Consequences Of The Skirmish At Lewis Farm, March 29, 1865

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Elisha joined from Cortland, a small town not quite forty miles from Syracuse, New York, most of a day’s travel until the railroad arrived in 1854. There were other Crosbys in and near the town: another Elisha Crosby, very likely my great-great-grandfather, a very old man, and a scattering of others. There was Parker Crosby, who achieved momentary local fame by condemning the Cortland Baptist church as “the offspring of the Mother of Harlots.” There was yet another Elisha Crosby, this one with Oswald for a middle name, who went to California with the fortyniners in search of gold.

The 1850 census lists my great-grandfather, married to Sally (later recorded as Sarah) but childless, as a farmer with twelve hundred dollars’ worth of real estate. That was the price of a decent piece of land then. The 1860 census lists him as a mason with a total estate valued at forty-five dollars and now with three dependents, Sally and two children, in order of birth, Charles and Alice. (A third, Jennie, was born in 1862.) The family had moved in with a relative, probably my great-grandfather’s father. My great-grandfather had achieved poverty, precipitously so, it would seem.

Herman Melville wrote in one of his Civil War poems, “All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys, the champions and enthusiasts of the state. . . .” Why did a forty-year-old Elisha join the Army? Why, for that matter, did the Army of the Potomac want a middle-aged infantryman?

Was he such a patriot that he felt he had to go? I doubt it; he would have gone in an earlier year if that were his motive. Was he a dedicated abolitionist? Unlikely. Most white Northerners didn’t want slavery abolished so much as they wanted it restricted geographically. Otherwise, slaves—that is to say, black people—might move into the neighborhood. Was he having a midlife crisis? Nonsense, midlife crises are twentieth-century luxuries. The explanation, I am sure, was that he was poor and that the Union armies were so short of men in 1864 that a man could earn a lot of money for volunteering.

The North had been enthusiastic about the war at the start. For example, in April of 1861 in Emily Dickinson’s Amherst, about two hundred miles east of Cortland, the professor of chemistry at the college, soon to be a colonel, had announced that he would take a company to war if one hundred men would enlist, and a hundred college boys did in a halfhour. But the war had turned into a succession of slaughterous and never quite decisive battles. Dickinson wrote in December of 1861 about a Mrs. Adams, whose losses were so great that she had gone into her bedroom and closed the door and not opened it since: ”. . . Step softly over such doors as these! Dead! Both her boys!” In the following March Lt. Frazar Stearns, the son of the college president, returned from the battlefield in a box, slain by a mini» ball (about which more in a moment). “Frazer is killed, Frazer is killed,” Emily’s brother, William Austin, repeated over and over. “Two or three words of lead,” wrote Emily, “that dropped so deep, they keep weighing—” By the winter of 1863-64, she noted in a letter, sorrow was so general that “if the anguish of others helped one with one’s own, now would be many medicines.”

I‘m sure Elisha went to war because the Union armies were so short of men in 1864 that someone could earn a lot of money by volunteering.

Generals, no more prescient than the rest of us, operate in the present on the basis of what the past teaches them. The professional soldiers of the 1860s had been trained to fight wars in which the decisive weapon was the smoothbore musket, tedious to load and hopelessly inaccurate at distances of more than seventy-five yards. For centuries battles and wars had been decided when regiments marched to and, if discipline held, into that seventy-five-yard zone in neat blocks of soldiers arranged and maneuvered to ensure maximum impact upon final closing with the enemy.

In the 1840s the nature of land war changed. Capt. Claude-Étienne Minié of the French army improved and made a practical weapon of the rifled musket, providing for it what was called the minié ball. It was not a ball but a blunted cone. The force and heat of exploding gunpowder expanded its base to grip the sides of a rifled barrel. The bullet emerged at a high velocity with a spin to stabilize its course. The rifled musket still took what in battle must have seemed forever to load but could, theoretically at least, kill at a half-mile, and in the hands of a competent soldier, it was deadly up to 250 yards. Yet Union and Confederate generals clung to old ways, sending thousands of men into frontal assaults often so costly that either side could have called them defeats. It is Claude-Étienne Minié and not Delacroix or Flaubert or Mallarmé or Berlioz or Eiffel or Pasteur who provided the Gallic element in my patrimony.

I remember that my father showed me a mini» ball when I was a child. It was a thuggish chunk of a bullet: heavy, dull white (corroded lead), a dumdum slug about half an inch wide and three-quarters long. He probably had found it in Virginia, where he was stationed at the end of the First World War. There must be thousands of minié balls still there in the sand and sod of the old battlefields, the very last remnants of the trash of battle: “the rusted gun, Green shoes full of bones, the mouldering coat and cuddled-up skeleton.” (Melville never fails to provide a chill.)