Sunday, April 10, 2011

Barton Mitchell: A Coincidental Hero

My good friend Erik Fox started a website called Hoosiers Doing Something. It is a really neat website that seeks out different Indiana-born folks who are doing neat things. You should totally check it out.

As I was reading through this Hoosier blog, I was reminded of a book I had read a few years ago called 10 Days that Unexpectedly Changed America. It was actually a History Channel program that was later adapted into a book. One of the days that changed our country was the Battle of Antietam. And they discussed a forgotten hero, Barton Mitchell--an Indiana native who more or less accidentally altered our country's history.

Private Barton Mitchell was just straight chill-laxing in a field in mid-September 1862. He was in the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry (Union represent!). Now, at this point in the Civil War, the Confederacy was making much bigger strides than anyone had expected. They had won at Bull Run, and Polk had poked his little head up into Kentucky and moved the Confederate line further north. The Union was getting a little nervous. And they knew that one more strategic victory for the South could have dire consequences for the States. Mitchell, stretching out and taking it easy in this field, finds a letter wrapped around some cigars. And it is from . . .DUN DUN DUUUUUUUUNNNNNNN . . . General Lee himself!

General Robert E. Lee had written letters to his officers with his plans to invade the Union. It sounded suicidal to the rest of the country. But Lee knew the stakes. He had a couple victories under his belt. One more victory would mean that the British Empire will back them. Invading the North will prove to the northerners that the war is not worth the bloodshed. The South will not go quietly! It was a risky move. But if it worked, the North would have to compromise. Either they would give in to the South's demands in order to preserve the Union or the South would secede and create two separate nations.

Unfortunately for Lee, his Special Order 191 fell into the lap of the good ol' Hoosier boy, Private Barton Mitchell, who in turn, gave the letter to General McClellan. Lee's plans, according to Special Order 191, was to ride North into Maryland and take Harper's Ferry. McClellan cut him off, which led to the single bloodiest battle on American soil. Antietam.

I went on a field trip today to visit Barton Mitchell. He is buried in Hartsville, IN, in the Hartsville Baptist Cemetery. It was a beautiful spring day, and I didn't mind driving the hour and a half to where Mitchell lay. It took me a little while to find the cemetery, which was back behind a church down one lane dirt road, over a bubbling creek and plotted next to some farm land. I searched through the cemetery for about an hour and couldn't actually find his headstone, which looks like this. I did find some Mitchell's thrown in between the Fix's and Woodruff's and Mobley's of Bartholomew County. And next to the Mitchell graves was an empty plot with this:

Though I knew this wasn't old enough to be a Civil War Veteran's marking, I was tired of looking and it would get the job done. I knelt down and talked to Barton for a moment. I wondered how it must feel to be forgotten for doing something so monumental. And yet, he didn't really do much of anything other than pick up some garbage and give it to his superior officer. Yet, if those eagle eyes of his hadn't spotted that Special Order 191, the battle of Antietam would not have been fought and the tides would not have turned in the Union's favor. Yet, if that battle hadn't been fought, think about all the blood that would not have spilled. It got me thinking. Adjusting to life after the war must have been extremely difficult for Barton Mitchell. His haphazard actions evolved into something so huge that it was named one of the days that changed America by some History Channel producers!

All joking aside, this post is meant to honor Private Barton W. Mitchell and the work he did. Even though it may have been by accident, he was still instrumental in that awful and dare I say necessary battle that raged in a corn field in Maryland. Had General Lee gotten to Harper's Ferry, I'm not sure what would have happened. So, thanks again, Barton. It's nice to see that even in 1862, no matter where you went, there was a Hoosier doing something important.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

To Hell with Eternity: Using Christianity in Politics

"Manipulate the masses using something I might have said, but make sure it's totally out of context."
-Jesus, Mark 5:17

Just kidding. Mark 5:17 is actually a crowd of people asking Jesus to leave them alone. But I thought it was pretty fitting. Political figures dating all the way back to Constantine have used Christianity for their benefit. Today, we are all too familiar with both parties (though nowadays, it's mostly the Republicans) using the religion's standards as part of his platform in order to gain votes or approval. The reasons for this are both simple and complex. Basically, Christianity is the most popular religion, aside from Islam. And Islam took it a step further by setting up Islamic states, countries run by and defined by a religion. I want to focus on Christianity, though. The question is why is it so popular and how did it become such a dominate force in the political realm, especially in viking age Scandinavia.

I feel like there is this romantic view of how pagans converted. It's sort of the noble savage of conversions, where the pagan sees how "powerful" the Christian God is and decides he wants that sort of backing. Of course this is referring to the superior weapons, medicines, and battle tactics that the Christian nations possessed in those early middle ages, down through the British empire of the 19th century. I think this is mostly baloney. Oh, I believe that the others saw the might of their adversaries who invoked the name of God. But I think they also saw those superior weapons pointing at their collective gonads.

Aside from the forced conversions, I think the more important deciding factor was the power, influence, and stability it promised. Viking kings and jarls in Scandinavia had riches and power, no doubt. But they knew from the monasteries they pillaged that the Church had endless riches. And even from across the sea, they could see the mainland's cohesion and obedience underneath the iron fist of the Church. The prizes didn't stop there! In converting his country to Christianity, the former sea king would thereafter join the wider European community, which meant more trade and commerce coming into his lands.

The problem with the Scandinavian countries is that it took so long to unify that many powerful kings missed out on the manipulative powers that being a Christian Monarch held. A great example is Olaf Tryggvason. Son of Svein Forkbeard, he was exiled from his home in Norway, got religion, and returned to claim the throne and the country for Christ. The people weren't ready, though. Not only were his foes numerous, but the Norwegians in the extreme reaches of the country hadn't stopped worshiping the old pagan gods long enough to even consider Christianity. They actually got tired of hearing Olaf go on and on and eventually asked him to go. Sounds familiar!

Olaf's belief in Christianity most likely puts him in line with his predecessors and contemporaries: spiritual on the outside, a raging politician on the inside, using whatever means were necessary. One could probably claim Constantine as the trend-setter who put using Christianity to maintain a kingdom on the map. I also think that he was the anti-Christ. But that's neither here nor there. The important thing is that Constantine also had no delusions about the religion. Byzantium was being torn apart, and it was out with the old, in with the new. The old pagan religions were nowhere near as organized as the Christian Church. And when he endorses this hip, new religion, an organized and systematic institution moves in and obliterates the pagan opposition. Not only do they bring organization but also fancy book learnin' and tithes that may or may not trickle into the the emperor's coffers.

Constantine, Olaf, and most likely Mike Huckabee all had something in common: using Christianity. Whereas the first two convert as a show in order to attain what they want, the latter certainly believes in and lives according to the Bible's teachings. The principle, however, is the same. Use the common thread of Christianity in order to weave a blanket of security. The romantic notion of spiritual or even strategic conversions in politics, to me, is absurd. It's economical. It's diplomacy. And it's a risk. Just as Norway wasn't ready for Olaf to convert their country to a Christian monarchy, the United States wasn't ready to be led by an overtly spiritual president. Well, that and he was Republican, and after George Bush, no one stood a chance on that ticket.

As I usually say, history fans, I'm sure that you're aware of this influence in our learning. I just think it's better to boil it down to the brass facts. Christianity is and was organized and powerful, attractive to any aspiring jarl in Scandinavia during the viking age, or to any wealthy politician looking for public office. The spiritual influence, I think, is very sparse at the top of the ladder.

Sorry, Olaf. Better luck to your namesake, St. Olaf. I gotta good feeling about him!