Oceanside soldiers, John Brown, and how the Civil War flips the script on dissent

 

fort-warrenI was reshaping my Civil War chapter, with a scene on May 12, 1861 — with soldiers in the newborn Union Army singing a song for John Brown. That happened at Boston’s Fort Warren, on the harbor’s Georges Island.

250px-Fort_Constitution,_New_Castle,_NHAs I was trying to evoke that day, I realized a potential problem; I’d begun the prior chapter in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, as members of that state’s Seventh Infantry boarded a train in 1846 taking them to the Mexican-American War. (Above is a rendering of their base, Fort Constitution. Did I need to ditch one of those scenes, and avoid the rhyme?

In some ways, however, the imperfect rhyme made sense:  the wars were very different, but some of the themes and players were the same. That earlier war had a lot to do with slavery, something the soldiers in 1846 had likely heard from New England preacher William Lloyd Garrison. Just west of Portsmouth, in Springfield, MA, John Brown was making a name for himself as a wool broker, joining the local Black church, and becoming part of the Underground Railroad. And it was Brown, as much as anyone else, who persuaded many anti-slavery activists that slavery could only be ended with violence.

So the young men convened at Fort Warren that day, mostly members of the 11th and 12th Massachusetts Regiments of the newborn Union Army, were not just responding to April’s assault on Fort Sumter by the Confederacy. They had grown up hearing about the Slave Power, the powerful Southern planters who controlled half the national economy with a product born of free labor. They knew about that previous war, with Mexico, which ended with two new slave states in the Union. They knew about Bleeding Kansas, right after that war ended, in which pro-slavery Missourians battled “Free Staters,” the latter under the leadership of John Brown.

And they certainly knew about Brown’s effort to jump-start a war against slavery — including his prediction, in the New York Tribune in 1857: “They never intend to relinquish the machinery of this government into the hands of the opponents of slavery. It has taken them more than half a century to get it, and they know its significance too well to give it up. If the republican party [sic] elects its president next year, there will be war.”

John-brown-song-cs-hall-1861-librofcongressThe election of Abraham Lincoln, the previous fall, had been followed by the secession of most Southern states, and the assault on Fort Sumter. No surprise, then, that when they wanted to  relax and sing a drinking song, they chose this one.

I don’t know if those soldiers thought of themselves as dissenters, though I’m choosing to include the entire Union Army as acting in dissent. Certainly Ambrose Bierce did, signing up with the Ninth Indiana around that same time, honoring an uncle who’d supplied guns to John Brown, while Harriet Tubman was already a Union spy, committing gender-dissent in her field-hand disguise. Not to mention Frederick Douglass’ sons, among the very first U.S. Colored Soldiers, or Jesse Macy, a Quaker who insisted on becoming a battlefield medic, thus creating a new form of conscientious objection.

I’ve been saying that “The Civil War flips the script on dissent,” a cheap phrase that nonetheless conveys how disorienting it feels for me, an anti-war writer, to count as ways my characters whose actions helped one side kill multitudes. What is less in dispute: they felt they were creating something entirely new, and willing to die for it.

So far, my chapters have started only in the Northeast: Chapter One in on a Pennsylvania battlefield, Two in a Bronx boarding house, and now this twofer for Portsmouth and Boston. Though both of these chapters then venture far west and south, from Kansas to Cuernavaca. I hope readers don’t find problematic my using these New England stories as springboards, but so much American dissent was born there right along with the country.

Just as disorienting, of course, is alternating between these final revisions and reporting on present-day dissenters like Reality Winner. Unstuck in time no longer covers it.

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Before Evan Thomas became an iconic conscientious objector

sailorsandsoldiersmonument
The summer before Evan Thomas leaves the country, 1915 smells of war.

The smell sickens Thomas, a lean young man with a narrow face and alert eyes. Thomas hates living and working at the American Parish, the East Harlem immigrant settlement house pastored by his brother Norman. On every newsstand, headlines scream of battles in Europe and news from Mexico, whose unfinished revolution now includes tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and sailors. The parish’s immigrants look on with anxiety: They don’t need English to count the European war’s twelve battle zones.

America is officially neutral in that conflict, unlike New York City. Two weeks ago a German submarine attacked the luxury liner Lusitania, leaving 43 Americans among 1153 dead – including one of New York’s own, the dashing millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt. Both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers call Germans “murderers” and demand vengeance. The city’s boy-mayor calls for “preparedness,” as if it’s possible to be prepared for hell.

