‘Remember Them That Are in Bonds, As Bound With Them’

1859 portrait of John Brown. (Library of Congress)

John Brown, the antislavery martyr notorious for terrorizing slavery sympathizers in Kansas and later for his failed attempt to ignite a war of slave liberation at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, is an uncomfortable figure. His means were violent, and from the very moment he came to national notice, in the 1850s, there has been a debate not just about those means but about whether he was a madman.

His capture, trial and execution gave Brown a platform to speak to an enthralled audience in both the North and South. For many in the slaveholding states, he served as living proof of Northerners’ ill intent toward their “way of life” and “peculiar institution.” In the “free states,” where abolitionists were a minority, he was at first denounced as a dangerous zealot or even insane.

Then the public, South and North, started absorbing his words, starting with a remarkable public interview with several elected officials, military officers (including Robert E. Lee) and newspaper reporters given as he lay wounded in the Harpers Ferry armory.

He answered questions about his motives: “I want you to understand that I respect the rights of the poorest and weakest of colored people, oppressed by the slave system, just as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful. This is the idea that have moved me, and that alone.”

And he ended with a warning: “I wish to say, furthermore, that you had better — all of you, people of the South — prepare yourselves for a settlement of this question. You may dispose of me very easily. I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled — this negro question, I mean. The end of that is not yet.”

Brown was tried, sentenced and hanged all within six weeks of the Harpers Ferry incident. His behavior from the moment of his capture to his execution impressed his foes and his growing circle of supporters alike. The governor of Virginia, who was among those present at the armory during Brown’s interview, said the wounded man “inspired great trust in his integrity, as a man of truth.”

Brown’s brief address to the court at his sentencing cemented that reputation and became the vehicle for expanding the cause of abolition and making him the hero of that cause. , One passage:

“… Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends — either father, mother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class — and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

The court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me further to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done — as I have always freely admitted I have done — in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments. — I submit; so let it be done!”

Of course, Brown was sentenced to hang. Before he was put to death, he made one last statement. in a note left for his jailer.

“I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood. I had…vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed, it might be done.”

Memorial Day Meandering

Poring over some doleful but absorbing statistics on U.S. military casualties in our wars going back to the American Revolution, I’m led astray from whatever purpose I had for early Memorial Day morning.

First distraction: It doesn’t seem right that most statistical roundups of American service personnel killed in our wars — like the one linked to above — exclude those who died in our many inter-war military operations. Here’s a separate Pentagon accounting of soldiers, sailors and Marines killed during operations between 1980 and 1996. The list includes:

Second distraction:
I reflect, as many have before me, that there’s hardly been a year in my lifetime — I go back to Eisenhower’s first term — that U.S. troops haven’t been active somewhere in the world. Here’s someone who’s come up with a politically loaded list of U.S. military-related actions, at home and abroad, going back to Wounded Knee.

Third Distraction: In exploring various sets of statistics on U.S. military casualties, I came across the Department of Defense accounting of fatalities among active-duty personnel from 1980 through 2010. (Unfortunately, I can’t find more recent definitive numbers.) In those 31 years, which span “peacetime” (there was just one death attributed to hostile action or terrorist attacks in 1980-81) through the height of the Iraq War (2007), the Pentagon says 48,834 active-duty personnel died. Here’s a breakdown of how they died:
Accident: 25,073 (51.3 percent of total).
Illness: 8,579 (17.6 percent).
Suicide: 6,911 (14.2 percent).
Hostile action: 4,814 (9.9 percent)
Homicide: 2,329 (4.8 percent)
Terrorist attack: 420 (.9 percent)
Cause undetermined or pending: 708 (1.4 percent)

The numbers look a little different if you isolate fatalities from ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. A recent Congressional Research Service report broke down the causes of death for those two conflicts (including all phases of the Iraq War to date). Some 5,362 (78.5 percent) of the 6,830 deaths were sustained in hostile action; 1,041 (15.2 percent) were attributed to accidents or illness; 350 (5.1 percent) to suicide, and 52 (.8 percent) to homicide (about 25 deaths are listed as “undetermined”).

