Monday, July 01, 2013

`A Most Disagreeable Sight'

In a February 1863 letter to Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Emily Dickinson expresses a conventional civilian sentiment, especially among Northerners: “War feels to me an oblique place.” Five months later, with the Army of Northern Virginia three-hundred miles to the southwest of Amherst, Mass., in Gettysburg, Pa., the war must have felt closer and less oblique. The Civil War coincided with Dickinson’s most productive period as a poet. Roughly half of her poems were written during those four years, though few of them deal directly with the war, which echoes only distantly in such poems as this from 1862: 

“They dropped like Flakes –
They dropped like Stars –
Like Petals from a Rose –
When suddenly across the June
A wind with fingers – goes –

“They perished in the Seamless Grass, —
No eye could find the place --
But God can summon every face
On his Repealless – List.” 

As is her custom, Dickinson toys with conventional sentiments and images – snowflakes, rose petals – and makes them her own. The first line in the second stanza might almost refer to Pickett’s charge on the third day at Gettysburg. Samuel Pickens, twenty-two, was a private in the 5th Alabama Infantry. He was born in Greensboro, Ala., the son of a wealthy plantation owner,and attended the University of Virginia. He enlisted in September 1862 and fought at Chancellorsville. In his diary entry for July 1, 1863, Pickens describes his regiment’s entry into Gettysburg that morning: 

“…as it was an excessively hot day & we were going through wheat fields & ploughed grounds & over fences, it almost killed us. I was perfectly exhausted & never suffered so from heat & fatigue in my life. A good many fell out of ranks being completely broken down & some fainted. We halted & lay down for some time at a fence & witnessed an artillery duel between one of our batteries stationed about 150 yds. In front of us & a Yankee battery away to our left.” 

Pickens quickly sees action, and is enlisted to carry wounded to the field hospital. His description recalls Whitman’s at Fredericksburg: 

“The scenes about the Hospital were the most horrible I ever beheld. There were the poor wounded men lying all over the yard, moaning & groaning,  while in the barn the terrible work of amputating limbs was going on, and the pallid limbs lying around presented a most disagreeable sight.” 

[Passages from Pickens’ diary taken from Voices from Company D: Diaries by the Greensboro Guards, Fifth Alabama Infantry Regiment, Army of Northern Virginia (University of Georgia Press, 2003). Pickens survived Gettysburg, was wounded at Winchester in September 1864, and was captured at Petersburg on April 2, 1865. He returned to his family’s plantation and died Sept. 9, 1890, age forty-nine.]

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