Again with the cutting-room floor — this time with a section I’d worried was superflous when I wrote it, but was irrationally seized with wondering how my two Civil War storytellers had reacted to the beginning of the 20th century.
Old Soldiers in a New Century
The morning of August 18, 1906, is seasonably hot for West Virginia; Lewis Douglass is glad to take off his shoes and walk the rest of the way.
At 66 years old, Douglass is far from the only veteran here. Among the 45 marking “John Brown Day” on the third day of the Niagara Movement’s first U.S. conference, a few other US. Colored Troops have made it, as have few “buffalo soldiers” and Philippines vets. Douglass has mostly kept quiet this week, listening as du Bois argued for hope amid the nadir of black-white relations since Emancipation: “Our enemies, triumphant for the present, are fighting the stars in their courses, but justice and humanity must prevail….We will never give up, though the trump of doom finds us still fighting.” Today, he looks away as the younger men thunder “Thank God for John Brown! Thank God for Garrison and Douglass!”
Now, as the heat rises, the crowd leaves behind their fans and parasols for the sacred walk to John Brown’s fort. Walking beside Douglass is a writer for the newspapers of Osvald Garrison Villard — grandson of the Garrison who so often hosted John Brown.. She describes carefully the now-barefoot scholars and activists singing “John Brown’s Body, ‘ just as George Garrison did with the Massachusetts 55th so many years earlier.
Before they get to the fort, someone switches the words to those Julia Ward Howe drafted for the war: He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored…” Standing in front of the aging buildings freshly trimmed of weeds, it gets louder for His truth is marching on. Douglass doesn’t mind the light morning rain.
By the time of that second Niagara meeting, Lewis Douglass had already suffered a stroke, which hadn’t quite silenced the voice that had reviled McKinley’s war. As one of the original mavericks blowing the whistle on American racism, he wasn’t prepared to let the new century repeat this original sin. Other Civil War vets were also not quite done reminding the country about that sin, and about the traumas inherent in war.
A few months after that gathering, Douglass editorialized:“Our people must die to be saved and in dying must take as many along with them as it is possible to do with the aid of firearms and other weapons.”i He was responding to a wave of lynchings – the freelance ‘executions’ of blacks by whites, often for the alleged crimes of others.ii Douglass’ war, fought against the nation’s second original sin, was nowhere near over. And like other Civil War vets , he knew he was moving against the nation’s insanely popular president, Theodore Roosevelt.
Ambrose Bierce, whose newspaper had bred the Spanish-American War, was still issuing his “War Topics” column from Washington and sniping at Roosevelt in his new book The Cynic’s Word Bookiii: “The President of the United States was born so long ago that many of the friends of his youth have risen to higher political and military preferment without the assistance of personal merit.”iv Mark Twain, who like Bierce had been invited to the White House as a national humorist, told his biographer that Roosevelt, though “perhaps the most popular man he had ever met,” was also “far and away the worst president we have ever had.” But America seemed giddy with certitude.
President Roosevelt, “the hero of San Juan Hill,” had also kept America’s international profile high, including brokering peace in 1905 between established empire Russia and the emerging colossus of Japan. Mark Twain hadn’t been impressed, calling the peace treaty the most conspicuous disaster in political history,” because Russia could now more successfully quash dissent before it turned into revolution. But most of the nation was on board, seeing it all a product of Roosevelt’s Progressive manifesto : all the world’s problems could be solved by smart people.
That Russo-Japanese treaty led to one of the very first Nobel Peace Prizes for Roosevelt, The Nation hoping that Roosevelt might “modify his own conventional ideas about the necessity of being armed to the teeth.vi” Perhaps, the magazine mused, the same Progressive energy that had built railroads could help “reliev[e] the poor of Europe from the crushing burdens of militarism.” Thus was the Spanish-American War recast in glowing terms, as a kind of pact with the future. Some of the old vets had fallen in love with the Progressive cause, which had helped doom the always-shaky Anti-Imperialist League. Twain couldn’t get his work published anymore, after his searing “To the Person Sitting in Darkness”: Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief …. for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! Twain had specifically targeted the general who’d “won the Philippines”:
Dewey could have gone about his affairs elsewhere, and left the competent Filipino army to starve out the little Spanish garrison and send it home, and the Filipino citizens to set up the form of government they might prefer, and deal with the friars and their doubtful acquisitions according to Filipino ideas of fairness and justice — ideas which have since been tested and found to be of as high an order as any that prevail in Europe or America.
