Posted by: The Amoeba | May 5, 2009

For Cause

Once upon a time, a man from Maine went to war – the Confederate Revolutionary American Civil War – because he thought something was intolerable. That man was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. The Hero of Gettysburg’s Little Round Top. A man lionized for his steel on the battlefield and his compassion in the hospital tent.

That something was the plight of the slave in America. Or so he thought.

Chamberlain was a polymath, an accomplished scholar fluent in seven languages. He could have sat out the Civil War in peace and security as a professor at Maine’s Bowdoin College – about as far away as one could get from the fighting while still remaining in the United States sensu lato. His wife, his family, and his College all urged this course.

Instead, Chamberlain snuck off and joined the Union army, because he hated slavery and secession, and thought it his duty to fight against them. Maine was a hotbed of anti-slavery activism in the years leading up to the Civil War. It was also, then as now, the whitest state in the nation. Most 19th century Mainers had never actually seen a black person, slave or free. Including Chamberlain.

That changed on the march to Gettysburg. It changed when Chamberlain’s regiment encountered a field hand, wounded by a rifle bullet. The man was black, barely articulate (possibly, newly arrived from Africa), and scared nearly to death. And Chamberlain didn’t know what to do. As Colonel and commanding officer, he could order a surgeon to look at him, and he did. But he could not relate to this heavily-melanized derangement of his egalitarian assumptions. He could only offer this man the gleanings of medical care and a dismissal into the nebulous world of the street people, with no way of knowing what would become of him.

For all of Chamberlain’s ambivalence, the field hand got off lucky. The croplands and woodlands around Gettysburg were full of marching and riding men that day. A column in gray likely would have lynched him for being black and free. For threatening the white man’s mastery. A column in blue, other than Chamberlain’s, likely would have lynched him for … being black and free. For threatening the white man’s jobs.

And over the next four days, those columns of white men in blue and gray would kill and maim a quarter of their number, in a dispute over the label to be put on the field hand’s coffin. Or, rather, the label to be put on the image of the field hand’s coffin, the original being left under the weather to rot, ignored by gray and blue alike.

The label? How about Luis Ramirez of Pennsylvania?

  – O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2009 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.

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Responses

  1. Very powerful label.

  2. Sometimes, OC, all I can do is look up to you. You may even replace Ambrose Bierce as my model of cynicism.

  3. I wish it were otherwise, Thom.

    But Doug, I’m only repeating history. “Real” abolitionists (the ones that ran the Underground Railway, found jobs for freed blacks, and otherwise actually treated African Americans as people rather than “a cause”), railed at Lincoln because his slavery policies did nothing for the [freed] slave. Which was true. But Lincoln knew that many those who were fighting for “the cause” would drop the cause like the proverbial hot potato if they thought they would actually have to shake hands with a black man. Enough to risk losing the fight (which very nearly happened as things were).

    The wheel turns, and the same spoke keeps reappearing.


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