- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 16, 2002

A list of famous American novelists and poets who served as soldiers in the Civil War is curiously short of household names: Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, John William De Forest, Sidney Lanier and Lew Wallace are among the few who come to mind.
Considering that almost 4 million men roughly 11 percent of the entire population served in both armies (a rate exceeded in history only by World War II, when 12 percent of the country served, including women), it's a little surprising that more recognized writers do not come up in a survey of literary soldiers.
The soldiers who did take up their pens with literary intentions, however, were a remarkable group of men, with stories as diverse and compelling as the war itself.

Samuel Clemens
Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) is a fascinating case in point. Working before the war as Mississippi riverboat pilots, Clemens and his friends found in 1861 that they could not renew their pilot licenses without taking an oath of allegiance to the federal government.
Offended, they returned home to Hannibal, Mo., where they formed their own company of Southern volunteers, the Marion Rangers, or the Ralls County Rangers. Clemens was elected second lieutenant, and while he was pondering why there was no first lieutenant, was called upon to make a speech. Clemens reportedly said, "I will try to do my duty and the square thing by you, but I cannot make a speech."
The early days for the Rangers were not easy. They had little food (and no one would cook, anyway, as they all thought it was beneath them), no shelter and little help or direction from higher authorities. When rumors of approaching Yankees reached them, the company set up pickets, and Clemens was placed in charge of them. In the middle of the night, Clemens and the other picket were roused by the active watchman and informed that the enemy was coming. One man fired at the approaching shapes, and then a melee unfolded as all three men precipitously retreated. Clemens was almost left behind: "Damn you, you want the Yanks to capture me," he swore.
The attacking Yankees turned out to be tall stalks of mullein waving in the wind.
Clemens (and his friends, also) injected a great deal of wry humor into their accounts of these activities. Nonetheless, the consistent element throughout all of them was danger and the threat of untimely death. If the stories are to be believed, Clemens' time in the army was an ongoing series of comic and dangerous events.
While everyone else's horse swam the river the company was crossing, the mule Clemens rode waded the whole way, even where the water was 10 feet deep. Clemens gradually disappeared as the water grew deeper, and his hat floated away. To the surprise of all, he reappeared still mounted near the other bank a minute or two later.
When Clemens approached a local farmer's wife to buy some food, he couldn't understand why the woman took after him with a hickory stick. (Her husband, it turned out, was a Union officer.) When a reluctant private balked over picket duty, 2nd Lt. Clemens even agreed to exchange rank with him as an incentive. (It is not reported whether the soldier later gave back the rank.)
Clemens did not last long in the army, giving up soldiering less than a month after he started. Perhaps because it was so early in the war, he was not prosecuted as a deserter. The experience cemented his bitter view of the human condition, and his later fiction and biographical essays are flavored with a mixture of comedy and subtle tragedy that can be traced to his brief stint with the army.
Later, he would explain almost defensively that people like him "ought at least to be allowed to state why they didn't do anything [in the war]." The conflict remained a deep source of sadness, and he wrote at one point with a sense of fatalism about how friends who stayed in the army were killed eventually.

Ambrose Bierce
Other soldier-writers survived longer in the military but were no less jaded. Ambrose Bierce, a Union officer and cartographer who later went on to literary fame, came to be known eventually as "Bitter Bierce." Contemporaries considered his work second in importance only to that of Clemens, though it certainly was more gothic and dark than anything Clemens wrote.
Bierce enlisted as a private and rose to first lieutenant, fighting in many well-known battles, including the campaign for Atlanta, where he witnessed his brigade carrying out a suicidal attack against fortified Confederate positions to satisfy the high command's curiosity regarding the strength of the defenses.
After the war, he wrote "A Son of the Gods," a story that features another futile sacrifice to test an enemy position. The senselessness of war is a theme on which he focused constantly in his often melancholic writings.
"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," perhaps his best-known short story, followed a similar theme. It features a desperate prisoner who imagines his escape and return home moments before a noose snaps around his neck, killing him. Bierce also is remembered for his cynical but humorous "The Devil's Dictionary."
In keeping with the macabre ending to many of his fictional stories, he disappeared in 1914 in Mexico while fighting alongside Pancho Villa during the revolution, according to some reports, leaving many unanswered questions about his fate.

De Forest
Less bitter and caustic than Bierce, but equally realistic in his description of the war was John William De Forest, a captain in the 12th Connecticut Volunteers. De Forest enjoyed a prolific career as a writer and, in the opinion of some scholars, was perhaps the finest soldier-author (excluding Twain, who served only shortly) to come out of the war.
The interested reader can find "Just What War Is," by Michael W. Schaefer, a book that examines closely the writings of Bierce and De Forest.
Unlike Bierce, De Forest was able to portray men in war as rational creatures, able to control events to some extent through their decisions and attitudes. His best-known works are the novels "Kate Beaumont" and "Miss Ravenel's Conversion From Secession to Loyalty" and his account of the war, "A Volunteer's Adventures."
Literary critics consider him one of the first American "realist" novelists.

