Taken Prisoner

A Confederate officer stood alone at a crossroad goading his horse to move on in the aftermath of the Union retreat at BULL RUN. Sensing danger he glanced over his shoulder. A Yankee raced over the field tramping the freshly cut hay. As the Yankee drew closer he struggled to pull something from behind his back. The Confederate, with heart thumping through his uniform, pulled out his revolver and took aim.

The Yankee waved a white flag,  stopping abruptly at some distance. He wavered there for a few minutes until the Confederate swore he would do him no harm. Looking to his left and then right, the Yankee weighed his options and moved forward.

The Confederate noted the man’s flushed cheeks and face not yet ready to be shaved. The boy could not be more than twenty yet he was a lieutenant from a New York regiment.

“I give my word to you, sir. If you let me go I’ll never pick up a gun again. I’ll leave at once for my father’s farm,” the boy begged.

The Confederate kept silent and the boy on his horse soon followed, resigned to his fate.

The Confederate and the Yankee may not have realized at this early stage of the war that to be a prisoner was as deadly as fighting on the battlefield, but something in the young man’s cowardice already worked on the Confederate’s conscience. We don’t know if this Confederate officer cursed the angel on his shoulder as the two men walked ten yards.

“Go back to your friends, boy,” the Confederate ordered. “One more prisoner will hardly make a difference.”

When the Confederate met his own scouts they asked what had happened. When they set off in search of the “escaped” prisoner, the Confederate officer refused to join them.*

I wonder about the young New York lieutenant. The other night I happened upon our cat devouring the skin and fat of a just killed chipmunk and was surprised to see the organs still in movement. What moving things did this young man see at Bull Run? Was he a shy boy having trouble fitting in? No. There was something of a leader in him to be made lieutenant. Did he run all the way home or just to his friends?

A Confederate officer stuck on a stubborn horse gave the New York lieutenant his life back. Like a fish released from a net there was no time for gratitude. The currents of war and blood and peace move men along with hardly a moment to consider a chance meeting at a crossroad.

Why did boys on both sides enlist? CIVIL WAR SOLDIERS Their Expectations and Experiences by REID MITCHELL presents  the uplifting and awful traits that make us human.  Mitchell shares  the forgotten stories of individual men. Each one of them (unlike fish unable to escape mere instinct) left  marks on others they  encountered only briefly and never met again.

How did that New York lieutenant live and die? His fear, his youth, his innocence touched a Confederate soldier once. The man was never the same.

*A re-telling of one of the many poignant stories written about in Civil War Soldiers.

**Image courtesy CIVIL WAR TALK

Border Battles/ Old School

Felipe Santiago Gutiérrez, Indian Woman with Marigold (Mujer indígena con cempasúchil), 1876

“The basic cause of this war from the Mexican side was the refusal to recognize the independence of Texas, which successfully revolted in 1836. In ten years as an independent republic Texas was recognized by the major nations of the world, most notably Britain and France, but not by Mexico.

From the borderland perspective, Mexico had forfeited its control. It withdrew most army units to engage in civil wars for political power, leaving the border region defenseless against repeated large-scale Indian raids. The Hispanics in Texas (“tejanos”) and New Mexico (“nuevo-mexicanos”) were affiliating more with the U.S. in terms of economy and security, and useless welcomed the American takeover.

Along the border

Delay (2007) and Reséndez (2004) explain the American need to suppress Indian raids originating from Mexican territory. During the 1830s and 1840s, northern Mexico experienced a terrifying increase in inter ethnic violence as Comanches, Kiowas, Apaches, and other Indians attacked Mexican settlements across nine states in northern Mexico. Raids claimed thousands of lives, ruined the ranching and mining industries, and forced most Hispanics to flee the border region. Just as importantly, the violence shaped how Americans and Mexicans came to view each other in advance of the war. US observers saw Indians driving Mexicans backward, with the government there uninterested and incapable of defending the territory it had seized from Spain. With the Mexican army being used primarily to wage political battles for control of the government, Hispanic residents of the affected areas despaired that their government would help them; they increasingly welcomed American intervention, which they correctly expected would end the Indian raids. Mexican politicians complained Washington was fomenting Indian raids in order to acquire territory.

