Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Soldier's Final Letter

The first major land battle of the Civil War, the First Battle of Bull Run, was fought on July 21, 1861, so we're coming up on its 150th anniversary next week. Soldiers preparing for the fight were of course well aware that they might not return from the battlefield, and prepared by writing letters home. Major Sullivan Ballou, of the Second Rhode Island Volunteers, wrote a loving letter to his wife Sarah on July 14, exactly 150 years ago. It's too long to copy in full, but I hope you will follow the link and read the whole thing. Have tissues handy.

Here is an excerpt:

Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure - and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine 0 God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing - perfectly willing - to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.

But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows - when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children - is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country?

I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death -- and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country, and thee.

The Confederacy won the First Battle of Bull Run, and Major Ballou was among the dead. The terrible battle seems to have been the first time that both sides realized that this was not going to be a fun little war with lots of banners and glory, but a long and horrifying slog.

If you live somewhere around Virginia, I'm sure you've heard about it already, but there will be a lot of commemoration going on this year. A big re-enactment of the First Battle of Bull Run will be performed soon, so maybe you'll want to go and see it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A note from Jefferson Davis

After South Carolina seceded from the Union, Mississippi was the next to follow. Jefferson Davis, the senator from Mississippi, was chosen as President of the Confederacy, and wrote to former U. S. President Franklin Pierce about the impending war. (Pierce was from New Hampshire, but was a "doughface" --a Northerner who supported the Confederacy--which ruined his reputation.) Davis had served as Pierce's secretary of war; the men knew each other well and corresponded.

Here is the letter:

Washington D.C. Jany. 20. 1861

My dear friend,

I have often and sadly turned my thoughts to you during the troublous times through which we have been passing and now I come to the hard task of announcing to you that the hour is at hand which closes my connection with the United States, for the independence and Union of which my Father bled and in the service of which I have sought to emulate the example he set for my guidance. Mississippi not as a matter of choice but of necessity has resolved to enter on the trial of secession. Those who have driven her to this alternative threaten to deprive her of the right to require that her government shall rest on the consent of the governed, to substitute foreign force for domestic support, to reduce a state to the condition from which the colony rose. In the attempt to avoid the issue which had been joined by the country, the present Administration has complicated and precipitated the question. Even now if the duty "to preserve the public property" was rationally regarded the probable collision at Charleston would be avoided. Security far better than any which the federal troops can give might be obtained in consideration of the little garrison of Fort Sumpter. If the disavowal of any purpose to coerce So. Ca. be sincere the possession of a work to command the harbor is worse than useless.

When Lincoln comes in he will have but to continue in the path of his predecessor to inaugurate a a civil war and, leave a soi disant democratic administration responsible for the fact. Genl. Cushing was here last week and when we parted it seemed like taking a last leave of a Brother.

I leave immediately for Missi. and know not what may devolve upon me after my return. Civil war has only horror for me, but whatever circumstances demand shall be met as a duty and I trust be so discharged that you will not be ashamed of our former connection or cease to be my friend.

I had hoped this summer to have had an opportunity to see you and Mrs. Pierce and to have shown to you our children. Mrs. Davis was sorely disappointed when we turned Southward without seeing you, I believe she wrote to Mrs. Pierce in explanation of the circumstances which prevented us from executing our cherished plan of a visit to you when we should leave West Point.

Mrs. Davis joins me in kindest remembrance to Mrs. Pierce and the expression of the hope that we may yet have you both at our country home. Do me the favor to write to me often, address Hurricane P.O. Warren County, Missi.

May God bless you is ever the prayer of your friend

Jeffn. Davis

Looking back to people who felt that their actions were necessary and just at the time is always somewhat strange. Lines like "Mississippi not as a matter of choice but of necessity has resolved to enter on the trial of secession. Those who have driven her to this alternative threaten to deprive her of the right to require that her government shall rest on the consent of the governed..." have so much unintended irony that it's hard to look at them objectively. It always makes me wonder what our descendants will say about us.

The plantation pictured here is the Hurricane Plantation that Davis gives as his address. It belonged to his older brother, and a side division of the land called Brierfield was given to Davis.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

John Brown and Harpers Ferry

In October 1859 a zealous abolitionist named John Brown led a raid on the town of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, to take weapons from the armory and rally the slaves there to a rebellion. It was an utter disaster; half of Brown's men were killed, and the other half were taken (by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee) and tried for treason. Of course, all were found guilty and executed.