We must stand ready to grab the Person Sitting in Darkness, for he will swoon away at this confession, saying: “Good God, those ‘niggers’ spare their wounded, and the Americans massacre theirs!” […..] And to show him that we are only imitators, not originators, we must read the following passage from the letter of an American soldier-lad in the Philippines to his mother, published in Public Opinion, of Decorah, Iowa, describing the finish of a victorious battle: “WE NEVER LEFT ONE ALIVE. IF ONE WAS WOUNDED, WE WOULD RUN OUR BAYONETS THROUGH HIM.”
Not surprising, perhaps, that when Twain submitted his newest antiwar essay, “The War Prayer,” to his home magazine Harper’s Bazaar, it was rejected as being unsuitable for the ladies. He didn’t even try to publish his “Comments on the Moro Massacre (March 12, 1906)”, written after 994 Filipinos were killed in a counterinsurgency operation led by U.S. Army general Leonard Wood. Twain knew that while the Philippine War was officially over, the occupation was proving just as lethal. vii
Twain’s satiric praise for General Wood alternates with headlines from U.S. newspapers: DEATH TOLL NOW NEAR 900; IMPOSSIBLE TO TELL SEXES APART IN FIERCE BATTLE OVER MOUNT DAJO. “I was never so enthusiastically proud of the flag till now!”viii He knew that this new pax Americana, this pact with the future, hadn’t been signed by those charged with enforcing it. Many of that war’s combatants, home but still in uniform, and a little worried about this new “world leader” stance.
That included some of the black “Buffalo Soldiers,” many of whom had been in Cuba with Roosevelt. Eighth Infantry chaplain and poet Charles Frederick White said so in books of blank verse; the lyrical Plea of the Negro Soldier was followed by a bitter successor The Negro Volunteer, which described both battles and foul mistreatment by white commanders.
White’s verses would have fit in well with accounts collected by W.E.B. du Bois, who’d already made dissent his life’s work; soldiers were definitely included in du Bois’ quest to change the realities that had replaced slavery for African-Americans. And his Movement, a few days after that second meeting of in West Virginia, responded en masse after the “Brownsville Affair,confronting President Roosevelt on behalf of of the 25th Infantry’s “Buffalo Soldiers.”
On August 13, just as du Bois, Lewis Douglass and the others were gathering in West Virginia, a shooting at a bar in that Texas town had led whites to blame the black soldiers newly relocated to Brownsville. Despite confirmation by their (white) commanders that all of the soldiers had been in their Fort Brown barracks that night, Roosevelt had ordered that all three companies – 167 men, six of whom had been awarded the Medal of Honor – be discharged “without honor,” ineligibe for veterans benefits. Roosevelt had refused to reconsider his decision even after a plea from Booker T. Washington, the biggest booster of black enlistment and supporter of Roosevelt’s wars. du Bois’ Niagara Movement, organized partly as a radical alternative to Washington, who du Bois called “The Great Accomodator”; its members sprang into action after Brownsville.
DuBois brought in his dear friend Major Charles Young, the third Black graduate of West Point and a Niagara co-founder, as members lobbied Congress. They caught the attention of Senator Robert Foraker, an ambitious politician who was also a Union Army veteran. Foraker led a call for a Senate investigation and fought for the battalion’s reinstatement; by January, Roosevelt had rescinded the part of the order, though full reversal would take a century. Foraker, for his part, ]merely felt the same about the Constitution in 1906 as Private Foraker had felt in 1862″ and would later campaign for president under the slogan “Remember Brownsville.”
Fellow Civil War vet Mark Twain didn’t speak out about Brownsville, but his late-career writings came from a similar sense of mission, and he also knew that that war hadn’t come close to abating that original sin. He’d considered a book-length history of lynching and even wrote the introductory “The United States of Lyncherdom,” before deciding (perhaps wisely) that such a book couldn’t come from a white Missouri writer. (Elisha Bliss, his publisher, told him that he “shouldn’t even have half a friend left down there, after it was issued from the press.”) Still, Twain had started 1906 with a Carnegie Hall benefit for Tuskegee University alongside anti-lynching activist Fanny Garrison Villard. The latter, William Lloyd’s daughter and ally of du Bois, was also one of the co-founders of the Anti-Imperialist League.
