Monthly Archives: March 2015

I Want to Believe this Easter

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“Religion carries two sorts of people in two entirely opposite directions: the mild and gentle people it carries towards mercy and justice; the persecuting people it carries into fiendish sadistic cruelty…” Alfred North Whitehead 

Sometimes Holy Week can be a downer and I can understand why people who doubt, or who have been abused by Christians, either in the church or as outsiders find this to be so. I am a Christian, a priest, a Navy Chaplain. By all estimates I should be on the “inside” so to speak, but in the current religious and political climate I am an outsider. My crime to the “true believers” is that I question their certitude, and I reject the hateful ideas of an American Christian theocracy preached by the politicians, pundits and preachers of the Christian Right.

As for me, this year, Holy Week has been a bit of a downer. I believe, but I don’t. For a while I wondered if it was my post-Iraq agnosticism returning, but after spending some time meditating and thinking on it I realized that was not the case. I do still believe, or at least I want to, but my doubt and unbelief now mainly comes from of my experience with Christians, not so much God.

Truthfully I wonder. I wonder if God is the God whose Son reconciled the world to himself, how those that claim to be his most devout followers seem more intent preaching a message of alienation and rejection rather than reconciliation. I wonder how people who claim to be the disciples of the Prince of Peace seem far more intent on conducting a jihad like culture war than the message of peace and reconciliation. I wonder how such people who claim to be God’s elect and anointed can so maltreat the very people who Jesus would have gone out of his way to care for, and in fact died and rose again in order to save. But I am not alone in this.

Rachel Held Evans wrote in a CNN religion blog yesterday:

“This is the tragic irony of the culture wars: The casualties tend to be the very people Jesus went out of his way to serve: the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the outcasts, the people ostracized and deemed “sinners” by the religious elite. And when the world sees Christians hurting rather than helping such people in the name of political gain, our testimony is profoundly diminished.” 

I fully understand what she is saying. Personally I am tired of the abuse of people who in the name of their culture warrior political Christian elite must resort to the most loathsome methods to demonize people who do not agree with them, including me. Sadly, in addition to people who don’t know me from Adam who do this I have experienced it from so called “Christian” friends. If it wan’t for people, including conservative Christians who have stood by me through thick and thin, even when they disagree with me, I probably would just chuck Christianity and the church.

But I cannot do that if I believe in the message of Jesus. I cannot do that if I actually even somewhat believe message of Jesus. A message that reaches out even to the same people who seem to loath me and others like me with a hate stronger than life itself.

When when a person like me struggles to believe in the first place, and at the same time is rejected by those who loudly proclaim to be the disciples of Jesus it does get old. Way too old.

Since it is Holy Week and I am struggling I have decided to not get involved with any discussions this week with the supposed followers of Jesus on any social media that denigrate those who Jesus died to save. If I am to preserve any sort of faith I have to do this.

Sadly, that can and does include things not even connected with the actual Christian faith, mostly the politics of the supposedly “Christian Right.”  A couple of days ago I dared to state the truth that a certain Republican Presidential candidate espoused the same theocratic views as his Christian Dominionist preacher father. That got me attacked by a number of so called Christians including one whose Facebook avatar picture was a soldier wearing a death’s head mask with a pistol pointed directly at me. That man called me a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” I told that man that I had a feeling that I knew what he would do if he actually met me. I picture is worth a thousand words, especially when it comes to revealing attitudes of the heart.

Personally, between the rejection and abuse I have experienced from Christians that I thought were friends, as well as those who are no better than hateful trolls on social media I am pretty much done with all things remotely considered Christian by most Americans today. I find it no wonder that people are fleeing the church, and have no doubts as to why why every poll and trend shows that people increasingly want nothing to do with the those that call themselves Christian or the church.

But I stay, and the the only reason I remain now I think is that I believe in the Jesus of Good Friday, the Jesus who is rejected by all the theologians of glory and Christian Dominionists, the crucified God. I believe in the Jesus whose death was considered a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. If I am to believe this is the Jesus that I have to believe in, not the God of the “theologians of glory” or the Dominionists who seek to establish their kingdom on earth with a thin veneer of faith. It as as Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“The God of freedom, the true God, is… not recognized by his power and glory in the history of the world, but through his helplessness and his death on the scandal of the cross of Jesus”

Theologian Paul Tillich, who served as a U.S. Army Chaplain wrote “Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”  

In light of my belief in the scandal of the Cross, something that certainly is offensive to those that seek the power and glory of God even if it means trampling those that Jesus most identified, is a mission that I can subscribe.  Most of the people I deal with are those marginalized and rejected by the Christian pharisees, or what I call the “Christian Taliban.”  Personally I am tired of being associated with people who treat the poor, the alien, the different, the sinful and the afflicted as less than human, or less than worthy of God’s love and grace.  I am tired of being associated with people who claim to be pro-life so long as it only applies to life in the womb, who have no problem blessing war without end and the merciless killing of innocents abroad. I am tired of people who scream “let them die” at Presidential debates referring of course to the the poor and uninsured being the voice of Christianity in this county. People who have so discredited themselves and the faith as to make no one want to have anything to do with Jesus.

In the movie Joyeux Noel a priest and chaplain serving with a Scottish regiment during the Christmas truce of 1914 tells the Bishop who is sending him home: “I belong with those who are in pain, and who have lost their faith, I belong here.” Of course the bishop is a man who heartily subscribes to a war without mercy, just as so  many who call themselves Christians do today. When the priest questioned the bishop about being relieved of his duties, the bishop, in a manner similar to what I have experienced tells the priest: “You’re not asking the right question. Think on this: are you really suitable to remain with us in the house of Our Lord?”

I have experienced such comments too much. So regardless of the cost, even the cost to myself I will chose to believe and serve the Crucified God, the God who is not the God of the theocrats of the “Christian” right, but the Crucified God who stands against them. The God who in humility and weakness  proclaimed that his kingdom was not of this world and who stands against those who fraudulent attempt to establish their kingdoms in his name. People that often do so upon the bodies of those that they kill, and the lives of those that they despise. If this means that I am not suitable to “remain in the house of the Lord” than I would rather be an outcast on my own Golgotha this Holy Week than in that house.

Frankly, I don’t know what this Holy Week will bring for me. I am struggling. I want to believe, but sometimes I get so discouraged as one of those wounded by such people that I need to create some safe space if I am to find some solace.

I am opposed to the conservative Christian “Culture Wars” that so many of my friends and others have, and sadly still embrace. I see the “”Culture Wars” as antithetical to the Gospel. I see them as vain attempts to establish a state religion, an American Theocracy that would crush and destroy any that dare oppose it.

That being said I want to remain open to any who seek God. Henri Nouwen wrote:

“Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how.”

My journey this Holy Week is one of hope. I do want to believe. Jurgen Moltmann wrote:

“Totally without hope one cannot live. To live without hope is to cease to live. Hell is hopelessness. It is no accident that above the entrance to Dante’s hell is the inscription: “Leave behind all hope, you who enter here.”

That is my journey this week, a journey from my own Golgotha to the Easter Alleluia. To do so I cannot give up hope. I probably won’t do very well at it,this week or any other, but that is my journey.

