Saturday, November 20, 2010

Wilfred Owen, Leonidas Willis, and unmild Thoughts of War

Our Veterans Day ruminations took some odd swerves into byways of uncertain patriotism, and it seemed best to postpone them for a few days.

The best straight-up memorial was surely at the Oregon State Hospital Museum blog. If you haven't visited, go read about Robert Riggle, who fought in France at the end of World War I, and who was later committed to the State Hospital. He killed himself on June 4th, 1920. It is good to retell as best we can these stories and lives.

The Brits seem to have found the best beery honor: The Lodden Brewery makes Wilfred's Mild to honor Wilfred Owen, the celebrated poet of World War I:
We are donating 10 pence of every pint of Wilfred's Mild sold to the Church where Wilfred Owen worked. All Saints church in Dunsden is located in the field directly in front of the brewery.
Owen was killed on November 4th, 1918, just a few days before the armistice, November 11th. A color image of the label would show the red poppies in the background behind him.

In his War Requiem, composed for the rededication of the 14th century Coventry Cathedral in 1962, after it was bombed in 1940, Benjamin Britten juxtaposed Owen's poetry with the Latin text of the Requiem Mass.

Out there, we've walked quite friendly up to Death:
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland,-
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We've sniffed the green thick odour of his breath,-
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn't writhe.
He's spat at us with bullets and he's coughed
Shrapnel. We chorused when he sang aloft;
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.
Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier's paid to kick against his powers.
We laughed, knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars; when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death - for Life; not men - for flags.

Earnest Eckerlen, son of saloon owner and brewery officer Eugene, is named on the doughboy monument, you may recall.

Slightly less reverently, we also observe a different kind of veteran. Apparently there are a few Confederate veterans buried in Salem.

These burials and the lives behind them are something ambiguous and about which we are uncertain and ambivalent. It is to enter an alternate universe where the Civil War is the War of Northern Aggression.

This is an unverified portrait of Lt. Colonel Leonidas Willis, who is buried in the Salem Pioneer Cemetery. The cemetery records cite his obituary on 14 April 1899:
When the civil war broke out in 1861, his sympathies naturally being with the South, Mr. Willis enlisted in the service of the Confederacy and ere the close of the war saw much active service, his field of operation being principally in Arkansas and Mississippi. He was colonel of a battalion of cavalry and under command of General Forrest.

Deceased came to Oregon in 1871 settling in Salem...

The deceased was in no sense of the word an office-seeker, being content with the lot of a private citizen, although while in Texas he served his county faithfully as district clerk for several years.
Forrest had led a feared and powerful cavalry, was accused of war crimes for a massacre of Union prisoners, and was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

The obituary hesitates for a moment, protective, even defensive, about the possibility of Willis seeking patronage.

You might recall this ad from Fourth of July celebrations in 1910, which appears to show a Union and Confederate veteran reconciling in friendship. Mending fences was important, and many would make choices not to dwell too much on the past in order to live together in the present. It seems likely that in the obituary we see a similar reticence.

(A family researcher has put together a history of Willis' battalion of the Texas Cavalry.)

To the dead, and to the living, we tip our pint.


  1. Yes, I confirm it is a photo of Col. Leonidas Willis. I was a little taken aback by your apparent snide and ignorant remarks about Col. Leonidas Willis. During the Civil War he and his family came to Oregon, by horse and wagon, virtually penniless; having lost everything during the war. He and his family well liked, and he with hard work he became a respected Salem merchant. His son, Percy Willis and wife Ida, gave in excess of $100k to help struggling Salem schools. Percy Willis was a Willamette University graduated and Trustee, having left the University a very large sum of money. Even now (2014) funds are available to help struggling Willamette University students, thanks to Mr. & Mrs. Willis.

    Additionally, each year a worthy North Salem High School ROTC Cadet is awarded a $500 scholarship (Col. Percy Willis JRROTC Scholarship Fund). Percy Willis served in the defense of the United States with distinction during the Spanish-American War, and in World War One, having attained the rank of Colonel.

    It is worthy of note that the same Non-Profit Organization which in 1999 completely restored the then highly deteriorated grave marker of Colonel Leonidas Willis CSA located in Salem's Pioneer Cemetery, also graciously placed handsome Rose Granite grave monuments where none had previously existed -- on the graves of Hiram Gorman, and Albert and Mary Bayless, all of whom had been slaves. Mr. Gorman has also served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Each monument has engraved a lengthy and highly interesting bio of the person's life. Each of these monuments can been seen and read Salem's Pioneer Cemetery, and I urge you to do so, and to note at the end of each bio the organization responsible for the acquisition and placement of these fine and costly monuments.

  2. Thank you for the additional information! With it we can connect some dots.

    Here's Willamette U on the Col. Percy Willis Prize.

    Some biographical material on Percy from Charles Henry Carey's 1922 History of Oregon.

    He married a Purvine from Spring Valley/Zena.  (More on the Purvine houses here and here.)

    Capi Lynn also wrote a piece in the SJ on 5/5/06 and notes that Percy (1865-1946) is buried in City View Cemetery.

    Finally, it looks like at least one of the commercial buildings Percy had built remains today in downtown (it wasn't clear whether he built more than one). The Willis Block, also known as the Stiff Furniture building, today houses the Book Bin on Court Street. (On the architect, Fred Legg, here.)

    The blog is on hiatus, and we may not be able to research that, but it could be interesting to know more about his commercial activities.

    Thanks again!

  3. Those are positive comments and good information. Looks like the Willis family were hard working, gave back to the community. And, apparently they are still giving.

  4. Excellent information. A must see -- the former slave stones one of whom was a Union soldier), CSA Col. Willis and Col. Percy Willis USA stones. Lots of fine local and nation history there.