Lest We Forget

by James Scott Bell


Maj. Sullivan Ballou

Tomorrow is Memorial Day. For years now that day has become more associated with hot dogs, beer, and picnics than for what it was intended to commemorate. It is one day in our year when, as a country, we remember the men and women who paid the ultimate price so that we could have … hot dogs, beer, and picnics, wherever we please. And the freedom to move around, say whatever is on our minds, write whatever we choose to write –– without the fear that we’ll get thrown in a gulag or “disappeared” in some North Korean valley.

We dare not treat these freedoms lightly.

In 2000, Congress passed The National Moment of Remembrance Act. It “encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3:00 local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.”

Set your alarm. We owe our honored dead at least one moment of reflection.

Perhaps we might gather some family around and read the following, an excerpt from a letter written by Maj. Sullivan Ballou to his wife at the start of the Civil War. The entire letter may be found here.

Ballou was a Rhode Island attorney who volunteered for the Union Army after the attack on Fort Sumter. I offer it here because, as writers, we can appreciate the beautiful turn of phrase in a personal letter of that era. Thank goodness email and Twitter did not exist in the nineteenth century.

It also gives us the heart and mind of a soldier about to go into battle on behalf of a higher cause –– to “pay that debt” owed “to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution.”

Headquarters, Camp Clark
Washington, D.C., July 14, 1861

My Very Dear Wife:

Indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days, perhaps to-morrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write a few lines, that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine, O God be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battle-field for any country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American civilization now leans upon the triumph of government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution, and I am willing, perfectly willing to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.

But, my dear wife, when I know, that with my own joys, I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with care and sorrows, when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it, as their only sustenance, to my dear little children, is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country…

I know I have but few claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me, perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, nor that, when my last breath escapes me on the battle-field, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have oftentimes been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears, every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot, I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth, and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you in the garish day, and the darkest night amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours always, always, and, if the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air cools your throbbing temples, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah, do not mourn me dear; think I am gone, and wait for me, for we shall meet again.

Sullivan Ballou died one week later at The Battle of Bull Run.

For all who surrendered their lives so we might enjoy the blessings of liberty, requiescat in pace. Rest in peace.

Of Miracles, Sacrifice and Story




The French had collapsed. The Dutch had been overwhelmed. The Belgians had surrendered. The British army, trapped, fought and fell back toward the Channel ports, converging on a little fishing village whose name was then spelled Dunkerque.
Behind them lay the sea.
It was England’s greatest crisis since the Norman conquest, vaster than those precipitated by Philip II’s Spanish Armada, Louis the XIV’s triumphant armies, or Napoleon’s invasion barges. This time Britain stood alone. If the Germans crossed the Channel and established uncontested beachheads, all would be lost, for it is a peculiarity of England’s island that its southern region is indefensible against disciplined troops. . . .
Now the 220,000 Tommies at Dunkirk, Britain’s only hope, seemed doomed. On the Flanders beaches they stood around like souls in purgatory,  awaiting disposition. There appeared to be no way to bring more than a handful of them home. The Royal Navy’s vessels were inadequate. King George VI had been told they would be lucky to save 17,000. The House of Commons was warned to prepare for “hard and heavy tidings.”
Then, from the streams and estuaries of Kent and Dover, a strange fleet appeared: trawlers and tugs, scows and fishing sloops, lifeboats and pleasure craft, smacks and coasters, the island ferry Gracie Fields; Tom Sopwith’s America’s cup challenger Endeavor; even the London fire brigade’s fire-float Massey Shaw–all of them manned by civilian volunteers: English fathers, sailing to rescue England’s exhausted and bleeding sons . . .
Thus begins the first volume of William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion. This opening (which goes on for another page and a half) is my favorite of any book––fiction or non-fiction––I’ve ever read. The full three-volume biography, finished by a friend after Manchester’s untimely death, is an uncontested masterpiece of the genre.
And the “Dunkirk miracle” is a historical masterpiece of human grit on a grand and inspiring scale.
It was on this very day, May 26, 1940, that the evacuation began. When it ended on June 4, this citizen’s armada had not only rescued British soldiers, but French support troops as well: a total of 338,000 men!
I’ll tell you the truth, no matter how many times I read Manchester’s opening account, I cannot help tearing up. English fathers, sailing to rescue England’s exhausted and bleeding sons. The courage, the devotion, the duty. If you want to know what it all felt like, I urge you to watch William Wyler’s classic, Mrs. Miniver. In fact, please watch it with your sons and daughters, and talk to them afterward about what that world was like––when neighbor and village and town and country came together for common cause. Teach your children that there is such a thing as right, and good, and truth—and that fighting for those things is a worthy enterprise.
Then talk about sacrifice. Sacrifice is the most humanizing of our actions, for we must fight against our instinct for self-preservation to do it. Yet in such action we become more than the dust of the earth. Our search for meaning gains a foothold and we step upward toward “the better angels of our nature.” 
It is no mystery, then, that some of the most enduring stories are about sacrifice. From “the greatest story ever told” to Casablanca. From Samson to Gran Torino. From The Lord of the Rings to Stella Dallas. On and on we go, because the power of sacrifice resonates in the deepest part of us, which also happens to be the part that makes us great.
And when it occurs in real life, as it did 73 years ago, it is transformational. As long as we remember it.
Which is why, on this Memorial Day weekend, I choose to remember our allies, the heroes of Dunkirk. May they rest in peace.

