William Howard Taft

Address at the Unveiling of the Pennsylvania Memorial in Petersburg, Virginia

May 19, 1909

My Fellow Citizens:

We are met to-day on the soil of Virginia to dedicate a memorial to the bravery of the sons of Pennsylvania exhibited in a contest to the death with the sons of Virginia and the South. We stand here in the center of the bloodiest and most critical operations of the last year of the civil war, only a few miles distant from that dramatic scene at Appomattox between Grant and Lee, which marked the great qualities of the heart and soul of each, and which was the real end of the terrific struggle between the two sections. Here, in and about Petersburg, the outworks of Richmond, the home of the Confederacy, were carried on those besieging operations begun late in the spring of 1864 and continued with the courage and the tenacity of purpose characteristic of the Federal commander for nearly a year, and resisted with the bravery and strategy and wealth of expedient of the Confederate leader until the forces of the South, worn out by the constant assaults and the incessant hammering, were compelled to yield to the greater numbers and the greater resources of the North. To Pennsylvania, as one of the great States of the Union, engaged in the determination to save it, fell the burden of furnishing tens of thousands of men for the struggle in every part of the line of attack; but especially in the Army of the Potomac was the force of her people and their devotion to the cause felt. Besides her serried columns, she contributed to the Union army, Major-General George C. Meade, the commander of the Army of the Potomac; four corps commanders, Hancock, Humphreys, Birney, and Parke, together with Gregg, the commander of the cavalry division—a roster of which she may well be proud.

The mine under the Petersburg works which was successfully exploded in the early summer of '64 was the work of the miners of Pennsylvania enlisted in the 48th Regiment of that State, and the work which was done by them called for special mention in the dispatches of General Meade. In the operations in and about Petersburg, from the early summer of '64 until the surrender at Appomattox in '65, there were engaged from Pennsylvania upward of eighty thousand men, a larger number than now constitutes the army of the United States. Upon the 25th of March, 1865, General Lee determined to make an assault upon the Federal besieging lines east of the town, and successfully carried them by attack of a division under General Gordon, only to be ultimately defeated by the attack offered by Hartranft's two Pennsylvania brigades. These brigades had just been recruited and might have been expected to yield to the terrific onslaught of the Confederate veterans; but, taking on the stubbornness and courage of their great brigade commander, they withstood the battle and turned the enemy and added to the martial renown of the Keystone State.

It is forty-four years since the battle of Fort Stedman and the subsequent victory of the Hartranft brigade. In the time which has passed, the bitterness of the internecine struggle has passed away, and we now treasure as a common heritage of the country the bravery and the valor of both sides in that controversy. A memorial which marks the steadfastness, the courage, and the soldierly qualities of the forces engaged in defense of the Union, finds its true significance and meaning in the corresponding bravery and courage of those with whom the battle was fought.

The Army of the Potomac under Grant and Meade was seconded and supported by a generous government. Constant reinforcements, generous supplies of food and clothing, needful fuel and shelter, the tender ministrations of physicians and nurses, and frequent communication with home and friends—all these abounded in the Union lines. It was hardly so with the Confederate forces. Scantily clothed, rarely on more than half-rations and for considerable periods reduced to an allowance of bacon and meal hardly sufficient to sustain life, the long winter through, their shivering infantry manned the ever-extending siege works, and made head against the vigorous assaults of the Union army until their depleted ranks were not longer equal to the defense of their attenuated lines and they gave up the contest which by any other soldiers but the tried and seasoned veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia would long before have been abandoned. We could not dedicate this beautiful and enduring memorial to the volunteer soldiers of Pennsylvania with such a sense of its justice and appropriateness, had they not been confronted by an enemy capable of resisting their assaults with equal valor and fortitude. Pennsylvania's pride must be in the victory achieved by her men against so brave, resolute and resourceful an enemy.

That we can come here to-day and in the presence of thousands and tens of thousands of the survivors of the gallant army of Northern Virginia and of their descendants, establish such an enduring monument by their hospitable welcome and acclaim, is conclusive proof of the uniting of the sections and a universal confession that all that was done was well done, that the battle had to be fought, that the sections had to be tried, but that in the end, the result has inured to the common benefit of all.

The men of the Army of Northern Virginia fought for a principle which they believed to be right and for which they were willing to sacrifice their lives, their homes—all, indeed, which men hold most dear. As we recognize their heroic services, so they and their descendants welcome the great commonwealth of Pennsylvania to the soil of Virginia and join that commonwealth in honoring the services rendered by its gallant sons in the struggle for the preservation of the Union. The contending forces of now half a century ago have given place to a new North and a new South, and to a more enduring union in whose responsibilities and whose glorious destiny we equally and gratefully share.

William Howard Taft, Address at the Unveiling of the Pennsylvania Memorial in Petersburg, Virginia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/365243

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