Happy Birthday Paul Laurence Dunbar

PLDunbar

A prolific writer during his too short 33 years Dunbar was born June 27th, 1872.  He was a child of the hope that characterised the reconstruction period in the US following the Civil War.  He was an intellectual and suspicious of the “negro dialect” writing that was so popular in his day.  He preferred to express himself in proper English rather than in Uncle Tom pickaninny cant.

His influence was enormous and he inspired some of the greatest writers of the Harlem Renaissance.  More recently Maya Angelou acknowledged his influence in the title of her poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” from a line in Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy”.

We Wear the Mask: by Paul Laurence Dunbar

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
it hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
this debt we pay to human guile;
with torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
and mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be overwise,
in counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
we wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
to thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
beneath our feet, and long the mile;
but let the world dream otherwise,
we wear the mask!

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A tale of two horses.

LeeGrant

It is a fancy of mine that these two famous horses stood flank to flank, hitched to a post outside the McLean House in the village of Appomattox Courthouse on this day in history,  April 9th  1865.

The Civil war began with the Battle of First Bull Run in 1861 on the McLean farm so Wilmer McLean said that the Civil War started in his backyard in 1861 and ended in his parlor in 1865.  In the photo on the left is Ulysses S. Grant with Cincinnati, his most famous mount of the Civil War, a giant at 17 hands.  On the right is Robery E. Lee mounted on Traveller, his most famous mount of the war.  These were the horses ridden by the two Generals on that fateful day.

By the etiquette of the time Lee should have presented his sword and horse to the victor and walked back to his soldiers following the surrender of his Army of Northern Virginia.  Instead Grant began the long slow process of reconciliation by allowing Lee to retire with full honours.  Lee rode back to his troops on Traveller, armed with his sword.  He also rode back with the good news that the Union army were arranging to deliver food to his starving troops.  Food exchanged for rifle muskets.

Traveller (originally named Greenbriar), a grey colt of 16 hands, was purchased by Major Thomas L. Broun, who sold him to Lee.  Greenbriar “was greatly admired in camp for his rapid, springy walk, his high spirit, bold carriage, and muscular strength. He needed neither whip nor spur, and would walk his five or six miles an hour over the rough mountain roads of Western Virginia with his rider sitting firmly in the saddle and holding him in check by a tight rein, such vim and eagerness did he manifest to go right ahead so soon as he was mounted.”

Their sleepless, bloodshot eyes were turned to me.
Their flags hung black against the pelting sky.
Their jests and curses echoed whisperingly,
as though from long-lost years of sorrow – Why,
You’re weeping! What, then? What more did you see?
A gray man on a gray horse rode by.

Passage from Traveller, a novel by Richard Adams

 

From Frederick Dent Grant’s notes on his fathers horses:

After the battle of Chattanooga, General Grant went to St. Louis, where I was at the time, critically ill with dysentery contracted during the siege of Vicksburg. During the time of his visit to the city he received a letter from a gentleman who signed his name “S. S. Grant,” the initials being the same as those of a brother of my father’s, who had died in the summer of 1861.  S. S. Grant wrote to the effect that he was very desirous of seeing General Grant but that he was ill and confined to his room at the Lindell Hotel and begged him to call, as he had something important to say which my father might be gratified to hear.

The name excited my father’s curiosity and he called at the hotel to meet the gentleman who told him that he had, he thought, the finest horse in the world, and knowing General Grant’s great liking for horses he had concluded, inasmuch as he would never be able to ride again, that he would like to give his horse to him; that he desired that the horse should have a good home and tender care and that the only condition that he would make in parting with him would be that the person receiving him would see that he was never ill-treated, and should never fall into the hands of a person that would ill-treat him. The promise was given and General Grant accepted the horse and called him Cincinnati.

 

 

 

 

Shiloh

Bivouac_1

In 1862 on the 6th and 7th of April the Northern Armies of Tennessee and the Ohio led by Ulysses S Grant and Don Carlos Buell met the Southern Army of the Mississippi commanded by Albert Sidney Johnston and General PGT Beauregard.  The battle that ensued was the bloodiest battle in the History of the USA to that point.  It is known in the North as the Battle of Pittsburgh Landing and in the South as Shiloh.

It was a battle of fog and confusion fought in a swampy hell of forest, brush and wetland.  Nobody on either side had a clear picture of what was going on.

The battle of Shiloh, or Pittsburg landing, has been perhaps less understood, or to state the case more accurately, more persistently misunderstood, than any other engagement between National and Confederate troops during the entire rebellion. Correct reports of the battle have been published, notably by Sherman, Badeau and, in a speech before a meeting of veterans, by General Prentiss; but all of these appeared long subsequent to the close of the rebellion and after public opinion had been most erroneously formed  — Ulysses S. Grant

I am not going to give a big history of the Battle of Shiloh in this post, there are many books written on the subject.  For me there are a few important lessons.

