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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“under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country”

Worth Fighting For - cover  I can’t stop reading Rory Fanning’s Worth Fighting For. Every time I pick it up to check something, I’m swept into this prose poem disguised as a veteran’s memoir.

moments, its first a sergeant’s 2002 shout of “Gimme 20, Tillman!” addressed to Pat Tillman,  college football legend turned Army Ranger trainee. Tillman’s dignified, defiant response, refusing to be humiliated after following orders, sets the tone for the rest: be smart, be critical, be worth admiring.

Along the route Fanning has raised $45,000 for the Pat Tillman Foundation, mostly not talking about the fact that he was also a conscientious objector or that Tillman had considered doing the same before dying by friendly fire in 2004. Fanning walked to learn more about this country and its people, and many of the moments include those people, paired with his own memories and those of the nation.

The title of this post is an excerpt from the Ranger Creed, which Fanning provides in full mid-way through, adding that “I’m sure I both betrayed and honored every word of this code.” Those words, of course, remind me of so many other soldier-dissenters: I can still hear shards of Army/Navy/AF creeds in the voices of young vets who talked to me, most then saying that it was their command violating the requirement of honesty, integrity, selfless service.

This essay is thus less a review of Worth Fighting For (which you should absolutely buy) than a meditation on what he turned up, adding a few notes to his powerful music.

In each of the book’s moments,Fanning alternates telling his (and Tillman’s) story and offering glimpses of what he learned on the road, whether it’s the amazing people who welcomed him or the history evoked by each spot.

As he hits Raleigh, NC, he flashes back to his early days at Fort Lewis, having enlisted shortly after the September 11 attacks — and to his most high-stress/low-profile Ranger mission, jumping “into a desert that may or may not have been in Iran…The Iraq War broke out at the end of this tour.” Fanning then inserts a visit to nearby Monroe, NC, site of open war in the 1960s between black residents and the Ku Klux Klan.

In Chatsworth, GA he’s back to Ranger school, which he began after “nine months intimidating poor people in Afghanistan […] Men stood in front of their clay homes in some of the most impoverished villages on earth, forced to grin as Humvees, machine guns, and bombs rolled down their streets: Any signs of disapproval and they’d be subject to the [U.S.’] violent whims….” Such reflections built toward that moment when he told a Ranger School instructor: “I don’t believe in what I am doing anymore. I want out.” For this reader, that moment recalls Lt. Fred Marchant in Okinawa after seeing photos from My Lai, tearing through the base legal library until he saw the words “conscientious objection.” I don’t want to be part of this.

Fanning instead reaches toward a different time, when in-service CO discharge didn’t exist, as he reaches in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Ambrose Bierce recovered after numerous battles and before writing his trauma-scarred stories. Fanning contemplates evidence that most Civil War recruits died with their muskets unfired: Had he been there,”I likely would have been part of the majority who died with loaded weapons in their hands.”

Reading the above, I found myself wanting to tell Fanning about Bierce, or about the real Civil War COs: Cyrus Pringle, who starved rather than accept any military designation at all, or Jesse Macy, who fought to stay in uniform as a noncombatant. But Fanning’s four-paragraph essay on that ‘majority’ likely offered better comfort. Compression is a tool used by poets to maximize impact, and it worked.

Near the Oklahoma border, Fanning talks to veterans about Tillman, recalls being deployed again to Afghanistan as a pariah after his CO decision, and reflects on the Ranger Creed before reflecting on the real story of Oklahoma as former “Indian Territory.” He traces their fate to the tribes who supported the losing side in the Civil War, and gives the result in numbers: the 1890 census “showed 237.000 Natives living north of the Rio Grande,” a 97% decrease from their estimated numbers before colonization. This time I wanted to introduce Col. Benjamin Grierson, who intervened so often on Indians’ behalf around 1890 that his command thought him “too Quaker” for the job.

