Stephen Vincent Benet
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
And there was Simon Girty, the renegade, who saw white men burned at the stake and whooped with the Indians to see them burn. His eyes were green, like a catamount’s, and the stains on his hunting shirt did not come from the blood of the deer.
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 beginning of a series to give short biographies on each of these figures.
Born in 1741 on the Pennsylvania frontier in 1741, Girty’s life took a sharp turn when he and his brothers were captured by the Seneca and adopted by them. It would be seven years before Girty was able to return to his family. By that time Girty was a Seneca in all but skin color. At the outset of the American Revolution Girty supported the patriots, but eventually became a loyalist. Frontier patriots regarded him as a turncoat and renegade. Continue reading
Beginning for two weeks, up to Independence Day, the Bishops are having a Fortnight For Freedom:
On April 12, the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a document, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” outlining the bishops’ concerns over threats to religious freedom, both at home and abroad. The bishops called for a “Fortnight for Freedom,” a 14-day period of prayer, education and action in support of religious freedom, from June 21-July 4.
Bishops in their own dioceses are encouraged to arrange special events to highlight the importance of defending religious freedom. Catholic institutions are encouraged to do the same, especially in cooperation with other Christians, Jews, people of other faiths and all who wish to defend our most cherished freedom.
The fourteen days from June 21—the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More—to July 4, Independence Day, are dedicated to this “fortnight for freedom”—a great hymn of prayer for our country. Our liturgical calendar celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power—St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, St. John the Baptist, SS. Peter and Paul, and the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome. Culminating on Independence Day, this special period of prayer, study, catechesis, and public action would emphasize both our Christian and American heritage of liberty. Dioceses and parishes around the country could choose a date in that period for special events that would constitute a great national campaign of teaching and witness for religious liberty.
We here at The American Catholic are participating in the Fortnight For Freedom with special blog posts on each day. This is the first of these blog posts.
The video at the top of this post is a scene from the classic movie, The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), based upon the short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, in which Daniel Webster bests Satan in a jury trial to save the soul of New Hampshireman Jabez Stone. In this scene Daniel Webster addresses a jury of the damned, all villains of American history. I have always thought this speech one of the most eloquent statements of what it means to be an American.
In regard to Freedom it reminds us that it is just not a word: Freedom is not just a big word — it is the bread and the morning and the risen sun. It was for freedom we came in boats and ships to these shores. It has been a long journey, a hard one, a bitter one. There is sadness in being a man, but it is a proud thing, too. Out of the suffering and the starvation, the wrong and the right, a new thing has come, a free man. When the whips of the oppressors are broken, and their names forgotten and destroyed, free men will be walking and talking under a free star. Yes, we have planted freedom here in this earth like wheat. This is the priceless treasure that Goverment encroachments like the HHS Mandate begin to take away from us.
A scene from the classic movie, The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), based upon the short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, in which Daniel Webster bests Satan in a jury trial to save the soul of New Hampshireman Jabez Stone. In this scene Daniel Webster addresses a jury of the damned, all villains of American history. I have always thought this speech one of the most eloquent statements of what it means to be an American. Go here to read the passage in Stephen Vincet Benet’s short story. Below is the scene as written in the screenplay: Continue reading
On the birthday of the Father of Our Country it is proper to take a moment and reflect that in all likelihood the United States of America would not exist today but for the leadership shown by George Washington during the Revolution. The poets Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet explored long ago some of the many different paths the life of Washington might have taken which would have altered our history so profoundly. We call Washington the Father of Our Country not to honor him, but as a simple statement of fact. Continue reading
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.
Stephen Vincent Benet
The taking of Fort Henry by Ulysses S. Grant on February 6, 1862, was important for a number of reasons:
1. It opened the Tennessee River to Union gunboats and transports down through northern Alabama, effectively allowing the Union to outflank Confederate
defenses in Memphis and throughout eastern Tennessee. Continue reading