There is a small bronze statue in Talbot County. It depicts a young boy of the American Civil War era wearing a broad-rimmed military hat, an open shirt, and a belt buckle with the raised letters “C.S.A.” No doubt, the youth is a Confederate, and he has stood there in the County since 1916 when the statue was dedicated in June of that year. At the time of his dedication, the Civil War was thirty years past and Americans watched as “the Great War” was unfolding in Europe, realizing that American youth would likely be called on again to fight or support an armed conflict.
Today, the “Talbot Boys” statue is the subject of no small controversy. Some say that they are offended by its presence because the youth was a Confederate. The Confederacy sought separation from the union, at least in large part, to uphold the slave laws and slavery. Others believe that the statue has historical significance, not least of all by having been there for so long, and that people need not be apologetic for – or offended by – an outdated ideal held by others more than one hundred and fifty years ago.
A 3-2 vote by the Talbot County Council last year was sufficient to keep the statue in place. However, Democrat candidate for governor, Peter Franchot, felt the need just last week to let the Shore know that if elected governor, he will “melt that down,” and “make door knobs out of it.” Franchot likely knows that even as governor he does not have the authority to do that. It is clear then, that his statement was only meant to further his appeal among his constituents: those who seem to favor rewriting or erasing history to fit whatever narrative they are pursuing at any given time.
It is also clear that Franchot and his constituents are unable to see beyond the Talbot Boy’s belt buckle.
That is, what the Smithsonian Institute calls the “Talbot Boys Monument” was inspired by something more than, and much deeper than, just a tribute to one side’s youth during the Civil War. According to the Smithsonian, “the youth is meant to represent youthful courage and enthusiasm.” The Smithsonian explains that the same youthful spirit meant to be recognized in the Monument is portrayed in, and related to, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1841 poem, Excelsior.
Excelsior is an allegorical poem that shows the dangers of idealism in youth; about how such youthful idealism can lead to destruction. In Latin, excelsior means “higher” – the notion of a higher ideal of excellence or righteousness for which one should strive.
In Longfellow’s poem, a young boy carries in his hands a flag with the word “excelsior” written on it:
“A youth, who bore, ‘mid snow and ice, A banner with the strange device, Excelsior!”
The boy is intent on carrying the flag and the ideal of “excelsior” across a mountain pass, but as night falls and a winter storm sets in, villagers advise him not to go forward but to stay with them and rest. He moves on, though, carrying his ideal – excelsior – onward. When dawn breaks, the people hear him call out with his last breath, “Excelsior!” and find him frozen to death:
“There in the twilight cold and gray, Lifeless, but beautiful, he lay.”
History is a critical part of the human condition. We get a better bearing of where we are by knowing from whence we have come. But history seems laden with wars – some just and some unjust. It is acts of heroism coupled with acts of treason, of scandal and sacrifice, of freedom and fascism. We cannot go back in time to prevent what has happened from happening. Consequently, we are left with analyzing why this or that occurrence happened, and with the hope of learning to recognize and avoid the same mistakes, or perhaps encourage the same successes, in the future.
And human history, including American history, includes youth who have served in wars. Admiral Farragut saw his first naval battle in 1813 when he was ten years old. John Clem was granted an enlistment in the Union Army at age ten, fought in several of the major battles of the Civil War, earned the rank of sergeant by the time he was twelve. He retired as a Major General in 1915. By the time the Talbot Boys Monument was dedicated a year later, times were changing. Within a few years, America officially put a minimum age on the men and women it could recruit into its Armed Forces: eighteen (although that did not stop more than a few fourteen and fifteen year old kids who lied on their enlistment forms and served in combat during World War II).
However, when a thirteen year old boy with a .30 caliber wound cries out with his dying breath, “Heil Hitler,” we come full reckoning with youthful idealism. We do not blame the child. Rather, we seek to hold accountable those adults who placed the ideals of fascism and or the ‘master race’ in his head: military leaders, civilian legislators, teachers or entertainers. After yet another “victorious Revolution” when a girl is taught in school to despise her non-communist parents and to spy and report on them, we do not blame her. We fault the new ideological government, its activists, zealots and enforcers.
In Talbot County, there is a statue of a youth who served with the Confederate Army in some capacity. It is up to Talbot County to decide his fate, but for all of us the statue represents a space in time and history. Most importantly the Talbot Boy represents, as the Smithsonian points out, the spirit of youthful courage and its susceptibility to idealism – whether that ideology be virtuous or abhorrent. That impartial message is as critical today as it was in 1865 or 1945. As with children who are led by adults to accept or join causes that can be destructive to them and others, we should not punish the Talbot Boys’ memory by “turning it into doorknobs” as Comptroller Franchot would do. Rather, we should let it serve as a reminder of youthful idealism in that war, its causes and effects, and as a prompt to analyze the effects of youthful idealism today and perhaps avoiding ideological conflict in the future.