Saturday, October 3, 2015

The insolence of youth

Ahh, to be young again. 

The exuberance. 

The idealism. 

Seems like just yesterday, you were ready to set the world on fire.  Today - thirty years, where did they go? 

Aches, pain, and general tiredness that comes with aging has tempered your youthful exuberance.  Cynicism - sometimes (ok, often times) confused with wisdom - has corroded your idealism.  The spark that would've set the world on fire fizzled out decades ago.  In short: life got in the way and what was once important grew trivial as the years passed.

But there's still the legacy you will leave behind to consider. 

Now that's a tricky word - legacy.  What is it?

Most people don't think about their legacy until they are old and know they only have a few years left on this earth.  Unless one has a lot of money to buy a charitable foundation in their name, it's too late to build your legacy.  You built your legacy all through your life and even a named charity won't change the legacy you built. 

Legacies are defined by those who live on past your parting this world and not defined by you.  Sometimes, their judgment of the value of the legacy you left behind can be opposite of what you were living and thought you were leaving behind.  Hindsight can be a harsh judge.

And that brings us to the Talbot Boys. 

One young, exuberant, idealistic young man has decided that 85 young men from Talbot County fought on the Confederate side of the Civil War because they were "traitors fighting to preserve slavery."  The historical data doesn't back up his claim, but that won't stop him from destroying the legacy those 85 young men fought and died for.

What has put Richard Potter, president of the NAACP of Talbot County, MD on the warpath against these honorable veterans of a hundred and fifty years ago?

Wait a minute.  Did I say "honorable veterans"? 

Yes, I did.  Rightfully so, our nation decided, albeit in the usual roundabout way, Confederate soldiers were honorable veterans.  It's convoluted, like everything the government does, but Confederate soldiers were given the same honors as any other veteran.

I won't be so presumptuous as to pretend I know what society's mentality of 155 years ago was nor what any single individual's thoughts of that time frame were.  I can connect dots and fairly confidently say what they weren't.  Confederates didn't fight to preserve slavery.  Yankees didn't fight to free slaves.

I don't know why the Talbot Boys chose to fight for the Confederates.  Despite Mr. Potter's bold claim that they fought to "preserve slavery", historical evidence suggests otherwise.  In fact, I will go so far as to challenge Mr. Potter to produce one bit of evidence that at least one of the Talbot Boys fought to "preserve slavery."

A Confederate soldier's letter
A century and a half ago, the average young man from rural areas had a fourth grade education, a fact reflected by poor spelling and grammar in the many letters of soldiers, both Union and Confederate.  Despite the poor spelling and grammar, one can gain a sense of life for a soldier in that time era.

Surprisingly, there is very little written in the way of political motives and opinion of the letter writer.  Most letters are mundane expressions of every day life as a soldier, health updates, longings for home, and love letters to wives or girlfriends.  There are, however, occasional glimpses that contradict the current pop rhetoric concerning the Civil War:

“If I had thought that I was coming out to fight for the nigger, I would have been the last one to come out, and plenty more besides me,” wrote Friel, a Union soldier, to his parents in 1863.

It is important to note that Friel wrote those words two years into the War, in the year Lincoln passed the Emancipation Proclamation, a signal that the War might end with the freeing of the slaves.  Since the Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the Confederate states, it can be argued that Lincoln signed it into law only to encourage Southern slaves to flee their bondage and join the Union army, a move many Northerners did not like and even resented. 

Another gem of a letter was written by an unknown mother in 1861 in which she expresses her fears over her son joining the army.  While it is unclear which army she is talking about, from the context of the rest of the letter her son must have been contemplating joining the Confederacy.  She very clearly defined what she felt the causes of the War were:

"I never had any taste for war - indeed have always had a most unmitigated horror of it as an evil worse than pestilence or famile [famine?] - but, it is a more obvious fact that this war has been forced upon us by a most unrelenting bitter and arrogant despotism - I must meet it as other mothers are compelled to meet it."

