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Civil War Memoirs in the Age of Confession: Washington Augustus Roebling’s Operations of the 5th Corps in 1864

by Bill Major



         The question that concerns us here is whether, and to what degree, an obscure Civil War memoir by a not-so-obscure man warrants our attention in the twenty-first century. Indeed, within a critical climate in which often the most obscure pieces of historical flotsam and jetsam are ripe for scholarly inquiry, it is not always clear what we hope to accomplish in these scholarly endeavors. One hopes, of course, to have a clearer understanding of the people, the events, the temper of the age, yet we may curiously find ourselves slightly unsatisfied with what we have found. Ours is an age of confession, after all; we live under the umbrella of a popular culture saturated with the intimate details of personal lives, what Paul John Eakin calls the “so-called age of memoir in which we live” where “personal extremity has become our daily fare” (157). Popular culture promises the intimate details, of course, and it often delivers. But what does it deliver, and why do we sometimes feel that we have learned about ourselves may not be so important after all?


         Why, then, with our libraries and bookstores virtually under the collective weight of the biographies and autobiographies of the great and small, should we take an interest in a slight volume written nearly 140 years ago? Until recently, popular interest in the Civil War was reserved for historians, high school football coaches who pretend to teach history, and weekend warriors. Yet in the last decade or so, with the publication of crossover works such as James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and the airing of Ken Burns’s epic documentary, public interest in the Civil War continues to grow. It would appear that the discovery and publication of another memoir about the War might be a cause for celebration, especially given that the author achieved some degree of notoriety in his life. This might be a good place to ask ourselves, therefore, what relevance such a text might have, and the answer to this question depends a great deal on who we are as readers. One key question, for instance, is whether historians and literary critics have substantially different ways of reading a text such as Washington Augustus Roebling’s Report of the Operations of the 5th Corps in 1864? To be sure, both have agendas: we might with some reservation opine that the historian is after the truth, or some close approximation of the truth, working to understand the participants and their involvement in something larger than themselves; or, in a slightly different vein, this historian may wish to investigate who we have become from the perspectives of the actors in the drama of 140 years ago. Perhaps she will explore the Civil War by examining cause and effect, trying to tie history together in a coherent narrative in order to give it a meaning and a plot to which we can relate. On the other hand, the literary critic may have a different agenda, for the concept of truth has taken a beating over the last 30 years or so. What other powerful interests are involved in the construction and manipulation of truth, the literary critic might well ask. In the construction of the historical truth, which voices have been silenced and which given privilege? And why? What other “truths” are out there? Who writes history, and for whose consumption?


         In his recent book Bloody Promenade, Stephen Cushman is interested in these questions, and to his credit he has read enough Civil War memoirs to have something authoritative to say about them. Cushman raises a central issue for any contemporary reader, and it is one that I implicitly raised at the beginning of this essay: why should we be interested in a Civil War memoir when we can pick up a thrilling history of the war, complete with exposition, crises, climax, and dénouement? Cushman notes that historically “writers, publishers, and readers of Civil War memoirs valued, and probably in most cases continue to value, those memoirs not for their individualized expressions of personal memory but for the contribution those memoirs make to the establishment of an official record and the writing of history” (6). But official records are at best dull reading, and the literary critic might find the concept of “official record” problematic, if only for what it must necessarily omit. And this is where the memoir and its receptions get tricky, if only for the fact that we cannot under any circumstances read a memoir the way someone in 1870 might have read it. Even the most hermetic historian or critic has been so awash in popular culture that her reception of a historical document is colored by the moment, and today’s moment is ruled by confession, by psychology, and by the putative underside of who we are.


         And so Cushman makes the right distinction between memoirs and official histories: “Since by definition memoirs, unlike histories, supposedly confine themselves to the limitations of one point of view—the word ‘memoir’ establishes personal memory as the legitimate source of the narrative—then readers of memoirs should value them not for an approximation of omniscience in relation to an intricate maze of complex events but for the powerful expression of powerful memories of those events, however incomplete, inaccurate, and limited those memories may be” (5). One of the things that we expect from a memoir is a personality, a character, a persona to lead us through the complex web of events being described. I think we can go further, however; I think we can also say that what we need—better, what we desire—is not just the central consciousness that helps make the events clearer, but what the witness to those events thought about them, and how this witness experienced and felt as a participant in history.


