Study Guides on General Topics
Three conflicts inspire the war writing that one finds between 1865 and 1914: the American Civil War (1861-1865), the Spanish-American War (1898), and the War of the Philippines (1899-1902). Of these three, the Civil War dominated the American literary imagination. More than any previous conflict, it generated untold numbers of works of all genres, from histories and memoirs to poems, novels, and short stories. When the war was over, publishers took advantage of advances in print technology and a new infrastructure of roads and rail lines to distribute their wares across the reunited country. The careful documentation of the conflict, the large number of people who experienced events firsthand, and the changing literary tastes of the postwar period all seemed to lead naturally to a proliferation of realistic literary accounts. While some important literary works were published in the years immediately following the Civil War, however, the genre of war writing only began to rise to prominence in the 1880s.
Two of the most important early works of war writing following the end of the conflict were works of poetry. Walt Whitman, who nursed wounded soldiers in the hospitals in Washington, D.C., during the war, began publishing his collection of poetry Drum-Taps in 1865—only to pause the printing to add more poems, including his famous tributes to the slain President Abraham Lincoln “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “O Captain! My Captain!” Sequel to Drum-Taps, also published in 1865, includes poems that describe the poet’s own evolving feelings about the war, as seen in the contrast between such early poems such as “Beat! Beat! Drums!” (1861), meant to inspire volunteers, and later poems such as “The Wound-Dresser” (1865), which describes the suffering in the hospitals.
Less well known is Herman Melville’s Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866). While the author did not serve in the military, he did travel to the front in 1864, took part in a cavalry expedition, and spoke with Union general Ulysses S. Grant. He followed events of the war closely, and many of his poems were inspired by newspaper accounts. His subject matter ranges from particular battles, as in “Battle of Stone River” (1863), to historical figures, as in “A Dirge for McPherson, Killed in Front of Atlanta” (1864). Fewer than five hundred copies of the work were sold at the time of its publication, but in recent years literary scholars have shown an increasing interest in Battle-Pieces and its vision both of the war and of the imperial nation that would emerge from it.
One of the most important war novels of the period was also published soon after the conflict. John W. De Forest’s Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867) was hailed at the time of its publication for its realistic characters and portrayal of combat. De Forest, already a published author when he enlisted with the Union army, wrote first-person accounts of his experiences for Harper’s Monthly before drawing on his experience to write what is largely considered the first serious war novel in American literature. The title character, Lillie Ravenel, is a secessionist who moves north from New Orleans to the fictional town of New Boston with her father, a Union loyalist. There she meets two contenders for her affection, the virtuous Edward Colburne and the dashing Lieutenant-Colonel Carter, a Union officer from Virginia. The romantic subplot plays out against the backdrop of the war, with Lillie eventually abandoning both her Confederate leanings and her home in favor of Colburne and the North.
A Southern counterpart to De Forest is Sidney Lanier. Lanier began work on his war novel, Tiger-Lilies (1867), while serving in the Confederate army. The novel is composed of three books: the first introduces the Sterling family of Tennessee, who, in addition to a German named Paul Rubetsahl, are the protagonists of the work. The scene shifts suddenly in book 2 to the Civil War, where the novel follows the adventures of Philip Sterling and his friends, as well as the treacherous plotting of Cranston and a Confederate deserter named Gorm Smallin. Here Lanier draws considerably on his personal experiences of the war. Sterling, like Lanier, spends time in a Union prison, and the description of prison life is noteworthy. The novel ends abruptly in the brief book 3 with the fall of Richmond and the reunion of the surviving characters.
While war fiction was largely replaced by writing that told stories of Reconstruction and the aftermath of the conflict during the 1870s, nonfictional accounts of the Civil War began to become more prominent during this decade. Walt Whitman published a prose account of his time in the hospitals in Memoranda during the War (1875-1876), which draws on notes he kept. William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union general famous for his “march to the sea” through Georgia, published the first edition of his memoirs in 1875. Works such as these helped to set the stage for the proliferation of war memoirs in the 1880s. The Century magazine published the immensely popular “The Century War Series” from 1884 through 1887, which invited participants from both sides of the conflict to share their stories and perspectives. At around the same time, Ulysses S. Grant, who published two articles in the Century, turned to writing his own memoirs. The two-volume Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (1885) was completed in a heroic effort as the general lay dying of cancer. Mark Twain encouraged Grant to publish with his company, and the work was a huge success. The autobiography begins with the general’s ancestry and his birth and ends with the conclusion of the Civil War. There is no mention of his presidency, his failed business dealings, or his famous world travels. Despite these omissions, it is generally considered one of the best war autobiographies.
As war writing became increasingly popular during the 1880s, the San Francisco journalist Ambrose Bierce, a Union army veteran, began writing about his experiences during the war. Bierce, who took part in many of the war’s most significant combat operations, scorned what he saw as the increasingly romantic and self-aggrandizing accounts; his stories often show the cruelty and waste of war. One of his most famous stories, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890), tells the story of Peyton Farquhar, a Confederate sympathizer who is executed for espionage. In his final moments, he fantasizes about a daring and miraculous escape, only to have the fantasy abruptly ended by his death. Bierce’s writing is often marked both by irony and graphic detail. He collected his Civil War fiction in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891).
