(I also have Mennonite and Church of the Brethren backgrounds in my family tree, so even though I didn’t know much about these family traditions growing up, I guess it was genetically pre-determined that I become a peace activist.)
Gardner moved from Indiana to Lone Star, Kansas in the 1850’s, to help support the establishment of Kansas as a “free state” as he wanted to help free the slaves. By all accounts he and his family had a hard life, as farmers certainly did back then (and as many still do today). Gardner’s house was a station on the Underground Railroad, and he participated in armed raids into Missouri to free slaves and other abolitionists.
Because of his participation in such raids, he was a wanted man with a $500 reward for his capture, dead or alive, on his head. He was part of a party organized to rescue John Brown from prison in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (Brown declined their help, and told his would-be rescuers he had decided to die a martyr for the cause of abolition).
Gardner put his body on the line, serving in the First Kansas Colored Regiment, fighting alongside free black soldiers. (As my friend George Paz Martin, no relation, quipped, “You know what he was don’t you? A buffalo soldier!”) He died in battle in August, 1863 at the age of 43, or four years younger than I am now.
Every time I read his biography I can’t believe his courage and dedication. Though I believe strongly in the power of nonviolence, I might well have made the same choices he made in his life, that is if I somehow had his fearlessness.
As far as I know (and I have not researched this), Joseph Gardner was the only member of my family killed in war. I’ll be thinking of him this Memorial Day, in two different ways – pride that such a man of strength and conviction is my ancestor, and hoping he would approve of my calling as a peace activist dedicated to abolishing war and building a peaceful and just world.
Who, and what, will you think of this Memorial Day?
(More on Joseph Gardner, some of it written by his son, is available here).
–Kevin Martin, Executive Director