George F. Baer’s Oration, Dedication of the Lehigh County Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Allentown, 19 October 1899

George Frederick Baer, president, Reading Company, c. 1904 (public domain)

George Frederick Baer, president, Reading Company, c. 1904 (public domain)

George Frederick Baer, the president of the Reading Company who would go on to also become president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railway Company and the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company in 1901, was one of the major dignitaries chosen to celebrate the dedication of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Allentown on 19 October 1864. According to The Allentown Leader, Baer’s oration was “superb” and “inspiring,” delivered forcibly and “in clear tones” which “commanded attention and silenced the crowd.” According to a compilation of Baer’s writings, published in 1916 by his son-in-law, Baer spoke these words:

It is no easy work to erect a monument which truly symbolizes its purpose, and at the same time meets the requirements of the best art. The Commissioners of Lehigh have been singularly felicitous in the performance of their work, and we can, with one accord, congratulate them on the good taste and judgment they have displayed in the design and erection of this beautiful monument.

This is Lehigh’s Column of Fame. It commemorates the heroism of her dead and her living soldiers and sailors of the Civil War. It perpetuates in granite and bronze their valor and patriotism. It is the people’s tribute to the citizen soldiers. What Pericles said of the Athenians can truthfully be said of American soldiers: ‘Those undoubtedly must be owned to have the greatest souls who, most acutely sensible of the miseries of war and the sweets of peace, are not thereby the least deterred from facing danger.’

Survivors of the war, what memories this scene awakens! Nearly twoscore years have passed since the mighty hosts were marshaled in battle array. A small remnant of the great army remains. The great chieftains have fought their last battles. This column bears in bronze the familiar faces of four of them: McClellan, the great organizer of the Army of the Potomac, removed from command because the public underrated the strength of the enemy and were inpatient for speedy victory; reappointed to its command after Pope’s defeat at Bull Run, he remarshaled the broken columns, and with the speed of an avenger pursued the Confederate Army to the victory at Antietam. Hartranft, the modest ideal soldier, who at a critical moment, when his corps commander was sharply censured for unsuccessful attacks, stormed the bridge, and made success at Antietam possible. Meade, the hero of Gettysburg, not given the highest rank, but the unerring instincts of a generous people place him among the mighty chieftains, ‘proudly eminent’. Hancock, well named ‘the superb’; always equal to the task assigned him. Late in the afternoon of the first day he arrived in the field of Gettysburg. By reason of the death of Reynolds, the noblest and bravest officer killed in battle, the command devolved upon him. With the true genius of a great commander, he rallied the army, checked the advance of the enemy, and formed his lines on impregnable ground against which for two days Lee’s assaults were made in vain.

Mighty warriors were they all! Great Pennsylvanians! What honors they brought to our beloved State! Each time Confederate armies, inspired by victory, invaded the North, they were defeated and driven back by Union forces commanded by Pennsylvania generals.

But what are generals without soldiers, well-officered and trained to brave every danger. The rank and file, the common soldiers, win the battles. If a monument were built to pierce the clouds, space were still wanting to record their names and heroic deeds. They must be content to be known as the Army; their bravery, their patriotism, their wounds, receive the lesser reward; but in merit and quality they are not excelled by the most famous chieftains.

Reverence for heroism and patriotism is universal. From the time Melchizedek blessed Abram on his return from the slaughter of Chedorlaomer and the kings, down to the triumphal reception of our own Admiral Dewey, in all ages and among all peoples the warrior is honored above all other men.

The day chosen for the unveiling of this monument is one of the most noted in American history. To-day [sic], one hundred and eighteen years ago, Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown and practically ended the War of Independence. On the 19th of October, 1864, Sheridan’s famous battle at Cedar Creek was fought. It was the most dramatic and in many features the most brilliant battle of the Civil War. In it the soldiers of Lehigh were most conspicuous, fighting with obstinate courage, and by their example and bravery helping the great Sheridan to turn a disastrous route into a glorious victory. More men from Lehigh were killed and wounded from this battle than in any other in the Rebellion.

War is not the true vocation of the citizens of a great republic. Its deification belongs to barbarous times and to other forms of government. It is impossible, therefore, to truly estimate the services of the heroic men whose lives and deeds you honor, without recalling the causes for which they fought. Independence was proclaimed at Philadelphia, but it was only consummated at Yorktown. The Declaration is the language of statesmen, but Independence itself was the work of the soldiers of the Revolution. Their toils, their sufferings, their heroism, their mighty deeds have earned for them eternal renown. Their example will be in the future, as it has been in the past, the highest incentive to men everywhere struggling for or defending free government. We must never overlook or belittle the American Revolution. It was not a mere separation from Great Britain, but the establishment of a new form of government in the world. A free republic had been a mere aspiration, the dream of poets and the speculation of philosophers. The practical establishment of such an ideal government was left to our ancestors on this new continent.

And what were the new principles of government which the Revolution established?

Equality of all men before the law, the right of self-government, religious liberty, freedom of speech and of the press, trial by an impartial jury, no taxation without representation; and, generally, a government by a wise and impartial system of laws securing without distinction to the humblest and highest in the land the fruits of his labor, and giving full protection to person and property.

We are all so familiar with these things that we forget that this is the only country that ever existed in the world where the citizens enjoy such rights.

