The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From the Civil War to the football field, we have been celebrating the wrong values

Capt. Norwood Penrose Hallowell (Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society)

There are a half-dozen statues of Stonewall Jackson peering from pedestals, so tall he can see over three states. For a representation of Pen Hallowell, you can find only an archival photograph of a mildly handsome bearded young man in plain tunic, one hand holding a forage cap, the other resting lightly on a sword. Even in that, though, you can see his easy athleticism and his backbone.

It’s not really your fault if you don’t know who Hallowell was. His life and slim writings largely have been buried by “Gone With the Wind” nonsense. They should be revived and made required reading in locker rooms. Maybe then there wouldn’t be so many misconceptions about what constitute guts. Or such a romance with that over-glossed traitor Robert E. Lee and all the other Reb glorification that has haunted our sports fields, police stations, military bases and halls of justice.

American football always has been associated with warrior culture. We have fancied it trained young men to be good leaders, made “field generals” out of them, until it has become associated with what cultural historian Michael Oriard has called “a brand of flag-waving more like superpatriotism.” In truth, just like our statues and monuments, somehow we let the priorities become misplaced. The good teammate must show conformity and mindless allegiance rather than principle, keep his mouth shut and subsume himself and all of his personal colors and convictions in, say, team crimson. Instead of immortalizing Hallowell, we forgot him.

Hallowell “was a power in Harvard athletics,” according to one of the earliest histories of football, who enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 just after graduating. But what you can be sure of is that he was a hell of a rower and a swimmer. During the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, the 22-year-old swam across the Potomac River three times through bullet-pocked water to rescue trapped and wounded comrades. You can get an additional idea of Hallowell’s virtuosity from the fact that his son Jack was a two-time all-American end in football and his grandson Norwood Penrose III was a runner who finished sixth in the 1,500 meters at the 1932 Summer Olympics before serving aboard warships in World War II.

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Pen Hallowell had something more than physical courage, and so did his elder brother, Edward “Ned” Needles Hallowell. “The Fighting Quakers,” as they were nicknamed, were sons of a Philadelphia abolitionist whose home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. As boys they spirited fugitive slaves to safety in the family carriage. As men they volunteered as officers with the legendary all-black 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments.

As for Ned Hallowell, he was shot three times charging with the left wing of the martyred 54th Massachusetts at Fort Wagner, just behind his doomed friend Robert Gould Shaw. With Shaw’s body lying in a sandy ditch with his troops, Ned Hallowell assumed command of the regiment. Assigned the rear guard during a perilous retreat in a battle called Olustee, he and his men spent 20,000 cartridges checking the Confederates and then countermarched to save a train of intermingled black and white wounded soldiers that had broken down. When they couldn’t fix the motor, they attached ropes to the engine cars and manually hauled that bloody train to safety, with Confederate gunfire guttering at their backs.

While those men were towing a locomotive by ropes, Pen Hallowell was beating in the doors of Congress trying to get them paid equal to white soldiers. The 54th and 55th were offered just $7 a month, while white soldiers got $13. Largely thanks to the brothers’ efforts, Congress finally approved equal pay for black soldiers in 1864.

Why bring any of this up? Because it’s an example of what black-white alliances can do, for one thing. Because Sunday is Flag Day, for another. And because every well-meaning but unread white athlete, coach, owner, athletic director and sportswriter needs to understand that Pen Hallowell, to whom black lives really did matter, lost his war. And football had no small part in that.

The vague phrase “systemic racism” is not just perpetuated by men with badges. It’s also propagated by our false victory narratives. There have been few more powerful cultural narrators than the NFL and the NCAA, with their close association with military triumphalism. They have been terrible teachers of historical truth, lousy with misplaced definitions of valor. Pen Hallowell was alive to hear Harvard football coach W. Cameron Forbes declare in 1900 that American football was “the expression of strength of the Anglo-Saxon. It is the dominant spirit of the dominant race, and to this it owes its popularity and its hope of permanence.”

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Then there was that Princeton academic and assistant football coach named Woodrow Wilson, who rewrote the Civil War in volumes of purported American history so racist that they enraged Hallowell because they so “abounded with apologies for slavery.”

Hallowell tried to fight back in the post-war battle of values. He wrote essays and speeches devoted to the bravery of black soldiers and those conscientious outliers, abolitionists. On Memorial Day in 1896, he gave a remembrance address at Harvard. Sickened by romantic war myths in which the treachery and slave-driving of the Confederacy were painted over as cavalier spirit, Hallowell said, “To ignore the irreconcilable distinction between the cause of the North and that of the South is to degrade the war.”

Yet isn’t that what we have done? We have degraded that war — to the point that we hardly know what real honor is anymore, much less how to coach it on our playing fields. Degraded it until Colin Kaepernick was reviled for a simple show of conscience on racism. Degraded it until racial justice and the flag seemed in such conflict that a decent man such as Drew Brees couldn’t think clearly and make a clean judgment. Degraded it to the point that Pen Hallowell has faded to a relative obscurity, except among war buffs and historians, while the University of Mississippi kept Colonel Reb as a mascot until 2010. Even now frat boys will dress in the costumes of traitors to the flag at cotillions, without the first blush of hot shame.

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It’s the 21st century, yet 85 percent of the authorities in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the coaches, athletic directors, chancellors, presidents and conference commissioners who run it, are white. So are 28 of the NFL’s 32 head coaches. Almost all of them say they are trying to figure out how to “support” black players. As they filter back to their campuses and team facilities, there are a lot of hard conversations about race and patriotism. Whether to emulate the bent knee of Kaepernick in protest. Whether to support Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins in their quest to efface John C. Calhoun, who called slavery “a positive good,” from Clemson’s campus.

If we want football to be something worth preserving, we should demand that it celebrates the right qualities — and people.

Here’s a helpful suggestion to the coaches: Try reading a little Hallowell on the subject of what it is to really fight for each other. In the slim volumes produced by that genuine patriot and war hero are some things that may surprise them. For instance, Nick Saban and his Alabama players probably don’t know that after the war Hallowell helped finance a private school for black students in Calhoun, Ala., with Booker T. Washington.

But most important is what Hallowell has to teach about courage and protest. “The courage necessary to face death in battle is not of the highest order,” Hallowell wrote. He saw a “higher and rarer courage” in the “long suffering and patient endurance” of the soldiers so invested in their equal pay protest that they fought for 18 months without accepting a cent until they won fair treatment.

Hallowell and his brother are buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass., with headstones so small they seem like chips compared with Confederate monuments. When Hallowell finally died in 1914, his close friend and compatriot Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called him “the most generously gallant spirit, and I don’t know but the greatest soul I ever knew.” If there was a peerless man who deserves to be on a height, it’s Pen Hallowell. Yet look what we have done to him. Look what we have done to all of us.