Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War
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War destroys, but it also inspires, stimulates, and creates. It is, in this way, a muse, and a powerful one at that. The American Civil War was a particularly prolific muse—unleashing with its violent realities a torrent of language, from soldiers’ intimate letters and diaries to everyday newspaper accounts, great speeches, and enduring literary works. In Belligerent Muse, Stephen Cushman considers the Civil War writings of five of the most significant and best known narrators of the conflict: Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ambrose Bierce, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Considering their writings both as literary expressions and as efforts to record the rigors of the war, Cushman analyzes their narratives and the aesthetics underlying them to offer a richer understanding of how Civil War writing chronicled the events of the conflict as they unfolded and then served to frame the memory of the war afterward.
Elegantly interweaving military and literary history, Cushman uses some of the war’s most famous writers and their works to explore the profound ways in which our nation’s great conflict not only changed the lives of its combatants and chroniclers but also fundamentally transformed American letters.
“Stephen Cushman presents an excellent and thoroughly researched overview of a timely topic—the relation of the Civil War to the writings of men whose engagement both with fighting the war and with writing the war resonate with nineteenth century American culture.”—Shirley Samuels, Cornell University
Reflections on a Civil War Battle
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On 5 and 6 May 1864, the Union and Confederate armies met near an unfinished railroad in central Virginia, with Lee outmanned and outgunned, hoping to force Grant to fight in the woods. The name of the battle—Wilderness—suggests the horror of combat at close quarters and an inability to see the whole field of engagement, even from a distance. Indeed, the battle is remembered for its brutality and ultimate futility for Lee: even with 26,000 casualties on both sides, the Wilderness only briefly stemmed Grant’s advance.
Stephen Cushman lives fifty miles south of this battlefield. A poet and professor of American literature, he wrote Bloody Promenade to confront the fractured legacy of a battle that haunts him through its very proximity to his everyday life. Cushman’s personal narrative is not another history of the battle. “If this book is a history of anything,” he writes, “it’s the history of verbal and visual images of a single, particularly awful moment in the American Civil War.” Reflecting on that moment can begin in the present, with the latest film or reenactment, but it leads Cushman back to materials from the past. Writing in an informal, first-person style, he traces his own fascination with the conflict to a single book, a pictorial history he read as a boy. His abiding interest and poetic sensibility yield a fresh perspective on the war’s continuing grip on Americans—how it pervades our lives through films and songs; novels such as The Red Badge of Courage, The Killer Angels, and Cold Mountain; Whitman’s poetry and Winslow Homer’s painting; or the pull of the abstract idea of the triumph of freedom.
With maps and a brief discussion of the Battle of the Wilderness for those not familiar with the landscape and actors, Bloody Promenade provides a personal tour of one of the most savage engagements of the Civil War, then offers a lively discussion of its aftermath.
“Bloody Promenade grew out of one perceptive person’s nearly life-long attempt to understand the complex meanings of the Civil War. Ranging across a spacious landscape that embraces historic sites, memoirs by participants, works of fiction, and studies by historians, Stephen Cushman has written a contemplative book that should appeal to anyone interested in our great national crisis and why it continues to resonate among so many modern Americans.”—Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia