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Hallowed Ground: A Weekend at Gettysburg


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Once again I am leading a group of my students on a Staff Ride at Gettysburg. We left the Staff College later than I like to but even so we made much better time getting up here than we usually do, only a little traffic to slow us down on I-495 on the way out of Washington D.C. This got us into Gettysburg earlier than I expected so after getting my stuff in my hotel room I took a walk around Cemetery Hill and through the Soldiers Cemetery.

As always I was astounded and humbled as I walked the ground. This really is hallowed ground. I think that Abraham Lincoln, who spoke “a few words” at the dedication of the Soldiers Cemetery said it the best:

“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…”


As I walked around Cemetery Hill and through the Soldiers Cemetery I felt the presence of the men that fought and died to preserve this remarkable Union. But when I got to the Masonic Memorial on the western slope of the hill was touched by an image of one of the more human things that happened on the battlefield. That image is a statue of a Union officer, a Captain Bingham rendering aid to Confederate General Lewis Armistead as the latter lay mortally wounded after leading his troops to the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. The story of Armistead is tragic, I have written about it before and it was movingly portrayed by Richard Jordan in the movie Gettysburg.

But when I come up here it is always Lincoln’s words, as well as the gallantry of the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac that inspire me more than anything. Please don’t get me wrong, while I admire the bravery and many of the cities of the Conferate soldiers, I despise the cause that they died for, and no, it is not the myth of states rights. It is the reality that Confederate leaders seceded because they had failed in Congress and at the ballot box to expand slavery outside of where it was legal.

I guess that is why Lincoln’s conclusion of the address resonates with me so much, “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.”

So anyway, I hope that you are enjoying my latest Gettysburg posts.

Peace

Padre Steve+q

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The Tragedy of Friends at War: Hancock, Armistead and Garnett at Pickett’s Charge

armistead

“Armistead at Gettysburg” by Keith Rocco

The bonds of friendship forged by soldiers are some of deepest and long lasting that are formed anywhere.  For American military professionals those bonds are formed in the small rather closed society that is the regular United States military. They are formed in war and peace, and are marked by years of deployments, isolated duty and combat. They are part of a culture that is often quite different than that of civilian society. That is the case now as it was in 1860.

When the Southern States seceded from the Union men who had spent much of their adult lives serving together discovered had to say goodbye and prepare to fight each other. Most did so with a heavy heart even though many had strong convictions about the rightness of their region’s cause. Those who left the army to serve the Confederate states were often torn by doubt and questions of where their loyalty lay. Robert E. Lee was a good example of the conflict that many Southern officers faced. “The Southern professional officer in 1861 was confronted with a cruel choice symbolized by Lee’s anguished pacing at Arlington. On one hand, the Southern officer’s political allegiances drew him to the Confederacy; on the other his professional responsibility drew him to the Union.” [1] They wrestled with their oath of office and the costs of perhaps having to face their dearest friends on future battlefields. Lee’s letter to his sister Ann Marshall, who remained a supporter of the Union, after he resigned from the army he had served for 32 years reflects that anguish, torn between his loyalties Lee wrote “With all my devotion to the Union, and the dear feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children, my home.” [2] He added: “I know you will blame me…but you must think as kindly of me as you can, and believe that I have endeavored to do what I think right.” [3]

They were different from the mass levies of civilian volunteers who rallied to the flags of the Union and Confederacy in 1861. The volunteers, most of whom did not have the deep and abiding friendships of the professionals were often motivated by ideological, sectional or religious hatred of the other and went to war with great aplomb. However, the professionals for the most part went to war against former comrades with heavy heart, “old army colleagues found themselves wrenched from the normal course of their lives when their states joined the Confederacy.” [4]

The American Civil War has many such tales. Porter Alexander wrote of his final words with his superior James B. McPherson, who later went on to be a highly successful corps commander under Grant and Sherman before being killed outside Atlanta in 1864. McPherson desired that Alexander remain in California as an Engineering officer and warned him about the nature of the coming war and gave him his counsel as a friend:

“Now this is not going to be any 90 day or six months affair as some of the politicians are predicting. Both sides are in deadly earnest & it is long & desperate & fought to the bitter end. ..God only knows what may happen to you individually, but for your cause there can be but one possible result. It must be lost….” [5]

Alexander wrote: “Nothing could exceed the kindness & real affection with which McPherson urged these views on me…. His earnest talk impressed me deeply & made me realize that a crisis in my life was at hand. But I felt helpless to avert it or even to debate the question what I should do. I could not controvert one of McPhersons’ statements or arguments; I could only answer this: “Mac, My people are going to war, & and for their liberty. If I don’t come & bear my part they will believe me a coward…” [6]

One of the most remembered is that of Union General Winfield Scott Hancock and Confederate General Lewis Armistead. It was key story line in Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels was immortalized in the movie Gettysburg which is based on Shaara’s novel.

hancock 2

Major General Winfield Scott Hancock USA

Hancock was from Pennsylvania. He was a career soldier and Infantry officer, a graduate of West Point Class of 1844. He served in Mexico and held numerous positions. In 1861 he was stationed in California as a Quartermaster under the command of Colonel (Brevet Brigadier General) Albert Sidney Johnston with the Sixth Infantry Regiment. One of his fellow officers was Captain Lewis Armistead, a twice widowed Virginian who also served as a commander of the New San Diego Garrison under Johnston’s command, and Richard Garnett commanding a company at Fort Yuma. Hancock and his wife Almira became fast friends with the widowed Virginian.

