Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Of two generals

When I drew parallels between Lancaster, Ohio and the city of my birth in Monday's post, I forgot something.

One town is the birthplace of a famous (or infamous) Civil War general. The other has the distinction of being linked forever to a self-styled "general" who led an "army" of jobless Americans.

William Tecumseh Sherman, best known for his brutal campaign near the war's end, was articulate, if rough-edged, and an accomplished military commander. Some judged him to be insane, but more than once those who doubted his decisions saw them lead to victory on the battlefield.

Ulysses S. Grant often seemed to be the only one who believed in Sherman, and vice versa:
"Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other."
Through the wavy glass of history, Sherman is seen as a warmonger. The general's own words thwart attempts to simplify a complex man:

"War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over."

"I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell."

Sherman also had a thing or two to say about the media of his day.

"I think I understand what military fame is; to be killed on the field of battle and have your name misspelled in the newspapers."

"I hate newspapermen. They come into camp and pick up their camp rumors and print them as facts. I regard them as spies, which, in truth, they are."

"If I had my choice I would kill every reporter in the world, but I am sure we would be getting reports from Hell before breakfast."

The deeds and words of this son of Lancaster are remembered, and in some quarters reviled, to this day. Those of that other "general" are, to most living Americans, either unknown or forgotten.

Jacob Sechler Coxey was born in Pennsylvania in 1854, moving to Massillon, Ohio when he was in his mid-twenties. There he ran a scrap-iron operation and later owned a sandstone quarry and a lumber mill. By all accounts, he was a successful businessman.

Coxey fancied himself a populist, a reformer, a savior of the downtrodden working man. Politically, during his life he was an independent, a Democrat, a member of the Greenback Party and the People's Party and the Union Party and the United States Farmer-Labor Party and the Interracial Independent Political Party.

He ran for public office, including U.S. Senator and President, at least 20 times. He won only once, as a Republican, serving as Massillon's mayor from 1931 to 1933. He failed to win re-election.

Among his children was a son, whom he named Legal Tender Coxey -- an odd nod to the Greenbacks and a living symbol of his opposition to the gold standard.

Coxey's true and lasting legacy, however, is his citizen army. After the Panic of 1893, "General" Coxey, disturbed that the federal government was providing neither work nor wages for the unemployed, organized what he predicted would be an imposing march from Massillon to Washington.

A day before Coxey's Army was to set out for the nation's capital, according to The New York Times, things didn't look promising:

"Nearly 100 recruits for Coxey's Commonweal Army arrived today from different points. Most of them are tramps who camped in the woods surrounding the town overnight. A number of them slept in the lock-up, but were released this morning."

"It is now estimated that Coxey will start from Massillon with anywhere from 100 to 500 followers. Most of those here now to join the movement are hard-looking people, but up to the present time they have shown no disposition to be unruly."

A United Press reporter found the elusive Coxey and asked,
"'But how about the army, General? Isn't it time that some of your followers were beginning to join you here?'"
Coxey's reply, as reported by the Times, typifies the idealist:
"'Oh, they'll be coming in to-morrow,' Gen. Coxey replied, as he has replied every day for a week past. 'I expect that to-morrow's sun will rise upon an assemblage of at least 10,000 members of our army. They will be marshaled up on the circus grounds, from which point the start is to be made Sunday at 12:30 P. M. sharp.'"
The army, such as it was, did make its march to Washington, its general arriving with some 400 grimy protesters in tow. Once there, Coxey promptly was arrested and spent 20 days in jail -- for walking on the grass.

Was the movement a failure? Hardly. Coxey's trademark pitch -- that the government issue $500 million in paper currency and spend it on public projects, putting the unemployed back to work -- often is credited as the seed of FDR's New Deal. It wouldn't be far-fetched to view it as an ideological ancestor of today's Recovery and Reinvestment bonanza, either.

It's argued that Coxey, his rag-tag "Commonweal for Christ" Army and their marches laid the political foundation for Social Security, unemployment insurance and Labor Day -- not to mention serving as inspiration for L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

And who hasn't shown up at a picnic, potluck or Thanksgiving dinner to hear someone refer to table-crushing bounty as "enough food to feed Coxey's Army"?

Lancaster and Massillon, two old working-class towns, each with a general on its résumé. So which has the better claim?

Perhaps I'm swayed by my childhood memories of secret visits to a place the locals called "Coxey's Quarry," a place where my father once played when he was a dirt-poor farm boy and the owner was mayor. All things considered, I'm going to rule this one a tie.