I find the “self-inflicted” death count most stunning, especially the fact it appears to be so much larger than fatalities suffered in combat. If you follow this issue, you know the number of veterans who take their own lives each year dwarfs the number of service members who kill themselves while on active duty. A Department of Veterans Affairs study published last year found 7,400 veterans committed suicide in 2014, the most recent year for which data was available.

Fourth Distraction: While embarking on my military casualty StatsQuest, hours and hours ago, I came across one particularly startling number in a VA document titled America’s Wars. Page 2 of said document includes a table of veterans and veterans’ dependents currently on VA benefits rolls (“currently” as of April 2017), listed by the war(s) in which veterans served.

The table shows there’s one person out there still getting monthly benefits related to service in the Civil War. Really? Is that possible?

Yes — it turns out it is. The recipient is Irene Triplett, daughter of a man who fought on both sides in the war. She reportedly gets a monthly VA check for $73.13 that goes toward paying for care in a North Carolina nursing home. The Wall Street Journal did a long feature on her and her family a few years ago. Irene Triplett had a very tough life; the piece is well worth reading.

National Geographic followed with its own story on the “fewer than 35” surviving children of Civil War veterans and details a couple of their life stories.

Conclusion of the foregoing.

Road Blog, Iowa Edition: ‘Our Liberties We Prize’

The Great Seal of Iowa, as rendered in a bas relief tablet by Alexander Doyle at the Iowa state capitol.

In 1847, the Iowa Legislature passed a law creating a state seal. More on the wording of the law, which has caused a stir in the state Capitol in recent times, in a moment.

The straightforward part of the seal is the motto: “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.” I like that: Straightforward. A little militant. No Latin.

However, the Legislature offered only a description of what the seal should look like. Here it is (and as you read it, see if there’s a phrase that kind of sticks out as a little awkward):

“The secretary of state … is … hereby authorized to procure a seal which shall be the great seal of the state of Iowa, two inches in diameter, upon which shall be engraved the following device, surrounded by the words, ‘The Great Seal of the State of Iowa’ – a sheaf and field of standing wheat, with a sickle and other farming utensils, on the left side near the bottom; a lead furnace and pile of pig lead on the right side; the citizen soldier, with a plow in his rear, supporting the American flag and liberty cap with his right hand, and his gun with his left, in the center and near the bottom; the Mississippi River in the rear of the whole, with the steamer Iowa under way; an eagle near the upper edge, holding in his beak a scroll, with the following inscription upon it: ‘Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain.'”

(Yes — the Legislature wrote “with a plow in his rear.” That phrase prompted an Iowa state legislator in 2010 to offer a bill to amend the wording. Lawmakers did not act on the suggestion.)

That 1847 description left a lot to artists’ imaginations and produced a series of rather passive and homely images. Search for “Great Seal of Iowa” in Google images if you’re curious about what I mean.

I didn’t know any of that history when I visited the state capitol grounds in Des Moines last fall (2016). What struck me about the tablet or relief — OK, technically not a plaque — was what I take to be its direct reference to the Civil War. The soldier depicted is dressed as a Union infantryman. The musket he holds on his left side has bayonet fixed. The Stars and Stripes he supports with his right arm is partially draped around him. He is taking a step toward the viewer. His look is resolute and unafraid.

“Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain”? The bas relief makes the statement come alive. The soldier embodies the sentiment. Is there a Civil War message here — a reference, perhaps, to how seriously the state took its duty to preserve the Union?

About 75,000 Iowans — more than one in five adult men — served during the war. Some 13,000 of them died and another 8,500 were wounded and survived. Iowa’s experience largely reflected the experience of every state, North and South. In a way that’s hard to imagine today, when so few serve in our armed forces, the war touched everyone.

