University of Virginia English Professor and poet Stephen Cushman has written a moving and provocative personal reflection on the Civil War. Cushman’s focus is on the Battle of the Wilderness, fought on May 5 and 6, 1864 in a densely wooded area of the Virginia countryside. This first clash between the armies of Grant and Lee in the so-called “Overland Campaign” was a harbinger of the nonstop fighting and shockingly high causality rates that stunned the American people in the last year of the war. The Battle of the Wilderness was a bloody stalemate, but afterward Grant’s decision to fight it out until the end turned the tide toward Union victory.
Cushman is haunted by the strange and uncivil battle that was the Wilderness. He is determined to present “the history of verbal and visual images of a single, particularly awful moment of the American Civil War,” for serious contemplation. Those who read the book expecting a cut and dried account of the military movements will be sorely disappointed. Indeed, there is only a three-page “Description of the Battle” tucked away after the last chapter, with helpful maps. This is a deliberate strategy on his part. Cushman, rather, intends to peel off the layers of history, memory, and commemoration that surround this least known of the great battles of the war. He wants to “hear” the voices of the participants in order to try to bridge the distance in time and space that separates them from us. Is it possible to uncover the “truth” about what really happened? The 15 chapters are all devoted to exploring the various ways in which the Battle of the Wilderness has been remembered, historicized, reenacted, illustrated, painted, monumentalized and so on. From beginning to end, Cushman challenges the reader to accompany him on an emotional, subjective journey meditating on the meaning of war, conflict, and tragedy.
It is a journey well worth taking. Cushman explores what the battle meant to the actual human beings—soldiers and civilians—living at the time. He interweaves excerpts from carefully selected diaries, letters, journals, and reminiscences, (of both great and small figures) with narrative and analysis from his present perspective. For example, throughout the book we follow the experiences of a young woman, Katherine Couse, whose family had the misfortune of living in a house in the Laurel Hill area, right in the center of the battles now called the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. “Oh! God,” she declared in a diary, “there is now the most murderous battle raging the continuous roar of cannons the still more terrific musketry sounds awful indeed my feelings are intensely awful beyond description this fearful bloody struggle it is raining hard.” Katherine’s very personal, very vivid description of a battle’s chaos, terror, unpredictability, and ambiguity is echoed, more or less, in soldiers’ letters, the published accounts by newspaper reporters, the illustrations of artists, and by the later accounts of fighting published by regimental historians, by memorialists, and by professional historians.
One of the delights of reading this book for a Civil War historian and amateur enthusiast alike is Cushman’s critical reading of the many types of sources that go into making up a history of just one battle. They are usually confusing, conflicting, and contentious. Whether comparing the letters of soldiers for accuracy, or examining the descriptive language of novelists, historians, and poets, Cushman cannot recover a battle narrative for the Wilderness that is clear, rational, or meaningful. In the end, he seems to agree with one Union officer: “The Wilderness was a useless battle fought with great loss and no result.” His poem “Skirmish at Rio Hill” beautifully captures the difficulties of trying to appreciate a bit of the history while struggling to contain the fight between his two sons in the back seat of the car. Who started it? “I’ll never determine the causes/they can’t remember or know for sure/why I hated this place until I saw/a bloody nose in my rearview mirror/and turned to minister amidst the booming.” The first two lines could just as easily apply to the frustration of trying to make sense of the battle.
Every spring for the past five years I have taken from 20 to 25 of my UCLA undergraduate students to view the Civil War reenactments at Fort Tejon, about 75 miles north of Los Angeles. The students are studying the common soldier of the Civil War, and, their object is to research and write the history of one regiment of their choice. They come to Fort Tejon to observe modern day Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks in battle, at work, in camp, and at play. I am always surprised by the obvious enjoyment for “living history” my sophisticated and sometimes cynical students show. What they find is very similar to Cushman’s description of the reenactment movement. He asks, “Why do reenactors reenact?” His answer is true for many reenactors: to commemorate, teach, and to entertain. More than that, however, reenactors seek the famed “Civil War moment” in which they actually feel as if they have been transported into the past.
Although Cushman distances himself from reenactments because he feels too much the horror of the battle Whitman described as “the bloody promenade of the Wilderness,” his method of presenting the history of the Wilderness has a similar goal. “A reader-is a reenactor,” he muses, “especially if he or she is a reader of writings left by eyewitnesses whose observations, transcriptions, and responses have not been filtered by another person’s reading.” By such written “reenactments,” readers of Bloody Promenade map the historical and the emotional terrain of this battle and find a powerful connection between private and public historical memory. Present day readers will necessarily interpret the sources differently than someone living in 1864 Virginia. This is a good thing. The past is enlivened and renewed by the creativity of the present.
Cushman’s book deserves to be read widely by the educated public and appreciated by academic historians. It acknowledges the triumph and accomplishments of objective, cerebral, analytic, written histories, but invites us also to value other important aspects of the historical memory of the American Civil War. The history of the war, Cushman suggests, is too important not to be studied in the 21st century. And while that history should continue to be shaped by scholars, we must acknowledge the tragic, haunting drama of the war that still fascinates so many Americans. Cushman ends Bloody Promenade with a peculiarly sentimental and religious 19th-century flourish. He writes of touching two relics of the war, one from the Confederate side—a lock of Lee’s hair, and one from the Union side—a Bible owned by a soldier from the 17th Iowa Volunteers. These visceral objects represent a major way in which the war’s survivors found solace and meaning in their losses. Cushman opened the Bible and found a quote from John’s gospel: “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”