Memorial Day

Memorial Day weekend has become the unofficial beginning of summer on the American calendar. Solstices and equinoxes mean nothing to the vast majority of Americans. The hundred days from Memorial Day through Labor Day coincide with summer weather, with students free from school, and with a more relaxed schedule in many of our businesses and our personal lives. With attention focused on family and community gatherings, on picnics and barbecues and trips to the beach or the lake, we sometimes forget the purpose of Memorial Day on our calendars. But social media—including WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok—provides ample opportunities for us to remind one another what Memorial Day means and why we observe it every year.

When the Civil War began in 1861, people on both sides of the conflict expected it to end quickly. Both sides were convinced that they were right, and they believed that a few battles would make their point and that they would be able to return to their normal lives. They did not realize that the war would drag on for four years. They did not realize that hundreds of thousands of soldiers would die on the battlefield during those four years. Only when the war ended did the survivors begin to comprehend the cost of war—the senseless violence, killing, and destruction that happens in every war.

Most citizens of the United States are against war. In the twentieth century, the nation was dragged into two world wars, unwilling to get involved, but resolving to defend liberty and freedom, resolved to oppose tyranny and oppression. The same attitude kept the United States involved in the Cold War with its assorted battlegrounds; after the Cold War ended, a War on Terror also engaged the nations. Americans did not fight to capture new land or enlarge our borders. Americans did not fight to prove that our country is great. Americans fought to preserve our freedom and to defeat the enemies of freedom and justice in the world. It takes two sides to fight a war, but it only takes one side to start a war. Our leaders did not go looking for wars to fight: our leaders reluctantly accepted the duty of opposing enemies that were already threatening us and our way of life.

War is always wrong. War is a picture and a consequence of sin and evil in the world. Just wars are fought to resist sin and evil, but every war begins through sin and evil. Jesus told his followers that wars and rumors of wars would continue in human history until the Day of the Lord, the Day that he reveals his glory and completes the work that he accomplished on Good Friday and Easter. Every war reminds God’s people of the ongoing spiritual war between God and evil. A holy angel rebelled against God and brought evil into God’s perfect creation. Other angels joined in his rebellion, and all humanity took the devil’s side. When we do what we want instead of doing what God wants, we join the devil’s side in his war against God.

God could abandon the world to sin and evil. God could destroy the world and create a new world. Instead, God chooses to reclaim sinners and to rescue the victims of evil. For that reason, God entered the world to fight the enemy alongside his people. Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God but is also fully human. He resisted the devil’s temptations to sin. He refused to break the commandments of his Father or to leave his Father’s plan. Jesus became a victim of evil. Betrayed and abandoned by his followers, Jesus was a victim of unjust government. The Roman authority said that Jesus was innocent, but still signed the order for his execution. Roman soldiers abused and tortured the Son of God. Finally, like many soldiers from many wars, Jesus died and was buried.

For most soldiers, death and burial is the end of the story. But Jesus rose again on the third day. The women who went to His tomb for a memorial day instead found an empty tomb. Angels told the women that Jesus had risen, as he had promised. For forty days, Jesus proved to his followers that he had risen from the dead. Christians do not have a Memorial Day to remember the death and burial of Jesus: Christians have Easter celebrations to remember his resurrection and his victory over sin, over evil, over death and the grave. One day of the year is called Easter Sunday, but every gathering of Christians is an Easter celebration, a joyful reminder that Jesus is risen and that his enemies are defeated.

Those defeated enemies include the devil who rebelled against God. They include the sinful world that joins the devil’s rebellion. They include my sins and your sins, all the times that we break the commands of God and enlist in the devil’s army. They include death itself, the final result of sin and rebellion. Jesus defeated all the enemies. He defeated them alone, without any help from us. But he includes us in his victory. We are “more than conquerors,” because we receive the results of Christ’s victory without having fought alongside Jesus, without having contributed in any way to his victory.

On Memorial Day, we remember the soldiers who died defending our freedom. We rejoice in the liberty and justice we have as citizens of the United States. We also remember the soldier who died and was buried, but who rose again to assure us of his victory. Ascended into heaven, he sits at the right hand of God the Father—not a location somewhere in the sky, but a position of authority. Jesus runs the universe. He is present everywhere. As he promised, he is with his people always, especially when his people gather in his name. He continues to forgive sins. He continues to rescue victims of evil. He continues to share his victory with all who trust his promises.

