Memorial Day Remarks at the Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia

May 30, 1906

This day is hallowed and sacred in our history, for on this day throughout the land we meet to pay homage to the memory of the valiant dead who fell in the great Civil War. No other men deserve so well of this country as those to whom we owe it that we now have a country. Moreover, the men to whose valor we owe it that the Union was preserved have left us a country reunited in fact as well as in name. They have left us the memory of the great deeds and the self-devotion alike of the men who wore the blue and of the men who wore the gray in the contest where brother fought brother with equal courage, with equal sincerity of conviction, with equal fidelity to a high ideal, as it was given to each to see that ideal.

Moreover, it is a peculiar pleasure to speak today under the auspices of the Army and Navy Union, of the Union which is meant to include the officers and enlisted men of the regular forces of the United States. Exactly as there is no other body of men to whom in the past we have owed so much as to the veterans of the Civil War, so there is no other body of men among all of our citizens of to-day who as a whole deserve quite as well of the country as the officers and enlisted men of the Army and the Navy of the United States. Every man who has served well and faithfully, afloat or ashore, in the service of the United States, has shown that he possesses certain qualities which entitle him in a peculiar degree to the respect of all his fellow-citizens, while every man who is now in the service can not but feel himself uplifted by the thought that in any time of future crisis it may be that the honor of the whole Nation will depend upon his bearing. There rests upon each of you a tremendous burden of responsibility, and therefore to you belongs the proud privilege of bearing that load of responsibility well.

This audience is composed largely of veterans of the Civil War, largely of men who have served in or are serving in the Army and the Navy of the United States. They are concerned not only with the duties of the soldier and the sailor, but with the duties of the civilian, with all matters affecting the plain, everyday citizen as he does his everyday duties. For we must always remember that in our country our Army and Navy are an army and navy made up of volunteers; all our forces are volunteers ; our regulars, afloat and ashore, are merely our fellow-citizens who of their own free will have taken up this particular task. The task once through, they return to the body of our citizenship; and exactly as the efficiency of our military service depends chiefly upon the efficiency of the average enlisted man, so the efficiency of the nation as a whole depends chiefly upon the way in which the average man performs his plain, everyday duties.

This does not mean that the leader, whether in military or civil life, can escape bearing a peculiar burden of responsibility. To him has been given much and from him much will be demanded. It is right and proper that the man in a high position, whether his position be that of a high civilian official in time of peace or of a high military or naval officer in time of war, should receive a marked degree of credit if he performs his difficult, delicate, and responsible task well, and should, on the other hand, be held to an especially sharp accountability for any shortcomings. In any time of crisis the man in high office in civil life, the man in high command in military or naval life, can, if he be weak or incompetent, paralyze the actions of a multitude of brave and able men who are under him. On the other hand, if in intellect, and above all, in character, he is able to rise level to the need of the moment, he may so combine and direct the actions of the many under him as to make their joint effort irresistible. The first duty of a leader, civil or military, is to lead; and he must lead well. Exactly as the people must demand the highest grade of integrity and efficiency from their leaders in civil affairs, so in military affairs they must insist upon every officer devoting all the best that there is in him to fitting himself in the duties of his profession, to caring for and drilling and training those under him, so that alike in point of personnel and in point of materiel the Army and Navy of the United States may reach as high a point of perfection as is humanly possible. This is the work that only the leaders can do; and if they shirk it their shame is unspeakable.

Nevertheless it remains true that no leader can accomplish very much unless he has the right kind of men to lead. Unless the enlisted man has the right stuff in him it stands to reason that no officer can get it out of him, because it is not there to get out. So in civil life, if all our leaders were Washingtons and Lincolns they could, nevertheless, make no permanent improvement in our citizenship unless the average citizen had in him the capacity for such improvement. In the last analysis it is the man behind the ballot who counts most in civil life, just as it is the man behind the gun who counts most in military life.