As he lay in prison awaiting his execution, John Brown wrote to his minister, one D. R. Tilden:

Charlestown, 28 November, 1859


My Dear Sir-- Your most kind and comforting letter of the 23d inst. is received. I have no language to express the feelings of gratitude and obligation I am under for your kind interest in my behalf ever since my disaster. The great bulk of mankind estimate each other's actions and motives by the measure of success or otherwise that attends them through life. By that rule, I have been one of the worst and one of the best of men. I do not claim to have been one of the latter, and I leave it to an impartial tribunal to decide whether the world has been the worse or the better for my living and dying in it. My present great anxiety is to get as near in readyness for a different field of action as I well can, since being in a good measure relieved from the fear that my poor broken-hearted wife and children would come to immediate want. May God reward a thousandfold all the kind efforts made in their behalf! I have enjoyed remarkable cheerfulness and composure of mind ever since my confinement; and it is a great comfort to feel assured that I am permitted to die for a cause, not merely to pay the debt of nature, as all must. I feel myself to be most unworthy of so great distinction. The particular manner of dying assigned to me gives me but very little uneasiness. I wish I had the time and the ability to give you, my dear friend, some little idea of what is daily, and I might almost say hourly, passing within my prison walls : and could my friends but witness only a few of these scenes, just as they occur, I think they would feel very well reconciled to my being here, just what I am, and just as I am. My whole life before had not afforded me one half the opportunity to plead for the right. In this, also, I find much to reconcile me to both my present condition and my immediate prospect. I may be very insane ; and I am so, if insane at all. But if that be so, insanity is like a very pleasant dream to me. I am not in the least degree conscious of my ravings, of my fears, or of any terrible visions whatever ; but fancy myself entirely composed, and that my sleep, in particular, is as sweet as that of a healthy, joyous little infant. I pray God that he will grant me a continuance of the same calm but delightful dream, until I come to know of those realities which eyes have not seen and which ears have not heard. I have scarce realized that I am in prison or in irons at all. I certainly think I was never more cheerful in my life.

I intend to take the liberty of sending by express to your care some trifling articles for those of my family who may be in Ohio, which you can hand to my brother Jeremiah when you may see him, together with fifteen dollars I have asked him to advance to them. Please excuse me so often troubling you with my letters or any of my matters. Please also remember me most kindly to Mr. Griswold, and to all others who love their neighbors. I write Jeremiah to your care. Your friend in truth,

John Brown.

I thought it was an interesting letter; assuming he was telling the truth about his feelings, Brown seems to have felt no fear for himself, only for his family (in fact he refused to escape when a friend arrived to help him get out of prison). I wonder how they fared afterwards--I would guess that they had to leave the area quickly.

On the day of his execution, Brown wrote, "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done." He was convinced that the only way to rid the country of slavery was through violence, and his actions did quite a lot to push the country toward civil war. People still argue today over whether Brown was a hero or a terrorist.

Years later, American soldiers turned a camp revival hymn known as Brothers, Will You Meet Us into a marching song called John Brown's Body. It went through several permutations (often quite vulgar ones) and settled for some time into this form:

Old John Brown’s body lies moldering in the grave,
While weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save;
But tho he lost his life while struggling for the slave,
His soul is marching on.
John Brown was a hero, undaunted, true and brave,
And Kansas knows his valor when he fought her rights to save;
Now, tho the grass grows green above his grave,
His soul is marching on.
He captured Harper’s Ferry, with his nineteen men so few,
And frightened "Old Virginny" till she trembled thru and thru;
They hung him for a traitor, they themselves the traitor crew,
But his soul is marching on.
John Brown was John the Baptist of the Christ we are to see,
Christ who of the bondmen shall the Liberator be,
And soon thruout the Sunny South the slaves shall all be free,
For his soul is marching on.
The conflict that he heralded he looks from heaven to view,
On the army of the Union with its flag red, white and blue.
And heaven shall ring with anthems o’er the deed they mean to do,
For his soul is marching on.
Ye soldiers of Freedom, then strike, while strike ye may,
The death blow of oppression in a better time and way,
For the dawn of old John Brown has brightened into day,
And his soul is marching on.
--by William Weston Patton

I'm sure that looks familiar, for a few years later Julia Ward Howe turned it into The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Birthday!

Happy Independence Day! I started this project one year ago, meaning to finish it today. But my plans have changed; I'm nowhere near 2011, for one thing, and I'd like to continue the project indefinitely. So stay tuned and we'll continue to learn about American history!

