Philip Nolan and Flag Day

Today is Flag Day.  Edward Everett Hale, in his short story A Man Without A Country, reminds us that patriotism is a very powerful form of love.  Hale, a great nephew of Nathan Hale who died on a British scaffold and uttered the deathless  “I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country.”, wrote the story in the midst of the Civil War in 1863 to help inspire patriotism.

The story is a simple one.  Philip Nolan was a young artillery lieutenant in the United States Army.  He became involved in the  vague scheme of Aaron Burr to detach some territory from the  United States and form an independent nation.  All the big fish escape conviction, but Lieutenant Nolan does not.  At his court-martial the following takes place:

One and another of the colonels and majors were tried, and, to fill out the list, little Nolan, against whom, Heaven knows, there was evidence enough,–that he was sick of the service, had been willing to be false to it, and would have obeyed any order to march any-whither with any one who would follow him had the order been signed, “By command of His Exc.A. Burr.” The courts dragged on. The big flies escaped,–rightly for all I know. Nolan was proved guilty enough, as I say; yet you and I would never have heard of him, reader, but that, when the president of the court asked him at the close whether he wished to say anything to show that he had always been faithful to the United States, he cried out, in a fit of frenzy,–

“Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!”

I suppose he did not know how the words shocked old Colonel Morgan, who was holding the court. Half the officers who sat in it had served through the Revolution, and their lives, not to say their necks, had been risked for the very idea which he so cavalierly cursed in his madness.


Old Morgan, as I said, was terribly shocked. If Nolan had compared George Washington to Benedict Arnold, or had cried, “God save King George,” Morgan would not have felt worse. He called the court into his private room, and returned in fifteen minutes, with a face like a sheet, to say,–

“Prisoner, hear the sentence of the Court! The Court decides, subject to the approval of the President, that you never hear the name of the United States again.”

Nolan laughed. But nobody else laughed. Old Morgan was too solemn, and the whole room was hushed dead as night for a minute. Even Nolan lost his swagger in a moment. Then Morgan added,–

“Mr. Marshal, take the prisoner to Orleans in an armed boat, and deliver him to the naval commander there.”

The marshal gave his orders and the prisoner was taken out of court.

“Mr. Marshal,” continued old Morgan, “see that no one mentions the United States to the prisoner. Mr. Marshal, make my respects to Lieutenant Mitchell at Orleans, and request him to order that no one shall mention the United States to the prisoner while he is on board ship. You will receive your written orders from the officer on duty here this evening. The Court is adjourned without day.”

The remainder of the story consists of vignettes of his life aboard US Navy ships from 1807 to his death in 1863.  All the vessels are on foreign service and do not return to the US while Nolan is on board.  All the officers and crew are to treat Nolan as a passenger on board.  He is given full liberty aboard ship, but he is not allowed to go to shore, none of the officers and men are to talk to him of the United States and all his reading materials are to be censored to remove any references to the United States.  As much as possible, Nolan is to be granted his wish that he never hear of the United States again.

During an engagement on board one of the ships during the War of 1812, Nolan, the former artillery officer, during the battle takes command of one of the guns and helps achieve a victory over the British ship.  The ship’s captain hails Nolan as the hero of the battle, gives him his sword and pledges that he will do his best to obtain a pardon for Nolan.  Alas, no pardon is forthcoming.

On another occasion, Nolan, who speaks Portuguese, is asked to translate to a group of slaves who have been rescued by the Navy aboard a slaver, two of their number understanding Portuguese.  Nolan is much affected by the strong desire of the slaves to return to their homes as free men, a desire that will be carried out by the Navy.

Nolan afterwords makes the following comment to the narrator of the story, an officer on board the ship:

“Youngster, let that show you what it is to be without a family, without a home, and without a country. And if you are ever tempted to say a word, or to do a thing that shall put a bar between you and your family, your home, and your country, pray God in His mercy to take you that instant home to His own heaven. Stick by your family, boy; forget you have a self, while you do everything for them. Think of your home, boy; write and send, and talk about it. Let it be nearer and nearer to your thought, the farther you have to travel from it; and rush back to it when you are free, as that poor black slave is doing now. And for your country, boy,” and the words rattled in his throat, “–and for that flag,” and he pointed to the ship, “never dream a dream but of serving her as she bids you, though the service carry you through a thousand hells. No matter what happens to you, no matter who flatters you or who abuses you, never look at another flag, never let a night pass but you pray God to bless that flag.  Remember, boy, that behind all these men you have to do with, behind officers, and government, and people even, there is the Country Herself, your Country, and that you belong to Her as you belong to your own mother. Stand by Her, boy, as you would stand by your mother, if those devils there ( a reference to the slavers) had got hold of her to-day!”

The saddest passage in the short story is when Nolan joins a group of officers who are looking at a new book of poetry by Sir Walter Scott.  The book is handed to Nolan and he reads this excerpt from The Lay of the Last Minstrel:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land?
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d,
As home his footsteps he hath turn’d,
From wandering on a foreign strand?

If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no Minstrel raptures swell.
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;

Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonor’d, and unsung.

The narrator meets Nolan again shortly before Nolan’s death as Nolan is dying, and, violating his orders, fills Nolan in on more than a half century of the history of his country, leaving out news of the current Civil War, for fear that such news would break the old patriot’s heart.

The story was written in such a realistic manner,  that the Navy Department in 1863, when the Navy had more pressing matters to concern itself with, was besieged with letters and telegrams demanding a posthumous pardon for Philip Nolan.

The story of course is quite out of step with the spirit of our times.  Today patriotism tends often to both be scorned and feared.  This contempt of love of country is often dressed up as attacks on nationalism rather than patriotism.  Perhaps.  However, in large part I think it is part and parcel of the same phenomenon which sees high divorce rates and high illegitimacy rates.  One of the chronic shortages of our time is a lack of  love.  Many people today flee from love as if it were a dangerous plague, because love implies duty and sacrifice, two deeply unpopular notions in the current Age of Selfishness.  Patriotism, like other manifestations of love, is to be honored because it moves an individual to sacrifice himself, if need be, for the object of his love.  Love that is unwilling to make such a sacrifice, simply isn’t love.  True patriotism is not a matter of the lips, but a matter of the heart.

The American flag, Old Glory, symbolizes both the nation and what the nation stands for, as best exemplified in these lines from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

American patriotism embodies not only love of the nation, as vastly important as that is, but also a love of what was brought into this world by the Founding Fathers.  That is to be honored, and lived, not only on Flag Day but every day.

Published in: on June 14, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Philip Nolan and Flag Day  
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