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October 12, 2011
The Long RollBy Greyhawk
October 21st, 1861, the day two of his fellow Massachusetts regimental commanders led their troops in close combat with enemy forces at Ball's Bluff, Colonel Augustus Morse, commander of the 21st Massachusetts Infantry found himself in a different sort of battle. His unit was camped at Annapolis, capital of Maryland and home of the US Naval Academy. Far removed from the western regions of the state where observation was the order of the day, the 21st was very much in the expected center of things - near enough to Baltimore and Washington and northern Virgina, where any piece of ground was a potential battlefield just a short march away, if one didn't erupt right where they were.
Thus far one hadn't. But exchanging bullets and blood for real estate was not the only way to win or lose a war, and now Morse was confronted with something that, while potentially explosive, was a situation no tactics manual addressed. He was entertaining a visitor that day, a local slave owner who'd come on an unpleasant task. It seemed one of his slaves had run off, and was reportedly seen sneaking into this very camp - and now he left no doubt he expected the full cooperation of these Massachusetts soldiers in getting his property back. Morse might have preferred to tell the fine gentleman that he had more important things to deal with that day - but since the aggrieved property owner in this case was the Governor of Maryland he'd probably have a tough time convincing him. So the Colonel summoned his officers - while elsewhere other members of the regiment helped the Governor's runaway hide in the chimney of another building in the camp.
The Colonel glanced at his regimental colors. This sort of thing was not what Morse had in mind when he'd listened to the stirring departure speech delivered to his regiment back home in Massachusetts just a few weeks before. "Colonel Morse, officers, and soldiers of the Twenty-first," began Alexander Hamilton Bullock, of late mayor of Worcester but now their voice in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, "I have been requested by the patriotic ladies of Worcester to present from their hands these regimental colors."
Summoned to the field sooner than you or we had expected, in the haste of your departure it is only fit that I should detain you long enough to commit to your keeping this proof of the interest which the city of your first encampment cherishes in your welfare, and of the devotion of her heart of hearts to the cause which your arms defend.
Indeed, they hadn't expected to leave quite so soon - though not a man among them wasn't eager to get going. Bullock wouldn't emphasize it, but the disaster that befell the Union army at Bull Run had heightened the sense of urgency in Washington, and in the wake of that battle no one would argue against newly-arrived General McClellan's perception that the forces he had available to defend the nation's capital were hopelessly outnumbered by the secessionists surrounding it.
Thus regiments were always hurrying off sooner than expected these days - another hastily assembled Worcester unit, the 15th, had departed just a few days in advance of the 21st. So it had been since Sumter, when the first to go found war sooner than they expected it - having to fight their way through Baltimore to get to Washington, rebuilding sabotaged bridges on the way. But that bloody welcome had only served to further inspire the citizens of Massachusetts (and elsewhere north of the Mason-Dixon), who were more determined than ever to answer their nation's call. The response to Sumter was men, to Baltimore, more - and to Bull Run faster. By autumn 1861 George McClellan would have an army of over 150,000 camped in and around Washington - more than triple the number of inexperienced troops unprepared for combat than his predecessor.
Like the 15th before them, the 21st was heading for Maryland - and in his sendoff Bullock made reference to what might await them there. "Men of Franklin, and Berkshire, and Hampden, and Worcester, I invoke you to contemplate the position of the proud Commonwealth you represent..."
"The muse of history has with a new title assigned the Nineteenth of April, among the holy days of her calendar. The genius of her people reopened the highway to the capital. The gallantry of her sons will ever be repeated at the gates of Baltimore, never again to be closed, because our dead speak trumpet-tongued to the ear and the heart of the nation. Massachusetts in her age is retreading the pathways of her youth. As it was in the beginning, so now again her men are found at every disposable post of service and danger under the government; and wherever that flag shall be unfurled there they will be found to-day and henceforth till this war shall terminate..."
In his turn Colonel Morse assured the gathered citizens that they wouldn't return until that flag flew once again over every point in the nation, that not a man among them would dishonor it - and that it "shall be the herald of our charge upon the traitors, and be held up to inspire us to fight the battles of our country, in defence of its glorious institutions." Then off they marched - if not ready at least willing - and hoping to get ready somewhere down the road.
Now weeks later Colonel Morse waited, eyes on that flag, pondering how he might phrase the order informing his men that slavery was the first of those institutions they'd be expected to defend.
Posted by Greyhawk / October 12, 2011 3:25 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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