lawrence Saunders,

Born 1835. Died 1891.

Class of 1854.

Ll.B. 1859. Ll.D. 1889.

Colonel 46th N. C. Troops.

C. S. A.

Wounded at Fredericksburg and the


Chief clerk of the Senate 1870-1874.

Secretary of the State 1879.

Editor of Colonial Records.

Lawyer, Journalist, Historian.] [215]

Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Alumni Association:

An eloquent man, who does not believe in the existence of God or the immortality of the soul, standing by an open grave and pronouncing a eulogy upon him who is to occupy it, presents one of the saddest spectacles this world affords. Such a service finds no support even in philosophy, for if death is the end and its victim has ceased to exist, there is nothing in all the wide universe to which the euology can be applied except a fast fading picture on the walls of memory, and it becomes a mere empty declamation to those who will themselves soon pass into nothingness — a shadow-drama, acted before a shadow-audience, upon which in a little while will fall the curtain of eternal night.

But the tribute which one pays to a departed friend, in the full faith and assurance that he still lives, and will live forever, is a reasonable and a pious service, approved of heaven, and honored among men. The words of the orator in the one case, however beautiful, are but the cry of despair; the utterance of the speaker in the other, however simple, is that of a soul conscious of its immortality, and rejoicing in a deathless hope. Clouds and darkness encompass the one service; upon the other rests ‘the light that never shone on land or sea.’

You could have extended to me no invitation which would appeal more irresistibly alike to my sense of public duty, and to my loyalty to a life-long friendship than that which has brought me here to-day.

If more than thirty years of intimate association between two men will justify one of them in attempting to give a faithful portraiture of the other after he has passed the portals of the grave, I am not entirely unqualified for the duty before me, but I fully realize the difficulty of so performing it as not to render it worthless by exaggerated euology on the one hand, or inadequate tribute on the other. It shall be my aim, as it is my hope, to do justice. I would not do less, and he of whom I speak, though voiceless now, would not have me do more.

And I begin to do justice by declaring it to be my deliberate conviction that our State has never produced a son who was more intensely North Carolinian in every fibre of his being, or one who rendered more continuous, unselfish, devoted, and valuable service to her than did William Lawrence Saunders-service, too, a large part of which was performed by him during years of ceaseless physical [216] pain and suffering. Indeed, his whole life, from boyhood to the day of his death, through evil and good report, in adversity or prosperity, was devoted to the work of sustaining and defending her honor and the welfare of her people. If, therefore, any North Carolinian ever deserved to be remembered with gratitude for his public services it was he, and if the State had not persistently from the beginning of her existence refused to recognize by some permanent memorial any obligation for such services by any of her sons we might indulge the hope that she would erect a monument to his memory. She stands alone among civilized governments in this respect, for she has never erected a single memorial stone to show the world that she ever produced a son worthy of remembrance. Nor are her people peculiar in this respect alone. Ever jealous of any encroachment upon their liberties, ever ready to suffer and die in defence of them, the history of their State is rich with illustrations of their patriotism-and yet that history remains to be written. Prolific of heroes in every war on this continent, of statesmen in every period of political strife, of great men in all professions and callings the world has never known it, because the people of the State have never seemed to recognize, or care for it. Mankind are apt to forget, and all too soon, the good and great who have passed away; we in North Carolina do not appear to know that there are, or ever were, such among us. Readily recognizing them elsewhere we never think of finding them at home and in our midst. More true is it here, I think, than in any other State of this republic that a prophet is not without honor save in his own country, and among his own people. And yet, even when just criticism of this kind was indulged in before him, William L. Saunders never failed to eulogize and defend the people of North Carolina. He had absolute confidence in them as to everything, and was always ready to vindicate them against any sort of imputation from any quarter. Nor was it a mere blind prejudice on his part. He was not blind to the peculiarities of his fellow-citizens as a community, but he always insisted that with all their faults and pecularities they were the best people he had ever known. He made no display of this sentiment, and never sought to make capital of it for selfish ends, as he might have done if he had been a demagogue, but he sincerely felt and always acted upon it. No man ever lived who was more thoroughly imbued with faith in the people, and, therefore, he prized government by the people as the greatest of all political blessings. Bred to the [217] law, and a student of Anglo-Saxon institutions, the principle of local self-government was precious in his sight, and arbitrary power of any kind anywhere he instinctively hated, and was ever ready to combat. So intense were his convictions on this subject that I myself used sometimes jocularly to accuse him of being opposed to government of any kind. These convictions were not by any means wholly the result of temperament, but were the outcome chiefly, of study, reflection and observation. He was a Democrat—in its largest as in its narrowest sense—from principle, and he was ready to vindicate his principles at all times and at every hazard. In this respect, as in every other, he was a man of character.

