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


By seven the next morning the wounded were on their way to the main hospital at City Point. The surgeon T. Rush Spencer and the assistant surgeon Charles K. Winne recorded that the roads were almost impassable. It rained the night following the battle and all the next day. The land was flat and drainage poor, the soil sandy and underlaid with clay. The roads, torn up by the heavy wagons and marching men, turned into troughs of mud. They could be made passable only by corduroying—that is to say, by being paved with logs, even captured muskets, laid side by side across them. The jolting ride back to City Point, where Elisha’s death was recorded, must have been agonal if he were still conscious. Whitman wrote: “Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death! In mercy come quickly.”

Chamberlain’s survival of major wounds at the beginning and end of the Petersburg campaign was probably due more to his stalwart constitution than to the skill of his surgeons, who as yet could do little that was useful about cleaning and repairing wounds, especially those to the torso. There was hope for men wounded in the extremities because surgeons could amputate, simply lop off the battered tissue, with its splinters of bone and bits of metal and dirt. Walt Whitman’s description of “a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, etc., a full load for a one-horse cart” outside a camp hospital appalls, but the truth is that the original owners of those pieces might, if they outlasted the inevitable infections of that pre-antisepsis era, live years, even decades, more. They might have useful lives. They might at least serve as living icons, objects of patriotic respect and pity. Elisha had no such prospect because you cannot amputate a hip.

My parents concealed from me nearly everything about Elisha’s survivors, hoping to seal me off from the example of Charles Turner Crosby.

Elisha Crosby died on the last day of March 1865. Sarah Crosby, whose husband had surely volunteered in the hope of recovering prosperity, found herself a single parent of three with a thousand dollars in lieu of a spouse (presuming that the money hadn’t already been spent) and a pension that, at maximum, brought her fourteen dollars a month. That is not much even if you take into account the inflation since.

In the summer of 1864 Elisha had seized control of his fate. He had resolutely volunteered to fight for his country, for human rights, and for the welfare of his family. How much better if he had been irresolute, had claimed his forty years as good reason not to go to war, had accepted his status as a landless laborer and plied his trade as a mason, laying brick on brick to make other people’s houses. “What like a bullet can undeceive!” (One of Melville’s better lines, don’t you think?)

My parents concealed from me nearly everything about Elisha’s survivors, hoping, I presume, to seal me off from the example of Charles Turner Crosby, his son. I am obliged to speculate about Charles, my grandfather, or to forget him, which would leave Elisha’s tragedy without the authentication of an effect and my father’s disabilities without even the pale merit of a cause.

It is fact that Charles was fifteen when Elisha fell at Lewis Farm, leaving the boy the sole male in a poor family in an age of patriarchy. That was his first great challenge. He was still living with his mother and sisters in 1870. Sometime in the next five years he left them. I have no knowledge of why, certainly not to marry Ella, who was no more than ten or twelve years old.

The family he left behind was not a typical one. In 1882 Sarah, age sixtythree, and the two daughters, Alice, thirty-nine, and Jennie, thirty, all three women single, were living as a separate household. The absence of a male does not prove in itself that they were this or that or whathave-you, but considered in relation to events and situations before and afterward, it has the sour smell of defeat and stagnation. Jennie did eventually marry, but not until she was forty-seven.

Though it is only speculation, we can’t help but feel that Charles’s departure from the three women was stormy. Otherwise, my father would have had some contact with his aunts, Charles’s sisters, and other Cortland relatives, and I would as a child at least have heard of their existence.

The aftermath of Elisha’s death in Virginia provided Charles with a superb education in the advantages of insensitivity and the allure of disaffiliation. Failure at that stage of his life would have established for him a precedent of defeat wonderfully convenient to draw on when the time came to fail a second family.

The period of Charles’s young adulthood, the period we call the Gilded Age, did not encourage idealism or selflessness. Even before the war Walt Whitman had poetized about “looking in at the shop-windows in Broadway the whole forenoon . . . pressing the flesh of my nose to the thick plate-glass,” and after the war the yearning for material aggrandizement doubled and redoubled in intensity, along with—a fresh addition—the conviction that the yearning could, even should, be fulfilled. Henry James, back home early in the next century after years abroad, discovered that the national theme song had become “the long, the perpendicular rattle, as of buckets, forever thirsty, in the bottomless well of fortune. . . .” He was astounded by “the differences, the newnesses, the queernesses, above all the bignesses. . . .” He invented a new adjective for America: abracadabrant .