“Let us have war” - The Gettysburg veterans who argued against the “Cornerstone Speech”
Updated: Mar 21
In part, this story originated as the February 11, 2019, edition of Monument Dedication Monday, a weekly series available via the Facebook page Codie Eash – Writer and Historian. Entries examine speeches delivered at the consecration of public memorials, particularly those which commemorate the Civil War. The original post may be found here.
Amid the recent revival of debates concerning the Civil War’s legacy, one historical document which has repeatedly been brought forth as evidence of the Confederacy’s central purpose is the infamous “Cornerstone Speech” of Alexander H. Stephens, the Confederate States vice president.
Stephens was born on February 11, 1812, one day shy of his onetime Whig ally Abraham Lincoln’s third birthday. As a former representative from Georgia in the United States Congress, in January 1861 Stephens initially voted against secession when his home state attempted to leave the country soon to be led by Lincoln, via an ordinance which mentioned slavery as the cause of disunion 35 times. Despite his opposition to separation from the Federal government, however, he championed the new Confederate cause wholeheartedly.
Vice President Stephens is perhaps most notorious for his announcement on March 21, 1861, that the “new government” of the Confederacy was “founded upon exactly the opposite ideas” of the United States and its founding documents. The Confederate administration’s “foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man...,” he stated. “Slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new Government, is the first in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
As Union veterans and like-minded Americans flocked to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in the decades following the Civil War, a handful of keynote speakers at the dedication of their monuments noted the power of Stephens’s 1861 address. Other than his role as a diplomatic negotiator on matters pertaining to prisoners of war (and potentially peace discussions) while the armies were moving toward and through Pennsylvania in June and July 1863, Stephens had no direct role in the battle fought at Gettysburg. Nevertheless, many former Federal warriors who once fought there viewed the “Cornerstone Speech” as bombastic and offensive, and thereby used it as a motivational tool in their efforts to defeat the Rebel army in Adams County.
On July 2, 1888 (exactly a quarter-century after the Battle of Gettysburg's second day), T.L. Barhydt represented the 134th New York Infantry at Cemetery Hill. “Here rival armies contended; the one for national, the other for sectional supremacy,” he stated. “The one for the preservation of a great Republic, the home of the oppressed of the earth, in all her greatness and grandeur, with the accursed institution of slavery wiped out forever; the other, to establish a new confederacy of states in which cotton would have been king.”
“Twenty-five years ago you met upon this battlefield...those who were in full opposition to the government of our country,” Barhydt continued, in terms befitting Stephens’s oration regarding the Confederacy. At Gettysburg and on other grounds, he said, U.S. soldiers confronted “those who would have divided this beloved land and forever after at enmity with the North, and espoused all that was in direct opposition to free institutions as a corner stone upon which to establish a confederacy.”
One month later, the Rev. C.F. Hull—a wartime private in the Fifth New York Infantry—noted at the dedication of the Gouverneur K. Warren statue on Little Round Top that as “we glance backward to the outbreak of the war,” it was clear the “fair structure of our Temple of Liberty could not longer be sustained on the corner stone of slavery.” From this, said Hull, “the sulphurous breath of latent battle rage” was borne that manifested itself on fields like Gettysburg.
In the transfer of Pennsylvania monuments to the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association on September 12, 1889, Congressman Edward McPherson spoke in Soldiers’ National Cemetery. The former abolitionist and longtime local Republican powerbroker determined that Union veterans clashed against a Southern army whose soldiers “fought that human slavery...should be made the universal dominating interest in the confederacy”—“the very ‘cornerstone’ of its fabric, the dictator of its polices, and a chief object in its life.”
That same day, Sgt. F.J. Loeble of the 98th Pennsylvania proclaimed that “thousands...on this glorious and renowned field of Gettysburg...stood face-to-face with the most wicked, uncalled for and unscrupulous attempt of traitors and rebels, to overthrow the government and establish slavery on a firm and everlasting foundation.” Proudly, he said, through “unity and devotion to the flag...the inhabitants of the Northern States” defeated those whose idea it was to establish “a separate government, with slavery for its corner-stone.”
Perhaps the most lengthy rhetorical examination that involved mentioning Stephens’s speech came from Chaplain J.C. Truesdale of the 105th Pennsylvania along Emmitsburg Road on September 11, 1889. “This four year’s fratricidal war was a dreadful thing, but for this Nation there was something worse than this war,” said Truesdale. “The dissolution of the Union was worse; slavery was worse; and so, when the gage of battle was thrown down by those who were determined to have a government with slavery for its corner-stone, we said rather than these things, let us have ‘War, dreadful war!’”
Above all others, likely the most famous Gettysburg-related opinion on the “Cornerstone Speech” was from Charles Sumner, the eminent Radical Republican U.S. senator from Massachusetts. On the floor of the Senate, he opined that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of November 19, 1863, was a rhetorical answer to Stephens’s denial that “all men are created equal.” Stephens’s oration was an example of “glorifying...terrible shame,” said Sumner. “To this unblushing avowal Abraham Lincoln replied in that marvelous, undying utterance at Gettysburg,” he decided. This made Lincoln the ultimate “fit voice for the Republic,” and his presence as chief executive amid the nation’s most dire hour “greater than any victory.”
Just as Stephens’s controversial words remain prescient in conversations surrounding the Civil War’s meaning today (nearly 160 years later), so too did they hold immeasurable meaning for the men of the wartime generation itself, including those who participated in the conflict’s costliest battle on the fields of the Keystone State.
 Alexander H. Stephens, “Mr. A.H. Stephens on the ‘Corner-Stone,’” March 21, 1861, in The American Conflict: A History of the Great Rebellion in the United States of America, 1860-’64: Its Causes, Incidents, and Results, compiled by Horace Greeley (Hartford, CT: O.D. Case & Company, 1864), vol. 1, 417.
 “The Mission of A.H. Stephens,” in The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events, with Documents, Narratives, Illustrative Incidents, Poetry, Etc., edited by Frank Moore (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1864), vol. 7, 199-200.
 T.L. Barhydt, “Dedication of Monument. 134th Regiment Infantry,” July 2, 1888, in Final Report of the Battle of Gettysburg, compiled by New York Monuments Commission for the Battlefields of Gettysburg and Chattanooga (Albany, NY: J.B. Lyon Company, 1902), vol. 2, 911.
 Barhydt, July 2, 1888, in Final Report, vol. 2, 911.
 Edward McPherson, “Acceptance of the Monuments on Behalf of the Battle-Field Memorial Association,” Sept. 12, 1889, in Pennsylvania at Gettysburg: Ceremonies at the Dedication of the Monuments Erected by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, PA: E.K. Meyers, 1893), vol. 1, 57.