I don’t know if that makes any sense, but somehow, it does make sense to me.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

 

 

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A Meeting of Centurions in Jerusalem

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This is another in the historical fiction series that I am writing with the Centurion Longinus, who according to tradition was the Centurion at the Cross who put his lance in the side of Jesus and who would exclaim “Surely this was the Son of God” as Jesus breathed his last.

This chapter takes up where after the Triumphant Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and it asked an important question regarding a passage of scripture, that of the use of a Greek word for servant which only occurs once in the New Testament, the word Pais. In accent Greek literature the term denotes a homosexual relationship, that of a man with his houseboy. It is used to describe the servant of a Centurion in Matthew 8:6 instead of the usual word for servant Doulos.  Certainly the writer of this Gospel would understand that as would his readers. However, most commentators gloss over the passage. 

The day after the entry of this Jesus character into Jerusalem was uneventful for Longinus and his fellow Roman officers. Jesus had returned to Bethany after driving out the money changers and other assorted riff-raff out of the Temple but had returned without the tumult of the preceding day, Instead, Jesus with a number of his disciples went to the Temple where he engaged the people and some of the Pharisees in a time of teaching culminating in a series of what Longinus’ Jewish spy said were comments that could be interpreted as threats against the Temple establishment and veiled allusions to Jesus being the Messiah of the Jews.

Jesus left the Temple at the end of the day without incident but Longinus’ spy indicated that the Priests and other religious authorities were discussing ways by which they might rid themselves of this Galilean would be Messiah. Now Longinus and his fellow officers couldn’t care a whit about Jewish religious disputes so long as it did not make their job keeping the peace any more difficult than it already was.

When his spy reported back Longinus briefed Pilate of the simmering tensions. Pilate was with his wife Bernice when he received the report. Pilate did not like what was going on but had no contact with any of the religious leaders from any faction since his arrival and was troubled. His wife warned him in the presence of Longinus “not to have anything to do with that man” and he told Longinus to continue monitoring the situation, He also dispatched a messenger to the commander of the Legion in Caesarea to send reinforcements to Jerusalem just in case things got out of hand. Until then, Longinus, the Primus Pilus, or senior Centurion of the Legion was to help him maintain a close watch on the situation and hopefully keep the situation from boiling over.

After his meeting with Pilate and Bernice, Longinus sat around the tavern in Fortress Antonia with several others of his officers and Centurions from the Legion currently in Jerusalem. His Optio, or second in command Decius, a Roman from his former unit who had accompanied him to Palestine was there, as were two Decurio officers from the cavalry detachment and his Tesserarius, Quentin, a man who held a position much like a First Sergeant. Late in the evening another Centurion came to the tavern. This Centurion, was accompanied by his young servant was in charge of the Century based in Capernaum in Galilee.

The Centurion, Flavius by name ordered an ale from the barkeeper and walked over to the table where Longinus and the other officers sat. After the exchange of formalities Flavius sat with them. His young servant remained at the bar sitting alone.

Longinus had known Flavius for several years and known him to be an honorable man, though he did not necessarily approve of the very “Greek” arrangement that he had with his Pais,* which was common in the Roman and Greek military units, he respected Flavius’s soldiering abilities, leadership and integrity. Flavius and his Century had arrived in Jerusalem the previous night after Jesus had made his entry into the city. Longinus was glad to see Flavius because he felt that an officer stationed in Galilee might be able to shed more light on this man of mystery who had Jerusalem up in arms and so troubled Pilate.

Flavius asked what Longinus knew about Jesus, and Longinus told him what he had seen the day before as well as the information that he had obtained from his own Jewish spy.

Flavius, nodded and then began to tell Longinus and the other officers of his encounter with Jesus a couple of years before in Capernaum of Galilee.

Flavius began: “Longinus my friend, I met this Jesus in Capernaum and he is no ordinary man.” He paused to take a drink and continued as Longinus nodded for him to continue.

“It was a difficult time my friend. My Pais was very ill, sick to the point of death, He lay in our quarters and I heard that the miracle working Rabbi named Jesus was in town. Now, you know my friends that I care not a thing about what these Jews believe but I was desperate and from what I had heard and seen I believed that the Gods had to be with this man.”

Longinus continued to listen and then asked “Why didn’t you go to our Temple and have our Gods intercede for your Pais?”

“My friend I had already done that but my Pais’ condition had worsened. So I found this Jesus fellow as he was entering the city and sent some Jews that I had befriended to him.” He paused. “Those Jews convinced Jesus that I was a friend of the Jews and had done many good things for their community, and this my friend is true.”

“So the Jews helped you contact this Jesus fellow?” asked Decius. Longinus looked at his subordinate disapprovingly and asked Flavius to continue.

“I tell you my friends, this man is like no one that I have ever met, the Gods are certainly with him, whether our Gods or the Jewish God I know not which but he is not a normal Rabbi.”

The officers looked around the table as Flavius continued.

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“Gentlemen, when this Jesus came to me I felt something that I have never felt in my life. Jesus asked what he could do for me and I told him of the sickness of my Pais and he asked if he could come to my quarters. I replied that I didn’t need him to come, because I was not worthy for him to come under my roof but to only say the word and my Pais would be healed.”

Longinus looked at his fellow Centurion in disbelief. Flavius sensing this continued. “My friend, I could not believe that I uttered those words but Jesus peered into my eyes and I knew that he knew all about me. Then he replied that “your servant is healed” and then exclaimed to all of the Jews around us that he “had not seen such faith in all of Israel.” Then, he put his hand on my shoulder, blessed me with some Hebrew blessing and walked away with his friends. When I returned to my quarters, my Pais, the young man over at the bar was well.”

Longinus saw the deep emotion that Flavius was expressing and raised his mug. “A toast to this Jesus!, whatever and whoever he he is.”

“Here here” replied those at table as Flavius looked on and several laughed. He had not expected such a reaction and said softly.

“My friends I don’t think you understand.” He paused a second and looked Longinus in the eyes. “I do hope that whatever happens in the next few days that no harm will come to this man. I would hate that my spear could bring harm to him.”

Longinus responded. “I hope that nothing happens to cause any of us any problems. The city is boiling with emotion and unlike your friend Jesus, most of them hate us and would rather see us dead, and some of their leaders from what I understand wouldn’t mind seeing him dead either.” Longinus paused and emptied his mug, drinking the ale to the last and then continued “My friend, I appreciate what you have to say, but we have to do our duty for the Empire regardless of our personal feelings. We are outnumbered here and this Jesus, as much as we may find him fascinating is the source of much of the current discord.” He looked at Flavius. “You do understand this?”

Flavius looked down at his drink and looked back up at Longinus and then at the officers around the table.

“I do understand my duty my friend, but you have to know what he did for me.”

“We do understand my friend” replied Longinus, “but our honor is loyalty to Caesar, not any other man.”

“I know Longinus, I do know, more than you think, but what if he is more than just a man?”

Longinus and the other officers sat silently pondering Flavius’s words. The silence was deafening and slowly the junior officers individually asked to be excused, begging pressing duties to attend to leaving Flavius and Longinus at the table. The bartender brought each man another ale and they continued to drink silently.

