‘ the real war will never get in the books’: Selections from Writers During the Civil War
The Vacant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home
For a century and more after the Civil War American critics have worried the question of why the experience never inspired a literary classic worthy of the subject. The first to broach the problem were those to whom it must have caused the greatest embarrassment—the writers who lived through the war themselves. It was they who most often demanded the “masterpiece” that measured up to the experience. Some of them aspired to meet that need with a work of their own, but none claimed to have done so, and several lived to confess their failure. Others declared it would never be done. Thus William Dean Howells lamented his “forever-to-be-unwritten novel,” and Walt Whitman believed that “the real war” was beyond the reach of writers. The debate over the explanation continues to the present day. Optimists waited in vain for writers of the postbellum generations to fulfill their hopes. Stephen Crane came nearest perhaps, but Crane was no Tolstoy.
Numerous theories have been put forth to account for the missing masterpiece on the most profound experience in the country’s history. Edmund Wilson opens his Patriotic Gore (1962), a study of some thirty wartime writers, by declaring that “the period of the American Civil War was not one in which belles letters flourished,” and then asks, “Has there ever been another historical crisis…in which so many people were so articulate?” Wilson’s most articulate people were not professional writers, but statesmen, orators, autobiographers, and diarists. He persuasively cites Lincoln, Grant, John Mosby, Mary Chesnut, and Justice Holmes as participants who “dramatize the war as the poet or the writer of fiction has never been able to do.” Melville and Whitman get only passing attention, and Henry James and Twain little more.
Agreeing largely with Wilson, Daniel Aaron in The Unwritten War (1973) also considers some thirty writers but does not confine his sample to those of the war years. He thinks that “From the beginning, the War seemed designed for literary treatment as if history itself had assiduously collaborated with the would-be writer.” It would seem a writer “had only to plagiarize from the plot of the Authorial Providence who first blocked out the acts and scenes.” Aaron agrees with Robert Penn Warren, in his Legacy of the Civil War (1961), that the historic script was “massively symbolic,” even “sibylline,” and that it was America’s Homeric war—but that it still awaits a Homer.
Attempting to supplement Wilson’s view of the sterility of the American literary imagination during the war, Aaron suggests a Freudian “emotional resistance” to racial aspects of the war that made the presumed beneficiary, the liberated slave, “an object of contempt or dread.” This, in Aaron’s view, evoked feelings of guilt and blurred literary insight. But neither these nor other explanations—the reticence of soldiers about “realities” of combat, the delicate ears of a predominantly female reading public, or the divided sympathies of many professional writers—seem wholly adequate. It may well be the case that such catastrophic convulsions as the Civil War do not provide ideal conditions for writing epics. War and Peace, it might be noted, did not appear until half a century after the conflict it treated and that its battles were fought years before the author was born.
Louis P. Masur presents excerpts from “writings about the Civil War penned during the war” by fourteen writers, all but two from the North, only two of them black. With the exception of bits of verse by Melville and Whitman, the excerpts are from personal letters, diary entries, journal articles, and essays, most of them long forgotten. Masur acknowledges the value of the books by Edmund Wilson and Daniel Aaron, but thinks they have underestimated writing other than fiction and verse by authors whose “words ring with immediacy and authority” and represent the most “moving and remarkable literature of the Civil War.”
The excerpts chosen reveal more about the writers than they do about the war. And what they wrote does not support the idea that great historic crises and conflicts tend to inspire profound thoughts. Nor do any of the writers chosen show here the descriptive powers of, say, Mary Chesnut in her diaries and their later elaborations. What we find is a collect on of opinions that are often more interesting for the way they change from month to month than for their content. Henry Adams was to become one of our greatest historians and writers, but he could declare in the heat of the war there could be no peace “so long as the southern people exist…. We must ruin them…exterminate them in the end”; as for how it was to be done, he wrote, “I don’t much care.” Later he was for peace at almost any price, including recognition of the Confederacy, and could say that talk of “the impossibility of disunion is damned nonsense.” The novelist Lydia Maria Child thought Lincoln’s assassination “only another of the wonderful manifestations of Providence,” since he was “in danger of making too easy terms with the rebels.” A stern opponent of Federal encroachment in 1860, Emerson was soon calling for “the absolute powers of a Dictator” for the government. When Union opinion shifted so did the transcendentalist of Concord.
