Skip to comments.We Wave the Bloody Shirt — But Whose?
Posted on 05/28/2011 10:32:50 AM PDT by Kaslin
Has the mystery of one of our biggest political metaphors been revealed?
Everyone familiar with American politics knows about the bloody shirt — that durable symbol of martyrdom and outrage guaranteed to stir up the masses, or at least the party faithful, at election time. The lefts recent seizure of the Giffords shooting as an opportunity to bash the right was only the latest instance of bloody-shirt-waving.
But was there a particular garment that gave rise to the metaphor? Search the Internet using the terms bloody shirt + American politics and youll get page upon page of results, most discussing the meaning of the term itself, contemporary usages, and historical incidents reaching back to the assassination of Julius Caesar. There is also reference to a speech by Benjamin Butler in the House in 1871 in which he told of a horrific incident in Mississippi in support of an anti-terrorism bill aimed at the South. But although white southerners accused Butler of waving the bloody shirt in order to further oppress them, Butler did not, in fact, wave a shirt or anything else (except, perhaps, his hands) during his speech.
It must be acknowledged that there was more than one famous bloody shirt in those days. When Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was brutally caned by Preston Brooks of South Carolina on the floor of the Senate in 1856, Sumners beating became a symbol of what abolitionists saw as the Slaveocracys depravity — and southerners charged that he later used his red-stained clothes to stir up sympathy. Northern partisans were also quick to decry incidents after the war, when northerners who went south to administer Reconstruction were sometimes flogged or otherwise assaulted by southerners accusing them of carpet-bagging.
Nevertheless, a strong argument can be made that there was a bloody shirt — the uniform tunic worn by the young Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth on the morning of his shocking death on May 24, 1861.
Ellsworth, a Union colonel of volunteers and close friend of Abraham Lincoln, had just seized a large rebel flag from the top of the Marshall House, an inn in Alexandria, Va. The inns owner, James Jackson, met Ellsworth as he was coming down the stairs from the roof, holding the flag that Jackson had hoisted as an insult to Lincoln, who could see it from the White House. Jackson was holding something, too: a loaded shotgun. He blasted Ellsworth in the chest at point-blank range. Jackson was killed in turn by a soldier.
Ellsworth had become famous within the last year of his life as the nations top practitioner of the impressive Zouave style of French military drill. If that seems an odd basis for fame now, it didnt in 1860, when northern governors were very much aware that the nation was heading toward war and that their small, ill-organized state militias would soon become the backbone of the Union army.
Ellsworth had organized a drill troupe in Chicago that had toured the North to tremendous acclaim. In doing so, he had come into contact with an ambitious Illinois politician who recognized the much younger mans extraordinary motivational talents. Lincoln brought Ellsworth, then 23, into his law firm as an apprentice, but he also used him as a campaign speaker in the 1860 election. By the time war between the states became inevitable — after the surrender of Fort Sumter on April 13, 1861, and the secession of Virginia soon thereafter — Ellsworth had raised a regiment of rowdy New York City firemen (the 11th New York, known as the Fire Zouaves). He and they arrived in Washington about three weeks before the action in Alexandria.
His death at the hands of a secessionist touched off a firestorm of patriotic feeling that made anemic Northern recruitment suddenly robust. In fact, an entire regiment enlisted under the banner of Ellsworths Avengers, and the cry Remember Ellsworth! sounded across many of the wars early battlefields. Elmer even became a popular boys name.
Of all the candidate garments, only one — Ellsworths tunic (no longer bloody after having been dry-cleaned in preparation for a Civil War centennial exhibit in 1961, but still as holey as it became on that fateful morning a century earlier) — was preserved at the time and still exists now. In fact, its on exhibit at the New York State Military History Museum in Saratoga Springs, not far from Ellsworths birthplace in Malta, NY.
Does that prove that its the actual bloody shirt of American politics? No — but it does suggest there’s no better claimant to that title.
Echos of the French Revolution
The guy whose head just rolled off the guillotine.
We will have a new one soon, I think. The tree of liberty thirsts.
Journalist and military historian Budiansky (Her Majesty's Spymaster) pulls no punches in this hard-hitting examination of the most sordid aspects of Reconstruction in the South from 1865 to 1876. The brutal war of terrorist violence that he surveys certainly has not escaped the history books. But this worthy effort goes a long way toward highlighting the most venal aspects of how, in the 10 years after the Civil War, the white Southern power structure managed to erect the Jim Crow laws that for nearly a century legalized many aspects of racial discrimination. Budiansky also highlights men and women of courage, idealism, rectitude, and vision who confronted the establishment: Pennsylvania-born U.S. Army major Lewis Merrill, who fought the Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina; Prince Rivers, a former slave and Union army Colored Troop sergeant who became a state legislator and trial judge in South Carolina; and Maine-born Adelbert Ames, a Union general who served as Mississippi's provisional military governor. Budiansky brings the unpleasant details of the era alive in a smoothly written narrative.
The article fails to mention Gen, and later President, Grant. He once said former Soldiers turned politician “wave the bloody shirt.”
The fact that we are at a complete loss on this question is flabbergasting and the root of our problem.
Here are some ideas:
How about Atlanta police handcuffing and placing in a police car a man invited to a presidential debate as the first viable African American for president. He was driven to the edge of town and dropped off to prevent participation or even protest at the illegal action. This happened in 1996.
Imagine if this happened to Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries?
Or how about racist calls for black men to rape a major white female candidate all in the name of feminism.
Or how about setting fires at the entrances of a failed candidates church with women and children inside. There is no prosecution for the crime and no public outrage at the incident. Again imagine if thishappened at Jeremiah wrights church? It’s a ferocious political hate crime pure and simple.
Or how about the rebublican judge who actually died at the Gifford shooting. He was publicly booed at the memorial service. It’s a national disgrace.
Conservatives are sadly afraid. And I can see why. But there are plenty of bloody shirts.
The most recent metaphor for the “bloody shirt” which comes to my mind, and is actually very accurate, is Jesse Jackson and the assassination of Martin Luther King. If it weren’t for that incident, and Jackson dipping his hands into Kings own blood, Jackson would be a nobody.
Indeed, those who knew King, have written about the dis-trust that King had for Jackson and his circle, I have heard that King thought Jackson was all about himself, and was unwilling to sacrifice for true equal rights. This is what makes the incident even more ironic, that one who was kept at arms length by King because of his own ambition, was the one who benefited most from King’s martyrdom. Even King’s family was pushed to the background and tucked away while Jackson picked up the bloody shirt and took control of the movement, handing it over to Kings enemies, the democratic party.
It's a very good read, though I don't always agree with him.
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