Thursday, July 02, 2020

'All Americans Are Children of the Civil War'

“On the shoulders of common soldiers rested the future of the nation. These men cherished the Union as a model of self-government. It was the repository of timeless principles that, as Abraham Lincoln declared in 1857, established a ‘standard maxim for free society.’”

We are not the nation we were 163 or 157 years ago but Lincoln’s words, spoken in Springfield, Ill. three months after the Dred Scott Decision, remain stirring and true. In a preview of the following year’s Lincoln-Douglas debates, the future president was refuting a speech made in Springfield two weeks earlier by Stephen Douglas. Quoting Lincoln is Mitchell G. Klingenberg in “Gettysburg: Profiles in Courage.” Klingenberg’s point is that liberty, even in the freest of nations, is always in jeopardy. Sometimes it must be defended, and the people entrusted to do that are the “common soldiers.” Happy sentiments and purity of thought don’t preserve freedom in a world where the human default mode is despotism, violence and slavery.

When two armies met at Gettysburg in southeastern Pennsylvania on July 1-3, 1863, there were no guarantees the North would win the battle, the Union would be preserved and slavery would end. With the Union victory and the Confederate surrender at Vicksburg on July 4, the North rallied, though fighting continued for another twenty-one months.  

Among the books from the late Helen Pinkerton’s personal library given me by her daughter Erica Light is Herman Melville’s Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War: Civil War Poems (Prometheus Books, 2001), a paperback copy of  the 1866 volume heavily annotated by Helen. Her notes to “Gettysburg” are spare. She underlines “three waves” in the second stanza, referring to Pickett’s Charge on the final day of the battle, July 3:

“He charged, and in that charge condensed
  His all of hate and all of fire;
He sought to blast us in his scorn,
            And wither us in his ire.
Before him went the shriek of shells-
Aerial screamings, taunts and yells;
Then the three waves in flashed advance
  Surged, but were met, and back they set:
Pride was repelled by sterner pride,
  And Right is a strong-hold yet.”

Those final two lines are the finest in the poem. In the assault, named for Confederate Maj. Gen. George Pickett, some 12,500 men in nine infantry brigades advanced across a field for three-quarters of a mile under heavy Union artillery and rifle fire. The Confederate casualty rate exceeded fifty percent.

In the poem’s last stanza Helen notes that Melville’s phrase “that place of graves” refers to Cemetery Ridge, the principal defensive position for the Union forces during the battle. Her final notation, “July 4, 1865,” is written next to the poem’s last lines: “Soldier and priest with hymn and prayer / Have laid the stone, and every bone / Shall rest in honor there.”  The date refers to the laying of the cornerstone for the Soldiers National Monument at Gettysburg.
Helen’s volume of Melville’s poems includes four essays by critics. Next to Rosanna Warren’s “Dark Knowledge: Melville’s Poems of the Civil War,” Helen leaves a one-word annotation: “Excellent!” In the essay she marks this sentence:

“All Americans are children of the Civil War whether we know it or not.”

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