“I lost my pocket Homer, I lost my pistol, I lost one of my horses and, finally, I came very near losing my life by a wound which kept me five months on my back.”
The author of this colorful declaration is Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve (1831-1924), classicist, philologist, translator and Confederate veteran of the American Civil War. Through his role as soldier I learned of Gildersleeve in Helen (Pinkerton) Trimpi’s Crimson Confederates: Harvard Men Who Fought for the South (University of Tennessee Press, 2009).
Her book is an act of historical reclamation, a redressing of accounts. Nearly a century and a half after the events at Appomattox Courthouse, Harvard has never formally recognized its alumni who fought for the Southern cause. Pinkerton documents 357 “confirmed names” and lists another 120 she judges “possible.” In contrast, Memorial Hall on the Harvard campus was dedicated in 1874. On its twenty-eight marble tablets are inscribed the names of 136 alumni who died in the war on the Union side. As recently as 1996, a proposal to erect a plaque listing all of Harvard’s Civil War dead (including sixty-four Confederates) was withdrawn after strong opposition. Pinkerton calls her effort an act of “reconciliation,” a word she has used in connection with Herman Melville and the spirit of his Civil War poems in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War.
Crimson Confederates is notable for concision of language and breadth of research. The entries are arranged alphabetically, encyclopedia-fashion, in double columns. Pinkerton condenses lives, most of them obscure even to historians, into chronology, names and dates, and quoted material. Gildersleeve, for instance, was born in Charleston, S.C., son of a Presbyterian minister. “Taught by his father, he read in Greek the Gospel of St. John at age 5. He wrote later that he `virtually thought in Greek’ thereafter.” He graduated from Princeton in 1849, taught Greek and Latin in Richmond, and earned his Ph.D. at the University of Göttingen, Germany. In 1856 he published “The Necessity of the Classics”:
“Around the magic cadences of our existence, the twin eternities of the Hebrew faith and the Hellenic imagination have buried themselves inextricably, and the one can be as little dispensed with in art as the other in morals.”
Gildersleeve was a professor of Greek at the University of Virginia (1856-1876) when the Civil War started. Like his father and three brothers, he volunteered for service in August 1861, serving in the Army of Northern Virginia. He gives a vivid account of a classicist in military life in “A Southerner in the Peloponnesian War” (The Creed of the Old South, 1915):
“When I was a student abroad, American novices used to be asked in jest, `Is this your first ruin?’ `Is this your first nightingale?’ I am not certain that I can place my first ruin or my first nightingale, but I can recall my first dead man on the battlefield.”
In September 1864, during the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns in Virginia, Gildersleeve was struck in the thigh bone by a bullet fired from a Spencer rifle. He recuperated for five months and walked with a limp for the rest of his life. Pinkerton writes:
“Gildersleeve saw a historical parallel of the Greek city states’ war to that of the American states, writing in Hellas and Hesperia (1909): `The period in which some of us lived most intensely, in which we lived on the highest level on which mortals can live, has its parallels with Thucydides, History of the War between the States.’ He also likened the loyalty of the Theban poet Pindar to his city state during the Persian wars to his own loyalty to [Virginia].”
In 1876, Gildersleeve became the first faculty member at the newly founded Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He set up the first program of classical studies at the graduate level in the United States, founded and edited the American Journal of Philology, and co-founded the American Philological Association. He received honorary degrees from Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge and six other universities, and died of pneumonia in 1924.
Gildersleeve’s story will offend some readers, as will the other lives chronicled by Pinkerton. Some will question her scholarly dedication to documenting a discredited “cause,” but this amounts to self-righteous myopia. Who is pure enough to feel superior to a man like Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve?
In her introduction, Pinkerton quotes the late Rev. Peter J. Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University. He was a renowned African-American preacher who argued in favor of memorializing Harvard’s Confederate dead, in a “spirit of reconciliation not with a wicked cause, but with young lives who once shared the ideals of the University but who died at one another’s hands in the most morally devastating of human conflicts, a civil war.” A university church, he said, “should strive to tell a larger truth…however painful or ambiguous it may appear to be.”
Some readers want nothing to do with ambiguity (another word for merely human), even in the history of their nation.