July/August 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 4
A shot fired in the last days of the Civil War has kept its power to wound
I don’t believe in God the Father, but I grant that the sequences of misery He visits upon sinners “unto the third and fourth generation” are as common as grass. They often are associated with wars. My father was a third-generation casualty of the American Civil War.
He was a good man, honest and gentle—by my memory he hit me only twice in my entire childhood—but he was a black hole, invisible to direct examination, yet powerfully assertive, somehow, and confusing and disturbing to think about. He would park the car beside a gas pump and then, while the attendant filled the tank, wander off, leaving my mother, who couldn’t drive, and me, too young to drive, to deal with the honking cars behind us and the attendant waiting to be paid. My mother would send me off to the men’s room to find him, but he was never there. She would fume until, having asserted himself, he would reappear and rescue us and, in answer to her complaints, smile mysteriously as if he had been hiding Easter eggs. He could be conspiratorial all by himself.
If offered a choice between being competent or incompetent, he would, if there were witnesses, chose the latter. As a young man, he had been a carpenter and was manually adept, but never to useful ends. One of my earliest memories is of the hearing aid he invented in order, he said, to become rich. It had no batteries, no source of energy. It was a light tin disk, about three inches across, neatly grooved and cupped, shiny—well made—to be worn around the ear. It looked like a cookie cutter, and it enhanced hearing as effectively as a cookie cutter. But my father was not a fool, so what did he think he was doing?
He slid his new automobile into another car on an icy day in February: a minor fenderbender. When the other driver tried to exchange the required identifications with him, he mewed, “Oh, my beautiful new car. Oh, my beautiful new car. Oh, my beautiful new car. Oh, my beautiful new car.” I took over, completing all the paperwork neatly. I was as proud as punch to do so.
He paid for my food, clothing, shelter, and a good part of my education; and once he may have saved my life. I had swum off a Maine beach to rescue a woman yelling for help. She grabbed me; we both went down; I changed my mind about heroism, kicked loose from her, and set off for shore alone. (A real lifeguard arrived soon after and brought her in.) I foolishly swam as much against the waves as they receded from the beach as with them when they rolled in, and exhausted myself. My father, standing chindeep, reached out and took my hand and pulled me in the last few feet. A stranger would have done as much, but my father, not a stranger, was there, and my father did it. The memory persists like a heart murmur, slight, rarely noticed, but always there.
He worked a forty-hour week, but otherwise I really have no idea how he passed his life. He had no hobbies, no friends. We probably did not exchange a hundred sentences of actual conversation in all our years together. He was as much a cripple as if he had lost limbs or reason in a war.
For as long as I have been conscious of how incomplete a person he was I’ve wanted to dignify his disabilities with a cause. I have investigated his early life and the lives of his parents and grandparents. I have done so as best I can with the scanty documentation available; these people were not important and left few traces. Sometimes I have turned to literature in the hope that contemporaneous poems and fiction can be as useful as records of the past as census lists and death certificates.
Until I was forty I did not know my father’s parents’ names. The sum of my knowledge about his beginnings was that he had been, he said, the product of the first successful cesarean delivery in Massachusetts (or was it New England?), successful, he claimed, in that both the mother and child survived. It was something that he very rarely mentioned, but in which he took shy pride.
The attending physician was Dr. Alfred Worcester, after whom my father was named. I met and spent an hour with him shortly before I went in the Army during the Korean War. He would have made a fine adjunct father, I am sure, but we did not know each other long enough for that. We had nothing to talk about except that he was old and I was young and that I, named after my father, had a name like his. We discussed the fact that when he was a youngster, there had been a game of balls, bats, and bases, but not yet the word baseball (or so we thought). What impressed me most about him was his skin, pink tracing paper with a scramble of veins underneath.
Long after Dr. Worcester’s death and a decade before my father’s, I discovered an article that Dr. Worcester had published about his birth. I showed it to my father, thinking that he might find it interesting. (Or was I playing his mother’s final trump card?) He turned away, embarrassed, even hurt.
