Tuesday, October 01, 2013

`Solitary, Homebound, Sheer Endurance'

Mary Anna Custis Lee, the wife of Gen. Robert E. Lee, possessed an unimpeachable American pedigree. Her father was the only surviving child of George Washington Parke Custis, the step-grandson and adopted son of George Washington, the father of the country. That made her the great-granddaughter of the first First Lady, Martha Washington. President Lincoln offered her husband command of a Union army, but he declined and became commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Their eldest son, Maj. Gen. George Washington Custis Lee, commanded the defense of Richmond at the time of its evacuation. Her life embodies the internecine nature of the War Between the States, the “Exigencies of war, the terrible waste,” in the words of Helen Pinkerton. 

Pinkerton’s “Crossing the Pedregal” is a monologue in verse collected in Taken in Faith: Poems (2002). On April 3, 1865, in the final days of the war, writing from Richmond, capital of the doomed Confederacy, Lee addresses her husband who is soon to surrender at Appomattox Court House. She is bitter and, like the nation, conflicted, painfully divided against herself. She confesses to her husband, the symbol of Confederate honor and rectitude, “I / Could not, like you, make suffering a virtue.” From the home front she writes: 

“Mine is no public effort amid one’s peers
But solitary, homebound, sheer endurance
Until, unwilled, my soul fell into disorder,
Despair, and almost infidelity,
Till death seemed not a challenge but escape,
Like the wounded man, lying in helpless pain
On the red field, who begs of friend or foe
The mercy of a bullet.” 

Here in Fredericksburg, I thought of Pinkerton’s poem and of her scholarly devotion to the Civil War while tramping around the battlefield, and later while reading A Woman in a War-Torn Town: The Journal of Jane Howison Beale, published by the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation in 1979. Beale, born in Fredericksburg in 1815, remained in the city during its occupation and the battle fought Dec. 11-15, 1862. She writes on Dec. 13: 

“Mr. Brent and my little boys had witnessed the battle from the high hill, since called `Lee’s Hill,’ from the fact that Gent Lee spent most of the day upon that commanding point. And they seemed deeply impressed with the scene, they had seen `Meagher’s Irish’ Brigade advance from the town, in full close columns and receive a storm of shell and shot from the Batteries stationed on Marye’s Heights which thinned their ranks, and caused them to falter, but they returned to the charge with a bravery worthy of a better cause and hundreds of them who escaped the fire of the heavy guns fell beneath the shots of the infantry stationed along the stone wall, some within a hundred yards of the foot of the Heights. It is a fact worthy of remark that the field which was literally covered with their dead bodies, produced in 1847, the finest crop of corn ever raised in this section and that this crop or the greater part of it was sent as a donation to the starving Irish, and perhaps helped to feed some of these poor victim of the fight to-day.” 

Lee’s Hill is perhaps four-hundred yards from where I’m seated in my in-laws’ house on the margins of the battlefield. During the battle, Union casualties totaled more than twice the number suffered by the Confederates. Gen. Lee witnessed much of the battle from this position, then known as Telegraph Hill. This is where Lee is supposed to have said to Longstreet: “It is good that war is so terrible, or we would come to love it.” 

Mary Custis Lee was born on this date, Oct. 1, in 1808, and died on Nov. 5, 1873, age sixty-five, three years after her husband. In Pinkerton’s poem, Mary Custis Lee writes to the general: 

“You spend your wrath in battle while I cannot,
And if you fall, you always have your men,
Who will keep bright the flame of your repute,
Whether we win or lose our independence.
Why, what have I to do these long dull hours
But knit and hear of you and the brave men
You have infused with your strong stoic will...”

1 comment:

Denkof Zwemmen said...

An article in today's New York Times about the guy in charge of the health insurance exchanges, who kind of prides himself on his cluelessness, after touring the Civil War battlefields in Virginia, said that he could not understand why Robert E. Lee was venerated “Why,” he asked, “wasn’t Lee taken out and shot as a traitor?” Hmmm.
Also -- interesting about the Virginian corn sent to Ireland during the famine. An audio book on the Irish Famine that I listened to a while back (can't remember the title) said that the Irish, although starving, did not eat the corn because it was unfamiliar and they did not know how to prepare it. Wikipedia says that the corn was not properly ground and, if not elaborately ground again and cooked well, caused "severe bowel complaints."
It sounds like whoever was in charge of that bit of famine relief in 1846 was just as slap-happily clueless as the guy in charge of the health care insurance exchanges.