Even Union Theological Seminary, where Thomas is pursuing a divinity degree, offers little respite. It clusters next to Columbia University, whose flagpoles urging students to “cherish, love and respect ….] the flag of peace and prosperity.” Both campuses mark the 1779 Battle of Harlem Heights. At the seminary, Thomas’ classmates discuss what “preparedness” will require of them.

On Memorial Day tens of thousands cram onto Riverside Drive, to see the veterans of five conflicts march uptown to the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial. Elderly Union soldiers and sailors, their uniforms carefully mended for the occasion, march past signs of the city’s growing wealth: At 74th Street, the veterans and some active-duty troops slowed as they passed Riverside, the three-block French castle built by German immigrant and steel magnate Charles Schwab. At the memorial, a Greek marble stand of Corinthian columns, the United Spanish War Veterans salute General Leonard Wood and retired Rear Admiral Sigsbee, who commanded the U.S.S. Maine when it exploded. Thomas doesn’t go across town to watch the spectacle.

A few weeks later, a similar scent suffuses Princeton, when Thomas goes down for his brother’s graduation. The site of both a 1777 battle and the 1781 Mutiny in January, his alma mater has whole rooms honoring alumni on both sides in the Civil War; at the graduation, its president tells the graduating class of the dangers of peace. If they avoid war, he says, they might lose the chance to become real men.Thomas and some fellow alumni, self-named “the Crusaders,” huddle to wonder aloud what that means for them. The group’s founder, also a Union minister, says the choice is clear: Jesus did his best to stop violence, after all. i Thomas squints into the blinding sunlight.

Thanks for the inspiration, Louisa Thomas.  I hope you don’t mind how I reframed the moment you found, and wrote about in  Conscience:Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family — A Test of Will and Faith in World War.

Dissentire via souldine: notes toward a new introduction

I know this blog has been unusually silent, even for me. And that I should be writing about/covering Airman Winner, who right now is in federal prison in Augusta, GA facing Espionage Act charges just like Chelsea Manning before her. Or at least about Chelsea herself, now settling in at her Maryland home after her commutation. But things are moving faster than they have been, and I’m devoting most of my writing energy to the final drafts as we move more concretely toward a Veterans Day 2018 publication.

So instead I’m offering  musings toward an introduction – starting with breaking down the book’s title.

I Ain’t Marching Anymore.” It’s the title of one of the signature songs of the 1960s anti-war movement, narrating the history of the United States through the voice of an iconic dissenting soldier. I find myself wishing I could defer to Ochs’ elegant summations: “The young land started growing, the young blood started flowing” for the War of 1812, or “the final mission to the Japanese sky…I saw the cities burning” for World War Two.

For all this powerful poetry, Ochs knew there was much more inside that iconic dissenter’s story. He knew from his own dad, who’d come home broken and abusive after World War II; he knew from the Vietnam veterans who jammed his concerts. He had no idea, of course, of the wars to come, or that his own music would be sung by that iconic soldier in the 21st century.

The term soldier (from souldine, the payment packets given medieval French troops), is often summarized as “A person engaged in military service.” This book identifies as soldiers not only Army personnel but those sworn into the Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps or Coast Guard; some of that experience may have been brief, but formative in some way that impacted the person’s actions thereafter. Though I include officers here, there’s a class distinction here, as hinted at in the currently official term, “servicemember”: people hired by those in authority to enforce their foreign-policy priorities.

“Soldiers Who Dissent.” What does it mean for such persons to dissent (from Latin dissentire, to think differently)? To express one’s “strong disagreement or dissatisfaction with a decision or opinion supported by those in authority? To do so goes against what we think of as military discipline, and might even be illegal if they’re currently serving.Such dissent usually comes at a price, even for veterans speaking out at tranquil distance from their own service. Nonetheless, such servicemembers’ actions have shaped our history and continue to inhabit that history as it lives and grows. The following pages offer a idiosyncratic guidebook to some of these figures, and how their dissent nudged that arc of  history toward something resembling peace and justice.

Next, of course, that shapeshifter of a final phrase — the one that was “From George Washington to John Murtha,” then “The Boston Massacre to Bradley Manning,” then “to Bowe Bergdahl” for a microsecond. Now, and probably forever, it’s ‘From the French and Indian War to the Forever War.” Stay tuned, honest!

memorial day, Tomas Young and what we owe

I’ve =been rightly scolded for treating Memorial Day a bit too much like Veterans Day. My two commentaries this week are about Tomas Young, shot by a sniper in 2004, who took 10 years to die and  before then, emerged as an opponent of the Iraq war. (If you haven’t seen Body of War, you might want to make it your Memorial Day viewing.)