It is not my purpose to give the details of his public career, but to present a picture of the man as he was, in his relation to the public, and in private life. I will not go farther into his record as a soldier in the war between the States, than merely to say that he went in as a subaltern and came out with the glorious remnant of Lee's army the colonel of a decimated and war-scarred regiment, bearing upon his person terrible wounds, and enjoying the unqualified respect of his associates for duty faithfully and gallantly performed.

In 1871, towards the close of the ‘Reconstruction’ period during which he did as much to rescue the State from the ruin and degration which threatened her as any man within her borders, he was arrested by the United States authorities and carried to Washington to be examined by the ‘Ku Klux’ committee, with the hope and expectation, on the part of those who caused his arrest, of extorting from him a confession of his own complicity in the acts of the ‘Ku Klux,’ or at least procuring evidence against others. I can never forget his presence there, or the result of his examination. Although myself a member of the committee, he was my guest and shared my bed during his stay in Washington, but not one word passed between us on the subject of his arrest, and no information was asked or given in regard to the organization of which he was supposed to be the chief. He appeared before the committee, and was asked more than a hundred questions, every one of which, except a few formal ones, he steadfastly refused—or, as he expressed it, declined to answer.

He was badgered and bullied, and threatened with imprisonment (which I really feared would be imposed upon him), but with perfect self-possession and calm politeness he continued to say: ‘I decline [218] to answer.’ It was a new experience for the committee, because the terror aroused by the investigation had enabled them to get much information, and no witness had, up to that time, thus defied their authority, but they recognized that they had now encountered a man, who knew how to guard his rights and protect his honor; and, after some delay, he was discharged, with his secrets (if he had any) locked in his own bosom, and carrying with him the respect and admiration of all who witnessed the ordeal through which he had passed.

In these days of a restored Union and a return to normal conditions, such conduct may not appear to have in it any element of heroism, but under the circumstances which then surrounded the Southern people it required both moral and physical courage of the highest order. Those circumstances constitute the one indelible and appalling disgrace of the American people — the one chapter of their history which contains no redeeming feature to relieve it from the endless execration of the civilized world.

A distinguished orator from a Northern State declared in Congress in 1872 that one-third of the boundaries of this Republic had been filled ‘with all the curses and calamities ever recorded in the annals of the worst governments known on the pages of history,’ and, attacking the authors of these calamities, he exclaimed: ‘From turret to foundation you tore down the governments of eleven States. You left not one stone upon another. You rent all their local laws and machinery into fragments, and trampled upon their ruins. Not a vestige of their former construction remained.’ And again he said: ‘A more sweeping and universal exclusion from all the benefits, rights, trusts, honors, enjoyments, liberties, and control of a government was never enacted against a whole people, without respect to age or sex, in the annals of the human race. The disgraceful disabilities imposed upon the Jews for nearly eighteen hundred years by the blind and bigoted nations of the earth were never movie complete or appalling.’

Those who are old enough to remember that most shameful period of our history will readily recall the degradation, the crimes against civilization, and the terrorism which then prevailed, and how, amidst the general dismay, the faint-hearted stood helpless and silent before the arbitrary and reckless power exercised over them; and they will also remember with still more vividness how, as to a trumpet-call, the strong hearts and brave thrilled responsive to every word and act [219] of those who stood amidst the storm, erect, steadfast, and true to their birthright. Leader among the leaders of them was William L. Saunders, and this exhibition of his dauntless spirit before the chief priests of the persecution, assembled at the capitol of the country, and panoplied with irresponsible power, won for him a claim to the admiration of all true men.

