by Raju Peddada
"In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls."
—Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, at the dedication of the monument to the 20th Maine, October 3, 1889, Gettysburg, PA.
(Swans - July 1, 2013) Herman Melville (1819-1891), our national poet laureate during the Civil War (1861-1865), referred to John Brown, the passionate abolitionist, as the "meteor of the war." The implication was that John Brown was the fireball that ignited the conflagration that consumed a million lives, to burn off slavery -- which was the anathema to our nascent national identity that "all men are created equal." Melville's proclamation applies not only to Brown, who was the big meteor, but, in an equitable manner, suits all those who were smaller meteors and played a significant part in the remediation of our history. John Brown and his fellow meteors (including the soldiers of the war) obliterated a way of life, just like the fireballs 65 million years ago that hit the Yucatan peninsula and vaporized the dinosaurs. Weren't the plantation owners, in their exclusive and closed society, the dinosaurs, especially in the age of reason, discovery, Industrial Revolution, and the burgeoning egalitarian ideals?
We had remained a fork-tongued nation since 1776, especially in deft and clever lip-service like this one by Jefferson: "We have the (slavery) wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other." The Founding Fathers had simply shoved slavery into their cellars, as they were arrested by the prospect of freeing themselves from the English taxes and forming a nation. It was an embarrassment for decades -- deeply felt first by Brown and his associates, later by all, as a cathartic national obligation.
In most cases, societies and civilizations change and evolve over decades, generations, or centuries, like the Roman world to Byzantium (religious regression), the Medieval to the Renaissance, and then on to the age of discovery (progress). Worlds die when they don't transform or change; it's inevitable. Some die at the advent of new technologies, and others die because of obsolescence. Some worlds perish quietly, and others end violently. Slavery waited, getting bigger in its devilish contortions -- lurking in men with conscience, necessitating five years of bloodletting. No way of life, in fact, no history had ever come to a full stop so abruptly, to be redirected. Perhaps the only other occasion was in England about 800 years earlier with the Battle of Hastings, in 1066 AD, when the Anglo-Saxon world was suddenly extinguished and replaced by the Norman world.
In national calamities, most people are swallowed by oblivion, and some people, even important ones, disappear into the musty and mildewed pages of history, but their impact is felt every day. Those who wielded the pen deftly, and planted the seeds of contemplation against slavery, were men like Elijah P. Lovejoy (1802-1837), William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), Thadeus Stevens (1792-1868), Charles Sumner (1811-1874), Wendell Philips (1811-1884), Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), and others that had openly professed that "the effect of the pen was limited," citing the Declaration of Independence as an example, whose fundamental value was sustained and realized with the sword, crediting General Washington. Brown took the words literally, and powered his "sword" -- he became our conscience. It's not too late to learn and accept that words (ideas) project the future onto the minds of people, then its the sword (men of action-doers) that realize it -- for us.
Most individuals who shape the course of history with their actions are not the easy sociable butterflies, nor are they the acquiescing types craving approval and popularity. In fact, these individuals, who generally tread under the radar, are rather prickly misanthropes immersed in their ideas and passions. Can these asymmetrical and dynamic individuals, who change things for the rest of us, be identified with a certain spirit? Is that spirit obvious on their faces? One such face was that of John Brown. And, his actions were a clarion call, a siren to say the least. Another such man was Aaron Dwight Stevens, a skilled veteran of the Mexican War, who joined Brown's band of 17 men for Harper's Ferry to hasten the demise of slavery. Stevens flashes for a brief moment in history as one of those crucial stilts, not on any national monument that buttressed the nation.
On the eve of the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, I would like to present excerpts from letters and a diary of four individuals: 1. The prophetic (1858) letter from A.D. Stevens, Brown's associate, to his brother. 2. A letter from a Georgia Plantation owner, Rev. Jones, to his son, agitated to sustain a way of life in the belief that it was sanctioned in the Bible (Old Testament). 3. A journal entry from Mary Chestnut, the frustrated socialite and observer, on the passing history of her south. 4. A letter from Pvt. John Burrill, of the 2nd New Hampshire volunteers, to his fiancée: Ell, from the Battle of Gettysburg, observing the remains of the unknown soldiers on the altar of freedom.
A. D. Stevens, Spring Dale Cedar Co. Iowa, August 2, 1858
My Dear Brother,
It seames a long time since I had a letter from you. I have been traveling about so much that I'v not been able to write offtiner. I think I told you before that I was in the cause of human freedom, but I did not give you the particklures. We left Kansas to strike slavery at the heart, and we had things all arrianged to do it, and would of done so, but for a trator... You may think it is not best to do it by the sword, but I tell you it never will be done away except by the sword... every year it is getting worse...
I suppose that they work there slaves on those big plantations hard enouf to kill them in seven years... so you see there is thousands of them murdered yearly, and would you not think it best to do away with slavory in a year or two by loosing a few thousands in war than to have thousands of them murdered yearly for god knows how many years... how many of them have been murdered before this.
