David Dixon Porter directed the Union’s Mississippi Squadron and was instrumental in the siege at Vicksburg, which broke Confederate control of the river. In this Alexander Gardner photograph, he poses aboard his ship, the Malvern. (Alexander Gardner/National Portrait Gallery)
In the summer of 1863, as the war ground on, the Boston minister Edward Everett Hale, a prolific author, set out to write a short story that would inspire patriotism. The tale he produced would become a classic. In it, a young Union- army officer named Philip Nolan gets caught up in a trial for treason. In an intemperate outburst, he shouts, “Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!” The court punishes him by granting his wish—sentencing him to life aboard a Navy ship where no one is ever to speak to him of the United States or allow him to set foot on U.S. land. Narrated by Frederic Ingham, a Naval officer who meets Nolan shipboard some years later, the story chronicles how over time Nolan comes to cherish and pine for the country he once thought so little of. At the close of the story, excerpted here, Ingham learns, via a letter from an old Navy friend, how Nolan got word in his final moments of the country he had come to love. Accounting for the popularity of the piece, Clifton Fadiman wrote in his 1949 introduction to the book Masterpieces of World Literature, “No story better expresses the spirit of American nationalism.” Masterpieces of World Literature.—Sage Stossel
Since writing this … I have received from Danforth, who is on board the Levant, a letter which gives an account of Nolan’s last hours …
DEAR FRED,—I try to find heart and life to tell you that it is all over with dear old Nolan. I have been with him on this voyage more than I ever was, and I can understand wholly now the way in which you used to speak of the dear old fellow. I could see that he was not strong, but I had no idea the end was so near. The doctor had been watching him very carefully, and yesterday morning came to me and told me that Nolan was not so well, and had not left his state-room,—a thing I never remember before. He had let the doctor come and see him as he lay there,—the first time the doctor had been in the state-room,—and he said he should like to see me. Oh, dear! do you remember the mysteries we boys used to invent about his room, in the old Intrepid days? Well, I went in, and there, to be sure, the poor fellow lay in his berth, smiling pleasantly as he gave me his hand, but looking very frail. I could not help a glance round, which showed me what a little shrine he had made of the box he was lying in. The stars and stripes were triced up above and around a picture of Washington, and he had painted a majestic eagle, with lightnings blazing from his beak and his foot just clasping the whole globe, which his wings overshadowed. The dear old boy saw my glance, and said, with a sad smile, “Here, you see, I have a country!” And then he pointed to the foot of his bed, where I had not seen before a great map of the United States, as he had drawn it from memory, and which he had there to look upon as he lay. Quaint, queer old names were on it, in large letters: “Indiana Territory,” “Mississippi Territory,” and “Louisiana Territory,” as I suppose our fathers learned such things: but the old fellow had patched in Texas, too; he had carried his western boundary all the way to the Pacific, but on that shore he had defined nothing.
‘‘Oh, Danforth,” he said, “I know I am dying. I cannot get home. Surely you will tell me something now?—Stop! stop! Do not speak till I say what I am sure you know, that there is not in this ship, that there is not in America,—God bless her!—a more loyal man than I. There cannot be a man who loves the old flag as I do, or prays for it as I do, or hopes for it as I do. There are thirty-four stars in it now, Danforth. I thank God for that, though I do not know what their names are. There has never been one taken away: I thank God for that. I know by that, that there has never been any successful Burr. Oh, Danforth, Danforth,” he sighed out, “how like a wretched night’s dream a boy’s idea of personal fame or of separate sovereignty seems, when one looks back on it after such a life as mine! But tell me,—tell me something,—tell me everything, Danforth, before I die!”
Ingham, I swear to you that I felt like a monster that I had not told him everything before … “Mr. Nolan,” said I, “I will tell you everything you ask about. Only, where shall I begin?”
Oh, the blessed smile that crept over his white face! and he pressed my hand and said, “God bless you!” “Tell me their names,” he said, and he pointed to the stars on the flag. “The last I know is Ohio. My father lived in Kentucky. But I have guessed Michigan and Indiana and Mississippi,—that was where Fort Adams is,—they make twenty. But where are your other fourteen? You have not cut up any of the old ones, I hope?”
Well, that was not a bad text, and I told him the names, in as good order as I could, and he bade me take down his beautiful map and draw them in as I best could with my pencil. He was wild with delight about Texas, told me how his brother died there; he had marked a gold cross where he supposed his brother’s grave was; and he had guessed at Texas. Then he was delighted as he saw California and Oregon;—that, he said, he had suspected partly, because he had never been permitted to land on that shore, though the ships were there so much …
Then he settled down more quietly, and very happily, to hear me tell in an hour the history of fifty years.
How I wished it had been somebody who knew something! But I did as well as I could …
I tell you, Ingham, it was a hard thing to condense the history of half a century into that talk with a sick man. And I do not now know what I told him,—of emigration, and the means of it,—of steamboats and railroads and telegraphs,—of inventions and books and literature,—of the colleges and West Point and the Naval School,—but with the queerest interruptions that ever you heard. You see it was Robinson Crusoe asking all the accumulated questions of fifty-six years! …
I told him everything I could think of that would show the grandeur of his country and its prosperity; but I could not make up my mouth to tell him a word about this infernal Rebellion!
And he drank it in, and enjoyed it as I cannot tell you. He grew more and more silent, yet I never thought he was tired or faint. I gave him a glass of water, but he just wet his lips, and told me not to go away …
I had no thought it was the end. I thought he was tired and would sleep. I knew he was happy, and I wanted him to be alone.
But in an hour, when the doctor went in gently, he found Nolan had breathed his life away with a smile. He had something pressed close to his lips. It was his father’s badge of the Order of Cincinnati.
We looked in his Bible, and there was a slip of paper, at the place where he had marked the text,—
“They desire a country, even a heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.”
On this slip of paper he had written:—
“Bury me in the sea; it has been my home, and I love it. But will not some one set up a stone for my memory at Fort Adams or at Orleans, that my disgrace may not be more than I ought to bear? Say on it,—
‘In Memory of
Lieutenant in the Army of the United States.
He loved his country as no other man has loved her; but no man deserved less at her hands.’”
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