To be continued…

Peace

Padre Steve+

The Greek word Pais is the word used in many Greek texts to to describe a homosexual relationship. The use by Matthew (Mt 8:6) in his account of the healing of the servant of the Centurion used the word Pais to describe the servant, not the typical Doulos which is used for slave or bond servant as is most common throughout the New Testament. In fact this is the only use of the word in the New Testament. Many Biblical scholars and linguists, though not completely certain do entertain that possibility that the Centurion that I call “Flavius” and his servant were a Gay couple.

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I Enlisted to Fight: Colonel Strong Vincent

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Colonel String Vincent

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I am continuing to periodically intersperse and publish short articles about various commanders at Gettysburg on the site. These all are drawn from my student text and may become a book in their own right.  The reason is I am going to do this is because I have found that readers are often more drawn to the lives of people than they are events. As I have noted before that people matter, even deeply flawed people, and we can learn from them.

Today’s article is about the youngest brigade commander in the Army of the Potomac, Colonel Strong Vincent a twenty-six year old Harvard graduate and citizen soldier. His story is fascinating as well as well as a reminder of the tragic losses brought about by war. His actions  and decisions on July 2nd 1863 were instrumental in the Union holding Little Round Top and turning back the Confederate Tide.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Colonel Strong Vincent was a 26 year old Harvard graduate and lawyer from Erie Pennsylvania. He was born in Waterford and attended school in Erie. Growing up, he worked in his father’s iron foundry, where the work helped make him a man of great physical strength. He studied at Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut and transferred to Harvard. There are various explanations for why he left Trinity, but the most interesting and probably the most credible is that during his sophomore year which was recorded by Trinity alumnus Charles F. Johnson who wrote that:

“He went calling on Miss Elizabeth Carter, a teacher at Miss Porter’s school in Farmington, ten miles west of Hartford. At some point a guard or watchman voiced a comment that impinged the lady’s virtue, and, as Johnson so aptly phrases it, Vincent “responded to the affront with the same gallantry and vigor that he was to display in the Civil War.” McCook’s account indicated that the man was repeatedly pummeled, which effectively rendered him unconscious.” [1]

Long after the war Dr. Edward Gallaudet, the president of Trinity responded to an enquiry of the circumstances leading to Vincent’s early departure from Trinity. Gallaudet responded to the request in a terse manner:

“Replying to yours of yesterday, I must say that I do not think it would be wise to make public the story I told of Strong Vincent’s escapade at Farmington & its consequences. Certainly not in the lifetime of Mrs. Vincent.” [2]

Evidently the incident resulted in Vincent leaving Trinity and the next year he entered Harvard. Vincent graduated from Harvard in 1859, ranking 51st in a class of 92. However, he was not an outstanding student and “earned admonishments on his record for missing chapel and smoking in Harvard Yard.” [3]

Returning home he studied law with a prominent lawyer and within two years had passed the bar, and he was well respected in the community. When war came and the call went out for volunteers, Vincent enlisted in a 30 Day regiment, the Wayne Guards as a private and then was appointed as a 1st Lieutenant and Adjutant of the regiment because of his academic and administrative acumen.

He married Elizabeth, the same woman whose virtue he had defended at Trinity that day. Vincent like many young northerners believed in the cause of the Union undivided, and he wrote his wife shortly after the regiment went to war on the Peninsula:

“Surely the right will prevail. If I live we will rejoice in our country’s success. If I fall, remember you have given your husband to the most righteous cause that ever widowed a woman.” [4]

When the Wayne Guards were disbanded at the end of their enlistment, Vincent helped to raise the 83rd Pennsylvania and was commissioned as a Lieutenant Colonel in it on September 14th 1861. The young officer learned his trade well and was considered a “strict disciplinarian and master of drill.” [5] That being said one enlisted man remarked that “no officer in the army was more thoughtful and considerate of the health and comfort of his men.” [6] Vincent assumed command of the regiment when the commander was killed during the Seven Days in June of 1862 where he learned lessons that he would help impart to his fellow officers as well as subordinates, including Chamberlain. At Fredericksburg any doubters about the young officer’s courage and leadership ability were converted where they observed his poise “with sword in hand” he “stood erect in full view of the enemy’s artillery, and though the shot fell fast on all sides, he never wavered or once changed his position.” [7]

By the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, the 26 year old Vincent was the youngest brigade commander in the army. He was noted for his intelligence, leadership, military acumen and maturity. One friend wrote “As a general thing his companions were older than himself….Among his associates were men of the highest rank. He could adapt himself to all, could talk with the politician on questions of history, with a general officer on military evolutions, or with a sporting man on the relative merits of horses,-and all respected his opinion.” [8]

His promotion was well earned, following a bout with a combination of Malaria and Typhoid, the “Chickahominy Fever” which almost killed him; Vincent took command of the regiment after its commander was killed at Gaines Mill. He commanded the regiment at Fredericksburg and was promoted to command the 3rd Brigade after the Battle of Chancellorsville following the resignation of its commander, Colonel T.W.B. Stockton on May 18th 1863.

Vincent was offered the chance to serve as the Judge Advocate General of the Army of the Potomac by Joseph Hooker in the spring of 1863 after spending three months on court-martial duty. But Vincent refused the offer in so that he might remain in the fight commanding troops. [9] He told his friends “I enlisted to fight.” [10]

Vincent, like Chamberlain who admired him greatly had “become a kind of model of the citizen soldier.” [11] As a result of his experience in battle and the tenacity of the Confederate army he became an advocate of the tactics that William Tecumseh Sherman would later employ during his march to the sea in 1864. He wrote his wife before Chancellorsville:

“We must fight them more vindictively, or we shall be foiled at every step.  We must desolate the country as we pass through it, and not leave a trace of a doubtful friend or foe behind us; make them believe that we are in earnest, terribly in earnest; that to break this band in twain is monstrous and impossible; that the life of every man, yea, of every weak woman or child in the entire South, is of no value whatever compared with the integrity of the Union.” [12]

Unlike most other brigade commanders, Vincent was still a Colonel, and he, like many others would in his place hoping for a General’s star. He remarked that his move to save Sickles’ command “will either bring me my stars, or finish my career as a soldier.” [13] On July first, Vincent, a native Pennsylvanian came to Hanover and learning that battle had been joined, ordered “the pipes and drums of the 83rd Pennsylvania to play his brigade through the town and ordered the regiments to uncover their flags again….” [14] As the brigade marched through the town, Vincent “reverently bared his head” and announced to his adjutant, “What death more glorious can any man desire than to die on the soil of old Pennsylvania fighting for that flag?” [15]

Vincent was known for his personal courage and a soldier of the 83rd Pennsylvania observed: “Vincent had a particular penchant for being in the lead….Whenever or wherever his brigade might be in a position to get ahead…, he was sure to be ahead.” [16] That courage and acumen to be in the right place at the right time was in evidence when he led his brigade into battle on that fateful July second.