Armistead was a nephew of the officer who defended Fort McHenry from the British in the War of 1812. Armistead had academic and personal difficulties at West Point and “was bounced out, not once but twice.” [7] His troubles included an altercation with Jubal Early in which he broke a plate over Early’s head.  Between his academic difficulties and the fight with Early he resigned from the Academy. However, his father helped him obtain a commission as an Infantry officer in 1839. Armistead’s career from that point on was similar to many other officers of his day. He served with distinction in Mexico, the Great Plains, Kansas, Utah and California.

As the war clouds built and various southern states seceded from the Union numerous officers from the South were torn between their oath, their friendships and their deep loyalty to their home states and families. In the end most Southern officers resigned their commissions, many with mixed feelings and quite often sadness. A large minority, some “40 to 50 per cent of Southern West Point graduates on active duty in 1860 held on to their posts and remained faithful to the Union.” [8] The most prominent of these men were General Winfield Scott and Major General George Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga.” Likewise Union Brigadier General John Buford’s family in Kentucky supported the Confederacy.

For those southern officers who remained loyal to the Union to was often at a great personal cost. Thomas’s action cost him his relationship with his immediate family who deemed him to be a traitor. He and others were pilloried and demonized in the basest ways by many in the South. Some Southerners who served the Union were executed when they were captured. George Pickett, who called for his fellow Virginian Thomas’ death ordered 22 North Carolinians who he captured fighting for the Union in Kinston North Carolina to be executed. Pickett was not alone in such sentiments.

armistead2

Brigadier General Lewis Armistead CSA

However, for most it was different. As talk of secession and war heated up officers stationed on the frontier debated the issues and asked each other what they would do if war came. In California Armistead and other officers asked Hancock, who was a Democrat and not openly hostile to the South, advice on what he would do if war came. Hancock’s reply was simple. I shall not fight upon the principle of state-rights, but for the Union, whole and undivided” [9]

The parting came in 1861. When it was apparent that many officers would be resigning and heading home to join their state’s forces the Hancock’s hosted a going away party for their friends. Almira Hancock wrote of the party that “Hearts were filled with sadness over the surrendering of life-long ties.” [10]

Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston’s wife Eliza went to a piano and sang sentimental songs such as Mary of Argyle and the popular Irish song Kathleen Mavourneen. [11] Almira Hancock wrote “Those songs…will ever be remembered by survivors of that mournful gathering.” [12]

“Mavourneen, Mavourneen, my sad tears are falling, to think that from Erin and thee I must part!

It may be for years, and it may be forever, Then why art thou silent, thou voice of my heart?

The parting was especially emotional for Armistead who had been a friend of the Hancock’s for 17 years. They had helped in following the death of both of his wives and children. He was tearful. He put his arm on his friend’s shoulder as he said: “Hancock, good-by; you can never know what this has cost me, and I hope God will strike me dead if I am ever induced to leave my native soil, should worse come to worse.” [13]As he departed Armistead gave a wrapped Bible and Prayer book to Almira Hancock, in case of his death, inscribed were the words “Trust in God and fear nothing.” [14]

Armistead led his brigade during the Peninsula campaign and battles around Richmond and his brigade was decimated in Lee’s failed assault on prepared Federal positions at Malvern Hill. Armistead did not endear himself to many of the volunteer officers who served in the Confederate ranks. One of his Colonels resigned over Armistead’s supposedly harsh treatment to which Armistead replied: “I have felt obliged to speak to him as one military man would to another and as I have passed nearly all my life in camps my manner may not be understood or appreciated by one who has been all his life a civilian.” [15] Armistead’s words can easily be understood by military professionals whose lives have been shaped in a different manner than their civilian counterparts.

At Gettysburg Armistead spoke his fears about the charge to his comrades. One was Brigadier General Dick Garnett, another of Armistead and Hancock’s comrades from the California days on the night of July 2nd. Garnett’s career had paralleled that Armistead, the same age Garnett struggled at West Point in his third year “he failed and withdrew. Taking the same courses again during the next term, he finished fourteenth among his new classmates, then graduated in 1841 standing 29th of fifty-two graduates.” [16]

Armistead and Garnett served together in the Sixth Infantry for most of their careers. They were promoted at similar times, a pattern of promotion that continued into their Confederate service. The next afternoon, the two friends who had served together so long and whose careers were so similar led their brigades of Pickett’s Division across the valley between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge against their friend and comrade Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps which was defending Cemetery Ridge.

