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“My dear, noble, but mistaken brother”

September 29, 2017

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

When Arthur McArthur Jr. graduated from Bowdoin in 1850, there was no Office of Career Planning to point him to jobs at Deloitte and L.L. Bean. His first decade after college was a whirlwind comedy of errors: he sailed off to the Gold Rush in California but almost starved in Panama, he joined a filibustering expedition to conquer Central America but washed up on a coral reef in the Caribbean, and he served as a major in the Civil War but was shot dead by a sniper in an orchard outside of Richmond, VA. In short, he lived an unfortunate and tragically short life.

While Arthur lived fast and died young, his younger brother William lived cautiously and died at the old age of 85. He was twice brevetted for heroic military service during the Civil War and, after the war, worked as a postmaster, a farmer, a state senator and a lawyer. He spent decades filing pension applications for veterans, never married and died in the house he was born in.

The brothers grew up together in the small, rural town of Limington, Maine. Both attended Bowdoin, graduating three years apart, and both worked for a time in their father’s law office. But Arthur did not die fighting to save the Union or to free the slaves alongside his brother. Instead, he fought as a major in the sixth Louisiana Infantry while his brother fought as a colonel in the eighth Maine Infantry. For them, it was a war of brother against brother.

***

Until this past August, the names of both brothers could be found across from one another in the lobby of Memorial Hall.

Arthur’s name was listed on an inconspicuous 21-by-25 inch plaque tucked away next to the stairs. It included the names of the 18 grads who fought for the South as well as Confederate President Jefferson Davis who received an honorary degree from the College in 1858. The names were accompanied by these simple words: “IN MEMORY OF THE BOWDOIN GRADUATES WHO SERVED WITH THE CONFEDERATE FORCES.”

William’s name is listed on one of nine huge bronze plaques alongside grads who fought for the Union. It is the centerpiece of the room, praising those “WHO SERVED IN THE WAR TO MAINTAIN THE UNION IN ITS TIME OF PERIL … AND TO PERPETUATE THE GOVERNMENT OF THE PEOPLE, BY THE PEOPLE, FOR THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.”

The message of the plaques was clear: Bowdoin’s grads who fought for the Union got the place of honor and were praised for their heroics. The misguided grads who fought for the South got an afterthought of a plaque and were merely remembered.

Both the Northern and Southern plaques hung peacefully in Memorial Hall for 52 years. The truce ended on August 20th, 2017 with an email from President Clayton Rose. He banished the Southern plaque to the archives on the third floor of Hawthorne-Longfellow Library.

There would be no reconciliation.

***

What and who should we honor? For many centuries, Horace’s famous line Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori—it is sweet and just to die for one’s country—was instructive. But civil wars complicate things. Just what country was Arthur fighting for? Is it possible to remember his sacrifice while rejecting the cause for which he fought? What, if anything, do we owe to the vanquished?

General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain—Bowdoin grad, Bowdoin professor and Bowdoin President—won great acclaim for his heroics during the Civil War. In fact, Chamberlain was so highly regarded that General Ulysses S. Grant chose him to accept the formal surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s infantry at Appomattox Court House, effectively ending the war. But, as the Confederates marched past, Chamberlain did something unprecedented: he ordered his soldiers to stand at attention and to carry arms as a salute. Never before had a victorious army been so gracious towards the defeated. After the war, Chamberlain described his actions as “honor answering honor.”

Why would Chamberlain—the hero of the Battle of Gettysburg—choose to honor Lee’s soldiers? These were soldiers who had fought to dissolve the Union, who had fought to perpetuate the wicked institution of slavery and who had wounded Chamberlain himself no less than six times throughout the war.

After being in Louisiana as a schoolteacher for only a year, Arthur had his confederate conversion.  He expressed no doubts about what he was fighting for and, in a letter to his father two days before the firing on Ft. Sumpter, described himself as “a secessionist, immediate, no-compromise, never-go-back fire eater.” It was his last letter home.

Of course, this all greatly troubled his family. But, throughout the war, Arthur’s sister Catherine always referred to him as “my dear, noble, but mistaken brother.” Just like Chamberlain’s order at Appomattox, Catherine’s words expressed a simple sentiment that was both firm and charitable.

Mightn’t Bowdoin learn something from their magnanimity?

Quotes and facts taken from Elizabeth Ring’s book The McArthurs of Limington, Maine: The Family in America a Century Ago 1783-1917.  

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2 comments:

  1. Ben '14 says:

    I appreciate the look into history, but I find this article seriously misguided. I’d like to turn the question back around – why should we try so hard to honor the people who wanted to split the union in order to enslave black people? Understand them, certainly. Forgive them, perhaps. Certainly let’s not forget them or our racist history that has persisted into our racist present. But I don’t understand why magnanimity or honor are expected to be on the table. As far as I’m concerned, keeping the plaque at all is generous. If we want to be reminded that even those “honorable” among us can fail to work towards the greatest common good for all people of all colors, why not tell the stories of those people of color? Or, better yet, be inspired to actually properly address the systemic inequalities that America has levied against its citizens of color?

  2. Class of '17 says:

    Well done, author. It’s nice to see a different perspective come out of Bowdoin for a change. I also wonder if it’s not a little sad not to acknowledge alums who fought — and sometimes died — in a terrible war. We don’t need to honor them as war heroes, because yes, they fought for a terrible cause. But by trying to forget them all we are doing is refusing to acknowledge what really happened — and we are keeping the “north” and “south” “victor” and “loser” divide alive and well.


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