Dedicating a Memorial to Colonel William Colvill

Title: Dedicating a Memorial to Colonel William Colvill

Date: July 29, 1928

Location: Cannon Falls, MN

Context: This speech was delivered at a memorial dedication to an American Civil War hero, Colonel William Colvill, who had adopted Cannon Falls, Minnesota as his hometown in the 1850s. Colvill went on to lead the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the war

Fellow Citizens:

Heroic deeds have about them an element of immortality. We stand in reverence before those who perform them and cherish their memory down through the ages because we recognize in them the manifestation of a spiritual life, the evidence of things not seen, a presence which was without beginning and is without end, a power that lifts men above the things of this earth into the realm of the divine. Except as we cherish a belief in these realities, we should have no requirement for heroic deeds and no reverence for those who do them. Because of their very nature, because a knowledge of them inspires us to higher things, it is altogether fitting that we should assemble on this Lord’s Day to reconsecrate ourselves by dedicating a memorial to one of the heroes of the Battles of Gettysburg. Because we believe in the reality of right and truth and justice, and recognize the necessity of supporting them with every necessary sacrifice, including life itself, we could not be engaged in any more devotional action than in reverencing the memory of those who have nobly responded to that high conception of eternal duty.

Heroism is not only in the man but in the occasion. While there is a certain glamor which attaches itself to the peril which the highwayman and the bandit incur in their criminal activities, it is not genuinely heroic. It will not survive analysis. It leads nowhere. Having no moral quality, it provides no inspiration. It is only a counterfeit of the reality. If it is remembered at all, it is not as a blessing but as a curse.

The memorial which we dedicate to-day is not only to the physical courage of men of high character displayed in an hour of great peril, but also in behalf of a great cause. There was in their deed no element of selfishness, no hope of personal gain. It stands as an exhibition of pure patriotism, of supreme sacrifice for the integrity of the Union, and the inviolate sovereignty of the Federal Constitution. It is these qualities which bring the great concourse of our citizens to do honor to the action of Colonel Colvill and his regiment more than three score years after the event. That same honor will continue to be paid them not only so long as the Nation which they served shall endure, but so long as self-sacrificing devotion to high ideals commends itself to the heart of men.

The story of Col. William Colvill and the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry is too well known to need extended repetition. When President Lincoln called for volunteers to prevent the dissolution of the Union, this was the first regiment offered. It gave valiant service upon many a resolutely contested field, but its most conspicuous record was made at Gettysburg on the second day of that decisive battle. When the forces under the command of General Sickles advanced into action a little after noon, the First Regiment, of which only eight companies were present, numbering 262 men, took the position they vacated. The overwhelming forces of the Confederates under Longstreet and Hill repulsed and drove back the command of General Sickles and were advancing on the left flank of the Union Army, which was in grave danger of being rolled up in defeat. It was at this juncture that General Hancock ordered this depleted regiment to charge the advancing Confederates.

The gallant First Minnesota, led by Colonel Colvill, at once responded with an impetuosity that broke the first and second line of the enemy and stopped the advance. When the action was over but 47 men of the 262 who began the charge were still in line. The remaining 215 lay dead or wounded on the field. In all the history of warfare this charge has few, if any, equals and no superiors. It was an exhibition of the most exalted heroism against an apparently insuperable antagonist. By holding the Confederate forces in check until other reserves came up, it probably saved the Union Army from defeat. What that defeat would have meant to the North no one can tell. Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and the whole heart of the North would have been open to invasion, and perhaps the Union cause would have been lost. So far as human judgment can determine, Colonel Colvill and those eight companies of the First Minnesota are entitled to rank as the saviors of their country.

We may well stop to consider on this Sabbath Day what Power it was that stationed these men at this strategic point on this occasion, which held so much of the hope of humanity. We can only infer that it was the same Power which guided the path of the Mayflower, which gave our country Franklin and Washington, which brought this northwestern territory into the Union through the miraculous victory of George Rogers Clark at Vincennes and peopled it with a freedom-loving immigration, which raised up Lincoln and Grant, which went to the rescue of liberty in Cuba and on the fields of France. Was it not the same Power which set these men as Its sentinels on that July day to guard the progress of humanity? As we behold it all we can but conclude in the words of Holy Writ that, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

The time has come when our whole country can take a more dispassionate view of the long train of events that led up to Appomattox and the new constitutional guaranties of freedom to every inhabitant under our flag. Our national life was begun without any adequate and final declaration of the principle of freedom or demarcation of the line separating the authority of the States and the authority of the Federal Union. Some of the ablest minds of the country honestly differed in their interpretation of our institutions.

As the intensity of opinions and their application to the practical affairs of life of each side developed, they necessarily gave rise to what was described as an irrepressible conflict. That generation of the South found itself involved in a net of circumstances which very much of its best thought undoubtedly deplored, but from which it was totally unable to extricate itself. We can see now that instead of being charged with all the blame, they were in many ways entitled to sympathy. Our country was all involved in a great national tragedy from which it could extricate itself only by an appalling national sacrifice. That tragedy involved both the North and the South. The conditions which brought about the great conflict were national conditions. It was humanly impossible for either section of itself to furnish an adequate solution. If there was to be an extension of freedom under constitutional guaranties it had to be brought about by national action. Any adequate expiation required the cleansing of the heart of the whole Nation. This could only be accomplished through an immeasurable sacrifice made in the tears of our women and the blood of our men.

