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Every Generation Writes Its Own History:
Thoughts on an Essential Civil War Poem
By Daniel Mallock (October 2017)
Robert E Lee in his office at Washington College, Lexington, Virginia. (Artist unknown.)
Noted historian, academic, author, and past president of the American Historical Association, Carl Becker (1873-1945), is credited with the now deservedly famous statement, “every generation writes its own history.” Becker added, "we build our conceptions of history partly out of our present needs and purposes," ("What are Historical Facts?” Western Political Quarterly, September, 1955).
Since the sesquicentennial of the Civil War ended in 2015, there has been a great deal of re-looking at the Civil War, particularly of those who wore the gray; what motivated them, and how we should commemorate them, if at all. This reassessment, much to many Americans' discomfort is not limited to Confederates alone. This backward looking judgmentalism of the present generation does not stop at 1861 but goes back to the founders of 1776 and, for some, back to Christopher Columbus.
Everyone in the past is now, for many among us, viewed only through the prism of their present experience and temperament—judged and condemned for error or perceived error; triumphs, sacrifices, character, sorrows all swept away.
The best history is seen through the prism of those who lived through events, and tries to “get into the shoes,” as it were, of those being reviewed and discussed. Their character, and the politics, cultures, people, and events around them and before them; their goals, and dreams, successes, and failures, are all taken into account. It is right for the historian to try to make sense of all of this and to yank lessons out of the morass of excess or dearth of information.
Every generation sees the world in a different way than did its predecessors. Thus, there are always new histories of events and people that hopefully add a new angle, provide new insights on newly discovered materials, or force the events of the past through the garlic press of today's cloudy prisms. Look on any book shop's history book shelf, there are always new books on Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and of specific battles. The books written on Gettysburg, for example, must number in the many hundreds but still more books appear yearly covering the same ground but (hopefully) with a different approach and angle (and newly acquired facts), perhaps. The best history does not only revisit, it rediscovers.
Great poetry should be both inclusive and expansive, containing a world on a single page that could readily fill a volume of standard prose. Great poetry ought to be a short-cut to take the reader somewhere they can never go, understand people in a way that otherwise they could not. We can never go back in time, at least not yet, and poetry as with history are among the few tools that we have to gaze backward to attempt a meaningful and accurate understanding of people and events.
The setting of "Lee in the Mountains" by Donald Davidson is post-war; the survivors have marched home long before in triumph or defeat and all full of trepidation at an unknown future.
The war is over now and Robert E. Lee is the president of a small, financially-challenged college in the mountains of Virginia. Johnston's army is surrendered, Lee's army is gone. The guns are shelved and stacked, the swords rust in dark closets or mounted above the hearth. The chill air is blowing in the trees shifting candle flames and stirring memories.
Generations overlap in this poem, and a revolutionary hero is brought back by a yearning son in civilian clothes with no flags and no armies, only the wind in the mountains. Davidson brings the war home by bringing it into the home, into the heart of Lee who finally is a son devastated by the abandonment and loss of his father. This is a poem of losses, nations, armies, friends, fathers, emptiness, anger, hope.
The war is over and Robert E. Lee is no longer the General, just now again and finally the son of Light Horse Harry, Revolutionary General and one-time hero, the eulogist of fellow Virginian George Washington. Gone to the Caribbean after financial losses and shame, and injury in a political riot in 1812, Robert E. Lee's father died in 1818 on his return journey home to Virginia; Lee the son was 12 years old having not seen his father since the age of 5. After the war Lee visited his grave for the first and only time.
Donald Davidson (d. 4/1968), a Vanderbilt student and later professor wrote this poem sometime around 1938. A member of the Vanderbilt “Fugitives,” named after a literary journal by the same name, he was among an exceptional crowd of superb poets and writers including Randall Jarrell (arguably the finest American poet of WW2), John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tate.
"The value of history is, indeed, not scientific but moral: by liberalizing the mind, by deepening the sympathies, by fortifying the will, it enables us to control, not society, but ourselves—a much more important thing; it prepares us to live more humanely in the present and to meet rather than to foretell the future.” This profound observation by Becker written some 60 years ago is pertinent still.
