I found Stephen Cushman’s poetry first, and then I discovered he wrote about the Civil War as well.
Cushman is a professor of English at the University of Virginia. He’s known for his seven collections of poetry and two books of literary criticism, Fictions of Form in American Poetry and William Carlos Williams and the Meanings of Measure.
But when he was a child, he was given a book about the American Civil War. It was The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (1960), with a narrative by noted Civil War historian Bruce Catton. The book became the key that unlocked a lifelong interest in the war, to the point where he’s published three books about it – The Generals’ Civil War: What Their Memoirs Can Teach Us Today, Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War, and Bloody Promenade: Reflections on a Civil War Battle.
Cushman lives about 50 miles from the battle cited in that last work. It happened over two days, May 5 and May 6, in 1864, and it was one of the most horrific battles of a war known for its horrific battles. The Battle of the Wilderness was the first direct confrontation between Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee, and Grant proved he would be relentless even if he lost. Lee had not come upon an opponent like this before, an opponent determined to defeat Lee whatever it took in lives and material.
Cushman explains that he’s not providing a history of the battle or an analysis of its strategies and tactics. Bloody Promenade doesn’t fit a precise literary genre. It’s not so much a story of the battle as it is a reflection of what that battle meant in the war, in American history, and to himself. I live more like 750 miles from that battle, but it is the one that has come to be something of a metaphor for the war to me. I understand Cushman’s preoccupation with it.
The book is about ancestors and people who engage in re-enactments. It’s about what eyewitnesses reported and how newspapers and magazines covered it. It’s about the battle as described in memoirs of the famous and not-so-famous. It’s about the battle and the war in histories and poetry. And it’s about the terrain itself, that dense thicket of trees, shrubs, tall weeds and scrubland that, given the dry weather, was almost waiting for something to set off a conflagration. Which is what happened.
In addition to his own poetry and historical writing, Cushman serves as general editor of the fourth edition of Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. He’s served as co-editor of Civil War Witnesses and Their Books: New Perspectives on Iconic Works and Civil War Writing 1866-1989: New Perspectives on Iconic Works. He’s also published numerous articles on both poetry and the Civil War. He received a B.A. degree from Cornell, an M.A. and D. Phil. Degrees from Yale, and a Ph.D. from Yale.
Bloody Promenade fully resonates. It’s not an account of a battle (several other books are available with as much or as little detail as you could want). It’s a book about the meaning of a battle – how it was understood at the time, after decades had passed, and now. It’s a reminder that the past is never really past.
Top photograph: What the Wilderness “battlefield” looked like.