Garnett had to lead his brigade on foot, having been injured during the army’s march to Gettysburg. During the engagement Garnett was killed just before reaching the Union lines and Hancock gravely wounded. Armistead, lead the remnants of his decimated brigade to the Stone Wall, near the Copse of Trees. He rallied his troops fearing that some were faltering calling out: “Come on boys, give them the cold steel! Who will follow me?” [17]

His troops breached the Union line and his black hat atop his sword led his troops forward. He reached the now unmanned artillery of Cushing’s battery and called to his remaining men “The day is ours men, come and turn this artillery on them.” [18] It was then that he met more Federal troops who unleashed a volley of musket fire that cut down many of the survivors. Armistead was wounded in the right arm and shoulder and fell near one of the Union artillery pieces, a point now known as “The High Water Mark” of the Confederacy.

armistead memorial

As Armistead lay wounded he was approached by Major Bingham of Hancock’s staff. Bingham, a Mason noticed that Armistead was making a Masonic sign of distress. When Bingham told Armistead of Hancock’s injury Armistead was grieved and told Bingham to “Say to General Hancock for me that I have done him, and you all, an injury, which I shall always regret.” [19]

The meaning of those words is debated, especially by Southerners who cherish the myth of the Lost Cause. However, based on Armistead’s conduct and behavior in the time before he left California, it is not unreasonable to assume that as he lay dying he truly regretted what he had done. Armistead died from infections caused by his wounds which were initially not thought to be life threatening. A Union surgeon described him as: “seriously wounded, completely exhausted, and seemingly broken-spirited.” [20]

Garnett’s body was never found and was probably buried in a mass grave with other Confederate soldiers and was likely taken after the war to his native Virginia “together with thousands of unidentified bodies from Gettysburg, for burial in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery.[21] Armistead was buried by a member of the 107th Ohio near the XI Corps field hospital. About a month later a physician from Philadelphia tracked down the soldier and “dug up the “Rough box” containing the body and embalmed poor Armistead’s remains for sale to grieving family members.” [22] Armistead’s family buried the remains in Old Saint Paul’s Cemetery in Baltimore.

Robert Krick wrote: “Death on adjacent bits of blood soaked ground in Adams County, Pennsylvania, yielded a final common thread, that of indignity: Lewis Armistead’s corpse wound up a hostage to petty human greed, while Dick Garnett’s entirely disappeared.” [23]

Hancock’s injuries were severe, but he recovered. He would go on to continued fame and be one of the most admired and respected leaders of the Army during and after the war. He was gracious as a victor and spoke out against reprisals committed against Southerners after the war.

In 1880 Hancock was the Democratic nominee for President. He lost a close election to James Garfield, losing the popular vote by fewer than 40,000 votes. It was an era of great political corruption and Hancock was one of the few major public figures viewed favorably for his integrity. Even his political opponents respected him for his integrity and honesty. Former President Rutherford B Hayes said:

“if when we make up our estimate of a public man, conspicuous both as a soldier and in civil life, we are to think first and chiefly of his manhood, his integrity, his purity, his singleness of purpose, and his unselfish devotion to duty, we can truthfully say of Hancock that he was through and through pure gold.” [24]

A few years after his death Republican General Francis A Walker, lamenting the great corruption of the time said:

“Although I did not vote for General Hancock, I am strongly disposed to believe that one of the best things the nation has lost in recent years has been the example and the influence of that chivalric, stately, and splendid gentleman in the White House. Perhaps much which both parties now recognize as having been unfortunate and mischievous during the past thirteen years would have been avoided had General Hancock been elected.” [25]

The story of Hancock, Armistead and Garnett is one that reminds us of the depth of friendships that many military professionals develop and cherish. It is also a story that reminds us of how hardened ideologues can divide a nation to the point of civil war. It is a story that should give pause to any political or spiritual leader that incites people to war against their neighbor and uses their ideology to slander, demean or even enslave and brutalize their political opponents.

The blood of the approximately 50,000 soldiers that were killed or wounded during the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg is ample reminder of the tragedy of war, especially war that forces the dearest of friends to fight and even kill one another.

Notes

[1] Huntington, Samuel P. The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London 1957 p.212

[2] Thomas, Emory Robert E. Lee W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London 1995 p.188

[3] Korda, Michael. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2014 pp.230-231

[4] Jordan, David M. Winfield Scott Hancock: A Soldier’s Life Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 1988 p.33

[5] Alexander, Edward Porter. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander edited by Gary Gallagher University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1989 p.24

[6] Ibid. Alexander . Fighting for the Confederacy p.25

[7] Guelzo, Allen C. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion Vintage Books a Division of Random House, New York 2013 p.379

[8] Ibid. Huntington The Soldier and the State p.213

[9] Ibid. Jordan Winfield Scott Hancockp.33

[10] Ibid. Jordan Winfield Scott Hancockp.34

[11] Ibid. Jordan Winfield Scott Hancock p.34

[12] Ibid. Jordan Winfield Scott Hancock p.34

[13] Ibid. Jordan Winfield Scott Hancock p.34

[14] Krick, Robert K. The Parallel Lives of Two Virginia Soldiers Armistead and Garnett in The Third Day at Gettysburg and Beyond edited by Gary Gallagher, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London 1994 p.112

[15] Tagg, Larry The Generals of Gettysburg: The Leaders of America’s Greatest Battle Da Capo Press Cambridge MA 1998 Amazon Kindle Edition p.244

 

