The nation was trying to unite again after the Civil War and Fisher's speech has themes of patriotism, national unity and justification for the Union cause in the war. While extending an olive branch to the South he also makes great effort to justify the Union cause as the war had not been that popular in the North and many were apparently still questioning whether the it had been worth the terrible cost in lives.
In addition to being a good example of 19th century oratory, it also gives us an insight into the issues of the day as well allowing us, who have had to deal with the costs of war in our own century, to feel the emotion of our ancestors who had been through a terrible war themselves.
A year ago these mounds, beneath which dead heroes sleep, were strewn with garlands by loving hands and watered by tears from loving eyes. The flowers that we scattered have long since withered; the Spring that gave the flowers has long since passed away. Summer and Autumn and Winter have come and gone. Each grave has been wrapped in a winding sheet of snow, and bleak winds have sung dirges over the spot which the living had deserted.
But nature never forgets the dead. From her lap she brings forth green blades and leaves and modest wild flowers, and herself decks their graves with beauty. We can only add her gifts to us to her gifts to them. She does more than this; for if there be any tomb unknown to us, or that we have forgotten, any peaceful sleeper in some village churchyard, in the lonely wood, by the roadside, at the ford, on the picket line, or tenting still "on the old camp ground," she has found the spot where he lies, and flung over him her mantle of beauty.
If these graves be dear to her, by how much more are they dear to us!
We read in an old familiar story that one day, in the Roman forum, the earth opened and a great gulf yawned in the very midst. The augurs said that the gulf would never close its horrid mouth until it had been fed with the most precious thing in Rome. There was doubt as to what the most precious thing might be, when a soldier, armed and mounted, rode boldly forward and plunged into the chasm, declaring that there could be nothing so precious as a life given for one's country.
One day, in our own land, stretching from side to side, from ocean to desert, a great gulf yawned dividing in twain families, communities, States, yea, the very nation itself. Into this widening chasm we have cast our most precious possessions, the youth, the strength, the talent, the virtue, the patriotism of the land. From homes where gray-haired grandsires still spoke of Washington, from cabins which sheltered the emigrant of yesterday fresh from the shores that he left in search of freedom, from the lap of luxury, from cramping poverty, from the wayside of the blacksmith, from the broad acres of the farmer, from the woodland clearing of the pioneer, from the jeweled cave of the miner, from the halls where pale students gathered, from the marts of trade where busy merchants thronged with the bounding step of youth, with the sober walk of manhood, ay, and with the halting of age, they come in a great throng to stand between the nation and its foes. Life was as dear to them as to others - death not more welcome, but life must end and death must come, and they sang the song of the old hero "Who kept the bridge so well:"
Then out spoke brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate:
‘To every man upon this earth Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods,
The gulf is cleared, but sealed and scared like these beneath us now and reminding of how great the sacrifice. The storm has passed, but many giants of the forest are laid low, and many trunks are torn and twisted and maimed and blasted. We can never chant in too lofty strains the praises of those who saved the nation. No body of men were ever more unselfish, more truly patriotic, more actuated by noble motives, less led by the love of gain, less goaded by ambition, less deluded by the phantom of glory. Glory! Why, here in or presence, beneath yonder monument, rest more than two regiments of your countrymen, whose very names are unknown yet, whose deeds were as noble, whose loss is as keenly felt, whose places are as hard to fill, and for whom as many tear drops fall as for any whose titles are cut in enduring bronze or sculptured marble. We come not here to mourn the loss of men like these. Fire no minute gun over their graves - toll no funeral bell. Rejoice, rather, that the nation has given birth to such sons. Deck their tombs with the crowns and garlands and laurel wreaths of victory - bid their children and ours mark well their example; and for ourselves, let us draw fresh inspirations of love for our land and for liberty, and seek from them lessons of deliverance from narrow party spirit, greed of gain and lust of power.
And first among these lessons these graves remind us that we have a country. This seemed once to be doubted. We were told by unfriendly nations, and ourselves repeated and half believed the charge, that we were such worshipers of gold that we had lost the love of country; that the very form of our Government had fostered State pride, and destroyed pride in the nation; that men loved party, but not their native land; that they hated their political opponents, but not their country's foes; that, boasting of our liberty, we were a nation of slaves; that our coin was a circulating falsehood, and our flag a flaunting lie. This reproach has been taken away forever; but the answer to the foul slander is found, not so much in the great uprising when Sumter fell - not so much in the flag of BARBARA FRITCHIE, and the thousands of waving banners that floated from loyal house-tops - not so much in gathering bands of armed men, or in the treasure freely offered - it is found here. If any man shall hereafter ask, "Do Americans love their country?" " Have we a nation?" from these mounds shall the question receive its final, conclusive, eternal answer - for if these men had no country, why are they here?