Foods That Jumpstart Your Creative Heart

It is Memorial Day weekend. I hope that you each and all have a safe and happy one. The weather in my neck of the woods is a bit cool for May, which has spoiled at least one picnic which I know of and no doubt will ruin several others. I don’t do picnics, which makes me a Memorial Day grinch of sorts. My wife, who is a closet germophobic, sees nothing inconsistent between her need to have GermX, wet wipes, and Puffs Plus within arms reach at all times, and her ability to eat potato salad that has sat out for hours in eighty degree weather on a picnic table that a Canadian goose nestled to its nether-regions but a few hours before. Different strokes. For me, the closest I get to a picnic is lunch on a French Quarter balcony. The emphasis on food, however, got me thinking about foods which inspire. Some time ago at this spot I wrote about what beverages aided the creative process. Coffee occupied six of the first five spots on my list. But foods? What foods feed the creative muse?

For me, it’s apples and bananas and peanut butter: fruit cut into sections, with peanut butter — Planter’s smooth, if you would be so kind — dolloped onto each piece. Three pieces of each, no more, no less. It’s a jump starter, and I don’t know why, I don’t even recall when I first acquired the habit. But it works. How goes with it with you? Are there any foods, or combination thereof, which jumpstart your inspiration? Or does fasting starvation do the trick? Either way, enjoy the weekend and the holiday.

Please Remember


In April, 1917, a puckish, fun loving nineteen-year-old Marine named Frederick Hamilton “Ted” Fox was about to be shipped off to France. His mother, Esther, and sister, Frederica (whom everyone affectionately called “Freddy”) came to the train station to see him off.
Ted Fox was my great uncle. In the photograph below I hope you can see the expressions on the faces. Ted, I am told, had a generous and robust spirit, and a smile that could light up a room. Esther looks so proud of him. And my great aunt Freddy has the most engaging, vivacious and interested look about her. She was an artist, and in those heady days just before the Roaring 20’s she had an artist’s temperament about living life to the full. They all came together in this amazing photo:

Corporal Ted Fox arrived in France and began preparing for action. It came in June of 1918, in what came to be known as the Battle of Belleau Wood.
At dawn on June 7th, the Marines were ordered to advance toward the German lines and their deadly machine gun nests.
The first wave ended in slaughter.
Ted Fox’s squad, along with another, were dispatched to flank the nests. They cleaned out one, and went for another. It was during this second wave that Ted Fox, leading his men, was killed by a bullet to the head.
News traveled slowly in those days, and it took nearly six months for Esther to receive the final news of her son’s sacrifice. She’d written a letter to a naval hospital and that letter was seen by a wounded soldier. He took it upon himself to write to her.
Great Lakes, Ill.
February 15th, 1919
Dear Friend Mrs. Fox- – –
My attention was called to a letter you wrote the hospital in relation to your son who was killed in action. He was in the same company and platoon that I was. I did not see your son fall but I assure you that he fought gallantly for his country and died upon the field of battle bravely. I’m sure his last thoughts were of his dear Mother at home and praying that the news of his death would not be too great a shock to her. As being in battle I know that one thinks of his dear ones at home and not of what may happen to oneself. We all knew that we were either going to be killed or wounded in such a terrific battle that was then raging but all faced it bravely and fought fiercely until we fell. I was wounded severely but escaped with my life in the same battle that your son was killed . . .
Mrs. Fox, I know that you are and should be very proud to be a mother of such a son that volunteering gave his life to his country.
All the boys that died on the field of battle will never be forgotten and shall be honored by their comrades.
A Marine,
Private Roy R. Drowty
U.S. Naval Hospital
Great Lakes, Ill.
As a memorial, Esther Fox was given a specially commissioned piece of art, showing the female symbol of America, Columbia, honoring the war dead. At the top it says: COLUMBIA GIVES TO HER SON THE ACCOLADE OF THE NEW CHIVALRY OF HUMANITY.

This memorial now hangs in my home.
And when my dad, Arthur Scott Bell, was born in 1919, the family decided to nickname him Ted, in honor of his uncle. In a way, my dad was a living memorial to Ted Fox. And he carried that legacy with him when he went into the Navy in World War II.
I believe in memorials. I believe we have to remember sacrifice. If we don’t, if we give up on the idea of honoring those who gave “the last full measure of devotion” for our  greater good, we will not only lose what’s best in America but also what’s best in the human spirit.
War is hell. And young men and women, wave after wave of them, have gone into hell for us. I don’t care what side of the political spectrum you come from. Each of us owe our war dead and wounded all the honor we can bestow. They’re not politicians or pundits. They’re the brave ones who’ve been there for us, no matter what we believe. In fact, so that we can continue to believe what we want and talk about it, demonstrate about it, vote on it. 

The line in Private Drowty’s letter that stands out for me is this one: We all knew that we were either going to be killed or wounded in such a terrific battle that was then raging but all faced it bravely and fought fiercely until we fell.
That’s why we need to remember.

In the last stanza of Lt. Col. John McCrae’s World War I poem “In Flanders Fields” (referring to a place where war dead were buried) we, the living, are given a charge. I pray you will take a moment to think about it before you dive into your beer and hot dogs this Memorial Day weekend:
To you from failing hands we throw 

The torch; be yours to hold it high. 
If ye break faith with us who die 

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow 

In Flanders fields.