I am aganst war, except in self defense, and then I am like Patrick Henry, when he sayd "give me Liberty or give me death." I do not think we shall be able to go on with it this year, but I think the time is coming when it shall be done. it leaves us in rather bad circumstances for we had sackraficed all we had to the cause, but we are willing to give up life itself for the good of humanity...
A. D. Stevens
Stevens, despite being a semi-literate, was acutely accurate in his diagnosis and remedy, than most of the senators, congressmen, generals, and intellectuals of his age. Stevens was an idealist, of the highest order, who acted out his heart and words to the letter -- he was hanged 3 months after John Brown's hanging -- on March 16, 1860.
Rev. Charles. C. Jones to Mr. Charles C. Jones, Jr., Montevideo, November 7, 1859
My dear Son,
Your three last favors have been received. ... it was thoughtful in you to renew the note for ninety days and give us time to get something to market. Cato (not the Elder, but a slave) has in about thirty-seven bales. ...if no loss in the field occurs from storms and rain, at fifty. Andrew (slave) will make between ten to twelve; so through a kind providence I hope we may be able to pay up all our accounts...
The Harpers Ferry affair proves to be more serious than at first it appeared to be--not in reference to the negro population, for that had nothing to do with it; but in reference to the hostility of large numbers of men of all classes in the free states to... aid and abet such attempts with counsels and money, and to employ reckless agents to carry them out. There is a covert, cowardly, assassin-like heart in these men... From the tone of the abolition press in the free states... there is great sympathy for the prisoners at Harpers Ferry. Some go far as to justify the act, and only condemn time and manner of it! The whole abolition crusade which has been preached for thirty years ends in the sword. The volunteering of counsel for the prisoners from the free states is another proof of sympathy in their crime, and an insult to the justice of the south.
Some of the papers friendly to the south hope that the south will be forbearing and magnanimous! Against the miserable lives of these men who have plotted arson, robbery, murder, and treason over a vast portion of our country, who may weigh millions of property, millions of lives, the virtue, the order, the peace and happiness of people, the majesty of our laws, the sacredness of religion, our constitution and our union?
Such sparks as these, struck to produce a universal conflagration, should be stamped out immediately.
...A decision of this sort is demanded by our circumstances... these are my sentiments, and I believe they are the sentiments of every intelligent and truehearted citizen in the southern states. And I am sure they will not only be entertained but acted upon whenever there may be an occasion for it...
Your affectionate father,
C. C. Jones
Three plantations, Arcadia, Maybank, and Montevideo in Liberty County, Georgia, were owned by Rev. C. C. Jones (1804-1863). This letter essentially represents the overall smug hypocrisy and belligerent tone of the south. Things fermented fast in the south, and exactly a year from this letter, South Carolina secedes from the union, on December 20, 1860.
Chestnut's Journal entry "Survivors," May 16, 1865
We are scattered -- stunned -- the remnant of heart left alive with us, filled with brotherly hate. We sit and wait until the drunken tailor who rules the U.S.A. issues a proclamation and defines our anomalous position. Such a hue and cry -- whose fault? Everybody blamed somebody else. Only the dead heroes left stiff and stark on the battlefield escape. "Blame every man who stayed at home and did not fight. I will not stop to hear excuses. Not one word against those who stood until the bitter end and stacked muskets at Appomattox." Yesterday John Whitaker and Dr. Charles Shannon said they would be found ready enough to take up arms when the time came! Rip Van Winkle was a light sleeper to those two -- their nap has lasted four years...
Pvt. John Burrill, 2nd New Hampshire Volunteers, Gettysburg, PA, July 6, 1863
My last (letter) was from Emmetsburg before our fight here... You will want me to tell you of the battle. It was awful. Language will not convey an idea. ...I went over the battlefield before the men were buried and they lay awful thick, I can assure you. I have been over other fields but never one like this. In one place I counted 16 in a spot no larger than your kitchen. It was a hard sight. They had turned black and swollen to twice their natural size.
Yesterday was the day I went over it. In going over, I saw one man who did not look like the rest. He was not black nor swollen. He was alive. He could move one of his hands a little. I went up to him and saw the top of his head was blown off. I gave him a little water -- got some help -- put him on a blanket and carried him to an old barn where he could get attention. He was about as hard a looking man as I ever saw and I have seen many. I have seen men torn in pieces in almost every shape and mind nothing about it, but no so with this one...
I suggest that you read it again, and again, to contemplate, understand, and appreciate the sacrifice.
The Battle of Gettysburg is a stark reminder and a perpetual warning for us in our fatal assumptions that freedom is for granted and cheap. And contrary to all our puerile and gratuitous presumptions, it is earned and sustained by enormous sacrifice, every day. I loathe this foresight, that more Gettysburgs lurk in our negligence -- in our tolerance of complacency, apathy, obfuscation, dilution, and deviation, from conservation, and in the failure to safeguard the integrity of those freedoms that were preserved for us in the blood of so many men in those three hot July days, seven score years ago.
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)