Posted by: Phil Anderson | May 26, 2013

Men Who Died

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

This week America celebrates Memorial Day. We remember and pay respect to those who risked their lives and lost them in service to their country and fellow countrymen.

As a writer, I can’t help but be inspired by people willing to make that ultimate sacrifice. For the most part they are normal people, their lives not much different from anyone else’s. But something, their attitude, their actions, or even random-seeming circumstance, puts them in an heroic position.

The following are four character studies. Call them historical fiction, based on the first four wars in United States history:

 

Men Who Died

A Memorial Day Tribute

by Philip Anderson

 

Joseph A. Fenton was a blacksmith in Hartford, Connecticut. He worked hard making horseshoes and repairing equipment for the local farmers. His older son, Jacob, worked with him while his daughter and younger son stayed home with Elisabeth, his wife of twenty-two years.

Although he disagreed with many of the British laws that governed Connecticut, Joseph wasn’t one to stir up trouble. Once trouble had been stirred, though, he didn’t hesitate to throw in his lot with his neighbors, drawn by the freedom afforded by self-government and the opportunity to create a new nation to fit the revolutionary ideals held by colonists far from the seat of the empire.

Such patriotic idealism does not become reality without a price. Battles and skirmishes were scattered throughout New England, and Connecticut was no exception. A troop of redcoat infantry led by mounted officers was marching past Hartford on a crisp autumn day. They were presumably on their way to bolster the weakening British Army encamped several miles away. Captain Hansen of the Hartford militia decided that those reinforcements should not arrive.

The battle was fierce, and ultimately the British replacements did not arrive at their destination thanks to the guerrilla attacks of the local militia. But several soldiers, including Joe Fenton, died making that happen. (Revolutionary War)

 

Sean O’Harrigan’s parents had moved to the American colonies from Ireland looking for opportunity. Sean himself was part of the first generation born as United States citizens. He was proud of his country and as soon as he was of age, he enlisted in the navy.

There was some military tension at sea, and Sean could see how England would be unhappy at losing its American colonies. He didn’t worry much, though, because the British were busy fighting Napoleon and the French Empire. Sean was surprised when war broke out between England and her former American colonies.

Although he didn’t understand the politics of the conflict (and few people did) Sean was glad to serve his country. The tiny American fleet fought valiantly against the world’s naval superpower, especially in the Great Lakes, where Sean’s ship was assigned. They were outnumbered and outgunned, but they managed to win several skirmishes at sea despite the odds against them.

Sadly, they also lost many ships including Sean’s. He and his crew mates drowned in the icy waters of Lake Erie, their small boat overpowered by a British Man ‘O War. (War of 1812)

 

Douglas McAllister had a mind for business. He probably got it from his father, who ran a successful trade in the state of Virginia. Douglas showed great promise when he started as an errand boy for his father, and he soon reached a position of prominence within the company, and not just because of his lineage.

Not only were the McAllisters important businessmen in Virginia, but they also occupied a high place on the social ladder. Douglas was frequently invited to dances and dinner parties, and he hosted several of them himself every year. He was a handsome young man and a favorite with the ladies, but his quick wit, his skill at conversation, and his understanding of politics made him popular among the men as well.

The secession of Texas from Mexico and subsequent admission into the Union caused a stir in the political and social world, but seemed to have no practical bearing on daily life in Virginia. That all changed, however, when war was declared between the United States and Mexico.

Douglas enlisted in the army, as did most of his society friends. It was one’s duty to serve one’s country and of course a uniform and medals could do nothing to harm one’s social status. The McAllister influence got Douglas a position in the officer corps, but it was his own decisiveness and leadership skills that moved him quickly up the ranks. Soon he was leading a troop of soldiers deep into Mexican territory.

Santa Anna’s army was ill equipped and poorly trained – no match for the well drilled American forces. And Douglas McAllister’s men were better drilled than many. But what the Mexicans lacked in training and equipment they more than made up for in endurance and subversiveness.

Douglas’s unit was advancing rapidly through the desert, making good progress toward Mexico City. They had prevailed in several small skirmishes and were beginning to feel invulnerable. Suddenly a band of guerrilla fighters appeared from a hidden canyon. Douglas called a quick retreat and rapidly formulated a counter-attack. His fast thinking saved all but a few of his men, but it could not save himself. Sitting high astride his horse, he was too easy a target. He died on Mexican soil, a hero to his men and a martyr to his family and high society friends. (Mexican American War)

 

Samuel Langston and his brother Gideon lived with their families on neighboring farms in Ohio, far from the southern strongholds of slavery. Neither had experienced firsthand the way one race was commonly subjugated to another on the tobacco and cotton plantations. Both were understandably naïve about the hardships and indignities suffered by Negroes in distant parts of their own country. But that did not prevent them from having opinions.

As the older brother, Samuel saw things in black and white, right or wrong. It was obvious all men should be free and the federal government should have the right and obligation to ensure that. When the southern states voted to secede from the USA, Sam was outraged. He left his wife and children to join the Union army and fight for the preservation and unity of his country.

Gideon was the younger brother. He agreed that freedom was a basic right and believed that the freedom of self-government was the most basic form of that most basic right. The decision to abolish slavery had to be made by the individual states. The federal government in Washington DC should not issue proclamations and edicts; Lincoln was not king. Gideon sided with the confederation of states that wanted to leave the oppression of the Union and retain the freedom to govern themselves. Although he was from Ohio, he joined the Kentucky volunteers.

As battles raged across American homesteads, ideality and practicality both gave way to reality. The daily fight for freedom was twisted into a daily fight to destroy the enemy. The distinctions between right and wrong or good and bad evaporated, leaving behind only the struggle between us and them.

Samuel and his fellow Yankees fought to maintain the integrity of the union. The defense of the capital was of the utmost importance, but the marshy ground around the Potomac was difficult to maneuver in. One night Samuel took part in a poorly timed raid that turned into a disastrous retreat. Escape from his pursuers was cut off when he floundered into a swamp; he never returned to his Ohio farm.

Gideon and the Johnny Rebs fought to maintain freedom, but the people of Missouri were evenly divided on what form that freedom should take. Both north and south were zealous for the territory to join them, and the fighting there was fierce. When Gideon and several others tried to cross the Mississippi in a small boat, a barrage of cannon fire tore into them and none of them reached the other side. (Civil War)

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Responses

  1. […] who believe something strongly enough to give their life for it are inspiring and fascinating. Two years ago I posted some fictional character studies of men who died, and this year I’m offering a few […]


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