American Exceptionalism, Education, Elitism and Class, History, Race and Culture, Religion

To Pause and Reflect, The Fourth of July

As I’ve noted before I was born and raised in a company town. Coal mining. And every July 4th the mines shut down and the town gathered at our school football stadium, where half the field was lined with stands selling carnival treats like funnel cakes, homemade pies and fountain drinks. No beer, a dry county, but men would gather in a circle and pass around a pint. The other half of the field was turned over to games, such as the greased pig chase. I went to every one from my fifth year (in 1950) to graduation, in 1964. That was the first and only place I ever saw “separate facilities” for whites and colored people, including drinking fountains.

There was also some speechifying and band music. It was the first place I ever saw a band play the “Star Bangled Banner” live, and everyone stood. The men removed their hats, first for our preacher’s prayer, and then the music.

You remember things like this…as often as not, by their absence.

It seems over the years we’ve been given more and more time to pause, but spend less and less time reflecting. There’s still family time at Thanksgiving, Christmas, but even Easter has become a shadow of its former self simply because more and more people no longer observe it.

I noticed that Juneteenth, a new national holiday remembering the day slavery officially ended in 1865 (and long overdue I might add) finally had its first formal observation, just a few days ago. During the celebration in Oakland, there was a shooting and when the EMS van showed up this is how a group of youngsters paused to reflect, and “show dey ass”.

Yes, they were likely high on something. But something bigger is missing here. Parents? Culture?

Maybe it’s time for America to pause and reflect.

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Bernard D Voto, in his 1846, Year of Decision, published in 1942 but written in the years leading up to World War, gave over a small section just about how the various groups he was tracking in that year, 1946, as they sat in Washington, marched to war in Mexico, and trekked across the long wagon trail to Santa Fe, Oregon and California. Those praying families (pictured above) were a common sight, especially along those wagon trails, so you might find this excerpt instructive:

On June 11 the younger brother of the Santa Fe trader James Magoffin, who would brief President Polk on the “Mexico situation” on June 15, pulled out of Independence, Missouri, with his new wife of 6 months, named Susan. She kept a scrupulous daily diary of her adventures. She was moving to Santa Fe to start a new life, and she took everything a grandee’s wife would be expected to have. Daily she noted the behavior of the stockmen and their foul language, but grew to like them when, by the third or fourth Sabbath they’d tempered their language at least on that day. On Saturday July 4th along the Pawnee River in now-western Kansas, south of Great Forks, where the Trail turns south headed toward the Cherokee Strip in present day Oklahoma, while trying to cross a creek which was swollen by rain, their wagon “crashed in a litter of books, bottles—one of which broke and on my head too I believe—guns, pistols, baskets, bags, boxes and the dear knows what else.” Her husband saved her from the the collapsing carriage top, but the bottle had knocked her out.

On July 4 most of the Army of the West (under the command of recently promoted Gen Stephen Kearney who would conquer New Mexico almost without a shot) was still behind the Magoffin wagon train by several days, strung out over many miles as many of their troops had not been fully trained, or even integrated in the military way, as they were consisted of 1600 men in the volunteer First and Second Regiments of Fort Leavenworth, Missouri Mounted Cavalry regiment, an artillery unit made up of German volunteers from St Louis, all untrained, and infantry battalion and 300 of Kearny’s trained 1st US Dragoons.

Last of the train were Fischer’s artillery, the Germans, who were all thumbs. They even had to be taught how to water their horses. The infantry had to march into the night, and while they had bought some whiskey at a sutlers store, they were too tired to drink it on the 4th when they finally bedded down.

But they all knew what day it was.

Farther ahead was Co C of the Mounted Cavalry under Alexander Doniphan, as wrote one of his officers, “Our bosoms swelled with the same quenchless love of freedom which animated the breast of our ancestors of ’76 and caught inspiration from the memory of their achievements. Ever and anon the enthusiastic shout, the loud huzzah, and the animated Yankee Doodle were heard.” Some of those huzzahs were oaths as the advance guard under Captain Waldo were hurrying up to join Moore at Pawnee Fork, for Waldo had brought a keg of whiskey, which he issued at breakfast. “Each man drank his fill” and the 25 miles the covered that day were not troublesome. But rations had to be reduced a third, and one private wrote that while he liked the whiskey, “if we cannot overtake the commissary wagons we shall have nothing to eat but our own horses.”

In south Texas, at Matamoros, just across the Rio Grande from modern Brownsville, Texas, which Gen Zachary Taylor had conquered and occupied for six weeks. His army had a better time. There were oratories and salutes, the cantinas were gay, no one went thirst or hungry in Matamoros on Independence Day. And the media had a field day, or month, filling their spaces with atrocities (all Mexican) and heroisms (all American), naming and making heroes, Lt. McIntosh, Kirby Smith, Private Dudley and Lt Dobbins, when nothing really occurred, except for a deep and abiding love for Old Rough and Ready Taylor because nothing had really been done.

In the harbor of Monterey, California the flagship Savannah, which had arrived on July 2, greeted Independence Day with the salute prescribed by military custom. So did two other ships, Cyane and Levant. Commodore Sloat, fleet commander had been ordered to seize the port and arriving ahead of the British, who might intervene. Since the British were late, it would have been a breeze, Only Sloat balked, for one, being old, and two, recalling an incident 4 years earlier when another Commodore had rushed to seize the port only on a rumor. Since he had orders here, not rumor, his subordinates argued with his for 3 days before he finally sent 250 men ashore, where they would seize the customhouse and announce that the town was under American control.

(I don’t know if California has its own Julyteenth Day or not.)

Finally, on the Oregon and California Trail, which split just west of Ft Laramie, it was at that split that that the trains paused to join for a final celebration. One group would head to Oregon while the other group would take a dangerous shortcut the mountain men had warned was ill-advised, included the Donner Party. It was their last night together after months across the plains from Independence.

Thornton, one of the emigrants, having the last watch, said “I fired my rifle and revolving pistol at the dawn of day, in honor of the Declaration of American Independence. The pulsations of my heart were quickened  as I heard the morning gun and saw the banner of my county run up to the top of the staff and thought of the rejoicings of the nation.” (This would be only our nation’s 59th birthday.)

Strung out for miles, the two emigrant trains joined for a final celebration. The ladies did their best for a “collation”. There were sentimental and patriotic songs, a volley of musketry for each toast, and after a procession…all out there in the wilderness….a reading of the Declaration and inevitably an oration by Colonel Russell. That gorgeous voice boomed in the emptiness of the white-hot sun, and then the Oregon train moved on out. The good-byes had been said and these friends would never be all together again. But the California wagons lingered awhile, and James Frazier Reed produced some fine wines and liquors which he had brought from Springfield for just such an occasion. They pledged one another, the Reeds, the Donners, Boggs, Bryant, Russell, in a moment of fellowship deep in the badlands. They shook hands. Bryant and Russell rode off in the stench of hot sagebrush, Bryant would hear no more of the Donners till word of their extremity should reach him in circumstances now altogether beyond imagining. At last the California train yoked up.

But they were all a long way from the rejoicing cannon that woke President Polk to a rainy day in Washington, the crowd that filled the White House for this noon reception, and the two processions of Methodist Sunday Schools that upset his afternoon plans.

Now that’s what you call pausing and reflecting.

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