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Battles Long Ago

ISSUE:  Winter 1941

A Man Named Grant. By Helen Todd. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.50. For Us, the Living. By Bruce Lancaster. New York: Frederick a. Stokes Company. $2.75. In the Shadow of Lincoln’s Death. By Otto Eisenschiml. New York: Wilfred Funk, Incorporated. $3.00. The Great American Myth. By George S. Bryan. New York: Carrick and Evans. $3.75. My Dear Lady. By Marjorie Barstow Greenbie. New York: Whittlesey House. $2.75.

The memory of a nation is like the memory of a man. It is governed not by reason but by emotion. It retains those things which have most impressed themselves upon the imagination. Out of the past, disjointed and irrational, the images of recollection rise shimmeringly to the surface of the mind. These jumbled images cannot be assembled into a general concept; they remain a series of isolated impressions—pictures of men rather than of movements, scenes from a great spectacle rather than a rationalized understanding of causes and events. So far as the public is concerned, it is not history but romance that remains. In the case of the Civil War, the old battles are refought endlessly until the marching ghosts of soldiers must become weary from being made to repeat their maneuvers again and again. How often has Stonewall Jackson fallen, and how many times has Lee revisited Appomattox Court House to meet the Union officers who were grimly awaiting him there?

As soon as the battles are over, the arguments begin, and in the case of the Civil War they have been going on ever since the Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia descended the steps of the McLean house at Appomattox. The economic and political destiny of a nation was presumably determined by the articles of surrender he had just signed, but the nation’s memory is more concerned with the human drama of the scene that took place on an April Sunday long ago. It recalls that as Lee stood waiting for his horse to be bridled, he struck his hands together several times in nervous impatience. The dull, unhappy sounds of those handclaps still persist, although they were quickly drowned out by a louder sound—the report of a deringer pistol fired in a box at Ford’s Theater on a night that undid the intentions of Appomattox.

Out of that great war with its thunder of artillery and constant rattle of musket fire, those two slight sounds dominate the emotional memories of four years of battle. Not even the tremendous salvo of cannon fire that preceded Pickett’s men across the field of Gettysburg can roar them down. The associations surrounding those moments when history came to a climax remain when greater issues are forgotten. The popular mind, baffled in its understanding of complex economic and military movements, seeks such symbols to express the essence of events that are difficult to grasp because they are so vast that the average person cannot carry a comprehensive record of them in his memory. A whole war becomes the composite of its battles, and its greatest battle is less well remembered than the words spoken in commemoration of its dead. Thus the mind of a people, searching always for heroes and high moments to stand as symbols for a whole phase of history, perpetuates flashes of human experience that make real a dim and otherwise forgotten past. Out of history literature is born; out of the many words poetry alone survives to transcend the documents and the records.

Now that three-quarters of a century have passed since the end of the Civil War, and the men who participated in it have dwindled to a handful of very old survivors, it is to be expected that two kinds of writing about it will become even more important than they were before. We can expect a flood of treatises which probe the details of events that have long ago been covered in essence, and we can look for a true literary expression of the human significance of the war. It is only after such a long period of time that writing concerning a great historical event can reach its fullest development. When personal issues are removed by the deaths of the participants, and no one has anything to lose by the publicizing of long-suppressed facts, historians are able to make those facts known to the world.

Miss Helen Todd’s “A Man Named Grant” is a purely literary venture which does not pretend to add to our knowledge of the man who led the Union forces to final victory. It is a biography written in a style that will probably become increasingly popular, for it takes advantage of the technique of the novel to present historic fact. Many people have expressed their disapproval of this technique, which is by no means original with Miss Todd, and there is no doubt that when it is judged from a purely historical point of view it has insurmountable defects. But the novelized biography should no more be looked upon as a serious contribution to historical knowledge than an elementary text book of algebra should be regarded as a contribution to mathematics. Both are simple introductions for people who have no previous knowledge of the subjects. In an age when the democratization of literature becomes increasingly important such books are needed. It is important to judge them for what they are and not to insist that they be something else. There are only two questions to be asked of a novelized biography: is it interesting, and is it truthful?

“A Man Named Grant” is undeniably interesting—perhaps more interesting to read than a better documented study might be. And, granting the essential validity of the fictional technique used, the story told is truthful enough. It suffers more from omission than distortion. Grant was a simple person, but there are many things about his career that are difficult to understand. No one has yet spent the years of study necessary to explain satisfactorily his rise to fame and power. No one has studied him in enough detail to make clear his part during the years of Reconstruction when the President-Soldier naively trusted his friends while they tried to steal the country from under his eyes. It is to be hoped that such a definitive biography will some day be undertaken.