[16] Ibid. Krick Armistead and Garnett p.101

[17] Stewart, George R. Pickett’s Charge: A Micro-History of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3rd 1863Houghton Mifflin Company Boston 1959 pp.216-217

[18] Hess, Earl J. Pickett’s Charge: The Last Attack at Gettysburg University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London 2001 p.262

[19] Ibid. Stewart Pickett’s Charge pp.254-255

[20] Ibid. Stewart Pickett’s Charge pp.254

[21] Ibid. Krick Armistead and Garnett p.123

[22] Ibid. Krick Armistead and Garnett p.123

[23] Ibid. Krick Armistead and Garnett p.123

[24] Ibid. Jordan Winfield Scott Hancock p.319

[25] Stone, Irving They Also Ran Doubleday, New York 1943 and 1981 pg. 188

 

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Gettysburg Day Three: The Tragedy of Friends at War; Lewis Armistead and Winfield Scott Hancock

“Armistead at Gettysburg” by Keith Rocco

The bonds of friendship forged by soldiers are some of deepest and long lasting that are formed anywhere.  Those bonds are formed by military professionals in the small rather closed society that is the regular United States military over years of deployments, isolated duty, combat and a culture that is often quite different than that of civilian society.

When the people of a nation goes to war against each other the military is often the last to split and when it does men that were friends and comrades turn their weapons against each other and seldom with pleasure. Mass levies of civilian volunteers motivated by ideological, sectional or religious hatred tend to take up such causes with great aplomb. But those that serve together, even those that may believe in their cause are often torn between oaths that they swore to defend their country and their family and home. When their decisions are made they often part with great sadness knowing that they could one day meet each other on a battlefield.

The American Civil War has many such tales. One of the most remembered due to it being a key story line in Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Killer Angels is that of Union General Winfield Scott Hancock and Confederate General Lewis Armistead. This friendship was immortalized in the movie Gettysburg which is based on Shaara’s novel.

Major General Winfield Scott Hancock USA

Hancock was from Pennsylvania was a career soldier and Infantry officer, a graduate of West Point Class of 1844. He served in Mexico and held numerous positions and in 1861 he was stationed in California as a Quartermaster under the command of Colonel (Brevet Brigadier General) Albert Sidney Johnston. One of his fellow officers, who he and his wife Almira became fast friends with was Captain Lewis Armistead, a twice widowed Virginian who also served as a commander of the New San Diego Garrison under Johnston’s command. Armistead was a nephew of the officer who defended Fort McHenry from the British in the War of 1812, a battle which occasioned Francis Scott Key to pen the Star Spangled Banner.  Armistead had academic difficulties at West Point and also had an altercation with Jubal Early in which he broke a plate over Early’s head.  His father helped him obtain a commission as an Infantry officer and his career was similar to many other officers of his day, Mexico, the Great Plains, Kansas, Utah and California.

As the war clouds built and various southern states seceded from the Union numerous officers were torn between their oath, their friendships with their fellow officers and their deep loyalty to their home state and families even if they personally opposed secession. In the end it was a decided minority of of Southern born officers that remained loyal to the Union, the most prominent of these men were General Winfield Scott and Major General George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga. Thomas’s action cost him his relationship with his immediate family who deemed him to be a traitor. Both men were pilloried and demonized in the most base ways by many in the South, during and after the war. Some Southerners who served the Union were executed when captured, George Pickett, who called for Thomas’ death ordered 22 North Carolinians captured fighting for the Union in Kinston North Carolina and he was not alone.

Brigadier General Lewis Armistead CSA

Armistead and other officers asked Hancock, who was a Democrat advice on what he would do if war came. Hancock’s reply was simple. I shall not fight upon the principle of state-rights, but for the Union, whole and undivided” 

The Hancock’s hosted a going away party for their friends departing from the service to join the Confederacy. Almira Hancock wrote that “Hearts were filled with sadness over the surrendering of life-long ties.”with the Johnston’s wife Eliza singing the popular Irish song Kathleen Mavourneen:

“Mavourneen, mavourneen, my sad tears are falling, To think that from Erin and thee I must part!

It may be for years, and it may be forever, Then why art thou silent, thou voice of my heart?…”

Armistead was tearful and said “Hancock, good-by; you can never know what this has cost me, and I hope God will strike me dead if I am ever induced to leave my native soil, should worse come to worse.”

At Gettysburg Armistead spoke his fears to his comrades, including Brigadier General Dick Garnett, another of his comrades from the California days as they met the night before the fateful charge of July 3rd. The next afternoon Armistead and Garnett led their brigades of Pickett’s Division against Hancock’s II Corps which was defending Cemetery Ridge.

During the engagement Garnett was killed just before reaching the Union lines and Hancock gravely wounded. Armistead, leading his brigade breached the Union line with his black hat atop his sword was wounded in the right arm and shoulder and fell near one of the Union artillery pieces, a point now known as “The High Water Mark” of the Confederacy.  As Armistead lay wounded he was approached by Major Bingham of Hancock’s staff who was responding to Armistead’s making a Masonic sign of distress. When Bingham told Armistead of Hancock’s injury Armistead was grieved and told Bingham to “Tell General Hancock for me that I have done him and you all an injury which I shall regret the longest day I live.” He gave Bignham a wrapped Bible and Prayer book to give to Almira Hancock, inscribed were the words “Trust in God and fear nothing.” 

