Tuesday, April 19, 2011

They Died with Their Arms Around One Another

"Civil War Dead" by George Pratt

Below is part of a letter from a Confederate captain describing his experiences in the Battle of Malvern Hill, Virginia, on July 1st, 1862. Originally printed in the Charleston Daily Courier, it is a raw and vivid first-person account of Civil War combat in all its horror and confusion. War exposes humanity at its most paradoxical extremes as men are driven to love and hatred and terror and bravery all in one swirling maelstrom of technology, earth, flesh, and bone:

At length, about 5 o’clock p.m., the enemy were reported occupying a very strong position just in our front, where they had fortified. Our artillery was ordered out to open on the enemy, and a brigade of Georgians and Alabamans to support it. No sooner had our guns opened than they were dismounted, the caissons torn to atoms, and the horses and men piled and mangled together. Other batteries were ordered out with the same success, and the few men and horses who were left came dashing back, panic-stricken, and sought refuge in flight. Then we saw what was coming. Our brigade was ordered to the front, to support the one already sent out, and, forming in line, we marched to the skirt of woods, which separated us from the open ground, where the enemy had formed to receive us. His position could not have been better selected. Upon a hill, about half a mile in our front, were planted 30 siege guns and 20 light batteries, manned by United States regulars, while in front the ground descended gradually to our position, midway between which and their batteries was a line of 30,000 of their best troops, who were selected to cover their retreat to their gunboats, two miles distant. Upon this line and their batteries we advanced. For the first half mile of the mile and a half we marched the shells burst around us incessantly. After that, just as we got into the woods, the gunboats opened on us with their broadsides of rifled guns, the shells from which came hurtling through the woods, crushing and bursting, and tearing down numbers of the largest trees in their course. Then came the grape and canister from the batteries in our front, and soon the musketry opened, actually sweeping down whole lines of men in our front and from our own ranks, and making our path one over dead and dying men.

We passed over four lines of men, who, sent out before us, were unable to stand the fire, and lay close to the ground, from which no threats of persuasion could move them. Our men trampled them into the mud like logs, and moved on in an unwavering line, perfectly regardless of the numbers who were falling around them. It was just here that Arthur Parker, who had been quite sick, said “Boys, I am almost done; but I’ll go as close to them as I can.” Scarcely had he spoken when a ball passed through his bowels. He did not speak; only pressed his hand to his side and turned round, when a second ball passed through his head, and he fell dead. Keedle was shot through below the knee, at the same time, and Lieutenant Burcknight through the head, while Ebby Butler and Sergeant Miles were both killed instantaneously by grapeshot passing through their breasts, and Warren Brooks was struck in the leg by a ball. But we pushed on until we found the line we were to support within 600 yards of the battery, and there we halted under cover of a hedgerow, and lay down to rest. The line in front of us, unable to stand up in front of the fire, had laid down, while the troops in our rear poured several volleys into us, wounding and killing many men. Finding the place untenable between friend and foe, General Kershaw proposed to the General in our front to charge the battery, and let us support him. This he refused to do. Kershaw then offered to charge it with our brigade if they would support him after he took it. This they also refused, and, as the Georgians and Louisianans on our right were moving up, we could not fire without injuring them, and we could do no good where we were, we were directed to fall back to our original position and re-form line of battle. I held our position with the left wing until the right was beyond range, and then directed the left to retire, I keeping some distance in their rear and falling back very slowly. No sooner had our men retired when here came a portion of the Confederate soldiery, dashing past me panic-stricken, and huddled together like sheep, presenting elegant marks for the grape and cannon balls which cut paths through them, and hurled them, writhing and digging, into the mud and water of the swamp. One man, in his haste to get out of danger, shoved me on one side, and just at the instant a canister shot tore his head off, and spattered my face with his blood and brains. As you may suppose, I was not much vexed at his impoliteness.

On our way out we paused over the ground which we traveled in going in, and found men lying dead in every direction. Upon reaching the rear we were marched into a skirt of woods to rest for the night, the fight having now closed, and the enemy ceased firing. When morning dawned they were gone again, having reached the James River, and being safely under cover of their gunboats. Early in the morning I rode over the battle ground, our brigade having been marched to occupy it, and the sight which was there presented beggars description. Entering the field at the point where our artillery had been posted, I came upon numbers of dead and dying horses, who, with the drivers and gunners, lay in a pile together, their several dismantled guns, their caissons, fired and blown up by the enemy’s balls, all presenting an aspect of desolation and ruin. Then came the point at which our infantry lines advanced through the open fields and engaged that of the enemy. For a mile the ground was thickly strewn with the mangled and dying, showing with what desperate energy our men had advanced, and with what energy they were repulsed. Men, mangled in every conceivable manner, to the number of 10,000, were strewn out before me. The painful details of our own wounded I will spare you; but I will pass to the enemy’s side of the field, where one half of the number lay; there were men with their arms, legs, and hands shot off, bodies torn up, features distorted and blackened. All this I could see with indifference, but I could not but pity the wounded; there one poor devil, with his back broken, was trying to pull himself along by his hand, dragging his legs after him, to get out of the corn rows, which the last night’s rain had filled with water; here another, with both legs shot off, was trying to steady the mangled trunk against a gun stuck in the ground; there a fair-haired Yankee boy, of 16, was lying with both legs broken, half of his body submerged in water, with his teeth clinched, his fingernails burled in the flesh, and his whole body quivering with agony and benumbed with cold. In this case my pity got the better of my resentment, and I dismounted, pulled him out of the water, and wrapped him in a blanket, for which he seemed very grateful. One of the most touching things I saw were a couple of brothers (boys) both wounded, who had crawled together, and one of them in the act of arranging a heading for the other, with a blanket, had fallen, and they had died with their arms around one another and their cheeks together.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Boy Girls

