Mightier than the sword, able to leap long centuries in a single bound

Writing—the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye—is the great invention of the world.  Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general conception of it—great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and space.” – Abraham Lincoln, “Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions” (emphasis in original)

Not much fun on a calm, moonlit night, either

“A drunken soldier with a musket in one hand and a match in the other is not a pleasant visitor to have about the house on a dark, windy night.” – Major General Henry W. Slocum, 1865 (quoted in Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative)

A naked definition of sovereignty

“I would banish all minor questions, assert the broad doctrine that as a nation the United States has the right, and also the physical power, to penetrate to every part of our national domain, and that we will do it—that we will do it in our own time and in our own way; that it makes no difference whether it be in one year, or two, or ten, or twenty; that we will remove and destroy every obstacle, if need be, take every life, every acre of land, every particle of property, everything that to us seems proper; that we will not cease till the end is attained; that all who do not aid us are enemies, and that we will not account to them for our acts.” – William Tecumseh Sherman, 1863 (quoted in The Civil War: A Narrative, by Shelby Foote)

We left it lying around here somewhere

“No two things on earth are equal or have an equal chance, not a leaf nor a tree.  There’s many a man worse than me, and some better, but I don’t think race or country matters a damn.  What matters is justice.” – Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels

They’re everywhere

“There has been nothing which I have found to require a greater effort of patience than to bear the criticisms of the ignorant, who pronounce everything a failure which does not equal their expectations or desires, and can see no good result which is not in the line of their own imaginings.” – Jefferson Davis (quoted by Shelby Foote in The Civil War: A Narrative)

All roads lead to Rome

“The novelist and the historian are seeking the same thing: the truth—not a different truth: the same truth—only they reach it, or try to reach it, by different routes.  Whether the event took place in a world now gone to dust, preserved by documents and evaluated by scholarship, or in the imagination, preserved by memory and distilled by the creative process, they both want to tell us how it was: to re-create it, by their separate methods, and make it live again in the world around them.” – Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative (emphasis in original)

They called him “Little Mac”

“I have done the best I could for my country; to the last I have done my duty as I understand it.  That I must have made many mistakes I cannot deny.  I do not see any great blunders; but no one can judge of himself.  Our consolation must be that we have tried to do what was right.” – Major General George B. McClellan, upon being relieved of command of the Union Army of the Potomac, 1862

Working in the fields

“Whatsoever a man sows, that must he reap, and he not only reaps what he sows but he must reap all he sows.  When we plant a seed of good or of evil we are hardly aware how large a tree may grow from it or how much fruit it may bear.” — Wilbur Fisk, Hard Marching Every Day (eds. E. and R. Rosenblatt)

Nowhere to hide

“One meets all sorts of men in the army, and he often finds himself in a crowd of the very roughest of the human species.  But human nature is very much the same everywhere.  No matter how ‘rough’ a man may become, or how wicked, he naturally admires the excellent qualities of others, and condemns their faults very much the same as do those more cultivated and virtuous.  To be popular with such men, it is only necessary to be unselfish.  A selfish man is popular nowhere.  His ill nature will creep out in a thousand ways in spite of him, and bring all his virtues into contempt.” – Wilbur Fisk, Hard Marching Every Day (eds. E. and R. Rosenblatt)

The silence of duty

“The scenes in a soldier’s life are continually shifting, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, and we soldiers get to be nearly as indifferent about the matter, and care as little where we go, as a horse cares where his driver may see fit to drive him.  And we have just as little voice in the matter as a horse has.  One day a soldier may be in his tent comfortable, contented, and happy, and the next day on a march with but few of the world’s comforts and but little cause of contentment except what he finds within himself.  A soldier’s time and services are not his own, they belong to the Government which he has sworn to defend, and it is his duty to be ever ready and obey with alacrity whatever the Government calls upon him to do.  Sometimes a streak of good luck will turn up to a soldier whether he deserves it or not, and sometimes they won’t turn up though he may deserve it ever so well.  It would be easy to mention a great many good boys in the ranks who have been doing duty at the front since the war began, but to whom no soft detail has ever been given, or any particular favors shown.” – Wilbur Fisk, Hard Marching Every Day (eds. E. and R. Rosenblatt)

