In an age when poets were popular culture, a ballad or song could inspire the heart and distort the truth.
This post relates the story of how a man born in Middletown Ohio in the early 19th century died as a tragic consequence of war and was later memorialized because of a poem. In an age before printed photography, the the illustrated magazine sold well. And, as is the case today, eulogizing the fallen on far away battlefields stirs the emotions that sell.
Victor Gilbreath was executed by a firing squad during the Mexican American War two days after Christmas in 1847.
Eight years later, his demise was suggested in a popular poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poem, “Victor Galbraith,” offered the reader a romantic version of the tragic events.
Seventy years after the poem’s publication, renown Ohio historian, Charles B. Galbreath offered a different account for what really happened on the plains of Monterey in the waning days during an early American conquest for empire.
This is the story of the how a man was merged into myth by a poet, was commemorated with stone markers in the town of his birth and became the subject of a historian intent of setting the record straight. This is also a story about how the myth continues to be presented as fact even to this day.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Longfellow was a mid-19th century pop star. The college literature professor retired in 1854 to pursue writing and enjoyed a lucrative career creating popular verse for a wide range of mainstream magazines. He was admired, especially early in his career for the lyric quality of his work. His poetry was a favorite in US grade school classrooms well into the 20th century.
There was no explanation or note describing any actual event that accompanied the publication of the poem in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine in 1855.
From “Birds of Passage” – “Flight the First”
“Victor Galbraith”Under the walls of Monterey At daybreak the bugles began to play, Victor Galbraith! In the mist of the morning damp and gray, These were the words they seemed to say: "Come forth to thy death, Victor Galbraith!" Forth he came, with a martial tread; Firm was his step, erect his head; Victor Galbraith, He who so well the bugle played, Could not mistake the words it said: "Come forth to thy death, Victor Galbraith!" He looked at the earth, he looked at the sky, He looked at the files of musketry, Victor Galbraith! And he said, with a steady voice and eye, "Take good aim; I am ready to die!" Thus challenges death Victor Galbraith. Twelve fiery tongues flashed straight and red, Six leaden balls on their errand sped; Victor Galbraith Falls to the ground, but he is not dead; His name was not stamped on those balls of lead, And they only scath Victor Galbraith. Three balls are in his breast and brain, But he rises out of the dust again, Victor Galbraith! The water he drinks has a bloody stain; "O kill me, and put me out of my pain!" In his agony prayeth Victor Galbraith. Forth dart once more those tongues of flame, And the bugler has died a death of shame, Victor Galbraith! His soul has gone back to whence it came, And no one answers to the name, When the Sergeant saith, "Victor Galbraith!" Under the walls of Monterey By night a bugle is heard to play, Victor Galbraith! Through the mist of the valley damp and gray The sentinels hear the sound, and say, "That is the wraith Of Victor Galbraith!"
man becomes myth
As recent as February 2013, the Gilbreath myth continues to be published in the local Middletown newspaper as fact. The article helps to illustrate how imaginative local writers have been on the subject. Quotes by Gilbreath himself appear on the local editorial page written by the newspaper’s editor pleading for justice. It’s a stirring account – and completely bogus.
Just as Longfellow’s “Victor Galbraith” sold literary magazines in the 1850s so does the myth continue to sell newspapers today.
UPDATE: On September 16, 2013, the Middletown Journal printed a retraction by Roger Miller, the author of “Middletown man’s pardon received hours after death” called “True identity of bugler revealed.” It appears that this blog site may have played a role in Mr. Miller’s reconsideration but the real source of this correction is former Middletown Historical Society board president, museum manager, docent and dedicated volunteer, Jim Stabler.
I’m indebted to Jim for pulling me into the historical society library one day many years ago and said, “you have to check this out” then pulled out a volume of Galbreath’s “History of Ohio” and showed me his entry for Victor Gilbreath. Jim and my father were both long time members of Middletown B.P.O.E. Lodge #257.
Elk’s Lodge (B.P.O.E. #257) was built on the site of Galbraith’s Middletown homestead along North Main Street. In 1917, the lodge commemorated Victor Galbraith with a stone marker. At the time they also produced a pamphlet whose author fleshes out the character in Longfellow’s poem.
‘Victor Galbraith,’ a musician and lover of music, because of his association with a lady minstrel of Portuguese birth, who came from the City of Monterey, with a harp to play and sing for the American soldiers, was supposed to have been a spy and that Victor Galbraith had imparted to her army secrets which she reported to the enemy. On this false charge he was court martialed, found guilty of treason, and executed.”
Near the corner of Main Street and Manchester Avenue are two small monuments on a grass median between two parking lots. They’re visible from the street but are low to the ground and obscure; they face the space where Elks Lodge #257 once stood at 103 North Main Street.
