Few people notice in the newspaper columns of 1863 the report of the death of Philip Nolan. Few people would have recognized his name, in fact, for since 1817, Nolan’s name had never been mentioned in public by any naval officer, and the records concerning his case had been destroyed by fire years before his death.
As a young officer in Texas, Nolan meets Aaron Burr and becomes involved in Burr’s infamous plot against the United States government. When Burr’s treason is revealed and the rebels are brought to trial, Nolan is indicted along with some of the lesser figures of the plot. Asked at his trial whether he had any statement to make concerning his loyalty to the United States, Nolan, in a frenzy, curses the name of his country. Shocked, Colonel Morgan, who is conducting the court-martial, sentences Nolan never again to hear the name of his native land.
The secretary of the U.S. Navy is requested to place the prisoner aboard a naval ship with a letter to the captain explaining Nolan’s peculiar punishment. For the remainder of his life, Nolan and this letter go from one ship to another, Nolan traveling alone, speaking only to officers who guard their country’s name from his ears. None of the officers want to have him around because his presence prevents any talk of home or of politics. Once in a while, he is invited to the officers’ mess, but most of the time, he eats alone under guard. Because he wears a U.S. Army uniform with perfectly plain buttons, he becomes known as Plain Buttons.
The periodicals and books he reads have been edited to delete any naming of or allusion to the United States. One incident is marked well by those who witnessed it. Some officers had been gathered on deck one day reading aloud to one another Sir Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel. When it came his turn, Nolan took up the poem at the section that contained the lines, “This is my own, my native land!” He colored, choked, and threw the book into the water as he ran to his room. He did not emerge for two months.
Nolan alters considerably as time passes, and he loses the bragging air of unconcern he had assumed at first. After the incident of the poem, he becomes shy and retiring, conversing with few people and staying in his quarters most of the time. He is transferred from ship to ship, never coming closer than one hundred...
(The entire section is 973 words.)