An entry on an Iowa state government site that describes the monuments on the capitol grounds notes that the Iowa seal tablet was commissioned in the mid-1880s and completed in the early 1890s. The war was still an enduring, dominant memory for a whole generation of Americans then, just as World War II was in the 1960s — when war stories were common prime-time TV fare and a frequent Hollywood subject.

The Iowa state site also mentions the name of the sculptor, Alexander Doyle, who had a national reputation by the time he got the commission for the tablet and a nearby drinking fountain featuring the cast bronze head of a bison.

Doyle’s reputation rested in part on his Civil War sculptures. But he was not a Yankee nationalist. His commissions came from both the North and from the defeated Confederacy — and he was especially active in New Orleans, where he created a series of statues commemorating Southern heroes.

I think if there’s a message in the Iowa Great Seal tablet, it’s that Doyle was an artist who understood the time he was depicting and the emotional expectations of his audience and knew how to translate that understanding into bronze. His was not a common talent.

Note: A version of this post also appears on Read the Plaque.

Road Blog: ‘Bivouac of the Dead’


We’ve spent the last several days making family visits in New Jersey and Pennsylvania: with Kate’s mom and sister in Monmouth County, N.J., with Kate’s cousin Rose north of Philadelphia. Yesterday, we made a long, looping drive back to New Jersey to the home of one of Kate’s closest high school friends, Lisa. On the way, we stopped in Scranton to visit the cemetery where Kate’s dad, Paul Edward Gallagher, is buried.

We’d visited the place, Cathedral Cemetery, just once before, in the summer of 1995. In the interim, I’ve discovered how difficult it is to find gravesites when you’re not intimately familiar with a cemetery’s layout (or even if you are). When we arrived, the cemetery office was already closed for the day, so we couldn’t get directions to the exact spot. I had a vague image of the part of the cemetery where the Gallaghers are interred, and we drove slowly around the place until I found a spot that looked right. We got out and went walking in different directions to see if we could find the site. I figured we’d never find it. But after looking for 15 or 20 minutes, Kate texted me that she’d found the place.

We went through an exercise I’ve gone through before, trying to note landmarks to remember for the next visit years hence. So: that group of five trees to the east of the site. The bee-hive shrine to the west. The prominent Mullaghy plot next to the Gallaghers. And I took pictures for a visual guide. I’ll look up the place on Google’s satellite maps and put an X on the spot. Assuming there is a next time, I’m sure I’ll feel lost again, at least for a little while.

During our search we also passed a section of the cemetery reserved for veterans’ graves. Civil War veterans and veterans of wars up through Vietnam. The largest group was from that first war, though, and a tablet had been put up with a stanza of a poem, “Bivouac of the Dead,” that reportedly appears at Arlington National Cemetery and many other burial places of Civil War soldiers. It’s by Theodore O’Hara, a Kentuckian who wrote it to honor the state’s dead in the Mexican War. He fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War (click the image below for a larger–readable–version).


Guest Observation: Russell Banks

From “Cloudsplitter” (I’ve been reading this for what seems like months. Beautiful prose, and an amazing story — though it really is the first time that I’ve ever encountered the details of John Brown’s story.):

When we reached the road, without a glance or a thought one way or the other, I turned southwest instead of northeast, and Fred followed. cloudsplitter.png

For a few moments, we walked along in silence. “Where’re we going?” Fred finally asked.

“Well, to Kansas, I guess.”

A quarter of a mile further on, he spoke again. “Father wants us to go to the farm in North Elba. That’s what you told me, Owen.”

“Yes. But we’re needed more in Kansas.”

There was a long silence as he pondered this. Finally, “Why?”

“To fight slavery there.”

More silence. Then, “Doing the Lord’s work?”


“Good. That’s real good.”


A little further down the road, he said, “But what about Father? He won’t like this, Owen.”

