The Epic Is Yet To Be Written

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No one ever described more honestly than Whitman the dehumanizing effects of the Civil War: the released prisoners emerging into the light—a foreshadowing of Buchenwald and Auschwitz: can these be men —these little livid brown, ash-streak’d, monkey-looking dwarfs?—are they really not mummied, dwindled corpses?

the toll of bullets, typhoid, dysentery, inflammations: the dead, the dead, the dead, [he wails] our dead—or South or North, ours all, (all, all, all, finally dear to me).

Reading his poems and recollections, we believe him when he says, “I comprehended all, whoever came my way, northern or southern, and slighted none.” And when he sees a portentous meaning in the tremendous storms of 1864 that seemed to trail the great battles of that year and the luminous nights as symbolic of the nobility that cuts through the “long stretches of murky gloom,” he gives an epic proportion to a war that was not a “struggle of two distinct and separate peoples” but a conflict between “the passions and paradoxes” within a single nation.

This same Virgilian note is struck by Herman Melville in his seldom-read but profoundly moving volume of poems, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War . It opens with “The Portent,” the image of a hanged John Brown swinging on the gallows, the beard streaming from beneath his death cap like a “meteor of the war,” and it creates (to quote from Howells’ review) “the unrest, the strangeness and solitude, to which the first sense of the great danger reduced all souls.” Howells found Melville’s poems, on the whole, too impalpable to be completely satisfactory, but he failed to see that Melville’s reflective commentary on the course of the war from Bull Run to Appomattox served as a kind of Greek chorus to the national tragedy, that Battle-Pieces were the poetic notations of an observing but passionately engaged mind.

The tone of Battle-Pieces is one of mingled grief and irony. America, “the world’s fairest hope,” is linked with “man’s foulest crime,” and Satan, a “disciplined captain, gray in skill” has given the lie to American optimism. The ladies who cheer the young men marching off to war in “Bacchic glee” will soon learn to sorrow:

How should they dream, that Death in a rosy clime Would come to thin their shining throng?

Youthful veterans become prematurely old, like “The College Colonel” who quickly discovers that war is not a game:

A still rigidity and pale— An Indian aloofness lines his brow; He has lived a thousand years Compressed in battle’s pains and prayers.

Although he rejoices in Union victories, celebrates Gettysburg, the victory at Lookout Mountain, the capture of Fort Donelson, the exploits of individual heroes, his exultation is tempered with pity, and the spirit of his poetry is more elegiac than martial. A war which began with the vanities of plume and sash ends with swarms of “plaining ghosts” and the triumph of brute mechanic power.

Although he pronounces the supremacy of “plain mechanic power,” Melville retains in Battle-Pieces the rhapsodic note, the romantic flourishes now deemed so inappropriate in any would-be realistic portrayal of the war. We have come to accept so completely the view that the Civil War was largely a record of tedium, vileness, and death that any attempt to write of it romantically, to deck it out with plumes and chargers, is dismissed as make-believe. Yet there is much evidence that many volunteers, in the early days of the war especially, were imbued with the most chivalric notions and that William Faulkner’s dashing horsemen may be closer to their intended counterparts than the plain-talking soldiers of MacKinlay Kantor or James Boyd.

Listen to Charles Francis Adams, Jr., writing to his father in 1863: In addition to the usual sights of battle I saw but one striking object—the body of a dead rebel by the road-side the attitude of which was wonderful. Tall, slim, athletic, with regular sharply chiseled features, he had fallen flat on his back, with one hand upraised as if striking, and with his long light hair flung back in heavy waves from his forehead. It was curious, no one seems to have passed that body without the same thought of admiration.

The most grimy accounts of the war in the letters and memoranda of eyewitnesses like DeForest, Adams, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., or Sylvanus Cadwallader, contain similarly romantic interludes: The Twelfth was still rocking back and forth [writes DeForest in his war recollections— A Volunteer’s Adventure ] fluctuating between discipline and impulse, when an officer of Sheridan’s staff (a dashing young fellow in embroidered blue shirt, with trousers tucked into his long boots) galloped into our front from the direction of Crook’s column, and pointed to the wood with his drawn sabre. It was a superb picture of the equestrianism of battle; it was finer than any scene by Horace Vernet or Wouwerman. The whole regiment saw him and rejoiced in him; it flung orders to the winds and leaped out like a runaway horse. The wood was carried in the next minute. …