Authors describe reality of the Civil War

November 30, 1993|By Gregory P. Kane | Gregory P. Kane,Staff Writer

What? No Ambrose Bierce?

Admirers of the greatest American writer of the 19th century who fought in the Civil War no doubt will wonder about Bierce's absence from this volume. It includes Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Herman Melville and other writers whom we Bierce fans feel couldn't have filled his inkwell, much less measure up to him in style, wit and writing technique.

But absent he is, and the volume is the poorer for it. But editor Louis P. Masur may have had a good reason: Most of the writings in this work are nonfiction -- essays about personal reactions to the conflict from 1861 to 1865. Poetry by Melville, Walt Whitman and Alcott is the only fiction that appears in the book. Nearly all of Bierce's Civil War writings were fiction -- mainly short stories.

Add to that Bierce's -- how shall we put it? -- somewhat twisted view of the world and his absence becomes understandable, if still somewhat unpalatable.

Southern sympathizers also may be concerned. The only Southern writers included in the book are John Esten Cooke and William Gilmore Simms. They are the only two to present the war from the Confederate point of view, and Cooke does it with eloquence and wit. The following passage makes the reader feel that he is right in the middle of a bucolic scene that will shortly become a Civil War battlefield:

It was a smiling country full of joy and beauty -- where garners were full and faces happy; -- where "ancient peace" had erected its altars and presided over sunny fields . . .

NB A land which the hot breath of war had never scorched -- where

the tramp of cavalry had never resounded -- the wheels of artillery had never rumbled; -- where the roar of cannon and the rattle of musketry had never yet come to startle the echoes, or awake the old "sleepy Hollow" from its reveries and dreams.

What dreamer ever fancied its future -- ever thought it possible that this summer land, all flowers and sunshine and peace, would become as Golgotha, "the place of skulls" -- a Jehoshaphat full of dead men's bones?

But Cooke's craftsmanship is overshadowed by a touch of vitriol. He referred to Abraham Lincoln as the "King of the Gorillas," revealing the biliousness and arrogance of Southerners that helped lead to their defeat.

Simms seems the less ornery of the two, thus his writing seems more subdued. The "most prolific and best-known Southern writer of the day," according to Mr. Masur, Simms was also quite eloquent in espousing the Confederate cause.

He blamed the defeat of the South on "imbecility in office, civil and military." He was harsh in his portrayal of the Union troops' sack and destruction, even lamenting the plight of the black women who were the primary target of the Northern soldiers' passion for rape.

Simms also made clear his reason for the South's secession. "We are resolved for independence," he wrote in an Aug. 20, 1861, letter to a friend. "We have been persecuted for 30 years and will stand it no longer."

The 30-year persecution referred to is no doubt the attempt by leaders of South Carolina to challenge the authority of the federal government in the Nullification Crisis of 1832. That notorious Yankee despot, Andrew Jackson, put an end to it by threatening to have the lot of them strung up.

Simms' comment about independence and persecution illustrates the different views Southerners and Northerners had of the war. Lydia Maria Child -- a writer and abolitionist of the period -- and Harriet Beecher Stowe mention the expansion of slavery to the territories and the Fugitive Slave Law for the anti-Southern feeling among Northerners. Henry Adams -- great-grandson and grandson of two presidents from Massachusetts -- wrote to his brother from London of the effect the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation had in that country.

One side in the Civil War was living in denial. I think it was the side that lost.

But none of the writers in "The Real War" can surpass Walt Whitman's descriptions of the horrors he experienced in working in Union hospitals during the conflict. "The real war will never get in the books," Whitman wrote in 1882. The passage expressed not so much sadness as relief that the terror of war is best left undescribed to laymen.

But the irony is that thanks to the 14 writers included in this book and Mr. Masur, the real war finally has.

(Mr. Kane, a Metro reporter with The Sun, has had a long-time interest in the Civil War.)


Title: "The Real War Will Never Get in the Books: Selections From Writers During the Civil War"

Editor: Louis P. Masur

Publisher: Oxford University Press

-! Length, price: 301 pages, $25

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