Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Warm Hearts and Cold Steel: The Language of Evocation in James Harris' Civil War Voices

Every once in a while my English major background rises up and tries to  overwhelm me.  Then I lie down  hoping that urge will pass. Sometimes it doesn’t and I end up writing something. In this case the form is a literary analysis, and the author is me. It occurred to me that I might do something like this as I listened several time to the actors in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory  recite their lines from letters, diaries and memoirs of the Civil War period. In particular, I was struck by the contrasting forms, voices, moods and tones of the readings.

The era belonged to the middle Victorian period of literature, a time when the social excesses of Romanticism were curbed by the unique and inexorable influence of the English Queen Victoria whose life embodied the ideals of family, duty, country and religion and under whom the classical education of the time which stressed formality, order, logic and reason.  This mindset created not a little tension with Romantic ideals and that tension was often resolved by irrational and quirky behavior.

It was first and foremost the era of the letter. Everyone who could write wrote  letters constantly and regularly. We have voluminous stores of correspondence from the period representing every class and station in life, from official government and business documents to the writings passed between relatives to the most tender and heartfelt exchanges between lovers and spouses, such as those of Theo and Harriet carefully preserved and cherished for decades. Another example of this type of correspondence are the closing paragraphs from the well-known letter from Captain Sullivan Ballou to his wife:

          Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.

          The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness . . .

          But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again . . .

(Background to the letter may be found on the PBS website devoted to Ken Burns’ Civil War series at; the complete text of the letter is located at along with more information about Sullivan Ballou and his life and also his death at First Manassas. His body was buried for a while in the graveyard of Sudley Methodist Church.)

The time was also a sentimental one to a degree we find difficult to comprehend and perhaps a trifle embarrassing in light of our own harder sensibilities. This sentiment is reflected not only in the writing and publications of the period but also in the songs. Consider titles such as “Just before the Battle Mother” and lyrics like these from the final verse and chorus of “Tenting Tonight,” sung by both sides:  

            We've been fighting today on the old camp ground,
            Many are lying near;
            Some are dead, and some are dying,
            Many are in tears.
            Many are the hearts that are weary tonight,
            Wishing for the war to cease;
            Many are the hearts looking for the right,
            To see the dawn of peace.
            Dying tonight, dying tonight,
            Dying on the old camp ground.

Poles apart from the sentimental and personal nature of personal letters and popular songs, the military literary genres of the time, while formal in style, were objective and, for the period, to the point. This type of writing is reflected in memoirs such as those of Chamberlain, who was the last Civil War veteran to die as a result of wounds from the war. Here is an excerpt from the end of his memoir in which he writes about the parade of the surrendering Confederate army at Appomattox:

               (General John Brown) Gordon, at the head of the marching column, outdoes us in courtesy. He was riding with downcast eyes and more than pensive look; but at this clatter of arms he raises his eyes and instantly catching the significance, wheels his horse with that superb grace of which he is master, drops the point of his sword to his stirrup, gives a command, at which the great Confederate ensign following him is dipped and his decimated brigades, as they reach our right, respond to the 'carry.' All the while on our part not a sound of trumpet or drum, not a cheer, nor a word nor motion of man, but awful stillness as if it were the passing of the dead.

(The full text of Chamberlain’s memoir is available at armiesa00cham_djvu.txt .)

And so, in this production and in this time, we have the language of the pen and the language of the gun, the words of the heart and the words of the mind and will. Conflict lay not only in argument and battle: it was in the very fabric of society itself and reflected in the literature, published and unpublished. This cultural, intellectual and emotional conflict continues after the war and up through the twentieth century where World War I causes a seismic shift in reality itself,  perpetuated by the ensuing Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War and reflected in culture and literature.

But all that lies in the future of the recreated reality of James Harris’ work. We listen to the words and hear the music, experience people long gone from this earth alive once again, and recognize, at the last, faces, voices and lives very much like our own. Each character in the production said near the beginning, “These are my words, and each one is true.” Our actions define who we are, and it is with words that we recreate our actions. Literature is at its heart a study of words and actions, of people and events and finally at its heart of hearts, a consideration of what is true, regardless of our station in life, the time in which we live, or the circumstances that bear us forward into our future.

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