Twain’s fellow veteran/humorist, Ambrose Bierce, never wrote about Brownsville; his first biographer said that while he’d fought to end slavery, he “loathed” black people in their postwar form. None of which had changed his 1864 revelation that black soldiers had been his equal back at the battle of Nashville, when black troops “did not hesitate a moment: their long lines swept into that fatal obstruction in perfect order and remained there as long as those of the white veterans on their right. And as many of them in proportion remained until borne away and buried after the action. It was as pretty an example of courage and discipline as one could wish to see.”
But Bierce had by now stopped writing that“War Topics” column, and had left the Examiner/i><. It was Cosmopolitan Magazine that now bore his signature mix of misanthropy, trauma and magic. His clearest commentary on the ‘race problem’ appeared in this black-comic definition: “NEGRO n.The piece de resistancein the American political problem. Representing him by the letter N, , the Republicans begin to build their equation thus: Let This, however, appears to give an unsatisfactory solution.”
This droll observation was the closest Bierce ever got to acknowledging the effects of white supremacy, and a far cry from the 30ish columnist who’d written whole stories in the 1880s ridiculing black speech; but Bierce was nowhere near joining Twain and du Bois in challenging Jim Crow. If du Bois, Twain and Lewis Douglass were trying to build a more equitable future, Bierce’s attention was draw more to the past, including the war they had all shared.
Bierce revisited his life as a lieutenant in 1863, setting one story in his brigade’s raid on Confederates at Woodbury and another on executions he’d overseen as provost, one for desertion and the other for killing civilians, “a particularly atrocious murder outside of the issues of war.”xiii For Cosmopolitan Bierce use his signature vivid details and spooky framing, for “Two Military Executions” and “A Baffled Ambuscade.” Then, in “What May Happen Along a Road,” he remembered his last battle, in Franklin, Tennessee:
After resetting their line the victors could not clear their front, for the baffled assailants would not desist. All over the open country in their rear, clear back to the base of the hills, drifted the wreck of battle, the wounded that were able to walk; and through the receding throng pushed forward, here and there, horsemen with orders and footmen whom we knew to be bearing ammunition. There were no wagons, no caissons: the enemy was not using, and could not use, his artillery. Along the line of fire we could see, dimly in the smoke, mounted officers, singly and in small groups, attempting to force their horses across the slight parapet, but all went down. Of this devoted band was the gallant General Adams, whose body was found upon the slope, and whose animal’s forefeet were actually inside the crest. General Cleburne [pg 326]lay a few paces farther out, and five or six other general officers sprawled elsewhere. It was a great day for Confederates in the line of promotion.
For many minutes at a time broad spaces of battle were veiled in smoke. Of what might be occurring there conjecture gave a terrifying report. In a visible peril observation is a kind of defense; against the unseen we lift a trembling hand. Always from these regions of obscurity we expected the worst, but always the lifted cloud revealed an unaltered situation.
Bierce had begun to revisit his old battlefields, spending time at Shiloh and Murfreesbro and Stone’s River. He described these travels in letters, both to his editors as well as his niece Lora. One of his last pieces for Hearst was the gothic “A Resumed Identity,”in which an old veteran is revisited by the soldier he once was. Then, severing his ties with Hearst, Bierce kept moving south, headed toward the newest war: Mexico, whose recent revolution had inspired an insurgency led by Pancho Villa. His dispatches from south of the border read like a prose poem, or one of his Dictionary definitions.
December 13, 1913.might do for a listing under “Nationalism”: Ridden in four miles to mail a letter. Ride from Juarez to Chihuahua hard—nights cold, days hot. Allusion to Jornada del Muerta (journey of death) of thousands of civilian refugees, men, women and children. Train load of troops leaving Chihuahua every day. Expect (next day) to go to Ojinaga, partly by rail. Mexicans fight “like the devil”—though not so effectively as trained soldiers. Addicted to unseasonable firing, many times at random. Bierce’s note doesn’t mention Pancho Villa, but Bierce was hoping to meet this new wild card of Mexican politics, and had written to friends that he was headed to Ojinaga, which became site of a massive New Years battle between federales and Villa’s guerrilla force. xv Whether Bierce died there, or somewhere else has been debated ever since.xvi
That battle of Okinaja actually included U.S troops, there to support the federales and the government of Victoriano Huerta. If Bierce had lived to write about it, he might have wondered if history was rhyming. Afterward, with Bierce, Twain and Lewis Douglass all dead, a new generation of storytellers would be required. So would new types of dissenters.