In Texas, Fanning similarly gives a lot of ink to the San Patricio Battalion, who switched sides during the Mexican-American War — after a valentine to the town of Commerce, TX, which had declared a “Rory Fanning Day” in his honor, and before meeting an activist who herself had walked across America — but in 1986, in the anti-nuclear Great American Peace March.

In New Mexico, a state whose grandeur he already adores, Fanning also puts his descriptive talent to work at the White Sand Missile Range: “That night, under all the stars and in an exhausted trance, I listened to Radiohead’s ‘Subterranean Lovesick Alien‘. Then the earth shook […] The major explosions went on for hours.” Camped just outside the testing, Fanning endures the sound of “blacked-out helicopters unloading heavy machine fire.” You almost don’t need his interstitial essay on “Trinity Site Nuclear Testing” after that.

By the time Fanning reaches that west coast, we’ve learned the whole story of Fanning’s journey and the crucial ways Tillman supported it. One finishes having learned, we feel, nearly as much as Rory, and grateful to him for taking us along.

In addition to my own obvious desire for a dialogue between Fanning’s book and mine, I read this with a mix of admiration and deep sadness, for the string of broken promises he notes. But that could have as much to do with this year’s entry into Iraq War III as anything else.

Most of all, I felt myself savoring his poem, and glad that we’ll likely be having this conversation for years to come.

 

 

 

The real Happy New Year’s of 1863

Emancipation-Proclamation1-5I’m glad I found the previous post via CNN, so actual experts set the scene on what happened 150 years ago yesterday.  It was, of course, pivotal to many of the figures in Ain’t Marching– from Quaker CO’s like Jesse Macy to Lewis H. Douglass.

So in writing my Civil War chapter, I couldn’t resist from painting the scene myself, including its immediate aftermath. We can go on for days about who therein counts as a dissenting soldier, but how not?

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On New Years’ Day 1863,  Boston’s Music Hall on Hamilton Place held 3000 people, twice the norm. Frederick Douglass and his friends Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ralph Waldo Emerson listened eagerly as the Boston Philharmonic played Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” The crowd huddled with Douglass, waiting for news over the telegraph from Washington.

But Douglass also kept running around the corner to Tremont Temple, where he had first burst to public prominence, to calm down a similar-sized crowd of largely black people hoping for word. Ten o’clock approached and passed. At 11:00, both crowds were was growing restive, and Frederick Douglass took the stage. In the caramel baritone they loved so well (so unlike that man Garrison’s soprano), he said that if necessary, “We won’t go home till morning.”

They didn’t have to wait that long. Douglass wrote later about the “scene of excitement that baffles description,” when the ceiling seemed draped in “all the Hats and bonnets hurled in the air.”

Young Jesse Macy, now studying at a small Quaker college in Ohio, writes that the same day, “A mass meeting was held to celebrate[…] The Academy was soon after depleted of nearly all its men suitable for military service.”

And in Boston, Lewis H. Douglass and his brother Charles listened with one scary reality in mind: that both were old enough to fulfill their dad’s explicit promise, made in an article in the very newspaper Lewis worked on every day.

.. that colored men in Rhode Island and Connecticut performed their full share in the war of the Revolution, and that men of the same color, such as the noble Shields Green, Nathaniel Turner and Denmark Vesey stand ready to peril everything at the command of the Government. We would tell him that this is no time to fight with one hand, when both are needed; that this is no time to fight only with your white hand, and allow your black hand to remain tied.

Harriet Tubman acted right away, crossing both color and gender lines. To busy to celebrate — “I had my jubilee three years ago” — Tubman received one hundred dollars “secret service money” from the Union Army a few days later, and was sooncollecting data, paying for information from slaves in Confederate territory, and recruiting.112  The Secretary of War would soon be informed that 750 blacks waiting to join the Union Army “had been rescued from slavery under the leadership of Harriet Ross Tubman.”

