Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War
By Herman Melville
Although he never visited the front in person, Herman Melville was virtually shell-shocked by accounts of the Civil War’s human carnage. So when news came of Richmond’s fall in April 1865, the celebrated author’s creative energies were liberated. This time, though, he vented his pent-up emotions through poetry.
Melville never doubted that the right side had triumphed in the war, but the verses he penned were not sentimental tributes to the Union cause. He instead desired to make his readers feel the emotional concussions that reverberated in the souls of men broken by combat; to experience the physical pain felt by soldiers who had undergone brutal hardships; and to sense the guilt of the soldiers who had turned lush fields into barren wastelands.
Melville’s refusal to romanticize the war likely explains why Battle Pieces and Aspects of the War, published in 1866, was so criticized and sold a mere 525 copies. Melville wanted to find transcendent meaning and purpose in the war’s bloodletting, and his poems are decidedly political. His opening piece is a haunting description of John Brown’s execution in 1859: “Hanging from the beam, Slowly swaying (such the law), Gaunt the shadow on your green, Shenandoah!” Melville admired those who had given their lives to defeat the slaveholding South, but he was troubled that so many considered Brown a Jesus-like martyr.
Melville’s moral uneasiness did not wane with the increasingly popular view of Northerners as triumphant avengers against a sinful South. Important moral questions about war, Melville feared, would be sacrificed on the altar of nationhood if Americans lost themselves in an unthinking patriotic revival. The conflicting emotions Melville experienced about men dying for a political cause is a compelling and important theme of Battle-Pieces.
Not content to justify American casualties with the knowledge that victory had brought reunion and emancipation, Melville wanted his readers to feel the uncertainty of the war just as they had experienced it at the time, not from a position of intellectual and moral certitude that came after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. He wanted his readers to never forget the intense pain they had felt while burying friends and family who had worn the Union blue.
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.