Friday, August 05, 2011

`Among My Chosen Men'

In the current issue of Blue & Gray, the Civil War magazine, Helen (Pinkerton) Trimpi reviews Sharpshooters: The Men, Their Guns, Their Stories, 1750-1900, by Gary Yee. Her assessment of an 836-page book devoted to a vast, irresistibly compelling subject is glowing:

“Yee’s history is not only a model of breadth in original sources consulted but in narrative skill in integrating the hundreds of incidents he relates into a running text of the war. Throughout he uses official records, memoirs, books, newspaper, journals, manuscripts, rare unit histories, and archives.”

I ordered the book last week from Yee, who self-published it in San Francisco, and since it arrived Tuesday I’ve read some two-hundred pages. A sample suggests the precision and clarity of Yee’s methodical approach to his subject:

“So, what is a sharpshooter? A sharpshooter is a military marksman who is skilled at shooting.”

Yee describes four classes of Civil War sharpshooters: “the common soldier who engages in sharpshooting”; “the soldier engaged in positional warfare, typically a siege, who has become proficient through practice”; “the designated sharpshooter,” who on the Union side could shoot “a ten-inch group at two-hundred yards”; and “the exceptional shooter whose shooting skill was recognized by his target rifle or a telescope-fitted rifle.” Yee is a firearms instructor and builder of long rifles, and he possesses an orderly, taxonomical mind.

At the front of his book, as a sort of extended epigraph, Yee includes a poem written by a Kentucky-born Union veteran of the Civil War, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (1841-1906): “The Marksman’s Work.” Shaler’s best poems are remarkably “modern” – plain-talking blank verse, few Romantic poeticisms, detailed and emotionally cool. Consider these lines:

“Slowly he loads his rifle; then he goes
Down to a fence; looks long and silently
As if he paced the distance in his mind:
Now lies upon his belly; finds a rest
To hold his piece that suits him, by a post.
We see him ready, and with glass to eyes
A score watch for the end.”

And this, the conclusion:

“We close our glasses; not a word is said;
The marksman stalks away; he does not look
Into our eyes, but straightaway on; and we
Keep eyes from others’ faces and seek out
Some trifling thing to do.”

The ending is a Chekhovian falling away, quiet, understated, artful in its artlessness. This is an effect writers about war – Babel, Hemingway – have often attempted but seldom achieved. The focus in Shaler’s best poems is on the individual, not grand issues or epic sweep. Yee credits Selected Civil War Poems of Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (Scienter Press, 2004), edited by R.L. Barth, which Pinkerton reviewed in the Fall 2007 issue of The Sewanee Review. Again, her praise is high:

“Shaler joins authentic memoir, which is usually written in prose, with remembering and honoring the valor of the soldiers. He records the realities of combat experience and civilian suffering during the war as no other poet I know has done.”

Shaler entered Harvard at age eighteen, studied earth sciences with Louis Agassiz, and graduated summa cum laude in 1862. For almost forty years he was a professor of geology and paleontology at Harvard. He served for two years as a captain of artillery volunteers in the Army of Kentucky. Only late in life did he turn to writing poetry. Shaler died in 1906, and From Old Fields: Poems of the Civil War was published that year, posthumously. I checked out a first edition of the book from the Fondren Library. The bookplate at the front shows the volume was donated to the library by John Wright, Class of 1928. On the facing page is an inscription:

“James A. [illegible]
March 12th, 1907”

The book is published by Houghton Mifflin & Company and dedicated to “the people of Kentucky.” The epigraph from Chaucer (“The Parliament of Fowles”) on the title page helps explain the title of the volume:

“For out of olde feldes, as men seith,
Cometh al this newe corn fro yeer to yere”

In her preface, dated Aug. 20, 1906, the poet’s widow, Sophia P. Shaler, writes:

“A few evening before sending to press the poems contained in this volume, my husband brought them to me to read once more. When I had finished, struck with the fact that some of his heroes were Confederates, I exclaimed: `What does this mean—and you an old Federal officer!’ Laying down his long-stemmed pipe, for a moment he silently gazed into the fire. Then lifting his head, his usual alert glance dimmed with emotion, `Well,’ he said, `those brave lads were my companions in youth, and that’s why, I suppose, they’ve claimed the right to be where I’ve put them—among my chosen men.’”

The editor of the Shaler selection mentioned above, R.L. Barth, is a Kentucky poet and a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam. One of his poems in Deeply Dug In (University of New Mexico Press, 2003) is “Definition”:

“The epigram is not artillery,
Blockbuster, napalm, mortar, rocketry;
But it is, rather, hunkered deep in mire,
The sniper-scoped guerilla’s small arms fire.”

[Reproduced on the cover of Yee’s book is Winslow Homer’s “The Army of the Potomac - A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty,” first published in the Nov. 15, 1862, edition of Harper’s Weekly.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"What! What! men, dodging this way for single bullets!" said Sedgwick. "What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance."

- Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, USA, killed shortly thereafter on May 9, 1864 at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House by a Confederate sharpshooter approximately 1000 yards away.