Another work that eschews romantic portrayals of the war is Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895). Although Crane was born six years after the Civil War ended, his novel is considered one of the best pieces of war writing of the period and, indeed, in American literature. It tells the tale of Henry Fleming, a young volunteer who goes off to war fired with romantic ideals of combat, only to confront the realities of war and his own uncertainty about his courage under fire. Crane also produced the well-received collection The Little Regiment and Other Episodes of the American Civil War (1896) and a collection of Spanish-American War stories, Wounds in the Rain (1900).
Ellen Glasgow’s The Battle-Ground (1902) offers an interesting combination of what is generally referred to as the romance of the “Lost Cause,” highly sentimentalized and idealistic portrayals of the Confederacy, with the Realism of writers such as De Forest and Bierce. It tells the story of Dan Montjoy, a Confederate who goes to war accompanied by his loyal slave Big Abel. Although Montjoy and many of the other Southern characters speak in favor of both the Union and abolition, they fight for their states, paying high personal costs. The novel is noteworthy for some graphic battle scenes and for its portrayal of the efforts of Southern society to survive in a war zone. It also depicts the class differences between soldiers fighting for the Confederate side.
Neither the Spanish-American War nor the War of the Philippines inspired the volume of war writing that the Civil War did. William Dean Howells’s “Editha” (1905) is one of his most anthologized short stories, and it tells the story of a young woman who encourages her fiance, who is largely a pacifist, to enlist to fight in the Spanish-American War. When he dies during his first engagement, Editha is confronted by her culpability in the form of the man’s grieving mother, only to dismiss her guilt with a return to an idealistic view of herself. The story is Howells’s critique both of sentimentalism and the jingoistic fervor that swept the nation in wartime. Similarly, Mark Twain’s posthumously published “The War Prayer” (1923), written in response to the war in the Philippines, criticizes patriotic prayers for victory by pointing out that such prayers are also prayers for the death and loss of family members on the opposing side.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. How does one define and evaluate “war writing”? Must it feature graphic scenes of combat? Howells’s short story “Editha” is set during the outbreak of what appears to be the Spanish-American War; the point of view, however, is fixed firmly on the home front. Is this war writing?
- 2. What role does gender play in war writing? How are women portrayed in these texts? One might consider Lillie Ravenel in Miss Ravenel’s Conversion or Henry Fleming’s mother in The Red Badge of Courage, for example. Ellen Glasgow’s novel The Battle-Ground has recently gained more attention and could inform exploration of war writing by women.
- 3. Southern war writing is sometimes dismissed as overly sentimental or unrealistic in its portrayal of “The Lost Cause.” Are such critiques valid? Compare The Battle-Ground with book 2 of Lanier’s novel Tiger-Lilies.
- 4. What does war writing suggest about the writers’ attitudes toward particular conflicts or war itself? Some critics have seen The Red Badge of Courage as a
profoundly antiwar novel, despite its hero’s assertion that he emerges from battle a “man.” Often war writing of the early twentieth century is described as “anti-imperial” in its relation to American military activity in Cuba and the Philippines. All war writing contains a political element worthy of close attention.
Daniel Aaron, The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War (New York: Knopf, 1973).
A thorough cataloguing of authors who wrote on the war from its beginning and into the twentieth century.
Alice Fahs, The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861-1865 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).
Offers a greatly broadened canon to consider by concentrating on popular literature rather than simply those works that have gained critical acclaim. Fahs examines works from the period following the war, and her epilogue will be of particular interest to those desiring another perspective on Civil War writing.
Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962).
The essential starting place for those approaching the writing of this period. Wilson examines works from a variety of genres by numerous prominent figures of the period, ranging from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Ambrose Bierce.
PEOPLE OF INTEREST
John W. De Forest (1826-1906)
Union veteran credited with providing the first “realistic” portrayal of the Civil War in fiction in Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867). De Forest published several other novels, including a “reunion romance” set during Reconstruction titled The Bloody Chasm (1881), but he died in relative obscurity.
Ellen Glasgow (1873-1945)
Born and raised in Virginia and went on to become a leading literary figure, winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1942. The Battle-Ground (1902) is Glasgow’s only Civil War novel, and although both Wilson and Aaron are generally dismissive of it (Wilson pays it no mention), other critics have argued that it provides a realistic account of the Civil War South.
Sidney Lanier (1842-1881)
Began work on his Civil War novel Tiger-Lilies (1867) while serving in the Confederate army; his tour of duty ended in a federal prison when he was captured in 1864. Lanier gained fame as a poet and later became a professor at Johns Hopkins University before dying of tuberculosis.
Herman Melville (1819-1891)
Wrote several novels and short stories but is best known today for Moby-Dick (1851). In addition to Battle-Pieces (1866), Melville published an extended poem titled Clarel in 1876. The Melville Society hosts a website with further information on the author at <http://people.hofstra.edu/john_L_bryant/Melville/index. html> [accessed 21 August 2009].
—Martin T. Buinicki