It has been said that a land without remembrance is a land without memories. And a land without memories is a land without history.
Standing before this majestic mountain with its beautiful relief of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson, it reassures my heart to know that Confederate memories and history are alive and well. For these three men were not only heroes to all in the newfound nation, but they remain heroes, not only for me, but for many of us here this afternoon.
But this imposing edifice would not have been diminished through the years if the designers had chosen three different men to immortalize. If we had gathered to celebrate Albert Sidney Johnston, Patrick Cleburne and Jeb Stuart or John B. Gordon, A.P. Hill and Nathan Bedford Forrest. No, this Stone Mountain would not have been diminished at all… for enveloping this monument is a great cloud of witnesses – witnesses dressed in gray and butternut – the brave soldiers who followed Lee and Jackson, fought and died with Cleburne and Gordon and rode with Stuart and Forrest. The soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia, the Army of Tennessee and the Army of Trans-Mississippi, who picked up their arms and left their loved ones to defend their homes and their liberty.
I remember the words of General Armistead at Gettysburg as he prepared to obey the order to advance on Cemetery Ridge. He faced his brigade and brought to their remembrance why they were on that battlefield and why they were prepared to lay down their lives for another if the Lord so asked. “For your lands! For your homes! For your sweethearts! For your wives! For Virginia! Forward!” These words survived that bloody day because they reveal the very heart of the Confederate soldier.
When the Lincoln Administration called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion in the cotton states, the men of the South kissed their wives and children good-bye, enlisted in the army and poured into the instructional camps that had sprung up throughout the South.
They were citizen soldiers, a sundry mix of family, near and distant kin, friends, acquaintances, and strangers. They came from every nook and cranny of Southern society: plantation owners, farmers barely scraping out a living on a few acres, merchants, tradesmen, professionals, students, rich, poor, educated, illiterate, secessionists, unionists, native sons and recent immigrants. A few of them had previous military experience but most of them did not. In the end it was not their differences that shaped them but their similarities.
Their fathers had passed down a legacy of heroism when they had defeated the might of the British Empire and had forged a new nation from the wilderness. How could their sons and grandsons do any less in this the second war for independence?
They may have arrived at the instructional camps as novices to the art of war, but their instructors quickly molded them into soldiers – into companies, regiments, brigades, divisions, corps, and armies. At night, after a hard day of drilling in the hot sun, they would sit around the campfires jesting about the hardships they were willing to endure for the Cause. What did they really know of hardships when their uniforms were whole, their shoes did not let in water and food was abundant?
But in the four years they had fought, when exactly they could not pinpoint, but some time during those four years, when misery, privation, and death became their daily lot, they had learned the bitter truth. War was the necessity of marching on empty bellies, on bare and bleeding feet through the snow and cold, and fighting even past exhaustion. When the last volley was fired, war was also the sad duty of burying friends you had joked with around the campfires those many years ago when war was a lark, one Southern could lick a dozen Yankees and heroes never died. If that was not enough, war was the cruel reality of having to do it all again tomorrow if so ordered.
In the long marches and hard fights, they had been purified in the refiner’s fire and sifted like wheat by the severe demands of army life. What remained was the only thing that mattered - the assurance that they had been weighed in the balance, on the line and under fire, and had not been found wanting.
They were the courageous and determined soldiers of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Braxton Bragg, John Pemberton, Joseph Johnston, and John Bell Hood. They followed their generals in the advances and in the long retreats. They fought for each piece of ground like it was their home.
Manassas, Shiloh, Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Cold Harbor, Atlanta, and Franklin. Never again would soldiers think of these places as quiet towns or villages full of welcoming friends, as green places where they had picnicked with sweethearts on the soft banks of slow-moving streams. The tender grasses where they had sat had now been cut to bits by heavy cannon wheels, trampled by desperate feet when bayonet met bayonet and flattened where bodies threshed in agonies… And the lazy streams and rivers were redder now than the red clay could ever make them. Never names of places of any more. Now they were the names of graves where friends lay buried, names where McClellan, Grant, Hooker, Meade, and Sherman had tried to force their armies in and Lee’s, Johnston’s, Pemberton’s, and Hood’s men had doggedly beaten them back.
Each battlefield now sanctified by the blood that was shed in its defense.