When the great tragedy was passed, when the tumult of the conflict had ceased, the North found itself depleted, but the South was entirely prostrated. It was under the necessity of rebuilding its whole social and economic structure. The recovery of the North began more early, because it was not compelled to establish its methods of life and of business on new theories. It was possible to build on the solid foundations that were already laid. In the South it was necessary to go through the long and painful process of erecting an entirely new structure. The old methods of existence and of business had to be discarded and new systems established. This would have been most difficult under any circumstances. Coming at the end of four years of conflict, it was well-nigh impossible. But the task was performed slowly and imperfectly at first, but in recent years with a rapidity that seemed scarcely possible.

The agriculture which had been the dominant activity of the old South was gradually revived. Then came the development of its natural resources of coal, iron, and water power, and the growth of great manufacturing enterprises. Minerals and manufactured products are to-day almost twice the value of its agriculture. Of our overseas commerce, nearly 40 per cent of the tonnage is from southern ports. Since 1900 the value of manufactured products increased from about $1,500,000,000 to about $9,500,000,000. Capital invested in cotton manufacturing increased from about $130,000,000 to about $1,000,000,000. Deposits in banks in the same period have risen from $700,000,000 to $7,000,000,000. In public improvements the progress has been very marked. In 1904 less than $13,000,000 were spent on highways. In 1925 this amount had reached $316,000,000. In 1900 only about $35,000,000 were laid out for public schools. In 1924 this amount had risen to over $350,000,000. It is perfectly apparent that in progress and prosperity the South is going forward in a way which it could never have done under the old system. It is no wonder that it is referred to now as the new South.

It has been demonstrated that what never could have been created under a condition of servitude is the almost natural result of a condition of freedom. Human nature has been so designed that men are only at their best when they are permitted to live like men. It is when they are released from the bondage of the body, given control over their own actions, receive the returns from their own labor, and released from bondage of the mind so that ignorance and superstition are replaced by education and moral influences, that most progress is made toward an enlightened civilization.

Meantime, our whole Nation has risen into a new life with unparalleled swiftness. Out of the sacrifices that were made in our war labor was given a new dignity throughout the whole country. Since that time its position has almost constantly improved, until to-day the value of human effort is recognized in this country by a system of wages and a standard of living never before reached in all past history. We have been taught that it is profitable not only that labor should be free but that it should be well paid. Under that practice our national income advanced from about $65,000,000,000 in 1921 to about $90,000,000,000 in 1927. These material results would not have been possible without the spiritual regeneration of our country.

One result of the war which retarded our national progress for many years was the bitterness, hatred, and sectional animosities that it left in its wake. For many years, both for the North and for the South, these were unfortunately stimulated and kept alive for the political advantage that the sponsors of such action hoped to secure. The time has long since passed when to hold or express such hostile sentiments should ever be permitted to work to the advantage of anyone. Those who resort to them should find that their standing in the public confidence is thereby seriously impaired. While isolated outbreaks may continue to occur in unresponsible quarters, I am firmly convinced that the responsible elements both in the North and the South each look with pride and satisfaction upon the brilliant contribution which the other is making to the national welfare and are just as eager to help the other as they are to help themselves. A notable example of this occurred in the last session of the Congress when the flood-relief measure for the lower Mississippi Valley, which will probably equal in cost the Panama Canal and a very large amount of which will be paid for by Northern States, passed by practically a unanimous vote. The day for sectionalism is passed. We are a united Nation.

It is in accordance with these conceptions that we have come to-day to dedicate this memorial and to rededicate ourselves to the support and preservation of those principles which have been revealed to us through the human understanding to be true and demonstrated through long experience to be sound. We have come to increase our admiration for all that is heroic in life, to express our reverence for those who have made sacrifices for the well-being of their fellow men, to renew our fealty to the Constitution of the United States, to rejoice in the universal freedom which it guarantees and in the perfect Union which it has created, and finally for all these blessings in gratitude and humility to acknowledge our dependence upon the Giver of every true and perfect gift.

Citation: The Price of Freedom

The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of John Struck, who prepared this document for digital publication.

One Response to “Dedicating a Memorial to Colonel William Colvill”

  1. John Struck

    I am reminded of the ideals of “rugged individualism” which emerged at the end of the 1920s. President Coolidge’s celebration of the individual, Colonel William Colvill, in this case, is also a celebration of America. Coolidge aptly points out Colvill’s heroism during the Battle of Gettysburg as being instrumental in helping the Union Army winning the battle and ultimately saving the nation; laying the groundwork for the economic growth in the decades which followed the war. The memorial dedicated to honor one American hero can represent the countless thousands of similar heroes in American history.

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