Monday, November 23, 2015

`Who Without Reserve Can Dare'

A kindling impulse seized the host
Inspired by heaven’s elastic air;
Their hearts outran their General's plan,
Though Grant commanded there--
Grant, who without reserve can dare;
And, `Well, go on and do your will,’
He said, and measured the mountain then:
So master-riders fling the rein--
But you must know your men.”

This is Herman Melville on the hero of the day, Maj. General Ulysses S. Grant, in “Chattanooga (November 1863),” collected in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866). The Battle of Chattanooga started on this date, Nov. 23, in 1863. Around 1:30 p.m., 14,000 Union troops advanced on six-hundred Confederate defenders, launching an engagement that lasted less than three days. Union casualties numbered 5,824; Confederate, 6,667, and probably higher. Grant decisively routed Gen. Braxton Bragg,  and Confederate morale was shaken. Read the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (1885) for an almost cinematic account of the battle: 

“I watched their progress with intense interest. The fire along the rebel line was terrific. Cannon and musket balls filled the air: but the damage done was in small proportion to the ammunition expended. The pursuit continued until the crest was reached, and soon our men were seen climbing over the Confederate barriers at different points in front of both Sheridan’s and Wood’s divisions.” 

Grant, no braggart, writes in a Dec. 5, 1863 letter to J. Russell Jones: “An Army never was whipped so badly as Bragg was. So far as any opposition the enemy could make I could have marched to Atlanta or any other place in the Confederacy. But I was obliged to rescue [Gen. Ambrose] Burnside.” 

In The Civil War World of Herman Melville (1997), Stanton Garner deduces that Melville met Grant the following year in Virginia. He cites a note the poet wrote to accompany “Chattanooga (November 1863),” in which he refers to an unnamed “visitor” discussing the battle with the Union commander: “General Grant, at Culpepper, a few weeks prior to crossing the Rapidan for the Wilderness, expressed to a visitor his impression of the impulse and the spectacle: Said he: `I never saw any thing like it:’ language which seems curiously undertoned, considering its application; but from the taciturn Commander it was equivalent to a superlative or hyperbole from the talkative.” Garner also quotes the brief memoir Melville’s wife, Elizabeth Shaw Melville, wrote about her husband: “Herman went to Virginia with Allan [Melville’s brother] in April 1864 Visited  [sic] various battlefields & called on Gen. Grant.”                                                     

To a reader, it’s reassuring to know that two of America’s greatest writers should have met, however briefly or distractedly. In “The Armies of the Wilderness,” Melville writes of Grant: “Like a loaded mortar he is still: / Meekness and grimness meet in him-- / The silent General.”

1 comment:

Marly Youmans said...

I find that . . . very interesting. I've read parts of Clarel and a lot of the short poems but not in a long time.