Friday, February 29, 2008

“Billy Boy The Sunday Soldier of the 17th Maine” by Jean Mary Flahive* is a novel based on a real story, one I grew up with. Billy was William Laird, a “slow” boy from Berwick, Maine, near where I live. Though illiterate and most likely not able to understand what he was doing, he was enlisted in the Army during the Civil War along with a group of other boys from his town, deserted after he’d been separated from them by the Army, walked a long way home from Maryland, was arrested and was shot by a firing squad for desertion. That much of the story is pretty solid fact. The town lore is that he was badly harassed and likely abused in the Army and that Abraham Lincoln, when informed of his story, pardoned him but that the pardon arrived too late. Though it seems the last part is not able to be confirmed. The author points out that the Anti-Conscription riots might have had something to do with a pardon being lost at the time he was killed. It’s impossible to know.

I got the story from the same source the author did. She was given an account written by Richard Stillings, a history teacher, local politician, and career military officer, after his funeral. Richard Stillings was a friend of my parents, he told me the story, himself. His family lived in Berwick at the time Billy Laird lived, I think it is certain that his ancestors would have known the Laird family, so he probably got it from a line of transmission that began close to the facts.**

Dick was a history major and not a bad one. I once read one of his college papers and it was pretty good if quite conventional. He was smart and honest about history, though he was a liberal Republican of the sort which doesn’t exist anymore. You won’t be surprised to hear we fought about everything to do with politics if it came up. Since he knew I’d fight at the drop of an implication, he must have enjoyed it. He certainly provoked me often enough. Dick died twelve years ago and I wish I could ask for his comment. Jean Mary Flahive did a lot of additional research but said that she really only found the beginning and the end of the story so oral history a generation removed is probably as good as is available.

The book is a real novel so much of what it contains is either guessed at or invented, the author makes it pretty clear at the end of the book what is which. I think that her guesses were generally on the mark. The irresponsibility of allowing a mentally retarded boy to enlist in the army, the ill treatment he would have gotten, especially when he was separated from people he knew, the injustice of the military justice system that killed him with brutal indifference, though I’d guess it was with a generous measure of petty official enthusiasm. I have wondered if he wasn’t killed just as an example to others, a specimen of the institutionalized terror that all war machines practice as a means of forcing people to make war. I’d wondered if a mentally retarded boy might have been seen as expendable by military officers with too little to do stationed in Augusta, Maine where he was tried.

The completely invented material fills out the story into a narrative that tries to explain how he might have made it home. It’s suitable for its intended audience, though it goes farther than I’d have dared try.

I think the picture of his family and their reaction to the execution of a beloved son must be close to true. They recovered his body and buried him on their farm, where his grave still lies.** They must have loved him enough to overcome whatever shame would have accrued to them for having produced a deserter during the Civil War. I hope that is what that means. The story I heard was that they eventually left the town, having had their hearts broken by the injustice of it. The sadness of the story survived for the next hundred years as part of local history so I think there must have been more than a little affection for Billy Laird while he was alive.

“Billy Boy” is a good book for middle-school aged children and older to read, something to counter the constant pro-war propaganda that saturates the media in the United States today. Every decade or so there is a story about someone who was inducted into the military who shouldn’t have been due to their intellectual limits. Sometimes they are destroyed by the sadism or indifference of the military and its officers, sometimes it amounts to no more than cold blooded murder. Unfortunately, that’s not likely to change as the imperial wars the United States is brought into by corrupt presidents with real absolute war making powers continue. William Laird’s story is only a small story of a hapless soldier, one of those whose blood regularly runs down the palace walls of our pretend republic. It pulls back the curtain on “supporting the troops” in a way that wouldn’t ever remain buried in a real democracy.

* ISBN: 978-1-934031-13-1

** He told me on another occasion of having shaken the hand of someone who shook hands with Lincoln so he knew people who had been alive in the 1860s

*** Laird, William H., d. July 15, 1863, aged 30 yrs. 6 mos. 14 days. (53) (Executed as a deserter, but irresponsible.) BURIAL INSCRIPTIONS And other Data of Burials in Berwick, York County, Maine to the Year 1922 by Wilbur D. Spencer . I believe the age should actually read 20 yrs. I’ve never visited the grave, though I know people who have seen it.

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