On July 2nd Barnes’ division of V Corps, which Vincent’s brigade was a part was being deployed to the threat posed by the Confederate attack of McLaws’ division on the Peach Orchard and the Wheat Field to reinforce Sickles’ III Corps. While that division marched toward the Peach Orchard, Vincent’s 3rd Brigade was the trail unit. When Gouverneur Warren’s aide, Lieutenant Randall Mackenzie [17] came toward the unit in search of Barnes, he came across Vincent and his brigade near the George Weikert house on Cemetery Ridge awaiting further orders. [18]

Vincent intercepted him and demanded what his orders were. Upon being told that Sykes’ orders to Barnes were to “send one of his brigades to occupy that hill yonder,” [19] Vincent defied normal protocol assuming that Barnes had hit the bottle and was drunk [20] and told Mackenzie “I will take responsibility of taking my brigade there.” [21] Vincent immediately went into action and ordered Colonel James Rice, his friend and the commander of the 44th New York “to bring the brigade to the hill as quickly as possible,” and then turned on his horse and galloped off toward Little Round Top.” [22]

It was a fortunate thing for the Union that he did. His quick action to get his brigade, clear orders to his subordinate commanders and skilled analysis of the ground were a decisive factor in the Union forces holding Little Round Top. After ordering Colonel Rice to lead the brigade up to the hill, he and his aide went forward to scout positions accompanied by the brigade standards. Rice brought the brigade forward at the double quick “across the field to the road leading up the north shoulder of the hill” with Chamberlain’s 20th Maine in the lead. [23]

Vincent and his orderly made a reconnaissance of the south and east slope of the hill which adjoined a small valley and a rocky outcrop called Devil’s Den, which was occupied by the 124th New York and which was the end of Sickles’ line. Near the summit of the southern aspect of the hill, they came under Confederate artillery fire and told his orderly “They are firing at the flag, go behind the rocks with it.” [24]

Vincent dismounted, leaving his sword secured on his horse, carrying only his riding crop. He continued and “with the skill and precision of a professional had reconnoitered and decided how to best place his slim brigade of 1350 muskets.” [25] He chose a position along a spur of the hill, which now bears his name, running from the northwest to the southeast to place his regiments where they could intercept the Confederate troops of Hood’s division which he could see advancing toward the hill.

What Vincent saw when he arrived was a scene of disaster. Confederate troops had overwhelmed the 124th New York and were moving on Little Round Top, “Devil’s Den was a smoking crater,” and the ravine which separated Devil’s Den from Little Round Top “was a whirling maelstrom.” [26] Seeing the threat Vincent began to deploy his brigade but also sent at messenger back to Barnes telling him “Go tell General Barnes to send reinforcements at once, the enemy are coming against us with an overwhelming force” [27]

The 16th Michigan, the smallest regiment in his brigade with barely 150 soldiers in line [28] was placed on the right flank of the brigade. As it moved forward, its adjutant, Rufus W. Jacklin’s horse was hit by a cannon ball which decapitated that unfortunate animal and left it “a mass of quivering flesh.” [29] A fierce Confederate artillery barrage fell among the advancing Union troops and splintered trees, causing some concern among the soldiers. The 20th Maine’s Chaplain, Luther French, saw the “beheading of Jacklin’s horse and ran to Captain Atherton W. Clark, commanding the 20th’s Company E, babbling about what he had seen. Clark interrupted French abruptly and shouted: “For Christ sake Chaplain, if you have any business attend to it.” [30]

That section of the line was located on massive boulders that placed it high above the valley below, making it nearly impregnable to frontal attack. On the summit Vincent deployed the 83rd Pennsylvania and 44th New York to their left at the request of Rice who told him “In every battle that we have engaged the Eighty-third and Forty-fourth have fought side by side. I wish that it might be so today.” [31] The story is probably apocryphal but the regiments remained side by side with the 16th Michigan on the right and the 20th Maine on the left. The two regiments were deployed below the crest among the large number of boulders; the 83rd was about two-thirds of the way down the way down the slope where it joined the right of the 44th, whose line angled back up the slope to the southeast. A historian of the 83rd Pennsylvania noted that “Each rock”… “was a fortress behind which the soldier[s] instantly took shelter.” [32] The soldiers were determined to do their duty as they now were fighting on home ground.

Vincent deployed the 20th Maine on his extreme left of his line, and in fact the extreme end of the Union line. Vincent knew that if this flank was turned and Chamberlain overrun that it would imperil the entire Union position. Vincent came up to Chamberlain who remembered that Vincent said “in an awed, faraway voice: “I place you here….This is the left of the Union line. You understand. You are to hold this ground at all costs.” [33]

Vincent was wounded while leading the defense of the hill. As the men of Robertson’s Texas brigade rushed the hill and threatened to crack “the stout 16th Michigan defense…” [34] Vincent rushed to bolster the defenders. He was standing on a large boulder with a riding crop as the men of the 16th Michigan were beginning to waiver. Fully exposed to enemy fire he attempted to drive the retreating men back into the fight. Brandishing the riding which he cried out: “Don’t yield an inch now men or all is lost,” [35] and moments later was struck by a “minié ball which passed through his left groin and lodged in his left thigh. He fell to the ground and as he was being carried from the field, “This is the fourth or fifth time they have shot at me…and they have hit me at last.” [36]

Mortally wounded, Vincent was taken to a field hospital at the Weikert farm where he lingered for five days before succumbing to his wounds. In the yard lay the body of Paddy O’Rorke whose regiment had saved his brigade’s right flank. Vincent knew that he was dying and he requested that a message be sent to Elizabeth for her to come to Gettysburg. It did not reach her in time. Though he suffered severe pain he bravely tried not to show it. Eventually he became so weak that he could no longer speak. “On July 7, a telegram from President Lincoln, commissioning Vincent a brigadier general, was read to him, but he could not acknowledge whether he understood that the president had promoted him for bravery in the line of duty.” [37] He died later that day and his body was transported home to Erie for burial. Ten weeks after his death his wife gave birth to a baby girl. The baby would not live a year and was buried next to him.

Colonel Rice, who led the 44th New York up the hill and took command of the brigade on Vincent’s death, memorialized his fallen commander in his general order to the brigade on July 12th:

“The colonel commanding hereby announces to the brigade the death of Brig. Gen. Strong Vincent. He died near Gettysburg, Pa., July 7, 1863, from the effects of a wound received on the 2d instant, and within sight of that field which his bravery had so greatly assisted to win. A day hallowed with all the glory of success is thus sombered by the sorrow of our loss. Wreaths of victory give way to chaplets of mourning, hearts exultant to feelings of grief. A soldier, a scholar, a friend, has fallen. For his country, struggling for its life, he willingly gave his own. Grateful for his services, the State which proudly claims him as her own will give him an honored grave and a costly monument, but he ever will remain buried in our hearts, and our love for his memory will outlast the stone which shall bear the inscription of his bravery, his virtues, and his patriotism.

While we deplore his death, and remember with sorrow our loss, let us emulate the example of his fidelity and patriotism, feeling that he lives but in vain who lives not for his God and his country. “[38]

Vincent’s wife Elizabeth never married again and was taken in by the Vincent family. Vincent’s younger brother became an Episcopal Priest and Bishop and later provided a home for her. She became a tireless worker in the church working with charitable work for young women and children. This led to an interest in sacred art and she wrote two books: Mary, the Mother of Jesus and The Madonna in Legend and in Art. She also translated Delitzch’s Behold the Man and A Day in Capernaum from the German. [39] Elizabeth Vincent passed away in April 1914 and was buried beside her husband and daughter.

