Ta-Nehisi Coates (whose blog you should be reading) recently wrote this post about Ulysses S Grant’s memoirs and the skill of their writing. It’s something that has struck me too about DPG’s letters: the clarity of the language and its style. I guess I had some misconceptions about how people wrote in the mid-19th century, although it’s also possible that DPG writes particularly well. But I was actually pretty shocked when I first started looking at the letters by how very readable they are — how accessible the language is, despite the erratic capitalization and unfamiliar rhythms of punctuation.
Coates writes that “Part of this [idea that Grant couldn’t have written his own memoirs] is the notion that Grant wasn’t good at anything except mass slaughter and drunken binges, and thus couldn’t be a good writer. But I also don’t think people realize that writing is often just about the work [of] clear communication. Grant was fighting at a time when writing clear orders was extremely important to military success, and he excelled at it. His memoir[s] have the same kind of hard brevity you’d find useful coming from a commander.”
I’m not sure if this is applicable to DPG’s writing, although he was (even if only a colonel for most of the war) a commander. But it’s true that his writing is “about the work of clear communication”: it’s the only contact he has with home. In the age of cell phones and email I forget how long it used to take to get news from the people you loved. DPG mentions this repeatedly in his letters — he opens almost every one with a recap of what letters he has or has not received from Peoria and how long it took them to get there, and comments on when he last wrote and when that letter should arrive. And without the modern volume of communication (DPG’s letters are maybe 6-8 pages long, but they’re only sent once a week or so) every word counts more. You don’t have the luxury of sending a second email two hours later correcting something you misstated earlier, or of calling your fiancée to recount a story you just heard five minutes ago; the time and effort cost of each communication is massively higher. Which gets at what Coates calls “hard brevity”: your whole week recapped in eight pages.
And when your whole week has been spent preparing to attack Vicksburg … well.
The old theme had too small a font for the length of the letters. This one should be a bit more readable. Tell me what you think.
PS. You can follow General Grier’s Civil War by clicking the RSS link at the top of the page if you don’t have a Tumblr. This theme also has more visible About, Ask, and Contact pages. Plus, as long as we’re recapping, if you click on any of the #tags to the left of a post it will take you to an index of all posts tagged with the same words. Each post also has a comments section — feel free.
PPS. I’ve put up a Letter Index for easier browsing, and am working on a post outlining the family tree and cast of characters.
"Much of my teaching isn’t through lectures, but contemplation. As part of our tour of the New Market Battlefield, I ask students to spend a few minutes alone to reflect on a short profile of one of the 48 Virginia Military Institute cadets who ran across a the “Field of Lost Shoes” to turn back a Union charge; the ground was so thick with mud that most of them lost their footgear in it — and still they kept running.
When positioned below Marye’s Heights, near Fredericksburg, I give my students a few moments to reflect on the steadfastness of the tens of thousands of Union men who marched 600 yards over open ground to certain death (some 15,000 died there during the two battles of Fredericksburg). After lunch on Fredericksburg’s Telegraph Hill, I ask them to sit alone and think about Robert E. Lee’s poignant words about the nature of battle — “It is well that war is so terrible, lest we should grow too fond of it” — that he muttered as he contemplated the bloody scenes unfolding below him.”
I’ve spent most of my academic career studying material heritage: I started out as an archaeologist, then did an MA in cultural heritage management. I believe that when you’re trying to think about the past, there is no substitute for objects; for places; for bones and artifacts and things. But the act that lets you jump from object to understanding, or object to thought, is imagination. The past is gone; what we have is the present. We can only think about the past by imagining it, by creating the past in our heads from what we can see and touch and read in front of us. Levin calls this contemplation, but what it really is is an act of creation.
Imagining the Civil War is something I’d never really done before I started this project. American history has never been something I was terrifically involved in; it was never one of my periodic all-encompassing obsessions. (These range from the 18th-century British navy, sailing, whaling, and piracy, which were my favorite nonfiction reading subjects in high school, to the Rwandan genocide, which was the topic of my MA thesis last year.) For an obsession to take root, you have to have an emotional connection, and the American Civil War never hit anything in me.
And then I started reading the Grier letters, and I got obsessed.
I think there are a couple of things happening here. First, David and Anna are my great-great-great-grandparents, so there’s a family connection. I’d want to read their letters even if they were quiet businesspeople who led perfectly ordinary lives somewhere in Nebraska. But, second, they weren’t ordinary people. David was a reluctant soldier — he kept trying to resign every six months or so during the war — but, from everything I’ve read, an excellent one, repeatedly commended by his commanding officers and much loved by his troops. Anna is tougher to get at (she told David to burn all her letters to him, so hardly anything survives), but she seems to have been rather a handful.
And, third, the letters are so extraordinary. I don’t believe anybody has opened most of them since the 19th century, and I doubt that many of them were read by anyone other than David or Anna. I feel terrifically privileged (as well as nosy) to be able to read them and, beyond that, to let other people read them. I could go on with adjectives about the letters, and did in the first draft of this post, but I think what’s important about them is that they help to bridge that gap between past and present, between object and imagination. They’re written from Vicksburg or Shiloh or Corinth in 1862 or 1864 or 1865 but they arrive here, in 2012, and we can read them just as clearly as Anna could back in Peoria. When David writes about bullets whistling past and “dodging” his head to avoid them, those words help guide the process of creating the Civil War in my head. So do things like those photos from the other week. It’s almost as if the past exists, somewhere in the ether, and things like that help draw it down here to where I can reach it.
If you are interested in these kinds of issues, you might also enjoy Kevin Levin’s blog at Civil War Memory.
[I suppose it’s only fair that if I’m directly quoting from my great-great-great-grandparents’ private letters, quotes from myself shouldn’t be corrected and made prettier either. In that spirit here is an email I just sent to a friend about the Civil War letters.]
am trying to post the majority on the blog — if the letter has anything good in it it will go up.
the thing is, i am trying to be very systematic [in terms of processing]. there are 8 boxes full of documents, probably a thousand in all (or more). of those, probably 1/4 are official records (military stuff), another 1/4 are invitations/newspaper clippings/miscellaneous, and 1/2 are actual correspondence. scanning and transcribing takes forever, so i am confining myself to only doing that for the personal civil war letters (about 5 years). that’s a box and a half, maybe 100 documents, 300 sheets or so? it’s in two series: one, normal letters that were loose in the steamer trunk; two, letters that had been rolled up and tied together. i’m only on the normal letters now, but know that they overlap chronologically with the rolled-up letters. i’m not sure why they were divided that way, but i’m hoping that maybe the rolled-up ones are more sensitive info? but i won’t know until i get there, which will have to wait until the normal letters are all sorted.
for perspective, i’ve been scanning & transcribing for 3 days and have made it about halfway through the first folder of letters. there are like 12-15 folders. this is a huge project.