“Minnesota Forward” Hancock directing the Defense by Dale Gallon

Armistead would die from infections caused by his wounds which were initially not thought to be life threatening. Hancock would go on to continued fame and be one of the most admired and respected leaders of the Army during and after the war. He was gracious as a victor and spoke out against reprisals committed against Southerners after the war. He was the Democratic nominee for President losing a close election to James Garfield, losing the popular vote by under 40,000 votes.  It was an era of great political corruption and Hancock was one of the few major public figures Even his political opponents respected him for his integrity and honesty. Former President Rutherford B Hayes said “[i]f, when we make up our estimate of a public man, conspicuous both as a soldier and in civil life, we are to think first and chiefly of his manhood, his integrity, his purity, his singleness of purpose, and his unselfish devotion to duty, we can truthfully say of Hancock that he was through and through pure gold.” 

A few years after his death Republican General Francis A Walker, lamenting the great corruption of the time said:

“Although I did not vote for General Hancock, I am strongly disposed to believe that one of the best things the nation has lost in recent years has been the example and the influence of that chivalric, stately, and splendid gentleman in the White House. Perhaps much which both parties now recognize as having been unfortunate and mischievous during the past thirteen years would have been avoided had General Hancock been elected.”

The story of Hancock and Armistead is one that reminds us of how hardened ideologues can divide a nation to the point of civil war. It is a story that should give pause to any political or spiritual leader that incites people to war against their neighbor and use their ideology to enslave or brutalize their political opponents.

The blood of the approximately 50,000 soldiers that were killed or wounded during the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg is ample reminder of the human suffering brought about by unrestrained ideologues.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Oath: Reflections on the Oath of Office and 30 Years of Service

It was a hot and smoggy summer day in Van Nuys California when drove into the parking lot of the old Armory on Van Nuys Boulevard in my 1975 yellow Chevy Monza with a black vinyl top.  It was August 25th 1981.  That night the San Francisco Giants defeated the St. Louis Cardinals by a score of 4-2 and the Baltimore Orioles defeated the Seattle Mariners 6-5 in 12 innings.  In less important news the Voyager II space craft reached its lowest orbit around Saturn.

Getting out of the car I walked into the offices of the Headquarters, 3rd Battalion 144th Field Artillery of the California Army National Guard.  I had in my sweaty hands the paperwork from the Army ROTC detachment at UCLA the “Bruin Battalion” accepting me into the program and allowing me to enlist simultaneously in the National Guard.

I was met by the Headquarters Battery Commander, Captain Jeff Kramer who after my commissioning would allow me to borrow his sword and sword belt to wear at my wedding with my Dress Blue Uniform.  Jeff finished his career as a full Colonel.  He took me to Major Charles Armagost the battalion S-1 who rapidly had a clerk type up my enlistment papers and administered the oath of enlistment below:

I, Padre Steve (I wasn’t one then but it sounds good) do solemnly swear (I don’t affirm because it’s namby pamby) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the State of California against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States (Ronald Reagan) and the Governor of California (Jerry Brown)  and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to law and regulations. So help me God.

That was the beginning.  I was taken to the supply sergeant who ordered my uniforms which came as a surprise since I had been issued a set by the ROTC detachment.  Of course the ROTC ones were the green permanent press fatigues which I loved and the Guard ordered the then new BDUs which some Navy units still wear. The Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and parts of the Navy having replaced them over the past decade.  My first drill was when the Battalion went to Fort Irwin for a long weekend in early September; I was on the advanced party and was assigned to drive a M151A1 “Jeep” in the convoy from Van Nuys to Fort Irwin.

Renewing the Oath on my Promotion to Lieutenant Commander 2006

In June of 1983 I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and I took a different oath, an oath of office versus enlistment, I would repeat it again in February 1999 when I was commissioned in the Navy and renew it in 2006 upon my promotion to Lieutenant Commander.

I, Padre Steve, do solemnly swear (again I don’t affirm, namby pamby) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

Since I swore the oath the first time I have served in the Army and Navy, in the Army National Guard of California, Texas and Virginia and the Army Reserves. I have spent about six years assigned to the Marines in my capacity as a Navy Chaplain.  I have served in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, at sea and ashore in war and peace.  I have served as a Company Commander and a Staff Officer before becoming a Chaplain and there is no greater honor than to serve this country.

Iraq 2007

It is hard to believe that it has been 30 years.  I do take the oath of office quite seriously especially the part about defending the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.  Since I have served 30 years I have served five Presidents and seen Congress make some fairy wild changes of direction.  That is the thing about our republic our officers do not make their oath to the President or even the majority party in the House of Representatives or the Senate. National Guard Officers also swear an oath to the Constitution of the State in which they serve but their commissions are cognizant on their Federal recognition and thus they like all other officers are sworn to support and defend the Constitution of the United States above all.

