Saturday, December 15, 2012

`Leaves Must Be Green in Spring'

Like Shakespeare, the American Civil War is a vast, indulgent mirror in which we can see almost anything we want to see. Trolling the library shelves on Friday I found, among the thousands of volumes devoted to the subject, Sons of Garibaldi in Blue and Gray: Italians in the American Civil War (2007) by Frank W. Alduino and Food and Recipes of the Civil War (1997) by George Erdosh. Don’t mistake my tone. I’m celebrating the bounty. I’ll probably never read these books, but I’m heartened whenever writers ride their pet hobbyhorses and do it with learning and style. One volume I borrowed and have already started reading carries the unlikely title Flora and Fauna of the Civil War: An Environmental Reference Guide (Louisiana State University Press, 2010). 

The author, Kelby Ouchlev, is a naturalist living in Louisiana, “on the edge of the D’Arbonne Swamp in a cypress house surrounded by white oaks and black hickories.” Ouchlev has scoured letters, diaries and journals by soldiers on both sides and assembled references to thirty-one categories of plants and twenty-three of animals, all wild – no cotton or horses. He refers to his book as “a blend of traditional and natural history.” The reader gleans a sense of a time when Americans were more self-sufficient and comfortable living closer to the land. For them, wild plants and animals are a natural source of food, medicine, clothing, building materials and, in the case of lice, ticks and mosquitoes, aggravation and disease. Private Theodore F. Upson of the 100th Indiana Infantry Volunteers, stationed near Atlanta on Aug. 13, 1864, writes: 

“Our boys are living on fruit diet mostly now. The blackberries are so thick in the abondoned [sic] fields that one can pick a ten quart pail full in a few minutes. The boys make puddings, pies and evry [sic] thing they can think of.” 

In contrast, Private Amos E. Stearns, 25th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, as a prisoner of war in Florence, S.C., composes a poem on Jan. 16, 1865: 

“A Confederate prison is the place—
Where hunting for lice is no disgrace.” 

The persistence of humor in the midst of suffering is impressive. Corporal Edmond D. Patterson, 9th Alabama Infantry, writes from Fredericksburg, Va., on Nov. 23, 1862: 

“Mr. Carroll says that he can’t stay long, that these horrible lice will eat him up. He says that they are so thick that he is afraid to go to sleep, for fear that in an unguarded moment he might snore, and these vermin would think it was the dinner gong and eat him up.” 

It’s a book to wander in, pausing periodically to savor the surroundings. One comes to admire the stoicism, humor and resourcefulness of men on both sides. Ouchlev quotes from a letter Lt. Sidney Carter of the 14th South Carolina Volunteers writes to his wife on April 23, 1863: 

“I must tell you of a groundhog that I saw last Sunday dug from his hole and given to me. I ate his meat and on Monday, I dressed his skin to make shoe strings. I will enclose you a pair and a pair for Father.” 

Ouchlev cites a few civilians as well. Here is Sarah Wadley, daughter of the supervisor of the Confederate railroads, writing near Trenton, La., on Dec. 31, 1861: 

“We had a very pleasant Christmas; the day after Christmas day, Miss Mary and I fixed up a little pine tree as a Christmas tree, we had no costly gifts, but a few sugar plums in lace bags, and some home made Cornucopias with two or three wax candles made the tree very attractive to the children.”` 

As the epigraph to his section on flora, Ouchlev includes a stanza from Herman Melville’s “Malvern Hill”: 

“We elms of Malvern Hill
Remember every thing;
But sap the twig will fill:
Wag the world how it will,
Leaves must be green in Spring.”`

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