We can not too highly honor the memory of the leaders in the Civil War—of Grant and Lee, of Sherman and Johnston, of Stonewall Jackson and Sheridan, of Farragut and of the captains who fought under and against him. But after all the man upon whom the chief credit must rest was the plain man in the ranks, the man in blue or in gray who went in to see the war through, and who did see it through. He had the courage to stand without flinching the bickering of the skirmishes and the hammering of the great fights; he had the steadfast endurance to bear with uncomplaining resolution the hunger and the heat and the cold, the scorching days and the freezing nights, the grinding, heartbreaking fatigue of the marches, the wearisome monotony of the camps, and the slow suffering of the field hospitals. So in the Army and the Navy today, in the last analysis we must depend upon having the right stuff in the enlisted man and then upon having that stuff put into proper shape. So again in our Republic as a whole it is just as true in peace now as it was forty-five years ago in war that it is the character of the average man that must be the determining factor in achieving national success or going down to national disaster. Leadership is necessary in order that we may get really good results out of a high average of individual character; but without the high character in the average individual the leadership by itself can avail but little.

Now it is easy to say this in words which shall imply merely flattery of the average voter or of the average enlisted man. I certainly do not intend my words to be so taken. It is a sure sign of weakness in any man if he is always wanting to be flattered, and especially if he lets his head be turned by flattery. The average voter needs to learn and to keep steadily in mind the fact that if in the last resort the real power is his, so in the last resort the real responsibility is his. He can not cast off on any one else the responsibility for our governmental shortcomings. Nothing is cheaper than to say that the people are all right but that the politicians are all wrong. As a matter of fact, politics, and therefore politicians, will in the long run represent faithfully either the wishes or the indifference of the people; and if the people are indifferent the results are just about as bad as if they deliberately choose to go wrong. So it is with the enlisted man. When I call attention to the high place he holds, and must ever hold in the esteem of every sensible man, I do it less with the intention of emphasizing the respect due him by outsiders than with the intention of making him realize the burden of honorable obligation resting upon his shoulders. By unwearied effort he must learn to do his duty, whether that duty lies afloat or ashore, whether it lies in the cavalry or the infantry, in the gun turret or in the engine room. He must be able to handle himself and to handle the formidable and delicate mechanism intrusted to his care in such manner that if ever it becomes his fortune to take part in battle for the flag another page shall be added to the many which go to make up the long honor roll of American history.

In closing I ask your attention to the fact that our soldiers and sailors are able to do their duty in great emergencies even other than those of war. Recently the most appalling disaster that has ever befallen any city in our country, the most appalling disaster that has befallen any city of the same size for a century past, befell the great and beautiful city of San Francisco. In the midst of their horror and pity and sympathy the rest of our people were rendered proud and glad by the courage, the self-reliance, the self-command shown by the men and women of San Francisco themselves under the sudden and awful calamity which had befallen them. We had yet another source of pride in the fact that the first Americans outside the city who were able to extend relief and help were the officers and enlisted men of the garrison and the ships in the immediate neighborhood of San Francisco. The alertness, the instant response to the demand made upon them, the mixture of self-reliant initiative with orderly obedience and coherence of action, the high personal valor and the steady endurance and strength shown by the soldiers and sailors of the Regular Army and Navy in coping with this disaster, were as great as if shown in time of battle. Such a record should make every true American proud of the Army and the Navy, and should make every true American resolute to see that through our national authorities at Washington we make such provision by law for the maintenance, the support, and the training of the Army and the Navy that they shall ever stand in the forefront of their respective professions.

Source:  Theodore Roosevelt, Presidential Addresses and State Papers, April 14, 1906 to January 14, 1907 vol. V, New York: The Review of Reviews Company 1910. P 748.

The title of this document is the one provided in Presidential Addresses and State Papers. The New York Times  (May 31, 1906, p.1) identified the location of Roosevelt's speech as the Naval Hospital at Portsmouth, Virginia, not to be confused with the Naval Yards at Portsmouth NH.  The Naval Yards hosted the negotiations to end the Russo-Japanese War, for which Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906.

Theodore Roosevelt, Memorial Day Remarks at the Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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