Another lesson, which we review to-day, is the oft-told tale of history, that no nation can live that is founded on wrong. There was a time when we refused to heed this warning; we stilled the voice of conscience and defied the voice of God; we sought in the virtues of our fathers to find excuse for their errors; we put union before right, and with the memory of dead compromises sought to shut out the knowledge of living wrongs. We failed. Not until we stood squarely upon right and liberty did success follow our banners. repenting of our sin, we live, while our foe, who clung to it, has perished. But we were slow to learn this lesson, and the teaching was sharp and terrible - how the young, the brave, the noble, the good, upon either side, were madly sacrificed that we might learn that "Right is Might, and Truth is God." For how many weary days and months and years the war dragged slowly on, while upon both sides men prayed with equal unction for Divine assistance. Both sides were wrong, and no help came to either. When we became right the fight was over. We were fighting for union - they were fighting for slavery. God meant that we should fight for liberty. Whatever statesmen may plan or armies try to execute,
"His truth goes marching on."
It is but a little while since these hills were a great fortification, resounding with the notes of war. Here, in long extended chain, around the seat of Government, stood the men who now, rank upon rank, rest behind the battlements which they built and manned. Then their living bodies protected the Capital of the Nation from the grasp of those who would have seized upon it with unhallowed hands - who would have withstood the will of the people and perverted the free institutions of the land. Those living lines were never broken - the city over which they kept watch and ward was never lost. Today they rest from their labors and hardships, but they remain at the post of duty - they sleep, but they sleep in line of battle, and sleep upon their arms. It seems as if in thy gray of morning, the long roll might break their slumbers and that a mighty host would fall in line and stand again to their guns; and in truth, not less dead than living are they a wall of defense. Let the man who wishes his country ill look well upon these grass-grown mounds. If there be one here who would still destroy what these have preserved, who would impair the right of self government, who would surrender the principles which have baptized in blood and purified by fire who would pull down the statue of liberty and set up a throne - let him look upo0n the shadowy forms of these soldiers of freedom and of the Republic as they form ranks again, again rush to the charge, again shout their war cry and again fall amid the din of strife; and remembering what history they have written, what people they represent, what mothers bore them, what fathers trained them, and what children they have left behind them - let him stay his hand and cry, with one who, like him, loved the bloody road to power: "By Saint Paul, shadows to-night have struck more terrors to the soul of Richard, than could the substance of ten thousand soldiers." For if the hand of treason should again be raised, and the living should stand aloof, it seems as if these graves would open and the dead come forth to shame them. There is yet another lesson which we many learn in this presence. That battle cry is no longer sounded. War's thunders have rolled muttering away, and skies are bright after the storm.
Our heroes are sleeping side by side with those whom they withstood in battle, and they sleep in peace. In the graves dead foes have stricken hands, and proclaimed a truce forever. Let the living strike hands also; for we are not enemies, but brethren. The nobler part of man may succumb to a temporary madness, but he is nevertheless a man; and when the cloud has passed away, he is to be restored to a man's loves and rights and privileges.
Brother, late our foe in battle, but brother still, this country was always our joint inheritance - this flag was always our joint banner. The glory of our past belongs to both of us. Our grandsires and our fathers stood side by side in battle - sat side by side in council. The glory of the future belongs to both of us; this purified land; this great united people; these broad acres, stretching from ocean to ocean, yet bound by a cord of commerce that made of oceans near neighbors, and of mountains level plains; this boundless wealth, this tireless energy, this hunger for progress, this thirst for knowledge - it is yours, it is ours, and no man ca take it from us. We alone can despoil and destroy the rich inheritance. Over brothers' graves let brothers' quarrels die. Let there be peace between us - nay, more, let there be love between us - that these swords that we have learned so well to use may, if ever used again, strike only at the common foe. In a few days assembled thousands in the City of the Pilgrims will sing anthems of peace. Let the song be taken up throughout the land - by the shores of the great lakes, by the waters of the Gulf, in the land of the loom and spindle, in the land of gold, on broad prairies, on sunny savanah - let the chorus again and again break forth, "Peace on earth, good-will toward men." We have had enough of war; too many widows' weeds are scattered in this throng - too many orphan children are gazing upon this scene. It was a just and righteous war. It was nobly fought and nobly won. Thank God it is over; and, let us hope, it will be revived only in memory. And now, we lay our tribute upon these tombs. To these, who rest beneath this tomb of the unknown, lost to fame but great in deeds, let us give our choicest flowers, - for here, unrecognized, may be the form of some stout soldier who stood in the critical hour when the fate of the nation hung trembling in the balance on some bloody field, and when to stand was to gain the victory. The forms of those whom he loved may not be with us to-day. They, alas, know not that he is here, but we know that all who rest in this spot or in yonder vast and beautiful camp of the dead, form a worthy part of the noble army of martyrs, whose epitaph is written "faithful until death."