Jesus will appear in glory to make everything new. Christians wait patiently for that Day. But, as we wait, we already have hope and joy and peace, knowing that our enemies have been defeated. We are confident of our place in God’s new creation. We already are new creations, being transformed into the image of Jesus our Savior. This also we remember on Memorial Day weekend and every day of our lives. J.

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Albert Pike

One of the dangers of historical research—especially biographical research—is the unexpected house guest, not seated at the dinner table or sleeping in a bed, but constantly present in one’s mind. I would hate to spend a year or more writing a detailed biography of one person; I know that, long before the research and writing and editing was completed, I would know that person better than I know myself. This fall, I agreed to do a lecture series of eight weeks—eight forty-five-minute talks, covering eight people who have contributed to the history of Arkansas. I chose some people about whom I have written before, figuring it would be easy to restate what I have already learned. I also included on the list a few people I have not studied before, just because I thought it would be interesting to learn more about them. By far the most interesting subject I have covered—and the most vivid and persistent guest—has been a man named Albert Pike.

Albert Pike was born in Massachusetts December 29, 1809. From his youth, he was a genius. He had an unusually high aptitude for languages, including ancient languages and Indian languages. He also had the ability to gather information quickly, retain it accurately, and interpret it thoroughly, combining resources from assorted sources to build greater knowledge. Early in his teen years, he borrowed a thirteen-volume history from one of his older cousins. When he returned the books a few days later, the cousin suggested they had been too challenging for Albert. No, he said, he had read all thirteen and understood them thoroughly. He invited the cousin to quiz him on the content of the books, and he passed the examination easily.

When he was sixteen years old, Albert Pike applied to study at Harvard University. He had no trouble passing the entrance exam, but he could not afford the first year’s tuition. Undaunted, Albert took a job teaching school and applied his spare time to studying the subjects covered in the freshman and sophomore years at Harvard. Returning a year later, having saved his money to cover junior year tuition, Albert easily passed through the tests for Harvard’s first two years; only then was he informed that he must still pay tuition for those two years to receive credit for the courses and move into his junior year. Furious and feeling cheated, Albert Pike left the Harvard campus. His feelings were understandably mixed when he was offered an honorary Master’s degree from Harvard some thirty years later.

With two friends, Pike left Massachusetts to explore the United States. They traveled through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky. Arriving in Tennessee, Pike found nothing to capture his attention, so he and his friends proceeded west to Saint Louis. One turned back, but the other friend stuck with Pike as they joined a party heading into Texas. They went prospecting for gold and silver around Santa Fe and Taos with little success. The other friend returned east, but Pike and his new companions continued exploring, meeting scattered settlers, various Indian tribes, and all kinds of bad weather. Finally tiring of the Old West, Pike headed east, aiming for New Orleans. Taking a wrong turn, he found himself at Fort Smith in Arkansas Territory. Penniless, he took a job teaching school, gathering twenty students in a tiny one-room schoolhouse. Also becoming acquainted with some of the politicians of the territory, Pike saved his money until he could move to the new capitol city called Little Rock. There he became involved in politics, first as a journalist for the local Whig newspaper, and then as an attorney. He studied to pass the bar but was granted his license to practice with little objection. “At least practicing law you won’t kill anyone,” the examiner quipped.

Pike got married and built a grand house in Little Rock, one that is still standing today. He profited from his law practice and built an enormous personal library. When war broke out with Mexico, Pike became an officer leading Arkansas troops into battle. Later, when he spoke disparagingly of a fellow officer from Arkansas, the two arranged a duel. Standing on a sand bar west of Fort Smith in Indian Territory (because dueling was illegal in the state of Arkansas), the men exchanged shots, but no one was injured. A Cherokee observer sneeringly commented that he could have hit a squirrel at a much greater distance with the pistols held by the duelists. But Pike and his opponent declared that honor had been satisfied and celebrated together with a grand dinner to which they invited all their friends.

Albert Pike was a large man, six-foot-two-inches tall, 275 pounds in prime health (expanding to 300 pounds in his later years, before disease robbed him of his weight). He loomed large in the social life of Little Rock as well. In 1850 he was invited to join the Masonic Lodge. He moved rapidly through the degrees of membership, becoming a Lodge leader; he then spent much of the rest of his life rewriting the Scottish Rite of Masonic membership and researching other aspects of Masonic belief and practices.