Tomorrow’s NewsworksWHYY piece will focus on the new book Tomas Young’s War — whose author, Mark Wilkerson, came to Philadelphia.The book chronicles Young’s final years, after an embolism stole the activist’s voice and ultimately his life. (Anoxic brain injury, for those in the know.) I read it in a day, cried  a lot.

Then, with Mark’s help,  I interviewed Young’s mother for my old shop Women’s Voices for Change, and reflected on those who, like her, have lost people to war. She works at Target, where her coworkers have spent the week chirping “Happy Memorial Day!”

More later, and I’ll add live links as they post. As a civilian, I’m not in a position to scold anyone for what they do this weekend. For me, it’s time to give respect to the dead, even as we question why.

 

when gender-dissent got serious

 barfieldportraitMy book has a quiet backbeat of gender-dissent, separate from but not irrelevant to its years of conscientious objectors, mutinies and warrior writers. From the beginning, we had women dressing as men to fight, from the Revolution to the Civil War; we had women codebreakers and nurses during World War I and II, and an increasing number of women explicitly recruited starting in 1960, including later acclaimed peace veteran Ellen Barfield (above).

Still, when women started to claim their own right to be there, it made some  noise no one expected — especially in the 1990s, after the Tailhook scandal exposed what so many women had been enduring all along. I’ve realized that much of this important work is too tangential to be described in-depth in Ain’t Marching … so below is some of what I learned, in case it’s of use.

After Tailhook, feminist scholars and others committed to women’s full participation in the military, began looking more deeply at the misogyny underneath the new, gender-integrated All-Volunteer Force was still in full bloom in numerous ways. Navy Ships and airplanes were still painted with naked ladies, and chants still called weak recruits “pussy.” Carol Burke, a former civilian professor at Annapolis, reported hearing multiple strains of the one below, to the tune of “Candy-Man”:

Who can take a bicycle

Then take off the seat

Set his girlfriend on it

Ride her down a bumpy street. . .

[Chorus]

Who can take some jumper cables

Clamp them to her tits

Jump-start your car

And electrocute the bitch

[Chorus]

Who can take an icepick

Ram it through her ear

Ride her like a Harley

As you fuck her fromr: the rear…./span>

While that chant was an extreme example, the devaluing of women was still a staple of much military culture and training, even as they were recruited in increasing numbers (by 1996, women would constitute 13 percent of personnel, from 5 percent of Marines to 16 percent of the Air Force). Some was signaled indirectly, in what is sometimes termed “gender harassment” of women with whom they were ordered to work: “sabotage, foot-dragging, feigning ignorance, constant scrutiny, gossip and rumors, and indirect threats. This harassment targets women but is not sexual: often it cannot be traced to its source,” ii exemplifying the term “hostile environment” even as it was being documented and defined in the legal language of sexual harassment.

The resentments triggering such an environment were paired with a basic-training system rather famously designed to overcome any World-War-II attacks of conscience, increasingly linking sexuality to violence. “Recruits were brutalized, frustrated, and cajoled to the point of high tension,” ex-Marine Wayne Eisenhart recounted years later. “Only on occasions of violent outbursts did the drill instructor cease his endless litany of You dirty faggot and Can’t you hack it, little girls.” iii Another Vietnam veteran told psychologist Mark Baker: “Carrying a gun was like a permanent hard-on. It was a pure sexual trip every time you got to pull the trigger.” Below are some of the sources I consulted looking into this: feel free to join the conversation.iv

i Carol Burke, Camp All-American, Hanoi Jane, and the High-and-Tight: Gender, Folklore, and Changing Military Culture (Beacon Press, 2004).

ii Laura Miller, “Not Just Weapons of the Weak: Gender Harassment as a Form of Protest for Army Men.” Social Psychology Quarterly, March 1997, p. 33.

iii Helen Michalowski, “The Army Will Make a ‘Man’ Out of You.” In Pam McAllister, ed., Reweaving the Web of Life: Feminism and Nonviolence (New Society Press, 1982).

iv David Grossman, On Killing, op. cit.

On Memorial Day, remember these priests, poets, politicos and pranksters!

That’s how I’ve tended to characterize the huge, diverse and boisterous movement working to stop the U.S, war against Vietnam, 1963-1975. I should have written an essay here about them last month, for the anniversary of the 1975 evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, but I could barely fit them in a chapter for the book.