His mother, my grandmother, Ella Carbee Crosby, had four pregnancies before the one that produced my father. The first terminated in a craniotomy of the fetus in order to save the mother. The second ended in a stillbirth, the third in another craniotomy and a dangerous postpartum hemorrhage for the mother. In 1891 she was pregnant again. The baby died the day after birth.
Four pregnancies. The third nearly killed my grandmother, and as Dr. Worcester observed, the fourth was so predictably unpromising that “she could not be persuaded to provide a stitch of baby clothing.” Wouldn’t any reasonable husband and wife have stopped trying for a baby at that point? There were ways to avoid or at least sharply decrease the chance of another pregnancy. I find it difficult to believe that she was willing to undergo another ordeal such as the four she had already passed through. I find it easy to believe that it was my grandfather who was willing to gamble again. For him there was the reward of immediate physical satisfaction and the prestige of having, in a way obvious to the community, again performed his function successfully.
Dr. Worcester declared to my father’s mother and father that he would not attempt her delivery again except by cesarean section. Their reaction was to conceal her next pregnancy from him until the eighth month. By then, wrote Dr. Worcester, she was “in a most miserable condition, anemic, extremities swollen, coughing continuously, pulse weak and always over 100.” Again he insisted on cesarean delivery and, when they again demurred, retired from the case.
On June 8, 1892, the two doctors to whom the Crosbys had turned summoned Dr. Worcester to help in the delivery. Ella had been in labor for thirty hours, and everyone was willing to resort to cesarean delivery. Dr. Worcester made an eight-inch incision. The hemorrhage was so “terrific” that the baby was hard to find.
Dr. Worcester completed the delivery successfully, closed the wound with about twenty deep silk sutures, and buried that deep row with a row of fine sutures. My grandmother suffered nausea and pain, successfully treated with morphine. Her temperature was high for a week, and her pulse above 120 most of the time, but she was able to retain champagne and, soon after, meat juice and milk with limewater. She nursed the baby after the second day, and the baby, my father, “throve finely.”
I know nothing about the relationship between my father and his mother, but I am sure that it was claustrophobic. She had only one child in return for more than forty months of difficult pregnancies, and that child, as we shall see, proved to be the only dependable and for years the only resident male in her immediate family. She must have demanded considerable attention, and how could the boy deny the womb that had been rent from top to bottom, that had filled to the brim with blood for him, for him? I compare my father’s attempts to grow up with those of a seedling trying to lift a boulder. He moved the boulder a bit but never toppled it, never caught a direct ray of sunshine.
I never saw my father’s mother and very rarely heard mention of her. She died at age sixtyeight, a year after my birth. Much later he arranged for a large boulder to be placed on her grave in Vermont with a plaque. I think we visited her grave when I was a child, but I am not sure.
It never entered my mind to ask my father about his father, Charles Turner Crosby, until I was forty or so. Charles, according to his son, deserted his family and went West before the son was fully grown. He married again or at least acquired a new companion. She wrote my father to come West to join them. He never answered the letter and, sixty years afterward, appeared to be still horrified by the invitation—as if tempted. After a while my grandfather returned East, either with his new companion and a son or alone with the son. I know nothing more of the woman. The son, whom I as a child met two or three times, was eastern Mediterranean in appearance and resembled my English-Irish-Scottish father not at all.
Charles Turner Crosby, my grandfather, lived to be eighty-seven, not dying until I was seven years old. I never met him. I have no idea where he was buried. No one ever spoke directly to me about him until my interrogation of my father cited above. I learned little enough from that, but enough to know what and who blighted my father.
Now, presuming that an effect must have a cause (an essential presumption for a historian), I wondered what had made a scoundrel of Charles Turner Crosby. Did he, too, have a dreadful father, a tormented mother? All that my father could tell me of them was that she had lived on a federal pension of twelve dollars per quarter, paid to her as the widow of Elisha P. Crosby, who died in the Civil War.