From that day he began to grow in public esteem, and to be regarded as one in whose faithfulness and sagacity the people might safely confide. Soon afterwards he began his editorial career in Wilmington, and at once acquired an influence in public affairs which gradually spread all over the State; and when, several years later, he removed to Raleigh and became one of the editors of the Observer, he was a recognized power in North Carolina.

It would not, I think, be an exaggeration to say that while occupying this position, and afterwards the office of Secretary of State, he was more frequently consulted by leading citizens, not only in regard to political affairs, but to various matters of general public interest, than any man in the State.

The reason was that to an eminently practical cast of mind he united a rare judgment and a quick perception of the relations of things, which made him a wise and safe counsellor—the wisest and safest, perhaps, of his generation of public men in North Carolina. He was never disconcerted by difficulties and never lost his balance, but always kept a clear head and maintained a calm self-possession. In addition to a natural modesty, he possessed the rare faculty of knowing exactly when to speak and when to be silent, and his capacity for patiently listening amounted to genius. Rapid in thought, he was always deliberate of speech and action. Conservative, cautious, and prudent, his judgments were apt to stand without revision, and it is doubtful if in his whole editorial career he ever had occasion to recall one as unjust or extravagant. It is not strange, therefore, that his counsel was sought in times of doubt and difficulty, and was followed with confidence by those to whom he gave it. And when his social character is considered, it is still less surprising, for he was so genial, and gentle, and kindly, and cheerful that it was a pleasure to be associated with him.

I never knew a man, apparently so practical and emotionless, whose sympathies were more easily reached, or whose impulses were more generous. His strong aversion to a display of feeling by others was often attributable to his consciousness of his own inability to [220] withstand it. A pathetic story, or a burst of eloquence would bring tears to his eyes. The truth is that, little as it was suspected by those who were not near to him, he was a man of decidedly emotional nature. And, as a corollary, he possessed the keenest sense of humor, and enjoyed a laughable incident as heartily as any one I ever knew.

These personal traits, added to the moral and intellectual characteristics to which I have referred, will readily account for his great and widespread influence, and for the hosts of friends throughout the State who honored him while living and sincerely mourn his death.

He had always cherished a loyal affection for this university of which he was a graduate, and in 1875 he became a trustee and member of the Executive Committee, and so remained until his death. He was also appointed secretary and treasurer, which position he filled for nearly the same length of time. In the discharge of his duties in these capacities, although for the larger part of the time a confirmed invalid and great sufferer, he did as much to ‘revive, foster and enlarge’ the university, according to the testimony of the faculty themselves, as any one had ever done. In the tribute which they paid to him soon after his death they used this language:

‘From his graduation to the day of his death he was loyal to his Alma Mater, and gave to her the best thoughts of his big brain, and the ardent affection of his great heart. Watchful, steadfast, patient and wise, he never lost sight of her interest, never wavered in her support, and, when the crisis demanded it, marshalled and led her alumni to her defence.’

Every one who knew him at all intimately will corroborate these statements of the faculty, for his profound interest in the welfare of the university was constantly manifested in his conversation as well as in his acts. He loved the gray walls of these old buildings, and the refreshing shade of these majestic oaks with an hereditary as well as with a personal affection, and in the evil days that followed the war the silence and desolation which reigned here grieved him sorely, and stimulated him to the task of restoring the university to her ancient prestige.

But a higher motive than mere sentiment moved him to the work. He regarded it with the eye of a statesman and a patriot, and anticipated the blessings it would bring to future generations.

It was eminently fit, therefore, that the alumni should have dedicated this hour to his memory, and have thus acknowledged their obligation for his services. [221]

The crowning labor of his life, however, and the one which will constitute a more lasting monument to him than any that others could erect, was his ‘Colonial Records.’ I do not know how others may view the circumstances which attended the conception and execution of this invaluable work, but to my mind they appear to have been clearly providential.