Sidney Lanier
Other soldier-writers managed to cling to a thin veneer of the prewar romanticism that dominated antebellum literature. Sidney Lanier, from Georgia, enlisted in the Macon Volunteers and saw action during the Peninsula Campaign. He was captured later while on a blockade-running mission.
Lanier, raised by devoutly religious parents and well educated (he was an 1860 graduate of Oglethorpe College), had a remarkable range of talents and interests. He wrote verse as a child and had a lifelong interest in music. His poetry often suggests the rhythm and themes of classical music.
Unfortunately for Lanier, the war treated him poorly. He was captured by the Federals and sent to prison for a year; his health never really recovered. He died at age 39 in 1881, a victim of tuberculosis contracted during his military service.
A stanza from his poem "The Dying Words of Stonewall Jackson" clearly demonstrates his roots in classical literature:
The Phantoms of a battle came to dwell
I' the fitful vision of his dying eyes
Yet even in battle-dreams, he sends supplies
To those he loved so well.

Lew Wallace
Lew Wallace also had an appreciation of the classics. He rose to the rank of major general of U.S. Volunteers (with corps command) and preferred that people remember him for his military record, which began with a rout of the Confederate forces in Romney in what was then Virginia and ended with a seat on the court-martial of the Lincoln conspirators. He is remembered best, however, as the author of "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ."
The 1959 movie version of the novel, starring Charlton Heston, remains the most-honored film of all time, having won 11 of the 12 Academy Awards for which it was nominated. Wallace was a prolific writer, but the success of "Ben-Hur" was so phenomenal that everything else he wrote remains obscure.

Buried talents
Unlike Wallace, many young soldier-writers never had the opportunity to experience success, perishing in the war before their full literary talents could bloom. Theodore Winthrop, a Yale graduate and staff officer with Gen. Benjamin Butler, was seen widely as such a man. Perched on a fence at Big Bethel, he waved fellow Union attackers forward and then was shot dead. His contemporaries were convinced that he would have been a great literary success. William Haines Lytle, a Union brigadier general who died on the second day at Chickamauga, was lauded similarly, and though he wrote some well-received poems, including "Anthony and Cleopatra," he likely had not reached his literary apex when Confederate Gen. James Longstreet's men abruptly cut him down.
Thousands of soldiers wrote about the war in other literary formats (diaries, letters, newspaper accounts, biographies, etc.), and some of them gained limited notoriety for their nonfiction historical works.
Among this group would be such soldiers as John Esten Cooke, a member of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's staff, who wrote biographies of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee and several largely forgotten historical novels; Robert Lewis Dabney, briefly a staff officer for and biographer of Jackson; Frederick Dyer, who enlisted in the Union Army as a musician and later produced a voluminous and well-known reference book, "A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion"; Charles Halpine, alias Private Miles O'Reilly, who wrote humorous articles while serving on Union Gen. David Hunter's staff; John Hay, volunteer aide-de-camp and assistant adjutant general to Florida, better known as a biographer of Abraham Lincoln; and John B. Jones, who served briefly in the Richmond Local Defense Troops and wrote "A Rebel War Clerk's Diary." There literally are hundreds of others.

Women and blacks
Because women were not formally admitted into the military, there are not nearly as many female soldier-writers to study. Many women served in other capacities as nurses, in war industries or by running family farms and businesses that directly supported the armies.
Augusta Jane Evans, for example, threw herself wholeheartedly into the Confederate cause, serving as a nurse and political adviser to a Confederate congressman. She wrote several well-received novels, including "Macaria," which predicted dire consequences if blacks were emancipated.
Sarah Hale, editor of "Godey's Lady's Book," produced almost 50 volumes of work, including poetry, novels and children's literature, and used her position to campaign for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday. (Lincoln eventually made that happen in late 1863.)
There were, as well, a number of prominent female diarists, such as Mary Chestnut, who never were actively involved in the fighting but penned diaries worthy of note.
Many women found ways (unofficially) to join the fighting, and some recorded their experiences, but none has come down to the present time as a well-known literary light.
Blacks also contributed with pen and pistol. Frederick Douglass, famous for his speaking ability, was also an effective writer and editor and served as an enlistment officer for the Union. (Two of his sons served as soldiers.) Martin Delany, a poet, novelist and, according to Lincoln, an "extraordinary man," was the first black field officer in the U.S. Army.

Memorable literature
Though the war had an impact on every American, some well-known literary figures did not serve actively as soldiers. Herman Melville, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Bret Harte all were alive during the conflict, many of them too old to soldier actively, and all wrote memorable literature related to it. Walt Whitman, whose brother George was an active soldier, served as a nurse for thousands of recovering soldiers but never carried a gun into battle or enlisted to do so.
Large numbers of Civil War-era editors and correspondents, too, served the cause through their newspapers and magazines, sometimes risking their lives to get a story firsthand.
Publisher Horace Greeley, photographer Mathew Brady, cartoonist Thomas Nast and painter Winslow Homer are just a few of the dozens and dozens who applied their artistic genius to media coverage and portrayal of the war.
Still, talented and widely recognized soldier-writers are enough of a Civil War literary rarity that students of history should appreciate them more than they do. It may be that the shadow of the war still looms so large that the literary lights of many soldier/writers are by and large still obscured by the sheer magnitude of the events in which they participated.

Jack Trammell works for Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. His novel "Gray" involves events of the Civil War.


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