Decoration Day Speech, Flatbush, Brooklyn, 1896

“News From the Suburbs—

Father Woods’ Decoration Day Oration to Flatbush Veterans”
The Brooklyn Eagle, May 30, 1896, 7.

At 1 pm the James H. Kerswill Post, GAR, of Flatbush, with John W. Werner, commander, and John Norton acting as adjutant, assembled on the corner of Vernon and Flatbush Avenues, and was joined by the Frank D. Head post No. 16, commanded by Peter Nealis, and the members of the Veterans and Sons of Veterans’ Mutual Benefit Union, commanded by Thomas Beirne. They marched in line with a fife and drum corps to Holy Cross Cemetery. Many of the houses were decorated with flags and bunting, and the veterans were cheered by the crowds on Flatbush Avenue. They went to the Chapel, where Father John J. Woods, Pastor of Holy Cross Church, delivered a speech. At the conclusion of the speech, they went into the cemetery to decorate the graves of Union veterans buried there. Tomorrow they will visit the Dutch Reformed Church, Greenwood, and Cypress Hills Cemetery. There was also singing by school children. Father Woods’ speech was transcribed by a reporter:

The observant and careful reader of history, ancient or modern, will not fail to notice that a nation’s glory and existence depend upon the patriotism of her sons and daughters. Patriotism has always characterized genius and virtue. The poet in his lofty flights never sings more sweetly than when he sings the praises of his native land, the sculptor never seems more inspired than when chiseling from the rough marble the image of a patriot, the painter is never more true to nature than when recalling on canvas the victories of his country’s army and virtue never appears so radiant and attractive as when we see it in the tent of Holofernes in the person of Judith or see it at the head of [a] weakened army in the person of Joan of Arc.

Next to love of God comes a love of country. It is one of those qualities, I may say virtues, that loses no beauty by excess. And what is the touchstone of patriotism? Nothing less than the sacrifice of life. ‘Greater love than this no man hath, that he lay down his life for a friend.’ So spoke the eternal Word of God. We may unlock our purses and scatter their golden contents into the lap of a friend, we might stifle our own ambitious designs that a friend may be elevated to social dignity and preferment, we may use our talents and time for his advancement, and yet all these could be tinged with self and expectation of reward.

But when we give life, that is the supremest test of love. For life is the sweetest good that we possess, hunger and thirst may distress us, hunger and pains may rent us, the whole world may be against us and yet we love to live. To give public testimony to of our gratitude for this expression of love causes us to assemble here today in this city of the dead and moves us to breathe a fervent prayer as we place the flowers on our brave soldiers’ graves, that their memory and example might ever stimulate us to love and obey our country and stand to protect by our life’s blood her glorious and heaven sent constitution.

Where in the history of the world can be found any preamble or constitution as that of America. Its enunciation carried hope and consolation to the downtrodden and afflicted of every country, its promulgation and realization by a handful of valiant patriots sent consternation to cruel tyrants and earthly potentates, and proved that more than a human hand guided the destinies of the young republic. The corner stone of this republic was laid in the noblest blood that ever flowed in battle, for it was shed for principle and God given rights that no tyrant or power can stifle, much less destroy.

Our forefathers grabbed the sword and musket, not to extend their territory or possessions, not to further ambitious objects, but to protect their heavenly gift of liberty. ‘Who will dare,’ cried they to the world, ‘deprive us of our right to seek happiness? Who will dare fetter us by unlawful and excessive taxation? Who will deny us the right to worship our Creator according to the dictates of our consciences? None, unless at the loss of our fortunes, our lives and sacred honor. What a magnanimous and noble declaration, and oh, what precious blood was shed for its adoption. Such were the founders of this republic.

They fought and bled and won, and the red stripes of Old Glory were reddened by their sacred blood and the white stripes were whitened by their wives’ and daughters’ tears, while the angels dropped from heaven the thirteen dazzling stars. No such fathers could beget bad children. The flag that represented their victories and sacrifices sent forth a welcome to the uttermost parts of the earth. In a few years our shores were crowded by the emigrant; they heard and read of Bunker Hill and Lexington and they forgot the land of their fathers and said: ‘This is my country; this is my inheritance; America will be my future home.’

They became imbued with the same ardor and enthusiasm as the fathers of the republic. And when their country called upon them to stay the disintegration of the Union they courageously and fearlessly ran to the field of battle, anxious to give evidence of their sincere and holy promises when made citizens of their adopted land. Inspect that throng of noble men which are justly titled Grand Army of the Republic, that extends from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico, and tell me what is their nationality. You cannot.

In that vast throng are the native American, the sturdy Celt, the faithful Teutonic, the loyal countrymen of Lafayette and Kosciusko, the brave ones from every land. Tell me their religion. You cannot. There are Catholics, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists; all denominations joined hand in hand and rubbed shoulder to shoulder, marching and fighting for one cause—the preservation of the Union. Year after year, veterans of the Grand Army, your ranks are being decimated. On day the tap will sound that will call you from this battlefield and unite you with your comrades whom you honor today.

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