Meanwhile in New Mexico, the economy and society were becoming integrated with the U.S. and nuevo-mexicanos were increasingly estranged from Mexico. Some Catholic priests tried to prevent full integration by restricting marriages between Protestant American men and Mexican Catholic women. By 1846 little fervor existed in New Mexico for resisting the American army. Consequently the Mexican army did not attempt to defend New Mexico or California. Some Hispanics after the war went to Mexico; (in Laredo the whole town); most of the tejanos, californios and nuevo-mexicanos preferred American rule; unfortunately some of them were murdered or, in many cases, dispossessed of their private properties. Disputes over land titles became endemic. [2] [3] [4]

In Mexico

In Mexico itself, Henderson (2007) emphasizes that Mexican agency in going to war reflected a profound sense of weakness. Mexico’s revolutionary experience had produced a virulent factionalism based on divisions of race, class, region and ideology. The success by Texas in 1836 only made it more clear that Mexico was too weak to populate, control and defend its northern territories, but that opinion was derided by Mexican politicians. Instead, they all denounced the policies of their rivals. The only common denominator was that Texas must be reconquered, even if that meant war with overwhelmingly superior U.S. military and economic power.” conservapedia.com

Edward S. Curtis: Photographer with an agenda? You decide.

Edward S. Curtis - Piegan man and woman standing in open prairie

“Curtis has been praised as a gifted photographer but also criticized by some contemporary ethnologists for manipulating his images. Although the early twentieth century was a difficult time for most Native communities in America, not all natives were doomed to becoming a “vanishing race.”[27] At a time when natives’ rights were being denied and their treaties were unrecognized by the federal government, many natives were successfully adapting to western society. By reinforcing the native identity as the noble savage and a tragic vanishing race, some believe Curtis detracted attention from the true plight of American natives at the time when he was witnessing their squalid conditions on reservations first-hand and their attempt to find their place in Western culture and adapt to their changing world.”[27] Wikipedia


In many of his images Curtis removed parasols, suspenders, wagons, and other traces of Western material culture from his pictures. In his photogravure In a Piegan Lodge, published in The North American Indian, Curtis retouched the image to remove a clock between the two men seated on the ground.[28]Wikipedia




Are You Brave?

 Courtesy Flickr

While many would see the above image as horrifying proof of racism in America, we must remember the flip side. Yes, there were racists, but as the cartoon says, the Republican congress  gave blacks the right to vote and pushed for racial equality. The fact that violence and hatred still remained after the Civil War does not negate the valiant works of many white and black Republicans who fought and sometimes died to see that real freedom for all would not remain just a dream. I admire the men and women of the past and present who put race on the back burner and fight for freedom for all.

All too often we only see the massacres, the riots and the acrimony between the races (I suggest this would be true studying any society), but there is so much more to people than that. People were often horrified at the troubles between the races in the late 19th century, but put yourself back there after asking yourself how many hours you’ve spent watching the news and despairing at the idea that there’s nothing you can do to stop people in faraway places from victimizing each other. How many of us would have stood up to paramilitary groups inflamed by not only race hatred but by defeat, sudden poverty and loss? How many of us would have cowered or turned away in disgust after years of endless suffering and loss of human life?

Bravery is a rare and beautiful thing. We like to imagine ourselves brave. How many of us actually are?




“Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection . . .


The mystic chords of memory,  stretching from every battlefield, and the patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our  nature.

The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. . . .We shall nobly save or meanly lose, the last, best hope on Earth.” Abraham Lincoln


Note: Our foster girl is back and off this week of school so my visits here may be sketchy at best, but wanted to take this moment to remember the  men and women like Lincoln (and the Founding Fathers who some would like to forget(?!)) who made the United States an inspiration to all lovers of freedom.

Turn Your Itchy Scalp into Millions!


Sarah Breedlove was not the type to crawl up into the fetal position when tragedy struck. Sarah’s parents celebrated the birth of their first child not born into slavery–but not for long. First Sarah’s mother died. Her father remarried–and died. An orphan, Sarah went to live with her sister and her abusive husband. To escape the abuse Sarah married Moses Williams, but soon after the birth of their daughter Moses died.

There are some people who under similar circumstances might turn from God or throw themselves into the deep end of a pool having not learned to swim. Sarah Breedlove was not this sort.

All the way to St. Louis with her young daughter squirming on her lap Sarah fought the urge to scratch her itchy scalp (or at least that’s how I imagine it). After years of lye soap and nerves Sarah suffered from dandruff so severe she was balding. Not a good look for a future millionaire, but I get ahead of myself.

Sarah’s brothers owned a barber shop in St. Louis in which Sarah learned about hair care. She found work as a washerwoman, vowing to save her dollar a day pay for an education. Fate used her itchy scalp in another way. Sarah took a job on commission selling for another black hair care entrepreneur (capitalism has its success stories)  ANNIE TURNBO MALONE.

Sarah moved to Denver and married a newspaper and advertising man who encouraged her passion and helped her develop an advertising campaign for her new mail order company. Madame C. J. Walker as Sarah was now called traveled the country with her husband selling not only her hair care products but the idea that African American women could be the captains of their lives even in a time of lynchings, poverty and prejudice. She recognized that even in the turbulent times she lived that hard work and good marketing smashed glass ceilings.