In honor of this day, I'll do the obvious thing and post the Declaration of Independence:

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A little more of Robert E. Lee

In 1856, Robert E. Lee was serving in the US Army and was unable to be at home with his family as much as he wished. In a letter to his wife dated December 27, he wrote a bit on his feelings about the institution of slavery. The letter is not available online in full, but the most famous bit is excerpted here:

... In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.

I was surprised to find that Lee was--sort of--ot in favor of slavery. He spends the rest of the letter writing about his belief that slavery would only be abolished by God at some future time, and that abolitionist agitation was harmful to the welfare of slaves. Abolitionists, he considers, are interfering to no purpose (since slavery will not end until the time appointed), and he accuses them of intolerance: "Is it not strange that the descendants of those Pilgrim Fathers who crossed the Atlantic to preserve the freedom of their opinion have always proved themselves intolerant of the spiritual liberty of others?"

A little further investigation taught me that this opinion was not uncommon among Lee's set (religious slaveowners living in the border states). They didn't exactly approve of slavery, but they thought it was not their business to end it, either. Lee himself owned several slaves, and did not always treat them well. I am really going to have to read a biography of this man.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Robert E. Lee's Resignation from the U.S. Army

By the time the Civil War was starting, Robert E. Lee had served in the United States Army for about 25 years and had attained the rank of colonel. (The picture here is of Lee as a younger man in the U. S. Army.) He was a Unionist and did not agree with secession, but when his home state of Virginia voted to secede he was torn in two; he didn't support secession, but he could not fight against his home state and his own family. Lincoln offered him the post of field commander of the army, which he declined, and he decided to resign his commission. He hoped he would not have to fight at all, but Virginia named him commander of its army.

I read his letter of resignation from the Army, in which he expresses gratitude and his indebtedness to his superior officer. His feelings are muted by the formality of the letter, but it's easy to see something of what he felt.

Then there's his letter to his sister, Anne Marshall. Here, he's more personal and expresses something of his dilemma: "With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home. I have therefore resigned my commission in the Army, and save in defense of my native State, with the sincere hope that my poor services may never be needed, I hope I may never be called on to draw my sword. I know you will blame me; but you must think as kindly of me as you can, and believe that I have endeavoured to do what I thought right."

I've never read anything about General Lee's life; I think I'm going to have to get to know him a little better.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Henry Timrod: Ethnogenesis

Henry Timrod was a famous poet in the mid-19th century South; the Poetry Foundation calls him "after Poe, the most important Southern poet of the nineteenth century...he is not a major poet, but he is a significant minor poet." I'd never heard of him, but I don't know if that's because his strongly pro-Southern sentiment sank his reputation or because American literature is another area I'm not strong in. He was considered the unofficial poet laureate of the South.

"Ethnogenesis" was written upon the occasion of the First Southern Congress in February 1861 and was originally titled "Ode, on the Meeting of the Southern Congress." That extremely boring title does give you a clue about the poem: there are only a few kinds of odes, and this looks like a Pindaric ode, which means that it's a long poem with complex stanzas that don't have to match, which is composed to commemorate some heroic or highly emotional national event. A Pindaric ode may be a musical event with a chorus and dancers. So this poem ought to evoke triumph, national pride, and a general feeling of pageantry.

Timrod calls upon all the natural beauties of the South to celebrate its birth as a country. The cotton plant gets half a stanza to itself and is invoked as "the snow of Southern summers" to protect the land. Should the South be profaned by invasion, the very earth itself will rise up in self-defense to throw off the oppressing North's creed of avarice, while God will fight on the side of honor, purity, and the generosity of the South--which is destined to bless the whole world by giving work to the poor.

Most of Timrod's work sprang directly from the Civil War, and he died only a few years after it ended. I'm going to have to look further at his poetry. Meanwhile I'll quote the fourth and final stanza of "Ethnogenesis" here:

But let our fears -- if fears we have -- be still,
And turn us to the future! Could we climb
Some mighty Alp, and view the coming time,
The rapturous sight would fill

Our eyes with happy tears!

Not only for the glories which the years
Shall bring us; not for lands from sea to sea,
And wealth, and power, and peace, though these shall be;
But for the distant peoples we shall bless,
And the hushed murmurs of a world's distress:
For, to give labor to the poor,

The whole sad planet o'er,

And save from want and crime the humblest door,
Is one among the many ends for which

God makes us great and rich!
The hour perchance is not yet wholly ripe
When all shall own it, but the type
Whereby we shall be known in every land
Is that vast gulf which lips our Southern strand,
And through the cold, untempered ocean pours
Its genial streams, that far off Arctic shores
May sometimes catch upon the softened breeze
Strange tropic warmth and hints of summer seas.