Stephen Vincent Benet
Fate has a way of picking unlikely material,
Greasy-haired second lieutenants of French artillery,
And bald-headed, dubious, Roman rake-politicians.
Her stiff hands were busy now with an odd piece of wood,
Sometime Westpointer, by accident more than choice,
Sometime brevet-captain in the old Fourth Infantry,
Mentioned in Mexican orders for gallant service
And, six years later, forced to resign from the Army
Without enough money to pay for a stateroom home.
Turned farmer on Hardscrabble Farm, turned bill-collector,
Turned clerk in the country-store that his brothers ran,
The eldest-born of the lot, but the family-failure,
Unloading frozen hides from a farmer’s sleigh
With stoop-shouldered strength, whittling beside the stove,
And now and then turning to whiskey to take the sting
From winter and certain memories.
It didn’t take much.
A glass or two would thicken the dogged tongue
And flush the fair skin beneath the ragged brown beard.
Poor and shabby–old “Cap” Grant of Galena,
Who should have amounted to something but hadn’t so far
Though he worked hard and was honest.
A middle-aged clerk,
A stumpy, mute man in a faded army overcoat,
Who wrote the War Department after Fort Sumter,
Offering them such service as he could give
And saying he thought that he was fit to command
As much as a regiment, but getting no answer.
So many letters come to a War Department,
One can hardly bother the clerks to answer them all–
Then a Volunteer colonel, drilling recruits with a stick,
A red bandanna instead of an officer’s sash;
A brigadier-general, one of thirty-seven,
Snubbed by Halleck and slighted by fussy Frémont;
And then the frozen February gale
Over Fort Henry and Fort Donelson,
The gunboats on the cold river–the brief siege–
“Unconditional surrender”–and the newspapers.
Major-General Grant, with his new twin-stars,
Who, oddly, cared so little for reading newspapers,
Though Jesse Grant wrote dozens of letters to them
Pointing out all the wonders his son had done
And wringing one dogged letter from that same son
That should have squelched anybody but Jesse Grant.
It did not squelch him. He was a business man,
And now Ulysses had astonished Galena
By turning out to be somebody after all;
Ulysses’ old father was going to see him respected
And, incidentally, try to wangle a contract
For army-harness and boom the family tannery.
It was a great surprise when Ulysses refused,
The boy was so stubborn about it.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
I am glad to announce that Dale Price is back to regular blogging at Dyspeptic Mutterings. I am glad to announce that because I have ever
stolen borrowed blogging ideas from him. Here is his review of H.W. Brand’s bio of Grant:
The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace is an excellent biography of one of America’s most consistently-underrated historical figures.
University of Texas history Professor H.W. Brands does a fine job of illuminating Grant’s early life and struggles, not only with the bottle but with his failings as a provider–both despite his best efforts. As he does so, Brands presents the determined character that enabled Grant to overcome these failures and rise to become the most beloved general since Washington, and the most popular President of the 19th Century (at least in terms of electoral success).
The description of Grant’s military tenure during the Civil War is very solid, demonstrating that he was the best strategic thinker on either side, and no slouch as a tactician. Brands points out–correctly–that Grant’s casualty rates were lower as a proportion of men in combat than Lee’s despite being on the offensive much more often. That said, I still think Lee was slightly better as a tactician, especially considering that the quality of leadership in the Army of Northern Virginia declined drastically over time, and that of the Army of the Potomac increased with the rise of men like Sheridan and Ord.
None of that was a particular surprise to me, given my other reading. The real eye-opener for me was Brands’ revisionist (and I use that term advisedly) assessment of Grant’s two terms as President. Far from the failure “everyone knows” it to be, Grant’s Presidency had a remarkable number of achievements: the Fifteenth Amendment, the squelching of the attempt to corner the gold market, the settling of claims against England stemming from the giving of commerce raiders to the Confederacy and, most crucially, Grant’s dedication to civil rights for freedmen. In enforcing the Ku Klux Klan Act and related civil rights legislation and appointing determined attorneys general like Amos Akerman (who had been a Colonel for the Confederacy!), Grant was the President most devoted to civil rights and racial equality until the arrival of Lyndon Johnson. Furthermore, Grant presented the most humane policy toward the Indian tribes by an American president up to his time.
Where this reassessment (slightly) fails is in providing a thorough explanation of *why* Grant’s reputation as President went to and remains mostly in the dustbin at this late date. To be sure, Brands’ treatment of 1872-1880 is not all praise–Grant is rapped for his too-restrictive handling of the Panic of 1873, America’s first industrial depression, which cast a shadow over much of his tenure. Though, in Grant’s defense, his restrictive approach to increasing the money supply was well-within the mainstream of 1870s economic thought.
