On the first day of fighting at Gettysburg, an old man in a swallowtail coat and a high black silk hat presented himself to a Union officer, volunteering to fight. When asked if he could shoot, he said, “If you knew that you had before you a soldier of the War of 1812 who fought at Lundy’s Lane, you would not ask such a question.”
It was the town constable, John L. Burns, born in 1793 and now nearly 70. He exchanged his ancient musket for a modern rifle and joined the 7th Wisconsin volunteers, with whom he distinguished himself as a sharpshooter throughout the battle. “He was as calm and collected as as any veteran on the ground,” remembered Sgt. George Eustice. “He was true blue and grit to the backbone, and fought until he was three times wounded.”
After the war he was hailed as the “hero of Gettysburg” and visited by tourists, veterans, and dignitaries, and he even met Lincoln at the dedication of the National Cemetery. He died in 1872 at age 78.
An infantryman’s view of World War I combat, from veteran Henry Williamson’s 1930 novel Patriot’s Progress:
… Half the sky leapt alight behind them, there were shouts and cries, a cascade of sound slipped solidly upon them, seeming to John Bullock to swell and converge upon the place where his now very trembling body was large and alone. He saw a long pale shadow before him an instant before it vagged and vanished in the shock of the earth rushing up in fire before him. He was aware of men going forward, himself with them, of the unreality of all movement, of the barrage which was all-weight and all-sound, so that he was carried forward effortlessly over a land freed from the force of gravity and matter. As in a nightmare of rising green and white showers of light about the rending fire he shouted without sound in a silent world, and his senses fused into a glassy delirium which lasted until he realized that of the figures on either side of him some were slowly going down on their knees, their chins on their box-respirators, their rifles loosening from their hands. He was hot and swearing, and his throat was dried up. That sissing noise and far-away racketting must be emma-gees. Now the fire wall was going down under his nose and streaking sparks were over and he was lying on his back watching a great torn umbrella of mud, while his head was drawn down into his belly …
(The vacuum of a dud shell falling just behind him.) He retched for breath. His ears screamed in his head. He crawled to his knees and looked to see what had happened. Chaps going on forward. He was on his feet in the sissing criss-cross and stinking of smoking earth gaping — hullo, hullo, new shell-holes, this must be near the first objective. They had come three hundred yards already! Cushy! Nothing in going over the top! Then his heart instead of finishing its beat and pausing to beat again swelled out its beat into an ear-bursting agony and great lurid light that leapt out of his broken-apart body with a spinning shriek
and the earth was in his eyes and up his nostrils and going away smaller and smaller
and tiny far away
Rough and smooth. Rough was wide and large and tilting with sickness. He struggled and struggled to clutch smooth, and it slid away. Rough came back and washed harshly over him. He cried out between the receding of rough and the coming of smooth white, then rough and smooth receded …
Shell-shocked at the Somme, Williamson was invalided back to England in 1917, where he wrote seven novels about his wartime experiences. He died in 1977.
Letter from escaped slave Jackson Whitney to his former master, March 18, 1859:
Mr. Wm. Riley, Springfield, Ky. — Sir: I take this opportunity to dictate a few lines to you, supposing you might be curious to know my whereabouts. I am happy to inform you that I am in Canada, in good health, and that robbing a woman of her husband, and children of their father does not pay, at least in your case; and I thought, while lying in jail by your direction, that if you had no remorse of conscience that would make you feel for a poor, broken-hearted man, and his worse-than-murdered wife and child, and could not be made to feel for others as you would have them feel for you, and could not by any entreaty or permission be induced to do as you promised you would, which was to let me go with my family for $800 — but contended for $1,000, when you had promised to take the same you gave for me (which was $660.) at the time you bought me, and let me go with my dear wife and children! but instead would render me miserable, and lie to me, and to your neighbors (how if words mean anything, what I say is so.) and when you was at Louisville trying to sell me! then I thought it was time for me to make my feet feel for Canada, and let your conscience feel in your pocket. — Now you cannot say but that I did all that was honorable and right while I was with you, although I was a slave. I pretended all the time that I thought you, or some one else had a better right to me than I had to myself, which you know is rather hard thinking. — You know, too, that you proved a traitor to me in the time of need, and when in the most bitter distress that the human soul is capable of experiencing: and could you have carried out your purposes there would have been no relief. But I rejoice to say that an unseen, kind spirit appeared for the oppressed, and bade me take up my bed and walk — the result of which is that I am victorious and you are defeated.
I am comfortably situated in Canada, working for George Harris, one of the persons that act a part in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ He was a slave a few years ago in Kentucky, and now owns a farm so level that there is not hills enough on it to hide a dog, yet so large that I got lost in it the other day. He says that I may be the means of helping poor fugitives and doing them as much good as he does, in time.