[1] Nevins, James H. And Styple What Death More Glorious: A Biography of General Strong Vincent Belle Grove Publishing Co, Kearny N.J. 1997 p.16

[2] Ibid. Nevins What Death More Glorious p.17

[3] Ibid. LaFantasie, Glenn W. Twilight at Little Round Top: p.105

[4] ________. Erie County Historical Society http://www.eriecountyhistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/strongvincent.pdf retrieved 9 June 2014

[5] Golay, Michael. To Gettysburg and Beyond: The Parallel Lives of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Edward Porter Alexander Crown Publishers Inc. New York 1994 p.129

[6] Nevins, James H. and Styple, William B. What Death More Glorious: A Biography of General Strong Vincent Belle Grove Publishing Company, Kearney NJ 1997 p.29

[7] Ibid Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.262

[8] Ibid.Nevins, What Death More Glorious p.54

[9] Leonardi, Ron Strong Vincent at Gettysburg in the Barringer-Erie Times News retrieved June 9th 2014 from http://history.goerie.com/2013/06/30/strong-vincent-at-gettysburg/

[10] Ibid. Nevins What Death More Glorious p.55

[11] Wallace, Willard. The Soul of the Lion: A Biography of Joshua L. Chamberlain Stan Clark Military Books, Gettysburg PA 1960 p.91

[12] Ibid. Nevins What Death More Glorious p.57

[13] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.264

[14] Pfanz, Harry F. Gettysburg: The Second Day. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1987 p.51

[15] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage p.159

[16] Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.305

[17] Some such as Guelzo believe this may have been Captain William Jay of Sykes staff

[18] Ibid. Trudeau, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.327

[19] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage p.262

[20] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage p.262

[21] Ibid. Trudeau, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.327

[22] Ibid. LaFantasie Twilight at Little Round Top p.108

[23] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.389

[24] Ibid. LaFantasie Twilight at Little Round Top p.109

[25] Ibid. Coddington The Gettysburg Campaign p.390

[26] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage p.270

[27] Ibid. Nevins What Death More Glorious p.75

[28] Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston and New York 2003 p.292

[29] Ibid. LaFantasie Twilight at Little Round Top p.109

[30] Ibid. LaFantasie Twilight at Little Round Top p.109

[31] Ibid. Pfanz, Gettysburg: The Second Day. p.213

[32] Ibid. LaFantasie Twilight at Little Round Top p.111

[33] Ibid. Golay, To Gettysburg and Beyond p.157

[34] Ibid. Wallace The Soul of the Lion p.95

[35] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage p.272

[36] Ibid. Trudeau, Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage p.361

[37] Ibid. LaFantasie Twilight at Little Round Top p.207

[38] Ibid. Nevins What Death More Glorious p.86

[39] Ibid. Nevins What Death More Glorious pp.87-88

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A Centurion in Jerusalem

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This article is the first story in a prequel trilogy to a trilogy that I wrote about Longinus the Centurion who according to tradition commanded the detail in charge of the crucifixion of Jesus. I plan on re-publishing each segment this week as part of Holy Week and I hope that you find them interesting. Story is basically historical fiction and my imagination about what it must have been like to be a Roman officer witnessing the drama of the Passion during what we now call Holy Week.

Longinus and his men were tired. Pilate, the Governor had decided that he would travel from his Provincial capital of Caesarea in order to maintain a close watch on the Jews of Jerusalem during the annual celebration of Passover. During such times that city, the largest in the province would see its population expand exponentially as Jews from the diaspora, that is those living around the known world would make pilgrimage to the holy city.

Longinus’s men had helped provide the escort as Pilate travelled the nearly 80 miles moving up from the coastal plain where Caesarea was up to the hill country of Judea. The trip took three days as Pilate wanted to be in the city in plenty of time. The weather was conducive to the march, but though well trained Longinus’ men were not Romans but primarily recruited locally from drafts of Syrian’s and Samaritans.

Longinus never really enjoyed this assignment. He had served in other areas as a young officer and much preferred serving with and commanding Italians, Greeks, Macedonians and others to the men that he now commanded, but his duty was to serve wherever he was sent. He thought at times of his family in Italy near his home in Lanciano in the Abruzzo region near the Adriatic, missing his wife and children.

The duty of Longinus and other Romans in the region chiefly consisted of helping police the region and protecting the much despised tax collectors. One of those tax collectors, a Jewish man named Matthew had left the employ of Caesar a few years back and was now a “disciple” of some itinerant Jewish preacher named Jesus. He had heard a story from another Centurion about this preacher that made him chuckle. Evidently some Jews of the sect know as the Pharisees, a particularly strict group tried to trap the Jesus with the question of whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the Romans. They thought that they had trapped him because if he answered in the affirmative he would be rejected by them and discredited among the people, while if he answered that it was not they would have him on record as urging the people to disobey Caesar.

The Centurion who told the story said how with him standing in the background watching and listening that Jesus asked one of the Pharisees to bring him a coin. Looking at the coin he asked the man whose image was on it. The Pharisee, a bit hesitantly replied that it was “Caesar” to which Jesus, who supposedly was an unlearned but charismatic bumpkin from Galilee replied “give to Caesar what is Caesar and to God that which was God’s.” Longinus’ colleague, an outsider looking in at this curious religious dispute was amazed with the acumen of Jesus in dealing with a question that someone less intuitive could have botched with potentially fatal consequences.

The march through Samaria was particularly uneventful but as the Legionaries entered Judea, a region seething with hostility toward the Romans he and his men became more guarded, very aware of the hostility that sometimes invited violence.

They arrived about noon on Friday in order not to stir up the Jewish faithful on their sabbath and took up residence in the Fortress Antonia, the symbol of Roman might in this always rebellious city. That evening and the next day were uneventful, but on Sunday, Longinus was told to have his troops stand by in case of violence. The man named Jesus was entering the city and pandemonium was expected. According to rumor this Jesus had raised a many from the dead in Bethany the day before and was being greeted as a potential King and liberator.

The Roman presence was muted, Pilate and senior commanders not wanting to do anything that might provoke an insurrection. The troops remained on alert at the fortress while Longinus and a number of other officers went to observe events at a distance.

Longinus was amazed at what he saw. Thousands of people singing and throwing cloaks and palms along the street as Jesus, mounted on a white donkey accompanied by his disciples as well as numerous people from Bethany where he had been staying paraded down the street.

The procession moved toward the Temple where an understandably nervous delegation of Pharisees and the Priests of the Temple wondered what Jesus might do. If he was the “Messiah” that they preached about it could be a direct threat to their positions of power and provoke a Roman crackdown against them.

Jesus dismounted from the donkey and entered the Temple area, now crowed with thousands of pilgrims coming to offer sacrifice where he began to condemn the moneychangers. The moneychangers were in charge of selling animals for sacrifice to pilgrims, many of whom who could not bring their own animals for sacrifice. They were not according to what Longinus knew from his previous visits to the city at Passover and other Holy days men of good repute. They were believed to make their profit off the poor and widows and even the Romans that knew of the practice considered it less than honorable, and certainly the religious authorities were making money from their efforts.

