Manhood: He Did Not Need to Advertise It

Winslow Homer
Winslow Homer

Sam Evans was that sort of great man noticed in his small circles and forgotten by history.  While others in his regiment fell out with sore feet and heads Sam marched on. His peers knew him as the man who took new recruits under his wing. Sam spent his spare time putting his blacksmith skills to work, fixing guns for his friends and such. He had integrity and heart and he seriously loved his parents who shaped him into who he was. We get to know him because he and his family were so good at keeping the letters coming and going.

Sam, dutiful eldest son, did not “advertise” his decision to run off and join the army. After watching one brother leave for medical school, another marry and move to Indiana and a third join the Union army, Sam (aged 27) went against his father’s wishes. Sam was a good kid. Without much schooling he’d taken to academics well enough to be given a school to teach. To please his father he learned everything there was to learn about the blacksmith trade like his father, but when his younger brother John Evans came home in  Union blues something in Sam stirred.

As he jostled in his family’s wagon, driving young John back to his regiment, Sam felt no great love for the “darkies.” He was for the Union because his father was for the Union, but something made him send the wagon home with a friend and join the army on the spot.

His mother nearly swooned, his girl looked “the most completely beaten” and his father, well, his father was spitting mad (as Sam suspected he would be). Now the home duties would fall squarely on the shoulders of Amos just coming of age! When before Sam had even seen a bullet he came down with the measles his father sent a pissy letter insinuating Sam was more a burden to the war effort than a help. Sam stood firm and while being nursed to health by a kindly old “darkie” in what was once a bawdy house, he must have smiled as he read the next more contrite letter from home about the entire Evans family suffering under the measles.

The Shirker, Winslow Homer
The Shirker, Winslow Homer

Sam was no shirk.  His first chance at bat, he coolly killed a rebel sneaking around camp before the Battle of Shiloh. When his comrades pulled back at the real fighting a few days later he didn’t notice and kept shooting. He wrote home saying he’d been scratched in the battle only later admitting to being shot. “A little wound does not amount to a hill of beans.”

As word of Sam’s great bravery and upbeat attitude made it home to Father, the older man’s hurt attitude toward his son softened into pride. Father quipped to son that much disease and affliction seemed to attack men in the community aged 18-45 preventing them from joining the brave boys at the front. Sam surely smiled at his father’s subtle compliment.

The higher-ups noticed Sam, too. They plucked him out for an assignment that would test his relationship to Father: How would Sam like to be promoted to lieutenant in a newly formed black regiment? First the hard swallow. Sam took note that his time in the military had changed his once ambivalent feelings toward black people (he’d once called a Republican friend a ‘Negroamus’). His views, like the views of many other white Americans had ‘evolved.’ There was no freedom for anyone if there was no freedom for the slave.

amerikaanse-burgeroorlog-winslow-homer-7Sam assumed at first that the men in his regiment would be inferior soldiers. He assured his father by saying it would be better to sacrifice black soldiers than white. This did not assure his father who acidly wrote that his son had sunk to a new low and hinted he’d be ashamed to tell friends and neighbors. “I’d rather clean out s–t houses . . . than take your position with pay.”

Stung, Sam wrote back, “So willing to accept a degraded position! The fact is you have never marched so far with a heavy load and sore feet as I, and have never noticed so plainly the privileges of a commissioned officer’s . . . Although you have rated me very low I think you are mistaken.” Sam continued even after this to write home.

Father soon wrote back chastened. He feared an officer leading a black regiment would be targeted. Neighbors didn’t shun the family for Sam’s actions. As the mood of the country changed, Sam’s bravery (and the bravery of the black soldiers) was celebrated. Even Father got active.

Once Sam sent a very tanned photo of himself home and quipped he was much suited for the regiment he was in. His men impressed him and did well. His father may have feared for his son’s life, but this is what Sam said: “If a man is a true Christian he can be but a brave man. We should meet danger in the full consciousness of its presence {fear of God} –calmly, steadily unfalteringly . . .one must be really honorable . . .A man with the assurance in his own breast that God has forgiven him is not afraid to die.”

By war’s end Father proudly worked and voted for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution and what of Sam? In 1867 he married a Margaret Shelton and had 8 children. He lived out his days in Ohio, never getting rich or being poor. His father adored him even more and he adored his father.

*****I am indebted to Joseph T. Glatthaar for writing the essay Duty, Country, Race and Party: the Evans family of Ohio published in the book: THE WAR WAS YOU AND ME. This post is a summary of his wonderful work.


