“The past is never dead,” wrote William Faulkner in Requiem for a Nun. “It’s not even past.” One hundred and fifty-eight years after the last battle and the final surrender, it seems we’re still living with the effects of and trying to understand the American Civil War.
Poet and English professor Stephen Cushman has been fascinated with the Civil War since childhood. He understands that any historical event, like a war, is understood generations later through the writings of those who lived it and then those who wrote about it. The subtitle of his 2014 book explains what he was about when he wrote it – Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Out Understanding of the Civil War.
The ”belligerent muse” in this case is war. Cushman points out that “war destroys, but it also inspires, stimulates, and creates.” The Civil War brought destruction, especially in the southern states, but it continues to be the source of an enormous outpouring of memoirs, reports, journals, historical texts, biographies, and fiction. In this book, Cushman says that we should not simply see these writings as “transparent windows opening into the past, but also as literary engagements with the momentous events of the war itself. In other words, they were writing to understand themselves the events they were living through.
He uses five writers, all connected to the Union side, to explore. And he uses some of their specific texts to examine as opposed to their writings as a whole. The five are Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, William T. Sherman, Ambrose Bierce, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.
For Lincoln, Cushman examines the account of his meeting with Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Gettysburg address, and the Second Inaugural Speech. For Whitman, it’s his Memoranda During the War. He tackles Sherman’s Memoirs of General William T. Sherman. Bierce, famous for his short stories, wrote about the 1863 Battle of Chickamauga, which he fought in as a soldier, and he wrote about it in articles, fiction, and letters. Chamberlain, a Union brigadier general who became something if a Civil War legend in his own lifetime, wrote a memoir that he often revised about the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox.
If you only have a general knowledge of the Civil War and its major personalities (count me in that number), Belligerent Muse contains some surprises. Ambrose Bierce fought in some of the war’s most horrific battles (like Shiloh and Chickamauga), and he kept writing about his experiences throughout his life, almost in an effort to make sense of what he went through. And he never quite succeeded. Sherman described the war almost like a stage play, not entirely unexpected from a man who loved the theater and was perhaps a frustrated actor. Through about four revisions of his memoirs over the year, Chamberlain became more and more specific about what happened at Appomattox, and that included enlarging (or fully acknowledging) his own role. Whitman’s concrern with slavery was less about its brutality or treatment of human beings and more about how slavery competed against the working class.
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. He’s also published numerous articles on both poetry and the Civil War. He received a B.A. degree from Cornell, his M.A. and D. Phil. Degrees from Yale, and a Ph.D. from Yale.
Belligerent Muse benefits from Cushman’s extensive factual knowledge about the war and its battles, a historical grasp that you would expect from a history professor other than an English professor. It’s that singular perspective he brings to the writings of these five major players, and he delivers a fascinating and instructive account.
Top illustration: The Battle of Chickamauga (1863) depicted in a painting by James Walker about 1870.