It is hard to relate to things that happened a century ago, even though they very much shape our societies today. The present, not that which precedes our birth, presses against us and feels alive.
For Forrest Hayden of Kentucky, whose grave is seen in the above photo, the year 1918 surely started out feeling very alive, and he probably didn’t give much thought to what had happened one hundred years earlier, in 1818.
But if you were walking around Earth in 1818, the people and events of that year — of what at the time was now — would have pressed themselves upon you. Karl Marx came into the world in May of that year. Before there was The Communist Manifesto or Das Kapital, there was a Jewish mother in Trier, then part of the Kingdom of Prussia, nursing a baby named Karl.
It’s thought that Fredrick Douglass was also born in 1818, though his birthdate is not recorded. He was born a slave in Maryland, and as his mother held his infant body she couldn’t have imaged that one day he’d be known as a great orator against that institution into which he had been born, and even a welcomed guest of Abraham Lincoln. Invited to a White House party the evening of Lincoln’s second inauguration in 1865, Douglass was stopped at the gate because of his color and not allowed in. When Lincoln got word that Douglas was in this predicament, the guards were told to let him in, and as he entered the East Room, Lincoln spotted him and said so that all the party-goers could hear: “Here comes my friend Douglass.”
Abraham Lincoln was nine years old in 1818. That autumn, his mother Nancy died, probably from “milk sickness,” an illness caused by consuming the milk of a cow that has eaten white snakeroot. As Nancy’s death approached, she reportedly told her son, “I am going away from you, Abraham, and I shall not return.” Lincoln would be shaped by grief, including the pressing grief he felt the autumn of 1818.
Also in 1818: Paul Revere died, as did Abigail Adams. And Napoleon, though not dead, might have felt a part of himself die as he arrived, on October 15, in exile on that small volcanic outpost in the South Atlantic called Saint Helena. He would die here after a little more than two years.
And on October 20, 1818 – exactly one year before Forrest Hayden’s death in France — the United States and the United Kingdom signed The Treaty of 1818, which established a large section of the northern boundary of the U.S. at the 49th parallel.
But back to 1918.
Some good things happened that year. On May 11, a jockey named Willie Knapp rode a horse named Exterminator and won the 44th running of the Kentucky Derby; they were happy about that, we presume. Willie Knapp would live until October 1972, and so he would see a man land on the moon.
Meanwhile, 5500 miles away in Yekaterinburg, Russia, Czar Nicholas II and his family were being held captive by the Bolsheviks and probably cared less about the Kentucky Derby. A couple months after Exterminator’s win, Nicholas II and his family would be executed, which was the end of the Romanovs.
1918 was a tragic year for the Romanovs.
And, of course, for Forrest Hayden and his family.
I encountered Forrest Hayden’s grave in 2014, during a visit with my dad to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial in France. The cemetery contains the largest number of American military dead in Europe (14,246), most of whom lost their lives during the 1918 Meuse-Argonne Offensive at the end of World War I.
A brief Google search turned up nothing more than what is on Hayden’s headstone. He may have died in battle, but not necessarily. In 1918, the American Expeditionary Force in Europe hospitalized 227,000 soldiers with battle injuries. In the same period, 340,000 soldiers were hospitalized with the flu, which flourished in the crowded camps and trenches. Hayden died in the middle of a three-month period in which 20% to 40% of U.S. Army and Navy personnel had the flu or pneumonia. When all was said and done, enemy weapons were not the greatest danger to life; it was illness. (If you would like to go down this fascinating rabbit hole, see The U.S. Military and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918–1919.)
Three weeks after Hayden’s death, World War I came to an end. But not the 1918 influenza pandemic. Between January 1918 and December 1920, an estimated 500 million people around the world contracted the flu, and between 50 and 100 million were killed by it. Another way to quantify these statistics: up to one in every 20 people on Earth died of the flu.
On October 20, 1918, this was the headline in The New York Times: “SET THE SLAVES FREE, WILSON TELLS AUSTRIA; BERLIN NOTE TO UPHOLD SUBMARINE WARFARE; ALLIED ARMIES REACH THE DUTCH FRONTIER; NATION OVERSUBSCRIBES THE LIBERTY LOAN”.
And as I look at the The New York Times today, October 20, 2018, the headline on the right side of the front page reads, “SAUDI ARABIA SAYS CRITIC WAS KILLED INSIDE CONSULATE.” On the left side: “U.S. SAYS RUSSIANS LED ONLINE DRIVE TO DELUDE VOTERS.” And in the center of the page is a color photograph of a damaged field with the caption: “The big hurricanes are only getting bigger, but some farmers are skeptical about why.”
Thinking of the world in 1818 and 1918, and being alive in 2018, it is worth giving some thought to 2118. To people then, the headlines of today will look, as they will be, a hundred years old.
What will it be like 100 years from now? How will they view our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? What will be the state of the ice cap, or the national budget deficit? What islands will be no more? What species extinct?
What seems so present and pressing now will loosen, drifting away into history books. The people who will live in that world to come, which we are shaping, will likely have an opinion about us.
I just deleted a couple paragraphs offering a critique of modern democracies, which seem unable to effectively think or act with the distant future in mind because they are hamstrung by the short-term nature of election cycles. It sounded preachy.
The “long term” — e.g., the world in 2118 — is something like Frederick Douglass that evening in 1865: standing at the gates and wanting in but kept out by guards shaped by bias and a rigged system. I mentioned earlier how Lincoln made a point to show everyone gathered in the East Room that this man of color, who had just been blocked at the gate, was his friend. He was deftly offering a lesson without being preachy. Douglass recounts what happened next: “Taking me by the hand, [Lincoln] said, ‘I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd to-day, listening to my inaugural address; how did you like it?'”
As we look into the crowd, may we notice 2118, and ask what it thinks about what we’re saying and doing today.
And on this, the 100th anniversary of Private Forrest Hayden’s death, may we see him in the crowd too.
- The Frederick Douglass story is from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s incredible book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
- Private Forrest Hayden did not make it back home to Kentucky. For a story recounting the return home of another soldier from Kentucky — this one a fictional character in WWII — see Wendell Berry’s short story “Making It Home” in his book Fidelity. A lighthearted excerpt:
“That Paris, now. That was something. We was there one day and one night. There was wine everywheres, and these friendly girls who said, ‘Kees me.’ And I don’t know what happened after about ten o’clock. I come to the next morning in this hotel room, sick and broke, with lipstick from one end to the other. I reckon I must have had a right good time.”