This is a good thing as I have not completely agreed with the actions or policies of each President and Congress that I have served. While I have deeply held political views they have never kept me from serving under administrations that I have disagreed with on major policies.  Officers may have strong political views but those must always be subordinated to our oath to support and defend the Constitution.  General Winfield Scott Hancock said “We are serving one country and not one man.” Hancock was a states rights Democrat who remained in the Union because he did not believe that secession was legal.  He had no political friends in Washington and he served valiantly during and after the war.  When asked about his opinion on what to do when their home state of Virginia seceded from the Union by his friends and fellow officers George Pickett, Lo Armistead and Dick Garnett before the war in California he said “I shall not fight upon the principle of state-rights, but for the Union, whole and undivided.”

This is not the case in much of the world. Many militaries swear allegiance to the ruler, the state, ruling political party or the majority religion.  The officers in many Moslem nations combine their oath with the Bya’ah which includes a personal oath to the King or Sheik and the Islamic statement of faith.

The British military swears an oath to the Queen and her successors:

“I ( name), swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors and that I will as in duty bound honestly and faithfully defend Her Majesty, her heirs and successors in person, crown and dignity against all enemies and will observe and obey all orders of Her Majesty, her heirs and successors and of the generals and officers set over me.”

The Red Army of the Soviet Union swore an oath to “to protect with all his strength the property of the Army and the People and to cherish unto death his People, the Soviet homeland and the government of Workers and Peasants, also to respond at the first call from the government of Workers and Peasants to defend the homeland, the USSR.”

Germany has had a rather perilous history with oaths sworn by the military.  The Imperial Army swore an oath to the Kaiser but when the Kaiser abdicated and the Weimar Constitution was ratified German Officers and Soldiers took this oath: “I swear loyalty to the Reich’s constitution and pledge, that I as a courageous soldier always want to protect the German Nation and its legal institutions, (and) be obedient to the Reichspräsident and to my superiors.”  The history of the Republic shows that many officers and soldiers, especially those that had served under the Kaiser resented this oath.  In 1933 Hitler changed the oath to this  “I swear by God this sacred oath, that I will render unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler, the Fuehrer of the German Reich and people, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and will be ready as a brave soldier to risk my life at any time for this oath.” The current German military oath states: “I swear to serve loyally the Federal Republic of Germany and to defend bravely the right and the freedom of the German people. So help me God.”

All oaths hold potential dangers but those of theUnited States military officer corps is perhaps the best thought out oath in the world.  The oath is to the Constitution, not a person, political party or religion.  The efficacy of the oath is based on the honor of those that swear to uphold it.  In times of national turmoil it is important for officers and enlisted personnel to ensure that remember that fact.

When a nation is as badly divided as we are at this point in our history there will be divergent views regarding political beliefs in the officer corps.  This has happened before but only one time did it fracture the military and that was during the Civil War.  Many Southern officers in Federal service resigned their commissions and entered the service of their home states as did a number from the North who had family or marriage connections to Southerners.  Those that did so believed that they had a higher allegiance to their states and viewed the Federal government as an oppressor.

My family came from Cabell County Virginia in the far west of the state.  It was one of six Virginia counties to vote to remain in the Union. My family opposed this and sided with the Confederacy.  They owned slaves and sided with their self interests over their neighbors.  I find the talk of secession by some politicians today repulsive and hateful and those that even suggest it should be shunned by every American.

But there were Southern Officers that remained loyal to the Union; the most prominent of which was General George Thomas. Thomas was a highly successful commander who remained in the Army despite having his friends and superiors in the Second U.S. Cavalry Regiment including Albert Sidney Johnston and Robert E. Lee.  He struggled with his decision but kept his oath.  His family was outraged by this and turned his picture against the wall, destroyed his letters, and never spoke to him again.  They also refused his financial help after the war.  He was pro-emancipation and commanded some of the first Black Regiments in battle during the Western campaigns.  Thomas is emblematic of the cost that one can endure in remaining true to his oath.

Politicians, pundits and preachers from both parties will always attempt to peel military personnel, especially officers away from their oath to the Constitution in order to appear strong on defense, more patriotic or ingratiate themselves to them during a time of war.  This is nothing new, George Thomas noticed it after the Civil War and said “I am also afraid that the military arm is becoming more or less infected with politics; let us by all means keep that branch of the public service free from the taint of intrigue and party strife.”

Yes we have problems I this nation, but they are not insurmountable.  A strong and able military that keeps its oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United Statesis necessary to that end; it cannot allow itself to be drawn away from that no matter what our individual political beliefs.  General Winfield Scott Hancock said “The time under our System of Government, when an army becomes political in its character … is about the end of its career.”

I’m proud that I will have a chance to renew that Oath of Office when I am promoted to Commander in the Navy on Thursday.  Technically there is no legal requirement to do this as an officer in continuous service as the promotion is only cognizant on me accepting it and signing the letter of acceptance.  However I do think it important that I renew it publicly to remind me that I serve the people of this country in a time of war and not any political party.

A dear friend, Retired Marine Corps Colonel and former commanding officer will do the honors for me behind home plate at Harbor Park in Norfolk before the Norfolk Tides play the Gwinnett Braves.  We went through many difficult times together and I cannot imagine having anyone else stand with me in reaffirming this sacred oath.

