In mid-June, 1862, the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry, commanded by the famous Confederate raider, John Hunt Morgan, had an unusual visitor. Union Army Major W. A. Coffey arrived in a carriage to place himself in captivity. Seldom had a man gone to such lengths to surrender.
Coffey had been originally captured in May, when Morgan's men took a train behind Union lines. He emerged from the train with pistols blazing, but was forced to surrender when his ammunition ran out. Morgan had written him a special parole and freed him. Coffey could be released from his parole if the Union would agree to exchange him for one of Morgan's men, Lt. Colonel Robert Wood.
To redeem his parole, so he could return to service with the Union cause, Coffey first journeyed to Nashville, where Wood was a prisoner. The general there refused to release Wood, so Coffey traveled on to Washington, DC, to present his case to the Secretary of War. When the exchange was still refused, he stopped in Kentucky to visit his sick wife, then returned to Nashville, where he received a pass to cross through the lines.
Entering the Confederate area, he traveled first to Huntsville, then to Chattanooga and finally to Knoxville before he located Morgan, and redeemed his word of honor by turning himself in. He spent a long time as a captive in Richmond before he was exchanged. No one at the time thought this episode was particularly strange.
In our cynical age, we may find Coffey's voluntary return to captivity amazing--or at least quaint. One can imagine Illinois Governor Blagojevich and other officer holders in both parties sniggering at this story. But Coffey was a man of honor. He could be killed, but no one could take away his honor.
This is not to say there were not cads and scoundrels on both sides in that age. But there were also many men and women to whom honor was a living and vital concept.
When the Founding Fathers signed the declaration of independence, they pledged their lives and fortunes to the cause. They also pledged their "sacred honor." We would laugh at a politician who pledged his sacred honor to a modern cause. When's the last time someone mentioned honor in a conversation with you?
Today, the scouts, the military academies and the armed forces still teach the concept of honor--but who else? A few years ago a joke went around: a school with an honor system was a place where the teachers had the honor and the students had the system. Even the service academies have had their share of honor violations in recent years. The Marines developed their “core values of Honor, Courage and Commitment to teach in boot camp, because recruits from our society need values-education as well as military training.
When no one can be taken at his word, when self interest totally rules, when "buyer beware" is the general philosophy, will America be a place worth living in? Or a place worth defending?
Retired politicians are properly addressed, "The Honorable John Doe," even when they have traded their public office for a lucrative job lobbying their former legislative colleagues, often for special interests, perhaps even for foreign interests (contributing to Presidential Libraries).
The first definition of honor in my dictionary is "high public esteem, fame, glory." It's the second definition, "honesty or integrity in one's beliefs and actions," that we seem to have lost.
Try asking some teenagers to define "honor." Chances are they'll know about fame and glory; the high school "honor roll" and so on. Will they be able to articulate the second definition? ask your kids. Will they say they have personal honor? Or will they look at you like you're from Mars?
Restoring the concept of honor to a special place in American life will be very difficult. Honor requires sacrifice, because it means doing the right thing, rather than the easy thing, the profitable thing or the pleasurable thing. Those individuals who still care about honor must not only live it, but teach it. Even more difficult, they must demand it of the people they interact with.
Just as no one is perfect in any other area, there is no perfectly honorable person. But even if we don't always succeed, we must strive for honor. That is our duty. If honor dies in America, our nation is lost as surely as if it had been conquered by a foreign power.
The good news is that millions of Americans still lead honorable lives, even if they don't think about their honor. We must preserve this essential American trait, because like courage and duty, it is one of the foundations of human character without which this will cease to be the America we love. This threat to the American culture is more dangerous than any foreign foe we have faced--and you and I are the front-line soldiers. Honor demands we do our duty.