“Maybe not, at least at first. But don’t worry, he’ll come along soon to Kansas himself. He won’t let you and me and the boys do the Lord’s work, while he stays out east … . Anyhow, John says there”s going to be shooting in Kansas before long. That’ll bring the Old Man on. He hates it when he can’t give us the order to fire,” I said, and laughed, and he laughed with me.

So on we went, walking and sometimes hitching rides on wagons, barges, canal boats, moving slowly west and south into the territory of Kansas–a one-armed man and a gelded man, two wounded, penniless, motherless brothers marching off to do the Lord’s work in the war against slavery. In this wide world there was nothing better for us to do, except to stay home and to take care of the place and the women, which neither of us wanted to do and neither could do properly, either. We had to be good for something, though: we were sons of John Brown, and we had learned early in our lives that we did not deserve to live otherwise. So we were going off to Kansas to be good at killing. Our specialty would be killing men who wished to own other men.

Just One Thing About That

And now a word about The Campaign: John McCain has decided that our economy is so strong that he needs to leave the campaign trail to make it stronger. It would be unseemly to put Country Second and indulge in something so vulgar as politics by debating his opponent. Stop for a moment and admire McCain for trying to execute a clever political gambit by trying to haul himself above the muck of politics for a moment. Then consider the election-year crises that the country has come through while candidates carried on their campaigns:

2004: The whole Iraq endeavor coming undone.

1992: Economic recession.

1980: The Iran hostage crisis.

1968: Intensified fighting in Vietnam, assassination of leading national figures.

1964: Nation in turmoil over civil rights campaign in the South.

1952: Korean War.

1944: World War II.

1940: World War II.

1936: The Depression.

1932: The Depression.

1916: World War I.

1864: Civil War.

1860: Slavery/disunion crisis.

1856: National coming apart at seams over slavery.

1812: War with Britain.

Gee, we managed to have an uninterrupted campaign during 1864? When the nation was sufferiing through an appallingly bloody series of battles? You mean Lincoln didn’t try to put a hold on politics while trying to fulfill his duties as commander-in-chief? Neither world wars nor economic calamity put campaigns off the rails? Stunning.

The history shows what an empty gesture McCain’s move is. Obama got it right when he said that this is exactly the moment when the candidates need to be in front of the people.

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Engaged in a Great Verbal War

The PBS NewsHour this evening featured another round of “Iraq: Is It a Civil War or Not? And If It Is, What Difference Does It Make?” (The game will never take off with a title like that.)

On hand was Donald Kagan, a history professor from Yale. He started out by saying that he felt the discussion–is it or isn’t it?–is “frivolous.” Check.

Then he went on to say he feels the debate over what to call the conflict is “a calculated effort on the part of those people who would like to see the United States flee from its responsibilities in Iraq to use a term that is more frightening, more dangerous-sounding than simply the kind of uprising that they’ve been dealing with and decide that it’s a civil war in order to make it a more frightening prospect to try to win this thing and persuade Americans that it’s hopeless and they should go away.”

A “civil war” is more frightening than what we’ve been dealing with? The discussion has been ginned up by people who want the United States to flee its responsibilities? Here’s an alternative theory, respectfully submitted to Dr. Kagan: Maybe people are just trying to understand what the heck it is we are involved in. The people who were putatively responsible for knowing what they were getting us all into have demonstrated they had less than no idea what to expect in Iraq and have been incapable of telling the truth about it for going on four years now. Maybe once we have some understanding of the situation–if it’s not too late for that–maybe we can decide whether the instinct to pack up and leave is sound or not.

Eventually, the “NewsHour” interviewer got around to lobbing Kagan a real softball. Something along the lines of, “Professor, does this kind of semantic argument happen in every war?” Kagan’s answer:

“The best historical example that jumps into my mind is the American Civil War, which I don’t remember anyone calling it that during the time. The South referred to it as the War Between the States to suggest they were within their rights in breaking away from the other states, and up here in Connecticut we referred to it as the rebellion of 1861. And it’s that sort of thing that’s characterized this kind of issue throughout history.”