The monstrous strides of this new government for eighty years after the battle of Yorktown, down to the breaking-out of the Civil War, need not be recounted here. With old-world complications we refused all entanglements, proclaiming a fixed policy to work out the destiny of this free Republic on the American continent. By a series of unfortunate circumstances the Civil War came upon us. Now that it is ended we can see that the problems involved in it could only be determined by war. Two great controversies arose out of assumed exceptions to the broad general rules of government laid down in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution of the United States. One was that negro slavery was not inconsistent with our theory of government, and the other was that we were not a Nation, but a confederation of States, each retaining its original sovereignty, and having the right at any time to withdraw from the Union. The South honestly believed in the right of secession. The honesty and the earnestness of their belief is attested by the marvelous war they maintained against us for four years. The government set up by the Confederate States was not essentially different from our own. The same high ideals of republican government were retained. This clearly demonstrates that up to that time no one was dissatisfied with free government. In the Southern view the whole conflict turned on the question of slavery and the right of secession, but the settlement of these questions necessarily involved the whole fabric of free constitutional government. The War of the Union was waged to settle these questions for all time. It did settle them. The struggle was terrible. The sacrifices on both sides were enormous. Fame in war is ever measured by the valor and capacity of the contending forces. It is one thing to fight barbarous hordes or enfeebled nations; it is quite another to overthrow ‘foeman worthy of your steel.’ It was American fighting American. We won. Our honor is the greater because of the valor of the foe.

After the lapse of thirty-four years we can review the struggle dispassionately. Our glorious Union is preserved:

‘A Union of land, river, ocean, and sky;
Man breaks not the medal when God moulds the die.’

It is not a mere outward Union, but a union of heart and purpose. Union and Confederate wear one uniform. They respect one another for the valor each displayed. No higher tribute to the great work the soldiers of Lehigh so gallantly helped to achieve can be given than to inscribe on your soldiers’ monument the scene of reconciliation between the blue and the gray, and in four words tell the whole story: ‘One flag, one country.’ A flag and a country worth living for, worth dying for.

The soldiers of the Union not only preserved our Union and our incomparable constitutional liberty, but they established peace and brought about a full reconciliation between the North and South, so that to-day [sic] the survivors of the Confederate cause vie with us in loyalty to the old flag and the old Union. Marvelous record! Only American freemen could accomplish so great a work.

The fundamental principles of our free government can never be changed. They are to a free state what the Ten Commandments are to the Church.

If anyone tells you that free government is a failure, and that the British constitutional monarchy is a better government, believe it not. If ambitious men tire of our peaceful ways and long for a military republic like France, heed them not. If the new generations, inspired by the stories of heroism and the undying fame of the soldiers of the Civil War, seek to become world-conquerors and to spread the Gospel, trade, and liberty by the sword, tell them that conquest is the policy of kings, not a free Republic.

What awful responsibility conscious strength and power involve! From a small Republic we have become a rich, prosperous, and puissant Nation, feared and respected, but not much loved by other nations. Shall we work out our own destiny on the lines of the past, or be allured by the siren-song of a manifest destiny which we cannot resist, to embark on the wide ocean of the old world’s political and social complications? Weaklings and ambitious men see Providence and manifest destiny in any public movement which suits their views and purposes. Strong nations, like strong men, shape their own destinies.

In relief of an oppressed people, struggling for liberty, almost in sight of our shores, we have waged a successful war with Spain. Manila and Santiago have added new victories and ‘full high advanced’ our flag and place among the nations. That war is ended, but the terms of peace have involved us in another. The time to question the statesmanship which produced this unfortunate complication is past. The war is upon us. The honor, dignity, and prestige of the Nation are involved. We cannot now retreat. Law and order must be re-established in the Philippines. It must be done vigorously and effectively. When it is done, perplexing problems will present themselves to the sober judgment of the American people. Their true solution must be found in strict adherence to the great principles and traditions of the Republic, unless the soldiers and sailors whose patriotic deeds this column commemorates fought in vain.

Comrades of the Grand Army of the Republic and of the Loyal Legion: Year by year our ranks grow thinner. Our steps even now are too slow to grace the triumphal procession of modern heroes. We have fought our battles and had our triumphs.

‘Soon, soon, will the fondest be forgotten,
And his name from the earth pass away.’

But long after this stately column of granite and bronze shall have crumbled in the dust the heroism of your deeds and the fame of your achievements will be an inspiration to all peoples fighting the battles of freedom.

 

Sources:

1. A Glorious Day: Yesterday’s Monument Unveiling a Great Success: Gov. Stone’s Taking Little Speech: Praise for Dr. Baer’s Oration. Colonel Shaw Grows Eloquent and General Stewart’s Windup Pleases Everybody. Monument Now in Allentown’s Care, in The Allentown Leader. Allentown: 20 October 1889.

2. Baer, George Frederick. The Unveiling of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, in Addresses and Writings of George F. Baer: Including His Argument before the Anthracite Coal Strike Commission: Collected by his Son-in-law William N. Appel. Lancaster: Self-published by William N. Appel, 1916.

3. The Reading Presidency: George F. Baer Confirms Announcement That He Will Soon Become Head of the Reading Interests, in New York Times. New York: 1 April 1901.

 

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