Friday, February 6, 2015

Remembering the Maine

I remember this story from history class.

An American ship in a foreign harbor, supposedly on a mission to defend democracy and freedom, is destroyed. Emotions run high, and questions abound - the official investigation inevitably leaves some unanswered. Lives were lost, honor sullied. The press, eager to sell papers and to push their owners' agendas, create a battle cry, and political pressures overwhelm pacifist preventative measures, leading the President to reluctantly go to war.

It is all a familiar pattern to us by now - or should be. The harbor could have been the Gulf of Tonkin; the yellow press could have been Fox News; the incident could have been Pearl Harbor. But this time - in 1898 - the harbor was Cuban, the ship was the USS Maine, the President was McKinley, and two months after the incident, the Congress declared war on Spain.

Among America's military adventures abroad, this one stood out for being less noble than others - at least, with the benefit of a century of hindsight. It wasn't a war for freedom and democracy, but it was clearly a war for expansion of our territory - and it was touted in the press of the day as a fight against aggression. It was a war that disrupted the already dwindling Spanish Empire, setting them on a self-destructive course that contributed to later wars. It brought a number of Caribbean and Pacific islands into American possession, and set the U.S. on its uncomfortable historical course with Cuba.

There's a decent overview of the Maine event on's FishWrap blog, and of course there's more thorough background on Wikipedia.

Whatever else may be true about the circumstances surrounding the war, Americans who fought in it were a lot like my generation. They were too young to have been involved in either side of the Civil War, but they had grown up hearing about the glorious battles and heroics, and they were looking for a mission. The shock and horror of the war between states had subsided somewhat, and among the many unresolved internal issues there was growing appetite for using the military to show the rest of the world what the U.S. was capable of.

This was the war that made a hero out of Teddy Roosevelt, and he wasn't the only adventurer of his age with something to prove. This is my family's connection to that war.

Zimri Callin was the youngest son of William and Elizabeth Callin, with one small exception. Zimri was born in December of 1850, and when he was two years old, his little brother, Milton, died at only 5 months of age. In a way, even though he was still the youngest member of the family, Zimri was no longer "the baby" after that.

Young Zimri had a lot to live up to. His father was the quintessential frontiersman - a big, strong man who had cleared land for at least three farms by the time Zimri came along, and who was involved in the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves on their journey through Ohio to wherever they thought they could be free. When Zimri was nine, his sister married into the Sly family, and started bringing little Sly cousins into his world - and when he was 11, the Confederacy turned the always-divisive slavery issue from a political battlefield into the more literal kind.

His older brothers each went off to join the Union - first his oldest brother, John, then James and George. At least Hugh, who was only two years older than Zimri, was also too young to go, otherwise, being left behind might have been too much to bear. But then they returned - John the celebrated teacher, and a local hero for his part in arresting Morgan's Raid; James, a wounded veteran; and George, another respected teacher. That's a lot for a kid to live up to. And then Hugh went to school and studied to become a doctor, leaving young Zimri working as a saddler in a blacksmith shop.

All of this is speculation, of course; Zimri didn't leave behind any known writings expressing his feelings, and he may have been at his happiest working with leather and horses while his brothers pursued their studies. And his brothers didn't put anything unkind about him in writing. If anything, there is an undercurrent evident in the way the others write about the War and their place in it, and the way they mention each others' accomplishments without mentioning Zimri. The family clearly put a high value on their experiences in the war, and on education; and it couldn't have been easy for Zimri to feel like he was measuring up - the youngest, but not the youngest, robbed of even the distinction of being the "baby" of the family.

Zimri's name even suggests something about his place in the family.  "Zimri" was a Biblical name. It was the name of an Israelite tribe leader killed for, let's call it "less than exemplary judgment", and also of a later Jewish king known for betraying and murdering his predecessor. His parents were devout members of the Methodist Episcopal church, and even if they were not well educated themselves, surely his brothers, with their various studies, were aware of the origin of the name.

But whatever actual pressures life in this family may have exerted on him, Zimri married Ella Franklin in 1874, at 24 years of age, and tried to begin his own family. Sadly, Ella died the day of the birth of their son, Edward Milton, on July 10, 1875. Zimri must have been heartbroken, and if he chose that middle name for his son - the name of his own, long dead brother - it could be a sign that his sadness ran deeper than our evidence can show.

Young Eddie's life, marked by this sad beginning, wasn't necessarily a sad one. As a little boy, he and his father lived with his grandparents in Plain township, Ohio. When his father remarried in 1881, Eddie was about seven years old - and his new step-mother was only about ten years older than he was! Minnie Parker was young, and had what would be described as a delightful personality; it's a safe guess that she brought much needed sunshine into Zimri and Eddie's lives. Zimri's brother Hugh died in October at only 32 years of age, and the boys' father, William, died that December.

