William Howard Taft

Address at Gettysburg

May 31, 1909

We are gathered at this historic spot to-day to dedicate a monument to the memory of the officers and the enlisted men of the Regular Army who gave up their lives for their country in the three days' battle. It is but a tardy recognition of the Nation's debt to its brave defenders whose allegiance was purely to the Nation, without local color or strengthening of State or municipal pride.

The danger of a standing army, entertained by our ancestors, is seen in the constitutional restrictions and the complaints registered in the Declaration of Independence. It has always been easy to awaken prejudice against the possible aggressions of a regular army and a professional soldiery, and correspondingly difficult to create among the people, that love and pride in the army which we find to-day and frequently in the history of the country aroused on behalf of the navy. This has led to a varied and changeable policy in respect to the regular army. At times it has been reduced to almost nothing. In 1784, there were but eighty men who constituted the regular army of the United States, and in Battery F of the 4th Artillery were fifty-five of them; but generally the absolute necessities in the defense of the country against the small wars, which embrace so large a part of our history, have induced the maintenance of a regular force, small to be sure, but one so well trained and effective as always to reflect credit upon the Nation.

In the War of 1812, had we had a regular army of 10,000 men, trained as such an army would have been, we should have been spared the humiliation of the numerous levies of untrained troops and the enormous expense of raising an army on paper of 400,000 or 500,000 men, because with an effective force of 10,000 men, we might have promptly captured Canada and ended the war.

The service rendered by the regular army in the Mexican War was far greater in proportion than that which it rendered in the Civil War, and the success which attended the campaigns of Taylor and of Scott were largely due to that body of men.

To the little army of 25,000 men that survived the Civil War, we owe the opening up of the entire western country. The hardships and the trials of frontier Indian campaigns, which made possible the construction of the Pacific railroads, have never been fully recognized by our people, and the bravery and courage and economy of force compared with the task performed shown by our regular troops have never been adequately commemorated by Congress or the Nation.

To-day, as a result of the Spanish War, the added responsibilities of our new dependencies in the Philippines, Porto Rico, and for some time in Cuba, together with a sense of the importance of our position as a world power, have led to the increase of our regular army to a larger force than ever before in the history of the country, but not larger in proportion to the increase in population and wealth than in the early years of the Republic. It should not be reduced.

The profession of arms has always been an honorable one, and under conditions of modern warfare, it has become highly technical and requires years of experience and study to adapt the officers and men to its requirements. The general purpose of Congress and the American people, if one can say there is a plan or purpose, is to have such a nucleus as a regular army that it may furnish a skeleton for rapid enlargement in time of war to a force ten or twenty times its size, and at the same time be an appropriate instrument for accomplishing the purposes of the government in crises likely to arise, other than a war.

At West Point, we have been able to prepare a body of professional soldiers, well trained, to officer an army, and numerous enough at the opening of the Civil War to give able commanders to both sides of that internecine strife.

Upon the side of the North many of the officers were drafted to command the volunteer troops from the States, while the regular army, aggregating about 10,000 at the opening of the war, was increased to about 25,000 during its first year. More than half this army was engaged in the Battle of Gettysburg. Eleven regiments of infantry, five regiments of cavalry, twenty-six batteries of artillery, and three battalions of engineers. The infantry of the regular army were embraced in two brigades of the Third Division of the Fifth Corps under Major-General Sykes, himself a most able regular army officer. The cavalry was included in a Reserve Division under General Merritt, and the batteries were distributed among various army corps of the entire Federal force.

Two of the most important and determining crises of the three days' battle were, first, the seizure of the Round Tops and the maintenance of the Federal control over that great point of vantage, the possession of which by the Confederate forces would have taken the whole Federal line in the reverse; and the second was the resistance to Pickett's charge on the third day of the battle when the high point in the Confederate advance into Pennsylvania was turned, and Lee was defeated and hurried back into Southern territory, never again to plant his Confederate battle-flags on Northern soil. The taking of the Round Tops and the driving back of the Confederate forces was the work of Sykes' Fifth Army Corps, and especially of the two brigades of the Regular Infantry regiments, in which in killed and wounded alone the regulars lost 20 per cent, of their full number, and some of their brigades, notably Burbank's, lost 60 per cent, in killed and wounded of the men engaged. With a desperate bravery worthy of the cause, they drove back the Confederate forces and enabled General Meade to unite the left of Sickles' 3rd Corps with the right of the 5th Army Corps, and thus presented a shorter but a firmer front with which to withstand the onslaught of Lee's army upon the third day.

Without invidious comparison and in no way detracting from the courage and glory of the other branches of the service who united to resist Pickett's charge, it is well known that much of the effective resistance was by the artillery. The batteries of the regulars and volunteers under General Hunt made the resistance to that awful charge that gave the victory to the Union forces. The soul of Cushing, in charge of Battery F, 4th Artillery, went up with the smoke of the last shots which sent Pickett's men reeling back from the point now marked as the high tide of the Confederacy.

Time does not permit me to mention the names of the heroes of the regular army whose blood stained this historic field, and whose sacrifices made the Union victory possible. With my intimate knowledge of the regular army, their high standard of duty, their efficiency as soldiers, their high character as men, I have seized this opportunity to come here to testify to the pride which the Nation should have in its regular army, and to dedicate this monument to the predecessors of the present regular army, on a field in which they won undying glory and perpetual gratitude from the Nation which they served. They had not the local associations, they had not the friends and neighbors of the volunteer forces to see to it that their deeds of valor were properly recorded and the value of their services suitably noted in the official records by legislation and congressional action, and they have now to depend upon the truth of history and in the cold, calm retrospect of the war as it was, to secure from Congress this suitable memorial of the work in the saving of the country which they wrought here.

All honor to the Regular Army of the United States! Never in its history has it had a stain upon its escutcheon. With no one to blow its trumpets, with no local feeling or pride to bring forth its merits, quietly and as befits a force organized to maintain civil institutions and subject always to the civil control, it has gone on doing the duty which was its to do, accepting without a murmur the dangers of war, whether upon the trackless stretches of our western frontier, exposed to the arrows and the bullets of the Indian, or in the jungles and the rice paddies of the Philippines, on the hills and in the valleys about Santiago in Cuba, or in the tremendous campaigns of the Civil War itself, and it has never failed to make a record of duty done that should satisfy the most exacting lover of his country.

It now becomes my pleasant duty to dedicate this monument to the memory of the regular soldiers of the Republic who gave up their lives at Gettysburg and who contributed in a large degree to the victory of those three fateful days in the country's history.

Source: Presidential Addresses and State Papers of William Howard Taft

William Howard Taft, Address at Gettysburg Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/363249

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