The fascinating 19th century history behind a Springfield school namesake

Warren Keifer. Photos courtesy of the Clark County Historical Society.
Warren Keifer. Photos courtesy of the Clark County Historical Society.

Editor’s note: This column first published on May 29, 2017.

This Memorial Day, Clark Countians may need to be reminded that Gen. J. Warren Keifer’s last name rhymes with Michelle Pfeiffer’s last name and isn’t pronounced like Kiefer Sutherland’s first.

It also would bear mention that the man for whom Springfield’s public alternative high school is named commanded a brigade of Ohio soldiers that suffered 3,387 casualties in the last two years of the Civil War.

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But in 1879, when he rose to give the main address at Arlington National Cemetery for what was then called Decoration Day, no such reminders were needed. For Keifer, the nation’s capital was becoming like Cheers: a place where everybody knew his name.

Two years away from his election as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Ohio’s 7th District congressman had reason to feel that invitation to speak at Arlington had ushered him into a position of national prominence in the same way Washington’s Evening Star said the weather had ushered in that year’s holiday: “with a pleasant atmosphere and gentle winds which tempered the rays of the sun.”

The newspaper reported that Washington was “quiet as Sunday on the streets” that day and that “the green of the healthy well-kept sward” of the grass at the burial ground made for “a very picturesque contrast with the red roads and footways” crisscrossing it like base paths.

With the rest of the procession, Keifer, who had steadily risen through the ranks in the four years he served in the Union Army, made the customary, sobering stop at what was then called “the tomb of the 2,000 unknown dead.”

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Proceedings then moved to the cemetery’s amphitheater, where he no doubt took note of the flags of the Grand Army of the Republic, the organization of Union veterans he had headed in Ohio and whose national body had helped establish the event honoring the Union dead 11 years before.

At the lectern, Keifer quickly set the historic and geographic stage for the observance.

He mentioned the Statue of Freedom on the nation’s Capitol; “the beautiful Potomac,” which he predicted would be “famed in future years as the Thames, the Tiber and the Nile”; and that, not far away, “the immortal Lincoln … (had) poured out his heart’s blood … upon this country’s altar, to mingle with that of the hundreds of thousands who also paid the penalty of self-sacrificing devotion to national unity and honor.”

He noted that Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, was “just over the horizon”; that during the war, Arlington’s grounds had been “within easy sound of the cannon roar from the many battlefields”; and that soil of the grounds, once “watered with the tears of slaves” had since become home to “the earthly ‘chambers of repose’ of the gory bodies and mangled remains of the Union dead, gathered from hospital and battlefield to the number of 16,000.”

Keifer called them “the loyal dead” with a purpose he could not have known would resonate with events that transpired just this month in New Orleans.

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When “the orator paid a tribute to the bravery of the American soldier,” The Evening Star reported, “he made a distinction between the bravery of soldiers in a good and those in a bad cause,” mentioning Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, and Lee, its leading general, in the same paragraph as Revolutionary War traitor Benedict Arnold.

Then he praised the loyal soldiers who had saved the country.

Had it not been for the actions of the loyal Union dead, Keifer said, “at least one new nation would have been in being, having for its primal object the preservation and perpetuation of human slavery …. (and) instead of being a united, liberty-loving people with singleness of purpose, with one flag and one destiny … there would have been two feeble nationalities engaged in exhausting the resources and energies of each other in perpetual strife.”

In doing so he repeated an argument that had been advanced by Lincoln, the man who, like him, had received little formal education in what then was known as the country’s west, and, like him, had read for the law with a local lawyer who would practice in the Springfield of another state.

As Lincoln had at Gettysburg, Keifer linked the soldiers’ sacrifice to a higher purpose.

“While their lives ebbed out on the bloody field of war or they died more slowly of wounds, want or disease in hospital or prison, their country remained a great beacon-light of liberty – that last hope of freedom to the oppressed. But for these 16,000 dead and their dead and living comrades, the government of the people, by the people and for the people would have perished from the earth.”

“Imbued with the patriotism, their love of constitutional liberty and the spirit of nationality,” Keifer said near the close of his speech, “let us transmit these qualities unimpaired to our posterity.”

Like Boehner, Keifer was Speaker of the House in tempestuous times

Wittenberg University History Professor Thomas T. Taylor said that J. Warren Keifer’s first and only stint as Speaker of the House from 1881-1883 turned out nearly as bitterly as the final term of the other district representative to hold the post, John Boehner.

In a presentation at the 7th annual Springfield Civil War Symposium last month, Taylor told his audience Keifer took the post at a “tempestuous, contentious” period in American politics, a time in which politics was awash in money from railroad and steel lobbies and in which Congress had “very few rules” governing contributions.

As a result, he said, political attacks against Keifer and other leaders were “always couched in terms of corruption or dishonesty or fraud,” perhaps a legacy of the troubled two terms of former Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

By the 1880s, another political reality had arrived: Because of disappointment with national politics, the once fashionable habit of turning to people with wartime leadership for national leadership “was getting a little old,” Taylor said, just as the swallowtail suit of the late 1860s had given way to the sack suit of the 1880s.

Not chosen to serve a second term as speaker, Keifer was defeated in his primary bid for a return to Congress two years later. After biding his time, however, Keifer again served Ohio’s 7th District in Congress from 1905-1911, and, in that time of Jim Crow became what Taylor called “quite an advocate of equal voting rights.”

A newspaper headline of the time announced Keifer’s plans to “lead the fight in the house against “disfranchisement,” the word of the times for disenfranchisement.

When the Spanish American war came, President William McKinley, a fellow Ohioan, brought Keifer back to duty as a major general of volunteers in 1898. Even in 1910 at age 74, Keifer visited the White House offering take to the battlefield yet again. He was still active in public service, attending a peace conference in Europe, on the eve of World War I.

“This is a fellow who did not stop,” said Taylor.

Keifer worked as a lawyer and president of the Lagonda National Bank until he was 91, and survived until April 22, 1932, 85 years to the day before Taylor gave his presentation.

An Associated Press story reported that when he died of “the infirmities of old age,” Keifer was one of the last surviving generals of the Civil War.

Keifer is buried in Ferncliff cemetery not far from graves of Union veterans buried at Civil War mound who knew not only how to pronounce Keifer’s name, but what he had accomplished.

— Tom Stafford

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