Books I’ve Known And Loved

Live fast, die young or traverse the earth slowly.
Live fast, die young or traverse the earth slowly.

Even as college students and dirty, rotten stay-outs, we poked fun at every artsy person’s need for the right hip place to be on the weekend (or any other night). We drove my father’s two-toned Oldsmobile ironically and on five dollars worth of mostly gas fumes to Hoboken. For a brief, sparkling time we were small city celebrities as publishers of a literary/art/whatever-we-wanted magazine.

Our watering-hole reviews were most appreciated by the many young engineers studying at Steven’s Tech and the artsy crowd living in the still rundown lofts on the edge of town rubbing against Jersey City. Bar owners (who also bought advertising in our magazine) were not always equally impressed.

The true hipster crowd hung at Maxwell’s. We thought them too pretentious, well-dressed and rich for our tastes (except on New Years when we went in search of cute bartenders). Like any true rebels we preferred slumming it at the other end of town where a pitcher of beer was about $7 if memory serves and pretzels were on the house.

Here we sat for hours being served by a bleach-blonde, 25-year-old lady (as 19 and 20-year-olds we considered her past her sell-by date). Only a few years later she’d have to quit with a lung ailment from too much second-hand smoke each night at the bar. By then we’d been banned from most bars and bored of the ones we still were allowed to frequent.

No one died in our circle of “rebels”–though with that big car and pitchers of drinks we were damned lucky not to have killed anyone (a vague memory of racing another crazed drunk on the road home and avoiding the police  pops into my head now and I shudder).

Our magazine wasn’t all that good in the grand scheme of things and because we were lazy our advertisers dwindled when we didn’t bother to keep them happy. As a friends group and editorial staff our egos clashed and our interests pulled us in different directions, none of us quite reaching celebrity status again–and probably that’s for the best.

And so it was for Walt Whitman and his friends group at Pfaff’s Saloon under Broadway in NYC before the Civil War.  “America’s First Bohemians”  were not very different from the legions of young people who still style themselves as unique rebels, somehow above the ordinary Joes. Maybe artists are slightly off kilter in some way, but how funny that from generation to next generation the artsy crowd keeps in line with their own stereotypes.

The seedy bars, the wasted moments, the brief brushes with greatness (or delusions of grandeur) and the inevitable maturity or quick tragic death. Walt Whitman lingered on waiting for his Leaves of Grass to catch fire in a slow, slow burn. He nursed soldiers, kept ordinary jobs and quiet romances at Pfaff’s and beyond. Not so his artsy acquaintances (for they never really were close friends).

Most of the rebel souls died of too much life. One died at war after the best of his drinking days were over, one suffered the calamity of youthful stardom and brilliance–always chasing but never catching a new success and always sinking deeper into his opium addiction. One thought she could write well, but when the first terrible reviews came in she retreated into acting only to be bitten by a theater owner’s terrier. She died a few weeks later raving mad from rabies.

Are rebels rebels if they keep the same rules and hours as the trailblazers before them? Is wearing black as cool as when Johnny Cash first did it? Walt Whitman hung at Pfaff’s but he hung back, too. He retreated to his mother’s apartment. He wore strange boots,  roguishly tilting his hat and keeping his shirt open at the neck, but in his day the stars at Pfaff’s burned quick and bright, most dying in their early thirties like ancient echoes of Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse.

No one ever knows sitting round the sticky tables in a dark bar when their star will rise and fall. No one knows if maturity or death is better for artists and their work until everyone is dead and gone–and even then when cool people search for cool places tastes change in art.

The names of the famous 19th century actors, poets and comics are mostly forgotten. Walt Whitman’s one masterpiece hangs on. No one knows why.

“Look around you and paint what you see. Forget the Beaux-Arts and the models and render the intense life which surrounds you and be assured that the Brooklyn Bridge is worth the Colosseum of Rome and that modern America is as fine as the bric-a-brac of antiquity.”











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“Beware you be not swallowed up in books! An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge.” John Wesley

John Wesley Teaching His Sunday School, 1897 by Alice Barber Stephens
John Wesley Teaching His Sunday School, 1897 by Alice Barber Stephens

Random Wesley quotes that inspired many in the 19th century and beyond:

“It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading. A reading people will always be a knowing people. ”

“Vice does not lose its character by becoming fashionable.”

“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”

“Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

“What one generation tolerates, the next generation will embrace.”

“We should be rigorous in judging ourselves and gracious in judging others.”