Googling "Civil War letters" yields a wealth of information and a better insight to the mindset of that era than the current pop rhetoric of today offers.  I encourage Mr. Potter and every reader of this article to spend some time reading the letters of those who lived the time frame.  Both Union and Confederate, they were real Americans living and dying for beliefs that shaped our nation as we know it today.

In an attempt to build his own legacy (to use his own words), Mr. Potter has chosen to destroy the legacies of 85 young men from generations past.  He wants their legacy symbolically buried in an old cemetery few, if any, bother to visit any more.  He wants those 85 young men to be remembered for being traitors and racists and nothing more.

The Eastern Shore residents have always been a fiercely independent lot.  They don't like being told what to do and have seriously entertained the idea of seceding from the state of Maryland several times, the last serious consideration being in 1998. 

It is easier to understand how the young men of Talbot County, with a fourth grade education and their fierce sense of independence, could have decided to fight for the Confederacy.  Decades before the start of the Civil War, when rumblings of secession first began surfacing, and through the War itself, many of these young men heard the news through the social media platforms of the time - the local tavern on Saturday night and Church on Sunday mornings.

No doubt they heard of President Lincoln's illegal actions in Baltimore to ensure Maryland stayed with the Union.  The mayor of Baltimore and an ex-governor thrown in prison because they sympathized with the Confederacy.  On the day of an important vote for Marylanders to decide to stay with the Union or leave, federal troops arrested any Democrat or perceived Confederate sympathizer to prevent them from voting.  Thirty-one state legislators were thrown in jail for being Confederate sympathizers.  Lincoln even ordered the arrest (although never carried out) of US Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brook Taney, who stood up to President Lincoln's arbitrary arresting of Maryland citizens.  News of President Lincoln's illegal actions undoubtedly reached Talbot County's taverns and Church's where the young men of the time took a firm stand.

Confederate sympathizers weren't die hard slavery proponents, either.  Leaders in favor of secession from the Union included T. Parkin Scott, an abolitionist who convinced his own mother to declare her slaves free.  Slavery in Maryland was on its way out as its agricultural practices changed and labor intensive crops like tobacco were scrapped in favor of the less labor intensive crops of fruits and grains.  For most Marylanders, slavery wasn't the issue.

And then there were the door-to-door drafting by the Union army in Talbot County and the rest of Maryland.  While President Lincoln's illegal actions against the citizenry ensured Maryland remained neutral, its citizens had little choice about the fighting.  They could either be drafted and fight for the Union, a side many Marylanders were growing more fearful of, or they could defect to the Virginia side and fight against the increasing tyranny emanating from DC.  Some chose the latter.

Mr. Potter may believe the older generation has failed him and his generation, but he would still be wise to look at how he is trying to build his own legacy.  Tearing down the legacy of past generations on the flimsiest of arguments undoubtedly will lead future idealistic young people to tear down the legacy of those striving to rid the land of anything Confederate, including the legacy Mr. Potter believes he is building for himself today. 

Legacies aren't built by destroying the memories and legacies of past generations in the name of fifteen minutes of YouTube fame.  I agree with you, Mr. Potter.  The courtyard in Talbot County needs to tell the whole story, not just a small part of it.  I disagree, vehemently, with your goal to remove the Talbot Boys to obscurity.  Tell the whole story, Mr. Potter, not just the part where you deem 85 veterans as nothing more than traitorous racists.

More importantly, let the residents of Talbot County decide how to tell the story.  The decision to remove the Talbot Boys shouldn't be left in the hands of one man leading the fight for his own admittedly selfish gain nor to five members of a council who may or may not fully understand the history and how current residents wish to preserve and honor that history.

TL;DR folks:
One man in Talbot County, MD has made it his goal to remove a Confederate memorial from the courtyard grounds in Easton.  His motives appear to be completely selfish - to build his legacy - and without regard to historical fact or the wishes of other residents of the county.

Related links:
Hear in his own words why Richard Potter wants to rid Easton of the Talbot Boys

Posted by Five Drunk Rednecks

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