Sunday, January 24, 2010

Radio Memories: Friendly Enemies

The human heart holds many mysteries, but one of its deepest is surely the elusive art of reconciliation.

What does it take for one man to forgive another? A faulty memory? A blurring of the recollections of grievances suffered, having grown distant in time? The line-up within the classic expression, "forgive and forget", suggests otherwise. Somehow, we must forgive despite our memories of sins committed against us. But how in the world do you do that?

I wonder if forgiveness has its roots in optimism. Is it from a belief in "happy endings" that we may summon the resources we need to find forgiveness for others? Does optimism provide us with the faith that we possess the ability, the free will, to control our reactions to situations, even though we possess little control over the situations themselves?

These thoughts and more bubbled together from an unlikely source, which we share with you through this week's Radio Memories.

Each week we hit the pause button on current events to wander down memory lane, back to a time before television, when radio, with its art of radio drama and "the theater of the mind", was king. There is much to learn from these old shows, and by listening to the echoes they carry from different places and distant times. The hope is that while everything around us may change, people themselves rarely change in their potential, they remain the same hodgepodge jumble of failings... and occasional strengths.

This week's offering is a short-lived series from 1938, called Frontier Fighters. Each week dramatized the story of a different figure pulled from the history of the American west, sometimes telling familiar stories of the more famous chapters, with shows devoted to explorers Lewis and Clark, General Custer, or scouts Buffalo Bill Cody and Kit Carson.

Sometimes the stories ventured to the outer periphery of familiar history, and its from these margins that we select this particular episode, chronicling one of the many close calls that nearly re-ignited war between Canada and its neighbors in the United States of America:

The 1859 Pig War.

That crisis came on June 15, 1859, when an American settler named Lyman Cutlar shot and killed a pig belonging to the Hudson's Bay Company, because it was rooting in his garden. When British authorities threatened to arrest Cutlar, American citizens drew up a petition requesting U.S. military protection.

That protection arrives in the form of a 66-man company of the 9th U.S. Infantry under the command of a young Captain George Pickett, eventually immortalized as the symbol of Confederate ascendancy through the Gettysburg battlefield maneuver of Pickett's Charge.

To dislodge him from the strategic position he assumes just north of the farm, the British send three warships under the command of Captain Geoffrey Phipps Hornby, a familiar name for Vancouver residents, as we have a downtown street named in his honor. Hornby's frigate, the 31-gun HMS Tribune, is accompanied by the 21-gun HMS Satellite and the 10-gun Plumper, but the outnumbered Pickett refuses to withdraw, even in the face of this formidable enemy. Most of Hornby's marines are veterans of recent war in China, and are particularly experienced in amphibious landings. The situation is tense:

Throughout the remaining days of July and well into August, the British force in Griffin Bay (then San Juan Harbor) continued to grow. Captain Hornby, however, wisely refused to take any action against the Americans until the arrival of Rear Admiral Robert L. Baynes, commander of British naval forces in the Pacific.
Admiral Baynes had already faced off against American forces several decades before, at the Battle of New Orleans, yet held no grudges for past history. In a much-repeated quote, he advises an upset British Columbia governor, James Douglas, that he "would not involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig."
On the other side, US President James Buchanan dispatches General Winfield Scott to diffuse tensions on the West Coast, hoping for a repeat of Scott's successful negotiations in maintaining peace back in 1838, following the dangerous escalation of hostilities at the time of the Caroline Affair.

Meanwhile, Pickett's slender forces are reinforced on August 10, by an extra 171 men under Lieutenant Colonel Silas Casey; Pickett and Casey were to meet again under decidedly different circumstances, as Brigadier Generals Casey and Pickett confronted each other on May 31, 1862 during the Peninsula Campaign, each leading opposite sides of the exceptionally bloody Battle of the Seven Pines. It's a small world...
As the radio program will explain, there was a peaceful resolution to the gathering storm on San Juan Island, but sadly for the US, storm clouds continued to grow for other reasons. Certainly the colorful episode of the Pig War shows what can happen when two adversaries both believe in the adage, "To Err Is Human, To Forgive, Divine"; both sides felt duty-bound by their values system to find ways to reconcile through reasoned debate, a dispute that had begun in hot-tempered emotion.

The striving for forgiveness is a yearning that manifests itself quite frequently in the fascinating life of George Pickett. (How many other Confederate officers could claim friendships with both Abraham Lincoln and General U.S. Grant as part of their biographies?)