This country is not what it has been represented to me and others to be. In place of its being cold and barren, it has beautiful, comfortable climate, and fertile soil. It is much more desirable in those respects than any part of Kentucky that I ever saw. There is only one thing to prevent me being entirely happy here, and that is the want of my dear wife and children, and you to see us enjoying ourselves together here. I wish you could realize the contrast between Freedom and Slavery; but it is not likely that we shall ever meet again on this earth. But if you want to go to the next world and meet a God of love, mercy, and justice, in peace; who says, ‘Inasmuch as you did it to the least of them my little ones, you did it unto me’ — making the professions that you do, pretending to be a follower of Christ, and tormenting me and my little ones as you have done — had better repair the breaches you have made among us in this world, by sending my wife and children to me; thus preparing to meet your God in peace; for, if God don’t punish you for inflicting such distress on the poorest of His poor, then there is no use of having any God, or talking about one. But, in this letter, I have said enough to cause you to do all that is necessary for you to do, providing you are any part of the man you pretend to be. So I will close by saying that, if you see proper to reply to my letter, either condemning or justifying the course you have taken with me, I will again write you.
I hope you will consider candidly and see if the case does not justify every word I have said, and ten times as much. You must not consider that it is a slave talking to ‘massa’ now, but one as free as yourself.
I subscribe myself one of the abused of America, but one of the justified and honored of Canada.
John Clem was only 10 years old when he ran away to win the Civil War. (“It was necessary that the Union should be preserved,” he later wrote, “and my help was obviously needed.”) Rejected by Michigan’s 22nd infantry regiment, he tagged along anyway as a drummer boy and rode into Chickamauga seated on a caisson and carrying a musket sawed off to match his size. When a Confederate colonel rode up and yelled “Surrender, you damned little Yankee!” Clem shot him, winning instant fame as “the drummer boy of Chickamauga.”
He went on to fight at Perrysville, Murfreesboro, Kennesaw Mountain, Peach Tree Creek, and Atlanta. After the war Ulysses Grant, now president, appointed him second lieutenant; when he retired as a brigadier general in 1915 he was the only Civil War veteran still on duty. “There is no more popular officer in the army,” wrote the New York Times. “Colonel Clem is the son-in-law of a Confederate veteran, and this fact he often cites in conversation with friends as proof of the fact that he is the most ‘united American’ extant.” He died in San Antonio in 1937.
From an 1863 interview with blacksmith Solomon Bradley regarding the punishment of slaves in South Carolina:
Q. Can you speak of any particular cases of cruelty that you have seen?
A. Yes, sir; the most shocking thing that I have seen was on the plantation of Mr. Farrarby, on the line of the railroad. I went up to his house one morning from my work for drinking water, and heard a woman screaming awfully in the door-yard. On going up to the fence and looking over I saw a woman stretched out, face downwards, on the ground her hands and feet being fastened to stakes. Mr. Farrarby was standing over and striking her with a leather trace belonging to his carriage-harness. As he struck her the flesh of her back and legs was raised in welts and ridges by the force of the blows. Sometimes when the poor thing cried too loud from the pain Farrarby would kick her in the mouth. After he had exhausted himself whipping her he sent to his house for sealing wax and lighted candle and, melting the wax, dropped it upon the woman’s lacerated back. He then got a riding whip and, standing over the woman, picked off the hardened wax by switching at it. Mr. Farrarby’s grown daughters were looking at all this from a window of the house through the blinds. This punishment was so terrible that I was induced to ask what offence the woman had committed and was told by her fellow servants that her only crime was in burning the edges of the waffles that she had cooked for breakfast. The sight of this thing made me wild almost that day. I could not work right and I prayed the Lord to help my people out of their bondage. I felt I could not stand it much longer.
From John W. Blassingame, Slave Testimony, 1977.
On Sept. 9, 1942, a lookout on Mount Emily in Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest reported a plume of smoke near the town of Brookings. The Forest Service contained the fire easily, but investigators turned up something odd at the site: fragments of an incendiary bomb of Japanese origin.
It turned out that a Japanese submarine had surfaced off the Oregon/California border and 31-year-old navy officer Nobuo Fujita had piloted a seaplane into the forest, hoping to start a fire that would divert U.S. military resources from the Pacific. Recent rains had wet the forest, so the plan failed, but it marked the first time the continental United States had been bombed by enemy aircraft.
Fujita returned safely to Japan, where he opened a hardware store after the war, and he became an agent of amity with the United States. In 1962 he accepted an invitation to return to Oregon, where he donated his family’s samurai sword to Brookings, and he invited three local students to visit Japan in 1985. The city made him an honorary citizen shortly before his death in 1997, and his daughter spread his ashes at the site of the bombing.
In 1896 the U.S. Treasury introduced some beautifully high-minded currency — instead of American presidents, the “educational series” of silver certificates bear neoclassical allegories:
On the $1 note, the Goddess of History instructs a youth, pointing to the U.S. Constitution, a panorama of Washington D.C., and a roster of famous Americans, including Franklin, Longfellow, Hawthorne, and Emerson.