My father had the details wrong. Sarah, Elisha’s widow, was paid by the month, not the quarter: eight dollars a month, plus two dollars each for her children, for a total of fourteen dollars. Payment for the individual children ceased as each reached sixteen years of age. Charles reached that age in December of the year of his father’s death. At the time of Sarah’s death in 1908 she was getting twelve dollars a month, so adjustments must have been made later.
Elisha was forty years old (my age when I asked my father about Charles) when he joined the New York 185th Infantry Regiment in the summer of 1864. He had brown hair, dark eyes, and fair skin. He was five feet five and a half inches in height, short for a man who lived in the countryside rather than unsanitary Boston or Philadelphia or New York. My hair is dark brown, or was before it turned white. My eyes aren’t dark, but my skin is fair and I, too, am short.
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.”
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.)
In 1863 Congress set conscription quotas for each Northern state, but if sufficient men could be persuaded to volunteer, then no one would be drafted. The federal government offered a bounty to enlistees, and there was more to be made from men liable to the draft who could afford to hire substitutes and from the conscription districts, which bid against one another for volunteers.
The way it went in Amherst was typical of the more prosperous m»tropoles. On May 26,1864, reported a local newspaper, “Amherst has heretofore been rather backward in filling her quotas, but on Tuesday the people put the thing through genteelly, and in town meeting voted to pay back the money spent in filling the quota to those liable to draft last fall; to procure substitutes for the ten men who are yet without them under the present draft, and to procure 50 substitutes for the anticipated draft in July.”
That month William Austin Dickinson bought a substitute for five hundred dollars. He got a bargain: Lincoln’s midsummer call for more troops spurred a bidding war that carried bounties far above previous levels. Poughkeepsie in southeastern New York, for instance, offered seven hundred dollars, Rensselaer nine hundred.
I imagine Elisha and Sarah Crosby by the fire discussing the tempting sums available for a oneyear absence from home, balancing the possibilities of death or mutilation against the weight of the pelf. The daughters were too young to have been included in the talk of death and money. Charles, nearly full grown, may have been included and, still a boy, may have recommended adventure. Elisha joined the 185th New York Infantry Regiment on the twenty-fifth day of August 1864, for a bounty of one thousand dollars.
Ulysses S. Grant had ordered the Army of the Potomac across the Rapidan River in May of 1864 to defeat the Army of Northern Virginia by superiority of numbers and supplies. In one month the Army of the Potomac suffered fifty thousand casualties that it could afford and the Army of Northern Virginia thirty-two thousand that it couldn’t. The advance of the Union Army and the countermoves of the Confederate Army that spring culminated in the siege of Petersburg, the longest of the war. It began in June and lasted nine and a half months.
Experience had finally convinced the generals Grant and Lee and their soldiers that frontal attacks were too costly. In the absence of barbed wire, the soldiers constructed porcupine defenses of sharpened logs and sticks, old-fashioned but effective abatis and chevaux-de-frise. Behind these they dug miles of trenches, built redoubts and bombproofs, and, in order to survive the vigilant sharpshooters and the battering from the heavy mortars—in order to live at all—learned to live below ground level. The Petersburg siege was a dress rehearsal for the trench fighting of the First World War, the one my father, two generations later in 1918, was training for nearby in Virginia when the armistice was signed.
Grant’s strategy was simply to take advantage of his superiority in numbers, to extend the front westward until Lee ran out of men. The trench line started at five miles, then stretched out to ten, then twenty, and ultimately to thirty-five. Clearly the North would win if it could keep sending new regiments of cannon fodder (at the end of the summer of 1864 we may surely use the term) to the Petersburg front.