The value of Davidson's excellent poem in addition to its beauty is that it humanizes Lee, and most anyone who has suffered tragedy and loss, and describes the heart wrenching internal devastation that such losses bring. With an extreme capacity for compassion and empathy so demanded of us by history we can fortify and ennoble ourselves by learning from what our forebears did and experienced and suffered. We can guard these people, and the lessons they left or judge them as unfit and remove them— such are the choices now being made.
Everything about history is about learning, in the final summing up after epochs, events, triumphs, tragedies, and lives are concluded. The prism of the current generation is a cloudy mess of facets that only become clear later, much later. Who has the skill and moral authority to reach into the past and cancel the lessons that were learned there? When future generations look back for the lessons of the past and find only empty spaces are the painful, important lessons lost forever?
The winds in the mountains are cold and do not forgive; people are merely wisps as the hills shift and the earth moves. Who can rewrite the past and expel the sometimes-unpleasant ghosts as if such a thing can be done, or should be done? What is the moral choice, as per Becker?
We are in the mountains searching, just like Lee. And, just like Lee, we have but a memory to hunt, a memory of something unreal, untouchable, that exists only in our moral heart. As per Becker, this is not science nor history, but a kind of reverse mysticism to atone and correct when no such atonement or correction is possible. In fact, the atonement is long concluded, the lessons learned, the leaders and the heroes in bronze. We are searching in the mountains for something we cannot find, and a chill wind is blowing.
After the collapse of the siege lines around the city of Petersburg and the swift fall of Richmond in April, 1865, Lee and his army were making for the mountains of North Carolina to meet up with Joe Johnston's Army of Tennessee. Lee had no intention of surrender—even with his army shrunken and almost melted away. Lack of rations, Appomattox, and General Grant got in the way.
In this, one of the greatest of modern poems on the "late unpleasantness," Lee finally gets to the mountains.
Poetry and literature help us build our humanity and adds to our understanding of ourselves—it is part of the fiber of our personal and national characters. Like history itself, historical poetry brings us back to memory and fortifies us for the future. The cool light of historiography is off, and now the warm and hot glows of emotion are on. Poetry demands a different kind of attention and fosters a deeper, more emotional, kind of involvement and learning. In historiography, we want “the facts” as a foundation; in poetry, there are no foundations at all.
The war is over and Lee is in the mountains, in a reverie on his father, lost in his sadness and bitterness, yet hoping for a bright future. The poem opens with Lee as president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) walking near his office. He can hear the students talking, there goes "General Lee." After the war Lee cannot but help to evoke a sense of the past wherever he goes. The past hangs upon him like an anvil and like a sponge.
In the poem Lee is looking for a past he cannot have. We are in the mountains doing the same thing; so many searching, forcing a past that they cannot have, that they do not want to have—and cannot accept. It is as if they speak, “If the past cannot be changed, and since it is unacceptable to us, we will eradicate it—we are the living generation and have sway over the past. We are the masters of our past and of our future.”
What will the future generations say of this? What are the costs of removing those people and memories so fraught with sorrow, tragedy, and error? We must find the path down the mountain and quickly, out of the forests of the past and into the bright open fields of the valley plains.
My experience of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them nor indisposed me to serve them; nor, in spite of failures which I lament, of errors which I now see and acknowledge, or of the present aspect of affairs, do I despair of the future. The truth is this: The march of Providence is so slow and our desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope. (Robert E. Lee letter to Colonel Charles Marshall, 1870)
Lee in the Mountains by Donald Davidson (1938, approximately)
Walking into the shadows, walking alone
Where the sun falls through the ruined boughs of locust
Up to the president’s office. . .
Hearing the voices
Whisper, Hush, it is General Lee! And strangely
Hearing my own voice say, Good morning, boys.
(Don’t get up. You are early. It is long
Before the bell. You will have long to wait
On these cold steps. . . .)
The young have time to wait
But soldiers’ faces under their tossing flags
Lift no more by any road or field,
And I am spent with old wars and new sorrow.
Walking the rocky path, where steps decay
And the paint cracks and grass eats on the stone.
It is not General Lee, young men. . .
It is Robert Lee in a dark civilian suit who walks,
An outlaw fumbling for the latch, a voice
Commanding in a dream where no flag flies.
