Unfolding the Map
Westerly, Rhode Island, brings us to questions of bravery and cowardice. William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) relates a humorous story of a general in a forgotten American rebellion, but we'll explore the theme a little as he prepares to drive into Connecticut. To locate Westerly (hint: it's in the west of Rhode Island), click here for the map.
"I started down the coast. If 'down' means southward, and you think of the Atlantic seaboard strking a longitudinal line, you'll be disoriented in Rhode Island and Connecticut as you follow the ocean. The coastine runs almost due east and west. Hence the name Westerly, Rhode Island, a town just off the Atlantic and west of everything in the state.
"It was here, so I read, during the Dorr Rebellion in 1842, that General John B. Stedman was charged with maintaining martial law in the town. At one point, when he thought an attack imminent, he told his troops, 'Boys, when you see the enemy, fire and then run. And as I am a little lame, I'll run now.'"
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 6
Westerly, Rhode Island
I was going to write a little, based on this quote, about how some place names show the history of US westward expansion. After all, at one point in our history, it is probable that Westerly, Rhode Island, was not only the westernmost point in that state but also the beginning of the frontier. At one point, perhaps in the westernmost point of Westerly, the owner of the most westerly house in that city could step out their front door, look west and believe if not truly be the edge of European settlement in North America. But I believe that I've already made comments to that effect in these posts.
No, today I'm going to get something off my chest. The second part of this post has to do with bravery and cowardice. That's where I'm going to go today, even if it embarrasses me.
A little framework is needed for LHM's quote. He mentions the Dorr Rebellion but does not give any context about it. I know that all you ever really wanted to do was learn about this little known event in Rhode Island and US history, so I'll enlighten you. Dorr's Rebellion happened in the 1840s in Rhode Island, and it was about voting rights. I often teach my political science students that only a small part of the electorate was enfranchised in the early years of the United States. Most states only allowed white male property owners the right to vote. Blacks, Native Americans, poor whites and women were not allowed to participate in the most fundamental right of our democracy. In Rhode Island, a white man had to own at least $134 worth of property to qualify to vote in elections. It was the only state by that time to not allow all white men to vote, so by the early 1840s, only 40 percent of white men could participate in the vote.
Thomas Wilson Dorr started an insurrection whose aim was to change the state constitution to allow a greater number of people to vote. He initially supported the inclusion of black men, but then reneged on that promise. As a result, black men fought against his rebellion. The rebellion was unsuccessful in many ways, and Thomas Wilson Dorr was tried for treason and insurrection, found guilty and sentenced to life. He did succeed in many ways too. He only served two years in prison, and in 1849 the right to vote in Rhode Island was expanded to all white men. However, the ordeal broke his health and he died in 1854.
I want to reflect a moment on the part of the quote that LHM finds a little funny, where General Stedman exhorts his troops even as he prepares to flee. It reminds me of the old joke where the general is getting dressed, and his aide comes in and says that the enemy is mustering. Get me my white shirt, the general orders, so that my troops will see me on the field and be rallied by my presence. Then another aide comes in, and says that the enemy has attacked. Get me my red shirt, orders the general, so that if I'm hit the troops will not see any blood and be inspired by my strength. A third aide comes in, and gives the news that the line has broken, and that the enemy is fast closing in on the general's position. Get me my brown pants, the general orders.
Most of us may not have ever faced a situation where we have been in mortal danger from other people. For those few that have, there is often a split-second decision that has to be made, and the results of that decision could indicate bravery or cowardice depending on what is seen. Recently, just following the Aurora, Colorado theater shootings, I read a story of one of the survivors. He and his girlfriend and their small son were at the theater. When the shooting began, the father jumped over the balcony, leaving behind his small son and girlfriend. His girlfriend was eventually shot in the leg before the shooter left the scene. As I read that account, I questioned the father's action. It appeared from all intents and purposes that he ran instead of defending his family. I had by that time read of some accounts of heroism. I had read of another man throwing himself in front of his girlfriend, taking bullets that would have hit her, and who died. So it was easy for me to condemn the man who ran at first.
But how many of us would have the presence of mind, when the shooting starts, to say "today's my chance to be a hero?" I ask because I faced situation once, and in my mind at the time my actions were correct, yet in the end I've always felt that I failed.
I was living in Milwaukee in my first year of volunteer service with a group of other volunteers. We lived in the inner-city, and for a number of months our house had been broken into regularly. Police finally caught some kids, and my roommate was called to testify in court that he nor any of us had ever granted permission for those individuals to come into our house.
One chilly October evening, a small group of us decided to walk from our house to a bowling alley a few blocks away. After we had gone a couple of blocks, a car screeched to a stop in front of us and a group of young adult men got out of the car. One walked right up to my roommate, said "you've been picking on my brother," and hit him across the face. A melee ensued, as more of our group were attacked. In the end, my roommate was beaten badly around his face and head, my other roommate suffered a wound to her head which was consistent with a blunt object, another friend was also hit and hurt, and all of us were traumatized.
My initial reaction at this attack was to seek help. I ran down the street looking for someone. Around the corner, I knocked on the door where I saw a light. A woman pulled me in and told me to keep out of sight and they called the police.
Since that time, I have always berated myself because I felt that I abandoned my friends. Could I have changed the situation by being there? Maybe or maybe not. But over time, I've felt more and more like a coward. Since then, I've always had fantasies of being the guy who knocks the gun out of the potential shooter's hand, or the guy who beats the bully down. I've never been judged by my friends for my actions that night, at least to my knowledge, and all of my regret is self-imposed. I know that these fantasies are only my mind hoping to get another chance at redemption. Yet, in the face of danger, I still live with the fact that I ran at that particular time.
So, on one level I see the humor in General Stedman's position. On another level, I've been in his situation, a situation of danger, and I didn't necessarily like the aspect of my nature that came out. It gives me a little more understanding and compassion for the guy who ran in the theater, even as I still recriminate myself.
If you want to know more about Westerly
Next up: Pawcatuck, Connecticut