Vol. LXV, No. 16
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Late on the night of April 13, 1861, news of the attack on Fort Sumter reached New York City. Walt Whitman heard it in the “loud cries” of Broadway newsboys who came “tearing and yelling up the street, rushing from side to side even more furiously than usual.” Looking back on the moment some 20 years later in Specimen Days in America, he writes of buying a paper and reading the news with a “crowd of others, who gather’d impromptu.” For those who had no papers, “one of us read the telegram aloud while all listen’d silently and attentively .I can almost see them there now, under the lamps at midnight again.”
For Whitman, who would witness the carnage of the Civil War first-hand as a wound-dresser, “the volcanic upheaval of the nation, after that firing on the flag at Charleston,” not only “settled the question of disunion” but “will remain as the grandest and most encouraging spectacle yet vouchsafed in any age, old or new, to political progress and democracy.” With all its horrors, it was the beginning of “the best lesson of the century, or of America, and it is a mighty privilege to have been part of it.”
History classes, books, and documentaries have never quite succeeded in bringing the time to life for me the way Whitman does in his Specimen Days messages from “the field of war,” where he went in 1862 after learning that his brother George had been seriously wounded. When you read his accounts of nursing and consoling soldiers in field hospitals, you begin to think that if the war had not existed, Whitman would have invented it. But then the same could be said, in a figurative sense, for any poet or writer who has reimagined that confict into literary art, whether it’s Herman Melville in Battle Pieces, Stephen Crane in The Red Badge of Courage, among other works, or, more recently, Mackinlay Kantor in Andersonville.
My copy of Specimen Days, a small blue volume in the Oxford World’s Classics series, belonged to my father and has his name on the fly leaf, with his pencilled notes inside. The book had gone missing for years, but like all good things in a Mr. Micawber universe, it turned up again recently and now here it is on the 25th anniversary of the day my father died, April 14, 1986. On April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated and on April 14, 1861, Americans were waking up to the news of the attack on Fort Sumter.
Since this column marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, it would be remiss of me not to mention an ancestor of mine who played a significant part in the conflict, namely the cranky, tempestuous, ill-fated Confederate General Jubal Early (1816-1894). In the second year of the war, on April 10, 1862, a little less than a month before “old Jubilee” was wounded in the Battle of Williamsburg “while leading a charge against staggering odds,” my paternal great grandmother was born Lillian Early to Joseph Carr Early III and Mary Ann Tallboys Early. Lillian grew up to lead a 28-year charge of her own as president of the Kansas W.C.T.U. It’s amusing to think that a figure as eccentric and contentious as Jubal Early should be the most illustrious ancestor available to a family of strict, proper, high-functioning, achievement-oriented Kansas Republicans. In my mother’s version of the ancestral dynamic, the Yankee Mitchners were seen in contrast to her own Brawling Down-to-Earth Patterson Democrats. She liked to use the opposite-campfire analogy to illustrate the difference. “In the Union camp,” she’d tell me, “they’d be reading their Bibles and saying their prayers, while over on the Confederate side the soldiers would be singing and dancing and playing their fiddles and having a high old time.”
One of the fiddle players in her hypothetical Rebel camp was her maternal grandfather, C.A. Davis, who went west after the war, played the fiddle in Bat Masterson’s Dodge City band, got married to a beautiful girl from Ontario named Anna Watts, became a railway station agent in Indian territory, and eventually settled in Clay County, Missouri, where he was tight with Frank and Jesse James, or so the story goes. Another border state Democrat who fought for the South was my mother’s paternal grandfather W.H. Patterson, who also lived in Clay County, hung out with the James boys, and was a member in high standing of the Veterans of the Confederacy.
Embittered and fed up at war’s end, relieved of his command by Robert E. Lee, who admired him, Jubal Early left the lost cause of his country and disappeared into Mexico for a time disguised as a farmer. Even a sympathetic, in-depth account like Frank E. Vandiver’s Jubal’s Raid: General Early’s Civil War Attack on Washington (McGraw-Hill 1960) cites some seriously mixed reviews: “Defeat and degradation — these were Jubal’s share of the war. The dying Confederacy heaped vilification on him.” What they never forgave him for was that he almost saved the day by taking Washington, and he might have brought it off, so the rumors said, had he not spent precious time in the Shenandoah Valley fighting and defeating a force led by Ben Hur author Lew Wallace, thus giving the city time to shore up its defenses. Says Vandiver, “He had just missed in a race with destiny.” Even so, Vandiver awards him “an honored place in the ranks of Confederate generals,” and had he been able to surmount “the militia at Washington’s battlements, he might have changed the course of history.”
Letters from the War
Among the papers I found when my father died were some letters from my great grandmother Smith’s brothers, Luther and Hardin, who fought for the North with an Illinois regiment. To read and hold these documents from the front lines creates a charge, a rush, a touch of the authentic beyond even Specimen Days. In terms of literary quality, there’s no comparison of course, but these pages convey the naked essence of the moment, the crossed-out words, misspellings, and flawed grammar. Reading the letters, holding them in your hands, the years fall away, it’s December 1862 in a camp near Nashville, Tenn, and “in the daytime we can see the rebels with the naked eye. While at night we can see their campfires all around us. Last night it turned cold & this morning the ground is frozen hard. Excuse pencil as all our ink is gone.”
Or from Vicksburg, July 1863: “We burnt the bigger part of the town and tore up about 10 or 12 miles of the railroad. I am writing with a pair of gloves on. Intend to have a fireplace if we stop here long. I have a very nice bed for tonight by piling up small boughs of pine trees. These with 3 or 4 blankets make a bed almost as good as one of feathers.” No creating art after the fact here: this man, whose little sister was the 103-year-old blind woman I knew and read stories to when I was eight, helped in the burning of Vicksburg and wrote the letter with his gloves on because his hands were so cold.
The letters also contradict the somber picture of the Union side in my mother’s campfire analogy, what with frequent references to girls and “devlin a round”and “someone who sed that she was goodlooken but she sed that she would not tell me her name.” And “just suffice it to say we had a good old march to Savannah and a good time while we stayed there and you will doubtless agree with me when I tell you that Regt Hdgarters was in a private house where there lived two beautiful lasses and they seemed to enjoy the company of the Yankees ‘very much.’ But doubtless your spirit is so much more agreeable that it would be mockery for me to say anything about our amusements on that eventful night. We had a gay old time.”
Never Say Never
Whitman says farewell to the war in an entry headed “The Real War Will Never Get Into the Books,” claiming that the conflict’s “interior history will not only never be written,” but that the “actual soldier of 1862-’65, North and South, with all his ways, his incredible dauntlessness, habits, practices, tastes, language, his fierce friendship, his appetite, rankness, his superb strength and animality, lawless gait, and a hundred unnamed lights and shades of camp, I say, will never be written — perhaps must not and should not be.” My father underlined that passage.
Walt Whitman knew better. He’d already begun saying the unsayable. So had Jubal Early in his Autobiographical Sketch and Narrative, his “best literary achievement,” according to Vandiver, “for it shows that underneath the stormy exterior he was a man of reason and sense.”
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