On the $2 note, Science presents Steam and Electricity (as children) to Commerce and Manufacture. The back bears portraits of Robert Fulton and Samuel Morse.
The almost impossibly glorious $5 note depicts Electricity Presenting Light to the World. She is flanked by Strength, Fame, and Peace. The New York Times wrote, “The arrangement of this composition, the grace of pose in each figure, and the idea connected with the designs of this artist entitle it to a place beside the finest allegorical designs in the world.”
Unfortunately, the Treasury got a new secretary the following year, one who favored simple, clear designs, and he canceled more than $54 million in certificates as they came into the Treasury. “It can be said authoritatively … that no more of the so-called ‘new certificates’ will be printed,” the Times reported sadly in May 1897. “Neither will fresco painters be called in to make designs for the substitutes.”
Benjamin West undertook this painting of the Treaty of Paris at the end of the American Revolution. The British delegation refused to pose, so he had to abandon it.
As its colonies and dominions won independence, Britain faced a curious legal problem: How can a sovereign release a subject from subjection? If it passes a law, then implicitly the law might someday be repealed, “revoking” the new state’s freedom. And if Parliament promises never to do this, then it’s denying the power of the British people to change their own laws. The 1931 Statute of Westminster solemnized Britain’s intent never again to legislate for the colonies, but in 1935 Parliament ruled that the statute could in principle be repealed. “This was a world-class cartoon of the child with flypaper on its fingers trying to shake it off,” writes Peter Suber in The Paradox of Self-Amendment. “England was learning that it is paradoxical to command another to be free or even to offer another their freedom as a gift.”
In the Philippine Independence Act of 1934, the United States promised that, when a suitable Philippine constitution was ratified, “the United States shall by proclamation withdraw and surrender all right of possession, supervision, jurisdiction, control, or sovereignty then existing and exercised by the United States in and over the territory and people of the Philippine Islands …” But, like Westminster, this is only a statute, and unless Congress can bind itself irrevocably, it might be repealed at any time. Suber writes, “If after a certain time repeal would have no effect on the independence of the former dependent, which is almost certainly the case, then legal formalism cannot explain the source of the independence.”
That’s not a gun, it’s a log painted black. Both sides in the Civil War used “Quaker guns” to frighten the enemy in order to buy time. “We were confronted by a mammoth gun that threatened to blow the Union clear over the north pole,” remembered one Indiana volunteer in 1894. “The mammoth gun proved afterward to be a log that had been mounted and painted to resemble a columbiad.”
Two further Civil War oddities:
Each side, improbably, had a general named Henry H. Sibley. Henry Hastings Sibley (left) spent most of the war protecting settlements from the Sioux on the western frontier. He went on to become the first governor of Minnesota. His counterpart, Henry Hopkins Sibley, also served in the west, leading the Confederate States Army in the New Mexico Territory. The two never faced one another.
In July 1863 Union general Edward H. Hobson captured most of Confederate general John Hunt Morgan’s forces at the Battle of Buffington Island in Ohio. Undaunted, Morgan tunneled out of prison and returned the favor, capturing Hobson and about 750 men one year later near Cynthiana, Ky.
Helen Thomas’ husband departs for war, 1917:
After breakfast, while he showed me where his account books were and what each was for, I listened calmly, and unbelievingly he kissed me when I said I, too, would keep accounts. ‘And here are my poems. I’ve copied them all out in this book for you, and the last of all is for you. I wrote it last night, but don’t read it now … It’s still freezing. The ground is like iron, and more snow has fallen. The children will come to the station with me; and now I must be off.’
We were alone in my room. He took me in his arms, holding me tightly to him, his face white, his eyes full of a fear I had never seen before. My arms were round his neck. ‘Beloved, I love you,’ was all I could say. ‘Jenny, Jenny, Jenny,’ he said, ‘remember that, whatever happens, all is well between us for ever and ever.’ And hand in hand we went downstairs and out to the children, who were playing in the snow.
A thick mist hung everywhere, and there was no sound except, far away in the valley, a train shunting. I stood at the gate watching him go; he turned back to wave until the mist and the hill hid him. I heard his old call coming up to me: ‘Coo-ee!’ he called. ‘Coo-ee!’ I answered, keeping my voice strong to call again. Again through the muffled air came his ‘Coo-ee’. And again went my answer like an echo. ‘Coo-ee’ came fainter next time with the hill between us, but my ‘Coo-ee’ went out of my lungs strong to pierce to him as he strode away from me. ‘Coo-ee!’ So faint now, it might be only my own call flung back from the thick air and muffling snow. I put my hands up to my mouth to make a trumpet, but no sound came. Panic seized me, and I ran through the mist and the snow to the top of the hill, and stood there a moment dumbly, with straining eyes and ears. There was nothing but the mist and the snow and the silence of death.
Then with leaden feet which stumbled in a sudden darkness that overwhelmed me I groped my way back to the empty house.
He was killed shortly after arriving in France. From her memoir World Without End, 1931.