Interestingly enough, the economic doldrums did not damage his personal popularity much (as opposed to damaging the GOP)–he came close to winning a nomination for a third term in 1880, and almost certainly would have won that election, too.
All in all, the coverage of Grant’s presidency is an eye-opener which should act as a welcome rebuttal to the Good General/Bad President canard that unjustly haunts him.
Finally, Brands deftly handles Grant’s last battle–a race against time to finish his memoirs as he was dying of throat cancer. As he did through his military career, Grant won this battle through dogged determination, dying a few days after he finished them, ensuring that his wife and family would be well-provided for. The Mutt-and-Jeff friendship that arose between Grant and Mark Twain is also well-drawn. Brands also includes a hilarious anecdote of Twain’s one “battle” on behalf of the Confederacy in 1861 that left me–and my wife–laughing out loud. I am morally certain Twain would approved. Continue reading
The home raids on conservatives in Wisconsin, go here to read about them, brought this Stephen Vincent Benet poem that he wrote in 1935 to mind. If more people do not stand up when government is run by gangsters this could happen here:
For all those beaten, for the broken heads,
The fosterless, the simple, the oppressed,
The ghosts in the burning city of our time…
For those taken in rapid cars to the house and beaten
By the skillful boys with the rubber fists,
-Held down and beaten, the table cutting the loins
Or kicked in the groin and left, with the muscles jerking
Like a headless hen’s on the floor of the slaughter-house
While they brought the next man in with his white eyes staring.
For those who still said “Red Front” or “God save the Crown!”
And for those who were not courageous
But were beaten nevertheless.
For those who spit out the bloody stumps of their teeth
Quietly in the hall,
Sleep well on stone or iron, watch for the time
And kill the guard in the privy before they die,
Those with the deep-socketed eyes and the lamp burning.
For those who carry the scars, who walk lame – for those
Whose nameless graves are made in the prison-yard
And the earth smoothed back before the morning and the lime scattered.
For those slain at once.
For those living through the months and years
Enduring, watching, hoping, going each day
To the work or the queue for meat or the secret club,
Living meanwhile, begetting children, smuggling guns,
And found and killed at the end like rats in a drain.
For those escaping
Incredibly into exile and wandering there.
For those who live in the small rooms of foreign cities
And who yet think of the country, the long green grass,
The childhood voices, the language, the way wind smelt then,
The shape of rooms, the coffee drunk at the table,
The talk with friends, the loved city, the waiter’s face,
The gravestones, with the name, where they will not lie
Nor in any of that earth.
Their children are strangers.
For those who planned and were leaders and were beaten
And for those, humble and stupid, who had no plan
But were denounced, but were angry, but told a joke,
But could not explain, but were sent away to the camp,
But had their bodies shipped back in the sealed coffins,
“Died of pneumonia.” “Died trying to escape.”
For those growers of wheat who were shot by their own wheat-stacks,
For those growers of bread who were sent to the ice-locked wastes.
And their flesh remembers the fields.
For those denounced by their smug, horrible children
For a peppermint-star and the praise of the Perfect State,
For all those strangled, gelded or merely starved
To make perfect states; for the priest hanged in his cassock,
The Jew with his chest crushed in and his eyes dying,
The revolutionist lynched by the private guards
To make perfect states, in the names of the perfect states.
For those betrayed by the neigbours they shook hands with
And for the traitors, sitting in the hard chair
With the loose sweat crawling their hair and their fingers restless
As they tell the street and the house and the man’s name.
And for those sitting at the table in the house
With the lamp lit and the plates and the smell of food,
Talking so quietly; when they hear the cars
And the knock at the door, and they look at each other quickly
And the woman goes to the door with a stiff face,
Smoothing her dress.
“We are all good citizens here. We believe in the Perfect State.”
And that was the last time Tony or Karl or Shorty came to the house
And the family was liquidated later.
It was the last time.
We heard the shots in the night
But nobody knew next day what the trouble was
And a man must go to his work.
So I didn’t see him
For three days, then, and me near out of my mind
And all the patrols on the streets with their dirty guns
And when he came back, he looked drunk, and the blood was on him.
For the women who mourn their dead in the secret night,
For the children taught to keep quiet, the old children,
The children spat-on at school.
For the wrecked laboratory,
The gutted house, the dunged picture, the pissed-in well
The naked corpse of Knowledge flung in the square
And no man lifting a hand and no man speaking.
For the cold of the pistol-butt and the bullet’s heat,
For the ropes that choke, the manacles that bind,
The huge voice, metal, that lies from a thousand tubes
And the stuttering machine-gun that answers all.