My father’s house is taken and his hearth
Left to the candle-drippings where the ashes
Whirl at a chimney-breath on the cold stone.
I can hardly remember my father’s look, I cannot
Answer his voice as he calls farewell in the misty
Mounting where riders gather at gates.
He was old then–I was a child–his hand
Held out for mine, some daybreak snatched away,
And he rode out, a broken man. Now let
His lone grave keep, surer than cypress roots,
The vow I made beside him. God too late
Unseals to certain eyes the drift
Of time and the hopes of men and a sacred cause.
The fortune of the Lees goes with the land
Whose sons will keep it still. My mother
Told me much. She sat among the candles,
Fingering the Memoirs, now so long unread.
And as my pen moves on across the page
Her voice comes back, a murmuring distillation
Of old Virginia times now faint and gone,
The hurt of all that was and cannot be.
Why did my father write? I know he saw
History clutched as a wraith out of blowing mist
Where tongues are loud, and a glut of little souls
Laps at the too much blood and the burning house.
He would have his say, but I shall not have mine.
What I do is only a son’s devoir
To a lost father. Let him only speak.
The rest must pass to men who never knew
(But on a written page) the strike of armies,
And never heard the long Confederate cry
Charge through the muzzling smoke or saw the bright
Eyes of the beardless boys go up to death.
It is Robert Lee who writes with his father’s hand–
The rest must go unsaid and the lips be locked.
If all were told, as it cannot be told–
If all the dread opinion of the heart
Now could speak, now in the shame and torment
Lashing the bound and trampled States–
If a word were said, as it cannot be said–
I see clear waters run in Virginia’s Valley
And in the house the weeping of young women
Rises no more. The waves of grain begin.
The Shenandoah is golden with a new grain.
The Blue Ridge, crowned with a haze of light,
Thunders no more. The horse is at plough. The rifle
Returns to the chimney crotch and the hunter’s hand.
And nothing else than this? Was it for this
That on an April day we stacked our arms
Obedient to a soldier’s trust? To lie
Ground by heels of little men,
Forever maimed, defeated, lost, impugned?
And was I then betrayed? Did I betray?
If it were said, as it still might be said–
If it were said, and a word should run like fire,
Like living fire into the roots of grass,
The sunken flag would kindle on wild hills,
The brooding hearts would waken, and the dream
Stir like a crippled phantom under the pines,
And this torn earth would quicken into shouting
Beneath the feet of the ragged bands–
Turns to the waiting page, the sword
Bows to the rust that cankers and the silence.
Among these boys whose eyes lift up to mine
Within gray walls where droning wasps repeat
A hollow reveille, I still must face,
Day after day, the courier with his summons
Once more to surrender, now to surrender all.
Without arms or men I stand, but with knowledge only
I face what long I saw, before others knew,
When Pickett’s men streamed back, and I heard the tangled
Cry of the Wilderness wounded, bloody with doom.
The mountains, once I said, in the little room
At Richmond, by the huddled fire, but still
The President shook his head. The mountains wait,
I said, in the long beat and rattle of siege
At cratered Petersburg. Too late
We sought the mountains and those people came.
And Lee is in the mountains now, beyond Appomattox,
Listening long for voices that will never speak
Again; hearing the hoofbeats that come and go and fade
Without a stop, without a brown hand lifting
The tent-flap, or a bugle call at dawn,
Or ever on the long white road the flag
Of Jackson’s quick brigades. I am alone,
Trapped, consenting, taken at last in mountains.
It is not the bugle now, or the long roll beating.
The simple stroke of a chapel bell forbids
The hurtling dream, recalls the lonely mind.
Young men, the God of your fathers is a just
And merciful God Who in this blood once shed
On your green altars measures out all days,
And measures out the grace
Whereby alone we live;
And in His might He waits,
Brooding within the certitude of time,
To bring this lost forsaken valor
And the fierce faith undying
And the love quenchless
To flower among the hills to which we cleave,
To fruit upon the mountains whither we flee,
Never forsaking, never denying
His children and His children’s children forever
Unto all generations of the faithful heart.
Daniel Mallock is a historian of the Founding generation and of the Civil War. He is the author of Agony and Eloquence: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and a World of Revolution.
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