Friday, May 9, 2014

The Armies of the Wilderness

Herman Melville (1819–1891)
From The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It

Skull and bones of unburied soldiers along Orange Plank Road in the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, photographed by G. O. Brown, 1864. Image courtesy of Civil War Saga.
Herman Melville and his brother Allan arrived in Virginia on April 16, 1864, to visit their cousin Lieutenant Colonel Henry Gansevoort— but the soldier was away from base when they arrived. By the time Gansevoort returned to camp, the Melville brothers had departed on a scouting mission in search of the Confederate rangers led by John S. Mosby, whose guerilla tactics plagued Union troops in a region around Middleburg known widely as “Mosby’s Confederacy.” A full five days after their arrival, then, the brothers finally met up with Gansevoort, and they were able to spend less than two days together.

During this period General Ulysses S. Grant was amassing his forces for a push against the Army of Northern Virginia, led by General Robert E. Lee. In early May Grant moved his army across the Rapidan River and the two sides clashed in the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, where the ground was already littered with the unburied skulls and bones from the previous year’s Battle of Chancellorsville. By mid-May the action moved from the Wilderness to the crossroads at Spotsylvania Court House.

For the forty-four year old novelist, the journey in April was something of a lark; “I enjoyed my visit very much, & would not have missed it on any count,” he wrote to his cousin on May 10, when Gansevoort would have been in the midst of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Melville closed this same letter with effusive well-wishes: “Farewell. May two small but choice constellations alight on your shoulders. May your sword be a terror to the despicable foe, & your name in after ages be used by Southern matrons to frighten their children by. . . . Farewell, my hero & God bless you.”

Yet, in spite of the holiday-like spirit of Melville’s jaunt (and the patriotic bravado of his letter), the horrors of the war were very much in evidence and presented him with the raw material for his first book of poetry, Battle-Pieces and Other Aspects of the War, published in 1866. The experiences of his visit to the front in April 1864 are immediately obvious in two of the book’s poems, “The Scout Toward Aldie,” about Mosby and the fear he instilled among Union forces, and “The Armies of the Wilderness.” A century later Robert Penn Warren would write:
It is, in many ways, a very remarkable document in the history of American poetry, and a remarkable commentary on the moment in American history. . . . In a very profound way it can be said that the Civil War made Melville a poet. . . . [It gave him] the kind of big, athletic, overmastering subject which he always needed for his best work, and it was bloodily certified by actuality.
Melville’s book, Warren notes, “reads like a log of the conflict, running in chronological order from the execution of John Brown to the Reconstruction.” In a more recent study, Cynthia Wachtell examines how these poems defied the conventions of the day by scorning comfortably bloodless images of the battlefield: “Melville boldly ventures to address topics that other Civil War writers of his day studiously avoided. . . . He refuses to disguise war’s horror.”

Notes: In Genesis 21, Paran (page 104) is the wilderness dwelling place of the outcast Ishmael. In 1719 Thomas, sixth Lord Fairfax of Cameron, inherited title to more than five million acres of land in Virginia—i.e., Lord Fairfax’s parchment deeds (p. 105). A stanza on page 107 refers to Confederate Lieutenant General Stonewall Jackson’s successful attack against Union forces during the Battle of Chancellorsville (May 3, 1863)—and his death when his own men accidentally opened fire on a returning scouting party.

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