For the man crucified on the crossed machine guns
Without name, without ressurection, without stars,
His dark head heavy with death and his flesh long sour
With the smell of his many prisons – John Smith, John Doe,
John Nobody – oh, crack your mind for his name!
Faceless as water, naked as the dust,
Dishonored as the earth the gas-shells poison
And barbarous with portent.
This is he.
This is the man they ate at the green table
Putting their gloves on ere they touched the meat.
This is the fruit of war, the fruit of peace,
The ripeness of invention, the new lamb,
The answer to the wisdom of the wise.
And still he hangs, and still he will not die
And still, on the steel city of our years
The light falls and the terrible blood streams down.
We thought we were done with these things but we were wrong.
We thought, because we had power, we had wisdom.
We thought the long train would run to the end of Time.
We thought the light would increase.
Now the long train stands derailed and the bandits loot it.
Now the boar and the asp have power in our time.
Now the night rolls back on the West and the night is solid.
Our fathers and ourselves sowed dragon’s teeth.
Our children know and suffer the armed men.
Something for the weekend. I Am a Rebel Soldier sung by Waylon Jennings. Stephen Vincent Benet in his epic poem on the Civil War, John Brown’s Body, follows, in part of his poem, a Confederate Georia cavalry unit in the Army of Northern Virginia, the Black Horse Troop. On the way to Appomattox they met their destiny guarding the rear of their expiring Army. I have always thought this was a fitting tribute to the men of that Army who endured to the end.
Wingate wearily tried to goad
A bag of bones on a muddy road
Under the grey and April sky
While Bristol hummed in his irony
“If you want a good time, jine the cavalry!
Well, we jined it, and here we go,
The last event in the circus-show,
The bareback boys in the burnin’ hoop
Mounted on cases of chicken-croup,
The rovin’ remains of the Black Horse Troop!
Though the only horse you could call real black
Is the horsefly sittin’ on Shepley’s back,
But, women and children, do not fear,
They’ll feed the lions and us, next year.
And, women and children, dry your eyes,
The Southern gentleman never dies.
He just lives on by his strength of will
Like a damn ole rooster too tough to kill
Or a brand-new government dollar-bill
That you can use for a trousers-patch
Or lightin’ a fire, if you’ve got a match,
Or makin’ a bunny a paper collar,
Or anythin’ else–except a dollar.
Old folks, young folks, never you care,
The Yanks are here and the Yanks are there,
But no Southern gentleman knows despair.
He just goes on in his usual way,
Eatin’ a meal every fifteenth day
And showin’ such skill in his change of base
That he never gets time to wash his face
While he fights with a fury you’d seldom find
Except in a Home for the Crippled Blind,
And can whip five Yanks with a palmleaf hat,
Only the Yanks won’t fight like that. Continue reading
Abraham Lincoln, who padded up and down
The sacred White House in nightshirt and carpet-slippers,
And yet could strike young hero-worshipping Hay
As dignified past any neat, balanced, fine
Plutarchan sentences carved in a Latin bronze;
The low clown out of the prairies, the ape-buffoon,
The small-town lawyer, the crude small-time politician,
State-character but comparative failure at forty
In spite of ambition enough for twenty Caesars,
Honesty rare as a man without self-pity,
Kindness as large and plain as a prairie wind,
And a self-confidence like an iron bar:
This Lincoln, President now by the grace of luck,
Disunion, politics, Douglas and a few speeches
Which make the monumental booming of Webster
Sound empty as the belly of a burst drum.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
Film pioneer DW Griffith is chiefly remembered today for the 1915 film Birth of a Nation which was the film version of the 1905 novel The Clansman, a paean by Thomas F. Dixon to the Ku Klux Klan which, in his view, freed the South from carpetbagger and negro rule. As history the film is rubbish, but from its technical aspects it is an important development in the art of filmmaking. In response to his critics DW Griffith made the film Intolerance in 1916 which condemned religious, if not racial, bigotry.
In 1930 he made the first sound film biography of Lincoln. Several silent film bios of Lincoln had been made, but having Lincoln speak was going to be an added challenge. Walter Huston, the father of actor-director John Huston, portrayed Lincoln. Tall and lanky, Huston looked a bit like Lincoln, but his deep resonant tones helped establish in the public mind that Lincoln had that type of voice, rather than the high pitched voice that the historical Lincoln possessed.
The film script was co-written by Stephen Vincent Benet, a poet who in 1928 wrote the epic Civil War poem John Brown’s Body. The film takes considerable liberties with the life of Lincoln, but, like Benet’s historical poetry, it has a good feel for the period and gives overall a powerful impression of Lincoln. It is well worth the viewing even today, after so many Lincoln films. It is interesting that this son of a Confederate colonel opens the film with a scene aboard a slave ship and that the film is a celebration of the man who defeated the cause his father fought for. Continue reading
Lincoln was a long man.
He liked out of doors,
He liked the wind blowing
And the talk in country stores
He liked telling stories,
He liked telling jokes.
“Abe’s quite a character,”
Said quite a lot of folks.
Lots of folks in Springfield
Saw him every day,
Walking down the street
In his gaunt, long way.
Shawl around his shoulders,
Letters in his hat.
“That’s Abe Lincoln.”
They thought no more than that.
Knew that he was honest,
Guessed that he was odd,
Knew he had a cross wife,
Though she was a Todd.
Knew that he had three little boys
Who liked to shout and play,
Knew he had a lot of debts
It took him years to pay.
Knew his clothes and knew his house
“That’s his office, here.
Blame good lawyer on the whole,
Though he’s sort of queer.
“Sure, he went to Congress, once,
But he didn’t stay.
Can’t expect us all to be
Smart as Henry Clay.
“Need a man for troubled times?
Well, I guess we do.
Wonder who we’ll ever find?
Yes–I wonder who.”
That is how they met and talked,
Knowing and unknowing,
Lincoln was the green pine.
Lincoln kept on growing
Stephen Vincent Benet
One hundred and fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln turned 56, the last birthday he would know in this life, Lincoln having just slightly over two months to live.
Like most adults in the Nineteenth Century, Lincoln never had any celebrations for his birthdays, no cake, no gifts, no ceremony. February 12, 1865 was just another day for him, filled with the endless burdens and grinding work of being President in a time of civil war. Yet, during one point in his day, I would wager that Lincoln probably thought momentarily of his long ago childhood.
He wrote out a “pardon” for some misbehaving students. The note said: “Let these boys return to their school upon the condition stated by them, and remain so long as they do not misbehave.” Continue reading
Something for the weekend. God of Our Fathers. Written in 1876 to commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it reminds each American how fortunate we are to live in this land.
God of our fathers, whose almighty hand
Leads forth in beauty all the starry band
Of shining worlds in splendor through the skies,
Our grateful songs before Thy throne arise.
Thy love divine hath led us in the past,
In this free land by Thee our lot is cast;
Be Thou our ruler, guardian, guide and stay,
Thy Word our law, Thy paths our chosen way.
From war’s alarms, from deadly pestilence,
Be Thy strong arm our ever sure defense;
Thy true religion in our hearts increase,
Thy bounteous goodness nourish us in peace.
Refresh Thy people on their toilsome way,
Lead us from night to never-ending day;
Fill all our lives with love and grace divine,
And glory, laud, and praise be ever Thine.
America is a wonderful place, even when we acknowledge her flaws. I think one of the best tributes to America is contained in Stephen Vincent Benet’s The Devil and Daniel Webster, when he describes Daniel Webster addressing the Jury of the Damned: Continue reading
“the difference between the old and the new education being) in a word, the old was a kind of propagation – men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda.”
CS Lewis, The Abolition of Man
My son and my daughter when they were in high school both took advanced placement American history, earning A’s. (Yeah, they heard quite a lot about American history from me as they were growing up! “Dad, I only asked for three dollars! What does Washington’s strategy during the Yorktown campaign have to do with it?”) They enjoyed the classes and thought they were worthwhile. I am glad they took the courses prior to the new framework for teaching the courses was initiated. Larry Krieger is a retired American history teacher. He specialized in teaching advanced placement American history, and was recognized in 2004 and 2005 by the College Board, the company that produces the courses, as the best teacher of advanced placement American history, and he has written several books to help students prepare for the course. He has been leading the charge against the changes that the College Board is implementing in their American history course:
The Framework’s unbalanced and biased coverage of the Colonial era represents a radical departure from its existing topical outline and from state and local curriculum guides. While students will learn a great deal about the Beaver Wars, the Chickasaw Wars, the Pueblo Revolt, and King Philip’s War, they will learn little or nothing about the rise of religious toleration, the development of democratic institutions, and the emergence of a society that included a rich mix of ethnic groups and the absence of a hereditary aristocracy. The Framework blatantly ignores such pivotal historic figures as Roger Williams and Benjamin Franklin and such key developments as the emergence of New England town meetings and the Virginia House of Burgesses as cradles of democracy.
The absence of coverage on the development of religious toleration is a particularly egregious flaw. Freedom of religion is one of America’s greatest contributions to world civilization. Yet, inexplicably the Framework omits the Pilgrims, mentions the Quakers once, and fails to discuss the importance of religious dissenters such as Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams and the consequences of the First Great Awakening.
