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October 6, 2011
Hours of DarknessBy Greyhawk
(Continuing a story begun here.)
October, 1861: Major Paul Joseph Revere found himself a prisoner. Captured - along with several hundred of his fellow Union soldiers - by the secessionists (no true son of Massachusetts would call them "rebels" then) in his first battle; his war was seemingly over almost before it had begun. His grandfather had been in a similar fix decades before - captured by British soldiers while on a mission to alert the countryside of their aim to seize the military stores at Concord. Grand-père Revere had been released almost immediately, though - his captors not wanting the additional burden of bringing prisoners along on their passage through an area populated by armed men already angry, alert, and gathering. At first his grandson had no expectation of such a fortunate end to his own immediate circumstances - but now here was the commander of the forces he'd so recently been fighting offering him something like that.
The prisoners had been marched from Ball's Bluff to Leesburg - herded along the very streets that, had things gone according to plan, (perhaps "gone well" is a better term - there was never much of a plan...) they'd have marched down in victory as proud members of a conquering army of occupation. Instead, they endured the taunts of the crowds gathered to jeer their passage. With "yells of ecstasy and derision," another captured officer later recalled, the citizens were "crowding and shouldering each other in herds to catch a glimpse of us."
"We've got 'em this time!" "Oh, you infernal Yankees!" "Make way, Jim: I want to see a ' Yank'!" were cries that greeted us on every side...The officers were separated from the enlisted men, then brought into a room with Colonel (soon to be General as a result of the victory at Ball's Bluff) Nathan George "Shanks" Evans, veteran of Bull Run (where it was said he'd been everywhere on his part of the battlefield - with an aid carrying a gallon-sized barrel of whiskey strapped on his back in tow) and now commander of Confederate forces in the Leesburg area. "He tendered us the following parole, stating that, although it gave the liberty of the town, it required us to report in person to General Beauregard at Centreville in a few days..."
"We, the undersigned, officers in the army of the United States, do hereby pledge our oaths and honor not to bear arms against the Southern Confederacy during the war, unless sooner exchanged."
All they had to do was sign the paper - their confinement would end, they'd be free of their armed guards...
January, 1861: Paul Revere opened the latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly. The first article was a travelogue, a tour of Washington DC. It wasn't a rave review - Washington was described as not so much a town, but more "a collection of hospitals for decayed or callow politicians..."
It is the hybernating-place of fashion, of intelligence, of vice, -- a resort without the attractions of waters either mineral or salt, where there is no bathing and no springs, but drinking in abundance and gambling in any quantity. Defenceless, as regards walls, redoubts, moats, or other fortifications, it is nevertheless the Sevastopol of the Republic, against which the allied army of Contractors and Claim Agents incessantly lay siege.If not what he'd opened the magazine for in the first place, certainly attention grabbing. Washington, Atlantic readers were assured, was a place where "you ascend the steps of a marble palace, and enter but to find it garrisoned by shabby regiments armed with quills and steel pens."
The cells they inhabit are gloomy as dungeons, but furnished like parlors. Their business is to keep everybody's accounts but their own. ... Suffer yourself to be astonished at their numbers, but permit yourself to withdraw from their vicinity without questioning too closely their present utility or future destination. No personal affront to the public or the nineteenth century is intended by the superfluity of their numbers or the inadequacy of their capacities. Their rapid increase is attributable not to any incestuous breeding in-and-in among themselves, but to a violent seduction of the President and the Heads of Department by importunate Congressmen...
Well, the Government did seem to be increasing in size at an alarming rate - and certainly that sort of thing couldn't go on forever... but that wasn't what he was looking for in this particular magazine. His search wouldn't end on the next page, either. There the text revealed even more aspects of the city with which the reporter was absolutely unimpressed - but it was still an amusing report to skim. "Blessed with the name of the purest of men, it has the reputation of Sodom" would certainly speak to the devout - and this next bit seemed designed to resonate with men of business and industry like Revere: "It is a city without commerce and without manufactures; or rather, its commerce is illicit, and its manufacturers are newspaper-correspondents, who weave tissues of fiction out of the warp of rumor and the web of prevarication."
