I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung. With words we make promises, plight faith, praise virtue. Promises may not be kept; plighted faith may be broken; and vaunted virtue be only the cunning mask of vice. We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country, they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue. For the noblest man that lives, there still remains a conflict. He must still withstand the assaults of time and fortune,— must still be assailed with temptations, before which lofty natures have fallen; but with these, the conflict ended, the victory was won, when death stamped on them the great seal of heroic character, and closed a record which years can never blot.
I love to believe that no heroic sacrifice is ever lost; that the characters of men are molded and inspired by what their fathers have done; that treasured up in American souls are all the unconscious influences of the great deeds of the Anglo-Saxon race, from Agincourt to Bunker Hill. It was such an influence that led a young Greek, two thousand years ago, when musing on the battle of Marathon, to exclaim, "The trophies of Miltiades will not let me sleep!" Could these men be silent in 1861, — these, whose ancestors had felt the inspiration of battle on every field where civilization had fought in the last thousand years? Read their answer in this green turf. Each for himself gathered up the cherished purposes of life, — its aims and ambitions, its dearest affections, — and flung all, with life itself, into the scale of battle.
I can never forget an incident illustrative of this thought, which it was my fortune to witness, near sunset of the second day at Chickamauga, when the beleaguered but unbroken left wing of our army had again and again repelled the assaults of more than double their numbers, and when each soldier felt that to his individual hands were committed the life of the army and the honor of his country. It was just after a division had fired its last cartridge, and had repelled a charge at the point of the bayonet, that the great-hearted commander took the hand of an humble soldier and thanked him for his steadfast courage. The soldier stood silent for a moment, and then said, with deep emotion: "George H. Thomas has taken this hand in his. I'll knock down any mean man that offers to take it hereafter." This rough sentence was full of meaning. He felt that something had happened to his hand which consecrated it. Could a hand bear our banner in battle, and not be forever consecrated to honor and virtue? But doubly consecrated were these who received into their own hearts the fatal shafts aimed at the life of their country. Fortunate men! your country lives because you died! Your fame is placed where the breath of calumny can never reach it; where the mistakes of a weary life can never dim its brightness! Coming generations will rise up to call you blessed!
And now, consider this silent assembly of the dead. What does it represent? Nay, rather, what does it not represent? It is an epitome of the war. Here are sheaves reaped, in the harvest of death, from every battlefield of Virginia. If each grave had a voice to tell us what its silent tenant last saw and heard on earth, we might stand, with uncovered heads, and hear the whole story of the war. We should hear that one perished when the first great drops of the crimson shower began to fall, when the darkness of that first disaster at Manassas fell like an eclipse on the nation; that another died of disease while wearily waiting for winter to end; that this one fell on the field, in sight of the spires of Richmond, little dreaming that the flag must be carried through three more years of blood before it should be planted in that citadel of treason; and that one fell when the tide of war had swept us back till the roar of rebel guns shook the dome of yonder Capitol, and re-echoed in the chambers of the Executive mansion. We should hear mingled voices from the Rappahannock, the Rapidan, the Chickahominy, and the James, solemn voices from the Wilderness, and triumphant shouts from the Shenandoah, from Petersburg, and the Five Forks, mingled with the wild acclaim of victory and the sweet chorus of returning peace. The voices of these dead will forever fill the land like holy benedictions.
What other spot so fitting for their last resting-place as this, under the shadow of the Capitol saved by their valor? Here, where the grim edge of battle joined, — here, where all the hope and fear and agony of their country centered,—here let them rest, asleep on the nation's heart, entombed in the nation's love!
Hither our children's children shall come to pay their tribute of grateful homage. For this are we met to-day. By the happy suggestion of a great society, assemblies like this are gathering at this hour in every State in the Union. Thousands of soldiers are to-day turning aside in the march of life to visit the silent encampments of dead comrades who once fought by their side. From many thousand homes, whose light was put out when a soldier fell, there go forth to-day to join these solemn processions loving kindred and friends, from whose heart the shadow of grief will never be lifted till the light of the eternal world dawns upon them. And here are children, little children, to whom the war left no father but the Father above. By the most sacred right, theirs is the chief place to-day. They come with garlands to crown their victor fathers. I will delay the coronation no longer.