What jumped into my mind when I heard Kagan say that was the phrase, “We are now engaged in a great civil war.” He’s right that “anyone” did not say that. Lincoln did, in the Gettysburg Address, which he sure enough made “during the time.” Somewhere or other, someone can tell us the very first time the term civil war was used to describe that conflict; it’s doubtful Lincoln was the first.

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Where We Come From

A tour of cultural history in the arts section of today’s New York Times:

–“My Lobotomy”: A story about Howard Dully, who as a 12-year-old in 1960 underwent a prefrontal lobotomy at the hands of Dr. Walter Freeman, the pioneer and champion of the procedure intended to pacify “disturbed” patients. The story says Dully “was lobotomized … for no other reason than that he didn’t get along with his stepmother, whose long list of complaints about him included sullenness, a reluctance to bathe and that he turned on the lights during daytime.” Dully has produced a radio documentary for NPR, “My Lobotomy,” which will air on “All Things Considered” this afternoon.

–A Critic’s Notebook offering from Margo Jefferson on Constance Rourke and Zora Neale Hurston and their use of “creative nonfiction” to unearth the cultural traditions of white and black America: “They were out to remap the cultural territories; shift the boundaries that separated folk, popular and high art; explore the American character (what we now call the national psyche). … They began in what I’ll call separate but equal neighborhoods. Rourke wrote about white cultural myths and traditions, iconic figures from Paul Bunyan to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Hurston wrote about the roots and characteristics of black American culture: language, folklore, music and dance, the will to improvise.”

–By way of my brother John, a writeup on a $9 million restoration (your tax dollars at work) of a gigantic (27 feet high, 365 feet in circumference) “cyclorama” painting of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. The painting was one of four identical works made in the 1880s as tourist attractions to be viewed in the round, complete with foreground props designed to make the viewing hall merge into the action. One guy in the story refers to the cyclorama (and others like it) as “the Imax of their day.” Like most old art, the Gettysburg painting has been abominably treated — handled roughly, cut up, stored and displayed in wet, leaky rooms.

Whitman’s War, Our War

As I was saying — May 31 is Walt Whitman’s birthday. I’ve always been struck by his Civil War poems, their brevity and power, the immediacy of them, the empathy in them, the unflinching way he conveyed the suffering he saw and the suffering he took in. For instance, this scene from “A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown“:

“We come to an open space in the woods, and halt by the dim-lighted building;

’Tis a large old church at the crossing roads—’tis now an impromptu hospital;

—Entering but for a minute, I see a sight beyond all the pictures and poems ever made:

Shadows of deepest, deepest black, just lit by moving candles and lamps,

And by one great pitchy torch, stationary, with wild red flame, and clouds of smoke;

By these, crowds, groups of forms, vaguely I see, on the floor, some in the pews laid down;

At my feet more distinctly, a soldier, a mere lad, in danger of bleeding to death, (he is shot in the abdomen;)

I staunch the blood temporarily, (the youngster’s face is white as a lily;)

Then before I depart I sweep my eyes o’er the scene, fain to absorb it all;

Faces, varieties, postures beyond description, most in obscurity, some of them dead;

Surgeons operating, attendants holding lights, the smell of ether, the odor of blood;

The crowd, O the crowd of the bloody forms of soldiers—the yard outside also fill’d;

Some on the bare ground, some on planks or stretchers, some in the death-spasm sweating;

An occasional scream or cry, the doctor’s shouted orders or calls;

The glisten of the little steel instruments catching the glint of the torches. …”

Whitman was writing for an audience for whom this kind of loss was familiar. When the Civil War ended, every American knew someone who had been killed or wounded (rough arithmetic: 4 percent of the male population counted in the 1860 census died as a result of the war; that’s one in 25 men in the entire country; that ratio in today’s U.S. population would equal 6 million deaths). When Whitman wrote about the horror and tragedy of a field hospital, he was describing a scene that involved his readers in a very personal way.

