Ketchum’s War

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It is frustrating that photography didn’t arrive earlier. Louis Daguerre discovered how to fix an image on a sensitized plate in the 1830s, but everything he used to work that momentous trick, from the lens that focused the light to the mercury vapor that developed the picture, had been around for generations. So while it is not possible, say, to have had airplanes during the Civil War—their existence would have required industries that simply didn’t exist—a photographic record of the American Revolution would have been perfectly feasible had someone only lit on the proper recipe.

I think such a record would change the way a good many people feel about that struggle. The Civil War has lost none of its power to move us, whereas the Revolution —which, after all, took place just a lifetime earlier—can seem a sort of inevitable civic exercise. It arouses the feelings voiced with simple eloquence by the distributor in the thirties who begged MGM to make “no more pictures where they write with feathers.”

Of course, people didn’t simply get more interesting over the course of eighty years; this is all a matter of perception, and I think it rests largely on the fact that we can look into the eyes of the men who fought at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Were there photographs of Knox and Washington in the lines before Yorktown or of the farmers waiting at Concord Bridge, the people of the Revolutionary generation might seem as close to us as do those who put the nation they invented to so cataclysmic a test.

I’ve been thinking about this because Richard Ketchum—who wrote the essay in this issue about the historian’s crucial and chimerical tool, the human memory—is wonderfully good at taking the men and women of the Revolution, slapping the dust of the dutiful from their clothing, and putting them before us as the passionate, desperate, fascinating people they were. He has done so in two fine books, both of them just published in paperback by Anchor: Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill and The Winter Soldiers: The Battles for Trenton and Princeton.

Ketchum knows these people very well, what they said and how they felt, and he serves as an unobtrusive translator, allowing us to see their time and the tremendous enterprise upon which they were embarked as they themselves would have seen it. Here, to take a single example, is Sgt. Joseph White, cold, tired, stunned with the success of the hopeless Christmas attack on Trenton, and faced with the long trip back across the Delaware in charge of a cannon whose axletree has been shattered in the fighting. Henry Knox rides by and tells him to abandon the piece. But White is proud of his gun, and he manages to coax four other soldiers into helping him; they struggle with the weapon while the rest of the little army trudges by and disappears into the twilight. Writes Ketchum: “Joseph White was a matter-of-fact fellow who took things pretty much as they came, but he was beginning to realize what this war was going to be. It wasn’t quite the same as advertised on that bright morning in May 1775 when he had signed up for an eight-month hitch, when all the talk was of liberty and the glory to be won and you marched to the skirl of fife and drum and the promise of pretty girls’ smiles. No, what it amounted to in the long run was unutterable weariness and discomfort and the bone-breaking effort of shoving a cranky, uncooperative cannon down a lonely road in a blizzard.”

White saved his gun the way he and his companions saved their cause—just barely. With his keen understanding and an eye for detail that never hobbles the narrative, Ketchum lets us see what the camera was not yet there to show us.