... the bloody promenade of the Wilderness....
--Walt Whitman, Memoranda during the War (1875)
Reading thousands of pages of Civil War memoirs could teach someone plenty not only about the war but also about the state of letters in late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America. Beginning soon after the war--Jubal Early’s Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence first appeared as a pamphlet published in Canada late in 1866--the flash flood of personal reminiscences washed the country for a good sixty years, lasting at least until the publication of John Gibbon’s Personal Recollections of the Civil War (1928). To help put these sixty years in the perspective of literary history, we need only remember that they span the careers of both Mark Twain and Henry James, the publication of T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land, and the early novels of William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In other words, during the convulsive stretch that literary histories describe as running from the emergence of realism to the flourishing of high modernism, a stretch that included the Spanish-American War and World War I, Americans steadily wrote and read personal narratives of the Civil War.
Not all of these narratives reached wide audiences, and few will be read during the twenty-first century, except by people especially interested in the Civil War. Two exceptions could prove to be the memoirs of Sherman (1875) and Grant (1885-86), both of which, with their publication in the Library of America series, enter the new century carrying passports stamped “literature.” Thanks to the publicity it received from Ken Burns’s documentary, Sam Watkins’s “Co. Aytch” (1881-82) may also enjoy a healthy shelf life for some time yet. Meanwhile, some new memoir may be discovered and published at anytime, and the 150th anniversary celebrations between 2011 and 2015 undoubtedly will generate yet another wave of interest, perhaps causing a few more non-specialists to sample the writings of Edward Porter Alexander, Benjamin Butler, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Abner Doubleday, John B. Gordon, John Bell Hood, Oliver Otis Howard, David Hunter, Joseph Johnston, James Longstreet, George McClellan, John S. Mosby, Philip Sheridan, Lew Wallace, and others. In sampling what appears to be the genre of generals (Mosby was a colonel), some may even discover that in fact neither generals nor men have a monopoly on the Civil War memoir. Examples by Louisa May Alcott, Belle Boyd, Sara Emma Edmundson, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Mary Livermore, Susie King Taylor, and Loreta Janeta Velazquez represent wartime roles and experiences that include laundering, nursing, spying, and passing as male soldiers in the ranks.
But for the sixty years directly following the war, generals’ memoirs received the most attention. For one thing, publishers were much more willing to invest in narratives by men whose names the war had made famous. In our own time, this purely commercial instinct helps explain in part the canonization of Sherman and Grant by the Library of America. Whatever the literary merits of the memoirs themselves, and those merits are not always unambiguous, most educated Americans can recognize the names of these two Union generals, one of whom went on to become president and the other of whom probably could have if he had wanted to. Some might argue that Sherman and Grant appear in the Library of America because the North won the war, and literature necessarily reflects the tastes of the victors. True perhaps, but that argument is a little too easy in this case, since Lee never wrote his own memoirs and Jackson died before he could have. My guess is that if either of those Confederate generals had written a narrative as readable as Sherman’s or Grant’s, the ongoing national romance with the South would ensure even greater sales for the vanquished than for the victors.
Another reason for the dominance of generals’ memoirs may be that nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century readers were less likely than we are today to believe that the story of a private soldier might be just as compelling as that of an officer, or more so. General officers, after all, had the big picture and could describe the movements of large armies authoritatively, whereas private soldiers and their line officers knew only what they saw in front of them, as Ambrose Bierce showed so convincingly in the passage from “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill.” Never mind that Sam Watkins, for all the stylistic excesses he sometimes permits himself, has ten pages on the battle of the Dead Angle at Kennesaw Mountain (June 27, 1864) that convey the massive horror of that encounter much more fully than Sherman’s half paragraph, which includes the indigestible understatement, “By 11.30 the assault was in fact over, and had failed.” Never mind that Morris Schaff’s virtually unknown memoir The Battle of the Wilderness (1910) runs circles around Phil Sheridan’s account of the battle, which confines itself to Sheridan’s disagreements with Meade about the proper role of the cavalry and an uninspired description of the uninspired part played by that cavalry on May 5 and 6, 1864. Sheridan was a general and Schaff a lieutenant (albeit one attached to Warren’s staff), and so Sheridan’s picture must come closer to omniscience.
The implicit assumption that a Civil War memoir gets better the closer it approximates omniscience raises some complex questions about the genre and helps account for some of its conventions, quirks, and characteristic features. In his glossary of literary terms, M. H. Abrams usefully distinguishes between autobiography, in which emphasis falls on the author’s developing self, and memoir, in which emphasis falls on people the author has known and events the author has witnessed. Of course, this distinction doesn’t always hold fast. Grant’s memoirs, for example, begin with his ancestry, birth, and boyhood, then follow him through West Point and the Mexican War, before turning to the Civil War. Even though this early development occupies only about one-sixth of his narrative, Grant clearly uses it to frame his self-presentation. In fact, in view of what every reader knows is coming, it’s hard not to hear the great first sentence of the memoir as prophetic: “My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral.” The very antithesis of Melville’s “Call me Ishmael,” which establishes the narrator of Moby-Dick as a wandering outcast, Grant’s opening sentence, which amounts to “Call me American,” identifies the narrator with a nation that is more than the sum of its parts, not merely with a particular state among a collection of states. That one can imagine Lee’s memoir beginning, “My family is Virginian, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral,” throws into sharper relief Grant’s relentless Unionism.