A surprising number of the above, though, were recent veterans of World War II, who then popped into mind during the anniversary of V-E Day; so I wrote something that will run tomorrow in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Given space constraints, I’m informed there won’t be a photo: so here’s a photo preview of those included in the piece, which wasn’t even all of those in the movement. An honor roll of some for whom Memorial Day was an open wound, in their hearts every day:

 

 

Rev. William Sloane Coffin, greeting POW Americans in North Vietnam.

Rev. William Sloane Coffin, greeting POW Americans in North Vietnam.

 

  • Former Army intelligence officer William Sloane Coffin, founder of the hugely influential Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam (CALCAV).

 

 

 

 

  • howardHoward Zinn, whose long career as an historian, organizer and inspiration to us all was preceded by the young (already anti-fascist) bombardier seen at right.

 

  • Burning draft cards in Catonsville. Md.

    Burning draft cards in Catonsville. Md.

    Philip Berrigan, survivor of the Battle of the Bulge, shown here in prhaps the moment symbolizing his work during Vietnam — one of the first stops in a lifetime of anti-militarist  civil disobedience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • William_Kunstler_Former Army cryptographer William Kunstler, who followed his Pacific service by co-founding the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represented war resisters from Berrigan, above, through the years to Gulf War objector Colleen Gallagher in 1991. In  1968, his face and voice became inescapable during the trial of the Chicago Seven, as at right.

 

 

 

 

  • Kurt-Vonnegut-US-Army-portrait (2)And this skinny little private was Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, captured in the Battle of the Bulge, he became a prisoner of war — and turned that exoeriene into one of the strongest anti-war novels ever written.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll post the link tomorrow, which includes more on all of these. There are so many more who I couldn’t squeeze l into 750 words: not Lew Ayres and the other World War II COs, not Rev. Paul Moore, who found his pacifism after the abbatoir of Guadalcanal. But I still think this is a fine Memorial Day tribute to those lost in all our wars.

96-year-old outtake: fort leavenworth goes on strike

Even when you’re mistakenly thinking you’re taking advice from William  Faulkner. it’s not so easy to kill your darlings. I learned about the riot at Fort Leavenworth early in my natterings at the Swarthmore Peace Collection, and it’s taken a long time to declare the riot less relevant to Ain’t Marching’s story than I thought.  Most of what’s below has been now excised from the text, but you might be as compelled as I was. Drawn on a magazine story by Winthrop Lane, buddy of Emma Goldman, for its dialogue:

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Leavenworth_View_of_Building_caThe steam hissed through the pipes, but not enough to warm the prisoners at Fort Leavenworth.

Temperatures that normally averaged just at freezing, for January in Kansas, hovered nearer the ten-degree mark. Which meant that the steam pipes kept banging and whistling, trying to keep up, and none of it cooled the blood of the 3,560 men packed together like tightened gears.

Two months after the Armistice, the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth was full to bursting. Workers on the 75-year-old sandstone fortress, on 12 acres surrounded by a 40-foot concrete wall, had built more barracks a mere two years ago, in 1917, so that it could hold 1,500 men — soldiers convicted of theft, murder, deserting the Great War. But the War itself had brought all sorts of new offenders to the prison, many of them dumped by other military installations who’d found they couldn’t handle them. In late January, if the Barracks were a person, it would have been obese, with a high fever and a case of nervous exhaustion.

Certainly Colonel Sedgwick Rice, the prison’s commandant, was trying to prevent such a state that month, when the prisoners went on strike.

The rebellion had begun with a melee after a card game between black and white soldiers, who weren’t used to being in such close quarters. Rice could deal with that. But then they’d started to refuse to work. The real problem, Rice thought, was those troublemaking conscientious objectors, who claimed to “oppose war” and simply refused to do anything. He knew some of them were from the peace churches, but others were more political, probably communist agitators. Like that Evan Thomas guy, brother of a buddy of President Wilson’s: The brawl over the card game had started after Thomas and 112 other objectors were released with $400 in each man’s pocket. Now all work had stopped: no one was cooking, or cleaning the toilets, or painting the new training grounds across the way. Now, everyone was claiming to be “on strike.”

On the morning of January 29, five days after the melee over cards, Sedgwick made his way down to the boiler room, where the strike organizers were doing their work. A large man with a relaxed bearing, he spoke matter of factly to the skinny “objectors” and tired workmen, who looked at him with a mix of rage and fear. “Who here thinks he has a grievance?” A slender young man with cheeks flushed by cold stood. Something about him, about the way he held his cigarette, told Col. Rice that the guy was a Red.

