while I was gone

That’s also the title of a terrific, underrated novel by Sue Miller, which kept me up reading a few nights during my long interregnum from this blog. Few writers — maybe Tolstoy or Lynne Sharon Schwartz –  combine as well gripping suspense and an incredible amount of thoughtfulness about marriage.

I’d kept thinking I would do an entry when I was finally free of my the 19th century — but like Marx or Baudelaire, I’m finding that exit is taking far longer than I’d hoped.

Part of the delay happened because my responsibilities at my paid blog gig changed, in a way that takes up more of my time and brain space than I like. (See the posts following this one for details.)

But the loong gestation was perhaps more the nature of the material itself — including two frigging new characters that nosed in insistently, kind of at the last minute. Just as I was about to write, “Dissent from soldiers was confined to diaries then,” along came..

Benjamin Grierson (left), longtime commander of the Buffalo Soldiers, and Silas Soule (below right),  who came from one of those fine raging-abolitionist families (his brother named after William Lloyd Garrison).

I’d thought of pasting, and will at the end of this post, Soule’s testimony to an Army inquiry about Colorado’s Sand Creek Massacre, which he answers in classic soldier’s understatement.

Were these families, women and children, scalped and mutilated?

Yes, sir. They were.

Soule was far less understated in a letter to a fellow soldier:  “I tell you Ned it was hard to see little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized.

One squaw was wounded and a fellow took a hatchet to finish her, and he cut one arm off, and held the other with one hand and dashed the hatchet through her brain ” He had already told his friend about his own refusal to participate in the carnage. “I was then ordered with my whole company to Major A- with 20 days rations. I told him I would not take part in their intended murder….”

After recovering from the news enough to write about it, it was time to jump 30 years to the blessed end of the century. An easy project, what with the Spanish-American War, the Jackson Barracks riots, and Americans nosing around China’s Boxer rebellion …. you get the point.

Most of the other chapters of this book cover a single war, or at most two. This project of a single, double-winged chapter covering an entire century was about as insane as my original, naive idea that I could zip from 1776 to 1918 without working up a sweat. The soldiers of each of those wars have shattered those illusions, with their courage and integrity and vividness. Now I’m sitting down amid the shards, trying to avoid getting cut.

As promised, here’s one of those shards: that bit from an Army investigation, circa 1865. For his trouble, Soule was shot and killed a few years later, probably by angry allies of the guy  he’d disobeyed that day:

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