by Eric Byrd
On Facebook I follow a number of the US Department of the Interior's National Battlefield Parks, National Battle Sites, and Military Parks. In the progress of the Civil War's sesquicentennial each of these sites has had their day in the social media sun, their special anniversary posts with pictures of the commemorative ceremonies. In May and June it was the turn of the parks that memorialize the battles of Grant's Overland Campaign.
In the spring of 1864 Ulysses Grant came east, to personally oversee the destruction of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, the veteran force that had in the previous two years baffled and humiliated every Federal drive on the rebel capitol of Richmond. Though baffled and humiliated – but never demoralized or destroyed, a distinction apparently lost on the aristocratic Lee – the eastern armies of the Union came on in early May and fought continuously for six weeks, chewing and choking “with a bulldog grip,” as Lincoln would exhort via telegraph.
By the end of June, when the exhausted armies began to dig in for a long siege of the last rail hub supplying Richmond, Grant had lost 55,000 men and Lee 33,000. About half of each army. Lincoln said Grant was the general who could “face the arithmetic.” Meaning he could fight all out, lose half his army while costing Lee half of his, replace his losses just when Lee could not, and then resume the offensive and finish the war. Grant, reflected one of his staff officers, “was assigned one of the most appalling tasks ever intrusted to a commander.”
Bruce Catton wrote of the “homely American place-names” the Civil War “made dreadful.” I don't hear homeliness in the place names or battle sites of the Overland Campaign – Wilderness Tavern, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Cold Harbor. They sound entirely, originally sinister, like haunts in a colonial ghost story. Along English roads a “cold harbour” was a fireless shelter for wayfarers. Herman Melville visited the Virginia front in 1864 and in his poem “The Armies of the Wilderness” he noted the sight of populous armies contesting isolated hamlets: “The host in the lonesome place – / The hundred thousand file.”
The fight for the city is fought
In Nature's Old domain;
Man goes out into the wilds,
And Orpheus' charm is vain
The fight for the cities – the rival capitals only 100 miles apart – is in the wilderness but the wounded flow back along the roads. In Washington, Whitman had been watching over the wounded in army hospitals for two years when he wrote his mother on June 7, 1864 – a month into the campaign and a week before his breakdown. “One new feature,” he told her, “is that many of the poor afflicted young men are crazy. Every ward has some in it that are wandering.”
General Horace Porter's account of Grant's staff during the Overland Campaign, Campaigning with Grant,
has many things to recommend it. Edmund Wilson called it a necessary supplement to Grant's Personal Memoirs, the style of which Wilson found too sagely and imperturbable to admit much piteous blood-and-guts detail. Porter's narrative, he writes, supplies “all the horrors which Grant has omitted, which the strainer of his chaste style keeps out.” I don't think the matter is that cut and dried – Grant is not always abstracted nor Porter always vivid – but surely there is nothing in the Personal Memoirs like Porter's Géricault-like picture of the aftermath of Spotsylvania:
Below the mass of fast-decaying corpses, the convulsive twitching of limbs and the writhing of bodies showed that there were wounded men still alive and struggling to extricate themselves from their horrid entombment.
When read alongside the Personal Memoirs, Campaigning with Grant also reminds one of the stylistic modernity of Grant's prose – the prose Matthew Arnold found spare but never simple, “nervous, firm,” full of “shrewd and often unexpected turns of expression”; the unconsciously epigrammatic prose admired by Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway.Quite often Porter takes two or more pages to tell a story Grant compresses in an uncanny paragraph.
Porter (standing, second from left) was the urbane exception on a staff of small-town cronies. When the ink-stained hack biographer James Penny Boyd wished to convey recently-dead General Sherman's eminence as a “raconteur and man-about-town” he cited as Sherman's only peers “Chauncey M. Depew and General Horace Porter.” Porter's book has a high tone, an educated grandiloquence, a period-piece charm, and it was fitting that I read it in a reprint of the first edition with gilt edges, a red-ribbon marker, decorative endpapers, original type and illustrations. Porter has an almost touching faith in Anglo-Saxon cultural continuity – he says Buchanan Read's poem on Sheridan's ride to Winchester has made the exploit “famous for all time” and that it will quicken the hearts of all schoolboys hence. And his jaunty, sporting tone makes me smile:
[Discussion of blockade runners] naturally led to the mention of a more recent event upon the seas — the destruction of the Alabama by the Kearsarge. General Grant had rejoiced greatly at this triumph of our sister service the navy, and admired immensely the boldness and pluck exhibited by Winslow, the commander of the Kearsarge, in forcing the fight with the Confederate cruiser. The general was naturally delighted, for it showed that Winslow was a man after his own heart, who acted upon the commendable military maxim, “When in doubt, fight.”