On September 28 Elisha’s 185th, 850 strong, anchored off City Point, the “busiest place in Dixie,” the Union’s supply port at the confluence of the Appomattox and James Rivers a few miles from Petersburg. The usual logistical and administrative nightmare followed, what during my turn in the U.S. Army we called “snafu.” All agreed that the 185th was needed in the line, but where, oh, where? After some confusion it was assigned to the V Corps, “with as little delay as practicable.” It reported on the morning of the first of October without tents, rations, or ammunition, all of which were back at City Point. That remedied, the 185th moved into the line and on the third of the month was digging redoubts and rifle pits under the scrutiny of Confederate sharpshooters.
The V Corps’s 1st Brigade, comprised of the 185th New York and the 198th Pennsylvania, participated in sorties around the enemy’s right flank to tear up railroad tracks and destroy whatever Confederates might find a use for. A few men of the 185th suffered wounds, none, it seems, mortal. I conjecture that the regiment, in consideration of its inexperience, was used sparingly. The soldiers of the 1st Brigade, returning from one of these raids, found the corpses of several comrades with their throats slit, and for the rest of their march back to Union lines they burned every house in their path.
At the end of October the war in Virginia went into hibernation. One could still get killed in such raids as just mentioned, snipers still plied their trade, and pickets and patrols clashed; but there could be no more major battles until the weather warmed up and the roads dried. In the meantime three events affected Elisha’s life in major ways. First, the Union voted again for Lincoln, confirming that the war would go on until the Confederacy was smashed. Second, in February Elisha had a furlough. To recuperate? Was he one of those nicked in the sorties to tear up railroad tracks? Or was he sick? Typhoid, dysentery, and “camp fevers” were common among the ranks of the Army of the Potomac. Did he go home? In A Son of the Middle Border , Hamlin Garland recalls his father’s coming home on leave from Sherman’s Western army in 1864: “My soldier dad taught me the manual of arms, and for a year Harriet and I carried broom-sticks, flourished lath sabers, and hammered on dishpans in imitation of officers and drummers.” Did Elisha have such a reunion with his family? Or perhaps a binge and a week in a whorehouse? I can never know.
The other event during the lull between battles—and of the three the most portentous for Elisha as an individual—was the appointment of Brig. Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, my antifather (my meaning will become clear presently), as commander of the V Corps’s 1st Brigade. Extensive combat experience, tactical skill, and almost suicidal courage had made a magnificent soldier of unlikely material: Chamberlain had been a professor of modern languages at Bowdoin College before the war. His conduct of the defense of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg, a defense that culminated with a bayonet charge as ammunition ran out, won him the Medal of Honor. In June of 1864 in one of the clashes that took place in the first days of the Petersburg siege, he was shot through the lower body. The projectile entered through the right hip joint and exited behind the left hip. He continued fighting and was in command of his troops until he collapsed. For his conduct that day Grant made him a brigadier general on the field. When Chamberlain took command of the 1st Brigade in November, he walked only with difficulty and was still unable to ride a horse.
He was the kind of man you want on your side during a war, but not necessarily as your commanding officer. His superiors would never waste his talents and mad courage on a safe command, and if perchance they did, he would be sure somehow to get himself and his troops into harm’s way. His presence as leader of the 1st Brigade guaranteed that one day, when the weather turned pleasant, Elisha Crosby would find himself in dreadful jeopardy.
Grant’s plan for the first days of spring, 1865, was to send a force to the left and, if possible, around the fraying end of the Confederate line. Blue-coated cavalry troopers would swing wide and, with luck, turn the Confederate flank. The infantrymen of the V Corps would advance with the intention to occupy the fields and woods just beyond the Confederate trench line, an area Lee could not surrender without risking his flank and entire army.
On March 28 Grant briefed President Lincoln on the River Queen , anchored off City Point, and on the next morning went off to direct the battle. His luck would be “the luck of all of us,” Lincoln said, “except for the poor fellows who are killed. Success won’t do them any good. They are the only ones not to be benefited by it.”
