This Day (Dry Tortugas Edition)

Published:May 1, 2011 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day in 1861, the Virginia Convention, having really nailed it with the flag, happily adjourned. And thirty-four years later, to the day, John Newton died. I have a soft spot for guys like Newton, and not just because he’s a dead-ringer for a former boss of mine; rather, he’s one of those relatively few Virginians who, at the start of the Civil War, refused to trade in their army blues. While everyone continues to obsess over Robert E. Lee‘s fateful decision to go South—his wife called it his “severest struggle”—little attention has been paid to those who chose differently—to those, in other words, who proved that Lee, too, could have chosen differently.

We tend to assume that Lee’s ultimate loyalty to Virginia was a given. And we tend to discount the courage it must have taken to rise against the sweeping tide of Confederate nationalism.

So here’s to George H. Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga,” whose family disowned him. And to Philip St. George Cooke, whose son-in-law, J. E. B. Stuart, petulantly changed his own son’s name from Philip St. George Cooke Stuart to Jeb Stuart Jr. And to the “drunken old tyrant” William R. Terrill, whose two brothers fought for the Confederacy.

And to John Newton, who, it turns out, was a bit of a squeaky wheel. (Another reason I like him.) During the war, he had the cajones to take his complaints about Ambrose E. Burnside‘s leadership all the way to President Lincoln, and while Burnside got fired, Newton eventually was exiled to the Dry Tortugas. He had fought pretty well up to that point, and at Gettysburg he was on the receiving end of Pickett’s Charge. But in Florida he effed things up a bit, and his memory has faded.

Which is too bad. He deserves better from his native Virginia, don’t you think?

IMAGE: John Newton