As Jesus went into the Temple, Longinus and his fellow officers stayed back. As Gentiles their presence would create a crisis so they remained outside entrusting a Jew who worked with them to make the observation. They could hear commotion in the Temple and as they watched money changers and others came spilling out of the Temple grounds, many surrounded by their animals, lambs, doves and oxen. Longinus wondered what in the name of Jupiter was going on and soon his spy came running out of the Temple to make his report.

Slowing down as he approached Longinus he breathlessly gave his report. Jesus had taken a whip and driven out the moneychangers, condemning their activities and those of the religious leaders. Longinus had never heard of Jesus ever doing anything remotely violent before and this shocked him. He asked what else had happened and the spy reported that the Temple police and authorities did nothing and that Jesus left without further incident.

Longinus knew that the coming days could prove interesting. Going to Pilate that evening he gave his report. Pilate was quite concerned about the situation and considered it volatile. He ordered Longinus and the other officers to maintain an elevated state of readiness in case there was some sort of protest or even civil strife between the followers of Jesus and the Jewish authorities.

Longinus left Pilate and he and his fellow officers discussed the situation, briefed their subordinates and as night fell met in the tavern in the fortress where they quietly drank and wondered what the coming days might bring.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Coming This Week: A Roman’s View of the First Easter & More

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

This week I will be republishing a series of articles that I wrote about Longinus the Centurion. This is the man who according to tradition commanded the detail in charge of the crucifixion of Jesus. I plan on re-publishing each segment this week as part of Holy Week and I hope that you find them interesting. This story is basically historical fiction and I used my imagination about what it must have been like to be a Roman officer witnessing the drama of what we now call Holy Week.

I find a special affinity for soldiers that serve their country in a land far from home, among people that detest them as hated infidel occupiers of their country. I don’t think that anyone today can really understand the plight of the Roman officers assigned to the occupation of Judea and Samaria in the First Century until they have  done their time in Iraq or Afghanistan.

These peoples, though not Jewish have similar divisions,  contradictions and prejudices against foreigners as those that lived in First Century Palestine. I think that American, NATO or coalition troops that served in Iraq or Afghanistan, especially those who came to know the people in those countries understand the attitudes of Roman soldiers assigned to occupation duty throughout the Empire, especially in the volatile provinces of Judea and Samaria like Longinus.

I’ll post them over the coming week in addition to other articles that I have in process or which might pop up this week. Some of those include articles about men who served at Gettysburg, tomorrow one on Colonel Strong Vincent, a Union Volunteer who helped save Little Round Top on July 2nd 1863, and Monday, one on Lieutenant General Richard Ewell who commanded the Confederate Second Corps. Since Baseball Opening Day is fast approaching expect some baseball articles as well. I will probably be doing something on the current situation in Yemen, the various anti-Gay bills with the Orwellian title of “Religious Freedom Restoration” and the Germanwings crash this week as well. 

So stay turned and spread the word.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Knight-Errant of Virginia: J.E.B. Stuart

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Major General J.E.B. Stuart C.S.A.

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I am continuing to periodically intersperse and publish short articles about various commanders at Gettysburg on the site. These all are drawn from my student text and may become a book in their own right.  The reason is I am going to do this is because I have found that readers are often more drawn to the lives of people than they are events. As I have noted before that people matter, even deeply flawed people, and we can learn from them.

Today’s article is about one of the most famous leaders of the Civil War, Confederate Cavalry commander James Ewell Brown “JEB” Stuart. He too is a complex character; exceptionally vain and self-seeking, capable of being a loyal friend or an implacable foe who confused fame with greatness because he did not have the depth of character to tell them apart. He led his troopers with great abandon to many victories but had little ability to reflect on his own actions which hurt the Confederate cause.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Major General James Ewell Brown Stuart was the son of a former congressman whose family went back five generations in Virginia. Like so many officers, his life is marked by contradictions. Eminently genial and fun-loving, he had a dark side of unbridled ambition and a willingness to use his rank, power and position to crush anyone who got in his way.

He graduated thirteenth in a class of forty-six at West Point in 1854. His classmates and friends included Dorsey Pender and Oliver O. Howard. A fellow cadet, as well as lifelong friend, who would serve under Stuart during the war, Fitzhugh Lee wrote of him:

“His distinguishing characteristics were a strict attention to his military duties, an erect, soldierly bearing, an immediate and almost thankful acceptance of a challenge from any cadet to fight, who might in any way feel himself aggrieved, and a clear, metallic, ringing voice.” [1]

At West Point Stuart was noted for his “lifelong religious devoutness. When he was at West Point he was known as a “Bible Class Man,” [2] and his faith would serve to define his life as much as his well-known vanity. As such, he was a close friend of Oliver O. Howard. The two were poles apart ideologically. Howard was already an abolitionist and opponent of state supremacy and states’ rights; Stuart on the other hand, was a proponent of all. When other Southern cadets “ostracized Howard, Stuart sided with the Maine Yankee. It was a courageous act in that closed society, rooted in his sense of justice and honor.” [3]

That sense of justice and honor carried with it a dark side. While he was genial and warm, he was intensely ambitious, and did not take criticism well. That would come out in his treatment of men like “Grumble” Jones and later Wade Hampton as well as other officers during his service to the Confederacy. One of his officers noted: “Stuart is an ambitious man – he wants those about him who are his friends. This is his first consideration – talent is next….A little flattery & a daring spirit will bring promotion.” [4]

Stuart was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and assigned to the Mounted Rifles, which Stuart noted was “a corps which my taste, fondness for riding, and my desire to serve my country in some acceptable manner led me to select above all the rest.” [5] Stuart would serve with the Mounted Rifles for about a year before being selected to serve in one of the first Cavalry regiments formed, the First Cavalry at Jefferson Barracks Missouri.

In the pre-war years the young officer developed a solid reputation in the army where he served on the frontier and in “Bleeding Kansas.” In those years Stuart “was already a young officer of great promise, a natural horseman with a reputation for dash and bravery gained in countless clashes with Indians throughout the West, and for steady competence in the pro- and antislavery warfare of Kansas.” [6] However, Stuart was not a political person, while he certainly understood and kept himself apprised of developments he did not appreciate the magnitude of the events. Stuart was consumed with his advancing career and his personal life and “like most Americans, had neither the time nor inclination to understand the magnitude of the sectional conflict that produced civil war.” [7]

In 1859 Stuart was on leave, visiting Washington D.C. and staying with the Lees at Arlington. He was visiting the War Department when news came of John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. He was given a letter to take to Lee which ordered Lee to take command of troops to suppress the rebellion. Stuart accompanied Lee on the mission and was sent by Lee to present terms of surrender to the raiders, who at the time were still nameless to the Federal authorities. Stuart entered the building and was confronted by Brown whom he had previously met in Kansas. After some fruitless negotiation, Stuart realized that Brown was not about to surrender. At some point, Stuart broke away and motioned for the Marines to move in. “Three minutes after Stuart had given his signal, the affair was over.” [8]

