Civil War Landscapes and Legacies When Johnny Came Marching Home

The number of words written about the Civil War surpassed the actual dead on the battlefield well before the war was over. And when the killing stopped, the accounts of the fighting were only getting started. One hundred and forty years later, they're still crankin' 'em out, sometimes, it seems, just as fast as the musket balls must have flown at Chickamauga or Antietam. America, still being a young nation, compensates by analyzing its wars, conflicts, and skirmishes in every possible way - academically, morally, militarily, politically, culturally - until it seems the only reason that wars are fought are to give people something to talk about far into the future.

Among the many tragedies of war, this is certainly one of the greatest. The number of Americans who don't understand the firsthand horrors of war, the kind where your face could be blown to pieces at the top of the next ridge or even with your very next step, far surpasses the number of those who do. Those without the experience of battle are prone to think wars are something to look at in magazines, movies, or in textbooks, events on a timeline that don't happen anymore, or if they do, that take place halfway around the world. Too often, the good intentions of scholars, authors, and the like obscure the vivid realities, the mass graves, and the devastated countryside of a nation at war.

It's not complicated schemes or intricately detailed motives that make people go to war; those come after the wars are started. Wars are started by the same emotions most people have every day - love, greed, betrayal, fear, hatred, the hope for something better - carried to their most extreme. The two options in battle - fight or flight - are the same two responses every human brain has to any threat, large or small. Somehow, this gets lost in the translation nearly every time. The hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded are a lot easier to handle in black ink than when each individual is considered as a face, a family, and a story.

Images nearly always convey the horror and destruction of war more effectively than words can. Be it photographic, poetic, or prosaic, imagery appeals to emotion over intellect, and in so doing makes itself a natural medium for war stories. Since the Civil War cut right to the heart - and still does, in many ways - of so much of what America thought it stood for, it's not surprising that many of the most powerful and enduring accounts of the war are images. Sherman's sacking of Atlanta and subsequent march to the sea have been the subject of many a tome, but few can sum up the utter sense of defeat and submission borne by the South better than one picture of a lone man in the center of the aftermath of a huge train explosion. For miles around the man, there is nothing but wreckage: dozens of wheels where boxcars once perched, tree stumps and railroad ties flung hither and yon, and four lonely pillars where an entire mill once stood. The photograph was taken in September 1864, about seven months before Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Judging from the photo, the war was over long before.

That photograph, and 96 others like it, are part of a collection titled Landscapes of the Civil War: Newly Discovered Photographs From the Medford Historical Society, edited by Constance Sullivan (Knopf, $40, hard).Part of a collection of 5,400 prints discovered in the attic of the Medford Historical Society in Massachusetts, the photographs cover a wide swath of Civil War imagery, from battalions posing in front of their tents to the bloody aftermath of the battle of Fredericksburg.

The photos are beautiful to look at, especially considering their age, but each also serves as a chilling reminder of how totally America committed itself to war and of the inevitable consequences of such a commitment. The picturesque creeks in some photographs would soon run red with blood, many of the troops shown marching in perfect formation would never again see their loved ones, and it would take years before the devastated South (the post-siege pictures of Richmond, Atlanta, and Charleston are especially sobering) would even begin to recover. The stark black-and-white tones, softened just a bit by a faint hint of sepia, only make these realities that much clearer.

Equally important to the Civil War's legacy, both aesthetically and historically, are the words of the poets who witnessed the war and its aftermath. It's somewhat disconcerting to think that such a terrible war spawned some of the finest poetry this country ever saw; nevertheless, that's what happened. Much, though certainly not all, of this poetry is contained in The Columbia Book of Civil War Poetry: From Whitman to Walcott, edited by Richard Marius (Columbia University Press, $29.95 hard). Voices both famous (Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed") and not (a number of poems attributed to "Unknown") adorn this hefty volume, as do those of several black and women poets. Not content to include only poets contemporary to the war, editor Richard Marius writes in his introduction, "In this collection, we have included a cross-section of work, most by poets who lived during the war but much, too, by those who came afterward and found in the conflict inspiration to poetic reflection," and indeed, the book contains the works of later poets ranging from Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and Langston Hughes to James Dickey and John Updike. If a poet has been important to America since the Civil War, he (or she) is likely to be in this volume.

The content is as impressive as the contributors. Each acid-free page (this book is meant to last a long time, as well it should) contains images as vivid as those in the Medford Photo Archives. From the first line, "Peace! Peace! God of our fathers grant us Peace!" The Columbia Book of Civil War Poetry pulls no punches, taking the reader from Harper's Ferry and the fields of Gettysburg to Abe Lincoln's funeral parade and his memorial in Washington, D.C., with language as stirring as any American ever put into print. Quoting from the book would double the size of this article. The poems are split into seven chapters: "The Horrors of War," Moral Fervor," "Snapshots of War," "Pantheon," "Lincoln," "Aftermath," and "Stillness," and are punctuated with famous Civil War photographs and popular songs such as "Dixie," "Marching Through Georgia," and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." This one deserves a place in the pantheon of Civil War books - not just poetry but period.

Winston Groom's Shrouds of Glory (From Atlanta to Nashville: The Last Great Campaign of the Civil War) (Atlantic Monthly Press, $23, hard) is a nice companion to the Medford Collection, because the action is centered around many of the areas featured in Landscapes. Groom, author of Forrest Gump, does exactly what he says in the title, tracing the Western arm of the Confederate army's last stand under the leadership of Gen. John Bell Hood. It takes a while to sort out all the characters (the photo plates that divide the book into thirds help a lot), but it is a well-constructed military history that cares enough to flesh out the characters of the generals, including Yankees William T. Sherman and George H. Thomas, who decided it. It could have been a little clearer, but is surprisingly suspenseful considering the Confederate army was nearly crushed even before the campaign began.

With more and more being discovered and debated about the Civil War every day, the volume of literature about the war will almost certainly increase as well. But what needs to be learned from the war can't always be gleaned from the same old texts. The war's images, both poetic and visual, tell us what we need to know. War is hell, and if it takes poems of sons fallen on distant battlefields and photographs of once-fruitful landscapes laid waste to keep us repeating that horrible nightmare of 140 years ago, then may those images never stop. n

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle