“die like a hero going home.”

“Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.
When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”
~ Tecumseh

Another very tough old man

My obsession with historic monuments and their cultural significance sidetracked my last post, which turned into a defense of the “Minuteman” statue. But what I set out to do on the anniversary of the opening clashes of the American Revolution was to recall the story of yet another old man in the mold of Nana.

Sam Whittemore fought for the crown in King George’s War (1744-48) and the later French and Indian War (1754-63). He retired a captain of dragoons and settled on a farm in Massachusetts to enjoy his golden years.

He was 80 years old when the King’s men showed up in his dooryard. Humiliated by their repulse at Concord and infuriated by the sniping that was thinning their ranks as they retreated to Boston, the redcoats revenged themselves on the countryside as they went, burning and plundering farms along the line of march and shooting suspected rebels on the spot.

Although far too old to have any obligation to militia service, Captain Whittemore picked up his musket, added a brace of dueling pistols and a cutlass (a souvenir of his service against the French) and went out to contest these outrages. He took his stand behind a stone wall and opened fire on the King’s 47th Regiment of Foot.

He killed one soldier with his musket and then killed another and mortally wounded a third with his pistols as the grenadiers charged the ambush, then fended off their bayonets with his cutlass until shot in the face. As he struggled to regain his feet, the redcoats clubbed him down with their gun butts and bayoneted him on the ground. They left him for dead by the roadside, but when his neighbors came to collect the body they found the old man up on one knee, reloading his musket.

A local doctor could do no more than bandage the captain’s 13 stab wounds and the bullet wound to his head before sadly ordering him carried home so that he might die surrounded by his family. Instead, the tough old soldier recovered and lived another 18 years before dying at age 98. I’d love to see Clint Eastwood play him in the biopic.

That memory may their deed redeem,

Wonder why we struggle to preserve old monuments? Emerson got it:

On this green bank, by this soft stream,

    We set to-day a votive stone;

That memory may their deed redeem,

    When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare

    To die, and leave their children free,

Bid Time and Nature gently spare

    The shaft we raise to them and thee.

Today’s an anniversary little remembered or honored in history classes where the lessons focus on the sins of our forefathers instead of their virtues. But the clashes at first Lexington and then Concord and back to Boston (the British regulars carried the first but lost the second catastrophically once the Americans learned a hard lesson: the best way to confront a red coat was from behind a bush) were pivotal in the history of the world. When Washington heard the news he wrote: “The once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched in blood or inhabited by slaves. Sad alternative! But can a virtuous man hesitate in his choice?”

The resolute farmer clutching his musket in one hand and resting the other on a plow was sculpted by Daniel Chester French and cast from the metal of Civil War cannons on the centenary of those first fateful skirmishes of the American Revolution.

The Earth is Weeping

I’ve been a compulsive reader ever since I struggled past the banality of Dick and Jane and discovered the wider world of literature. I’m usually immersed in two or three books at a time, dipping into first one and then the other as my inclination directs. Some books are just too difficult to digest without an occasional divergence into less demanding reading.

One I’m currently struggling with is The Earth is Weeping. Cozzens’ accounts of the Great Sioux War, the Modoc War, the Nez Perce’ anabasis and the Victorio War make painful reading. The courage, self-sacrifice and stubborn determination displayed on both sides of the conflict cannot redeem the cynicism, greed and bureaucratic indifference that precipitated so much bloodshed.

Black Jack

There have been a pair of Black Jacks in the Army. The latest was John J. Pershing. There used to be a statue of him shaking hands with Pancho Villa in a little plaza in Palomas, but I haven’t been down there in years and can’t guess if it’s still there.

The first was John A. Logan, a Civil War general known to his troops as Black Jack for his “swarthy” good looks. (Can you still use that word or is it now considered pejorative? Looking at his picture I would have called him “Black Irish,” although I know nothing of his heritage but his name.)

His equestrian statue stands in Chicago but may be riding off into the sunset in the near future, depending on how quickly the wheels of Social Justice grind. Logan’s is one of more than 40 works of public art the Chicago Monuments Project finds worthy of discussion.

Black Jack Logan was a hero. As a sitting Congressman, he might have watched First Bull Run with the other feckless picnickers on the heights above the battlefield. Instead he joined the fight as an “unattached volunteer” with a Michigan militia regiment. From Virginia he rode west to campaign under U.S.Grant, where he had his horse shot from underneath him at the Battle of Belmont and was wounded himself at the taking of Fort Donelson. While recuperating he resigned his Congressional seat and returned to Illinois to raise a regiment for the Union.

He commanded a division at Vicksburg and a corps at Atlanta. In the final months of the war, Logan led the XV Corps on Sherman’s destructive march through the Carolinas, a campaign which freed tens of thousands of jubilant slaves.

Unfortunately, “recent scholarship” has unearthed evidence that despite shedding blood for the Union and personally freeing thousands of slaves, Black Jack was a pre-War Democrat and political supporter of Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas and so was “insensitive to the moral repugnance of slavery” or even “proslavery.”

It’s true that Douglas, the northern Democrat who ran against Lincoln in 1860, was opposed to abolition on the grounds that it would ruin the Southern economy and very probably lead to secession and bloodshed. Logan had grave forebodings that a sudden influx of uneducated and impoverished former slaves into Northern cities would foster not integration but generations of racial friction.

As it turns out, they were both right.

Ronald Reagan warned of the consequences of not educating Americans in their history:

“If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I am warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.”

“I have but one lamp…

Strange that a choleric Scots-English tobacco farmer could have anything in common with an Apache warrior. But I think Patrick Henry and Nana would have understood each other very well. Today marks the anniversary of Henry’s eloquent address to the Virginia legislature .

“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past,” Henry told the assembly.

“Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded… If we wish to be free, if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending, if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight!

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Vive’ le Pew

In my last post championing Davy Crockett and the heroes of the Alamo, I never imagined I would find myself defending one of Chuck Jones‘ cartoon characters. But here we are. I wish I could believe that Pepe’ le Pew was the hill we would die on, but it seems certain we are doomed to carry this fight on endlessly, like some nightmarish WWI battle from one shattered trench and muddy shell crater to the next, for as long as a single defender of the value of free speech — and more important a sense of humor — survives.

Unless we are to descend finally into the dreary abyss of Stalinism, we have to ask: Can’t you people take a joke? Have none of you ever even watched a Pepe’ le Pew cartoon? What were you doing with your Saturday mornings?

Horatius

In my youth the beauty of poetry was blunted by the pedants who focused on structure rather than substance, attacking what the ancients honored as divine inspiration like boys dissecting a bird in search of the source of its song. One of the few blessings of the past year has been the leisure to allow me to rediscover the emotional impact of well-crafted verse. Now whenever I think of Nana I can’t but recall Macaulay’s Horatius at the Bridge:

“To every man upon this earth

Death cometh soon or late.

And how can man die better

Than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his fathers

And temples of his Gods.”

Apologies to Lt. Bascom?

Sorting through old notes, I find this link for a book recommended by a source I can’t recall. I haven’t read the book, but according to the review it offers a compelling case for exonerating Lt. George Bascom of long-standing charges of brash arrogance, youthful stupidity and conduct unbecoming an officer of the United States Army.

Bascom’s violent collision with Cochise and his Chiricahua followers at Apache Pass in February 1861 is frequently cited as the proximate cause of the Apache Wars. Dozens of chroniclers have described those dramatic events with differing details, but all agree that Bascom first invited Cochise into his tent and then attempted to seize the chief and a half dozen of his followers with the intention of exchanging them for a young boy taken by Apache raiders a short time before. Although the soldiers succeeded in corralling three warriors and the chief’s own wife and young son, Cochise himself escaped the trap.

Matching treachery with treachery, Cochise then attempted to snare Bascom himself under the ruse of a second parley. The Apaches failed to net the young lieutenant but did succeed in capturing several other white men, who they offered to trade for their own people. Bascom stubbornly refused to negotiate for anything but the young boy he had been sent to recover. Unfortunately, that boy was a captive not of the Chiricahua but of the Coyoteros and was not even on the scene.

The stalemate ended when more soldiers arrived to relieve Bascom’s besieged detachment and the Apaches withdrew after murdering their own captives. In the final act of the tragedy the soldiers hanged six of the Apaches they held as they marched back to Fort Buchanan, carrying with them Cochise’s wife and son. Those soon escaped or were released, but the damage was done. As the Mexicans had learned long before, the Apache were not a forgiving people and would extract payment with interest for any insult or wrong inflicted on them.

Hutton, who structured his 400+ page Apache Wars around the life and times of the kidnapped boy who was the central figure in the Apache Pass drama, places the primary blame for the tragedy on Lt. Isaiah Moore, who outranked Bascom after he arrived at the besieged stage station with his Dragoons, and on Asst. Surgeon Bernard Irwin, who commanded the rescue force sent from Fort Buchanan and who had captured three of the hostages facing the rope.

Hutton credits Bascom with protesting their determination to summarily execute the hostages and sketches a macabre scene in which the officers played a game of cards to settle the issue while the doomed men watched. Moore won the hand and the six died where Cochise and his men had earlier murdered their own captives.

Rather than being censured for this sordid episode, Bascom was universally praised at the time and shortly won promotion to captain. A year later he died fighting Confederate invaders in New Mexico and was memorialized in the naming of a temporary fort erected in the northeastern part of the territory.

Unless the new book presents previously unreported evidence, I don’t see how it could clear the young lieutenant’s name for today’s readers. Although the fact that Moore was senior officer on the scene might somewhat mitigate Bascom’s responsibility for the hangings, Bascom was certainly solely responsible for the first act of treachery that initiated the whole cycle of violence.

An 1858 graduate of West Point, Bascom was probably a Plebe when R.E.Lee was still superintendent of the school. It’s too bad the young man didn’t absorb Lee’s own principles and standards of conduct for an officer and gentleman even when facing a savage foe.

“The cowards never start…”

What I find most dismaying about the current wave of iconoclastic vandalism is the acquiescence and even support for the mob’s demands from our political leadership. Whether a cynical bid for short-term political advantage or craven cowardice, Dismounting Kit Carson “proactively for safety and as a precautionary measure to keep it from being torn down,”  dishonors all of us as heirs to his legacy far more than it insults the man himself.

Kit Carson never ran from a fight in his life. To traduce his memory by calling him “as bad and as evil as any Confederate general,” is simply malevolent ignorance. Carson  was not just physically courageous, he was honest, straightforward in his opinions and a man who stood by his word. He followed orders even when he disagreed with them because he was bound by his oath to obey.

I take what has become the unpopular position of defending his conduct of the Navajo campaign in 1864, the one incident in his long career his critics seize on to define his life. Carson marched through Canyon de Chelly as Sherman marched through Georgia that same year. Carson probably wouldn’t have approved of Sherman’s tactics, but his boss, General James Carleton, did. Carson could have resigned and left a dirty job to some other man, but he stood to his duty.

And just as Sherman’s Year o’ Jubilo brought a lasting peace to the South, the final defeat of the Navajo ended centuries of endemic border warfare between Navajo, Pueblo and Hispanics. That long cycle of theft and reprisal, murder and revenge, enabled by and supporting a sordid trade in whisky, guns, livestock and captives, was finally broken by Col. Carson and the men of the 1st New Mexico Volunteer Cavalry.