of the American Civil War (1962)
Every war is a text, the postmodernists say. That is, every war can be pulled apart and put back together again the way a novel can. There’s no end to the number of meanings that can be gleaned, including the possibility that there is no meaning at all. Yet if most wars tell different stories to different readers, only the most hidebound theorist would deny that at least some wars speak in a single voice to everyone.
Of course, time plays a part in this. The older the war, the fewer meanings it tends to have. Iraq and Afghanistan are still spooling out their narratives, whereas our Revolutionary War asserts, “Everyone deserves liberty”, just as World War II all but screams, “For God’s sake, somebody stop Hitler!” And while the American Civil War still tells some listeners that states’ rights are more important than a strong union, most will come to one simple conclusion: In the end, war is dumb. The words “brother against brother” are nowhere more poignant than in the context of a couple of thousand teenage boys shooting each other in a grassy meadow when they should be hammering a bandstand together and icing down beers.
Within the boundaries of that no-brainer, however, there’s still plenty of room for nuance. My father was an upstate New Yorker, and the family romance is that a great uncle of his died in Andersonville prison, leading to a complex chain of events in which my dad was disinherited when he married my mother, a belle fresh off a Louisiana farm. Like most educated Southerners, she knew that the cause of the Old South was bankrupt, yet she found it hard to let go of the myths. One of her favorite novels for children was Thomas Nelson Page’s Two Little Confederates (1888), in which a Southern boy is caught by Union soldiers who threaten to shoot him if he doesn’t reveal the whereabouts of his older brother. The boy faints, which may be why I, whom none would call valorous, identified with him. The boy, whose name is Frank, revives in the care of a dragoon from Delaware who says that they didn’t really mean to kill him and that “I’ve got a curly-headed fellow at home, just the size of you.” Later, young Frank and the other little Confederate of the title find the dragoon wounded and begging for water. He dies, though, and when his mother comes down from Delaware, Frank shows her the grave in their garden. The missing older brother turns up, and the story ends with a wedding. As Edmund Wilson wrote, “It was hard to make the Civil War cosy, but Thomas Nelson Page did his best.”
If only it were that easy.
In Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War, Wilson, America’s sole literary and social critic without peer, presents the conflict from what today we would call a Rashomon perspective, after the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film of that name, in which a single crime is described from the contradictory viewpoints of four characters. Wilson might have seen Kurosawa’s movie, but it is typical of both his starched-collar formalism and his preference for older sources that he says the variety of Civil War stories reminds him of Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book, in which nine people give accounts of the same event.
Wilson’s own polymathic tendencies make him the perfect writer to take this approach to the subject. His books range from Axel’s Castle, a sweeping study of European symbolism, to The Scrolls from the Dead Sea to perhaps his greatest work, To the Finland Station, which begins with Vico’s 18th-century treatise on the cyclical nature of civilizations and ends with Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station in St. Petersburg to lead the Russian Revolution. As different as they are, Wilson’s books have a single purpose: As Michael McDonald wrote in these pages in 2005, Wilson’s goal was “to understand the practical consequences that knowledge of the past could have for people’s lives today.”1
When you look at his whole career, Wilson appears, in Isaiah Berlin’s terms, to be a fox who stops for years at a time to become a hedgehog, burrowing deeply into a topic, collecting and categorizing every piece of information he unearths and building from them a house of many different rooms, all opening into a single center. Wilson’s houses tend to be not only architecturally breathtaking but big, too: Patriotic Gore runs to more than eight hundred pages.
Wilson begins by taking up the skepticism that is the primary tool of every hedgehog. (Foxes are more prone to buy into whatever comes along). “Having myself lived through a couple of world wars and having read a certain amount of history”, he writes, “ I am no longer disposed to take very seriously the professions of ‘war aims’ that nations make.” A nation at war is like a sea slug, he says: It eats everything in its path, including, if they are at least slightly smaller, other sea slugs.
All animals eat as much as they can, and the only difference between humans and army ants is that the former put “morality” and “reason” in the service of “virtue” and “civilization.” We’re all murderers, but our many-legged brothers and sisters are more forthright about it than we are. There’s nothing bad about a good cause except that it never stays good for long. The French Revolution became the Napoleonic Wars, and Lenin’s revolutionaries became the Stalinists who swallowed the Balkan and Baltic countries, as well as those of Central Europe, all the while denouncing imperialism.