Thomas Jefferson described New England town meetings as “the best school of political liberty the world ever saw.” Jefferson was right. We encourage parents, teachers, and students to attend local meetings and ask school and political officials if the new College Board AP U.S. History Framework is aligned with their locally mandated courses of study. If it is not, then the public has a right and a responsibility to demand that the College Board rescind the new Framework and adopt a more appropriate course of study.
At the present time, a five-page outline provides AP U.S. History teachers with a clear chronological list of topics that they should cover in their courses. This traditional outline conforms to the sequence of topics approved by state and local boards of education. In contrast, the new redesigned Framework provides a detailed 98-page document that defines, discusses, and interprets “the required knowledge of each period.” The College Board has thus unilaterally assumed the authority to replace local and state guidelines with its own biased curriculum guide. These biases can be clearly seen in how the Framework emphasizes, deemphasizes, and omits selected topics in the period from 1754 to 1800.
The Framework begins this critical period of American history with a full page devoted to how “various American Indian groups repeatedly evaluated and adjusted their alliances, with Europeans, other tribes, and the new United States government” (page 32). The Framework then generously grants teachers the flexibility to discuss Pontiac’s Rebellion and Chief Little Turtle (page 32).
While the Framework emphasizes “new white-Indian conflicts along the western borders (page 36) and “the seizure of Indian lands” (page 37), it all but ignores George Washington’s life and indispensible contributions to American history. Although Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” he merits only one random Framework reference: “Although George Washington’s Farewell Address warned about the dangers of divisive political parties and permanent foreign alliances, European conflict and tensions with Britain and France fueled increasingly bitter partisan debates throughout the 1790s” (page 34).To put this glaring omission into perspective, imagine how South Africans would respond if an unelected agency issued a history of their country that contained just one reference to Nelson Mandela.
The Framework’s decision to all but omit George Washington extends to his command of the Continental Army. Most state and local curriculum guides require teachers to discuss the significance of Valley Forge and the battles of Saratoga and Yorktown. Instead, the College Board Framework completely ignores all Revolutionary War battles and commanders. Veterans and their families will by dismayed to discover that this is not an oversight. In fact, the College Board ignores military history from the Revolutionary War to the present day. Students will thus not learn about the valor and sacrifices of the Army of Northern Virginia, the Army of the Potomac, the Rough Riders, the doughboys, the GI’s, and the servicemen and women who fought in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
The Framework’s superficial coverage of the Revolutionary War is typical of this poorly organized unit. For example, the Framework devotes just one sentence to the Declaration of Independence (page 34). John Adams later wrote that “the Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people.” While the College Board Framework invites teachers to discuss “the architecture of Spanish missions” (page 34), it does not invite teachers to fully explore the republican ideals that motivated America’s founders. Confused students may wonder what cause motivated the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the soldiers at Valley Forge, and the framers at Independence Hall to sacrifice their lives, their fortunes, and their “sacred honor.” For example, Richard Morris risked his life and sacrificed his fortune to promote the cause of freedom. Continue reading
He was a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a soldier without cruelty; a victor without oppression; and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbor without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy and a man without guile. He was a Caesar without his ambition; Frederick without his tyranny; Napoleon without his selfishness; and Washington without his reward.
Benjamin H. Hill on Robert E. Lee
“It’s a warm spring Sunday at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. As the minister is about to present Holy Communion, a tall well-dressed black man sitting in the section reserved for African Americans unexpectedly advances to the communion rail; unexpectedly because this has never happened here before.
The congregation freezes. Those who have been ready to go forward and kneel at the communion rail remain fixed in their pews. The minister stands in his place stunned and motionless. The black man slowly lowers his body, kneeling at the communion rail.
After what seems an interminable amount of time, an older white man rises. His hair snowy white, head up, and eyes proud, he walks quietly up the isle to the chancel rail.
So with silent dignity and self-possession, the white man kneels down to take communion along the same rail with the black man.
Lee has said that he has rejoiced that slavery is dead. But this action indicates that those were not idle words meant to placate a Northern audience. Here among his people, he leads wordlessly through example. The other communicants slowly move forward to the altar with a mixture of reluctance and fear, hope and awkward expectation. In the end, America would defy the cruel chain of history besetting nations torn apart by Civil War.”
From “April 1865: the Month that Saved America” Continue reading
One of the many things that I find fascinating about Lincoln is how different he looked in most of his photographs. All but one of the Lincoln photographs were taken during the last eleven years of his life, and they are an interesting study in contrasts. This is especially intriguing since the subject of a photograph in Lincoln’s day had to sit absolutely still for at least 18 seconds, and I would think this would tend to flatten out any emotions that the subject was feeling at the time which might have altered his features.