If we accept as a starting point the description of memoirs as narratives in which authors describe people they have known and events they have witnessed, we can begin to understand some of the paradoxes and contradictions inherent in the genre of the Civil War memoir. 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-- readers of memoirs should value them not for an approximation of omniscience in relation to an intricate maze of complex events but for the expression of powerful memories of those events, however incomplete, inaccurate, and limited those memories may be. 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 idiosyncracies of recollections shaped by impulses the author doesn’t try to correct or censor. Certainly at least one pre-Freudian, Stephen Crane, felt strongly that Civil War memoirs would have benefited greatly from the inclusion of more emotion recollected in tranquility.
But 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. In his chapter on the Battle of the Wilderness, for example, Longstreet reveals his self-consciousness as a memoirist whose narration is not an end in itself but a contribution to a larger project.
As the purpose of this writing is to convey ideas of personal observations and experience, it will be confined, as far as practicable, to campaigns or parts of them with which I was directly or indirectly connected. So, when participants and partisans have passed away, I shall have contributed my share towards putting the historian in possession of evidence which he can weigh with that of other actors in the great drama.
For the moment let’s take Longstreet at his word and assume that this disinterested purpose--to enable historians to write more fully informed histories--motivates not just the writing of his memoir but also the reading of that memoir by others. Actually, Civil War memoirists wrote for different reasons. Grant, for example, badly needed the money Mark Twain offered him, and many memoirists wrote to justify their own actions or to settle old scores, especially with men who had already written other memoirs, so that the genre tended to perpetuate itself as memoirs bred more memoirs. Then there are the old soldiers who couldn’t just fade away quietly and wanted instead to recapture some of the public attention they enjoyed during the war. Obviously, a particular writer could write for all these motives, as well as many others.
Longstreet’s assumption that the memoirist serves the historian, not to mention the historian’s willing acceptance of that assumption, placed and places constraints on both the writing and the reading of Civil War memoirs. Some might argue that we can’t help reading the memoirs of public figures who played significant parts in significant events much differently from the way we read the memoirs of private citizens, and their argument has validity. But the question is, is reading a memoir for its contribution to the historical record the only way to read it? For that matter, is writing a memoir for its historical contribution the only way to write it? If the answer to each of these questions is yes, then literate Americans who aren’t particularly interested in Civil War history can’t be expected to have much use for the sixty years’ worth of memoirs that close the nineteenth century and open the twentieth. But if the answer is no, then there’s a chance that during the twenty-first century a few people may be tempted to sift through this huge body of work in order to discover some of the gems it contains.
Before turning to consideration of three other memoirs, let’s look briefly at the case of John B. Gordon’s Reminiscences of the Civil War, published in New York by Scribner’s in 1903. At the Battle of the Wilderness, Gordon (1832-1904) was a brigadier general commanding a brigade in Early’s Division of Ewell’s Second Corps, and during Spotsylvania (May 14, 1864) he was promoted to major general, Early having succeeded Ewell as corps commander after a fall from his horse at the Bloody Angle left Ewell unfit for further field service. Gordon’s memoir, which provides an early example of a Confederate referring to the war by its Northern name (after the war Gordon served in the United States Senate), embodies many of the characteristics that typify the genre. As one would expect of a set of personal reminiscences, it confines itself to one point of view, a point of view still warm with “the impetuous ardor of youth” that Douglas Southall Freeman, in his biography of Lee (1934-35) attributes to the not yet thirty-two-year-old general in the Wilderness. Gordon spends the twenty-seven pages of his narrative of May 5 and 6, 1864, talking almost exclusively about himself, first in relation to the way he saved the day south of the Orange Turnpike on May 5 and then in relation to his flank attack on the Union right north of the Orange Turnpike on May 6. Some may find the exaggerations and egotism of Gordon’s account too much to take, but the heady exuberance and unabashed pride in what he takes to be his stupendous accomplishments are so ingenuous that, if one can forget for a moment that he is describing events in which thousands of men killed and wounded each other, his enthusiasm can become infectious.
