Gone in the Flash of a Sword

Published:June 8, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

The story of John Yates Beall—Virginia native, University of Virginia alumnus, Confederate navy officer—is remarkable mostly for how it ends. Tried and convicted as a Confederate spy, Beall was sentenced to hang despite convincing arguments that he had not, in fact, been spying. His New York lawyer organized a petition for his release that won the signatures of ninety-two members of Congress, but it was to no avail. Our entry is matter-of-fact:

Beall was hanged on February 24, 1865. His last words were, “I protest against this execution. It is absolute murder—brutal murder. I die in the service and defence of my country.”

I say “matter-of-fact” because that is the style in this encyclopedia, especially where death is concerned. People do not “pass away” here, or “pass on” or “expire.” They are not “resting in peace” after a “long battle” with something. Although, as those examples make clear, there does exist in our culture an active tradition of not simply euphemizing death but romanticizing it, placing it within some kind of exalted narrative. And this tradition goes back a long way. In 1651, Jeremy Taylor published The Rule and Exercise of Holy Dying, still popular during the Civil War and designed to explain to people what dying meant. Just in the first few pages, man is a bubble and the world is a storm; man is a tear and life a sheet of water; man is a mushroom and soon turns into dust; man is a leaf on a “short-lived, unsteady plant”; man is “the dream of a shadow” or “the dream of the shadow of smoke.”

Whatever the case, everything comes to an end: “Time throws up the earth, and digs a grave, where we must lay our sins or our sorrows, and sow our bodies, till they rise again in a fair or in an intolerable eternity.”

The fact that these days cancer is always described as a battle suggests that we continue to regard dying after fighting the good fight to be honorable, and that’s where John Beall was coming from, I think. By accusing him of not fighting the good fight—or at least not fighting it in a good, or moral, way—Union authorities were attempting to deny him a Good Death. In her book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008), Drew Gilpin Faust argues that dying, for Civil War soldiers, was easier and more Christ-like than killing, and they longed for it to be “good.” To achieve a Good Death, they must prepare for the end, it must be witnessed, and it must be marked, usually by last words.

Needless to say, the horrors of the battlefield did not provide many such opportunities. To be blown to bits at Gettysburg or Spotsylvania was, almost by definition, to be denied a Good Death.

But the battlefield also imbues our lives and our deaths with greater meaning, and that, perhaps, helps to explain why John Yates Beall acted the way he did. By attacking his killing as murder and then exalting his own motives, he was setting himself up for the Good Death—and no matter how God-awful the killing fields might have been then, or how matter-of-fact our prose might be today, the Good Death somehow manages to survive.

All of which brings me to a book a colleague recently pointed out to me: The University Memorial: Biographical Sketches of Alumni of the University of Virginia Who Fell in the Confederate War (1871). The author, John Lipscomb Johnson, was a Spotsylvania native and an 1860 graduate of the university. He served in the war as chaplain to the 17th Virginia Infantry Regiment; after the war he lived in Mississippi. What has struck me about the University Memorial, aside from how much work it must have taken to compile all of these stories (!), is its insistence on the Good Death in story after story. Sometimes that death is good only in its literary creation, with men like William B. Newton, to take an example at random, being posthumously provided last words by Tennyson.

John Yates Beall, though—he gets the full treatment. After recounting the rush of his life and military service, the narrative slows way down, providing us a full dose of “Good-bye, boys!” and eyes that “shone with an unusual and unearthly splendor.”  Even the gallows is meticulously described (“It is to portray the temper of the times that history demands these details,” the author tells us), until, after pages and pages of build-up, the soul is finally released:

His manner throughout has been one of respectful attention. But when he mounts the scaffold, and sits down under the fatal coil, he turns his back upon the Adjutant while he is reading, and faces in the opposite direction. This attitude he does not change. What does it mean? His face is turned upon his own beloved South. Far over waters, mountains, valleys, and intervening hills, through the deep azure sky travel his thoughts to the land of chivalrous deeds and political ideas, which, rightly understood, gather in their scope the eternal years of God’s own truth, and for which no man should hesitate to die. As the martyr sets his face towards Jerusalem, so this hero, dying for the faith of his fathers, turns his face upon the South. Thus he faces when the last duty save that of the executioner is performed. The provost-marshal asks him whether he has anything to say. Turning upon the officer of the day, he speaks in a clam, firm voice: “I protest against the execution of this sentence. It is a murder! I die in the service and defence of my country! I have nothing more to say.”

A moment after a sword-flash is seen behind him, which is the signal to the executioner, and the hero’s soul is free.

It’s about as good a death as you can get, at least on paper. And I imagine it helped to steel the former Confederacy in the face of the war’s uncertain afterlife.

IMAGE: Frontispiece to The University Memorial: Biographical Sketches of Alumni of the University of Virginia Who Fell in the Confederate War by John Lipscomb Johnson (1871); scene of Ewell’s attack, May 19, 1864, near Spottsylvania [i.e. Spotsylvania] Court House. Dead Confederate soldier (Library of Congress)