The Whitman war poem — especially his picture of the field hospital — came to mind in part because, in the midst of my Memorial Day reading, I just happened across a piece from an American military doctor working in a combat hospital in Iraq. It’s immediate and moving in its own way:

“They wheeled the soldier into the ER on a NATO gurney shortly after the chopper touched down. One look at the PJs’ [pararescuemen’s] faces told me that the situation was grim. Their young faces were drawn and tight, and they moved with a sense of directed urgency. They did not even need to speak because the look in their eyes was pleading with us – hurry. And hurry we did.”

The piece isn’t Whitman. For one thing, a lot of the it’s given over to marked pro-war rhetoric and a sort of “Top Gun” meets “ER” attitude that seems a little foreign to the humanity of the situation. And the author is writing about a scene that most of us aren’t personally connected to and probably don’t want to think too much about. That in itself makes it worth the time to read and ponder.

Road Blog: Tolono 09.11.04

Dad and I headed south from Chicago, leaving the North Side about 9:30 a.m., going down Lake Shore Drive and the Dan Ryan before peeling off to the southwest on Interstate 57 with a destination of Cairo, all the way at the southern tip of the state. We stayed on that all the way down to Tolono, a small town that’s the subject of a railroad song by Utah Phillips (I wrote briefly about the song earlier this year).

The old Illinois Central (now Illinois Central Gulf) and Wabash (now Norfolk Southern) lines come together in town. In his song, Phillips describes the place as a flag stop — a place too small to have regular service. That looks like it was probably true, though there are so few passenger trains now that I’m sure it’s been decades since even a flag stop was made.

We got off the interstate just northwest of Tolono and drove into town on U.S. 45. I noticed while we were heading through that there was a sign for a historical marker. But as we passed the spot indicated — the entrance to a gas station — I didn’t see a marker. We drove out the south end of town, turned around, and tried again. We turned in at the gravel entrance to the gas station, but still didn’t see anything historic looking. But we did see a local constable parked in his Tolono squad car, apparently waiting for speeders . He lowered his passenger-side window as we rolled up.

“We were looking for that historical marker,” I said.

“What?” he answered.

“Do you know anything about the historical marker that’s supposed to be here?”

“A drunk took it down last winter. State still hasn’t put it back up.”

“Do you know what it was for? What the marker was for?

“I don’t know. State’s supposed to put it back up again.”

I had my camera out, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask whether I could take the officer’s picture. I also didn’t ask how long he’d been living in the area that he had no idea what this marker was about. Inquiries like that could be a threat to homeland security and speed-zone enforcement. Instead, Dad and I drove off to see Tolono; I was hoping there’d been an old station or stop of some kind I could photograph so I can send a shot to my old friend Gerry, who used to play the song so well. But there’s not a whole lot happening in town, certainly no evidence of a rail-passenger platform anywhere. I shot a couple scenes along the Norfolk tracks anyway. Then we headed back to U.S. 45 to go south for a few miles and get back on I-57.

We passed the historical marker sign again, and going by the gas station I finally saw the monument. It was a tablet set into a boulder in among some sort of ever-greenery. The bushes kind of looked like landscaping for the gas station, and the boulder hadn’t been visible when we were consulting local law enforcement about markers of historical significance. The police officer had been parked no more than 100 feet from the spot.

We halted again, and it turned out to be worth it this time. The marker commemorates what is said to be Lincoln’s last speech in Illinois, on February 11, 1861, during a brief stop on his journey east to be inaugurated. One site notes that Lincoln stopped further east, too, in Danville, and spoke to a crowd there. A railroad-centric account of the journey mentions Tolono, but not Danville.)

Lincoln’s brief Tolono speech is on the marker:

“I am leaving you on an errand of national importance, attended as you are aware with considerable difficulties. Let us believe as some poet has expressed it, ‘Behind the cloud the sun is still shining.’ I bid you an affectionate farewell.”

Monument commemorating Lincoln’s stop in Tolono, Illinois, (just south of Champaign) in February 1861.