Robert E. Lee and Melville's Politics in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of War
Dowling, Paul M., Melville Society Extracts
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. in Winik 153-54).
If Northern leaders dreaded such warfare, Southern leaders welcomed it. Upon Richmond's fall, Confederate President Jefferson Davis called for renewed battle: "Relieved from the necessity of guarding cities and particular points, important but not vital to our defense," he said, "with an army free to move from point to point and strike in detail detachments and garrisons of the enemy, operating on the interior of our own country, where supplies are more accessible, and where the foe will be far removed from his own base and cut off from all succor in case of reverse, nothing is now needed to render our triumph certain but the exhibition of our own unquenchable resolve" (qtd. in Winik 150). In effect, Jefferson Davis commanded his troops to engage in war by other means. Beside this order from his civilian superior, one of Lee's officers, Porter Alexander, urged Lee to the guerrilla option. He did so especially in a council of war held at Lee's headquarters on the morning of April 9, 1865 near Appomattox Court House where Lee's army was nearly surrounded by Federal troops under Grant.
Lee listened that morning near Appomattox to the advice of his officer, but he decided against this guerrilla option. Urging restraint and moderation, Lee spoke as a professional soldier for whom such warfare was abhorrent. If he turned to it, he said, his men "would be without rations and under no control of officers ... They would be compelled to rob and steal in order to live. They would become ... bands of marauders, and the enemy's …
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Publication information: Article title: Robert E. Lee and Melville's Politics in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of War. Contributors: Dowling, Paul M. - Author. Magazine title: Melville Society Extracts. Issue: 128 Publication date: February 2005. Page number: 1+. © Not available. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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