In 1913 a compilation of letters written to his third wife, Sallie Corbell Pickett (his first love had died in childbirth with his first child, his second wife dying from complications arising from a difficult delivery, shortly after the birth of a son), is published, and within its introduction his widow recounts a startling anecdote, from the aftermath of the 1865 burning of Richmond:
“... The day after the fire, there was a sharp rap at the door. The servants had all run away. The city was full of northern troops, and my environment had not taught me to love them. The fate of the other cities had awakened my fears for Richmond. With my baby on my arm, I answered the knock, opened the door and looked up at a tall, gaunt, sad-faced man in ill-fitting clothes, who, with the accent of the North, asked:
“Is this George Pickett’s place?”
“Yes, sir,” I answered, “but he is not here.”
“I know that, ma’am,” he replied, “but I just wanted to see the place. I am Abraham Lincoln.”
“The President!” I gasped.
The stranger shook his hand and said: “No, ma’am; no, ma’am; just Abraham Lincoln; George’s old friend.”
“I am George Pickett’s wife and this is his baby”, was all I could say. I had never seen Mr. Lincoln but remembered the intense love and reverence with which my Soldier always spoke of him.
My baby pushed away from me and reached out his hands to Mr. Lincoln, who took him in his arms. As he did so an expression of rapt, almost divine, tenderness and love lighted up the sad face.
It was a look that I have never seen on any face. My baby opened his mouth wide and insisted upon giving his father’s friend a dewy infantile kiss. As Mr. Lincoln gave the little one back to me, shaking his finger at him playfully, he said:
“Tell your father, the rascal, that I forgive him for the sake of that kiss and those bright eyes.”He turned and went down the steps, talking to himself, and passed out of my sight forever… [page 14-15, "The Heart Of A Soldier"]
Understandably, General Pickett himself had difficulty forgiving the battle plan that cost him his division at the Battle of Gettysburg. This account, again, from his widow's introduction:
Five thousand Virginians followed him at the start; but when the Southern flag floated on the ridge, in less than half an hour, not two thousand were left to rally beneath it, and those for only one glorious, victory-intoxicated moment.
They were not strong enough to hold the position they had so dearly won; and, broken-hearted, even at the very moment of his immortal triumph, my Soldier led his remaining men down the slope again. He dismounted and walked beside the stretcher upon which General Kemper, one of his officers, was being carried, fanning him and speaking cheerfully to comfort him in his suffering. When he reached Seminary Ridge again and reported to General Lee, his face was wet with tears as he pointed to the crimson valley and said:
“My noble division lies there!”
“General Pickett”, said the commander, “you and your men have covered yourselves with glory.”
“Not all the glory in the world, General Lee”, my Soldier replied, “could atone for the widows and orphans this day has made.”
In his after-battle report, Pickett in his fury documents "without reserve the circumstances that were responsible for the disastrous result". General Lee requests, in the interests of the greater good, that a different version be submitted instead:

"[W]e have the enemy to fight, and must carefully, at this critical moment, guard against dissensions which the reflections in your report would create. I will, therefore, suggest that you destroy both copy and original, substituting one confined to casualties merely. I hope all will yet be well..."
Pickett looked upon Lee’s suggestion as a command that was binding upon him for all time and he has never divulged the contents of this report…

[Heart Of A Soldier, pg 212-213]

As casualties and the horrors of an increasingly violent war multiplied in 1864, there appeared a hopeful sign of eventual reconciliation. As his widow repeated the tale:

At the time our first baby was born the two armies were encamped facing each other and they often swapped coffee and tobacco under flags of truce. On the occasion of my son’s birth bonfires were lighted in celebration all along Pickett’s line. Grant saw them and sent scouts to learn the cause. When they reported, he said to General Ingalls:
“Haven’t we some kindling on this side of the line? Why don’t we strike a light for the young Pickett?”
In a little while bonfires were flaming from the Federal line. A few days later there was taken through the lines a baby’s silver service, engraved: “To George E. Pickett, Jr, from his father’s friends, U.S. Grant, Rufus Ingells, George Suckley.” [Dr Suckley had served with Pickett in Washington at the time of the Pig War, and had consoled him following the loss of his wife. Small world...]
At the conclusion of the Civil War, Pickett faced some difficult decisions; his resignation from the United States Army at the start of the war and his service as a high-ranking officer in the opposing Confederate Army led to a flight to Canada, from where he would petition for seemingly unlikely chances of amnesty. While he returned in 1866, he had to wait until 1874 for Congress to issue him a full pardon.
In 1868, however, his old friend and recent adversary, Ulysses S Grant, assumed the office of President of the United States. Putting Cold Harbor, the siege of Petersburg, and other past chapters behind them, President Grant invited the Picketts to the White House, as recounted by his widow:
Grant, ever faithful to his friends, had been urging my Soldier to accept the marshalship of the State of Virginia. Pickett, sorely as he needed the appointment, knew the demands upon Grant, and that his acceptance would create criticism and enemies for the President. He shook his head, saying:
“You can’t afford to do this for me, Sam, and I can’t afford to take it.”
“I can afford to do anything I please,” said Grant. My Soldier still shook his head, but the deep emotion of his heart shone in his tear-dimmed eyes, and in Grant’s, as they silently grasped each other’s hands and then walked away in opposite directions and looked out of separate windows, while I stole away.
In their final, silent handshake, we can hear the elusive sound of forgiveness, and from the "Pig War" we can hear the even rarer sound of Peace:


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