Skip to main content

Benét And The Ensign From Alabama

July 2024
5min read

THE BOOK reached me in Argentia, Newfoundland, where my squadron, VP-84, was on antisubmarine patrol. The inscription, “To Ev—this incontestable evidence of performance,” had a special impact, as my brother knew it would. Aircraft performance, along with flying ability and luck, are what a pilot lives by in war. But it was a different performance, the kind evident on every page of Stephen Vincent Benét’s John Brown’s Body , that my brother was referring to in his gift marking my twenty-sixth birthday.

Argentia, in 1942, was a remote naval sea-and-air base with a pier, a cluster of Quonset huts, a salmon stream for diversion—and not a woman within forty miles. It was a good place from which to hunt sub-marines, to catch salmon—and to read. That spring and summer I logged three hundred hours flying over convoys and that many hours, or more, reading Stephen Benét. In September, when the submarines struck farther north in packs, VP-84 was hurriedly transferred to Iceland. By then I had learned pages of John Brown’s Body by heart, and the Civil War was more immediate to me than the Battle of the Atlantic I was engaged in.

Compared with Argentia, Reykjavík was Paris by the sea: snug homes with groomed gardens, a city park, a hotel, a theater, shops selling flowers and books (in five languages), and—most wonderful of all—pretty girls on every street. But the prevailing peace in Reykjavík did not extend beyond shore. Two hundred miles south, on the shipping routes between Amer- ica and England, Allied convoys were under devastating attack, and the outcome of the war hung in the balance.

We were not long in Iceland when our ranks were increased by four ensigns, all from the South. As our roster already included twelve pilots from Georgia and Alabama, plus a Virginian, there was much jocund talk about VP-84, the “rebel squadron, operating 20 degrees north of the Union Lines.” No Yankee among us was the least offended; if anything, the joking raised morale. I am a “Yankee myself, but I had known a good many Southerners. Almost to a man they appealed to me. In the other war I was engrossed in, I could see them in gray, gracing Wingate Hall, in Pickett’s brigades, or riding in the saddles of the Black Horse Troop.

There was only one puzzling exception among them. Until the squadron had acquired new aircraft in San Diego the year before, I had never imagined that a Southerner born in this century, and with any perspective at all, could still hold Appomattox against the North. But that was before a flier I will call Roy Logan joined us, along with our new PBYs.

Outwardly Ensign Logan was a fine representative of Pensacola, where he had just won his wings as a naval aviator. Slender, dark-haired, with all Alabama in his voice, he was a good pilot, keen on celestial navigation, wellmannered, and considerate to all hands. We were glad to have him on board. Inwardly—and it took me some while to discover this—he was a haunted and bitter young man. He believed Lee’s surrender to Grant was an aberration of history, that the North still abused the former Confederate states, that the Mason-Dixon line divided home country from enemy terrain, and that no Northerner could know the true worth and character of the Old South.

If such convictions seem too absurd to discuss, we discussed them anyway, at length and to no avail. Neither of us changed the other’s view an iota. By the time VP-84 reached Argentia, I had given up on Ensign Logan. If Rhode Island, where I came from, was still enemy terrain to him, let him think so! Our relationship in the squadron remained correct but cool. Until one night in Iceland, we never mentioned again the war in which his grandfather had been killed on the losing side.

The subject came up by accident. Logon had the duty. I was alone in my Quonset hut, due to fly early the next day. Shortly after nine he looked in to see if I was in bed. Instead he found me with the lights on, reading Benét. In a friendly enough way he used the phrase designed to announce anything in the Navy: “ Now hear this : It’s after nine, Ev. Better douse the lights.”

“Okay, Roy. But I’ve got something almost memorized.”

“Almost memorized ? What are you reading, poetry?”

“That’s right: John Browns Body by Stephen Benét. It’s great. I wish you’d read it sometime.”

Me read a book about John Brown ! You’re out of your mind, man. Where I come from we don’t read insults to the South. Now lights out, or I’ll have to put you on report.”