The satire was obvious (surely this must be satire... wasn't it?) but readers of any sane persuasion would wonder just what sort of person could proudly call such a place home.
Its public buildings are splendid, its private dwellings generally squalid. The houses are low, the rents high ... the squares are triangles, except that of the Capitol, which is oval; and the water is so soft that it is hard to drink it, even with the admixture of alcohol. It has a Monument that will never be finished, a Capitol that is to have a dome, a Scientific Institute which does nothing but report the rise and fall of the thermometer, and two pieces of Equestrian Statuary which it would be a waste of time to criticize.
Well, the rise and fall of the thermometer was certainly worthy of attention, even though the Atlantic went on to assure readers that in spite of that effort Washington "has the climates of all parts of the habitable globe. It rains, hails, snows, blows, freezes, and melts in Washington, all in the space of twenty-four hours." It wasn't stated - perhaps not even imagined - but the thoughtful reader might chuckle (or shudder) to think that some day the denizens of Washington might get it into their heads that they had the power to do something about that...
But this was getting a bit thick - could this reviewer have anything favorable to say about our nation's capital? Ahhh - here was something: "The men are fine-looking..." no, wait - it goes on. They also "...have an imposing presence and an empty pocket, a great name and a small conscience."
Obviously this was less about a city than its part-time citizens and their proclivities. Well, perhaps in the future Washington could be something better - or attract a better class of people. Perhaps in the future he'd pay it a visit. For now Revere was looking for something else - he'd been told there was a tribute to his grandfather published somewhere in here...
Besides, if Washington was as awful a place as described, certainly it was about to change. James Buchanan, the current occupant of the White House, was soon to depart. Abe Lincoln of Illinois was little-known here in the east, but even though a man of the distant frontier he was at least one whose thinking was more in line with the sensibilities of the people of Massachusetts (and the publishers of the Atlantic) than Mr Buchanan. For that matter, Lincoln seemed to be a man whose opinions were more in line with the thinking of the majority of the civilized world than the current president - who was at best an unwitting servant of southern slave masters. To accuse him of merely that was a kindness. If he wasn't witless he was instead what many believed him to be - something worse.
Barely a month before, Buchanan had delivered his fourth and final Message to Congress on the State of the Union. After briefly acknowledging a year's worth of evidence of the blessings of liberty in abundance (four sentences concluding with "In short, no nation in the tide of time has ever presented a spectacle of greater material prosperity") he'd asked "Why is it, then, that discontent now so extensively prevails, and the Union of the States, which is the source of all these blessings, is threatened with destruction?"
For a man holding the highest elected office in the land, Buchanan was a bit slow in perceiving a "threat." Shortly after delivering his opinion of its state, the Union over which he'd presided so ineffectively (at least, ineffectively if its preservation had been his goal or desire in the first place) began to crumble. South Carolina had seceded, and others undoubtedly would too - and soon. Even the Mayor of New York City had called for his metropolis to follow their lead in his own annual message.
Of course Buchanan had his own prepared answer to his own posed question why is it? - and he spent the bulk of his State of the Union message explaining it in detail: "It can not be denied that for five and twenty years the agitation at the North against slavery has been incessant," he insisted, and now the "long-continued and intemperate interference of the Northern people with the question of slavery in the Southern States has at length produced its natural effects." It's completely your fault, he assured all Americans living above the Mason-Dixon line (perhaps even his fellow northern Democrats - who'd failed to stifle the abominable Black Republican Party in its infancy) and he took this opportunity to remind them he'd warned them time and again that this would happen if they didn't change their ways. Could such pronouncements be as satisfying to those who made them as they were annoying to all others? Hopefully not - but certainly this was the eternal refuge of the giver of bad advice not taken.
Most galling of all was the point that in his own mind, at least, Buchanan believed himself a modern incarnation of none other than the original Paul Revere: "I have long foreseen and often forewarned my countrymen of the now impending danger," he'd declared. So nothing was his fault - what more could one man do to stop it? Now, of course, it was all but too late, the time "so much dreaded by the Father of his Country" had arrived. Why, things had gotten so bad, declared the current President of the United States of America to Congress - and the people - that "the incessant and violent agitation of the slavery question throughout the North for the last quarter of a century has at length produced its malign influence on the slaves and inspired them with vague notions of freedom."