In such a crisis, when moments count for hours, when the fate of a command hangs upon instantaneous decision, the responsibility of the commander is almost overwhelming; but the very extremity of the danger electrifies his brain to abnormal activity. In such peril he does more thinking in one second than he would ordinarily do in a day. No man ever realized more fully than I did at that dreadful moment the truth of the adage: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
Gordon includes two diagrams to help his reader understand “the unprecedented movement” he ordered his brigade to perform and sums up this episode in no uncertain terms.
The situation was both unique and alarming. I know of no case like it in military history; nor has there come to my knowledge from military text-books or the accounts of the world’s battles any precedent for the movement which extricated my command from its perilous environment and changed the threatened capture or annihilation of my troops into victory.
If Gordon had been a bully or had puffed himself up at the expense of other men, passages like this would be unbearable. But what’s so disarming about his narrative is that it lavishes praise on everyone, friend and foe alike. A. P. Hill is “that brilliant soldier”; Clement A. Evans is “that intrepid leader”; Robert Johnson is “a brilliant young officer”; Generals Seymour and Shaler, captured during Gordon’s May 6 flank attack, are “gallant Union leaders”; John W. Daniel, who wrote an account that largely contradicts Gordon’s, is “brave and brilliant”; Grant is “so able a commander”; Longstreet’s corps is “superb,” as is the Texas brigade that ordered Lee to the rear in the Widow Tapp’s field. No wonder Gordon became a successful politician. It’s hard to grudge so generous a spirit its share of the accolades.
On the one hand, then, Gordon’s memoir scores high marks as an individualized expression of personal memory. It makes good reading--better than most generals’ memoirs, in fact--and it also scores high on the Stephen Crane test, since it brims with unembarrassed statements of how Gordon actually felt, statements such as “my brain was throbbing with the tremendous possibilities to which such a situation invited us.” On the other hand, the author of Reminiscences of the Civil War isn’t content simply to put his point of view on record and let it go at that. He also wants to serve history, to establish as a matter of fact who was responsible for delaying his flank attack on May 6 (the culprit, he says, was Early), and to align his memoir with the emerging official record. Gordon’s case is particularly interesting because his narrative appeared after the government finished publishing the Official Records in 1901. In fact, Gordon quotes extensively from the OR, specifically from the reports of Federal officers, to demonstrate conclusively that, contrary to what Early claimed, Burnside’s Ninth Corps was not placed on the Union right in support of Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps and its exposed flank. Unfortunately for Gordon, although his appeal to the records confirms his observation that Burnside was nowhere near the Union right at the time Early claimed it was, historians have largely rejected the service he offers to perform for them. In the disagreement about what happened south of the Orange Turnpike on May 5, for example, Rhea follows Daniel rather than Gordon, and in assessing the contrary claims made by Early and Gordon about the significance of the May 6 flank attack, Steere likewise sides with Early against Gordon. With the historians’ verdict in, Gordon’s memoir goes back on the shelf, discredited as history and condemned to be ignored by those who judge Civil War memoirs by an ideal standard of objective omniscience.
As the case of Gordon’s Reminiscences makes clear, 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. This middle ground, for all its difficult tangles and uneven terrain, can nevertheless prove fertile for the reader willing to waive the requirement that a memoir always justify itself as official history. The memoirs of Longstreet, Grant, and Morris Schaff reveal other important features of this complicated genre.
The first edition of James Longstreet’s From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America was published in Philadelphia in 1896 and the second in 1903, the same year that Gordon’s memoir appeared and the year before Longstreet’s death. Like Gordon, Longstreet refers to the war by its Northern name, his choice of epithets reflecting his reconciliation with the government of the United States after the war (for a time he served as Minister Resident to Turkey), a reconciliation for which many in the South never forgave him. Like Gordon, Longstreet refers explicitly to the OR, though still incomplete at the time of his first edition, noting in the preface that “the official War Records supply in a measure the place of lost papers.” And like Gordon yet again, Longstreet produced a narrative that many historians view with misgivings. In Lee’s Lieutenants (1942-46), for example, Freeman comments that the inaccuracies of Longstreet’s account result in a book that is “even more unjust” to him than it is to any of the people he criticizes.
Despite the reservations of historians, however, From Manassas to Appomattox had at least one important sympathetic reader during the later twentieth century. In Killer Angels, Michael Shaara draws heavily on Longstreet’s account of Gettysburg as he fashions the character of the Confederate First Corps commander into a military visionary who understands the emerging conditions of modern warfare and their implications, both strategic and tactical, much better than his superior, Robert E. Lee. As a result, millions of Americans who have either read Killer Angels or seen the film Gettysburg have been strongly influenced by Longstreet’s memoir, whether they know it or not. In addition to the sections that Shaara uses, sometimes almost verbatim, Longstreet’s account of Gettysburg contains many other memorable moments, such as the controversial characterization of Lee as “excited and off his balance” and laboring “under that oppression until enough blood was shed to appease him.” But even this damning judgment sounds tame beside the thundering denouncement of Jubal Early, a verbal thrashing administered in the grand diction and implacable rhythms of Victorian English.