Masur finds Hawthorne’s meditations on the war “simultaneously patriotic and treasonous, lyrical and satirical.” He records that the editor of the Atlantic Monthly in 1862 published Hawthorne’s article signed “A Peaceable Man” with a note declaring one section had to be omitted because “it lacks reverence,” and of another section he did print he thought “its tone reprehensible, and its tendency impolitic.” The omitted text, published in 1871 and reprinted by Masur, turns out to have described Lincoln as “the homeliest man I ever saw, yet by no means repulsive or disagreeable,” despite a certain “uncouthness of his movement.” In the parts originally printed he said that “thousands of warm-hearted, sympathetic, and impulsive persons have joined the Rebels” only because “between two conflicting, loyalties, they chose that which necessarily lay nearest the heart.” In a letter to a friend on the war he admitted that “I always thought that it should have been avoided,” and that it would “only effect by horrible convulsion the selfsame end that might and would have been brought about by a gradual and peaceful change.” But this was not a view he emphasized publicly.
Herman Melville fell silent during the war and left little record of his attitudes in those years and no publications, but he found his voice at the end of it and in 1866 published Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, a book consisting of seventy-one poems and a prose supplement. It proved a miserable failure with critics and the public and drove Melville back into silence Masur quotes with approval Aaron’s description of the book as a “sustained debate between belief and disbelief which abounds in paradoxes, ironies and conflicts, and which keeps denying what it affirms.” Like his friend Hawthrone, Melville was an unbigoted conservative who considered the war a “terrible historic tragedy.” He never brought himself to embrace it, although, like Hawthrone, he did not take a public position against it. In spite of his view that slavery was an “atheistic iniquity,” he also had compassionate things to say about the position of the Southern rebels:
As frankly let us own—what it would be unbecoming to parade were foreigners concerned—that our triumph was won not more by skill and bravery than by superior resources and crushing numbers; that it was a triumph, too, over a people for years politically misled by designing men, and also by some honestly-erring men, who from their position could not have been otherwise than broadly influential; a people who, though, indeed, they sought to perpetuate the curse of slavery, and even extend it, but (less fortunate, not less righteous than we) were the fated inheritors; a people who, having a like origin with ourselves, share essentially in whatever worthy qualities we may possess.
Not the least interest of Masur’s collection is its suggestion that two of the country’s greatest writers harbored doubts about the war and were apparently reluctant to express them.
It is one of the numerous paradoxes of the major writers who came from Yankee families that three of them in the postwar years chose fictional Confederate veterans to voice their most cutting criticisms of society in the Gilded Age. Unnoticed by Masur, these were Melville in his long narrative and philosophical poem Clarel (1876), Henry Adams in his satirical novel Democracy (1880), and Henry James in The Bostonians (1886). Of the three, Melville’s part-Indian Confederate veteran was the bitterest and bleakest of all:
Dead level of rank commonplace:
An Anglo-Saxon China, see,
May on your vast plains shame the race
In the Dark Ages of Democracy.
(Another irony overlooked by Masur is that Henry Adams, who said in 1863 that “our generation,” because of its war experience, could never “be commonplace,” later made the rank mediocrity of his own generation a major theme of his commentary on American democracy.)
