Thursday, May 29, 2014

Famous Last Words

Pope Gregory VII
Gregory VII served as Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church from 1073 to 1085.  In Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, he found his chief rival for leadership over the Christian world. Henry ignored the Papal edicts and earned an excommunication (was cut off from the Holy Sacraments) and, far worse, interdict.  This meant that good Christian subjects of the emperor no longer had a moral duty to obey.  How many times in world history has the most powerful temporal leader subjugated himself as Henry did to Gregory, standing in the snow barefoot outside a castle for three days.

Not that Henry changed his ways, but for Gregory the submission of governmental power to the spiritual made the point clearly enough.  At the end of his life, Norseman raiders drove the Papal government away from Rome.  As he died, Pope Gregory VII lamented:

I have loved justice and hated iniquity; therefore I die in exile.

Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson C.S.A.

In 1859, Thomas Jackson was a classic campus radical.  Offspring of a western Virginia "fine family" and veteran of the Mexican War, Jackson probably got more slack than most contemporaries.  His eccentricities (later called obsessive compulsive disorder) included a fear of slouching due to the possibility that his organs might get compressed.  Once, told by his superior at Virginia Military Institute to wait outside, he obeyed completely.  Of course the superior forgot Jackson, left by another door, and found the professor still sitting there the next morning.  Jackson angered many by opening classes to teach slave children to read.

The Civil War revealed Jackson's brilliance.  More than most other military minds, he understood the value of maps.  He commissioned the first detailed maps of the Shenandoah Valley and proceeded to own it for two years.  At Chancellorsville, he met death in the form of an accidental bullet from one of his own troops.

Stonewall Jackson left posterity with typically beautiful, typically Christian imagery:

Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees

Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus

Or just plain "Nero."  Emperor Nero ruled between 37 and 68 Anno Domini, although most of those years may not have seemed like the years of any good lord to most Romans.  Eccentricity turned to despotism as the mad singer imposed his horrible songs and depraved lusts indiscriminately.  After the great fire of Rome, often blamed on Nero himself, the emperor targeted the Christians.  St. Peter died hanging upside down on a cross by Nero's order.

Nero considered himself first and foremost a great singer and few would disagree with him while he held power.  Finally he was condemned as a public enemy and forced to commit suicide, at which point the ever dramatic Nero proclaimed

What an artist is now about to perish!

Lou Costello

One half of the great mid century comedy team Abbott and Costello.  Costello was one of many comics outsized in physique and personality, inspiring future greats like John Belushi, John Candy, and Chris Farley.  Abbott and Costello performed in live acts, movies, and eventually television.  Most remember the duo for their fast paced, complicated, several minute long "Who's On First" routine.   Although both men were staples of American entertainment for decades, neither grew rich.  These, of course, were the days of the 98 percent tax bracket that made Ronald Reagan a Republican.  Both men died broke, the IRS harassing them to their grave.

Costello's last words summed up his public perception and love of life

That was the best ice cream soda I ever tasted

President John Adams

It's hard to find a picture of John Adams with even a hint of a smile.  Even as president, Adams seemed to fear showing the world the impish personality shared with his family.  Too often, conflicts over ideals boiled into personal feuds with the sensitive intellect.

History pairs him with the equally sensitive disposition of Thomas Jefferson.  When young Jefferson's Declaration of Independence met the tough editing hand of Adams, the writer sulked back to Monticello for most of the rest of the Revolution.  Building the Republic, at least early on, kindled a deep friendship based on shared abilities and goals.

That is, until the 1790s.  They differed over President Washington, principles of government, and almost everything else.  Adams' victory over Jefferson in the election of 1796, by a soon corrected constitutional flaw, made Adams president and Jefferson his second.  Neither man was ever capable of keeping political rivalry from growing personal.  They soon hated each other.

After Jefferson's two stormy terms of office, tempers cooled.  The two Founding Fathers, seen less as inspiration and more as living relics by the younger generation, did as old men usually did.  They complained about the young.  They reopened a correspondence and a friendship that produced some of the greatest political letters and debates ever put from pen to paper.

They rarely saw each other, but their friendship deepened over time.  On July 4, 1826, Adams lay suffering on his deathbed in his beloved Braintree farmhouse.  As he felt his last moment coming, he sputtered in relief

Thomas Jefferson still survives

Unfortunately Adams was mistaken.  Jefferson died earlier that same day.

Major General John Sedgewick

Sedgewick carries the unfortunate distinction of being the highest ranking Union officer to die on the field of battle in the drive on Richmond. He started his adult professional life as a teacher, but soon went to West Point, following the footsteps of his grandfather, a Revolutionary War general.

Revolutionary War and Civil War officers shared a higher mortality rate than command officers today.  They followed the example of  George Washington who, when necessary, believed in leading his troops from the front.

Frustrated with his units' lines not going exactly where he wanted them to go, he endeavored to instruct them in person.  Warned by his aide to not go to a certain spot due to Confederate snipers, Sedgewick exclaimed

Why, what are you dodging about? They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance!

The snipers proved him wrong, putting a bullet through his eye.  He died with the smile on his face that accompanied his underestimation of his enemies' shooting prowess.

Charles George Gordon

Probably the most acclaimed British hero between Lord Nelson and Winston Churchill.  He had already enjoyed military success in China before going to Africa.

In Africa, he led an Egyptian force into Khartoum.  His purpose was to hold it against the army of a self-proclaimed Islamic prophet called the Mahdi.  The Mahdi whipped up anti British sentiment, mostly based on the suppression of the slave trade, and laid siege to Gordon and his Egyptian troops.  While they held out, they waited for a hesitant British government led by William Gladstone for relief.  Eventually help was sent, but too late.

His men lasted until they ran out of food and ammunition, then fought to the death.  Death would have been their fate regardless.  Alan Moorhead in The White Nile described Gordon's end.

He stood at the top of the stairs of the palace that served as his headquarters.  As the mob rushed towards him, swords drawn, Gordon calmly turned his back.

Without a word, Gordon met his grizzly fate.

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