The United States doesn’t escape Wilson’s stick, either. Like France and the Soviet Union, we, too, rid ourselves of a monarch only to wrap ourselves in the flag of the American dream, the American way of life and the defense of the Free World as we indulged our appetite for expansion and aggrandizement. We supplanted the Indians. We virtually looted Louisiana from France and Florida from Spain. We colonized Texas when it was still part of Mexico, and when the Mexicans objected, we declared war and eventually acquired more than half of their territory, including New Mexico, California and the rest of the unsettled West. Ominously, the South Carolinian novelist William Gilmore Simms wrote to a friend in 1847,
you must not dilate against military glory. War is the greatest element of modern civilization, and our destiny is conquest. Indeed the moment a nation ceases to extend its sway it falls prey to an inferior but more energetic neighbor.
Like a sea slug, you might say.
It is on this ground that Wilson begins to build his big house of the American Civil War. No one gets off easy here. To Wilson,
the slave-owning Southern states and the rapidly industrializing North had by this time become so distinct from one another that they were virtually two different nations. They were as much two contending power units—each of which was trying to expand at the other’s expense—as any two European countries.
As such, he observes, each armed itself with its own myths and justifications.
Typically, Wilson doesn’t stop here. In the final pages of the introduction to Patriotic Gore, he describes the post-Civil War U.S. expansion into Alaska, Hawaii, Cuba and the Philippines on his way to World Wars I and II and the Korean and Cold Wars. He argues, as David Brooks has been doing brilliantly lately in the New York Times and in his new book The Social Animal, that we act viscerally and then justify cerebrally. With a frankness uncharacteristic of his day (let alone our own), Confederate guerilla commander John Singleton Mosby wrote, “Nobody cared whether it was a constitutional right they were exercising or an act of revolution. At such times reason is silent and passion prevails. . . . I went along with the flood like everybody else.”
Patriotic Gore begins with “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war” because it has to. Harriet Beecher Stowe is the elephant in the room, so to speak, and there’s no getting around her. But Wilson has little to say about her career that we don’t know already. There was a distinguished first novel and then nine ho-hum reprises after that. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling work of fiction of the 19th century, and what still makes it an exciting read is the array of characters in it: Uncle Tom, who really isn’t one; daring Eliza; darling Eva; dour Topsy; and Simon Legree, a villain straight out of an Abolitionist’s fever dream.
Characters are what make Patriotic Gore hum with energy, as well. To really understand Wilson’s Civil War is to see it in terms of binaries, five sets (actually, five and a half, as we shall see) of opposed characters who dramatize every role one could possibly play on either side of the conflict. (Note: these are partly Wilson’s pairings and partly mine. It will be easy to tell which is which in the paragraphs that follow. His books are so big and their scope so broad that they become worlds we cross and cross again, remaking them as we go. One of the pleasures of reading Wilson is that he makes Wilsons of us all.)
We can begin with Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, the one a living god in the popular imagination, and the other the stage master of Lincoln’s cowardly killer. Julia Ward Howe made ready the way of Lincoln-as-Jesus, and the assumption of that role became complete when poets deified the martyred President in their verse. Novelist James Branch Cabell congratulated John-Wilkes-Booth-as-Judas for betraying a man who was born in humble circumstances, whose father was a carpenter, who was a reformer, though a calm and patient one, whose likeness betrayed him as a “man of sorrows”, who was slain on Good Friday, and whose tomb was even found to be empty (a stretch on Cabell’s part, this last assertion refers to the moving of Lincoln’s body from a burial vault to its final resting place once it was completed). Jefferson Davis, on the other hand, became an object of denunciation, on the basis of false information, by the new President Andrew Johnson for having being involved in Lincoln’s death. Let’s call Johnson the Pontius Pilate of the Lincoln-as-Jesus story; Davis had no hand in the assassination, but that didn’t stop Johnson’s tales from catching on. Equally false were the rumors that Davis tried to make off with the Confederate treasury while wearing women’s clothes. (Judah Benjamin, the Confederate Treasurer, did manage to escape to Canada, to what subsequent purposes remain matters for research and debate, but Wilson has nothing to say about that.)