The two Southern wartime writers on whom Masur concentrates are the novelists John Esten Cooke and William Gilmore Simms, who were of different generations and outlook. Masur borrows another critic’s characterization of Cooke as an “archetype of the tortured liberal which the South has fathered for generations.” The young Virginian’s conventional romantic novels had acquired a reputation in the South and attracted northern attention in his twenties. In 1855 he turned from romance to social criticism in order, Masur tells us, to advance his ideas for “progressive changes” in Virginia—we are not told just what they were—and on the eve of war, appalled that his state was leaning to secession, he confessed, “I can’t compose, I can’t think of anything but Virginia’s degradation.” Nevertheless, as a Confederate sergeant, Cooke commanded a gun crew at First Manassas, served four years on J.E.B. Stuart’s staff and, with the rank of captain, surrendered at Appomattox. During the war he sent reports to newspapers, wrote crude Confederate propaganda, and afterward enjoyed being favorite myth-maker of the Lost Cause.
Simms was a generation older than Cooke and a more prolific and successful novelist, but during the war years in South Carolina he said he was “literally doing nothing in letters.” He would sit down to his desk “with reluctance, and leave it on the slightest pretense.” Apart from a short novel that did not deal with the war and some newspaper articles to support the Southern side, he had nothing to show for the war years save personal tragedy—four of his children and his wife died from disease and a fire burned down his house. He rebuilt his house, only to see it again destroyed, this time by Sherman’s raiders. Simms took refuge in Columbia in time to see the city sacked, burned, and destroyed. He had saved the manuscripts he was working on when his house burned, “matter enough for 50 vols.” he said, but nothing came of them in the five years of life remaining to him after the war.
Frederick Douglass, in contrast, called the war years “the noblest and best part of my life,” the period when he was acknowledged leader of his race, champion of their liberation and their rights as soldiers and freedmen. After the war his popularity as an orator declined at the same time that the rights of his people were increasingly denied. He left, in three versions, a remarkable autobiography, but it is more informative about the man and his cause than about the war.* This foremost of abolitionists wrote that the government intended “no good shall come to the Negro from this war,” and to this extent he was in agreement with Hawthorne, who wrote “whoever may be benefited by the results of this war, it will not be the present generation of negroes.”
It was from Walt Whitman that Masur takes his rather awkward title “…the real war will never get in the books.” It is not clear what Whitman meant by “real war.” He claimed to have “seen war-life, the real article,” and to “have been on the battle-field among the wounded,” though in fact he had never seen a battle. What he had seen much of, and graphically described, was the daily life of the army hospitals of Washington that made the war seem “a great slaughter-house.” At times it “horrified and disgusted” him. On the next page he could say that the sight of cavalry on the march “made my heart leap” because “it had the look of real war.” Was the real war the one or the other, or both? The poet shared the ambivalence of political conservatives about slavery and about the South. He was impatient with abolitionists: “Besides,” he wrote, “is not America for Whites? And is it not better so?”
Later nineteenth-century critics were hard on “malingerers,” writers who avoided enlistment yet presumed to tell readers about the war. Three writers in Mazur’s collection saw combat, but this did not make their writing about war especially distinctive. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the radical abolitionist, served for several years, an experience that impressed him with “how much of military life is a matter of mere detail,” boredom for “weeks and months of waiting, and then one glorious hour…wasted heroism at the end, and perhaps not even that.” He thought that “military glory is a fitful and uncertain thing,” and that “courage is cheap.” John William DeForest saw longer service, more battles, more days under fire than any of them, and wrote what some considered the best novel by a soldier, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867). Henry James thought it poorly constructed, but praised its realism. It sold very poorly, and DeForest stopped writing about the war in his novels. His essays, however, are full of skeptical accounts about the realities of the war. He wrote without restraint about green officers commanding green soldiers, about hundreds of malingerers and deserters per regiment, and about drunkenness being habitual among officers as well as men. “There you have our history,” he said.
Reid Mitchell in The Vacant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home has collected a quite different genre of wartime documents and makes a different use of what he finds. His main sources are enlisted men, many of them scarcely literate, and the letters they sent home. People wrote and kept letters as never before and through them “the so-called inarticulate became voluble.” He uses these letters to put forward his own analysis of the meaning of the war for the troops and for families they left behind. His book, Mitchell writes, is:
about how what we might call “domestic imagery”—images of home and the family—shaped the ways in which northern soldiers experienced the Civil War. When the men spoke of the Union as a family, it was less than an identity, but it was more than a metaphor. The centrality of home and the family to northern culture made them central to the northern soldier’s understanding of the Civil War.