The subject of gender-bending has been in the news lately as certain "experts" have stirred up a controversy regarding the publication of a J.Crew ad showing a designer painting her young son's toenails pink. “This is a dramatic example of the way that our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity,” psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow wrote in a FoxNews.com Health column. Before we all commit mass self-immolation over the death of the West, maybe we should take even a cursory look at this culture that media fear-mongers love to generalize about. Gender identity, especially for the young, has never actually been a cut-and-dry issue in America. It used to be fairly common, for example, for parents to dress their young boys in petticoats or dresses, a practice which lasted well into the Victorian era. While they didn't mind forcing their own "liberal transgendered agenda" upon their boys, many Americans of the 19th century would have been appalled at the notion of a girl wearing pants, something that's a non-issue today. Our notions of gender norms have certainly changed over the years, but it hasn't exactly been a steady plummet into sexual confusion. We're as twisted now as we've ever been, just in different ways.

Consider, for example, the following excerpt, from Thomas Lowry's The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell of a letter a Massachusetts soldier wrote to his wife while stationed in Virginia during the Civil War. This man's regiment held a ball in which some of the drummer boys wore dresses and danced as ladies:

"Some of the real women went, but the boy girls were so much better looking that they left…. We had some little Drummer Boys dressed up and I'll bet you could not tell them from girls if you did not know them…. Some of them looked almost good enough to lay with and I guess some of them did get laid with.... I know I slept with mine.”

Is this saying what it seems like it's saying? But this was America...in wartime...and I thought men were men and they killed other men and grew beards and ate turkey legs and rode horses and had big swords and frilly scarves and and and...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Spring of '61

The 150th anniversary of the firing on Ft. Sumter seems an appropriate enough time to end the recent, unplanned hiatus of this blog. I have been thinking of focusing more on Civil War-related subjects in the midst of national commemoration.

Commemoration is often confused with celebration. While I would like to avoid using the occasion of the "Sesquicentennial" to perpetuate the mythologization of the Civil War into some Homeric epic, I also feel compelled to admit the obvious. It is beyond my capacity to truly comprehend the magnitude of the losses the people of this country experienced in the period of 1861-1865 and the years that followed. I cannot speak for the dead, nor can I venture to say I know the best way to honor them. There was a time when I at least believed that their sacrifices were necessary. I don't know what to believe anymore. Platitudes and generalizations help fit the Civil War into a tight little narrative to comfort and inspire the living. But the dead flit in and out of our peripheral, whispering inaudibly in the dark spaces or resting in eternal light or tucked into a dusty library shelf or shimmering in our hearts and minds or nothing nowhere at all.

I humbly submit this blog neither as a place to analyze military tactics and political strategies nor to anthologize the most important minds and bravest heroes, but as a mere dance in the dark. I am most interested in candlelight flickers, faces in the smoke, stories, songs, poems, images of the common and uncommon, heroes, deserters, civilians alike, their colloquial sounds, their pleasures and pains, their ghosts and reincarnations.

After a number of suggestions from various directions, I've changed the Civil War mixtape a little bit. Thanks to all those who provided feedback and criticism. Thanks also to the Irate Pirate and Gadaya, whose phenomenal blogs contributed several of the songs here. And of course, thank you to anyone who actually reads my ramblings.

Download: Spring of '61

1) French Carpenter - "Camp Chase"
2) J.D. Cornett - "Spring of '65"
3) Walt Whitman - Excerpt from "America"
4) Thomas Alexander (37th NC veteran) - Rebel Yell
5) Glen Faulkner - "Short-Cycle Blues Pattern)
6) Camptown Shakers - "Ol' Dan Tucker"
7) Clifton Hicks - "Going Across the Mountain"
8) Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton - "And Am I Born to Die (Idumea)"
9) Len Spencer and Company - Excerpt from Uncle Tom's Cabin
10) Hobart Smith - "Cuckoo Bird"
11) Tommy Jarrell & Fred Cockerham - "John Brown's Dream"
12) Frank C. Stanley - "Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep"
13) Rutherford, Burnett And Moore - "Cumberland Gap"
14) Bascom Lamar Lunsford - "The Mermaid Song"
15) Bob Flesher - "Jim Along Josie"
16) Seán Ó Riada & Le Celtóirí Chualan With Darach Ó Catháin - "Ag Scaipeadh Na gCleití"
17) Carolina Chocolate Drops - "Dixie"
18) Texas Gladden - "Two Brothers"
19) Wayne Erbsen - "Southern Soldier Boy"
20) 16 Horsepower - "Wayfaring Stranger"
21) Seneca Indians - Funeral Chant
22) Dillard Chandler - "The Soldier Traveling From the North"
23) Buell Kazee - "The Dying Soldier (Brother Green)"
24) Eck Robertson - "Run Boy Run"
25) Frank Kittrell - "Want to Go to Meeting"
26) Woody Guthrie - "Buffalo Gals"
27) John McCormack - "Kathleen Mavourneen"