  1.  Shiloh is in microcosm a prediction of the outcome of the Civil War.  The South fought on passion and secured some victories with bravery and élan.  The North assessed the larger picture, assembled its greater strength and won in the end.
  2. The action at the Hornets Nest/Sunken Road demonstrated that the rifle musket with the minié ball , the most common weapon of both sides, favoured the defender.  The war was characterised by the trench, and should have served as a lesson to Generals of the Great War.
  3. Like Napoleon at Marengo Grant had the ability to see through a defeat and assess the potential for a reversal. Sometime after midnight in the early hours of 7th April, Sherman encountered Grant standing under a tree, sheltering himself from the pouring rain and smoking one of his cigars. Sherman remarked, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Grant looked up. “Yes,” he replied, followed by a puff. “Yes. Lick ’em tomorrow, though.”
  4. War is hell.  “I saw an open field, in our possession on the second day, over which the Confederates had made repeated charges the day before, so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping on dead bodies, without a foot touching the ground.”  — Ulysses S. Grant

As a side note from Shiloh I always liked this story told by General Grant’s son, Frederick Dent Grant :

At the battle of Shiloh the Confederates left on the field a rawboned horse, very ugly and apparently good for nothing. As a joke, the officer who found this animal on the field, sent it with his compliments, to Colonel Lagow, one of my father’s aides-de-camp, who always kept a very excellent mount and was a man of means. The other officers of the staff “jollied” the colonel about this gift. When my father saw him, he told the colonel that the animal was a thoroughbred and a valuable mount and that if he, Lagow, did not wish to keep the horse he would be glad to have him. Because of his appearance he was named “Kangaroo,” and after a short period of rest and feeding and care he turned out to be a magnificent animal and was used by my father during the Vicksburg campaign.

And now a poem by a fellow blogger on WordPress:

Shiloh; by Tim Shey
Brutal deathdance;
my eyes weep blood.
Pharisees smile like vipers,
they laugh and mock their venom:
Blind snakes leading
the deaf and dumb multitude.
Where are my friends?
The landscape is dry and desolate.
They have stretched my shredded body
on this humiliating tree.
The hands that healed
and the feet that brought good news
they have pierced
with their fierce hatred.
The man-made whip
that opened up my back
preaches from a proper pulpit.
They sit in comfort:
That vacant-eyed congregation.
The respected, demon-possessed reverend
forks his tongue
scratching itchy ears
while Cain bludgeons
Abel into silence.
My flesh in tattered pieces
clots red and cold and sticks
to the rough-hewn timber
that props up my limp, vertical carcase
between heaven and earth.
My life drips and puddles
below my feet,
as I gaze down dizzily
on merciless eyes and dagger teeth.
The chapter-and-versed wolves
jeer and taunt me.
Their sheepwool clothing
is stained black with the furious violence
of their heart of stone.
They worship me in lip service,
but I confess,
I never knew them
(though they are my creation).
My tongue tastes like ashes:
It sticks to the roof of my mouth.
I am so thirsty.
This famine is too much for me.
The bulls of Bashan have bled me white.
Papa, into your hands
I commend my Spirit.
-o0o-
Published in Ethos
February/March 1997
Iowa State University
-o0o-
Genesis 49:10 : “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.”

Death of the Republic

Actium, Egyptian ship with battering ram

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Actium, the final major conflict of the civil wars that wracked the dying Roman republic from 133BC (if you ascribe to the assassination of Tiberius Gracchus origination) or   from 49BC (if you take it from the Rubicon Crossing) to 31BC.

The poet Virgil was effectively a propagandist working on behalf of Octavian, to counter popularity for Marc Anthony and solidify the transition to Empire.  Virgil worked with Maecenas, the agent of Octavian.  The poem below is clearly propaganda.  Octavian and the Romans are portrayed as the home team supported by the “right” gods.  They are bright lights against the gathering darkness, Anthony is portrayed as deviant, relying on a gaudily dressed ill fated woman, a rag tag coalition speaking a babble of tongues.  They bring strange animal gods from the East.  They are the foreigners, the others, interlopers.

The Battle of Actium; by Virgil (trans. John Dryden)  

Betwixt the quarters, flows a golden sea;
But foaming surges there in silver play.
The dancing dolphins with their tails divide
The glittering waves, and cut the precious tide.

Amid the main, two mighty fleets engage:
Their brazen beaks opposed with equal rage.
Actium surveys the well-disputed prize:
Leucate’s watery plain with foamy billows fries.

Young Caesar, on the stern in armour bright,
Here leads the Romans and their gods to fight:
His beamy temples shoot their flames afar;
And o’er his head is hung the Julian star.

Agrippa seconds him, with prosperous gales,
And, with propitious gods, his foes assails.
A naval crown, that binds his manly brows,
The happy fortune of the fight foreshows.

