We welcome a guest post today from Stephen Cushman, author of Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War. War destroys, but it also inspires, stimulates, and creates. It is, in this way, a muse, and a powerful one at that. In Belligerent Muse, Cushman considers the Civil War writings of five of the most significant and best known narrators of the conflict: Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ambrose Bierce, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Considering their writings both as literary expressions and as efforts to record the rigors of the war, Cushman analyzes their narratives and the aesthetics underlying them to offer a richer understanding of how Civil War writing chronicled the events of the conflict as they unfolded and then served to frame the memory of the war afterward.
In today’s post, Cushman brings to our attention one of the quieter anniversaries of the Civil War years. It was not a battle nor a political milestone, but acknowledging it can help us better understand the effects of the war’s long and uncertain days on those who lived through them.
Since April 2011 the Civil War sesquicentennial has brought many anniversaries of large events already memorable, adding to them still more layers of memory and commemoration. The 150th anniversary of Gettysburg in July 2013 is an obvious example, while here in central Virginia May 2014 included many programs and events recalling the beginning of Grant’s Overland Campaign and the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. But the sesquicentennial has done more than simply nudge our various news media to recover and recollect and rehearse major moments included in any greatest-hits timeline of the war. It has also given our collective memory, or perhaps more accurately our collective attention, an opportunity to review the war again in real time.
It is one thing to skim, in a few distracted seconds, an online chronology of the war and think, for example, That’s right, spring and summer 1864, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor, the Crater, check, check, check, check, check. It is another to observe, in any way one chooses to observe it, the anniversary of Cold Harbor on June 3, and then to discover that June 8 was the 150th anniversary of the nomination of Lincoln, at the convention of the National Union Party in Baltimore, for a second term as president. Merely to list the two events one after the other in a bare-bones chronology is to risk missing altogether what a long, overshadowed, dispiriting interval the five days between the two events must have been—for the eventual nominee, for the delegates who nominated him, for the people they represented. Yet this silent, fretful interval remains invisible amidst a procession of bigger anniversaries that sail past like parade floats.
Overshadowed, dispiriting, fretful intervals have their anniversaries, too, but they rarely get much attention, even though they took up most of the 1500 days of the war for one side or the other. For one thing, such intervals do not offer us the stuff of spectacular reenactments. How do we stage public reenactments of the epidemic tightness in the chest or roiling in the stomach, the insomnia or melancholy or panic experienced by millions after First Manassas–Bull Run or the fall of Vicksburg? For another, anxious, doubtful intervals rarely come neatly packaged in single moments or artifacts we can point to and date and commemorate on their anniversaries. But there is at least one, and its memorable form came from Lincoln’s pen. keep reading →