A second pair of contrasting characters is the stern though evenhanded William Tecumseh Sherman and the bloody-minded Stonewall Jackson. Some claim that Rommel and other German commanders took the idea of the Blitzkrieg from Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea. Yet Sherman was frank and open, and readers of his memoirs, says Wilson, will not only respect but like him. He comes across as fully human, depressive to the point of suicide and then manic with joy. Like a figure in a Henry James novel, Sherman mourns the loss of his son to the priesthood, writing to a family member: “I can’t get over Tom. Why should they have taken my splendid boy? They could have brought over thirty priests from Italy in his place.” (He blamed the loss on his wife Ellen, who said, “You knew when you married me that I was a Catholic”, to which Sherman replied, “Of course I did, but I didn’t know you would get worse every year.”) In contrast, the one-dimensional Jackson is, as more than one contemporary said of him, the Cromwell of the South, happy only in battle. One of his own generals makes Jackson seem almost gleeful as his own soldiers are cut down by enemy fire. Another says, “He had no sympathy with human infirmity. He was a one-idea man.” Stonewall Jackson thought that a soldier who collapsed with fatigue lacked patriotism; as a consequence, his men feared and obeyed but never loved him.
Then there is the classic Roman citizen-soldier Robert E. Lee and his alter ego John Singleton Mosby, the Scarlet Pimpernel of Northern Virginia. Unlike most of the other prominent figures in the war, Lee did not leave a memoir; he was gathering materials late in life but died before he could make a book of them. (Wilson doesn’t say so, but that may have led to Lee being mythologized out of proportion even to his already considerable virtues.) The son of Revolutionary War hero Light-Horse Harry Lee, he belongs, “as does no other public figure of his generation, to the Roman phase of the Republic.” He’d served in the U.S. Army for 32 years when Lincoln offered him command of the Union forces, but Lee turned the President down because his home state of Virginia was seceding, against his wishes. If Lincoln is Biblical and Sherman seems to step out of a wartime novel of manners, Lee leaps over them both and takes his place alongside Cincinnatus and those other reluctant rulers for whom absolute political power is a poor second to sowing a crop in the fields back home.
Thanks to Lee, the North is merely “Good” in movies and pop fiction, whereas the South is “Noble.” Well, Noble and Fun, too: In his panache-ridden memoir, the guerilla commander Mosby recalls, to take just one episode, how he was attending a wedding in a hat with an ostrich plume and a scarlet-lined cape (his actual description of the full costume goes on longer than many a fashion write-up in the New York Times these days) when he was surprised by an enemy troop. Gunfire broke out and he was lightly wounded, but the Yankees, who were looking for a soldier and not a runway model, let him get away.
The fourth pair of binary characters who bring Patriotic Gore alive are literary, one a writer and the other a fictional creation. Actually, the writer, Sidney Lanier, was both; he romanticized the South, and he became a professional Romantic, as well. “In Lanier”, writes Wilson, “the chivalric romance of the South was to merge with German romanticism and to become inflated and irised, made to drip with the dews of idealism.” Though it was unheard of, Lanier dropped the profession of law to become a poet and musician. In a Northern prison, he even contracted (and eventually died from) the consumption that seems almost required of Romantic artists. In contrast, George Washington Harris’s Calibanish hillbilly Sut Lovingood is fond of whiskey, women and revenge on those who slight him, who are many. Wilson notes that “all that was lowest in the lowest of the South found expression in Harris’s book, and Sut Lovingood, with its grotesqueries of ear-chewing, eye-gouging fights and yokelish hunts and balls, is needed, perhaps, to counterbalance . . . the chivalrous idealism of Sidney Lanier.”
The final pair to dominate Wilson’s stage consists again of literary figures, Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allen Poe. Bierce’s story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” has brought many a somnolent high-school English class to life and, with its hokey but effective plot twist, sparked the desire to write in the breast of more than one dreamy sophomore. The nobly named planter Peyton Farquhar is hanged from the bridge by Union troops, but, in the tale’s inner story, the rope breaks, he plunges into the water, evades the angry soldiers’ bullets, swims downstream, clambers up the bank, and walks through a forest for a day until he reaches his home, where his smiling wife greets him—just as he feels a stunning blow. With that, “Peyton Farquhar is dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of Owl Creek Bridge.” A less contrived and more telling Bierce story is “Chickamauga”, in which a deaf mute boy wanders the battlefield, laughing at soldiers who look like circus clowns because their faces are daubed with red, starting at a man with no jaw, and returning home to find his home ablaze and his mother dead, her brains blown out by a shell.