         Indeed, the elegiac tone of the second section of Specimen Days, in which Whitman recounts his experiences tending soldiers in hospitals during the Civil War, contrasts to such a degree with Roebling’s account of his experiences as a soldier and officer, that we wonder whether they participated in the same war; perhaps they didn’t. While both witnessed their share of slaughter, Roebling was first a soldier and officer. Like Grant, he couldn’t be overly preoccupied with the individual experiences of individual soldiers, the very cynosure of Whitman’s text. But if Whitman saw each soldier's suppurating bowel or amputated leg as a symbol of something larger, such as the principle of Unionism and the sacrifice that would entail, he also understood the carnage from a wholly different perspective: That each one of these soldiers has a story, a family, a loved one, and he saw his charge as reaching as many of these soldiers as possible, in coming to some small understanding of their stories. Yet in doing so, what does he learn? As Whitman stated,


Those three years I consider the greatest privilege and satisfaction, (with all their feverish excitements and physical deprivations and lamentable sights,) and, of course, the most profound lesson of my life. I can say that in my ministerings I comprehended all, whoever came in my way, northern or southern, and slighted none. It arous’d and brought out and decided undream’d-of depths of emotion. It has given me my most fervent views of the true ensemble and extent of the states. (776)


But Whitman’s final lesson is the lesson of the dead:

the dead, the dead, the dead--our dead . . . our young men once so handsome and so joyous, taken from us—the son from the mother, the husband from the wife, the dear friend from the dear friend . . . (the land entire saturated, perfumed with their impalpable ashes’ exhalation in Nature’s chemistry distill’d, and shall be so forever, in every future grain of wheat and ear of corn, and every flower that grows, and every breath we draw). (777)


But lest we allow ourselves to be swept away by the romance of the dead, Whitman brings us back to the final lesson again. If the real war will never get into the books, then we have to reconcile ourselves to the “the significant word Unknown” (777), by which he means not only the tens of thousands who died and were buried unmarked but not unmourned, but the stories and the humanity that went with them. “Think how much,” Whitman writes, “ and of importance, will be—how much, civic and military, has already been—buried in the grave, in eternal darkness” (779). Who is best suited to illuminate that darkness, the historian or the memoirist?


         Cushman notes that the “Civil War memoir has led a double life, trying to function as both a witness to subjective individual experience and a servant to objective historical narrative. For this reason, the memoir occupies a middle ground between the eyewitness letter or diary, on the one hand, and conventional historical narrative, on the other” (11). The question of subjective individual experience occupies my thoughts here, for again, this is what we seem more and more as a culture to desire. The subjective supposedly allows us insight not only into the “event,” defined as separate from the actor or witness, but also implies that we will have some insight into the inner “event,” that nebulous realm of the subjective that we sometimes call “the self.” We may not be concerned with whether the author is getting it right from a historical standpoint, but readers, I think, want the story of the self more than they want troop movements and infantry supply statistics. The difference between fiction and memoir or life writing is one of belief, of entering into a compact with the author wherein we believe that the author not only was present and witness to the event in question, but that he or she is going to give us an approximate truth—his or her truth, to be sure—but a truth nevertheless, and one that intensifies the closer we get to the self. To be sure, we haven’t escaped Romanticism at all, for what these questions finally come down to is quite simple: What did it feel like? What were you thinking? Were you scared? Did you hate? Was the corpse you slept next to your best friend? And these questions lead us to Washington Augustus Roebling’s text.


         Washington Augustus Roebling was born on May 26, 1837, in the backwoods of Saxonburg, Pennsylvania.1 His father, John Roebling, was a German engineer, widely considered to be something of a genius, who would design the Brooklyn Bridge. After deciding to become an engineer himself, Washington enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Troy, New York. According to David McCullough, the course load atwas so onerous that only twelve students graduated from a class of 65; there was one suicide. After graduation, Roebling moved to Trenton, New Jersey, to work in his father’s wire mill, where he remained from the summer of 1857 to the spring of 1858. His father then called him to Pittsburgh to assist him on the Allegheny River Bridge at $800.00 per year. Washington lived in Pittsburgh for two years, glad to be away from Trenton and enjoying a lively social life. In April of 1861 in the wake of Fort Sumter, Roebling enlisted in the New Jersey State Militia, but quickly resigned, apparently out of boredom. Two months later he enlisted in the New York Militia as a private, and, as McCullough says, “in January, 1865, the war nearly over, he resigned from the Army, a lieutenant colonel, age twenty-seven, and a veteran of Second Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and the Crater at Petersburg” (157).


