Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Character of the Nation

Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War have fascinated me for almost as long as I remember.  Somewhere around 1966, my parents took me to Springfield, Illinois, and I remember buying at least one book on Lincoln and reading it then.  The interest has grown as I have.  I've paid all the usual dues: visited several battlefields, visited Ford's Theater, watched the Ken Burns film more than once.  And for quite a while now, I've read something about Lincoln or the Civil War each year.  The profundity of the monumental events, ideas, emotions, and consequences of this story seem to inspire good writing, and the best works take the reader through a sublime experience that puts just about everything into perspective: family, God, government, love, duty, gender, race, money, land, technology, comfort, health, organization, life, death.

In July of this year, I reread Bruce Catton's Glory Road, the second of three books in his history of the Army of the Potomac, the main Union army in the eastern theater of the war.  It was the first adult book I ever read about the war.  I remember taking it to the high school to work as a substitute teacher when I was about twenty.  A few pages during lunch or planning hour would tell me of young men killing and dying for principles or for their friends or for a few dollars, and then I would watch, with my mind in that epic place, as young people walked into the room generally not caring about much except the relief of not seeing their regular teacher.

Catton's poetic writing can break the reader's heart.  These are not the books to read if you want to know all the details of place, person, and time during major battles.  The battles are there: this volume tells about Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and the grandest of them all, Gettysburg.  But Catton uses these stories to teach lessons about the Army, the country, and the human condition.  The book begins, for instance, with the observations of a Pennsylvanian chaplain home on furlough, who noted that the town of York had grown and prospered in spite of the constant flow of men and money to the front in Virginia.  War, as a mother of necessity, is a grandmother of invention, and mass-production factories had risen up to bless her.

Later in the book, in the prelude to Gettysburg, Catton tells about the Union V Corps marching towards the town.  Less interested in directions, supplies, and strategy than in the interaction between the army and the locals, he writes this:

     "There was the long white road in the moonlight, with the small-town girls laughing and crying in the shadows, and the swaying ranks of young men waving to them and moving on past them.  To these girls who had been nowhere and who had all their lives before them this was the first of all the roads of the earth, and to many of the young men who marched off under the moon it was the last of all the roads.  For all of them, boys and girls alike, it led to unutterable mystery.  The column passed on through the town and the music stopped and the flags were put back in their casings, and the men went marching on and on."

Catton makes the road so much more than a road.  It is life and fate.  The whiteness of the road comes from the moonlight but also invokes both the purity of the wedding gown and the pallor of the dead soldier's face.

Lee and Lincoln, Pickett and Grant all make their appearances.  But the main characters of Catton's story are the Army of the Potomac itself and the Nation as a whole.  Having learned it can survive the costly stupidity of Fredericksburg and endless changes of command, the Army acquires, in time for the decisive battle in Pennsylvania, self-confidence and a grim determination. And the United States, through the centralization of government (the draft ended states' rights in the north), the rise of mechanism and the railroads, and the passage of the Homestead Act, begins to accept the idea of a modern state, even though it be bought at the price of the blood of a generation.

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