Eventually, though, Bierce’s stories become disgusting, even dull; he tells too much that we don’t want to know. The truth can set you free, but it can also gross you out. Poe’s stories, on the other hand, writes Wilson, “have always a psychological interest in the sense that the images they summon are metaphors for hidden emotions.” If Poe, who died in 1849, plays no direct part in the literature of the Civil War, he nonetheless haunts its every page. In their brief biography, Thomas Streissguth and Martha Cosgrove point out that Poe always thought of himself as a Southerner who put honor, good manners and style before the desire for money. Had he lived longer, he might very well have taken part in the conflict; his experience at West Point was brief, but as the war went on, both sides became desperate for men with any kind of military experience at all. The trope of Poe-as-Southern-hero may be an attempt on writers’ parts both to compensate for his short life and give him a place in the world that Poe himself would have relished. Except for Sherlock Holmes, Poe has as long a posthumous life in literature as anyone, and in “No Spot of Ground”, a 1989 short story by Walter John Williams, Poe leads Southern troops at Gettysburg and fights alongside Robert E. Lee until near the end of the war.
To argue that Poe would have been too dissolute to lead men in battle is to disregard the career of the final looming figure in Patriotic Gore, one who has no counterpart. This is Ulysses S. Grant, general, President, bankrupted heavy drinker, and altogether a figure so unknowable, famous memoir and all, that he defies historians’ attempts to read him.
Grant’s dominant trait, and the one that makes him indecipherable, is his preternatural calm. His military secretary Adam Badeau wrote that, when Grant was writing dispatches at Petersburg while exposed to enemy fire, “several of the officers, apprehensive for the general’s safety, urged him to move to some less conspicuous position, but he kept on writing and talking” as shots fell around him. After issuing his orders and only then, Grant “got up, took a view of the situation, and as he started toward the other side of the farmhouse, said with a quizzical look at the group around him: ‘Well, they do seem to have the range on us.’” Calm in war and calm in peace, Grant was the same at Lee’s surrender. In Badeau’s words, “until some of us congratulated him, he seemed scarcely to have realized that he had accomplished one of the greatest achievements in modern history.”
Grant was calm even when stupefied with whiskey, as he seemed to be constantly. One memoirist recalls the general drunk and riding full speed through camps as the air filled with ashes, embers and the curses of soldiers who didn’t know whom they were cursing. Unlike his counterparts in the officers’ ranks, “he never used profanity or betrayed excitement.” That made the occasional trampled campfire tolerable, for “his habitual coolness and self-restraint were always an important factor in keeping up the morale of his men.”
It comes as a surprise to Wilson to learn that one of Grant’s biggest fans was Gertrude Stein, who found in his memoirs what she had in common with him: “his impassivity, his imperturbability . . . a majestical phlegm, an alienation in the midst of action, a capacity for watching in silence and commanding without excitement.” As one reads Wilson on Stein on Grant, one finds it hard not to go back to the image he uses in his introduction: the sea slug motoring calmly across the ocean floor, indifferent to its surroundings, indifferent to everything except its prey.
So why read Wilson today? McDonald quotes Wilson as writing, in 1938, “The young today . . . are not enthusiastic about books; they merely approve when the book suits their politics.” Now, of course, young people and, increasingly, older ones don’t even read newspapers, much less books, which is all the more reason to value Wilson. You don’t have to be a postmodernist (he certainly wasn’t) to understand that there is no such thing as a good or bad war, since they are all shot through with emotional dissonances, conflicting and often indecipherable personalities, erasures and ruptures of every kind, and moments that inspire, sadden or amuse—sometimes all three at the same time.
There’s a famous story about a session at a Modern Languages Association meeting in the hoary Sixties at which someone was arguing that World War II was a text, and an audience member rose to his feet to say, “My father was killed in that text.” It goes without saying that wars have consequences that novels do not, but do they have to? Grant and Mosby became great friends after the war, and Grant induced his successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, to offer Mosby the consulship to Hong Kong, a post at which he served for seven years until Grover Cleveland replaced him. Why couldn’t this friendship have developed outside of the context of war, and why, on that basis alone, couldn’t Mosby have swanned off to China to dazzle passers-by with his finery? The answer, of course, is that it was the war that brought them together. Two men were tested at the highest level, and since they couldn’t manage to kill each other, they fell in love.