At different times in the history of the State spasmodic efforts had been made to secure the early records which were known to exist in England, but these efforts were mostly individual, and supported by very limited means, and they resulted in a very unsatisfactory collection of fragmentary material.

When the Legislature finally resolved to make a sufficient appropriation, and to inaugurate an authoritative search for all documents bearing upon our Colonial history, Colonel Saunders had never paid any especial attention to the subject, and if his health had not failed, the probability—nay, the certainty—was that he would have been promoted to higher positions than that of Secretary of State—the incumbent of which office was required to superintend the publication of the material, when obtained-and thus the labor of editing it would have fallen upon his successor, who, whatever his capabilities for the ordinary duties of the office might have been, would almost certainly have fallen far short of the supreme excellence as an historical editor which he developed. But his painful malady, which was doubtless partly the result of wounds and exposure during the war, about this time began to confine him to indoor life and soon to his chair, and thus he was anchored for his life—work. From the beginning he was interested in it—in a very short time he became enthusiastic over it—and thenceforward he gave his whole mind and heart to it. The result to him personally was that he became, beyond all comparison, the best informed man upon our Colonial history that has ever lived, while in the extent and accuracy of his knowledge of the subsequent history of the State he has had very few equals. To one who was interested in such studies it was a great pleasure to listen to his criticisms upon and discussions of those early men and times in North Carolina, and his prefatory notes to the different volumes of the Records are a masterful presentation of the trials and struggles of our forefathers, and a glorious vindication of them against the historical scavengers who have sought to defame them. The vindication, too, is not that of the advocate or the rhetorician, but of the calm, fact-weighing historian and philosopher. [222] Now, since he has opened and arranged this store-house of facts, which were heretofore unknown or only guessed at, the history of North Carolina can be fully and truthfully written, and it is to be hoped that some equally devoted son of hers will soon take up the task, and perform it as acceptably as he did his.

Nothing so delighted him in his investigations as the discovery of facts which proved the existence among the early settlers of the Democratic spirit, and no incidents roused his enthusiasm like those in which this spirit forcibly asserted itself. He would quietly smile at the conduct of such characters as John Starkey, who despite sneers and ridicule persistently refused to wear shoe-buckles and a queue, but his eye would kindle and his cheek glow at such declarations as that of John Ashe, that the people would resist the Stamp Act ‘to blood and death.’ His sympathies were altogether with those who, like the Regulators, sought redress of grievances even by violent and revolutionary methods, because he believed that underlying all such movements there was the true spirit of liberty and devotion to the rights of man; which were to him of inestimably greater importance than the preservation of the forms of law, or even the peace of society.

But he indulged in no harsh criticism of those other patriots who—believing that liberty regulated by law was the only liberty worth preserving, and fearing for the safety of society—aided in suppressing such movements; for he knew and honored their motives, notwithstanding his own strong sympathy with those who resisted and fought them.

In a word, he pursued his labors with the true spirit of historic investigation, and meted out with an impartial hand honor to whom honor was due, and blame to all who deserved it. And he rejoiced in the work of rescuing from oblivion the names and noble acts of the pioneers of our civilization and in placing them in their true light for the admiration of posterity.

In this work he was engaged for about eleven years, with frequent interruptions caused by illness, and a more conscientious, faithful and valuable work has never been done for North Carolina. It is the great reservoir of facts from which all must draw who would write accurately and truthfully the history of the first century of our civilization.

It was done by a true and loving hand, under the inspiration of a brave and loyal heart, without the least expectation or hope of [223] reward of any kind, and solely for the honor of the State which gave him birth, and the people to whose welfare he devoted all the years of his life.

And this is attested by the glowing words with which he concluded the long and laborious task, and which are instinct with the spirit of a lofty patriotism.