Physical and moral knowledge

“If a man wants to know what it is to have every bone in his body ache with fatigue, every muscle sore and exhausted, and his whole body ready to sink to the ground, let him diet on a common soldier’s fare till he has only the strength that imparts, and then let him shoulder his knapsack, haversack, gun and equipments, and make one of our forced marches, and I will warrant him to be satisfied that the duties of war are stern and severe, whether we march or face the enemy on the field of battle.  A fellow feels very much like grumbling at such times as that, and when we march on and on, expecting every minute to halt but still hurrying forward, when every spark of energy seems about to be extinguished, and the last remnant of strength gone, tired, hungry, sick and sore, who blames a soldier if he finds it hard work to suppress thoughts of a quiet home he has left behind him, with its comforts and endearments, and if he sometimes turns his thoughts to himself and wonders if he, as an individual, will ever be compensated for the sacrifice he is making.  What if the rebels are whipped, and what if they are not?  How does it matter to him?  One blunder of General Grant’s may make final victory forever impossible and all our lost toil go for nothing.  I tell you some of our hard marches put one’s patriotism severely to the test.  It finds out a fellow’s weak points if he has got any, and we don’t claim to be without them.” – Wilbur Fisk, Hard Marching Every Day (eds. E. and R. Rosenblatt)

Spotsylvania, Virginia, May of 1864

“The most singular and obstinate fighting that I have seen during the war, or ever heard or dreamed of in my life, was the fight last Thursday.  Hancock had charged and driven the enemy from their breastworks, and from their camps, but the enemy rallied and regained all but the first line of works, and in one place they got a portion of that.  The rebels were on one side of the breastwork, and we on the other.  We could touch their guns with ours.  They would load, jump up and fire into us, and we did the same to them.  Almost every shot that was made took effect.  Some of our boys would jump clear up on to the breastworks and fire, then down, reload and fire again, until they were themselves picked off.  If ancient or modern history contains instances of more determined bravery than was shown there, I can hardly conceive in what way it could have been exhibited.  This firing was kept up all day, and till five o’clock next morning, when the enemy retreated.  Gen. Russell remarked that it was a regular bull-dog fight; he never saw anything like it before.  I visited the place the next morning, and though I have seen horrid scenes since this war commenced, I never saw anything half so bad as that.  Our men lay piled one top of another, nearly all shot through the head.  There were many among them that I knew well, five from my own company.  On the rebel side it was worse than on ours.  In some places the men were piled four or five deep, some of whom were still alive.  I turned away from that place, glad to escape from such a terrible, sickening sight.  I have sometimes hoped, that if I must die while I am a soldier, I should prefer to die on the battle-field, but after looking at such a scene, one cannot help turning away and saying, Any death but that.” – Wilbur Fisk, Hard Marching Every Day (eds. E. and R. Rosenblatt)

Discipline and punishment

“The band discoursed a dirge-like piece of music, when the prisoners [John Tague and George Blowers] were conducted to their coffins, on which they kneeled, and the guard filed around and took position in front of them, scarcely half a dozen yards distant.  A sergeant put a circle around the neck of each, from which was suspended a white object over the breast, as a target for the executioners.  The prisoners were not blindfolded, but looked straight into the muzzles of the guns that shot them to death.  The guard were divided into two platoons, one firing at one prisoner, and the other platoon firing at the other prisoner, but there was no reserve to be ordered up in case of failure.  Blowers had been sick, his head slightly drooped as if oppressed with a terrible sense of the fate he was about to meet.  He had requested that he might see his brother in Co. A, but his brother was not there.  He had no heart to see the execution, and had been excused from coming.  Tague was firm and erect till the last moment, and when the order was given to fire, he fell like a dead weight, his face resting on the ground, and his feet still remaining on the coffin.  Blowers fell at the same time.  He exclaimed, ‘Oh dear me!’ struggled a moment, and was dead.  Immediately our attention was called away by the loud orders of commanding officers, and we marched in columns around the spot where the bodies of the two men were lying just as they fell.  God grant that another such punishment may never be needed in the Potomac Army.” — Wilbur Fisk, Hard Marching Every Day (eds. E. and R. Rosenblatt)

Hurry up and wait

“The duties of a soldier are very unequally divided in regard to time.  Some days he may have nothing whatever to do but to pass the time as best he can; and then of a sudden he may be called upon to perform all that his physical powers can possibly accomplish, and often his power of endurance yields to exhaustion, and he is obliged to stop ere his task is completed.  These extremes of physical exertion may not accord with the strictest rules of physiology, but they certainly do not conflict with the rules of military life.” – Wilbur Fisk, Hard Marching Every Day (eds. E. and R. Rosenblatt)

They called it “Bloody Angle”

“The trench on the Rebel side of the works was filled with their dead piled together in every way with their wounded.  The sight was terrible and ghastly.  We helped off their wounded as well we could, and searched for our own wounded in front.  Captain Corey was killed and never found.  Captain Thomas was found with twelve bullet wounds.  He had fallen and then been shot to pieces, possibly by his friends.  The horses of the regular battery were so shot that each was not over ten or twelve inches thick.” – Erasmus C. Gilbreath, 20th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Spotsylvania, Virginia, May, 1864 (quoted in If It Takes All Summer, William D. Matter)