by Thomas A. LewisThe number of people writing about the Civil War, let alone reading about it, is a constant source of amazement. Every week brings manuscripts and queries from people wanting to know how to get their work published in a magazine such as Civil War. To any degree-granting institution thinking about offering a course on the subject, we submit this issue as a case study. The lesson, distilled: focus on character.
Few crucibles of character ever yielded such interesting compounds as the Seven Days. There many distinguished soldiers, for reasons not readily apparent, faltered, some of them beyond recovery. George McClellan's star never shone as bright again, nor did Joe Johnston's, and the mighty Stonewall Jackson's flickered as if about to go out (as Wilson Greene wrote in our previous issue). Meanwhile Robert E. Lee, who had failed in his first campaign, seemed to bobble this one too, but persevered, and came out all right.
Among all these gnarly characters none is more intriguing than the lordly Prince John Magruder of Virginia, whose rising star fell spectacularly during the Seven Days. Gary Gallagher's thoughtful study leaves us pondering again the many facets of success and failure, how they are earned and whether they are deserved.
Then there are the wackos, those delicious visionaries who march to a different drummer, stepping all over the feet of their contemporaries. Some, merely loony, are forgotten and rightly so, but others, it turns out, really do catch the distant sound of something coming, something that cannot be confirmed perhaps for decades, when their craziness finally stands revealed as genius. Such was Professor Thaddeus Lowe, promoter of transatlantic flight, originator in a sense of the United States Air Force, and an avid participant, during all the blood and thunder and rage of the Civil War, in a furious controversy between free and fixed ballooning. William Hassler explains, showing us yet again that there is always something new to learn about the Civil War.
Norman Leader's story about a few minutes at the beginning of the Battle of the Wilderness, a piece of a longer work, appears herein not because it plows new ground or reveals a new theme or re-interprets a character. It is simply so well written that it has the power to transport us, for a moment or two, almost physically into the world of the Civil War soldier. Such moments are precious, and should never be missed. Similarly, Charles Jones's poem "Near Abram's Creek" arrows past our minds to touch our souls.
Humor, meanwhile, is not a hallmark of Civil War writing; much of it tends instead to the sanctimonious. It is, therefore, especially refreshing to find ourselves chuckling repeatedly over a manuscript dealing exclusively with death and tragedy. Richard Selcer's irreverent study of the misfortunes of Confederate generals manages to instruct us in some serious points while maintaining a lopsided grin-a remarkable achievement.
And for those of us who manage to spend some time, however reluctantly, in the 20th Century, Ned Burks takes us on a richly rewarding tour of the Shenandoah Valley. Perhaps it will help you prepare for a visit to the Valley on the coming 125th Anniversary of the end of the 1864 Valley Campaign. Plan to take along the next issue of Civil War, which will be devoted in its entirety to that subject.
To paraphrase the old saw, there are three rules for successful Civil War writing: and no one knows what they are. But when the writing deepens your understanding of human character, or touches your soul, or makes you laugh out loud or sniffle a quiet tear, or spurs you to take a trip or join a cause, then it must be observing some of them.