It is only after such spadework is done that a fully successful novelized biography can be written.

The line between modern biography and historical fiction becomes more and more uncertain. But Bruce Lancaster’s “For Us, the Living” is clearly fiction, even though one of its two most important characters is Abraham Lincoln, the main events of whose early life it traces from the backwoods of Indiana to just before his first election to the Illinois Legislature. The other character is. Hugh Brace, a young boy who becomes the intimate friend of Lincoln. This device of presenting a great historical figure through the eyes of a minor fictional character is one that has been used with great success by many authors, but it has certain dangers. It is fatally easy to overdevelop the mouthpiece until he gets in the way of the chief character. Mr. Lancaster was not quite able to make up his mind whether Hugh Brace or Abraham Lincoln was his major theme; despite the title, the book is overheavy with Hugh Brace. Furthermore, the author has chosen to tell his tale in the heaviest kind of backwoods dialect that has been seen in American fiction since the dialect stories of the ‘eighties. There is no doubt that the pioneers did speak defective English, but to record their lingual mannerisms literally is as annoying to the reader as if the author of a historical novel about ancient Rome were to insist on writing his dialogue in Latin. The stage or screen can render dialect satisfactorily, but it becomes forbidding in print where apostrophes dot the page and strange-looking misspellings get in the way of easy comprehension.

Lincoln—not the manner of his life but of his death—is also the main theme of Otto Eisenschiml’s “In the Shadow of Lincoln’s Death,” which may be considered almost as a kind of sequel to the author’s previous book, “Why Was Lincoln Murdered?” This new work treats mostly of subordinate matters—of Mrs. Surratt and her son, John Sur-ratt, and of the Conspiracy Trial and the possibility of Booth’s escape. Mr. Eisenschiml has little to add that is new or sensational, but that is probably because his first book contained the major results of his extensive researches into the assassination. To those many people who are interested in everything concerning that most famous of all American murder cases it will be fascinating reading, but a preparatory course in the subject is required.

Mr. Eisenschiml’s book is for experts; George S. Bryan’s “The Great American Myth” is a general introduction to Lincoln’s assassination. The author has made a thorough survey of all the available evidence; from it he sets down a straightforward account that is as detailed as the non-expert is likely to want to read. It is Mr. Bryan’s avowed intention to shatter the myths that have sprung up around Booth’s deed. Unfortunately, such an attitude is necessarily biased, for debunking is as tendentious by nature as is the making of myths. And much of Mr. Bryan’s book is devoted to destroying myths that are only bits of folklore which have never been taken seriously by an accredited historian. It is amusing to note, too, that in his zeal for presenting a simplified version of a vastly complicated murder case, the author is sometimes guilty of suppressing conflicting evidence in a way that is more characteristic of an attorney in court than of a historian trying to establish all the facts. There are still many puzzling elements in Lincoln’s assassination; it is not enough merely to dismiss or obscure them. The history of our own times makes it evident that secret deals and unsuspected treachery are not uncommon in human affairs. The mysteries surrounding the murder of Abraham Lincoln may never be cleared up, but it is absurd to deny that they exist.

An example of the fact that the Civil War history is still open to re-interpretation through the discovery of new material is Marjorie Barstow Greenbie’s “My Dear Lady,” which offers some interesting facts on a long neglected figure. It is the story of Anna Ella Carroll, descendant of the great Maryland family, and a woman who may be said to be the precursor of our modern advertising and publicity women executives. Mrs. Greenbie presents evidence to show that she played a prominent part in the strategy of the Civil War, particularly in reference to the opening up of the Tennessee River as a means of penetrating the Confederacy. Actually, the more important aspects of Anna Carroll’s life have to do with her abilities as a political propagandist in an age when women were not expected to become vocal in matters concerning politics or the conduct of war. But Mrs. Greenbie’s book does cast new light on the almost forgotten woman whose political pamphlets are more remarkable than the not entirely convincing claims made for her as a master strategist.

It is to be expected and hoped that books on the Civil War will become even more numerous in the future. Enough work is still to be done in the field of pure research to keep a corps of students busy for a long while to come. And many phases of the great conflict remain to be treated by our romancers who can find equally interesting themes for fictional treatment.


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