Reflections…

Posted on October 17, 2010 by

3


Ah, Sunday morning… a fire is in the wood-stove to cut the morning chill, a warm cup of coffee sits nearby as I sit down to transcribe more of Strother’s recollections for appearance here later this afternoon.

As I do so, I wonder why so many are more fascinated with the events on the battlefields than the cultural backdrop of the American Civil War. Granted, I started-off as a student of the war from the perspective of the battlefields, following (and writing about) the units, from organization to various battles, and eventually to the last. I was fascinated by the battlefields, the troop movements, and so forth… indeed, it still holds a special place in my interests. The battlefields are alive still, and touch the soul. Yet, in reality, the battlefields reflect but a fraction of the war… and more importantly, a people at war. Hmmm, in some ways, a portion of the quote from Mr. Franklin (yesterday’s post) touched on another meaning than that which was my focus.

They begin with that which should be the Middle, and skipping backwards and forwards

I believe that many give a great deal of attention to the middle when it comes to the Civil War…  the battles, leaders, and so forth. Yet, did these things define the people? No, they did not, as the people and cultures existed prior to the war, during the war and separate from it, and after the war. I’m not saying that life existed totally within a bubble, completely apart from the war… but at times, yes, it did. Take for example the upper North and midwest… even in the west. I suppose, like we are today with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the war was a far away experience… and life went on, not necessarily thinking about the war all of the time, attending to most of the things that we dealt with prior to the war. It seems incredibly odd that we can be so detached from the fact that sacrifices are being made elsewhere, in the name of our country. Hmmm… not the point of this post, however.

My point is that life existed beyond the battlefields… beyond politics and tensions… Apart from the banter in newspapers, and discussions in the local general store… what, for example, were people reading? What was their escape from reality? More importantly, how did what they were reading reflect who they were? Think about this… what do you think some Confederate soldiers were reading in winter quarters? Was it exclusively the Bible?

… chess was a favorite game – [Pendleton T.] Wash being champion player and W[aller]. Holladay, unsuccessfully disputing the palm with him, would never accept odds from him – tho. he was no better player than I. We read aloud during the long winter nights by the light of the pine knots. Among other things I remember, Sheridan’s play The Rivals, Dicken’s Pickwick papers. We had family prayers regularly once a day – all except [William Kenneth] McCoy and Wash being Christians.*

The quote that you see comes from a rather educated lot… men of the academy… yes, academia… students of the University of Virginia who were, at the time of this quote, soldiers in the Charlottesville Artillery, while in winter quarters, 1862-63.

I found the quote while conducting research for my book about the Charlottesville Artillery (published in 1990). It touched a chord at the time, but then was tucked-away within my head, somewhere. I think it may have resurfaced in my thoughts when I was taking one of my grad courses (Spring of 2006) at Old Dominion, when Alice Fahs’ The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North & South, 1861-1865 was used as part of a course on the cultural side of the Civil War. Not until this course did I begin to grasp the significance of culture in relation to the war. Sure, I gained a better vision of culture in the North, but the added dimensions of culture in the South were like an awakening of the senses. I read short stories, plays, poetry… all written by Southern authors during the era, as they struggled to build an original form of culture, cut-off and different than that which the South had known prior to the war… a culture that had previously been filled with more works by people from the North than the South. What’s important about this study is that we can identify the richness of Southern culture beyond that centered on the war.

So, with this in mind, I am thinking that once I have finished transcribing David Hunter Strother’s recollections of the war, I will turn the “Sunday afternoons with…” into a transcriptions of literature from the period; literature that Southerners were reading… not necessarily written by Southerners, but at times, perhaps.

*These men were “mess companions” along with Wilbur Fisk Davis, Daniel Hanson Boyden, Addison B. Roller, Albert Lewis Holladay, Jr., Francis Conway Fitzhugh, and Arch L. Marshall.

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