Sarah hired women. This is key. She didn’t bemoan the fact that men hired men. She hired women. She trained them to be “beauty culturalists.” She organized clubs and rallies for women who aspired to greatness. Here was a rare woman not threatened by other women. Sarah bred love wherever she went. She even hired the first licensed black architect in New York VERTNER TANDY to build her mansion.

One might wonder if Sarah only helped other women because it helped her company, but that was not the case. Sarah stressed to her women followers the essential thing to a life well-lived: helping others. She threw herself into politics, but more importantly threw her money into philanthropy, donating much of her wealth to orphanages and campaigns against lynching. Some say the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but boy, it was. Think of the sorry state of Indians on reservations. They got some land. Black Americans were given something better and more powerful: a political voice. It’s been a roller coaster ride for sure and not a perfectly safe ride, but look at Madame Walker.

Sarah never waited or asked why me? (maybe she did sometimes but never let the why paralyze her). Sometimes, most times, it’s better to look at heroes than problems. Sarah Breedlove lost so much and came from so little. Plagued with dandruff (something that might send a lesser lady into hiding) she never said I can’t do this because I’m black and I’m a woman and I’m an orphan and I’m poor and uneducated.

Sarah washed other people’s dirty underthings, healed other people’s scalps and hearts and died a rich woman. The first African American woman millionaire was Madam C. J. Walker.






Books I’ve Known And Loved

51ruU2pYgFL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_When Harriet Hanson Robinson explained to her busy (and presumably happy) single friend that she felt sorry for her  because she wasn’t married and could not  be a complete woman there was no hint of bitchiness.

Harriet was a contented creature of her time. In my early feminist days I would have found this hard to believe. I’d have crept around looking for the crumbling facade, the misery, the bitterness of a woman who spent her days washing heavy laundry and sewing for the entire months of May and June each year.

Harriet married a morally upright man who for the life of him could not keep from stepping on toes–landing him often out of work or underpaid. It seems Harriet was drawn to Mr. Robinson by his integrity, but I suspect she loved his ability to make light of life’s trials as well.

Harriet, who mingled with some of the famous families of Concord, Massachusetts (and had strong opinions about them all–she thought HENRY DAVID THOREAU a fake and a hypocrite and guessed his mother kept him well-fed by the pond), was the sort of strong woman who could make something from nothing without complaint. In fact she prided herself on running a household without the help of “an Irish.” She’d experimented with house help briefly when her husband was making some money but found after a few attempts that teaching young Irish girls how to work up to her standards was impossible.

So here’s the thing: I expected this book to be about an exception to the rule. I expected Harriet to be this modern woman in disguise. Maybe the author Claudia L. Bushman had expected that as well for she seems at times baffled by Harriet’s pride and devotion to her dreamer husband,  average children and life of housework.

There is a sense that the author of A GOOD POOR MAN’S WIFE had hoped Harriet in her private diaries might let loose against the order of her times. How is it she remained so cheerful? Why wasn’t she devastated when it became clear she would not be a world famous poet? Her honest appraisal of her rather lackluster children is seen as an ambivalence to motherhood (as a mother I find this a real stretch).

In the year after the death of her beloved son Harriet wrote a bittersweet poem of life and marriage:

My Choice–to William Robinson (her husband)

In shady paths, serene, content I grew,

Nor knew for me what gifts fair life enclosed:

When sudden–with her gilded lyre held forth,

Came Poesy–bright maid, who smiling said:

“Take me, dear child, take me and Heaven espouse”

I struck the lyre, and knew ambition’s joys,–

The praise of men, and all the world’s applause.

The love,–with soft beseeching arms appeared,

And said with low drooped eyes; “Come thou to me!”

In doubt I stayed, in sorrowing tears, I moaned.

But god-like still he waited long and sought.

Till I, forgetting men’s applause, my dreams

of high renown, with cries to him I fled.

And now, serene, content, with him I roam

In sunlit paths. Nor care what life contains.

Since love I keep, which holds embraces all.

Unlike the narrator in Robert Frost’s THE ROAD NOT TAKEN Harriet has taken the trodden road of 19th century womanhood, but like Frost’s narrator she is happy about the choice she’s made even knowing the dreams left behind on the other road. Again the author sees this as a telling sign of Harriet’s possible regrets despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary scrawled across the pages of her journal. I see this poem– in the context of Harriet’s life– as one  about the choices we all make–leaving some good things behind for  things that are better (hopefully). In Harriet’s case there’s no reason to believe she wasn’t quite happy with her choices.