The fascinating 19th century history behind a Springfield school namesake

April 22, 2018
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.”