Pike said that slavery was terrible, an enormous injustice; then he also said that trapping workers into factory labor at substandard wages was equally evil. He owned four slaves himself, and he supported the right of southern states to continue to practice slavery. He warned readers in the northern states that freeing the southern slaves would not be a favor unless they were also granted educations and means to make a living; otherwise, their lives would remain miserable. When secession occurred, Pike reluctantly took his position with the Confederate government. Made a brigadier general, he was sent into Indian Territory to negotiate with the tribal groups living there—ideally, to raise troops to help the Confederacy; and, at the very least, to guarantee the neutrality of tribes that would not actively support the Confederacy. Many tribal leaders were open to service to the Confederacy under Pike’s leadership. He brought some of them as soldiers to fight at Pea Ridge in Arkansas. Communication between Pike and the other generals was minimal, Confederate forces came out losers in the fight, and false rumors were spread that Pike’s Indian troops had acted like savages, scalping Union soldiers and forsaking military discipline on the battlefield.

Pike resigned his commission and disappeared into a cabin in rural Arkansas. There he continued work on his Masonic studies. When the war ended, he faced enemies from both sides and even retreated briefly into Canada. He eventually received a pardon from President Andrew Jackson, although his life savings were consumed by legal fees and he barely managed to recover his Little Rock house (which had been used as headquarters by Union General Frederick Steele from 1863 to 1865). Pike’s wife returned to the house and spent her last years there, while Pike lived in Washington DC, lodging with the Masonic leadership there and using their library for his work. After the death of his wife, the house was used for several years as a girls’ college, then was bought by a businessman, John G. Fletcher, who would be elected mayor of Little Rock. Mayor Fletcher’s son, John Gould Fletcher, grew up in that mansion; he became a Pulitzer-Prize winning poet and author. The mayor’s daughter married a lawyer, David Terry, who became owner of the mansion when his wife’s parents died; he was elected to represent Arkansas in the United States House of Representatives.

Many of Albert Pike’s writings were published, and some are still in print. Others remain within the Masonic libraries in Washington DC and in Little Rock. Fantastic stories have been built around Pike, often from modern conspiracy theorists. Allegedly, Pike wrote a letter in 1871 in which he predicted three World Wars—the first fought between Britain and Germany, which would lead to a Communist government in Russia; the second, also fought in Europe, which would bring about a Jewish homeland; and a third, to be fought by Muslims against Christians and Jews, finally bringing about a discrediting of all three religions and a one-world government. I have read quotes from this alleged letter, which some say was on exhibit in a London museum until 1977. The museum now claims no knowledge of the letter and says that, if it ever existed, they never had it. Moreover, the quotes I have read are far different from the writings of Albert Pike that I have studied this year, both in style and in content.

Other researchers accuse Albert Pike of being a Satan worshiper. In my mind’s ear, I can hear a hearty belly-laugh from Pike over this misunderstanding. A Hebrew word meaning “light-bearer” was translated into Latin as “Lucifer.” Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel address human kings (of Babylon and Tyre, respectively) with that title, and both addresses have been seen by Christians as references to the devil. I agree with that interpretation. The two prophets describe one who was blessed by the Lord with glory and honor, but who became proud and rebelled against the Lord, thereby earning God’s rejection and punishment. Because of these two prophecies, many Christians consider Lucifer to be a name of the devil, along with Satan and other titles. But the word was frequently used to describe the planet Venus, especially as it appears in the morning sky. Venus reflects the light of the sun and can be seen as a sign that sunrise is not far away. The label is assigned to the devilish kings by Isaiah and Ezekiel, but the same title also belongs to Jesus, the Son of God, who is called the bright morning star in Revelation 22:16. When Pike wrote glowingly (pun intended) of Lucifer, he was referring to the Christ-like image of the morning star, not of the devil.

Anyhow, I spent several days with Albert Pike living in my head—for all practical purposes, living in my house as well. My talk on Pike was given last Thursday. I hope that soon he will go away… and I hope that my next subject, Sam Walton, will not become such a persistent guest. J.

Memorial Day

The history and significance of Memorial Day (or Decoration Day) is complex. For centuries, people have decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers, flags, and other tributes. Naturally, following the carnage of the Civil War, commemorations were made at the graves of soldiers, whether Federal or Confederate. At least twenty-five cities claim the honor of creating Memorial Day to remember all Civil War soldiers. By 1868, the custom across the nation had developed that May 30 was the day to remember soldiers who lost their lives on Civil War battlefields. Gradually, the custom expanded to include all soldiers who died while in battle, including all the wars and military actions in which the United States has been involved.

