family history, Sutliff, Writing

Bravery vs Cowardice

For the past month, I’ve been experiencing the horrors of The Civil War. From reading to researching to writing, it’s been a constant on my mind. And, what I thought would be a brief section of manuscript to write, has developed into something I never expected.

But through this development, I’ve been able to experience two sides to a coin.

On one side, a husband and a father, voluntarily enlisted a year after the outbreak of war, leaving behind his wife with four young children to care for alone. He faces battle and hardship, and eventually, his death. Inevitably, it isn’t a wound that takes his life, but an illness. Onboard a hospital steamship, he expires just as it docks and begins to empty its precious cargo into the waiting hands of doctors and nurses.

On the other side, a younger man, one I imagine, was full of piss and vinegar. He enlisted immediately after the attacks on Fort Sumter. He’s mustered and also sees battle. But where the first man remained, and faced his fate, the second, deserts.

The decisions made individually by each man had me questioning the meaning of both bravery and cowardice.

Was the first man brave for voluntarily enlisting? Was it a decision he made, or did he feel pressure by family, friends, neighbors, society? Is that then a form of cowardice? To do what other’s expect or want you to do rather than to make your own choice? Is it bravery or cowardice to make a choice based in fear of neighbor turning against neighbor? But, perhaps the first man did want to enlist. Perhaps he believed it was his duty and moral obligation. Is it bravery or cowardice to leave your wife with four children all under the age of ten to fulfill such a belief?

Was the second man brave for enlisting immediately because he felt it was his duty or moral obligation? Perhaps he was drunk, enjoying an evening with friends when they came to the decision that they needed adventure and to fight. Perhaps he too felt pressure from peers. Was it bravery or cowardice that made him flee? Did he witness some horrific atrocity that sent his mind reeling? Or was he simply – selfishly –  trying to escape hell with his life intact?

It seems to me, that bravery and cowardice can be considered like a two-sided mirror. One can easily replicate and reflect the other. Take any situation and look at it point blank. A rash judgement is made and it will at first appear one way. But when you begin to peel back the layers, when you begin to examine the reasons and the circumstances that led to the decision, the mirror can quite easily flip to reveal a false or distorted (or would that be true and genuine?) image.

By definition:

Cowardice: lack of courage to face danger, difficulty, opposition, pain, etc

Bravery: brave spirit or conduct, courage; valor
OR showiness; splendor; magnificence

An article that was written and published the summer after the attacks on Fort Sumter in 1861 discussed this very topic. It comes off as a propaganda piece, considering the times, but there are a handful of passages I found useful in writing this post.

…A man may be brave, absolutely fearless, and yet lack courage; not moral courage, but physical courage of the higher kind. Indeed, the man who does not know the sensation of fear (and there are men so constituted) can never be truly courageous…

… The truly courageous man is he, who being sensible to fear, yet from faithfulness to duty and from self-respect conquers his fear and faces his enemy. And the greater his nervous apprehension of danger, the higher the quality of his courage…

When I first began this journey, I had a difficult time imagining why each of these men made the choices they made. Why an aged father would leave his family. Why a man so eager by appearances, would desert and abandon the cause. But as I examined the decisions made from all sides, a new picture began to emerge. One in which each of the men flipped from bravery to cowardice and back again before emerging as something entirely new.

I realized that each man was neither simply brave or coward. They did not have limitless courage or valor. But they did not lack the courage to face danger or difficulty or pain. No, I realized that they were human. And we all of us make decisions based on any number of irrational reasons. But do those reasons make our decisions more or less brave or cowardly?

The choices made by these men, who, out of duty (duty to whom, I’ll never know for certain) and self-respect conquered their fears and their enemies. But just because their fear and enemy was not always the most obvious choice, it does not make them any less real. I would say, the fear and enemy that they each faced were made all the more real to me by this understanding. The demons we carry inside are far more frightening and difficult to overcome than any physical advisory. And, perhaps the courage needed to conquer that kind of fear and to fight that kind of enemy is the very essence of cowardice that is required to make the bravest of decisions.


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