Grant’s luck, good or bad, would produce casualties, perhaps as high as 10,000 to 12,000. The medical corps of the Army of the Potomac prepared. As many patients currently in the City Point Hospital as could be moved were transferred to ships for transport elsewhere. The hospital added to its 5,935 beds another 1,000. Also readied were 525 ambulances, 154 army wagons, 55 medicine wagons, 1,666 horses, 994 mules, and 979 stretchers to carry the wounded. The ambulance corps on the eve of the battle consisted of 44 officers and 1,068 enlisted men. All this for the most awkward of the debris of combat, men too injured to be of use but not dead enough to be handled like lumber.
The Union cavalry, nine thousand strong, set off on March 29 at first dawning. I will concern myself no more with them; I had no kin on horseback that day. In early morning the soldiers of the V Corps moved out. They marched double-quick westward through the dark, then north on Quaker Road. Their objective was the juncture of Quaker Road with the Boydton plank road. General Chamberlain and the 1st Brigade were in the van. The men of the 185th now began to pay the price for being a fresh regiment in a tired army and of having an extraordinarily courageous leader.
They encountered the enemy’s advance posts at a brook called Gravelly Run. The Confederates, a line of pickets, fell back on the main body of their forces. The men of the 1st Brigade waded the stream, re-formed on the other side, and advanced north. At 4:00 P.M. they came to a locality of wood and field called Lewis Farm. Elisha, a middle-aged man, had been on his feet for thirteen hours. The air was vibrant with the drone and crack of the passage of minié balls.
The men of the 1st Brigade fought until their ammunition was nearly gone, wavered, retreated, nearly broke, re-formed, and obeyed the order, almost the plea, to hold for just a little longer until artillery came up to support them. “Hell for ten minutes and we are out of it!” Chamberlain shouted. The artillery arrived in time. The 1st Brigade won the day.
Chamberlain in The Passing of the Armies , his memoir of the last campaign of the Army of the Potomac, wrote of the events of March 29, 1865: “The day and the field are ours; but what a day, and what a field! As for the day, behind the heavy brooding mists the shrouded sun was drawing down the veil which shrined it in the mausoleum of vanished but unforgotten years. And for the field: strown all over it were a hundred and fifty bodies of the enemy’s dead, and many of the hundred and sixty-seven of my own men killed and wounded.”
It was at Lewis Farm that Chamberlain suffered the benediction of the last of the six wounds he received in the Civil War. A mini» ball passed through his horse’s neck, struck the leather case and brass mirror in his breast pocket, followed around two ribs, and exited at the back seam of his coat. He appeared to all to have received a mortal wound, but he had not—quite—and soldiered on. He was awarded a brevet commission of major general for his gallantry on Quaker Road. That night Colonel Sickel of the 198th, also severely wounded, said to Chamberlain, “General, you have the soul of the lion and the heart of the woman.” It is a tribute that could not be more bizarre to me if one Neanderthal had made it to another a hundred thousand years ago.
On the next day the Union forces resumed their advance, and the Confederates did their often suicidal best to stop them. The Army of the Potomac won the collision called the Battle of Five Forks. On the second of April Grant ordered a general assault and seized the defense works of the Army of Northern Virginia all along the line. Petersburg fell, and Richmond in turn. Lincoln, traveling in the wake of his army, entered the Confederate capital on the fourth of the month. He would die ten days later.
The Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia set off on a footrace for the mountains, a race won by the Yankees. As one of Lee’s officers galloped up with a flag of truce, a cannonball struck the 185th’s Lt. Hiram Clark, the last man to be killed in the Army of the Potomac. Grant and Lee met at Appomattox Court House and, after a brief consultation, signed the terms of surrender on the ninth of April.
Grant bestowed on Chamberlain the honor of receiving the formal and actual surrender of the arms and colors of the Army of Northern Virginia. After the war Chamberlain became governor of Maine and president of Bowdoin College, his alma mater. He died in bed at the age of eightyfive. It was 1914, and my father’s war was just beginning.
