Tag Archives: civil war

of body counts and word counts

The quietude here has been almost a good sign: I’m finally sucked in by the book.  I walk to the gym thinking about Donelson Caffery and Lewis Douglass, sleep followed by the ghost of Bierce. I then have to remember to work in the data I sort of started with, about desertion and dissent and the size and strength of armies.

Now, when I look at Civil War photos of famous officers, their facial hair looks painted into the faces of children – just as I felt about this one of Bierce in uniform, or the one at right (after the war ended, age 22).

I’ve also been haunted by the way Walt Whitman, via his biographer Roy Morris, explained the way the last two years of the Civil War were fought:

Grant was a new type of warrior for a new kind of war, one based less on grand heroics and noble gestures than on the simple ciphering of sums he had learned in his brother’s dry-goods store. With the war now entering its fourth spring, the North had roughly twice the number of soldiers as the South, and the new Union general-in-chief intended, with Abraham Lincoln’s enthusiastic backing, to improve those odds by forcibly subtracting, one by one, the country’s dwindling stock of defenders. When enough Rebels had been subtracted, the North would win. It was as simple – and brutal — as that.

None of the pounds of Civil War lit and film I’d consumed for this chapter, none of the dry monographs or discussions on H-WAR listservs had sung that song so clearly to me. And it brought first to my mind Vietnam and body counts, the official obsession with the number of enemy dead.

I took a very deep breath.  Then I decided to try to fact-check: While I count Roy Morris as a personal avatar (nearly as much as Adam Hochschild) and adore Whitman, that kind of connection felt almost too easy. And after shaking the dust off my ears from the arguments of Civil War historians (e.g. “Grant wasn’t the butcher they said he was!”),  I was only more confused. I tried to call some trusted vets, like my friend Capt. Montalvan, for some insight, but they were all at the conventions. So I kept digging and found the shit: “The American Way of Operational Art: Attrition or Maneuver?“,  by a commander/prof at the Army War College at Fort Leavenworth. And lo and behold, perhaps I should have trusted Roy Morris.

While everyone admired the brilliant maneuver campaigns conducted by Lee, they adopted the techniques of the bloody but successful campaign of attrition waged by Grant. Professor Weigley concluded that “Despite the veneration of R.E. Lee
in American military hagiography, it was U.S. Grant whose theories of strategy actually prevailed.” ….Operational planning focused on how to best wear down the enemy’s
vast human resources. Our well known attrition concept in Vietnam  that relied on higher “body counts” as a measure of success needs no further description.”

There you have it, from the Army War College. Not just from the old poet medic, whose boyfriend broke after Antietam and begged for discharge, and said years later when asked if he ever thought about the wounded he tended back then: “I have never left them.”

(As for the word counts in the sub title: As thrilled as I am to be dreaming the book, I’m simultaneously watching my word count and worrying. So far 4500 words on this chapter, and I’m just now at New Years’ 1863. No wonder Frederic Tuten once called me a graphomaniac).

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Quakers in uniform: oxymoron, or profound truth?

I spend so much time celebrating the courage of soldiers that some might wonder where the old peacenik had got to. (If some old classmate from Binghamton stumbled here, e.g., what they might remember most is my play Too Many Martyrs, a  melodrama about the U.S.-to-Canada draft resister underground railroad.) But as I construct my Civil War narrative, I’m also cheered to report some appropriately complicated pacifist characters, whose deep abolitionist beliefs made them conflicted about what was that century’s “good war.” An early glimpse:

  • Jesse Macy, who may have invented the character of CO medic. Offered the role of cook and horseman when he shared his membership in the Society of Friends, he refused, insisting he would train and travel with his unit only if he could work for the Army surgeons, and thus help care for the war’s relentless casualties.
  • George Garrison, who after the Emancipation Proclamation went so far as to enlist and become an officer with the Massachusetts 55th Division of the United States Colored Troops  (USCT). Thus breaking the heart of his father Lloyd, the renowned abolitionist, (note to picky historians:  I know the Garrisons weren’t exactly Quakers, but Lloyd himself characterized their paths as “nearly identical.”) Garrison endured enough rough strife to explain how afterward, despite numerous efforts to get him established in business, he drifted from job to job, interested mostly in veterans’ reunions. (Unfortunately for my narrative, he did not join fellow USCT veterans Charles Francis Adams and Lewis Douglass at the end of the century in the Anti-Imperialist League of America, also known as U.S. Out of the Philippines.
  • Of course, some were less conflicted, and offer more or less the classic Quaker story. Cyrus Pringle, whose travails in 1863 Vermont eventually came to the attention of Washington. Before then, as Wikipedia notes, “Refusing to perform all military duty, he was subjected to severe
    discipline. The Friends were kept for days in the guardhouse in company
    with drunks and criminals. Finally, on October 3, 1863, at Culpepper, Doctor Pringle was staked to the ground, with his arms outstretched and his legs cruelly racked; he was left in this position for hours, until ‘so weak he could hardly walk or perform any exertion.’  He was even threatened with death if he would not give up, but his only reply was, ‘It can but give me pain to be asked or required to do anything I believe to be wrong.’ After a day of extreme pain he wrote in hisdiary, ‘This has been the happiest day of my life, to be privileged to fight the battle for universal peace.’ “

These ghosts mingle with those whose journeys had nothing to do with Quaker qualms, sharing their horror at the blood soaked into the ground during those grueling four years. And — just as much earlier and later – they didn’t inspire the kind of revulsion from their fellow soldiers that many civilians assume. Macy even writes that by the end, when he was standing up to his command just as his unit was joining Sherman’s march through Geotgia,  his peers “had agreed to stand together in forcible resistance in case extreme measures were instituted against me. I could not ask for treatment more uniformly respectful and friendly than that which I received from officers and men alike in Sherman’s army while on the March to the Sea.”  Integrity respected, perhaps above all.

Not so unlike the respect shown by Major William Kunstler to C.O. medic Lew Ayres during World War II, or by the anonymous soldiers in Baquba, Iraq, who shot surreptitious peace signs to the authors of the early underground blog Fight to Survive. I don’t mean to imply it’s all kumbaya, to minimize the real differences; but it’s kind of cool to see how long that respect has existed, among factions traditionally painted as enemies.