In spite of having seen first-hand the effects of the violence in Kansas and at Harper’s Ferry, when secession came “Stuart was essentially unprepared.” [9] All he could do was to almost liturgically repeat “I go with Virginia” almost as an article of faith. As such, Stuart resigned his commission when Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, while his father-in-law, Colonel Philip St. George Cooke remained in Union service. Stuart could be unforgiving and such was the case now. Stuart hated his father-in-law’s decision, so much so that he re-named his son, who had been named for the elder Cooke, “James Ewell Brown Stuart,” which became “J.E.B. Stuart Jr. – Jimmy.” [10]

He commanded the 1st Virginia Cavalry in the Valley and at First Manassas and was promoted to Brigadier General in September 1861. The following month, he was given command of the army’s cavalry brigade and distinguished himself in the eyes of both General Joseph Johnston and Robert E. Lee. Johnston wrote to President Jefferson Davis praising the young brigadier “He is a rare man…wonderfully endowed by nature with the qualities necessary for an officer of light cavalry….If you add to this army a real brigade of cavalry, you can find no better brigadier-general to command it.” [11]

Lee came to share Johnston’s opinion and over the course of his service, Stuart had come to:

“demonstrate a real talent for the most mundane and most essential role cavalry played in this war – reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. No intelligence source surpassed his eye for seeing and evaluating a military landscape or an enemy’s strengths and dispositions.” [12]

This would be something that Lee came to rely and which he would dearly miss at Gettysburg.

Despite his excellence in this “most mundane” task, Stuart developed a flair and passion for the spectacular, which was first demonstrated during the Seven Days, where he took his cavalry on a circuit of McClellan’s army, which not only gathered a significant amount of intelligence, but also unnerved the Army of the Potomac. His raid was “flawlessly executed….” And Stuart “became a hero to his troopers and one of the idols of the public.” [13] Lee wrote that Stuart’s operation “was executed with great address and daring by accomplished officer.” [14] The raid did have its detractors, especially among the infantry and it also revealed something to Stuart that appealed to his own vanity, “that raiding would easily garner headlines in the Richmond papers.” [15]

Stuart Lee’s staff secretary, Colonel Robert Taylor noted that Stuart was “possessing of great powers of endurance, courageous to an exalted degree, of sanguine temperament, prompt to act, always ready for fight – he was the ideal cavalryman.” [16] Stuart also kept a lively headquarters. Taylor remarked “How genial he was! There was no room for “the blues” around his headquarters; the hesitating and desponding found no congenial atmosphere at his camp; good will, jollity, and even hilarity, reigned there.” [17]

Stuart always had his African-American banjo player with him and frequently sang around camp and on campaign. That was not always appreciated by some other officers. Wade Hampton, who in time became Stuart’s right-hand man was not impressed with the atmosphere at Stuart’s headquarters and “was not certain that he could flourish, or even survive, among such people….” [18] Lafayette McLaws wrote home complaining not only about Stuart but others:

“Stuart carries around with him a banjo player and special correspondent. This claptrap is noticed and lauded as a peculiarity of genius, when, in fact, it is nothing more but the act of a buffoon to get attention.” [19]

But Stuart was always aware of his own mortality and there was a serious side to him, often expressed in his faith, which impressed those around him. His West Point classmate and friend, Oliver O. Howard wrote:

“J.E.B. Stuart was cut out for a cavalry leader. In perfect health, but thirty-two years of age, full of vigor and enterprise, with the usual ideas imbibed in Virginia concerning State Supremacy, Christian thought and temperate by habit, no man could ride faster, endure more hardships, make a livelier charge, or be more hearty and cheerful while so engaged. A touch of vanity, which invited the smiles and applause of the fair maidens of Virginia, but added to the zest and ardor of Stuart’s parades and achievements.” [20]

At Chancellorsville Stuart assumed acting command of Jackson’s Second Corps which he led well during the battle, even impressing the infantry, who had long derided Stuart and his cavalry. Leading by example “seemed on fire.” Stuart sang as he led the Stonewall Brigade into action and “the troops joined him, singing while they loaded and fired.” One officer stated “Jeb impressed himself on the infantry.” [21]

Some believed that Stuart should have been appointed to command Second Corps after Jackson’s death, but evidently Lee valued Stuart’s role as a cavalry commander more and despite his accomplishments refused to proffer the command to Stuart. Colonel Rosser told Stuart, who was grieving the loss of his friend Jackson: “On his death bed Jackson said that you should succeed him, and command his corps.” Stuart responded “I would rather know that Jackson said that, than to have the appointment.” [22] One wonders what might have occurred during the Gettysburg campaign if Stuart had commanded Second Corps and left the cavalry to someone like the accomplished and level headed Wade Hampton.

Stuart, is another tragic figure, and that irony was that his tragedy was rooted in his success:

“He eventually became so absorbed in posturing and playing his role that he could not leave the stage or remove his mask….. He confused fame with greatness because he lacked the depth and experience to experience the difference. So consumed was he by his vision of what he ought to be that he never quite came to terms with his humanity – until he lay dying.” [23]

The knight errant of Virginia was mortally wounded less than a year after Gettysburg at the Battle of Yellow Tavern. He died twenty-seven hours after being wounded in the abdomen, suffering for most of it and unable to see his wife Flora one more time as she arrived hours after he died. Upon his death, Hampton was promoted to command what was left of the Cavalry Corps. He was mourned throughout the Confederacy. Even Grumble Jones, who had an acrimonious relationship with Stuart told his adjutant on hearing the news of Stuart’s death “You know I had little love for Stuart, and he had just as little for me; but that is the greatest loss that army has ever sustained except the death of Jackson.” [24]

Notes

[1] Davis, Burke J.E.B. Stuart: The Last Cavalier Random House, New York 1957 p.20

[2] Ibid. Tagg The Generals of Gettysburg p.356

[3] Wert, Jeffry D. Cavalryman of the Lost Cause: A Biography of J.E.B. Stuart Simon and Schuster, New York 2008 p.178

[4] Ibid. Wert Cavalryman of the Lost Cause p.116

[5] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart p.27

[6] Ibid. Korda Clouds of Glory p.xxv

[7] Thomas, Emory M. Bold Dragoon: The Life of J.E.B. Stuart University of Oklahoma Press, Norman OK 1986 and 1999 p.61

[8] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee an abridgment by Richard Harwell, Touchstone Books, New York 1997 p.101

[9] Ibid. Thomas Bold Dragoonp.61

[10] Ibid. Thomas Bold Dragoonp.95

[11] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.149

[12] Sears, Stephen W. To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1992 p.167

[13] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.158

[14] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.26

[15] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.54

[16] Taylor, Walter. General Lee: His campaigns in Virginia 1861-1865 With Personal Reminiscences University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln Nebraska and London, 1994 previously published 1906 p.92

[17] Ibid. Taylor General Lee p.92

[18] Longacre, Edward G. Gentleman and Soldier: The Extraordinary Life of General Wade Hampton Rutledge Hill Press, Nashville TN 2003 p.83

[19] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart p.264

[20] Ibid. Girardi. The Civil War Generals p.255

[21] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.198

[22] Ibid. Davis J.E.B. Stuart p.299

[23] Ibid. Thomas Bold Dragoon pp.299-300

[24] Ibid. Wert Cavalryman of the Lost Cause p.366

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Granny, Me & a Tombstone Makes Three: Thoughts on Turning 55

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turn fifty-five today. That is 55, or as it is sometimes known as double nickels. Now I try not to look and I certainly don’t act my age. Despite this I am now officially eligible for my AARP card and discounts, I’ll probably get carded when I try to use them.