There was a man on the left of the line who did not care to make the battle win. He knew where it was, had viewed it from its earliest formation, had orders for his part in it, but so withheld part of his command from it as to make co-operative concert of action impracticable. He had a pruriency for the honors of the field of Mars, was eloquent, before the fires of the bivouac and his chief, of the glory of war’s gory shield; but when its envied laurels were dipping to the grasp, when the heavy field called for bloody work, he found the placid horizon, far and away beyond the cavalry, more lovely and inviting. He wanted command of the Second Corps, and, succeeding to it, held the honored position until General Lee found, at last, that he must dismiss him from field service.
Whatever historians have decided or will decide about responsibility for the failure of the Second Corps to take Culp’s Hill on July 2, 1863, the rhetoric of invective doesn’t get much better than this, at least not in the stately idiom of “pruriency for the honors of the field of Mars” and “the glory of war’s gory shield” that Longstreet wields throughout his memoir.
The elevation of Longstreet’s language no doubt will alienate many contemporary readers, partly because it doesn’t make for easy reading and partly because it muffles the realities of lead or iron missiles traveling at high speeds into human flesh. In his chapter on the Battle of the Wilderness, for example, Longstreet mentions blood exactly twice, both times with reference to his own wounding on May 6 along the Orange Plank Road. The second time he quotes another officer’s description of “the bloody foam” that he, Longstreet, blew from his mouth. Here is the first.
The blow lifted me from the saddle, and my right arm dropped to my side, but I settled back to my seat, and started to ride on, when in a minute the flow of blood admonished me that my work for the day was done.
Although one can admire the understatement here, the refusal to indulge some readers’ taste for the graphic details of violence, it is also possible to feel uncomfortable with a rhetorical chilliness that sometimes sounds like admirable coolness under fire but at others like monstrous cold-bloodedness.
Whatever one thinks of Longstreet’s narrative coolness, his chapter on the Battle of the Wilderness is weaker and less memorable than the chapters on Gettysburg. Admittedly, Longstreet missed the fighting on May 5 altogether and had to leave the battle before its conclusion on May 6. Still, he witnessed and must have felt much that he could have conveyed forcefully. Despite its shortcomings, however, the chapter does have its moments. One of these is the eulogy for Micah Jenkins, brigade commander in Charles W. Field’s division of Longstreet’s corps, who was mortally wounded by the same burst of friendly fire that hit Longstreet.
He was one of the most estimable characters of the army. His taste and talent were for military service. He was intelligent, quick, untiring, attentive, zealous in discharge of duty, truly faithful to official obligations, abreast with the foremost in battle, and withal a humble, noble Christian. In a moment of highest earthly hope he was transported to serenest heavenly joy; to that life beyond that knows no bugle call, beat of drum, or clash of steel. May his beautiful spirit, through the mercy of God, rest in peace! Amen!
Sam Watkins punctuates his memoir with many such passages, and the combination of stock martial imagery with conventional expressions of Christian piety may not grip every reader forcefully. But in the context of Longstreet’s coolness, exclamation marks stand out and signify an eruption of feeling that registers distinctly on the Stephen Crane test scale. Of the more than twenty-eight thousand casualties in the Wilderness, Jenkins is the only one Longstreet pauses over, reminding us that not even the coolest of commanders can remain impervious to his losses, in this case the loss of a fellow general officer and South Carolinian. The eulogy for Jenkins marks an inescapably personal moment and, as such, distinguishes Longstreet’s memoir, at least here, from the emotionless records that Crane deplored.
Another feature that humanizes From Manassas to Appomattox, a feature that typifies many memoirs, especially those by generals, is one we could call the What if? moment. What if moments abound in both popular and professional reflections on the Civil War, the most famous of them being, "What if Jackson hadn’t been wounded at Chancellorsville?" Many people understand this particular what if to invite the response, “Then Jackson would have been on the left at Gettysburg, he would have taken Culp’s Hill, Lee would have won the battle, and the South would have gained its independence.” Since the bigger what ifs tend to originate from the Southern point of view- (What if the Confederates had chased the Federals back into Washington after First Manassas-Bull Run?); some people tend to forget that what ifs work both ways: What if McClellan hadn’t been so timid during the Peninsula Campaign or Sharpsburg-Antietam? What if Joe Hooker hadn’t lost his nerve and pulled back at Chancellorsville? What if John Reynolds hadn’t been killed the first day of Gettysburg? What if James Wilson’s Union Cavalry Division had watched the Orange Turnpike long enough to see Ewell’s Second Corps arriving at Locust Grove on May 4, 1864, on its way to the Wilderness.