While they were older than conscripts of modern armies—three fifths of the enlisted being over twenty-one—Civil War infantry (the term itself derives from infanti—boys) drew heavily upon adolescents. The largest single age group in 1861 was eighteen-year-olds, but regardless of age they were invariably called boys. “We are all boys heare,” wrote one man. For most of them it was their first time away from home. Homesickness often reached epidemic proportions and laid thousands low, so they were unable to concentrate on drilling or fighting. The sentimentality with which the age was awash found expression in war songs. The book’s title, The Vacant Chair, was also the title of “a Civil War tearjerker.” So were “Just Before the Battle, Mother,” “Can I Go Dearest Mother!” and many other campfire songs.
Beyond encouraging sentimentality and homesickness, the emphasis on the family pervaded the entire war experience, and the notion of the family provided the metaphor of a cause and the parts people played in serving it. Officers were thrust into the role of parents or fathers, nurses into that of mothers. The regiment was a family, the Union “a man’s family writ large.” The soldiers sang “Faith of Our Fathers,” served Father Abraham, commander-in-chief, and worshiped God, the Father. Lincoln had warned the people against “a house divided.” Mitchell tells us that “Northerners also judged this rebellion against parental government and the natural order to be ultimately a rebellion against an even more powerful and just father: God.” As one volunteer general put it, their duty was “to put down this wicked rebellion and teach Southerners with force what they would not learn in time of peace…that God requires obedience to law and order.”
In one of the few references he makes to fiction, Mitchell mentions the soldier novelist DeForest’s portrayal of the South in Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty as an object of romantic conquest. DeForest actually came from New Haven and his wife from Charleston. His Miss Ravenel of Charleston is a cut above the prevailing image of Southern women as irrational and passionate; he presents her as a charming creature with an emotional capacity for love and loyalty. Once she is relieved of a husband (and a cause) unworthy of her, she embraces her longtime Union suitor and his cause. He in the meantime, like his nation, has matured and become aware of his physical and intellectual powers. Pursuing his theme of the national family image, Mitchell writes that she has “made reconciliation imaginable by making wifely devotion a metaphor for the South’s reintegration into the nation.”
Mitchell is aware that some of his generalizations about the North and its soldiers are equally applicable to their opponents, and admits as much in passing. He does not attempt to set the Southern soldiers apart in views on moral issues and racial attitudes. He reports racial bigotry rampant in Union ranks and recounts riots and mutinies of black troops against “being treated like slaves.” The cry of “Kill all the damned Yankees” was heard in one black troop riot. In the segregated Union army no camaraderie developed between Jim Crow regiments and white regiments. Few Northerners embraced blacks as “sons” or “brothers” or kin of any sort. “The image of the family remained white only,” Mitchell writes.
Still, his subject is the Northern soldier and the temptation is strong to find evidence that distinguishes him from his enemy—but such evidence as turns up is not always persuasive. The two sides often sang the same songs, worshiped the same deity, and shared the same culture. Confederates too fought for home and hearth and community. There is no lack of evidence either of strong family ties among the Southerners or of a tendency to project the familial metaphor into the rebellion. The unavoidable irony of the family attachment, as Mitchell points out, is that while the North somehow made domesticity a source of strength, in the end, the South lost the war in large part because the domestic and family obligations of the soldiers took precedence over military obligations. They went home to look after their kin.
One can’t help comparing the testimony of professional writers in one book and the quite informal letters in the other. Judged by their powers of description and what they reveal about the attitudes of the war years, the soldiers in Mitchell’s book do pretty well.
The Three narratives have recently been published in a new edition by the Library of America.↩
The Three narratives have recently been published in a new edition by the Library of America.↩