A Noble Act
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1852
"What have you there, boys?" asked Captain Bland.
"A ship," replied one of the lads who was passing the captain's neat cottage.
"A ship! Let me see;" and the captain took the little vessel, and examined it with as much fondness as a child does a pretty toy. "Very fair, indeed — who made it?"
"I did," replied one of the boys.
"You, indeed! Do you mean to be a sailor, Harry?"
"I don't know. I want father to get me into the navy."
"As a midshipman?"
Captain Bland shook his head.
"Better be a farmer, a physician, or a merchant."
"Why so, captain?" asked Harry.
"All these are engaged in the doing of things directly useful to society."
"But I am sure, captain, that those who defend us against our enemies, and protect all who are engaged in commerce from wicked pirates, are doing what is useful to society."
"Their use, my lad," replied Captain Bland, "is certainly a most important one; but we may call it rather negative than positive. The civilian is engaged in building up and sustaining society in doing good, through his active employment, to his fellow-man. But military and naval officers do not produce anything; they only protect and defend."
"But if they did not protect and defend, captain, evil men would destroy society. It would be of no use for the civilian to endeavor to build up, if there were none to fight against the enemies of the state."
"Very true, my lad. The brave defender of his country cannot be dispensed with, and we give him all honor. Still, the use of defense and protection is not as noble as the use of building up and sustaining. The thorn which wounds the hand stretched forth to pluck the flower, is not as much esteemed, nor of as much worth — as the blossom it was meant to guard. Still, the thorn performs a great use. Precisely a similar use does the soldier or naval officer perform to society; and it will be for you, my lad, to decide as to which position you would rather fill."
"I never thought of that, captain," said one of the lads. "But I can see clearly how it is. And yet I think those men who risk their lives for us in war, deserve great honor. They leave their homes, and remain away, sometimes for years, deprived of all the comforts and blessings that civilians enjoy, suffering frequently great hardships, and risking their lives to defend their country from her enemies."
"It is just as you say," replied Captain Bland; "and they do, indeed, deserve great honor. Their calling is one which exposes them to imminent peril, and requires them to make many sacrifices; and they do not encounter this peril and sacrifice for their own good, but for the good of others. Their lives do not pass so evenly as do the lives of men who spend their days in the peaceful pursuits of business, art, or literature; and we could hardly wonder if they lost some of the gentler attributes of the human heart. In some cases, this is so; but in very many cases the reverse is true. We find the man who goes fearlessly into battle, and there, in defense of his country, inflicts death and destruction unsparingly upon her enemies, acting, when occasion offers, from the most humane sentiments, and jeopardizing his life to save the life of a single individual. Let me relate to you a true story in illustration of what I say.
"When the unhappy war that has been waged by our troops in Mexico broke out, a lieutenant in the navy, who had a quiet station at Washington, felt it to be his duty to go to the scene of strife, and therefore asked to be ordered to the Gulf of Mexico. His request was complied with, and he received orders to go on board the steamer Mississippi, then about to sail from Norfolk to Vera Cruz.
"Soon after the Mississippi arrived out, and before the city and castle were taken, a terrible storm sprang up, and destroyed much shipping in the harbor. One vessel, on which were a number of passengers, was thrown high upon a reef, and when morning broke, the heavy sea was making a clear breach through her. She lay about a mile from the Mississippi, and it soon became known on board the steamer, that a mother and her infant were in the wreck, and that unless support came speedily, they would perish. The lieutenant of whom I speak, immediately ordered out a boat's crew, and although the sea was rolling tremendously, and the storm still blowing like a hurricane, started to the rescue. Right in the teeth of the wind were the men compelled to pull their boat, and so slowly did they progress, that it took over two hours to reach the wreck.
"At one time, they actually gave out, and the oars lay inactive in their hands. At this crisis, the brave but humane officer, pointing with one hand to the fortress of San Juan de Ulloa, upon which a fire had already commenced, and with the other to the wreck, exclaimed, with noble enthusiasm,
"'Oar away, men! I would rather save the life of that woman and her child — than have the honor of taking the castle!'
"Struck by the noble, unselfish, and truly humane feelings of their officer — the crew oared with new vigor. In a little while, the wreck was gained, and the brave lieutenant had the pleasure of receiving into his arms, the almost inanimate form of the woman, who had been lashed to the deck, and over whom the waves had been beating all night.
"In writing home to his friends, after the excitement of the adventure was over, the officer spoke of the moment when he rescued that mother and child from the wreck, as the proudest of his life.
"Afterward he took part in the bombardment of Vera Cruz, and had command, in turn, of the naval battery, where he faithfully and energetically performed his duty as an officer in the service of his country. He was among the first of those who entered the captured city; but pain, not pleasure, filled his mind, as he looked around, and saw death and destruction on every hand. Victory had perched upon our banners; the forces of our country had been successful; the officer had bravely contributed his part in the work; but he frankly owns that he experienced far more delight in saving the woman he had borne from the wreck, than he could have felt had he been the commander of the army that reduced the city.
"Wherever duty calls, my lads," concluded the captain, "you will find that brave officer. He will never shrink from the post of danger, if his country has need of him; nor will he ever be deaf to the appeal of humanity; but so long as he is a true man, just so long will he delight more in saving, than in destroying."