Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 973
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 miles to the land whose name he was forbidden to hear. Nolan once comes close to gaining his freedom from this bondage of silence. It happened during a naval battle with a British ship. A good shot from the enemy strikes one of the ship’s guns, killing the officer in charge and scattering the men. Unexpectedly, Nolan appears to take command of the gun, heroically ignoring his own safety and aiding in the defeat of the English ship. He is highly praised by the captain, who promises to mention him in his naval report. Nolan’s case had been so forgotten in Washington, D.C., that there seem to be no orders concerning him. His punishment is being carried on simply by repetitious habit and naval form.
During his extensive studies, Nolan keeps scholarly notebooks. For diversion, he begins a collection of organic specimens of wildlife, which are brought to him by ship’s men from ashore. He never gets ill, and often he nurses those who are. So the expatriate passes his years—nameless, friendless, loveless. If there are any records of him in Washington, no evidence of such papers is ever uncovered. So far as the government is concerned, Nolan does not exist. Stories about the lonely man circulate through mess halls, but many of the stories are untrue.
During the last fifteen years of his life, Nolan ages rapidly. The men whom he had known when he first began his endless journey in 1807 have retired, and younger men have taken their places on the ships. Nolan becomes more reserved than ever, but he is always well regarded by those who know him. It is said that young boys idolize him for his advice and for his interest in them.
Constantly, the men are on guard never to reveal to their prisoner any news about the United States. This secrecy is often difficult to maintain, for the nation is growing rapidly. With the annexation of Texas, there arose a strained incident. The officers puzzle over the removal of that state from Nolan’s maps, but they decide that the change will give him a hint of westward expansion. There are other inconvenient taboos. When the states on the West Coast join the Union, the ships that carry Nolan have to avoid customary landings there. Although Nolan suspects the reason for this change in his habitual itinerary, he keeps silent.
Nolan lays dying, and the captain of the ship comes to see him. He finds that Nolan has draped the stars and stripes around a picture of George Washington. On one bulkhead hangs the painting of an eagle grasping the entire globe in its claws; at the foot of the bed is a map of the United States that Nolan had drawn from memory. When Nolan asks for news from home, the captain, who likes and pities Nolan, tells him about the progress of the United States during the more than fifty years of Nolan’s exile. Seeing Nolan’s joy at the news of his country, the captain cannot bring himself to tell the dying man that the United States is engaged in a civil war. Nolan dies in 1863. His last request had been that he be buried at sea, his only home.
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