Vague notions of freedom? Revere was born after his grandfather had died - but he knew with certainty his ancestor would not tolerate the world as it was now - any more than he had tolerated his world as it was then. Beyond his revolutionary efforts, his grandfather had worked his way from a small shop in Boston to the large copper works his son - Paul's father - had helped build and continued to grow, all without whatever benefit the sons of the South believed they gained from slave labor. His namesake could be certain that his Federalist grandfather - as pained as he might have been had he lived to see disunion - would have little tolerance for the ravings of the current crop of Democrats running the country he'd done so much to create. To a nation in need of solutions, in the midst of great crisis, the current president had offered only bad ideas, excuses and blame.
Buchanan issued warnings for his successor, too. "In one form or other," he said, "the fugitive-slave law has been the law of the land from the days of Washington until the present moment." And it would be Lincoln's duty "as it has been my own, to act with vigor in executing this supreme law" - and should he fail "he will then have manifested a disregard of the Constitution and laws" of the land.
A valid concern, had Mr Lincoln ever voiced an inclination to fail. But Buchanan declared the real problem was something else. It wasn't the "efforts of different States to defeat the execution of the fugitive-slave law" or even the desire "on the part of Congress or the Territorial legislatures to exclude slavery from the Territories" that had created the current crisis. "All or any of these evils," he assured Americans, "might have been endured by the South without danger to the Union (as others have been) in the hope that time and reflection might apply the remedy."
The immediate peril arises not so much from these causes as from the fact that the incessant and violent agitation of the slavery question throughout the North for the last quarter of a century has at length produced its malign influence on the slaves and inspired them with vague notions of freedom. Hence a sense of security no longer exists around the family altar. This feeling of peace at home has given place to apprehensions of servile insurrections. Many a matron throughout the South retires at night in dread of what may befall herself and children before the morning.
Could those possibly be the words that would define America - the land of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution - in the mid-nineteenth century? There were people right here in Boston who believed Abe Lincoln would prove to be nothing but an ignorant westerner - a disaster following a disaster - but anything he might have to say, no matter how much his accent might annoy a Harvard-tuned ear, would have to be better than that.
Meanwhile, back in the pages of the Atlantic Revere came to something titled "The Question of the Hour." And what might that be?
"It has been the misfortune of the United States that the conduct of their public affairs has passed more and more exclusively into the hands of men who have looked on politics as a game to be played rather than as a trust to be administered..." true, that - but time would remedy it or the nation would fall. But what was this about?
"The question, whether we are a Government or an Indian Council, we do not propose to discuss here." Well enough, that was being discussed everywhere else. It was hardly a topic one could avoid - though too important to try. But the Atlantic had identified one man who would do everything he could to dodge it: "Mr. Buchanan seems to have no opinion, or, if he has one, it is a halting between two, a bat-like cross of sparrow and mouse that gives timidity its choice between flight and skulking."
So then, here was an assessment of Mr Buchanan's State of the Union message, and apparently the reviewer didn't like it any more than the previous writer had appreciated the atmosphere of the city in which it was penned. This astute observer condemned the "so-called statesman" who ran the nation, "who could see nothing nobler in the tenure of high office than the means it seemed to offer of prolonging it.1" Still, in the end he pronounced upon Buchanan the verdict that history - in one of the most benign judgments ever rendered - would, too: he was mediocre and forgettable.
Though "There are times when mediocrity is a dangerous quality," declared the anonymous Atlantic author, leaving no doubt that he meant now was one of those times. "Nothing shocks our sense of the fitness of things more than a fine occasion to which the man is wanting ... Mr. Buchanan had one more chance offered him of showing himself a commonplace man, and he has done it full justice." Indeed.
Mr. Buchanan, by his training in a system of politics without a parallel for intrigue, personality, and partisanship, would have unfitted himself for taking a statesmanlike view of anything, even if he had ever been capable of it. His nature has been subdued to what it worked in. We could not have expected from him a Message around which the spirit, the intelligence, and the character of the country would have rallied. But he might have saved himself from the evil fame of being the first of our Presidents who could never forget himself into a feeling of the dignity of the place he occupied. He has always seemed to consider the Presidency as a retaining-fee paid him by the slavery-propagandists, and his Message to the present Congress looks like the last juiceless squeeze of the orange which the South is tossing contemptuously away.