As for the place of the Oath, I could have chosen from several but the Tides and baseball mean a lot to me, after Iraq Harbor Park was one of the few places that I found peace.  When the season ended the team management allowed me to visit and walk the concourse in the off season.  I can’t think of a more fitting place to renew the Oath.

I pray that I will be faithful to the oath and the people that I serve in the coming years.  It is an honor to still remain in the service of this country.  I have served five Presidents and quite possibly will serve under another before I finally end my service. That is a testament to our political system, there have been no purges of the military like in many other nations and the military is not a king maker.  We can be immensely thankful for that.

Those serving in the military come from every walk of life as well as political and religious beliefs.  What sets us apart is that we serve in harm’s way and look out for each other regardless of those beliefs even when they conflict.  I think the rest of the country could learn a lesson from us.

So long as we remain people of good will and commit ourselves to placing the interests of the nation above our own we shall do well.  That is the essence of the Officer’s Oath of Office.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, leadership, Military, philosophy, Political Commentary

Reflecting on the High Water Mark of the Confederacy and the Importance of Our Union

Yesterday was the 148th Anniversary of Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. There is a spot near the Copse of Trees along Cemetery Ridge which is referred to as the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.” It is the spot close to where Confederate Brigadier General Lo Armistead fell mortally wounded as the decimated remains of his command were overwhelmed by Union forces shortly after they breached the Union line. It is a place immortalized in history, literature and film. It is the place that marked the beginning of the end for the great evil of slavery in America.

My ancestors lived in Cabell County which in 1861 was part of Virginia. They were slave holders along the Mud River, a tributary of the Ohio River just to the north of what is now Huntington West Virginia. When war came to the country the family patriarch James Dundas and my great, great grandfather joined the 8th Virginia Cavalry Regiment in which he served the bulk of the war as a Lieutenant.  When it ended he refused to sign the loyalty oath to the Union and had his lands, which are now some of the most valuable in that part of West Virginia confiscated and sold by the Federal Government.  He was a believer in the “Lost Cause” that romantic and confused idea about the rightness of the South in its war against what they called “Northern aggression.”

Because he served I am eligible for membership in the Sons of the Confederacy. However it is something that I cannot do.  There are some that do this as a means to honor their relatives that served in the war and I do not make light of their devotion to their family, but there are some that take that devotion to places that I cannot go.  As much as I admire the valor and personal integrity of many military men who served the Confederacy I cannot for a moment think that their “cause” was just.

It has been said that the North won the war but that the South won the history.  I think this is true. Many people now days like to reduce the reasons for the war to the South protecting its rights.  Sometimes the argument is “states rights” or “economic freedom” and those that make these arguments romanticize the valor shown by Confederate soldiers on the battlefield but conveniently ignore or obscure the evil of the Southern economic system. The “rights” and the “economic freedom” were based upon the enslavement and exploitation of the Black man to maintain an archaic economy based on agriculture, particularly the export of King Cotton.  Arguments which try to place the blame on the North, especially arguments that attempt to turn the Northern States into economic predators’ intent on suppressing the economic rights of Southerners only serve to show the bankruptcy of the idea itself. The fact that the “economic and political freedom” of Southerners was founded on the enslavement of a whole race of people matters not because the “cause” is greater.

The fact is that the longer the South relied solely on its agriculture which was supported by the institution of slavery it deprived itself of the means of economic progress, the same progress that propelled the North to prosperity. The south lagged in all industrial areas as well as transportation infrastructure. The majority of non-slave owning whites lived at the poverty line and only enjoyed some elevated social status because the slaves ranked beneath them on the sociological and economic hierarchy.  The South depended on cheap imports from England, which then was still considered an enemy of the country. When tariffs to protect newly establish American industries were enacted in 1828 South Carolina attempted to nullify the Federal law even raising troops and threatened a revolt in 1832.

The Southern economic system was immoral and antiquated. It enslaved blacks and it impoverished most rural Southerners, with the exception of those that owned the land and the slaves. It was a hateful, backward and loathsome system which even the southern churches attempted to justify from Scripture.  Southern Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians would all break away from their parent denominations regarding slavery.

This does not mean that I think that the average Confederate soldier or officers were dishonorable men. Many officers who had served in the United States Army hated the breakup of the Union but served the South because it was the land that they were from. It was the home of their families and part of who they were.  To judge them as wanting 150 years later when we have almost no connection to family or home in a post industrial world is to impose the standards of a world that they did not know upon them. For those that gave up everything to serve one can feel a measure of sympathy.  So many died and so much of the South was destroyed in the defense of that “cause” one has to wonder just why the political and religious leaders of the South were willing to maintain such an inadequate and evil economic system one that hurt poor Southern whites nearly as much as it did blacks.

The war devastated the South and the radicals that ran “Reconstruction” ensured that Southerners suffered terrible degradation and that Southern blacks would have even more obstacles raised against them by the now very angry and revengeful whites.  It would take another 80-100 years to end segregation and secure voting rights for blacks. Thus I have no desire to become part of an organization that even gives the appearance of supporting the “cause” even if doing so would allow me to “honor” an ancestor who raised his hand against the country that I serve.