The fact that What ifs imply a simplemindedly naive view of cause and effect, a view that assumes one change among many causes will necessarily lead to specific predictable effects, doesn’t really matter. What matters is that what ifs reflect the all-too-human desire to comprehend and control contingencies beyond comprehension and control. In Longstreet’s case, the big What if of the Battle of the Wilderness involves the poor preparation of Hill’s Third Corps on the Orange Plank Road during the night of May 5.
Under that plan events support the claim that the Third Corps, intrenched in their advanced position, with fresh supplies and orders to hold their ground, could have received and held against Hancock’s early battle until my command could have come in on his left rear and completed our strongly organized battle by which we could have carried the Wilderness, even down and into the classic Rapidan.
Could have . . . could have . . . could have. Although Longstreet doesn’t spell it out, this conditional fantasy presumably continued: And the defeat of the Army of the Potomac in the Wilderness during the election year, when Lincoln had resorted to his last general, could have led to McClellan’s presidential victory and independence for the South. At this moment Longstreet’s memoir has departed from the path of objective historical narrative and become a wishful meditation on his own powerlessness to change the outcome of events; and no amount of stoic reconciliation can wholly efface his regret and remorse. Questionable history writing perhaps, but a memorable moment full of the pathos that gives memoirs one of their defining qualities.
Longstreet’s memoir is made up of more than elevated language, cool understatement, What ifs, and--as in the final pages of the chapter on the Wilderness--self-defense, in this case against the charge that he arrived on the Plank Road twenty-four hours late. One of the more attractive features of From Manassas to Appomattox is Longstreet’s sympathetic portrait of Grant, who graduated a year behind him at West Point, served with him in the Fourth United States Infantry Regiment before the war with Mexico, and, in the Appomattox chapter of the memoir, “looked up, recognized me, rose, and with his old-time cheerful greeting gave me his hand, and after passing a few remarks offered a cigar, which was gratefully received.” In the Wilderness chapter, Longstreet includes a short paragraph comparing Grant and Lee, a paragraph that concludes, “They were equally pugnacious and plucky,--Grant the more deliberate.” Few students of the war could take issue with this characterization, but it is in the preceding sentence that Longstreet suddenly drops his reserve to offer a remarkable--some might say sentimental--description of the man so many in both the North and South vilified as a butcher.
. . . but the biggest part of him was his heart.
Although Longstreet doesn’t quote from Grant’s Personal Memoirs, which preceded both the publication of the OR and his own book, the simple, straightforward language of this statement reflects the writing of the man it describes. In many ways Grant’s writing embodies the style that Whitman admires in the “Soldiers and Talks” paragraph of his Memoranda, “the superfluous flesh of talking” having long been worked off Grant not only by the rigors of war but also by the cancer in his soft palate, cancer that he was fighting during the writing of his memoirs. The clarity and concision of his style have received extensive praise, including the admiration of Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson, whose modernism Grant, in some ways, influenced. To hear the difference between the old idiom and the new, one has only to compare the last sentences of the opening paragraphs of Longstreet’s and Grant’s chapters on the Wilderness. Both writers are setting the stage for the devastating campaign to come, but Longstreet does so in a lengthy sentence composed of several subordinate clauses connected by semi-colons, the last of which runs, “that we should first show that the power of battle is in generalship more than in the number of soldiers, which, properly illustrated, would make the weaker numbers of the contention the stronger force.” Grant puts matters more succinctly.
The two armies had been confronting each other so long, without any decisive result, that they hardly knew which could whip.
But it is easy to overpraise Grant’s style, especially for readers who have become so suspicious of rhetorical embellishment that they no longer hear the plain style as a style at all. At its best Grant’s writing makes complicated events and movements easily accessible to the contemporary reader. At its worst it is, in the words of his own description of the country between the Rapidan and the James, “rather flat.” In the Wilderness chapter, for example, we hear that “The country roads were narrow and poor,” an unremarkable sentence repeated almost verbatim a few pages later: “The roads were narrow and bad.” When such sentences alternate with longer ones, their brevity provides refreshing variation, but when they occur in unrelieved succession, they sound dull and somewhat undercooked.
For all their stylistic differences, Grant’s account of The Wilderness has much in common with that of Longstreet, whom Grant describes, at the end of a chapter on Chattanooga, as “brave, honest, intelligent, a very capable soldier, subordinate to his superiors, just and kind to his subordinates, but jealous of his own rights, which he had the courage to maintain.” Like his former comrade, Grant does little to make the individual sufferings of soldiers real for his reader--in his account the word “blood” doesn’t appear at all--but, like Longstreet, he does permit himself to eulogize a single soldier, whose loss must stand in the reader’s mind for all other losses. As in Longstreet’s narrative, the eulogized soldier, Alexander Hays, is a brigade commander, one who served in Birney’s division of Hancock’s Second Corps.
I had been at West Point with Hays for three years, and had served with him through the Mexican war, a portion of the time in the same regiment. He was a most gallant officer, ready to lead his command wherever ordered. With him it was “Come, boys,” not “Go.”
