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October 16, 2011
The Long Roll (6)By Greyhawk
May, 1861: The drum sounded the long roll. It was just a drill - but the men stopped what they were otherwise doing and hurried into formation. Their previous tasks might have been important enough in the moment - but collectively they were protecting Boston from an attack by the Confederate Navy. Should the Confederates ever build ships and man them and send them this way, they'd find the garrison at Ft Warren protecting Boston Harbor a well-drilled group, ready to repel their assault.
Except for the one empty space in the formation... ahh - the sound of one set of hurrying footsteps and then panting - music to a First Sergeant's ear. "Glad you could join us, Brown," he deadpanned - then pondered having them fall out to do it all over again.
He was about to give his troops a demonstration of his prodigious talent as an extemporaneous speaker, but this time a soldier standing somewhere near Brown in the formation beat him to it. Men in the ranks always made sport of each other, and some had names that were easy targets for their comrades' sense of humor. This late arrival had a common name, ordinarily he'd be as immune to such jabs as "Joe Smith" or "Tom Adams" or "Zebediah Crane" - but this unfortunate soldier shared his name with a notorious dead abolitionist: John Brown. Whichever of the many barracks wits spoke up in that moment spoke quietly, but in the otherwise silence the voice carried: "Brown, you just gotta be faster than that if you're goin'ta help us free the slaves."
The men tried not to laugh; many succeeded. "As you were," - the First Sergeant had no need to muffle his voice - "You all better be faster next time you hear that call." He offered them a bit more advice on better living, then dismissed them. A few slapped Brown on the back as they wandered away, whatever taunts they might have delivered he could send back in kind - and all were smiling, their senior NCO noted. Brown was a good soldier - or at least, had the makings of one. Nearly all of them did. This was a good group, his company. He believed they could make a real contribution to this coming war - if only they could get off this damned island before it was done.
Mrs Holmes opened the letter just delivered from Wendell... "My Dear Mother.." he'd begun. She smiled. Her boy had been at Ft Independence out on Castle Island for only a day or two - and already he was writing home.
Turning to page two she stared speechless for a moment at the sketch he'd so courteously provided, presuming (correctly, of course) she wasn't familiar with "jail bird stile."
"Moustache cut like hair." he added. To that he appended a list of items he'd like sent out to the island - fresh meat, several pounds of butter, olives, "etc"... handkerchiefs, towels, a carpet bag with plenty of space in it - "Send the big one quickly..."
That will grow out a bit before he comes home off that island, she thought to herself as she began her search for the carpet bag she'd told him to take in the first place...
On a quiet evening Holmes gazed from Ft Independence out towards Ft Warren, on Georges Island. The faint but unmistakable sound of singing had drawn his attention. "Serenading us again," he remarked to his companion on the watch. "They never tire of that song," came the reply. It seemed odd at first, a few lines of song followed by a like period of silence, then the identical lines of song again - repeated and repeated... Then one of the other men had recognized it. "Why that's 'Say brothers will you meet us?'," he declared - a song recently popular in the camp meeting-type religious revivals. "We're only hearing the chorus," he explained. "One man's over there singing the verses - stuff about 'brothers will you meet us on Canaan's happy shore', and 'by the grace of God we'll meet you where parting is no more' and 'Jesus lives and reigns forever' and such. We can't hear him, but when the entire host joins in on the chorus it carries."
"Devout lot, aren't they?" Holmes murmured, pulling off his cap and running his fingers through his hair. "The country's going to war, and they're out there holding all day religious revivals."
"You might get a bit of the old time religion yourself one of these days, Holmes," his friend replied. "Wait 'til we're charging rebel guns somewhere..."
"I might pray to get off his island before the war ends," Holmes vowed. They strained to listen to another distant chorus."As for the rest of it, father and I have discussed that sort of deathbed recantation, and we agreed that it generally means nothing but a cowardly giving way to fear." Holmes seemed to be issuing a challenge.
"Those boys seem to be true believers," his friend responded, nodding toward Ft Warren. Indeed, the latest chorus sounded loudest of all. "They do have fine voices, too," he added after a moment's reflection. And it is a catchy tune, he thought. He'd heard the men in this fort humming it from time to time. In fact, he saw Holmes' foot tapping even now...
In Ft Warren the other members of the "glee club" were waiting on one last singer - and here he came now. "Gentlemen," one called, "welcome the late John Brown."