I was raised on the West Coast but have lived in the South much of my adult life due to military assignments. I have served in National Guard units that trace their lineage to Confederate regiments in Texas and Virginia. Despite my Confederate connections both familial and by service I can find little of the romance and idealism that some find in the Confederacy and the “Lost Cause.” I see the Civil War for what it was, a tragedy of the highest order brought about by the need of some to enslave others to maintain their economic system.

Today there are many that use the flags of the Confederacy outside of their historic context. They are often used as a symbol of either racial hatred or of defiance to the Federal Government by white Supremacist or anti-government organizations.  Many that use them openly advocate for the overthrow of the Federal Government.  The calls for such “revolt” can be found all over the country even in the halls of Congress much as they were in the 1830s, 40s and 50s. Some of this is based in libertarian economic philosophy which labels the government as the enemy of business, some based social policies which are against their religious beliefs and some sadly to say based in an almost xenophobic racial hatred.  The scary thing as that the divisions in the country are probably as great as or greater than they were in the 1850s as the country lurched inexorably to Civil War with neither side willing to do anything that might lessen their political or economic power even if it means the ruin of the country.

In recent weeks I have seen the symbols of the Confederacy, particularly the Battle Flag displayed in manners that can only be seen as symbols of defiance.  Tomorrow is July 4th and it seems to me that the flag that should be most prominently displayed is not a Confederate banner, nor even the Gadsen flag, a flag from the Revolutionary War which is used as a rallying symbol for many in the Tea Party movement but the Stars and Stripes.  Somehow I find the flag flown in rebellion to the country that I serve displayed in such an arrogant manner

For many of these people it is the Federal Government which is the enemy. Now I know that our system of government has its flaws. Likewise I cannot agree more about the corruption of many in political office, regardless of their political allegiance.  While it is true that the Federal Government has taken upon itself many powers some never envisioned by those that crafted the Constitution, it has done so because leaders of both political parties have consented to it and even worked to strengthen the Federal Government with the consent of the American people that elect them again and again.

Despite this much of this has been accomplished by the Federal Government has been for the good for the country and people no matter what the critics say. Many of the things that we enjoy today are the result of the work of the Federal Government and not business as much as those that deify big corporations want to believe. There are the National Parks, laws against child labor and for safe workplaces brought about by Teddy Roosevelt, the infrastructure built in the 1930s and 1940s by the Franklin Roosevelt administration. The Roosevelt administration also brought about Social Security and banking regulations to protect Americans from corporations and banks that violated the public trust. The Eisenhower administration began the Interstate Highway system which is the backbone of our transportation system.  Likewise the Space Program and yes even the military have led the way in technological, scientific and medical innovation including that thing that we all take for granted today the Internet.

Today quite a few people are calling for revolt or secession if they do not get what they want be it socially, politically or economically. For years politicians on both sides have fought to minimize such talk and enact compromises with the usual discontent that comes with compromise.  Unfortunately many of those compromises have had the effect of widening the political divide much as the various compromises on the road to the Civil War.  Jefferson said of the Missouri Compromise of 1824: “but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.”

We have allowed the issues of our time to become a fire of unbridled angry passion where those with almost no historical understanding and whose history is often based on myth stake claims and promote ideas that will destroy this Union if they continue. Unfortunately we have not yet reached the high water mark of this movement yet and I fear like Jefferson that the hatred and division will only grow worse as both radical on the right and left prepare for conflict.

Tomorrow we celebrate the 235th anniversary of our Declaration of Independence.  It is a remarkable occasion. It is the anniversary that free people as well as those oppressed around the world look to as a beacon of liberty. It has been paid for time and time again, especially during that cruel Civil War which killed more American soldiers than any other war that we have fought.

A few months after Gettysburg Abraham Lincoln a man much reviled by those that have romanticized the Cause and who is demonized by many “conservative” politicians and pundits today as a “tyrant” made these brief remarks at the site of the battle:

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 battlefield 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 cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot 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.

Today with so many radicals on both the political right and political left doing all that they can to plunge us into yet another civil war we should remember Lincoln’s word and rededicate ourselves to this Union, this remarkable Union.  Tony Blair the former Prime Minster of Great Britain remarked today:

“It may be strange for a former British Prime Minister to offer thoughts on America when the country will be celebrating its independence from Britain. But the circumstances of independence are part of what makes America the great and proud nation it is today. And what gives nobility to the American character.

That nobility isn’t about being nicer, better or more successful than anyone else. It is a feeling about the country. It is a devotion to the American ideal that at a certain point transcends class, race, religion or upbringing. That ideal is about values, freedom, the rule of law, democracy. It is also about the way you achieve: on merit, by your own efforts and hard work.

But it is most of all that in striving for and protecting that ideal, you as an individual take second place to the interests of the nation as a whole. This is what makes the country determined to overcome its challenges. It is what makes its soldiers give their lives in sacrifice. It is what brings every variety of American, from the lowest to the highest, to their feet when “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played.

Of course the ideal is not always met – that is obvious. But it is always striven for.

The next years will test the American character. The world is changing. New powers are emerging. But America should have confidence. This changing world does not diminish the need for that American ideal. It only reaffirms it.”

I think that the Prime Minister got it right.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, philosophy, Political Commentary, Religion