All that was and is for Sarah, her son, her grandson, and me incidental to the wounding of Pvt. Elisha P. Crosby on March 29 and his death two days later, just nine short of the surrender. When did he fall? At the beginning, at Gravelly Run? At the peak of the battle? At the same moment as his glorious general was wounded? Anticlimactically, in the dusk after the battle was over, victim of a stray bullet or a last gesture by a poor loser? While advancing? While retreating? Perhaps while snatching up the regiment’s colors from a fallen comrade (perhaps from Benton H. Wilson, the color bearer of the 185th, whom Walt Whitman knew). Or perhaps while cringing behind an inconveniently permeable bush.
Elisha was hit in the right hip. Neither horse nor leather case nor brass mirror intervened. There was no Confederate artillery along Quaker Road, and so we can be nearly certain that he was hit with one of Captain Mini»'s balls, a lead chunk that splayed out on impact and did not pierce but rammed forward, obliterating distinctions of artery, vein, nerve, muscle, and bone.
He was dragged from the field during battle or picked up later and carried by stretcher as carefully as tired men stumbling over broken ground in the dark could manage. The first stop would have been the field hospital set up at the Spain House about a half-mile down Quaker Road from Lewis Farm. Elisha’s wound would have been one of those the surgeon J. A. Lidell recalled as “involving bones or some of the larger articulations. . . .”
Walt Whitman wrote of such a hospital:
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.
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 .
Horace Greeley’s famous call to go West could deafen a man’s ears to other admonitions. Curtis Johnson, the historian of Cortland County, writes that as early as the 185Os parents in that region could no longer depend on their children to settle nearby and care for them in their old age. Elisha Oswald Crosby, whom my grandfather must have known about arid envied, had gambled on migration and won. He had gone to California for the gold, become a member of that state’s first constitutional convention, and, during the war, served as an American diplomat in Central America.
The allure of the frontier was universal, whether answered or not. Walt Whitman felt it: “For these States tend inland and toward the Western sea and I will also.” He didn’t, except to visit and in his poems. Mark Twain did, all the way to California and even Hawaii, and though he returned East, he finished his most famous book with Huck Finn declaring his intention to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest.”
But my model for my grandfather cannot be Huck Finn, who escaped family early in life. It must be Edith Wharton’s protagonist Ethan Frome, of Starkfield, a Massachusetts backwater, who “wanted to be an engineer, and to live in towns, where there were lectures and big libraries, and ‘fellows doing things,’” who pored over advertisements about “Trips to the West: Reduced Rates” and, caught in a difficult marriage, like Charles, dreamed of a fresh new love.
Ethan hewed to responsibility, staying on a barren farm to care for sickly and dependent parents and a wife (preparatory to his tragedy). Charles may—or may not—have stepped off Ethan’s straight and narrow path as a young man and walked out on his mother and sisters. He certainly stepped off as a middle-aged man. It was then that Charles, a pathetically tardy Huck, deserted his wife and son (preparatory to the fiasco of his Western excursion and his return).
It is my belief that the minié ball that struck my greatgrandfather did not lose all its potency in that concussion but changed strangely, utterly, magically (but there was no magician, only the momentum of war) into a sly and heretical faith in the usefulness of obliquity, evasion, and, if all else failed, failure itself. As such it plunged on for two generations more, disabling my grandfather’s moral function and, in a last dissipation of momentum, mutilating my father’s very sense of self.
I visited the region of the Petersburg siege twenty or so years ago. It was about the same time of year as the Lewis Farm action, maybe a little earlier. The day was damp and cold, the flat ground stippled with snow. If I had turned off the highway, I would have been up to the hubcaps in mud. I drove up and down, back and forth, and finally asked an old man, probably the greatgrandson of slaves, for directions to Quaker Road. He smiled and told me I was on it. I didn’t find anything called Lewis Farm, which is not surprising: Buildings had fallen and risen and been renamed, forests and fields had exchanged places, in the century since the war.
I drove to City Point to look for Elisha’s grave. I doubt that Charles ever tried to find it. My father tried in 1918; failed. I found it. The stone read:
I had, I suppose, hoped for more.