Wednesday, September 19, 2012

`If It Takes All Summer'

In the Winter 2006 issue of Arion: A Journal of the Humanities and the Classics, Nicholas Kilmer published “Fragments from a Correspondence,” a selection from the letters written to him by Guy Davenport between 1978 and 1983. In one dated April 4, 1981, Davenport quotes Alexander Haig, then U.S. Secretary of State, after the attempt on President Reagan’s life five days earlier: “The President has taken a round.” Davenport writes: 

“Generations of military tradition made it possible for a man who stumbles from one syntactical wreck to another, gibbering in Pentagonese, to say so simple a sentence. The Spartans would approve. Someday I’ll do a collection of spare eloquence spoken at tense moments. Stonewall Jackson comes to mind. Told that the ammo would be gone in less than half an hour, he looked up from his bible, and said, `Give them, then, the bayonet.’” 

The example of “spare eloquence spoken at tense moments” that comes to my mind is a sentence in a dispatch written by General Grant during the protracted Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in May 1864. The bloodiest battle of the Overland Campaign, it cost both sides 32,000 casualties. On May 11, after three days of inconclusive fighting, Grant wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton: “I propose to fight it out on this line, if it takes all summer.” The stubborn defiance, and the mingling of the formal (“I propose”) and colloquial (“fight it out”) is pure Grant and pure American. The following day, fighting focused on a meadow that came to be known as the Bloody Angle. Union forces suffered 9,000 casualties; Confederates, 8,000. In the Smithsonian Institution is the stump of an oak tree destroyed by rifle fire during the fighting. 

Shakespeare is loaded with the spare eloquence of warriors. In Julius Caesar, Antony announces: “Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war.”  And in Henry V the King says:  “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; / Or close the wall up with our English dead.” And Henry VI, Part III, Prince Edward cries: “Sound trumpets! let our bloody colours wave! / And either victory, or else a grave.” And the king in Richard III tells his army at Bosworth Field: 

“Fight, gentlemen of England! fight, bold yeomen!
Draw, archers, draw your arrows to the head!
Spur your proud horses hard, and ride in blood;
Amaze the welkin with your broken staves!” 

But such eloquence hardly seems sufficiently spare. The sparest of all, and probably my favorite statement in all of military history, was uttered on Dec. 22, 1944, near Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. The German commander, General Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz, sent to the American command an eleven-sentence ultimatum, including this: “There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town.” The American commander, General Anthony Clement McAuliffe, replied with the sparest eloquence short of silence:

“To the German Commander.
“The American Commander” 

The Germans asked for a translation. According a historian of the battle, an American officer replied: “If you don't understand what 'Nuts' means, in plain English it is the same as 'Go to hell.' And I will tell you something else. If you continue to attack we will kill every goddam German that tries to break into this city.”


George said...

Didn't the famous note at Ft. Donelson include "propose"? I remember it as

"No terms can be accepted but immediate and unconditional surrender. I propose to move upon your lines at once."

Helen Pinkerton said...

Grant wrote:

"No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works."

Much joking resulted with the phrase "I propose to move . . . upon your works," in the soldiers' letters home.