It was good that Zimri and Eddie still had reasons to be happy. The family moved to a place just west of Bowling Green, and Minnie and Zimri had three daughters during the 1880s.  When Eddie's little brother Harry came along in 1892, Eddie was almost 18, and probably already working for a printer in Bowling Green. He reportedly worked in various printing offices over the next several years, and when the U.S. Congress declared war on Spain, he was 23 years old. It's a fair bet that Eddie, a boy who grew up hearing his uncles swap stories from a war that his father had had to watch from the sidelines, must have seen a new opportunity. He was bound to have been eager to impress the men in his family, so he went to Bloomdale, Ohio, and was enlisted by a Capt. Fasig as a private in Company H of the 2nd Ohio Infantry on April 26 1898.

His unit was sent to the site of the Chickamauga battlefield in Georgia, where the Army mustered them into the federal service as part of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Division, of the 1st Army Corps. By late August, the conditions there at Camp Thomas had severely deteriorated because of overcrowding, poor sanitation, and inadequate supplies. (Eddie is listed as having been transferred to the hospital unit at some point.) The army determined that it would be best to relocate the men in the camp to other locations. The 2nd Ohio was relocated to Knoxville, Tennessee, where it remained until the unit was mustered out of service between February 10 and 15, 1899 at Macon, Georgia.

Eddie went back home, briefly, then on 16 May 1899, enlisted with Capt. Ames in Toledo, Ohio, in the 5th U.S. Cavalry Regiment. Troop A of the 5th Cav had seen action in Puerto Rico in 1898, but spent 1899 and 1900 in San Antonio. It isn't clear what happened to Eddie, but the records seem to indicate that he was dishonorably discharged from the Jefferson Barracks in Missouri in July 1900 - several months before the unit shipped out to the Philippines.

Having served during a period of relative peacetime, myself, I can appreciate what Pvt. Eddie Callin might have been going through. Coming from a family tradition of Civil War honors, trying to live up to their legacy while being kept out of the action is a real source of pressure. Joining the military under a passionate slogan like "Remember the Maine" and re-enlisting despite the horrible conditions - his ambitions as a Cavalry private, whatever they may have been, stopped by a dishonorable discharge; it must have been mortifying.

In 1900, President McKinley was re-elected. He may have been reluctant to go to war with Spain in 1898, but he ran with a vigorous young Vice President named Theodore Roosevelt who had recently garnered a great deal of national attention leading his 1st Cavalry's "Rough Rider" into battle in Cuba. Then in September the following year, an anarchist assassinated the President. The young Rough Rider became President, and a month later, Eddie Callin made the papers, too.

According to two accounts in the Butler County Democrat of October 17, 1901, "Printer and Veteran of Spanish War - Ed M. Callin The Insane Man" was taken into custody after appearing on the street in Bowling Green saying "Anarchy Will Be Suppressed By Me." Eddie had been working in Cincinnati when, apparently, the grisly news of the McKinley assassination broke. His family was contacted by the hospital there, and his father sent money to help him out and bring him home. Once back home in Bowling Green, though, there were incidents of Eddie shooting weapons in the street and ranting at people.

The last straw came when he entered the probate court and struck up a disturbing conversation with the court librarian. He seemed to be drinking "medicine" which he said he got from a "Montana Charley" (perhaps a local snake-oil concoction?), and he confided a great deal of disappointment in the differences between what he was taught, particularly by his parents, and what he observed in the world - telling the librarian of his plans to publish his theories and suppress anarchism.

He spoke for a long time, and reportedly had quite a large crowd listening to him when he was finally arrested. He protested that he was not crazy, but Deputy Sheriff Fred Bisdorf of Hamilton County took him to the state hospital in Dayton that afternoon.

By July of 1902, at 27 years of age, Edward Milton Callin was dead.

We don't know the official cause of death, but given the circumstances, it's safe to say that whatever actually killed him, the cause of death was indirect.

I may be reading too much into Eddie's story. It's true that until I started writing this post, I didn't know the details of his service, and had not seen the newspaper accounts hinting at his end. I'm relating it here because his story sounds so much like the story of other veterans that I know today. Even though he died 70 years before I was born, Eddie could have been any of a number of people I served with - he could be any of a number of people who have worked for me.

I still have questions, and as I said before, there is a great deal of speculation here about what Zimri, Eddie, or anyone may have felt about the events described here. I'll update this post as evidence is uncovered.

But the facts are the facts; and people are still people. If you recognize patterns from Eddie's life in your own, or in the life of a veteran, emergency worker, or really anyone you know, take a moment to check in with a sympathetic ear.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit 
VA National Center for PTSD

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