To his poem “James Daniel Brock at Cold Harbor: 3 June 1864” (Voices Bright Flags, Waywiser, 2014), Geoffrey Brock attaches an epigraph borrowed from Herman Melville: “What like a bullet can undeceive!” The line is taken from “Shiloh: A Requiem (April, 1862)” (Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, 1866). Brock’s poem is part of a suite of poems titled “Staring Back at Us (A Gallery),” six of which relate to the Civil War. Out of context, Melville’s parenthetically shrouded line sounds modern to modern ears, more like a disillusioned burst from the Western Front half a century later. Shiloh was the costliest battle of the war up to that time, with combined casualties exceeding 23,700 in two days of fighting. Shiloh’s carnage was often noted in memoirs of the war. Major Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union troops, writes in Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (1885):
“Shiloh was the severest battle fought at the West during the war, and but few in the East equaled it for hard, determined fighting. I saw an open field, in our possession on the second day, over which the Confederates had made repeated charges the day before, so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping on dead bodies, without a foot touching the ground.”
A similar image of Shiloh after the battle comes from U.S. Lt. John T. Bell’s Tramps and Triumphs of the Second Infantry, Briefly Sketched (1886): “In places dead men lay so closely that a person could walk over two acres of ground and not step off the bodies.” And this is from A Boy at Shiloh (1896) by U.S. Col. John A. Cockerill: “The blue and gray were mingled together. This peculiarity I observed all over the field. It was no uncommon thing to see the bodies of Federal and Confederate side by side, as though they had bled to death while trying to aid each other.”
In his notes to the poem, Brock says he drew details from Horace Porter’s Campaigning with Grant (1897). More than 18,000 casualties were suffered at Cold Harbor. Brock writes of the battle that took his “grandfather’s grandfather[’s]” life:
“A few more days, he might have stuffed his nostrils
(many survivors did) with crushed green leaves
as the entrenched living, awaiting further orders,
stared at each other across ripe fields of dead.”
Brock adds a bracketed, first-person coda that ends with an echo of the epigraph from Melville:
“[Six years it took me to make the time to find
the Confederate cemetery in Fayetteville;
it’s a quarter mile from my house in the crow’s mind,
but he flies over a private, wooded hill.
“On foot, it's down, back up, around a bend
atop a steep road marked (oh please) DEAD END.
And why come now, I wondered, as I weaved
among the headstones of the undeceived.]”
The final poem in the “Staring Back at Us” sequence is “Grant on His Deathbed: 1885,” a dramatic monologue by the retired general and president, with details taken from Grant’s Personal Memoirs. Here is the first stanza:
“Have never dwelt on errors. On omissions.
Cold Harbor—order for that last assault.
The field of wounded staring back at us.
At me. Helplessly dying. Dreams’ projections.”
For this poem, Brock takes his epigraph from Grant’s Memoirs: “Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions.”