Chase and Memorial Day

Last year I posted about Salmon Chase’s Memorial Day letter, from 1869, worth reading again this weekend. Chief Justice Chase was in South Carolina for circuit court duties, and he had been invited to attend an event at a cemetery just outside Charleston, South Carolina. Chase had to decline but explained his hopes as follows:

“The nation cannot too tenderly cherish the memory of her dead heroes, or too watchfully guard the well-being of those who survive. And may we not indulge the hope that ere long we who adhered to the national cause will be prompt also to join in commemorating the heroism of our countrymen who fell on the other side, and that those who now specially mourn their loss, consenting to the arbitrament of arms, and resuming all their old love for their country and our country, one and indivisible, will join with us in like commemoration of the fallen brave of the army of the Union?

The dead are not dead. They have only gone before, and now see eye to eye. Why may not we all borrow from their sacred graves oblivion of past differences and henceforth unite in noble and generous endeavor to assure the honor and welfare of our whole country, of all her States and of all her citizens?”

Chase’s letter was printed in many papers, at more or less the same time as a letter by John Logan, explaining why the graves of the rebel soldiers in Arlington Cemetery would not be decorated for Memorial Day. A New York banker, John Williams, wrote to chide Chase.

“In this morning’s paper I read with painful dissatisfaction the following lines in your letter . . . to Captain H.H. Manning. “And may we not indulge the hope that ere long, we who adhered to the national cause, will be prompt also to join in commemorating the heroism of our countrymen who fell on the other side?”

But I also read in the same paper, with lively satisfaction, the noble sentiments which follow from one of our brave generals. “The Grand Army of the Republic seeks to honor and preserve the principles and institutions for which its members and their dead comrades fought. We strew flowers, therefore, on the graves of our comrades, and prevent their being strewn in the National Cemeteries, at the same time, on the graves of such Rebel dead as may be buried therein—not because we cherish any feelings of hate, or desire to triumph over individual foes, but because we seek to mark, in this distinction and manner, the feelings with which the nation regards freedom and slavery, loyalty and treason, republican principles and those of a slaveholding oligarchy.”

“Look on this picture and then on that and say which is most worthy and becoming of the position of the Chief Justice of the free United States of America—aye, of a true unambitious American citizen.”

The last bit of Williams’s letter alluded to Chase’s ambition to be president—he had been a candidate for the 1868 nomination and was already reported to be a candidate for 1872. Chase responded in a long letter to Williams, which did not make its way into the papers for several years. Here is most of the letter:

“True patriotism requires that the close of a great civil war should be marked, not by proscription or disfranchisement but by manifestations of sincere good will, especially from the successful to the unsuccessful, and by generous recognition of whatever was really brave and earnest and noble in those who fought on the falling side. I have no sympathy with the spirit which refuses to strew flowers upon the graves of the dead soldiers who fought against the side I took; and I am glad to know there was no such spirit among those who joined in decorating the graves of the soldiers of the Union who lie buried at Magnolia Cemetery. The magnolia lavishes its perfumes as freely, the pleasant air breathes as softly, and the warm sun shines as brightly, over Confederate as over Union graves. In the letter which has incurred your censure, I sought to put into the hearts of my countrymen, something of the divine charity taught by the tree, the air and the sun, as well as by the precepts of our Savior. I believe it has done some good and I believe it will do more.

I have read your extract from the speech of one of our brave generals, whom you do not name. There are some good sentiments in it and some not so good. On the whole, I prefer the letter to the speech, and I am sorry to differ from you so far as to think that of the two, the letter is most becoming the position which I hold. The Chief Justice is, I think, not ill employed when he inculcates good will among men.

I notice that you more than intimate that my letter was prompted by ambition. It certainly was not. I do not think I ever was so ambitious as some unambitious people have represented me. At any rate, I am now unconscious of any other ambition than that of doing as much good and as little harm as possible. I have no connection with politics. I neither seek nor expect any political position, content to leave younger men all the contentions and distinctions of political life. I shall be fully satisfied with my share of the general welfare, which it may be hoped wise and generous statesmanship, with God’s blessing, will secure for our country.”

As Chase said, “the dead are not dead.” As we pray, this Memorial Day weekend, for those who have died for our nation, let us do so in a spirit of “divine charity.” That means praying not only for those LIKE us, and those who AGREE with us, but those unlike us, and with whom we disagree. Let us, in Chase’s words, “unite in noble and generous endeavor to assure the honor and welfare of our whole country, of all her states and of all her citizens.”



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