The units organized to receive them were commanded by white officers including George Garrison, William Lloyd’s wayward son, and Robert Gould Shaw, who’d agreed to assume command of the all-black Massachusetts 54th Infantry.
Douglass senior, now a one-man recruiter of free blacks for the Massachusetts 54th,  said proudly that the troops, including his two oldest sons, would “by striking down the foes which oppose it, strike also the last shackle which binds the limbs of bondmen in the Rebel States.”

For Lewis and Charles, who had grown up in mostly white Rochester attending desegregated schools, the Massachusetts 54th and 55th Artillery Companies were the first time they had ever been entirely surrounded by other black men. After finishing training in June, they headed to South Carolina to the hottest temperatures the brothers had ever known.

Lewis Douglass wrote to his father every week, mostly asking for money to supplement the paltry $5 a month the 54th’s enlisted men were being paid, and whenever he could to his fiancée Amelia Loguen. To Amelia that he wrote his most famous letter about the an assault on Fort Wagner, which sat like a Bavarian castle above white, terrifying cliffs: “I have been in two fights, and am unhurt. I am about to go in another I believe to-night.”

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But what everyone should be reading about the Proclamation, of course, is the peerless Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose nonfiction novel on the war is likely to rock our world. His smart exegesis concludes with something we all need to remember:

With something as dramatic as emancipation, there should be some break point, some specific document that freed the slaves. But as [Eric] Foner points out, emancipation is a process (one that I would argue begins with slave abscondance and the Underground Railroad), not so much a point. And emancipation is itself a part of an even larger process — integrating African Americans as citizens of equal standing. That effort continues even today.

of body counts and word counts

The quietude here has been almost a good sign: I’m finally sucked in by the book.  I walk to the gym thinking about Donelson Caffery and Lewis Douglass, sleep followed by the ghost of Bierce. I then have to remember to work in the data I sort of started with, about desertion and dissent and the size and strength of armies.

Now, when I look at Civil War photos of famous officers, their facial hair looks painted into the faces of children – just as I felt about this one of Bierce in uniform, or the one at right (after the war ended, age 22).

I’ve also been haunted by the way Walt Whitman, via his biographer Roy Morris, explained the way the last two years of the Civil War were fought:

Grant was a new type of warrior for a new kind of war, one based less on grand heroics and noble gestures than on the simple ciphering of sums he had learned in his brother’s dry-goods store. With the war now entering its fourth spring, the North had roughly twice the number of soldiers as the South, and the new Union general-in-chief intended, with Abraham Lincoln’s enthusiastic backing, to improve those odds by forcibly subtracting, one by one, the country’s dwindling stock of defenders. When enough Rebels had been subtracted, the North would win. It was as simple – and brutal — as that.

None of the pounds of Civil War lit and film I’d consumed for this chapter, none of the dry monographs or discussions on H-WAR listservs had sung that song so clearly to me. And it brought first to my mind Vietnam and body counts, the official obsession with the number of enemy dead.

I took a very deep breath.  Then I decided to try to fact-check: While I count Roy Morris as a personal avatar (nearly as much as Adam Hochschild) and adore Whitman, that kind of connection felt almost too easy. And after shaking the dust off my ears from the arguments of Civil War historians (e.g. “Grant wasn’t the butcher they said he was!”),  I was only more confused. I tried to call some trusted vets, like my friend Capt. Montalvan, for some insight, but they were all at the conventions. So I kept digging and found the shit: “The American Way of Operational Art: Attrition or Maneuver?“,  by a commander/prof at the Army War College at Fort Leavenworth. And lo and behold, perhaps I should have trusted Roy Morris.

While everyone admired the brilliant maneuver campaigns conducted by Lee, they adopted the techniques of the bloody but successful campaign of attrition waged by Grant. Professor Weigley concluded that “Despite the veneration of R.E. Lee
in American military hagiography, it was U.S. Grant whose theories of strategy actually prevailed.” ….Operational planning focused on how to best wear down the enemy’s
vast human resources. Our well known attrition concept in Vietnam  that relied on higher “body counts” as a measure of success needs no further description.”

