The Man Without a Country was first published in the December 1863 issue of The Atlantic magazine. Edward Everett Hale wrote the story as if it were the recollections of a naval officer, and many thought they were reading the history of a real person.
The tale begins in 1863, when the storyteller / narrator was “waiting for a Lake-Superior steamer which did not choose to come, and I was devouring, to the very stubble, all the current literature I could get hold of, even down to the deaths and marriages in the Herald.” He read Philip Nolan’s death notice, and felt there could be no harm in telling his story.
Nolan had been a young officer in the Western division of the U.S. Army, at a time when the country had only 17 states – all in the Eastern portion of the continent. In about 1805 Nolan met, and began to hero-worship, Aaron Burr. In 1807 Burr, along with several army officers, were charged with treason. Nolan was brought to trial, and when the judge asked if he had anything to say in his defense he cried out that he wished he might never hear of the United States again.
He was given a life sentence as a prisoner aboard a series of naval ships, never to have shore leave at a U.S. port. All of his books and newspapers would be censored, with anything about the United States clipped out, and all sailors were forbidden to speak of home when Nolan was near. In all other ways he was to be treated with the respect granted to one who held his former military rank. He was always given a stateroom, and he wore an army dress uniform, but with plain buttons, since military buttons had a U.S. insignia on them.
Before the storytelling-officer met Nolan he’d heard of him from others. An officer named Phillips told of Nolan’s first voyage. Phillips had borrowed several newly published books from an English officer, and one day Nolan joined a group of men sitting on deck reading Walter Scott’s poetry. No one had ever read The Lay of the Last Minstrel, so it was thought there would be no harm in having Nolan read it aloud to them. All went well until he came to the lines:
Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
He read a few more lines, then swung the book into the sea, rushed to his stateroom, and no one saw him again for two months. (Poor Phillips “had to make up some beggarly story to the English surgeon why I did not return his Walter Scott to him.”)
Since Nolan could not be told anything regarding the United States he didn’t know about the War of 1812 until an English ship fired upon the ship he was on. When the officer of a gun crew was killed, and many of the crew injured, Nolan took control, instructing and encouraging the remaining crew, who were able to load and fire twice as fast as any other gun on the ship.
After that sea battle the captain was the first of many to write to the Secretary of War asking that Philip Nolan be pardoned. However, everyone in the government either insisted the Man Without a Country didn’t exist, or else they wanted to pretend he didn’t.
The storyteller was on his first voyage as a midshipman when he met Nolan. It was soon after the Slave-Trade treaty, and some chose to ignore the new prohibition on importing new slaves from Africa. They came upon a schooner with slaves on board, and the officer who took charge of the schooner asked for someone who could interpret Portuguese, for none of the Africans spoke English, but a couple had worked for people from Portugal. Nolan said he knew the language, and he, the captain and the storyteller boarded the slave vessel.
When Nolan told the Africans they were free there were shouts of delight, but when he interpreted the captain’s plan to take them to Cape Palmas the men expressed despair. Readers learn: “The drops stood on poor Nolan’s white forehead, as he hushed the men down, and said, – “He says, ‘Not Palmas.’ He says, ‘Take us home…’ ” for the captured men would have no way of traveling across the continent of Africa to return to their own families.
The captain agreed to return the men to their homes, and when Nolan was in the boat that would return him to the ship he told the storyteller to never do anything that would permanently bar him from his family, home, and country.
After that the two men became friends. Nolan would stay awake to walk the deck with his friend when the storyteller had night watch, and Nolan lent him books and helped him with his studies. Readers are told “later in life, when I thought I had some influence in Washington, I moved heaven and earth to have him discharged. But it was like getting a ghost out of prison…”
For nearly six decades Philip Nolan lived as a repentant exile at sea, then the storyteller came upon his death notice in the newspaper. Later on he received a long letter from a fellow naval officer named Danforth, who had sat by Nolan’s bedside as the man was dying. As the officer was leaving the room to allow Nolan to rest he was told “Look in my Bible, Danforth when I am gone.”
Inside of the man’s Bible was a slip of paper. Nolan wanted to be buried at sea, but asked that a stone be set up at one of the places where he’d served while in the army. The stone was to read:
“In Memory of
Lieutenant in the Army of the United States.
He loved his country as no other man has loved her; but no man deserved less at her hands.”
Now that you know the gist of the plot, plus the ending, you may think you don’t need to read Edward Everett Hale’s short story. Mark Twain once stated that “a classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read,” and I’ve trudged my way through several so-called classics that no one in his or her right mind would want to read. But if you love a good story, and don’t hate history, I recommend you read this classic.
It was written during the Civil War as a patriotic tale, but it is much more than that. I consider it to be a story of friendship and honor. Philip Nolan is convicted of a crime, receives a harsh punishment, accepts his sentence without complaint, and attempts to never be a burden to those with the awkward obligation of being his “jailers.” While reading the story I grew to care for Philip Nolan and those who befriended him, and a reread didn’t lessen the story’s impact.
If you’d like to read The Man Without a Country go to: