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October 3, 2011
Touched with fire (3)By Greyhawk
(Continued from here.)
Two days after being wounded in battle at Ball's Bluff, Lt Wendell Holmes felt well enough to write home. "My Dear Mother," he began, "Here I am flat on my back after our first engagement wounded but pretty comfortable."
"I can't write an account now but I felt and acted very cool and did my duty," he assured her. And to reduce worry he reassured her that "I shall probably recover" - they'd found the ball that was believed to have passed through him, creating both wounds in his body, which was a good sign. If that's what happened he would indeed probably recover, but then again "I may be hit twice in which case the chance is not so good."
"Through our great good fortune," Holmes would write of his generation years later, "in our youth, our hearts were touched with fire." Perhaps his parents didn't understand that - or perhaps they did all too well. Regardless, a mere six months before his first brush with death, when news of the rebels' firing on Fort Sumter reached Boston the young men (and others not so young) of the city were burning to serve. For a select few the city had the perfect place for them to do their part.
Boston, of course, was a city with a fearless tradition - the birthplace of the American Revolution. Many of Harvard's fine young men (some with names that would later appear in Holmes' casualty lists) - along with other offspring of the city's better class of citizens - were members of a distinguished militia unit with a history reaching back to the War of 1812. If by 1860, as historian Richard Miller writes, membership had become "more of a social credential than a sign of combat readiness" then certainly social credentials were something that accrued only to those men of means (and breeding) who were willing to contribute something to the greater good, to advance the common cause. In a crisis as extreme as the one currently confronting the nation the expected contribution could be no less than their lives, which they'd willingly give.
In this, Boston's greatest hour of need since the 18th of April in '75, the city's fathers (coincidentally - their own) recognized and appreciated the volunteer spirit and courageous resolve displayed by their sons. There was no time for further drill and training, this was an unprecedented national emergency and without swift action all would be lost; before the month of April was out, 120 of Boston's finest (some, like Holmes, mere weeks from receiving their Harvard diplomas - but even that incentive couldn't keep them out of the fight) were formed in a column and marched to the wharf where their patriotism, love of the Union, and willingness to sacrifice were saluted in a brief pre-departure ceremony:
"[T]he young ladies of Mr Caleb Emery's school" presented the young men with a flag, and fatigue jackets donated by a private citizen were distributed. Then the Fourth Battalion boarded the ferry Nelly Baker for the two-mile journey across Boston Harbor to Fort Independence on Castle Island. Dominating the water approaches to Boston, this pentagonal masonry stronghold enclosed a large parade ground; over its walls twenty-four cannon peeked in all directions. The Fourth Battalion's thirty-day mission was to protect the harbor against a feared attack by the rebel navy.
By the end of that thirty days, many reasonable people believed, whatever "war" was coming would be all but over. Certainly the rosters of the units needed at the front would be filled (the Irish and Germans seemed particularly willing and eager to go), and the enlistment fever raging through the streets of Boston (as the rest of the nation) would have died down... In the meantime, far removed from those fevered streets, Wendell Holmes and his young friends did their duty and peeked out alongside those cannon from their remote island fortress, scanning the horizon for any sign of the approaching Confederate Navy.
If any of those bright and vigilant youngsters were aware that there was no such thing the history books are silent on it.
Next: Hours of Darkness
Mark De Wolfe Howe (ed) Touched With Fire: Civil War Letters and Diary of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., "In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched With Fire" (An address delivered for Memorial Day, May 30, 1884, at Keene, NH, before John Sedgwick Post No. 4, Grand Army of the Republic.)
Posted by Greyhawk / October 3, 2011 6:07 PM | Permalink
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
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