There you have it, from the Army War College. Not just from the old poet medic, whose boyfriend broke after Antietam and begged for discharge, and said years later when asked if he ever thought about the wounded he tended back then: “I have never left them.”

(As for the word counts in the sub title: As thrilled as I am to be dreaming the book, I’m simultaneously watching my word count and worrying. So far 4500 words on this chapter, and I’m just now at New Years’ 1863. No wonder Frederic Tuten once called me a graphomaniac).

Quakers in uniform: oxymoron, or profound truth?

I spend so much time celebrating the courage of soldiers that some might wonder where the old peacenik had got to. (If some old classmate from Binghamton stumbled here, e.g., what they might remember most is my play Too Many Martyrs, a  melodrama about the U.S.-to-Canada draft resister underground railroad.) But as I construct my Civil War narrative, I’m also cheered to report some appropriately complicated pacifist characters, whose deep abolitionist beliefs made them conflicted about what was that century’s “good war.” An early glimpse:

  • Jesse Macy, who may have invented the character of CO medic. Offered the role of cook and horseman when he shared his membership in the Society of Friends, he refused, insisting he would train and travel with his unit only if he could work for the Army surgeons, and thus help care for the war’s relentless casualties.
  • George Garrison, who after the Emancipation Proclamation went so far as to enlist and become an officer with the Massachusetts 55th Division of the United States Colored Troops  (USCT). Thus breaking the heart of his father Lloyd, the renowned abolitionist, (note to picky historians:  I know the Garrisons weren’t exactly Quakers, but Lloyd himself characterized their paths as “nearly identical.”) Garrison endured enough rough strife to explain how afterward, despite numerous efforts to get him established in business, he drifted from job to job, interested mostly in veterans’ reunions. (Unfortunately for my narrative, he did not join fellow USCT veterans Charles Francis Adams and Lewis Douglass at the end of the century in the Anti-Imperialist League of America, also known as U.S. Out of the Philippines.
  • Of course, some were less conflicted, and offer more or less the classic Quaker story. Cyrus Pringle, whose travails in 1863 Vermont eventually came to the attention of Washington. Before then, as Wikipedia notes, “Refusing to perform all military duty, he was subjected to severe
    discipline. The Friends were kept for days in the guardhouse in company
    with drunks and criminals. Finally, on October 3, 1863, at Culpepper, Doctor Pringle was staked to the ground, with his arms outstretched and his legs cruelly racked; he was left in this position for hours, until ‘so weak he could hardly walk or perform any exertion.’  He was even threatened with death if he would not give up, but his only reply was, ‘It can but give me pain to be asked or required to do anything I believe to be wrong.’ After a day of extreme pain he wrote in hisdiary, ‘This has been the happiest day of my life, to be privileged to fight the battle for universal peace.’ “

These ghosts mingle with those whose journeys had nothing to do with Quaker qualms, sharing their horror at the blood soaked into the ground during those grueling four years. And — just as much earlier and later – they didn’t inspire the kind of revulsion from their fellow soldiers that many civilians assume. Macy even writes that by the end, when he was standing up to his command just as his unit was joining Sherman’s march through Geotgia,  his peers “had agreed to stand together in forcible resistance in case extreme measures were instituted against me. I could not ask for treatment more uniformly respectful and friendly than that which I received from officers and men alike in Sherman’s army while on the March to the Sea.”  Integrity respected, perhaps above all.

Not so unlike the respect shown by Major William Kunstler to C.O. medic Lew Ayres during World War II, or by the anonymous soldiers in Baquba, Iraq, who shot surreptitious peace signs to the authors of the early underground blog Fight to Survive. I don’t mean to imply it’s all kumbaya, to minimize the real differences; but it’s kind of cool to see how long that respect has existed, among factions traditionally painted as enemies.