"Mr. Buchanan," the wry commentator noted, "would stay the yellow fever by abolishing the quarantine hospital and planting a good virulent case or two in every village in the land."
If not literally true certainly a better assessment than he deserved. Washington wouldn't be the worse for his departure; the same could be said for the nation. Still, that wasn't what Revere was looking for. He continued searching, and at last found the object of his quest - a few lines of newly-written verse tucked somewhere between the two articles above. "Listen my children," began the poem, "and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of Paul Revere."
He'd chuckle a few times as he read it. The family still had the manuscript copies of grandfather's own account, handwritten just a few days after he'd made his ride, and this new version was a bit fanciful. But it was a fine poem - and few poets were as well regarded in America as Longfellow.
But these final lines...
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beat of that steed,
And the midnight-message of Paul Revere.
That wasn't about 1775 - it was about 1861. Buchanan was President, and a failure at best. Lincoln was an unknown - it seemed everyone believed whatever good or bad they'd heard of him based more on their own predisposition than on anything the man himself had to say. (And he'd said little enough - if anything - in months.) The sons of South Carolina had declared themselves out of the Union, and conventions in other states were scheduled within a few days - they'd vote on their own destiny...
What then, was Paul Joseph Revere's? The hands of the clock seemed to be moving in their eternal circle to another hour of darkness and peril and need, each successive tick sounding more like a distant drum. His grandfather wasn't a man to merely shout warnings and assign blame. He was a man who'd taken action commensurate with his words; his words were an expression of treasured beliefs. Now here once again came talk of war - and more prayers than earth-bound rationalization (to say nothing of actual effort expended) that things wouldn't come to that. Paul Joseph Revere was a man of industry - no politician, he - but a man of action, too. Could he stand idle while things took their course? Do nothing other than bear witness as the institutions of his country - looked on as models by so many people elsewhere - disintegrated? He was 28 years old in that winter of great discontent, younger and perhaps more fit than his grandfather had been at the outset of the great American Revolution. He had no military experience - but he had led groups of men in some rather large and important efforts. He seemed to have a knack for that. He had certain resources available, too - perhaps he should look into expanding his martial knowledge a bit?
(Part two is here...)
1 "...nothing nobler in the tenure of high office than the means it seemed to offer of prolonging it." There was never much hope for a second Buchanan administration. However, in 1860 John C. Breckinridge - his Vice President - was the candidate for president nominated by southern Democrats. They (along with Buchanan himself) could never forgive northern favorite Stephen Douglas for opposing their stance (and Buchanan's policy) on slavery in the territories. Hence the Democrats split; thus Lincoln won. Breckinridge, however, was elected to the Senate by the Kentucky Legislature, where he briefly filled a role as the bane of his Union counterparts (like Ned Baker). Before 1861 was out Breckinridge donned the uniform of a Confederate officer - complete with general's stars.
He wasn't the only Buchanan administration member to wear them. With but a few weeks remaining in his term - even as Buchanan was drafting his final State of the Union message, scandals led to the resignation of his Secretary of War (and former Virginia Governor) John B. Floyd.
James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom:
General Floyd's service to his new nation would prove more disastrous to its cause than his efforts in Washington had to the United States. In 1861 Floyd's generalship would contribute to the loss of western Virginia (soon to become the state of West Virginia) from the Confederacy, which in turn virtually derailed the career of the man sent as his "military adviser" there - Confederate General Robert E Lee. Sent further west, in 1862 Floyd's failure as a military commander on the Kentucky/Tennessee border would help establish the reputation of his opponent there - Union General Ulysses S Grant. [Back]
Posted by Greyhawk / October 6, 2011 9:29 AM | 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...)
The Mudville Gazette is the on-line voice of an American warrior and his wife who stands by him. They prefer to see peaceful change render force of arms unnecessary. Until that day they stand fast with those who struggle for freedom, strike for reason, and pray for a better tomorrow.
Furthermore, I will occasionally use satire or parody herein. The bottom line: it's my house.
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