Friday, September 19, 2014

“Life was Not Given for us to Manage so as to Prolong it.”


Many years ago, I read an article in the New York World written in 1861. It quoted a Union soldier named Edmund Blunt. Private Blunt had written a letter to the newspaper, which the editors subsequently published. In it, Blunt explained his reasons for joining the Union army.

Blunt said, “You know one cannot live always, and that life was not given for us to manage so as to prolong it, but to do our duty, even if in so doing we lose it.”

I’ve always found this quote incredibly interesting. Here, a Civil War soldier tells his readers that life was not meant for living, but for dying. It shows us how differently the Civil War generation considered the stern realities of death. Compared to our own mortal goals, his vision appears extraordinarily selfless. We always say that we strive to live “a long and happy life.” Blunt tells us that his generation did not think that way; to him, a long life was a wasted life.

I’ve long thought about Blunt and what happened to him. My instinct was to assume that he must have fulfilled his promise to himself, to lose his life doing his duty to his country. However, I always knew that he could not have lost his life so early in the war. Blunt had joined a three-month militia regiment, one that did not see any action. I thought to myself: Perhaps he re-enlisted in a regiment that eventually saw combat? I wondered and wondered. Eventually, my curiosity gnawed at me. I decided to do a little sleuthing.

Here is what got. As it turned out, Edmund Blunt was Edmund March Blunt, Jr., age nineteen. He was the son of a famous hydrographer who lived in Brooklyn, New York, and he was the youngest of six brothers and sisters. In April 1861, he joined the 12th New York State Militia, Engineer Company. The 12th N.Y.S.M. was one of the first New York regiments to leave the city. On April 21, just six days after Abraham Lincoln called up the state militia, it headed for Washington D.C. Sometime in May, it established an encampment at Franklin Square called Camp Anderson and a photographer took this shot of the engineer company.

This group of soldiers belonged to the 12th N.Y. State Militia. This photograph was taken in May 1861.

Civil War buffs have probably seen this image many times before. In fact, it contains a few famous faces. Some of you might recognize Frederick T. Locke, who later became a staff officer in the 5th Corps. He can be seen holding an order book. James A. Scrymser, who later became the A.D.C. to Maj. General William F. Smith, is seated on a chair at right, wearing no hat. And finally, Lt. Francis Channing Barlow, who famously commanded divisions in the 11th and 2nd Corps, is seated at the far right. Undoubtedly, he is this photograph’s most famous subject.

But Edmund Blunt is here too. He’s the soldier seated on the box. Here is a close up:

This is Pvt. Edmund M. Blunt, Jr., the soldier who told readers that life was not given to humans so that they might prolong it.

So, what happened to him? Blunt stayed with the 12th New York throughout its three months of service. It saw no action; the regiment missed the affair at Bull Run. Eventually, it returned to New York City and mustered out on August 5. Blunt did not re-enlist in a new regiment, not right away. He tried to go back to school, but with the war going on, he could not sit still. In May 1862, Lincoln again called up the state militia and New York’s regiments responded. On May 25, 1862, Blunt went to the front a second time, but with the 7th N.Y.S.M.—the famous “Dandy Seventh”—and he helped his new regiment patrol the streets of Baltimore. Once again, he saw no action, but upon muster out three months later, he applied for a commission in a three-year volunteer regiment. The governor obliged him, and in October, Blunt became a second lieutenant in Company M, 5th New York Cavalry. He served with this regiment for the rest of the war, mustering out with it on July 19, 1865.

Understandably, I was a little shocked to learn that Blunt survived the fighting. But, his survival did not come for lack of trying. Admittedly, his first two assignments were easy, but Blunt saw heavy fighting with the 5th New York Cavalry. That regiment followed the Army of the Potomac through all of its bloody campaigns in the East. In the end, it was baffling to me to think that a young man so willing to live a shortened life for his country never could catch a bullet, not even in the lead-filled air of the Civil War.

After the war, Blunt returned home to Brooklyn and started a manufacturing company. He died at his home, 159 Front Street, on January 24, 1894. He was fifty-one-years-old.

I wonder if, in his middle-age, Blunt remembered that assertion he made in his youth, that life was not given to him to manage in order to prolong it. After all, the New York World had printed that bold pronouncement for all to read. Did he change his opinion about the meaning of life as he aged, or did he always regret missing his opportunity to offer his last full measure of devotion? Like all of my posts, I do wonder.

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