May 1995

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Memorial Day Vision


Dresden, New York


Robert Ingersoll

Robert Green Ingersoll was born in Dresden, New York, in 1833. In 1866 he returned to Dresden and delivered a Memorial Day Address. Ingersoll was then 32 years old, a veteran of the Civil War, a successful lawyer and a renowned orator who championed free thought, respect for women, and family values. A hand-written text of the oration was found by Asa Dunlap in the attic of Ingersoll's birthplace. Mr. Dunlap believed that the thoughts in Ingersoll's speech applied as well when he discovered the manuscript as they had when Ingersoll first spoke them, and he took his find to the Geneva Daily Times which published excerpts from the text in its issue of May 31, 1951, 85 years after Robert Ingersoll had addressed the Memorial Day audience of 1866 in Dresden. Herbert Wisbey raises questions about the date and location of the speech.

The past as it were rises before me like a dream. Again we are in the great stuggle for national life. We hear the sound of preparation, the music of the boisterous drums, the silver voices of the heroic bugler. We see the thousands of assemblages. We hear the appeals of orators. We see the pale faces of women and the flushed faces of men and in these assemblages we see all the dead whose dust we have covered with flowers. We lose sight of them no more. We are with them when they enlisted in the great army of freedom. We see them part with those they love. Some are walking for the last time in quiet woody places with the maidens they adore. We hear the whisperings and the sweet vows of eternal love as they lingeringly part forever. Others are bending over cradles kissing babes that are asleep. Some are receiving the blessings of old men. Some are parting with mothers who hold them and press them to their hearts again and again, and say nothing; and some are talking with wives and endeavoring in brave words spoken in old tones to drive away the awful fear. We see them part. We see the wife standing at the door with her babe in her arms standing in the sunlight sobbing at the turn of the road. A hand waves—she answers by holding high in her loving hands the child. He is gone, and forever.

We see them all as they march proudly away under the flaunting flags keeping time with the grand music of war; marching down the streets of the great cities, through the towns, and across the prairies down to the fields of glory to do and die for the eternal right. We go with them one and all. We are by their sides on all the gory fields, in all the hospitals of pain, on all the weary marches. We stand in guard with them in the wild storm and under the quiet

stars. We are with them in the ravines running with blood—in the furrows of old fields. We are with them between the contending hosts, unable to move, wild with thirst, the life ebbing slowly away among the withered leaves, We see them pierced by balls and torn with shells in the trenches of the forts, and in the whirlwind of the charge where men become iron with nerves of steel. We are with them in the prisons of hatred and famine, but human speech can never tell what they endured.

We are home when the news comes that they are dead. We see the maiden in the shadow of her sorrow. We see the silver head of the old man bowed with the last grief. The past rises before us. We. hear the roar and the shriek of the bursting shell. The broken fetters fall. Their heroes died.

We look. Instead of slaves we see men and women and children. The staff of authority, of progress touches the auction block, the slave pen and the whipping post, and we see homes and firesides and schoolhouses and books. And where all was want and crime, cruelty and fear, we see the faces of the free.

These heroes are dead. They died for liberty. They died for us. They are at rest. They sleep in the land they made free under the flag they rendered stainless, under the solid pines, the sad hemlocks, the tearful willows, the embracing vines. They sleep beneath the shadows of the clouds, careless alike of sunshine or storm, each in a windowless palace of rest. Earth may run red with other wars; they are at peace. In the midst of battle, in the roar of conflict, they found the serenity of death. I have one sentiment for the soldier, living and dead. Cheers for the living, and tears for the dead.

The Robert Green Ingersoll Memorial Museum
in Dresden, New York, reopened in May 1995
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