For all the terse precision and matter-of-fact sobriety that characterize this short paragraph, especially when we compare it with Longstreet’s on Micah Jenkins, Grant cannot resist indulging elsewhere in his own version of What if any more successfully than his enemies, Gordon and Longstreet, each of whom believed that if his respective flank attack could have realized its full potential, he could have won the Battle of the Wilderness.
I believed then, and see no reason to change that opinion now, that if the country had been such that Hancock and his command could have seen the confusion and panic in the lines of the enemy, it would have been taken advantage of so effectually that Lee would not have made another stand outside of his Richmond defences.
Like his Confederate counterparts, Grant believes that if things had been different, they would have been so different that the rest of the spring 1864 campaign would never have happened. Unlike them, however, he doesn’t base his What if on criticism of an individual, as Gordon blamed Early and Longstreet blamed Hill (and by implication Lee, who presumably told Hill not to entrench because Longstreet would be up early enough to relieve him). Instead, Grant blames the Wilderness itself. In fact, Grant rarely blames anyone at all for anything, and not for a lack of opportunities. He doesn’t censure Wilson for failing to keep his cavalry across the Orange Turnpike or Burnside for being slow in moving toward the left or Gibbon for not supporting the rest of the Second Corps as quickly and strongly as he should have.
The choice, conscious or unconscious, to blame everything on the dense forest invites a closer look. On the one hand, it reflects extraordinary tolerance of other people’s costly ineptitude, a tolerance that contrasts favorably with the nearly pathological blame-fixing of some other memoirists. On the other hand, shifting the blame to the nature of the ground, which, after all, also affected the Army of Northern Virginia adversely, neatly shields from censure all ineptitude, Grant’s included. That terrible mistakes were made, some by the Union high command, some by subordinate officers, becomes apparent only in a muted acknowledgment that Grant connects with the wounding of Longstreet.
Longstreet had to leave the field, not to resume his command for many weeks. His loss was a severe one to Lee, and compensated in a great measure for the mishap, or misapprehensions, which had fallen to our lot during the day.
For someone so highly praised as a straight talker, this is an oddly devious moment, for basically it claims that Longstreet’s wounding leveled the playing field, which had tilted in favor of the Confederates not because the Union leadership on various levels made serious mistakes and miscalculations, but because “mishap, or misapprehensions”--the subtle and uncharacteristic wordplay sounds suspicious--fell to the Union “lot.” It is as though the Army of the Potomac had been dealt a bad hand of cards or gotten a poor roll of the dice, and the implication is that Confederate bad luck simply offsets Union bad luck, not Union blunders.
It is also revealing that the supposedly plain spoken Grant, who scores so well on Walt Whitman’s test, doesn’t score higher on Stephen Crane’s. At one point he does admit, “I was anxious that the rebels should not take the initiative in the morning” of May 6; and yet, even though he also admits that “More desperate fighting has not been witnessed on this continent than that of the 5th and 6th of May,” a judgment that the rest of the nineteenth and all of the twentieth centuries have done nothing to shake, Grant gives us no access to his interior world, a world that other witnesses represent as tumultuous. It is from James Wilson’s Life of John A. Rawlins (1916), a narrative two steps removed from Grant himself, that we get the harrowing account of Grant breaking down in his tent on the night of May 6, and from Horace Porter’s Campaigning with Grant (1897) the telling detail of Grant smoking twenty large, strong cigars during the same day. This last detail so impressed Gordon that he includes it in his Reminiscences.
In after years, when it was my privilege to know General Grant well, he was still a great smoker; but if the nervous strain under which he labored is to be measured by the number of cigars consumed, it must have been greater on the 6th of May than at any period of his life, for he is said never to have equalled that record.
It’s hard to argue with Gordon’s interpretation, and yet where are the signs of “the nervous strain under which he labored” in Grant’s Personal Memoirs? Depending on individual predispositions, readers can applaud or deplore or not care much about Grant’s tight-lipped refusal to give us any indication of how he felt during what he himself later viewed as the most desperate fighting ever to take place on the North American continent, fighting for which in many ways he both was directly and indirectly responsible. Elsewhere in his book Grant does give us slight inklings of what was happening in the heart that Longstreet thought his biggest part. In the chapter on Cold Harbor, for example, he admits, “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made,” a confession somewhat diluted by his noncommittal use of the passive voice but still much more than Sherman ever said about the disastrous attack on the Dead Angle at Kennesaw Mountain. Then there is the great detail, perfectly delivered in a single sentence, about Grant’s reaction upon reading the message in which Lee requests an interview to discuss the terms of surrender at Appomattox.
When the officer reached me I was still suffering with the sick headache; but the instant I saw the contents of the note I was cured.