Hear those words, his last public utterance, in which he invoked God's blessing on his native State:

‘And now the self-imposed task, begun some eleven years ago, is finished. All that I care to say is that I have done the best I could, that coming generations might be able to learn what manner of men their ancestors were, and this I have done without reward or the hope of reward, other than the hope that I might contribute something to rescue the fair fame and good name of North Carolina from the clutches of ignorance. Our records are now before the world, and any man who chooses may see for himself the character of the people who made them. As for myself, when I search these North Carolina scriptures and read the story of her hundred years struggle with the mother country for constitutional government and the no less wonderful story of her hundred years struggle with the savage Indian for very life, both culminating in her first great revolution; and then, coming down to her second great revolution, when I remember how the old State bared her bosom to the mighty storm, how she sent her sons to the field until both the cradle and the grave were robbed of their just rights; how devotedly those sons stood before shot and shell and the deadly bullet, so that their bones whitened every battle-field; when I remember how heroically she endured every privation until starvation was at her very doors, and until raiment was as scarce as food, and with what fortitude she met defeat when, after Appomattox, all seemed lost save honor; especially when I remember how, in the darkest of all hours, rallying once more to the struggle for constitutional government, she enlisted for the war of Reconstruction, fought it out to the end, finally wresting glorious victory from the very jaws of disastrous defeat, I bow my head in gratitude and say, as our great Confederate commander, the immortal Lee, said, when watching the brilliant fight some of our regiments were making at a critical time in one of his great battles, he exclaimed in the fulness of his heart, “God bless old North Carolina!” ’

When his work was finished, the General Assembly passed a resolution of thanks to him by a rising vote, and this honor, which his [224] own diffidence had not allowed him to anticipate, seemed to be accepted by him as a sufficient compensation for all he had done, and touched him, perhaps, as no other event of his life had done.

And now, the one object, for the accomplishment of which he had so earnestly hoped almost against hope that his life might be spared, having been attained—the stimulant which had sustained him during years of racking pain being withdrawn—his mortal part began to succumb to the malady of which he was a victim, and he gradually yielded to its assaults until the 2d day of April, 1891, when he ‘fell on sleep,’ and the weary soul found rest.

Sweet be his rest, and glorious his awaking! And may the State whose honor was the object nearest his heart bear him in remermbrance as a mother her offspring!

No thought of impending evil to her disturbed his last hours. The morning sun whose beams first fell upon his new-made grave, journeying westward, looked down upon her broad domain and found there only peace, fraternity and good government—those blessings for which, in her behalf, he strove with single-minded devotion. In the brief year that has since elapsed she has been again encompassed with danger and threatened with disaster—disaster which, if it had come, would not have been the work of alien hands, as before, but would have added the sting of being wrought by her own sons. As his living presence would have been most potent to avert it, so—now that the peril seems happily passed—none can more heartily rejoice than would he at her escape, for not dearer to the Psalmist was the peace of Jerusalem than to his heart the welfare of his native State.

Recently I stood, at night, on the narrow peninsula where twenty-seven years ago fleet and fort proclaimed in thunder the fame of Fort Fisher. To the eastward heaved the sea, on whose rolling billows the rising moon poured a flood of silvery light, while opposite, and hanging low above the shining river in the limitless depths of the western heavens, glowed the serene orb of the evening planet, whose glories heightened as it neared the horizon. Between lay the long line of ragged mounds over which the tide of battle ebbed and flowed when the expiring hopes of a brave people were forever extinguished. Beneath wave and earth mound alike patriot bones were bleaching, mute witnesses of the horrors of civil strife and of the emptiness of human ambition. Higher rose the goddess of the night, wider grew the sheen upon the waters, lower and more luminous [225] sank the star. A solemn stillness, unbroken save by the voices of the night wind and the sea, reigned supreme.

A more beautiful or a more impressive spectacle never greeted the gaze of one who looks reverently and wonderingly upon the splendors of the physical universe; and as I watched that evening planet sinking to its rest a voice within me whispered, ‘So, too, to the patriot's eye there is no vision more grateful than the career of him who, forgetful of self, and mindful only of the rights and liberties of his fellow-men, gives his life to their service, and, with the lustre of his virtues ever brightening to the end, passes from their view.’

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