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Written in 1836 in Texas

P.S. The Lord is on our side—When the enemy appeared in sight we had not three bushels of corn—We have since found in deserted houses 80 or 90 bushels & got into the walls 20 or 30 head of Beeves.

(for further context, see the Wikipedia entry for this letter)

The bit I found interesting was the last line about the Lord being on their side. Was this used as an expression to encourage people to join them, or was it used as a literal statement, as in, the Lord literally put bushels of corn in the house for them?

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Sounds to me it is telling the reader that they are not a lost cause, god actually wants them to survive and had them find corn and manage to get cattle to eat –  mplungjan Feb 23 '11 at 13:16
    
How does this question live up to its title? Where does the disambiguation factor in? –  Robusto Feb 23 '11 at 14:45
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@Robusto, clarification that follows from the removal of ambiguity of the two meanings I derived from the text. –  Tom Gullen Feb 23 '11 at 14:47
    
I'm tempted to edit to remove the first three paragraphs; they don't seem relevant to the question. Can anyone give me a reason not to? –  slim Jan 3 '12 at 16:29
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4 Answers

It's a bit of both, I think. The writer is probably taking their "luck" in finding grain and obtaining cattle as a sign of divine favor (in the sort of hedged half-believing way that seems particularly American to me, but doubtless people of other nationalities are perfectly familiar with), and in any event describing it that way sounds better and more devout than saying "oh, hey, we got lucky with food, good thing since we had all the military preparedness in that area of a kid's tea party". It serves the purpose of both helping give the letter a tone of cheerful bravado and, probably, easing people's fears that if they answer the call to arms they'll wind up starving.

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In context, that has two possible meanings to me.

  1. The Lord is on our side could be equivalent to "Thank God...". Expressing relief at good fortune in the most typical manner. Not necessarily prescribing it to God.

  2. "We are on the side of the Right/Good/Just". The Lord only ever siding with those who are good, and just, by saying this he is implying that they are in the right. Then using their good fortune to prove it.

It would depend on the writer for which meaning is to be taken. In that time period, it is more likely definition 2 is intended.

Today, it would be either definition 1, or a mixture of both, expressing God is on our side and as a thanks for what we found (without prescribing it to God).

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The words would be interpreted differently by every reader, depending on the particulars of their faith. It seems very likely to me that the writer knew this to be the case when he wrote it.

A particularly superstitious believer might think that God himself magicked up the corn in a puff of smoke, in a piece of direct intervention to help the Texans.

A more pragmatic, yet still ardent, believer might believe that God had subtly influenced the course of the last few months, engineering things so that when the time came, there would be food for the Texan forces.

A secular person could read it in a non-religious manner: "Hey guys, we had some good luck".

The skill of a great rabble rouser, is to make lots of people believe they agree with you, by making your words fit many interpretations.

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Hmm, I don't think a secularist would understand the writer's intent to be "We had good luck." The secularist would presumably not believe that the finding of the food was the result of divince providence, but rather would attribute it to a lucky break. But he wouldn't suppose that was what the writer meant to say, just that that was what he believed the reality to be and the writer is a deluded religious extremist. No? (As a decidedly non-secularist, I don't want to put words in someone else's mouth.) –  Jay Jan 3 '12 at 17:34
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It seems to me that the words are meant literally: the writer believed that God favored his side in the conflict and provided for them. RE Slim's comment, I doubt he (Col Travis that is, not Slim) supposed that God had created the food supplies miraculously out of thin air, but rather that God had worked more subtly to cause them to be present when the time came.

The letter does not explicitly say, "God is on our side, therefore you should be on our side, too." The writer might have had such a thought in mind. The general thrust of the letter is that they are holding out despite seemingly overwhelming odds. Whether the intent is to say, "We are holding out, but we can't hold out forever, please send help soon" or "We are holding out, which demonstrates our courage and skill and divine favor, and so this is the winning side and you want to be on it" ... it seems to me that either reading is possible. Or maybe Col Travis is simply trying to state the facts of the situation and let the reader make what he will of it.

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