Prior to housing the fraternal organization’s lodge, it was a Baptist church and some time before that, the location of the Gilbreath homestead and Victor’s birthplace.
B.P.O.E Lodge #257 played a prominent role promoting the poem’s story line. About the same time as a white stone marble Post Office building was erected across the street from their lodge, the Elks produced a stone marker to memorialize the notoriety of their location. From the pamphlet produced by the lodge, it read in part –
“The stone on which his name is inscribed and which marks the location of the paternal roof, is one that the government rejected in the erection of the federal building, hard by the old homestead, and it therefore becomes a fitting monument to the one who had mistakenly suffered the same treatment from his native country as that of the stone erected in his memory.
His grave, unknown and unmarked in the fields of Mexico, his rejected stone mid the scenes he knew and loved stands the only monument to his memory, and the traveler on his way over the Dixie Highway, seeking places of historic interest, as he stands over the stone besides the Elks’ temple in Middletown, will recall the pathetic story of Victor Galbraith, sleeping peacefully in an unknown grave on the plain of Monterey.”
In 1978, the Middletown Historical Society and the Elks’ thought it appropriate to correct the federally-rejected-stone memorial injustice that occurred in 1917 by dedicating another head stone. It was a white marble, a remnant of the recently demolished Post Office from across the street. It was cut, inscribed and celebrated as poetic justice.
This photo was taken in May 1978; the caption reads:
“On a rainy springday, the Middletown Historical Society dedicated the Victor Galbraith monument. The president of the Society, Mary Sulfsted, introduced the speaker, Isadore Casper, who is seen here with the National Guard bugler.”
The marker on the right indicates the year of birth as 1815 but Charles Galbreath’s “History of Ohio” has it around 1823.
The Historian: Charles Galbreath
By now you might have noticed the multitude of spellings for the subject of Longfellow’s poem. It took a historian from Ohio named Galbreath to track it down. Given his name, Charles Galbreath seemed to have more than a passing interest to research the name and the circumstances of the event that set the myth of Victor Gilbreath in motion.
Galbreath’s narrative begins to diverge from the myth here:
“The true story is somewhat different. To begin with, the central figure of this tragic event was not Victor Galbraith or Victor Gilbraith, but Victor Gilbreath – an immaterial variant, but worthy of note in this connection.”
According to Mr. Galbreath, the Gilbreath family had moved from Middletown to Wisconsin then, by the middle of the 1840s, to Galena, Illinois. War with Mexico was breaking out and the the young musician, Victor Gilbreath was intent on enlisting.
His mother had grave concerns about army services as Victor was prone to violence when under the influence of alcohol. But the commander of the 1st Regiment of Illinois Volunteers assured Mrs. Gilbreath that all would be well and that Victor would be in good hands.
This held true for his first enlistment. But Victor’s habits began to cause problems after he signed up for a second hitch. His command changed after his first re-enlistment and his new superiors were not nearly as accommodating toward his violent behavior while drunk. They didn’t tolerate the otherwise good-natured musician’s propensity for violent behavior under any circumstances and bivouacked on the plains of Monterey, violent drunkenness was a capital offense.
As the historian relates –
“The romantic story of the lady minstrel has little foundation in fact, Gilbreath was not executed for ‘revealing army secrets’ or for ‘treason.’ The execution ‘under the walls of Monterey’ on December 27, 1847, seems to have been not only a tragic but a gruesome affair. He fell before the firing squad, we are told, and was placed in his coffin, which was left uncovered.” Before the hour of burial, his comrades were horrified to see him arise with blood streaming from his wounds and call for a drink of water. This was given him, after which he pleaded to be shot and relieved of his pain. A second volley from the firing squad was effective. Perhaps it should be added here that sobered by his impending fate, Victor Gilbreath met death with firmness and composure.”
Galbreath’s historical narrative offers a personal view into the life and tragic death of a soldier during a very controversial war. Another soldier who fought in the Mexican-American War with a southwestern Ohio and Galena, Illinois connection, wrote this in his memoirs:
“Generally, the officers of the army were indifferent whether the annexation was consummated or not; but not so all of them. For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”
Entertainment is a very powerful force for spawning and sustaining myth. Too often what we accept as truth is a simple preference for how the story makes us feel. We select what we want to believe. We want to believe our cause is just and all who die for it are heroes.
For many years, the community of Middletown Ohio preferred to believe that Victor Galbraith was a tragic hero in a forgotten war. It’s time for this myth to be put to rest. The Middletown community can take some comfort knowing, like the myth, their war hero was hard to kill.