At night, exhausted and hungry, the soldiers closed their eyes and dreamed of the red hills of Georgia, the Blue Ridge Mountains covered with mist in the early morning light, the bayous of the Mississippi River, the jungles of cypress swamps and oaks covered with waving curtains of gray moss, fields of golden wheat ripening in the summer sun, and the unending ocean of the coastline.
The first book I read about the war was Gone With the Wind. In the opening chapter, Gerald O’Hara tells his daughter Scarlett that land was the only thing in this world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for. But Gerald was not talking about red clay fields filled with cotton.
Land meant much more than that to him. It was the birthright that was passed from father to son and then from father to son again. It was the place you courted your sweetheart, won her hand, raised a family, and grew old together. It was the place where you visited graves of mothers and fathers on quiet Sunday afternoons and realized that the ties that bound you to the land were thrust deep into the soil and that soil was well able to sustain generations. The land was filled with familiar voices, scents, and sights. It was the incarnation of all they were. It was as comforting as a mother’s warm embrace, and its value was determined by the blood that was shed in its defense.
For the men who stood on the line beneath waving battle flags and marched to the drums’ long roll, their patriotism was rooted in love of country, love of home, and love of the old ways that were gone forever.
For the Invader had come. The Lincoln administration slipped loose the dogs of war upon the rich farmland of the South and in their rage, they had swept away a civilization.
Nothing remained but memories of old times that would never be forgotten.
Any hope of true freedom in this country ended on a warm spring morning, in a small country hamlet in southern Virginia when Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia and the Cause for which the soldiers had so long and manfully struggled, for which they had braved dangers, endured privations and sufferings, and had made so many sacrifices. Once they returned home, they plowed their fields, loved their wives, and raised their children under the Stainless Banner, that precious flag for which they had fought.
As the century turned and the grave began to beckon these brave and gallant men, they had one final task to accomplish. They, along with their wives and widows of the fallen, built monuments to their generals, placed memorial markers on battlefields to bear silent witness to their gallantry, and raised up organizations -- the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, the Military Order of the Stars and Bars, the Daughters of the Confederacy, and the Order of the Confederate Rose -- and charged these organizations with a solemn duty: to guard their history, to emulate their virtues, to perpetuate the principles they loved, and to present the true history of the South to future generations. I stand surrounded by men and women who have kept that charge. It is an honor to stand with them, and I thank them for allowing me to do so.
In great deeds, something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate the ground for the vision-place of the soul. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of should come here, to ponder and to dream…that the power of the vision should pass into their souls…
Let that vision take root in your heart. For when tyranny threatened their freedom, the Confederate soldier did not hesitate to defend the right.
When reminiscing about the surrender, Robert E. Lee observed: “We failed, but in the good providence of God apparent failure often proves a blessing.” What a blessing these men have proven to be. What men they were! The war, though war itself is the sum of all evil, revealed to us men of stature, men of integrity, and men of Christian character. How much poorer would we all be if Colonel Lee had remained unknown in Texas, Major Jackson at VMI, Captain Stuart on the plains of Kansas, Patrick Cleburne in his law office or Nathan Bedford Forrest on his plantation in Mississippi.
But war did come and these men, hidden from view, were suddenly revealed…and the fragrance of their lives still lingers and inspires us today.
These men I mentioned, these men on this great Stone Mountain, Lee, Davis, Jackson, Stuart, Cleburne and Forrest were not the exception but the norm. The Confederate soldiers held them out to history as the best of them…but still a part of them, from them, holding the same values, fighting the same battles, accepting their duty, knowing that they could not do more and never wishing to do less.
The inheritance of gallantry and honor they left us has not diminished in the last 150 years, even as that legacy has come under attack by politicians, intellectuals, and academics who would dare tell us who these men were and why they fought and gave their lives. We face an insidious enemy who is in the process of turning Southern emblems of courage and devotion into symbols of hatred and racism.
So now, it is our turn to meet these new invaders on the verge of a just defense and say to all those that would turn our heroes into villains that we will not let you. We will fight to keep their honor. We will fight to keep their history intact, and we will fight to keep their legacy out of your hands.
For the soldiers we honor this morning, the price they paid to defend their land is beyond measure, for what price can we put on a man’s life? All we can do is stand in awe of their loyalty and devotion to the South, honor them for their service and their sacrifice, grab the tattered battle flag from their hands and continue the fight to preserve the truth of their legacy.
God bless you! God bless the honored dead who died for our freedom! And God continue to bless these United States of America.