Less than two weeks ago the President of the United States, in a public address, is reported as using these words: “They said that Grant had not the military genius that other generals displayed in the war. To my mind, his mind and brain represented the very genius of war to suppress the rebellion, because it was his mind that grasped the thought that until we had fought it out with our brave opponents and met them in the field and fought them as soldiers, until we convinced them by our strength that the battle was hopeless, we could not expect to have a united country. And therefore, from the time he began in Belmont until he accomplished the surrender of Lee, at Appomattox, he fought not cities, not points of strategy, but he fought the enemy, and he fought, and fought, and fought, until he wore out the opposition, because only by wearing them out could he hope to bring about the condition in which there would be a complete peace.”
Here is, at last, a practical acknowledgment in public by the President of the United States to a Northern audience of the truth of the oft-repeated, concise statement of the case. We were not whipped, but we were worn out whipping the enemy! We read that these words of the President were applauded. How many of that audience understood what he so adroitly said about “the enemy” and about “wearing out the opposition?” The inference would naturally be drawn that he fought the armies of Lee and Johnston; but how? Lee was defending Richmond and Petersburg, and Johnston was holding points of strategy; and we read: “He fought not cities, not points of strategy — he fought the enemy!” Who were the enemy? Some of the enemy were prisoners of war, nearly starving amid plenty, while a greater number of Northern prisoners, nearly starving, because we had very little with which to feed our soldiers in the field, were dying in Southern prisons. But under no condition would they agree to exchange prisoners. Why not? Because it kept Southern soldiers off the field to guard them, and every Northern prisoner helped to eat the remnant of food in the South. They even refused to take home their sick and dying prisoners when urged to do so, none being asked in return.
This week a monument will be unveiled at Andersonville, Ga., to Major Henry Wirz, C. S. A. It will be recalled that he was executed, in the time of peace, while under the protection of a parole. “He was condemned to an ignominious death on charges of excessive cruelty to Federal prisoners. He indignantly spurned a pardon proffered on condition that he would incriminate President Davis.” These words are upon his monument. But note, my brethren, the following words are on the other side of his monument: “It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners would insure Sherman’s defeat and would compromise our safety here. Aug. 18th, 1864. Ulysses S. Grant.”
Who were the enemy? Follow in the wake of the army in the Valley of Virginia in ‘64. View the beautiful plantations on the lower James. Follow Sherman’s army in its march to the sea, and read the general’s report of how he fought the enemy. Burning barns, milch cows, which furnished sustenance for babes and sucklings shot and left to decay in the pastures; fowls shot and left in the barnyard; fields of grain, the hope of food for the winter, deliberately destroyed and trodden under foot; stacks of straw and hay lighting up the darkness of night!
The result was 9,000 ragged, starving heroes, eating parched corn, march from Richmond to Appomattox. And the surrender of Lee is accomplished! This was “the very genius of war that suppressed the rebellion.” Yes, “they fought, and fought, and fought, till they wore out the opposition.” But whom did they fight, and how? The Army of Northern Virginia is to pass through Maryland into Pennsylvania. Strict orders are given that all private property is to be respected, and noncombatants are in no way to be molested. The orders are signed by R. E. Lee, General.
The battle of Gettysburg has been fought; Lee’s army is marching through the enemy’s country on the retreat. As he is riding along, sustaining by his matchless bearing the courage of his tired army, he sees that some one has thrown down a worm fence around a Pennsylvanian’s wheatfield. He dismounts, and with the bridle of his horse over his arm, he puts up that fence, rail by rail, that he may protect the private property of the enemy! Evidently Lee did not have that kind of the “very genius of war that suppressed the rebellion.” My brethren, these are facts; and for our part, we are not ashamed of them! And we must see to it that history gives facts. Not that we would keep alive the embers of strife — God forbid! But we would preserve the truth. We would have our children and our children’s children know, not that we fought bravely in a cause that was not just, and that we were magnanimously forgiven by a generous foe, because we did it ignorantly in unbelief, because we thought we were right; we would not have it believed that we fought on equal terms, and in the same way they fought; but that we could not be conquered, even by vastly superior numbers and inexhaustible resources, till the women and children of the South as well as the armies in the field were brought to the verge of starvation by the systematic destruction of the necessities of life. I tell you we are not true to the memory of our brave soldiers who died for us if we suppress the facts for the sake of peace!
— From sermon preached by Rev. R. A. Goodwin on 9 May 1909, before the Oakwood Memorial Association, old St. John’s Church, Richmond, Virginia.