Beginning in 1971, Memorial Day has been observed on the last Monday in May. The three-day weekend has become, in the United States, the unofficial beginning of summer, which then ends at the beginning of September with the three-day weekend of Labor Day. Many communities still have parades on Memorial Day, and generally ceremonies are held at cemeteries to mark this holiday. (I remember marching in the high school band to two cemeteries each Memorial Day.) But for many families, the weekend is marked with outdoor gatherings and meals, generally with little thought of military matters. I grilled hamburgers and bratwursts for the family last Sunday as part of our Memorial Day observances.

Often people confuse Memorial Day with Veterans Day (November 11) and with Armed Forces Day (the third Saturday in May). Memorial Day specifically remembers soldiers who died while serving the United States. Armed Forces Day salutes those who currently are serving in the armed forces. Veterans Day thanks those who served in the armed forces and survived their military career.

In my family research, I have discovered numerous veterans but no one who died while serving in a military force. Last weekend I used my Facebook page to honor three veterans—my grandfather, my uncle, and my father—and no one corrected me with the blurring of holidays. Here are two photographs I shared last weekend: the first was taken by my grandfather at Camp Hancock in Georgia. It shows Lieutenant G. M. Kuntz and Lieutenant Nygeberger with a World War I rifle and was taken in 1918. The second picture, taken by my uncle in Banneaux, Belgium, shows a World War II tank and an unnamed soldier. My uncle landed in France on D-Day plus 2 (June 8, 1944) and saw action in France, Belgium, and Germany.

We remember and honor those who died while defending our freedom and battling against the enemies of our country. We promise that their sacrifice will never be forgotten. J.

How the Civil War nearly began in Arkansas

Most people who know at least a little history of the United States are aware that the Civil War began April 12, 1861, when shots were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. Not many people know that the first shots of the Civil War were nearly fired in Little Rock, Arkansas, two months earlier.

In 1838, the United States government built an arsenal south of downtown Little Rock, on Ninth Street. Munitions were stored in the building and soldiers were regularly stationed there, while other units passed through the area on the way to the border outpost of Fort Smith, facing Indian Territory. With some southern states seceding from the Union after the election of 1860, the United States Army began to rearrange some of its troops. One relocation moved Battery F, Second United States Artillery, from Fort Smith to the arsenal in Little Rock. Captain James Totten was the commander of this battery, which left Fort Smith on November 27, 1860, and arrived at the arsenal on December 6.

In January 1861, a convention met in Little Rock to consider the question of seceding from the Union and joining the Confederacy or remaining with the United States. Because the convention was evenly divided on this issue, the delegates chose on January 16 to schedule a referendum on the question for the coming summer. Shortly after the convention disbanded, rumors began to travel around Arkansas that the federal government was reinforcing its units in Little Rock to defend the arsenal. These rumors were either the result of Totten’s unit being moved or were speculation about further actions which were not, in fact, being considered by the U.S. Army.

Because of these rumors, militia from various parts of Arkansas began to converge in Little Rock, gathering around the statehouse on the south bank of the Arkansas River. The local militia, called the Capitol Guards, tried to position itself between the other units and the arsenal, but it was outnumbered. Arkansas Governor Henry Rector promised to resolve the conflict, although what he could accomplish was not immediately obvious. Although the soldiers in the arsenal were badly outnumbered by the members of the various militia units, they were far better equipped for battle and were in a defendable position in the arsenal.

The hero of the event was Captain Totten. Knowing that armed conflict would lead to civilian deaths and the destruction of civilian property near the arsenal, Totten exchanged communications with Governor Rector. Understanding that Arkansas had not chosen to secede from the Union (and was not scheduled to make such a decision until summer), Totten offered to hand control of the arsenal over to the governor of the state of Arkansas. Rector agreed, provided that Totten and the men under his command left the state and carried off none of the cannons stored in the arsenal. At noon on February 8, Totten and his man left the arsenal. Totten signed papers giving control of the facility to the government of the state of Arkansas, and his unit began its voyage to St. Louis, Missouri. A group of 107 women from Little Rock gave an engraved sword to Captain Totten thanking him for his peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Nearly a century later, outsiders again poured into Little Rock, this time protesting the desegregation of the city’s main high school. On this occasion federal soldiers were sent to the city to defend the nine African American students who had been enrolled in Central High School. By this time, the arsenal was no longer a federal facility. Some years after the Civil War, it had been exchanged for property north of the river, and the building and surrounding land were converted into a city park. The park was named MacArthur Park, to honor General Douglas MacArthur, who had been born at the arsenal in 1880 while his father was stationed there. Today the arsenal is a military museum. The strength of its walls was tested and found durable when the building survived a direct hit from a tornado in 1999. J.

For additional information, consult David Sesser’s The Little Rock Arsenal Crisis, History Press, 2013.