Ranged on the line opposed, Antonius brings
Barbarian aids, and troops of eastern kings,
The Arabians near, and Bactrians from afar,
Of tongues discordant, and a mingled war:

And, rich in gaudy robes, amidst the strife,
His ill fate follows him–the Egyptian wife.
Moving they fight: with oars and forky prows
The froth is gathered and the water glows.

It seems as if the Cyclades again
Were rooted up, and justled in the main;
Or floating mountains floating mountains meet;
Such is the fierce encounter of the fleet.

Fire-balls are thrown, and pointed javelins fly;
The fields of Neptune take a purple dye.
The queen herself, amidst the loud alarms,
With cymbal tossed, her fainting soldiers warms–

Fool as she was! who had not yet divined
Her cruel fate; nor saw the snakes behind.
Her country gods, the monsters of the sky,
Great Neptune, Pallas, and love’s queen, defy.

The dog Anubis barks, but barks in vain,
Nor longer dares oppose the ethereal train.
Mars, in the middle of the shining shield
Is graved, and strides along the liquid field.

The Dirae souse from heaven with swift descent;
And Discord, dyed in blood, with garments rent,
Divides the press: her steps Bellona treads,
And shakes her iron rod above their heads.

This seen, Apollo, from his Actian height
Pours down his arrows; at whose wingèd flight
The trembling Indians and Egyptians yield,
And soft Sabaeans quit the watery field.

The fatal mistress hoists her silken sails,
And shrinking from the fight, invokes the gales.
Aghast she looks, and heaves her breast for breath,
Panting, and pale with fear of future death.

The god had figured her, as driven along
By winds and waves, and scudding through the throng.
Just opposite, sad Nilus opens wide
His arms and ample bosom to the tide,
And spreads his mantle o’er the winding coast;
In which, he wraps his queen and hides the flying host.

Battle of the Cabbages

FamineWarhouse

The Famine Warhouse, Ballingarry, Tipperary.

In March 1848 the train station in Thurles, County Tipperary opened in Ireland.

In the same year the Young Irelander Rebellion took place in a country riddled by the Great Potato Famine.  The rebellion was a failure.

The largest action of the rebellion was the Battle fought in the village of Ballingarry between a group of 47 armed police constables and a gang of rebels let by William Smith O’Brien.  The police, seeing themselves outnumbered, took cover in Mrs McCormacks house, taking her children as hostages.

The rebels were unable to oust the police from their stronghold and a siege ensued.  As the day wore on word came that reinforcements were on the way from Cashel to support the police, and the crowd dispersed.  Because of the field they occupied during the siege the rebels were mocked by calling it the Battle of Widow McCormack’s Cabbage Plot.

The battle took place on this day, July 29th, 1848.  William Smith O’Brien remained in hiding for a few days and on August 5th he made his way to Thurles to make his escape by train.  He was recognised in the train station and was arrested.

Sentenced to death by hanging for treason a huge petition was raised to commute his sentence.  He was deported along with the other Young Ireland leaders to Tasmania.  He failed to escape and served his sentence in full, finally returning to live in Brussels for much of his life.

His fellow Young Ireland rebel Thomas Francis Meagher did succeed in his escape to America.  There he raised an Irish Brigade to fight for the Union in the Civil War.  Apparently, when she read about this in the newspaper Queen Victoria wanted to know why one of Her Majesty’s Prisoners was leading troops in Virginia instead of rotting in a cell in Port Arthur.

Gettysburg

Littlesorrell

On this day in 1863 the Battle of Gettysburg began.  For a brief time it looked like the Confederacy  could break out of Virginia and bring the war to Northern soil.  After Gettysburg the South was on a permanent retreat.  The Battle represented the high water mark for the Confederate States, and for Robert E Lee.

Shortly before Gettysburg at Chancellorsville, Stonewall Jackson lost his life to friendly fire.  Robert E Lee lost his right arm, his best General and leader of his cavalry.  It was the lack of intelligence from the replacement, Jebb Stewart, which led to the accidental meeting of North and South at Gettysburg.

Four and a half months after the battle a dedication was held to consecrate the Soldiers National Cemetery.  Abraham Lincoln came along and made a short speech, which has gone down in history as one of the finest orations ever made.  It serves as a model for all politicians since.  Ten sentences.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war.

We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Federico Garcia Lorca

Lorca

June 5th 1898 to 1936 when he was executed by the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War because his pen was worth a regiment.  Happy Birthday Federico Garcia Lorca, feliz cumpleaños.

El Balcón; by Federico Garcia Lorca

Si muero
Dejad el balcón abierto

El niño come naranjas
(Desde mi balcón lo veo)

El segador siega el trigo
(Desde mi balcón lo siento)

Si muero
Dejad el balcón abierto