The scarcity of moments such as these, moments completely absent from the account of the Wilderness, makes me wonder how both Grant and his earliest readers understood the first word of his title. To my ear the word sounds as though it should have quotation marks around it, since Grant’s memoirs aren’t much more personal than those of Sherman, who avoids the word altogether. More than a hundred years after the publication of Grant’s book, many Americans assume that “personal” must mean “intimate,” but I for one am not questioning the absence of details about Grant’s drinking or how much he missed his wife. I’m questioning the absence, or scarcity, of material that is private in the sense that it differs significantly from what is a matter of public record, material that could come only from the person writing the memoir. In other words, as writers and readers of Civil War memoirs understood them, should a typical example of the genre consist mostly of battle reports sewn together in a readable narrative, with some eulogies, What ifs, and self-defense thrown in for variety? If so, do Civil War memoirs still deserve the attention of a few general readers a hundred or so years after their publication, readers who could just as easily pick up a well-written history instead?
I still say yes, but with two qualifications. First, not all Civil War memoirs have an equal claim on precious time and eyesight, anymore than all examples of any other genre do. In the Library of Congress subject headings, Civil War memoirs appear under “United States History Civil War 1861-1865 Personal Narratives,” and when I last checked, I found 824 entries under that heading, a number that comes into perspective with the discovery that a search for personal narratives by Americans about World War II, the second most written-about war involving the United States, generated 429 entries. Anyone who sifted through the 824 entries would soon discover that “personal narrative” is a large, baggy category, one that also includes diaries, journals, biographies, and collections of letters, not to mention duplicates of works, some in multiple editions. But even with these items weeded out, there are still many, many memoirs to read, and most are only average because average is, by definition, what most things are. Confronted by this mass, general readers should treat themselves to the best examples of the genre, and here Grant’s book serves well.
But my second qualification is that twenty-first-century general readers shouldn’t choose a memoir that does only what a well-written version of the OR 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. Sam Watkins’s “Co. Aytch” is one good example. Watkins makes it clear at the beginning of his narrative, and frequently reminds his readers throughout it, that he writes “only from memory” and that if they want details that his memory can’t deliver, they should see “the histories.” Another good example is one that I came across reading histories of the Battle of the Wilderness, a memoir reduced in those histories to a few quotations that make it look unexceptional.
Morris Schaff’s strangely rich memoir The Battle of the Wilderness contains much that contributes nothing to the historical record. As an ordnance officer, Schaff helped supply the Army of the Potomac before the Wilderness campaign and records that between April 4 and May 2, 1864, he ordered 2,325,000 rounds of musket and pistol cartridges for Meade’s soldiers, or approximately three for every Confederate who served during the four years of war, if we accept E. B. Long’s estimate of 750,000 for the number of Confederate soldiers. Historians who make use of Schaff rely on him primarily for his account of being assigned to lead the dilatory Burnside down the Parker’s Store Road to the Chewning Farm on May 6 and for his description of meeting the Iron Brigade’s Lysander Cutler in the woods and learning from him of Wadsworth’s collapse along the Orange Plank Road, a collapse he subsequently reported to the high command at the Lacy House, only to find himself disbelieved. But using Schaff’s memoir to supply only these meager details is, as Emerson would say, like using a volcano to cook eggs.
Like Watkins, Schaff makes it clear early on that he doesn’t aim to serve the historical record.
I am free to confess that the strategy, grand tactics, and military movements of the Civil War, stirring as they were, are not the features which engage my deepest interest, but rather the spirit which animated the armies of North and South. That, that is what I see.
With this disclaimer Schaff should attract many like-minded readers to his memoir, but those who think they will find there a careful examination of the psychological motivations of individual soldiers are in for a surprise. When Schaff refers to “the spirit which animated the armies,” he means something large and even supernatural.
Reader, if the Spirit of the Wilderness be unreal to you, not so is it to me. Bear in mind that the native realm of the spirit of man is nature’s kingdom, that there he has made all of his discoveries, and yet what a vast region is unexplored, that region along whose misty coast Imagination wings her way bringing one suggestion after another of miraculous transformations, each drawing new light and each proclaiming that nature’s heart beats with our own.
If Emerson had brought his brand of transcendentalism to the Battle of the Wilderness and survived to write about it, his account might have sounded something like this. For Schaff, the natural world, in this case the dense Wilderness itself, reflects and symbolizes human spirit. Whereas for Grant the dense forest amounts to a topographic impediment on which he can blame the mishaps or misapprehensions that fell to the Union lot there, for Schaff it constitutes a sublimely terrifying realm that not only shapes local events but also serves as the agent of national fate, which Schaff understands to be the destruction of slavery.
And was there a Spirit of the Wilderness, that, as tears gathered in eyes of fathers and mothers over separation from children and home, recorded an oath to avenge the wrong? Else why did the Wilderness strike twice at the Confederacy in its moments of victory? Who knows!
