Monday, May 29, 2023


Remembering the War Dead

Basil L. Gildersleeve, "A Southerner in the Peloponnesian War," Atlantic Monthly 80 (September, 1897) 330-342, rpt. in The Creed of the Old South 1865-1915 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1915), pp. 55-103, rpt. in Ward W. Briggs Jr., ed., Soldier and Scholar: Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve and the Civil War (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998), pp. 389-413 (at 390-392):
When I was a student abroad, American novices used to be asked in jest, "Is this your first ruin?" "Is this your first nightingale?" I am not certain that I can place my first ruin or my first nightingale, but I can recall my first dead man on the battlefield. We were making an advance on the enemy's position near Huttonsville.4 Nothing, by the way, could have been more beautiful than the plan, which I was privileged to see; and as we neared the objective point, it was a pleasure to watch how column after column, marching by this road and that, converged to the rendezvous. It was as if some huge spider were gathering its legs about the victim. The special order issued breathed a spirit of calm resolution worthy of the general commanding and his troops. Nobody that I remember criticised the tautological expression, "The progress of this army must be forward." We were prepared for a hard fight, for we knew that the enemy was strongly posted. Most of us were to be under fire for the first time, and there was some talk about the chances of the morrow as we lay down to sleep. Moralizing of that sort gets less and less common with experience in the business, and this time the moralizing may have seemed to some premature. But wherever the minié ball sang its diabolical mosquito song there was death in the air, and I was soon to see brought into camp, under a flag of truce, the lifeless body of the heir of Mount Vernon, whose graceful riding I had envied a few days before.5 However, there was no serious fighting. The advance on the enemy's position had developed more strength in front than we had counted on, or some of the spider's legs had failed to close in. A misleading report had been brought to headquarters. A weak point in the enemy's line had been reinforced. Who knows? The best laid plans are often thwarted by the merest trifles, an insignificant puddle, a jingling canteen. This game of war is a hit or miss game, after all. A certain fatalism is bred thereby, and it is well to set out with a stock of that article. So our resolute advance became a forced reconnaissance, greatly to the chagrin of the younger and more ardent spirits. We found out exactly where the enemy was, and declined to have anything further to do with him for the time being. But in finding him we had to clear the ground and drive in the pickets. One picket had been posted at the end of a loop in a chain of valleys. The road we followed skirted the base of one range of hills. The house which served as the headquarters of the picket was on the other side. A meadow as level as a board stretched between. I remember seeing a boy come out and catch a horse, while we were advancing. Somehow it seemed to be a trivial thing to do just then. I knew better afterwards. Our skirmishers had done their work, had swept the woods on either side clean, and the pickets had fallen back on the main body; but not all of them. One man, if not more, had only had time to fall dead. The one I saw, the first, was a young man, not thirty, I should judge, lying on his back, his head too low for comfort. He had been killed outright, and there was no distortion of feature. No more peaceful faces than one sees at times on the battlefield, and sudden death, despite the Litany, is not the least enviable exit. In this case there was something like a mild surprise on the countenance. The rather stolid face could never have been very expressive. An unposted letter was found on the dead man's body. It was written in German, and I was asked to interpret it, in case it should contain any important information. There was no important information; just messages to friends and kindred, just the trivialities of camp life.

The man was an invader, and in my eyes deserved an invader's doom. If sides had been changed, he would have been a rebel, and would have deserved a rebel's doom. I was not stirred to the depths by the sight, but it gave me a lesson in grammar, and war has ever been concrete to me from that time on. The horror I did not feel at first grew steadily. "A sweet thing," says Pindar, "is war to those that have not tried it."

4. Confederates engaged Union forces at Beverly, West Virginia on 2–3 July 1863 and at Huttonsville, 4 July 1863. Captain John Righter had a written plan of the location of fourteen pickets. Detachments of the 19th Virginia Cavalry under Col. William L. Jackson surrounded them on the morning of 2 July , killing forty Union soldiers and losing only four of his own men, despite the fact that the detachment of Lt. Col. A.C. Dunn did not respond to orders. Dunn was subsequently placed under arrest by Jackson. For Jackson's lost plat and Dunn's "misleading report," see OR, ser. 1, 27.2.805-16.

5. BLG note: "John Augustin[e] Washington."
This Washington (1821-61) was great-grandson and namesake of George Washington's brother. He received the A.B. degree at the University of Virginia in 1841 and moved almost immediately into the great house, the costs and social responsibilities of which he could not maintain. In 1858, he sold the property to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association and in 1860 moved to Waveland in Fauquier Co. Appointed aide-de-camp with the rank of colonel on the staff of R.E. Lee, he was killed 13 Sept. 1861 near Cheat Mountain (West) Virginia.
Pindar, fragment 110 (tr. William H. Race):
Sweet is war to those without experience, but anyone who has experienced it
dreads its approach exceedingly in his heart.

γλυκὺ δὲ πόλεμος ἀπείροισιν, ἐμπείρων δέ τις
ταρβεῖ προσιόντα νιν καρδίᾳ περισσῶς.

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