Suddenly I had reached my limit with Ensign Logan.

“God damn it, Roy, you sit down and listen; not to me, but to Stephen Benét. As your superior officer I order you to listen. And when I’m through you tell me if John Brown’s Body is an insult to the South.”

Taken aback, he sat down. I turned to page 168. Slowly I began Benét’s tribute to the men Logan had idolized all his life: “Army of Northern Virginia, army of legend,/ Who were your captains that you could trust them so surely?/ Who were your battleflags? Call the shapes from the mist,/ Call the dead men out of the mist and watch them ride./ Tall the first rider, tall with a laughing mouth,/ His long black beard is combed like a beauty’s hair,/ His slouch hat plumed with a curled black ostrich-feather,/ He wears gold spurs and sits his horse with the seat/ Of a horseman born. It is Stuart of Laurel Hill, / ‘ Beauty ’ Stuart, the genius of cavalry …”

“Who wrote that?” Logan asked, staring at me.

“Stephen Vincent Benét.”

“Where does he come from?”

“Pennsylvania. ”

“I can’t believe it.”

But I was not stopping now. There were other captains I wanted Logan to see pass in review; A. P. Hill, Early, and Fitzhugh Lee, Pelham, Joe Johnston, Ewell, Stonewall Jackson. … “And now at last,/ Comes Traveller and his master. Look at them well. … /They bred such horses in Virginia then,/ Horses that were remembered after death/ And buried not so far from Christian ground/ That if their sleeping riders should arise/ They could not witch them from the earth again/ And ride a printless course along the grass …”

Traveller’s master had yet to appear from the mist, but Logan could listen no more. Nor could he speak. He stood up and left the hut abruptly, with the lights still on.

Eighty years and three wars later, this young Southerner was still angry about Appomattox. It took a Yankee poet to change his mind.

The next afternoon Logan was waiting for me outside the debriefing room. He asked if I would lend him the book I had read from the night before. I would be glad to, I said, but warned that I had tricked him a bit in my reading. The book was much more than a hymn to the gallant South. It was the whole history of four tragic years that had left tens of thousands dead and wounded on both sides, freed the slaves, and made us one country again—with no enemy terrain remaining. Would he read it all, I asked, all 333 pages, from beginning to end? He promised he would.

He kept the book well into spring. Before he returned it, my brother (in service by then, and about to go over- seas) had sent me Benét’s Western Star . And by then, too, the poet who had taught me the most about America had died, at age forty-four.

Summer days are long in Iceland, but they passed quickly for those of us in VP-84. That summer the tide turned on the shipping routes. Now the German submarines were the prey, pursued incessantly from the air and sea. By October, when the squadron was recalled to Rhode Island, we were officially credited with three submarine “kills” and two “probables.” The inspired, never-satisfied skipper of the fleet air base in Reykjavík—Comdr. Dan Gallery—told us in parting he hoped we had “paid off ” Counting our losses of five planes and thirty men since San Diego, we hoped we had paid off too.

The day after arriving in Quonset Point, all hands were assembled on the seaplane ramp. In a brief ceremony our commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Staley, announced the squadron was being decommissioned. He praised our efforts against the submarines and wished us all Godspeed; VP-84 was no more.

Some while later, when I was a transport pilot at Naval Air Station Anacostia, I received a letter from Roy Logan. It was mailed in California and reached me shortly before Christmas. In the envelope were a note and a sales slip. The slip, from Newbegin’s bookstore in San Francisco, recorded the purchase of one copy of John Browns Body to be sent to Mrs. Benjamin Logan in Huntsville, Alabama. The note read: “Ev: you’ll be pleased with the present I sent my mother. She’ll think I’m in bad company. But I asked her to read it, from beginning to end, anyway. And now hear this —you can’t order me around anymore. I just made J.G. Good luck, friend. Roy Logan, Lieutenant, Junior Grade, USNR.”

It was Benét who had made the difference in Roy Logan—Benét, plus the only command I ever gave in the United States Navy.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.