I have studied Lincoln now for almost a half century and the complexity of the man is perhaps his most salient feature, and that shines through in his pictures. A man known for his humble birth, but who hated the life of poverty and drudgery that he worked so hard to escape from. Famous for reading before the embers of a fire place as a child, he read little as an adult beyond newspapers and a few choice books, but what he read he retained with a bear trap like grasp. A teller of humorous tales who was afflicted with deep melancholia. No formal education to speak of, but the finest writer of prose ever to sit in the White House. A deeply logical man who loved Euclid, he could understand the passions, the loves and the hates, that almost destroyed his nation. A humane man who abhorred bloodshed, he presided over the bloodiest war in our history. Viewed with suspicion by the abolitionists of his day, it was his fate to destroy slavery that had existed in what would be the United States for a quarter of a millennia. Turn Lincoln over in your mind and new facets of the man spring up.
Stephen Vincent Benet in his epic poem on the Civil War, John Brown’s Body, captured some of the many Lincolns that appeared in the photographs: Continue reading
Army of the Potomac, advancing army,
Alloy of a dozen disparate, alien States,
City-boy, farm-hand, bounty-man, first volunteer,
Old regular, drafted recruit, paid substitute,
Men who fought through the war from First Bull Run,
And other men, nowise different in look or purpose,
Whom the first men greeted at first with a ribald cry
“Here they come! Two hundred dollars and a ka-ow!”
Rocks from New England and hickory-chunks from the West,
Bowery boy and clogging Irish adventurer,
Germans who learnt their English under the shells
Or didn’t have time to learn it before they died.
Confused, huge weapon, forged from such different metals,
Misused by unlucky swordsmen till you were blunt
And then reforged with anguish and bloody sweat
To be blunted again by one more unlucky captain
Against the millstone of Lee.
Ridden and ridden against a hurdle of thorns
By uncertain rider after uncertain rider.
The rider fails and you shiver and catch your breath,
They plaster your wounds and patch up your broken knees,
And then, just as you know the grip of your rider’s hands
And begin to feel at home with his horseman’s tricks,
Another rider comes with a different seat,
And lunges you at the bitter hurdle again,
And it beats you again–and it all begins from the first,
The patching of wounds, the freezing in winter camps,
The vain mud-marches, the diarrhea, the wastage,
The grand reviews, the talk in the newspapers,
The sour knowledge that you were wasted again,
Not as Napoleons waste for a victory
But blindly, unluckily–
until at last
After long years, at fish-hook Gettysburg,
The blade and the millstone meet and the blade holds fast. Continue reading
Army of Northern Virginia, fabulous army,
Strange army of ragged individualists,
The hunters, the riders, the walkers, the savage pastorals,
The unmachined, the men come out of the ground,
Still for the most part, living close to the ground
As the roots of the cow-pea, the roots of the jessamine,
The lazy scorners, the rebels against the wheels,
The rebels against the steel combustion-chamber
Of the half-born new age of engines and metal hands.
The fighters who fought for themselves in the old clan-fashion.
Army of planters’ sons and rusty poor-whites,
Where one man came to war with a haircloth trunk
Full of fine shirts and a body-servant to mend them,
And another came with a rifle used at King’s Mountain
And nothing else but his pants and his sun-cracked hands,
Aristo-democracy armed with a forlorn hope,
Where a scholar turned the leaves of an Arabic grammar
By the campfire-glow, and a drawling mountaineer
Told dirty stories old as the bawdy world,
Where one of Lee’s sons worked a gun with the Rockbridge Battery
And two were cavalry generals. Continue reading
He pointed his finger once more, and a tall man, soberly clad in Puritan garb, with the burning gaze of the fanatic, stalked into the room and took his judge’s place.
“Justice Hathorne is a jurist of experience,” said the stranger. “He presided at certain witch trials once held in Salem. There were others who repented of the business later, but not he.”
“Repent of such notable wonders and undertakings?” said the stern old justice. “Nay, hang them–hang them all!” And he muttered to himself in a way that struck ice into the soul of Jabez Stone.
Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster
In his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benet has Satan conjure up the damned souls of 12 villains from American history to serve as a jury in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone. Only seven of these entities are named, and we have examined the lives of each of them including the “life” I made up for the fictional the Reverend John Smeet.
