Robert E. Lee and Melville's Politics in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of War

Article excerpt

Melville's Civil War poems present a temptation we should resist. Seeing poems on famous battles (Donaldson, Shiloh, and Gettysburg) or famous men (John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and Robert E. Lee), we are tempted to excise--to take out of context--one or a few from Battle-Pieces. Richard Marius, for example, as editor of The Columbia Book of Civil War Poetry, selects twelve of Melville's seventy-two poems, rearranging them in sections titled "The Horrors of War," "Moral Fervor," and "Lincoln," headings with no counterpart in Melville's own book. Such editing incorrectly assumes Melville's book is an assortment of poems on various themes. But rather than a loose collection, Battle-Pieces is a carefully ordered whole in which poems take meaning from context. My example is the poem "Lee in the Capitol" which in its placement and its politics reveals the unifying threads binding Melville's book.

The issue of placement arises just prior to this Lee poem in a poem titled "The Scout toward Aldie," a poem curious in two respects linked to Lee. First it seems misplaced, since it describes guerrilla warfare in a section of the book devoted to post-war themes. As Richard Cox argues in the most comprehensive survey of the book's organization, Melville grouped his poems into three sections prefixed with "The Portent" about the hanging of John Brown, December 2, 1859. (1) First is an untitled section of fifty two poems about events from autumn 1860 through Appomattox (April 1865), Lincoln's assassination (April 15, 1865), and victory celebrations (spring 1865). Second is a section titled "Verses Inscriptive and Memorial." These are mostly elegies or mourning songs for those who died in the war. They conclude with a poem about an unnamed Northern soldier returning his rifle to his Hudson Valley home and reminiscing about battles won. At this point where the book might end Melville adds three more poems, each with a separate title page. The first of these concluding poems is the seemingly misplaced one about guerrilla war.

This placement of a "battle piece" after war's end is the first curiosity about "Scout." The second is its mixing of genres, part literary ballad and part detective story. As we shall see, the resolution of both difficulties suggests that Melville uses this poem to elevate Robert E. Lee in preparation for making him spokesman for the poet's politics.

Let's begin with the seeming misplacement of a poetic guerrilla war next to a poetic post-war visit of Lee to the Capitol. The historical connection between the two makes this juxtaposition plausible. As Jay Winik describes it in April 1865, the Northern military were winning by early 1865, but the South had one last chance if it dispersed its troops and turned to guerrilla war in the Confederate states. Encouraging such an option were the examples of various Southern resistance fighters. These were more numerous, according to Winik, than the well-known figures like Colonel John Mosby and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Lesser known and more blood-thirsty were William Clarke Quantrill in Missouri and Kansas, Sam Hildebrand in Missouri, Champ Ferguson in Tennessee, John Jackson Dickison in Florida, and Ike Berry in Kentucky. (2)

For Northern military and political leaders, this prospect of guerrilla warfare was a nightmare. Grant spoke hopelessly of conflict in Southern states: "To overcome a truly popular, national resistance in a vast territory without the employment of truly overwhelming force is probably impossible." And Northern General John D. Sanborn, who fought Confederate insurgents in Missouri, despaired at the intractability of such fighting: "No policy worked; every effort poured fuel on the fire." Finally, Abraham Lincoln described the Hobbesian morass in Missouri: "Each man feels an impulse to kill his neighbors, lest he first be killed by him. Revenge and retaliation follow. And all this among honest men. But this is not all. Every foul bird comes along, and every dirty reptile rises up" (qtd. …