Do Our Fallen Soldiers who die in “Useless” Wars, Die in Vain?

Thoughts and perspectives taken from a memorial sermon titled, “The Confederate Dead.”
Preached by John Broadus, Baptist, 1886

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IT is a long time since the war…

…seems part of a thousand years. And many changes have come. We hear much as to the wonders of our age, but to me the greatest of them all is the rapid restoration of good feeling in this country. You young people cannot imagine how we felt twenty-five years ago. And I am heartily glad you cannot. But to-day we meet beside the graves of our heroic dead without one thought or feeling of bitterness toward those who sleep yonder. As Pitt and Fox, after their life-time of conflict, sleep in peace together in Westminster Abbey, so here the Confederate dead on the slope and the Union dead on the summit of the same hill, the men who twenty years ago were engaged in the vastest and most terrible civil conflict that ever occurred on earth.

Thank God that now all is peace! It is due partly to the mobile character of our people; partly to the ample resources of our great country, giving to all employment and hope, and partly, notwithstanding all our imperfection and short-coming, to the influence of Christianity. The great religion of peace has healed the wounds and softened the asperities of the great civil war.

It is useless now to raise the question who was right. Perhaps in some respects each side would now acknowledge that the other was nearest right; perhaps in some respects both sides were wrong. Whenever the “impartial historian” arises –he has not arisen yet; certainly he has not published anything in the Century Magazine or in the Personal Recollections of any Statesman or soldier –and if he should speak out now, he would probably offend both sides, or else would be neglected as tame and dull –but when he arises he may possibly hold that one side was nearest right according to document and argument, and the other according to the slowly changing condition of our national affairs. Of one thing I feel certain, neither side can claim any monopoly of good intentions, of patriotic claims, nor even of wisdom.

The side that triumphs is not always thereby proven to have been superior in wisdom. We were concerned in one of those mighty movements in human affairs which transcend all the penetration and judgment of the greatest individual minds. We ordinary people can today see meanings in that struggle which the greatest statesmen did not perceive when it began. And, of course, the end is not yet; it will be better understood hereafter. But this much is plain –the, war had to come. The necessity for it was written in the whole history of the republic and of the colonies ” yea, in the history of England for centuries past. It was written in the configuration and climate, the soil and productions of different parts of our continent. It was written on the flag of the first ship that brought African slaves to the English Colonies of North America. It had to come. The splendid eloquence and noble patriotism of the world-famous statesman of Kentucky, aided by others of like mind, delayed it for a time. The madness of some men doubtless hastened it; but with human nature as it is, the war had to come sooner or later. And we can see now that there were two great questions which imperatively required to be settled.

A certain point as to the character of the Federal Government our fathers failed to define, apparently because they could not agree. That point the war has practically settled forever. A certain great social institution, grown into portentous and tremendous proportions, had fallen under the ban of the civilized world, and, sooner or later, somehow or other, it must cease to be. I verily believe that it is worth all our dreadful financial losses, all the sufferings of the long and frightful conflict, yea, and the blood of our precious dead, to have those two questions flung behind us forever.

Well, then, did our buried heroes die in vain? Their side of the conflict was the side appointed to fail, but it does not follow that they died in vain.

The war has established mutual respect, and opened the way for mutual good-will between the long hostile sections of our great country. The Northern and Southern people underestimated each other’s manhood; despised each other. But they feel so no longer, especially those of them who actually met in the imminent and deadly breach. There is kinder feeling on both sides now than would have been possible had our difficulties been settled in any other way.

And this has enabled the defeated combatants to yield a cordial and faithful devotion to the National Government, such as could not have existed if things had taken any other course. I make bold to say, however, an occasional unwise utterance may misrepresent us, that many of the most sincere and earnestly faithful supporters of this great Union to-day are among the men who once did their level best to break the Union in twain.

No, the dead have not lived or died in vain, if the survivors know aught of right thought and right feeling. They are a power among us to-day. “A living dog,” the wise man hath said, “is better than a dead lion.” Yes, but even a living lion is nothing in comparison with a dead man. In proportion as he lived and died with a true manhood, his memory is cherished and proves a blessing to those who survived and those who come after. There are fathers buried here whose children do not remember to have seen them; yet the glorified memory of the father, as often depicted by the widowed mother, has become to those children the very glass in which to dress themselves, the model of all that is noblest in human character and life.

I was thinking not long ago concerning that greatest of all the poems ever written in memory of the dead, in which Tennyson has so well depicted the mental struggles and responded to the religious longings of our troubled age. Did it ever occur to you that two wonderfully gifted young men went to the production of that great poem, “one who died to be its subject, the other who lived to compose it? He who died must have been a man of extraordinary powers and promise, in order to make so profound an impression, and turn all the poet’s deepest thought and feeling for so long a time into pathetic memories of him. And if our noble young men have died in vain, it must be our fault.

Let us teach ourselves and our children to draw inspiration from these graves. As on this bright evening the little ones scatter flowers on the mounds, let us all resolve afresh to live worthy of the men who are buried here.

“Thus, though oft depressed and lonely,
All my fears are laid aside,
If I but remember only
Such as these have lived and died.”