The judge who presided over the case was Justice John Hathorne. Born in August of 1641, Hathorne was a merchant of Salem, Massachusetts. Hathorne prospered as a merchant with trading ventures to England and the West Indies. He owned land around Salem and in Maine. With economic power he combined political power, being Justice of the Peace in Essex County, and a member of the legislative upper chamber which combined the roles of legislature and high court. In 1692 Hathorne was one of the men who questioned the accusers and accused and was in favor of bringing the accused to trial. He was appointed by the Governor of Massachusetts as one of the judges of the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer that heard the trials. Hathorne always voted to convict.
Subsequent to the trials he saw service in the militia in King William’s War, taking part in 1696 in the siege of Fort Nashawaak in what became New Brunswick in Canada and rising to the rank of Colonel. He was eventually appointed to the Superior Court. He died on May 10, 1717.
Following the Salem witch trials, there was a wave of revulsion at the verdicts. Few doubted at that time that witches did exist, but many attacked the fairness of the trials, especially the concept of “spectral evidence” which allowed the accusers to testify as to what demons purportedly told them about the accused. Many people found this admission of supernatural hearsay to be not only fundamentally unfair but preposterous and feared that the accusers had been simply settling old family feuds with the accused. Continue reading
and cruel Governor Dale, who broke men on the wheel
Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster
In his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benet has Satan conjure up the damned souls of 12 villains from American history to serve as a jury in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone. Only seven of these entities are named. This is the sixth in a series giving brief biographies of these men. Go here to read the biography of Simon Girty, here to read the “biography” of the Reverend John Smeet, here to read the biography of Major Walter Butler, here to read the biography of Thomas Morton and here to read the biography of King Philip. Today we look at Governor Thomas Dale.
The Virginia colony was close to collapse. Too many useless “gentlemen” of leisure who had come to the New World thinking they could pick gold off the ground and quickly return to England rich. They had not bargained for a hard pioneer life and many seemed to prefer starvation rather than forsaking their lazy habits. Into this fiasco in the making came Thomas Dale in 1611. A Surrey man, Dale had served both as a soldier in the Netherlands and in the Navy. He was a military man to his marrow and something of a martinet. The Virginia Company, realizing that strong leadership was needed if the new colony was not to dissolve into anarchy appointed Dale as Deputy Governor and as “Marshall of Virginia”.
When he got to Jamestown Dale was alarmed at the dilapidated condition of the buildings and immediately convened a meeting of the council to appoint crews to begin rebuilding Jamestown. Dale would serve as acting Governor for the colony for three and a half months in 1611 and in 1614-1616. In the interim Dale served as “Marshall”. Whatever his title, while he was in the colony it was clear to all that he was in charge.
He introduced the first code of laws to the colony, popularly known as Dale’s code, which is quite severe. However, coming into a literally lawless community I can see why Dale would have erred on the side of sternness. Continue reading
King Philip was there, wild and proud as he had been in life, with the great gash in his head that gave him his death wound.
Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster
In his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benet has Satan conjure up the damned souls of 12 villains from American history to serve as a jury in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone. Only seven of these entities are named. This is the fifth in a series giving brief biographies of these men. Go here to read the biography of Simon Girty, here to read the “biography” of the Reverend John Smeet, here to read the biography of Major Walter Butler and here to read the biography of Thomas Morton. Our focus today is on King Philip.
Metacom, known to the white settlers as King Philip, was the second son of Massasoit, sachem of the Wampanoag, who had helped the Pilgrims survive during the first years of the colony. He became chief in 1662 when his brother Wamsutta, King Alexander, died. King Philip attempted to preserve peace with the whites. The Wampanoag were in a bad strategic situation, squeezed between ever-increasing white settlements in the East and an ever-expanding Iroquois Confederacy in the West. King Philip made major concessions to the whites, but war came anyway.
The great war of Seventeenth Century New England, King Philip’s War raged from 1675-1678 with the New England colonists, now numbering about 80,000, and their Mohican and Pequot allies confronting the Wampanoag, Nipmuck, Podunk, Narragansett and Nashaway tribes. The war was savage on both sides, with quarter rarely given.
The conflict began due to the suspicions of the New England colonists that Metacomet, named by them King Philip, Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag Confederacy, was attempting to rally the Indian tribes of New England into a great alliance for war against the whites. John Sassamon, a Christian Indian, graduate of Harvard and an advisor to Metacomet, informed the Governor of Plymouth colony of this plan. Metacomet was brought to trial in Plymouth. Lacking evidence the court merely warned him that further rumors of plots by him could lead to severe consequences for the Wampanoag. Continue reading
For there was Walter Butler, the loyalist, who spread fire and horror through the Mohawk Valley in the times of the Revolution.
Stpehen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster
In his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benet has Satan conjure up the damned souls of 12 villains from American history to serve as a jury in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone. Only seven of these entities are named. This is the third in a series giving brief biographies of these men. Go here to read the biography of Simon Girty and here to read the “biography” of the Reverend John Smeet. In this post we will examine the life of Major Walter Butler.