Since I think I am now what they call “middle-aged” this means that I should live to be about 110. I actually think that would be cool because I would certainly be around for the Civil War Bicentennial, hopefully still leading Staff Rides at Gettysburg for officers not yet born. 

It really is hard to believe how views on age and aging have changed over the years. When I was about seven years old my paternal grandmother, Verdie, who insisted on being called “Granny” informed me that she wasn’t going to be around much longer. At the time she was fifty-five. But back then people did act old, especially once they entered their forties. I remember one of my Algebra teachers from junior high school back in 1973-74. The man looked, dressed and acted like he was in his sixties. He wore a gray woolen suit, a white button down shirt, a nondescript thin black tie, black oxfords, and when he was outside, a gray fedora.

I thought he had he had passed away years ago and I was surprised as hell to see his obituary a year or two back. He was only about eighty, which would have meant that when he was my teacher he would have been in his early forties, and looking like he was sixty. But that wasn’t unusual back then, just watch some movies from the era and see what the 40-50 year olds looked and dressed like.

Well anyway, back to Granny. Granny was from Putnam County West Virginia and she left home at age eighteen because she did not like the repressive atmosphere and wanted to make a life for herself away from the farm. As the oldest daughter she was having to take responsibility for raising her younger siblings, and she could not abide such a life in the holler with no freedom or opportunity. Granny talked with an old Appalachian dialect that has almost died out. But she was very progressive for her day, raising two sons as a widowed single-mother.  She worked until she was forced to retire and then volunteered at the local hospital gift shop for another decade or so. She could talk baseball, but sadly she was a Dodgers’ fan and lived and died with he team. She travelled the country bus Greyhound bus until she was in her early eighties. She was a fascinating person.

She was active in her church and into her eighties she would take meals to ome-bound church members who she called “those poor old people.”  Of course most of them were younger than her. Now as far as cooking was concerned, her’s was infamous around the family and in the church, something that we all strove to avoid eating if possible. My wife Judy who probably spent the most time with her was subjected to her fare more than anyone. To this day she tells me, that me, my brother that the rest of my cousins and me owe her big for that, but I digress….

But the one thing about her was that no-matter when we would meet she would say that she “didn’t have long to live” or “wouldn’t be around much longer.”  To make sure that we understood that she purchased a plot a a cemetery which had just opened during the early 1970s and even had her headstone planted there. Occasionally if we were in town it would be among the graves that she would have us visit. She had this morbid obsession with death. Maybe it is because she was twice widowed and grew up in difficult times, World War One, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression, and the Second World War. But for whatever reason she talked like she was old and soon to die, even as she travelled the country on Greyhound.

Then in 1995 I took my first post seminary  job as a contract emergency department chaplain in the city that she lived. It was fascinating to get to know her again as well as my maternal grandmother who was also still alive and living in the town. I worked nights and weekends so Judy got to know them better than anyone, she took them both shopping and to doctors appointments, all the while attempting to ensure that Granny did not feed her. Once I angered Granny when she told me that she wasn’t going to be around much longer and I asked if she was moving. She popped a cork and informed me that I knew what she was talking about. I replied, “Yes, I know you have been telling me this since I was a child and you are still alive.”  She didn’t talk to me for a week, but got over it.

My maternal grandmother, Christine died unexpectedly when I was deployed for the Bosnia mission in 1996 and between that and another active reserve tour I missed seeing Granny a lot until we returned in October of 1998.

One day, it was in November or December of that year, I got a panicked call from Granny. Evidently a salesman from the cemetery had called her and asked if she wanted to pay the opening and closing fee on her plot in advance. Evidently this brought the matter of her mortality to the fore, in a much more tangible way than she had imagined. She told me that she had a nephew who had connections to cemetery where her parents and some siblings were buried and wanted me to move her tombstone to it.

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I told her that we would probably have to go to the cemetery office because one could not simply appear at the cemetery and start digging up tombstones without permission. I imagined being like Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein when he went to dig up the corpse in which to implant Abby’s brain. Abby who? Abby someone… Abby, Abby Normal, that’s who I think it was… again I digress…

So I set up an appointment for her and me to make the arrangements. The people were nice, we filled out the necessary forms and two workmen dug up the stone and placed in the truck of my 1984 Volvo 240 GL.

We had to wait a week until her nephew could make time to meet us at the family cemetery and for two weeks I had to drive around town with Granny’s tombstone in my trunk. I just knew that someone was going to rear-end the car, pop the trunk and that I would have to answer some questions  rather pointed questions from the police. Questions that I might add, could prove distressing, as how many people drive around with tombstones in their trunk? I could hear the conversation:

Police officer: What is that? 

Me: A tombstone officer. 

Police officer: What kind of ghoul are you?

Me: How many kinds are there?

Thankfully however, no one hit me, I did not have to explain the tombstone in the trunk to the police and the next Saturday we drove up to her nephew’s house and then to the cemetery. Of course the weather was perfect for placing a tombstone, cold, cloudy, dreary and rainy; just like any horror movie. Not even birds were chirping. Her nephew and I emplaced the monument with great care. We ensured that it was in the correct plot and carefully measured and the appropriate distance to the neighboring graves of her parents, for even in death people need their space. As we worked, Granny supervised, much happier now that if she was going to die that she had a home so to speak. Once we had it set I grabbed a bottle of Windex, a rag and cleaned the mud off of the top of the monument. Granny was pleased, and I was glad to have the tombstone out of my trunk.

Two months later I transferred from the Army Reserve to the Navy and we moved away. Soon after the 9-11-2001 attacks we visited, Granny had reached the point that she was in a nursing home. I drove her around the town to places she used to visit and took her her for a hot dog at the local original Stewart’s Root Beer and hot dog stand. Since she couldn’t go to church she had Judy sing a couple of hymns for her before we went back to North Carolina. A couple of weeks later she passed away and we gathered for her funeral.

My dad and uncle were there as were many other relatives. The service was at the church where she had attended for decades and where I had been baptized as an infant. The cemetery was about thirty miles away a bit up I-64. Since there was a home football game for the local college, Marshall University, the funeral home employees ensured that we had the fasted motorcade I have ever been a part, we were chasing the hearse which was doing about eighty with the little purple funeral flags furiously flapping in the wind. After a quick graveside service it was done. I don’t think that anyone missed the opening kick off that day and I’m sure that Granny wouldn’t have minded. My dad and Judy both agreed in hindsight that old time sake and for safety reasons we should have hired a Greyhound bus for the funeral party with Granny’s coffin in the luggage compartment.

So anyway, from the time she was fifty-five until she was almost ninety, Granny never ceased to let me know that she didn’t have long to live. I hope as a minimum I live as long as she did and I do promise that you won’t be hearing me tell you that I haven’t long left, unless they are dragging me away to the funeral home as my fingers type out one last article.

Here’s to health and long life!

Peace

Padre Steve+

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