         The following manuscript, Report of the Operations of the 5th Corps in 1864, concerns less Roebling’s actual participation in several of the key battles late in the Civil War (the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and the infamous Petersburg mine explosion) than it does the larger picture, the relative “omniscience” that Cushman identifies as a major feature of the narratives of officers. And yet, Cushman notes that “In a post-Freudian world, some readers may even feel that memoirs become more interesting and significant the farther they stray from objective omniscience into the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of recollections shaped by impulses an author doesn’t try to correct or censor” (5). In short, the more interesting memoirs are not so much memoirs at all, but fall more properly under the heading of autobiography, where the author’s consciousness becomes as important and relevant as the event or person under scrutiny. Cushman is not confusing terminology; he’s simply reacting to both the demands of a contemporary readership (not so much influenced by Freud as by the popular media) and the curious but affecting intermingling of several sub-genres of life writing: memoir, autobiography, journals, letters, and diaries. As Cushman writes, Stephen Crane “felt strongly that Civil War memoirs would have benefited greatly from the inclusion of more emotion recollected in tranquility” (5-6). And when we say we want more emotion, what we really mean is more self; whether such a manuscript would somehow violate the staid historian’s mandate to get at the matter without any intervening consciousness is for others to say. Consequently, when raising the issue as to whether a twenty-first century reader should spend his or her time reading a Civil War memoir, Cushman’s answer is clear, and falls on the side of the subjective: “twenty-first-century general readers shouldn’t choose a memoir that only does what a well-written version of the OR [U.S. government-published Official Records (1901)] would do better. Instead, they should choose memoirs that do something different, that offer something missing from most memoirs written by people who think of themselves primarily as servants of accurate historical records” (27). Contemporary readers would do well to seek out those memoirs that take us away from history proper. 


         Does Roebling’s memoir pass the twenty-first century test? For this reader, it does not, despite the fact that it may advance a good deal of the historical knowledge about the Virginia campaigns. As McCullough notes, “Through the whole war Roebling said very little about battles in his letters and next to nothing about his own exploits. But he seems to have had a great gift for being on the spot when needed” (161). His memoir says a great deal about several pivotal battles, but, as I have said, it relates very little about what role Roebling played in them, nor do we understand, for instance, how Roebling felt about the carnage at the Wilderness. Indeed, at the end of the battle Roebling only writes: “As this ends the operations in the Wilderness, it is the proper place to give approximately the Losses. (See last page.)” (12). Turning to the last page we find, in Roebling’s flowing script, a list of the killed, wounded, and missing, divided between officers and men. Roebling, it must be said, is writing for history, for under the list of killed, wounded, and missing in the 5th Corps, we read: “N.B. The above list was made up from a list of the names of those killed [,] wounded or missing, as far as known, principally for hospital purposes. Neither does it embrace the casualties among regiments whose time expired during the campaign; it falls 2,706 short of the number given in the trimonthlys” (94). Roebling hovers over the casualty list, the recent carnage, with such obvious objectivity we might almost wonder whether he was actually there.


         Because we are afforded only rare insights into Roebling’s psychology, we might well ask ourselves what motivated Roebling to write this journal. First, Roebling wrote this text “in camp before Petersburg,” a fact which suggests that he must have taken notes during the summer campaigns and then rewritten them in manuscript form. This rewriting, perhaps done partially from memory, calls into question the accuracy of the text. Did Roebling fictionalize for the sake of drama? Again, the answer depends upon one’s understanding of the minutia of Civil War history. Are Roebling’s descriptions of these three battles, the troop movements, and the actions or inaction of the generals accurate? The lay reader can hardly answer these questions, and, therefore, the drama that the journal might offer is lessened both because Roebling’s focus is so professional and because we in the twenty-first century demand something more. We want personality, and only very rarely are we offered the slightest glimpse into who Roebling is.