  1. Austin Simons stood carefully, for the colonel’s inspection. A poet and sometime journalist, he knew better than to be surprised when the older man asked: “Are you with the I.W.W. [International Workers of the World]?”

Simons could barely make himself heard over the steam pipes. “No, sir,” he said carefully. He knew a lot was at stake here – right now, his ability to bargain on behalf of the other soldiers. “I never belonged to that organization.”

Rice also asked if Simons was a “constitutional objector – one who objects to all forms of government and order.”

“No, sir, I do not.”

“Well, most Socialists do,” said Rice.

Others in the group approached with complaints ranging from their individual sentences to the “rotten” meat served the prisoners. “The war is over,” cried W. Oral James, a small-bodied man shivering in his thick raincoat. “The government has already released 113 of our fellows. Has it had time to investigate the justice of other claims?”

After three agonizing days, as Rice negotiated face-to-face with the prisoners and sent telegrams to Washington, the various “strike committees” assembled on February 1. Holding a telegram from the capital in his hand, Rice tried not to look as cold as he felt. He read aloud a statement from Secretary of State Dean Baker, which promised that each of their cases would be reviewed. “I fully appreciate that the cessation of hostilities and the return of conditions approximating those of peace,” Rice intoned on Baker’s behalf, “render it just and proper that clemency should now be exercised.”

It’s not recorded, even by journalist Winthrop Lane, who followed the strike carefully, whether the prisoners cheered at the words. Or whether they laughed bitterly, since the author of the statement was the chief architect of “the present war” – without which none of them would have been crowded within these walls to begin with.

Long after the Armistice was signed in November 1918, open rebellions continued to startle military authorities, including the conglomeration of deserters, CO’s and malcontents that stuffed the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks . While the uprising at Leavenworth was covered by major newspapers, especially the Chicago Tribune, the most detailed account was Winthrop Lane’s “The Strike at Fort Leavenworth,” published in the February 1919 issue of the left-leaning Survey Magazine.

Lane, who had visited Emma Goldman in prison and written famous investigations of Harlem poverty and the coal mining industry, had been hired by the National Civil Liberties Bureau to investigate Kansas jails. His perspective is thus explicit, but he was still trusted by Colonel Rice to witness their negotiations. Lane observed quickly that the prison population was singular: “In private life the soldier had been a clerk, a mechanic, a day laborer, a politician, a business man…He may have quitted his post for five minutes, he may have been absent without leave for a week, he may have intentionally deserted.”

They stood at attention or saluted when these officers passed. An unquestioning obedience was expected of them that is not expected of men in civil prison. Yet they organized themselves in the approved labor union way and presented their demands just as if they had the full power of collective bargaining.

H.A. Simons, one of the “elected representatives,” was a poet whose main obsession before the war had been whether his poems would be published in the Little Review. His educated manner helped Simons negotiate with Colonel Rice and others, but he still had to deny first that he had ever been a member of “the I.W.W.” . Pentagon sources, quoted in contemporary accounts, consistently blame the the International Workers of the World for the disturbances at Leavenworth, right up until they started blaming “the Bolsheviks.” The I.W.W., founded in 1905 and nearing the crest of its power with scores of affiliates, had long refused to endorse Wilson’s war.

Objectors were hardly immune to the time’s fervor. After the war, Simons would join his friend Wallace Stevens in writing for The Masses and for The Liberator, “the premier journal of American radicalism,” while Evan Thomas’ brother would be hailed in 1918 as “Comrade Thomas” by the “Queens Socialist Party,” having joined the Party in 1918 and just as his brother was released from prison.

Russia’s infant revolution was also exciting to some at Leavenworth, curious about “class war.” And thus began, perhaps, the nervous, complex love-hate romance between rebellious G.I.’s and the sectarian left that has lasted for nearly a century. Lane tells of the strikers’ “last soviet” with Simons, who said that one worker could be moved “but together, we are immovable.”.

The January strike was only the first in a series. The last ended in July 1919, after most of the conscientious objectors had been released and the remaining prisoners were demanding a full-fledged amnesty. Appropriate to the period, they’d nicknamed their barracks Lenine, Anarchia, and Internationale, according to contemporary newspaper accounts.

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If you’ve read this far, you may be struck by the fact that dissenting soldiers have been a tempting target for sectarian-left organizers for as long as both have existed. I still wonder how  this will end up in the book. Any suggestions?