Walter Butler was a young man of 23 at the start of the Revolution, the son of John Butler, a wealthy Indian agent and a judge in frontier Tryon Country, soon to be the scene of many desperate frontier battles between Patriots and Loyalists, and their Indian auxiliaries. John Butler was a firm loyalist as was his son. Walter Butler served as an Ensign at the battle of Oriskany in 1777 during the Saratoga campaign. Shortly after Oriskany he was captured behind enemy lines. Sentenced to death he succeeded in escaping. When his father formed the Loyalist Butler’s Rangers, Walter served in it as a Captain.
On November 11, 1778 at Cherry Valley, New York, Butler, leading a mixed force of Loyalists and Mohawks and Seneca under Joseph Brant, easily overcame the heavily outnumbered 7th Massachusetts Continentals. In the aftermath of the battle, 30 settlers were murdered, including women and children. In his report Butler blamed Brant and his Indians and steadfastly insisted that he spared no effort to rescue settlers from them. However, Patriots claimed that Brant attempted to save settlers and that it was Butler who instigated the massacre. My estimate is that neither Brant nor Butler were directly responsible and that it was independent action by the Seneca and the Mowhawk, who had many scores to repay, that resulted in the murders. Like many historical questions the evidence now is too fragmentary and conflicting for complete certainty.
Butler was killed in a skirmish on October 30, 1781 and scalped by Oneidas fighting for the Patriots. Here is a contemporary account of his death by Philip Graff, a member of the Patriot militia in Mowhawk Valley New York: Continue reading
I have long admired Stephen Vincent Benet’s The Devil and Daniel Webster in which Daniel Webster defeats Satan in a jury trial for the soul of Jabez Stone. Far lesser known is an amusing story written by Benet in which Daniel Webster encounters Leviathan from the Bible:
“Well, Mr. Webster,” said Seth, and stared at his boots, “she says you’re quite a handsome man. She says she never did see anybody quite like you,” he went on. “I hate to tell you this, Mr. Webster, and I feel kind of responsible, but I think you ought to know. And I told you that you oughtn’t to have shot at her—she’s pretty proud of that. She says she knows just how you meant it. Well, I’m no great hand at being embarrassed, Mr. Webster, but, I tell you, she embarrassed me. You see, she’s been an old maid for about a hundred and fifty years, I guess, and that’s the worst of it. And being the last of her folks in those particular waters, there’s just no way to restrain her—her father and mother was as sensible, hard-working serpents as ever gave a feller a tow through a fog, but you know how it is with those old families. Well, she says wherever you go, she’ll follow you, and she claims she wants to hear you speak before the Supreme Court——”
“Did you tell her I’m a married man?” said Dan’l. “Did you tell her that?”
“Yes, I told her,” said Seth, and you could see the perspiration on his forehead. “But she says that doesn’t signify—her being a serpent and different—and she’s fixing to move right in. She says Washington’s got a lovely climate and she’s heard all about the balls and the diplomatic receptions. I don’t know how she’s heard about them, but she has.” He swallowed. “I got her to promise she’d kind of lie low for two weeks and not come up the Potomac by daylight—she was fixing to do that because she wants to meet the President. Well, I got her to promise that much. But she says, even so, if you don’t come to see her once an evening, she’ll hoot till you do, and she told me to tell you that you haven’t heard hooting yet. And as soon as the fish market’s open, I better run down and buy a barrel of flaked cod, Mr. Webster—she’s partial to flaked cod and she usually takes it in the barrel. Well, I don’t want to worry you, Mr. Webster, but I’m afraid that we’re in a fix.” Continue reading
The Reverend John Smeet, with his strangler’s hands and his Geneva gown, walked as daintily as he had to the gallows. The red print of the rope was still around his neck, but he carried a perfumed handkerchief in one hand.
Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster
In his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benet has Satan conjure up the damned souls of 12 villains from American history to serve as a jury in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone. Only seven of these entities are named. This is the second in a series giving brief biographies of these men. Go here to read the biography of Simon Girty.
The Reverend John Smeet long puzzled literary analysts of The Devil and Daniel Webster. No record could be uncovered as to his existence. Scholarly debate raged as to whether Benet had been referring to other historical personages. The mystery was not cleared up until 1960 when his widow, Rosemary Benet, wrote a letter to the New York Times Book Review in which she stated that Smeet was an imaginary character that her late husband simply inserted into the work. This was not unusual for Benet. He had invented a character called John Cotton, and even written a brief bio of him. I will now do the same for the Reverend Smeet. Continue reading