         When we do learn something about Roebling’s personality, we learn it in snatches. He appeared prone to sarcasm when things did not go as planned, when orders were not followed, or when commanding officers demonstrated their incompetence. During the Spotsylvania campaign, Roebling writes that “according to our orders we were expected to march all night, get into position on the left of Burnside’s in an unknown country, in the midst of an Egyptian darkness, up to our knees in mud, and assault the enemy’s position which we had never seen . . . and felt in fine spirits for such work” (25). And in early June, Roebling notes that “About 2 o’clock the 9th Corps was ready to make the attack on the enemy’s left but it was countermanded for some unknown reason, perhaps because there was a prospect of success” (53-55). On several occasions Roebling, when speaking about black civilians, refers to them as “negro,” but black soldiers are almost always “Nigger Brigades” or “Niggers.” This probably means little given the historical context, but at the Petersburg mine disaster, when “the niggers still held the crater” (81), Roebling notes with stunning chilliness that “Most of the white troops [in the mine] were captured and the niggers were pretty much all killed before night” (81).2 “Spectators amused themselves,” Roebling writes, “with looking at the crater and seeing the rebs hunt niggers and shoot them” (81). One assumes that these spectators were Union soldiers and that Roebling was among them. But though we might ask for more affect, more personality, it is probably safe to say that despite the fact that the journal was constructed after the fact, Roebling undoubtedly recorded many events with what McCullough calls his “almost uncanny gift for observation” (167).


         Roebling would survive the Civil War, of course, and go on to complete one of the great technological accomplishments of the twentieth century. If his father was the genius who designed the Brooklyn Bridge, it took another kind of genius to get it built. Nearly dying from caisson disease and permanently crippled, Roebling saw it through to the end and died on July 21, 1926; he was 89 years old. And what is the Brooklyn Bridge? To answer this question we have the Ken Burns documentary; the books by D. B. Steinman, David McCullough and Alan Trachtenberg; the Joseph Stella paintings; Hart Crane’s poetry, with its “bedlamite” wavering on the “parapets”; the endless photographs and interpretations; the romance of the walk from span to span. To ask about the Brooklyn Bridge is to ask about what America was and is, to engage the past through the haze of symbol and to investigate the present without the romance to which myth and symbol criticism is heir. The Bridge today is nothing like the Bridge of May 24, 1883, when it opened; and it is everything like it. It still serves its office—commerce—and it remains a work of artistic marvel. The point is less that we are a different country, but that our symbols change. One can make the argument that, in the twentieth century, Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park have more cultural cache than the Brooklyn Bridge in the national consciousness, a fact which does less an injustice to the Bridge than it reflects upon the changing nature of the American zeitgeist. After all, as Trachtenberg notes, “The health of a people depends largely on their ability to question their inherited symbols in light of contemporary actualities, to keep them fluid, vibrant, and responsive. The process of interrogation will not destroy valuable symbols, but may replenish their cohesive meanings” (vii). The man who may have first spied General Lee’s move toward Gettysburg, who helped hold Little Round Top, who saw action in most of the major battles in the Virginia campaigns, who watched the “nigger” soldiers get picked off in the Petersburg mine—he survived, and his dogged determination coupled with his father’s vision survives for us today. Let us make of it what we will.


1.      Aside from citations from the Civil War manuscript, all of Roebling’s biographical information is taken from David McCullough’s The Great Bridge.

2.      Curiously, McCullough notes that Roebling “helped engineer the tunnel under the Confederate lines at Petersburg, the daring scheme that so nearly worked, but resulted in the disastrous Battle of the Crater” (161-61). But Roebling makes no mention of taking part in the engineering of the crater, noting only that it was General Burnside’s pet project.



Works Cited

Cushman, Stephen. “Memoirs from the Bloody Promenade.” The Mickle Street Review. 1-34.

Eakin, Paul John. How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1999.

McCullough, David. The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge.

         1972. New York: Avon Books, 1976.

Roebling, Washington Augustus. Operations of the 5th Corps in 1864. Unpublished ms. Rutgers

         University Library, Special Collections. New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Trachtenberg, Alan. Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol. New York: Oxford UP, 1965.

Whitman, Walt. Specimen Days and Collect. 1882. Walt Whitman: Complete Poetry and

         Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982. 689-1049.


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