"Why, that can't be John Brown," chimed in another. He removed his hat and placed it over his heart in mock solemnity. "John Brown is... dead."
"He's dead?" asked another, joining the performance and feigning shock and sadness.
"Yes, dead." Replied the first, then in a dramatic tone he added, "John Brown's dead, and his body lies mouldering in the grave." He said it again, drawing out the words for emphasis, like a camp meeting preacher would. "Mooouuldering in the graaaaave." They all doffed their hats - including John Brown - and stood in a silent circle.
One began to sing, in a mournful voice. This was their ritual - and entertainment for themselves and the camp. They'd take a well-known song and twist their own words into it, and the previous line had inspired one to improvise a new verse to a favorite. To the tune of "Say brothers will you meet us?" he began slowly, like a funeral dirge: "John Brown's body lies a' mouldering in the grave..." and the men in the circle made weeping noises, while others gathered for the show. "John Brown's body lies a mouldering in the grave," repeated another. Then a third "John Brown's body lies a mouldering in the grave..." and the small group in the circle raised their voices together for the last line - sung at the normal marching tempo of the song - "as we go marching on."
Everyone in earshot joined in the chorus. Then each member of the circle was required to start a new verse in turn. If, like the first, it had never been sung before, all the better. If it would make the chaplain blush, better still. Tonight the early verses were all about John Brown - not the one whose body actually was mouldering in the grave, but the one singing right there with them. He'd gone to be a soldier in the Army of the Lord, they sang, he'd gone to be a soldier in the Army of the Lord, he'd gone to be a soldier in the Army of the Lord, and we go marching on. The crowd grew, and increasing numbers meant a louder chorus, and still more joining in. Those who couldn't gather round would sing where they were, while they worked. (Supposedly the contractor had finished this place years before - but there was plenty of work waiting for them when they'd arrived. Many of the men thus employed shared the sentiment expressed by John Brown himself: "I did not enlist to hang around some fort; I want to be a real soldier!")
They'd pretty much beat the John Brown theme to death after "John Brown's knapsack is strapped upon his back," - so it was time for a new topic for the verses. "We'll hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree!" someone shouted, and that went around. As usual, with each verse the song became further and further removed from what the folks who sang it at the camp revivals would recognize - or find acceptable. Except that - in a sort of extra profane fashion - each verse was followed by the same camp meeting chorus, that everyone seemed to love to sing. After pledging to hang the Confederate President, they came up with a real corker: "We'll feed him sour apples 'till he gets the diarrhee, feed him sour apples 'till he gets the diarrhee (laughter and whooping from the crowd on this one - it was a favorite) feed him sour apples 'till he gets the diarrhee - as we go marching on!
Their lyrics could get much worse... "C'mon boys," someone shouted just before launching into a chorus, "let's sing so loud they hear us back in Boston!" And their voices boomed. "Now let's wake those idlers on Castle Island," someone shouted, and they sang that next repetition of the chorus even louder:
Glory, glory halelujah!
Glory, glory halelujah,
as we go marching on!
(Part seven is here...)
More on the origin of "The John Brown Song"
George Kimball, "Origin of the John Brown Song", The New England Magazine Volume 7 Issue 4 (December 1889) [pp. 371-377]
Frederick Morse Cutler, The 55th artillery (C.A.C.) in the American expeditionary forces, France, 1918 (pp 261-264)
Robert W. Allen, "Say Brother, Who Wrote This Melody?"
Benjamin Soskis and John Stauffer, "John Brown Marches On," The New York Times, July 17 2011
Posted by Greyhawk / October 16, 2011 12:56 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...)
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.
I like having visitors to my house. I hope you are entertained. I fight for your right to free speech, and am thrilled when you exercise said rights here. Comments and e-mails are welcome, but all such communication is to be assumed to be 1)the original work of any who initiate said communication and 2)the property of the Mudville Gazette, with free use granted thereto for publication in electronic or written form. If you do NOT wish to have your message posted, write "CONFIDENTIAL" in the subject line of your email.
Original content copyright © 2003 - 2011 by Greyhawk. Fair, not-for-profit use of said material by others is encouraged, as long as acknowledgement and credit is given, to include the url of the original source post. Other arrangements can be made as needed.
Contact: greyhawk at mudvillegazette dot com