Friday, December 14, 2012

`The Noble Letters of the Dead'

In a comment on Tuesday’s post, Helen Pinkerton recommends “one of the great collections of [Civil War] letters,” Fallen Leaves: The Civil War Letters of Major Henry Livermore Abbott (Kent State University Press, 1991), edited by Robert Garth Scott.  Helen suggested I pay particular attention to Abbott’s letter of April 4, 1864, regarding generals Meade and Grant. George G. Meade commanded the Army of the Potomac and is credited with the Union victory at Gettysburg. Ulysses S. Grant was named General-in-Chief of the Union armies in March 1864. Meade offered to resign but Grant declined. Abbott writes: 

“Meade of course will be merely chief of staff to Grant, but as the former has shown himself quick witted, skilful [sic], a good combiner & maneuverer & is unquestionably a clever man intellectually, while the latter has got force, decision &c, [and] the character which isn’t afraid to take the responsibility to the utmost, the union of the two may be the next thing to having a man of real genius at the head.” 

That a twenty-two-year-old could be so shrewd, psychologically as well as militarily, is remarkable. That we know Abbott was killed a month later, on May 6, during the Battle of the Wilderness, the massive Union offensive led by Grant, is sad beyond understanding. The battle was notably savage and confused. Casualties in three days of fighting exceeded 28,000. Scott adds a final chapter to Fallen Leaves, after Abbott’s last letter (dated April 24), recounting the battle, the fortunes of the 20th Massachusetts, and Abbott’s death. He writes: 

“…even in the midst of this confusion, many of Abbott’s men found themselves gaping in awed wonder at their commander [Abbott], who paced back and forth along the line with Rebel bullets literally ripping the edges of his clothing. Captain Gustave Magnitsky summed up the feelings of the entire regiment when he later remarked: `My God…I was proud of him as back and forth he slowly walked before us.’” 

Abbott was shot in the abdomen. His regiment’s defensive line collapsed and the men retreated to a secure position. Using a blanket as a stretcher, three of Abbott’s men carried him two miles to a field hospital. The regimental surgeon said there was no hope of recovery. Scott writes: 

“Barely able to speak, Abbott said that he knew the end was near and calmly made his last requests. All of his money, he said, should be given for the relief of the widows and orphans of his fallen men, and he asked that his parents be told that his last thoughts were of them. He then asked to be left alone to think.” 

Scott appends an epigraph to the collection that he attributes to Abbott, and from which he takes the volume’s title: 

“Those fallen leaves that keep their green,
The noble letters of the dead…” 

The lines are almost identical to these from Section XCV of “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” Tennyson’s 1849 poem for his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died of a cerebral hemorrhage at twenty-two, the same age as Abbott: 

“A hunger seized my heart; I read
      Of that glad year which once had been,
      In those fall'n leaves which kept their green,
The noble letters of the dead.”

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