As an interpretation of the fighting in the Wilderness that included, during Chancellorsville, the wounding of Jackson and a year later the wounding of Longstreet, this passage may strike the more historically inclined as little short of lunacy. The standard interpretation of the Wilderness terrain reads it as an ally of the smaller Army of Northern Virginia because it hobbled the gigantic and unwieldy Army of the Potomac. But in Schaff’s spiritual world, the Wilderness transforms itself into an ally not only of the Federal forces but also of abolition itself.
In a weird and extraordinary passage, Schaff raises the ghost of Jackson and confronts him with both a personification of Slavery and the Spirit of the Wilderness. Placed at the close of Schaff’s narrative of May 4, the first day of the campaign, the passage extends over several pages, but three short excerpts outline its contours.
I wonder, Reader, if the ghost of Stonewall did not really come back? You see, it was about the anniversary of the night on which he received his mortal wound, and the old armies that he knew so well were on the eve of meeting again. What should be more natural than that he should come to this side of the river, that river whose beckoning trees offered such sweet shade to the dying soldier? . . .
Abruptly, and with almost a gasp, he fastens his astonished gaze on a cowled figure that has emerged from the trees and is looking at him. Is it the Spirit of the Wilderness, whose relentless eyes met his as he fell, and does he read in their cold depths the doom awaiting Longstreet? . . .
Hark! he hears something. It draws nearer, and now we can distinguish footsteps; they sound as if they were dragging chains after them through the dead rustling leaves. Presently, off from the roadside where two oaks press back the tangle, admitting a bit of starlight, Stonewall sees a gaunt, hollow-breasted, wicked-eyed, sunken-cheeked being. Behold, she is addressing him! “Stonewall, I am Slavery and sorely wounded. Can you do nothing to stay the Spirit of the Wilderness that, in striking at me, struck you down?”
This scene, in which military history meets Macbeth, may provoke nothing but scorn in many readers, especially military historians. In the first chapter of The Face of Battle (1976), for example, John Keegan asserts that, like a play, a “battle must obey the dramatic unities of time, place, and action,” but a few pages later he also warns that “Imagination and sentiment, which quite properly delimit the dimensions of the novelist’s realm, are a dangerous medium, however, through which to approach the subject of battle.” From Keegan’s point of view, the danger of approaching battle through sentiment and imagination, which Schaff explicitly invokes in a passage quoted earlier, is that they can produce “some very nasty stuff indeed,” stuff that indulges in the “pornography of violence.”
Whatever else Schaff is--mystic, romantic, eccentric--he is no pornographer. If he views the Wilderness as a fateful region in which larger forces operate in ways we can neither completely understand nor completely explain, he is hardly alone. In “The Bear” in Go Down, Moses (1942), Faulkner has his main character, Ike McCaslin, list a series of events from the war in order to question the proposition, advanced by another character, that God has turned his face toward the South.
‘. . . and that same Longstreet shot out of saddle by his own men in the dark by mistake just as Jackson was. His face to us? His face to us?’
If using imagination to read the Wilderness as more than a topographic impediment makes questionable sense to the military historian, it nevertheless makes good psychological, emotional, or spiritual sense, not only to many of the men who fought there--the effects of religious revivals among soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia are well documented, and many soldiers of the Army of the Potomac recorded their impressions of being haunted by the region--but also possibly to many of the people who visit the area today.
It is the holding of the secrets of butchering happenings like these, and its air of surprised and wild curiosity in whosoever penetrates the solitude and breaks its grim, immeasurable silence, that gives the Wilderness, I think, its deep and evoking interest.
This is Schaff again, now narrating battle in and around Saunders’ Field on May 5. I can’t speak for every visitor to the Wilderness battlefield, and I certainly can’t speak for military historians, but I find nothing to argue with in this explanation of the “deep and evoking interest” of the woods between Route 20 and the Mill Branch. In fact, it’s the best explanation, in any memoir I’ve read, of the palpable uncanniness of the Wilderness. Of course, Schaff realizes, and so do I, that some will object to this kind of talk.
“And is this history?” comes a peevish voice from the general level of those who are as yet only dimly conscious of the essence and final embodiment of History. Yes, it is a little sheaf out of a field lying in one of its high and beautifully remote valleys.
No matter how many Civil War memoirs I read, and no matter how many other people I get to read them, I don’t think I’ll ever feel that I’m in a position to identify, let alone dismiss, all “those who are as yet only dimly conscious of the essence and final embodiment of History,” although I take pleasure in Schaff’s confident bravado. Still, I do feel quite strongly that Schaff’s memoir, even at its most extravagant, along with other memoirs that stray unconventionally from generic norms, finally does teach me history, or at least a kind of history. If nothing else, it teaches me a little more about the history of how people looked back on May 1864, and for whatever reasons, I need to know that, too.