[A book with four interlocking themes:
- how to communicate with the dead;
- the life of a 19th-century American;
- the massive task facing us today, and
- the physical world’s place in the scheme of things.]
.24. The Winter of ’64
(6:15 p.m.) Joseph, I set you off on an extremely interesting tangent – a tangent nonetheless – about Napoleon and Caesar. It certainly is persuasive, and of course since it can’t be verified I can’t choke up on it.
That’s right, but there’s more things in the world than can be proved, and anyway there’s a hell of a lot more that’s personal opinion than you’d sometimes guess.
So let’s talk a little bit about the winter of ’64, sitting in Virginia freezing our tails off waiting for what we hoped was going to be the last act.
You know, the guys as you call us just gave you that nice piece of information on how the present distorts everything. It sure does. We were sitting out the winter and it was like being on a train to nowhere, or like being stranded on an island with no ship in sight; something like that. We was doing all right, all things considered – we’d survived Gettysburg and we’d gotten the whole [Mississippi] river, and we were at Chattanooga and Atlanta next stop – but the war had been on so long! You get so you forget that there had been a time of peace and there would be again. Everything had just narrowed down to being in the army, and reading about the war everywhere, and counting up the friends you didn’t have because they were dead of disease, or you’d seen ‘em killed, or you’d seen ‘em die in hospital, or they’d got themselves hurt bad enough that they were home somewhere.
You didn’t do that much, of course. But in a long winter, cold night, not enough to do – sometimes you counted ‘em, and maybe sometimes you tried to calculate how close you were yourself. Dam fool thing to do, of course. But still, sometimes it was like you could hear the footsteps coming closer.
You remember the story you heard, you wrote a little poem about it. The soldier kept a diary, and when they came to take if off his body they found that the night before he’d made an entry for the next day and it just said “I was killed.” Like you said – he knew. It could be that way.
How many things can you use to fill a day and a long evening? I was an officer, which meant I had a certain amount of paperwork to do, and a good officer took time to be sure the boys were taking care of themselves and not doing dam fool things like trying to get away with not airing out their bedding because it was cold out – when airing it out was one of the damn few things we could do to try to keep ‘em healthy. But paperwork and officer work in general only fills so much time, and then newspapers and cards. Letters home for most of the officers, but I didn’t have anybody could read “white” – could read anything – and didn’t have anybody to read it for ‘em. Slipper and the rest of the family – I’m talking about the tribe, you know, when I say family – they knew where I was and they knew it was like to be a good long time more before I got back – if I got back. I’d spent one long period with ‘em, after my first enlistment and before I went back, but I’d told ‘em then I wouldn’t be back till the war was over, or I was invalided out. Otherwise I’d be dead of one thing or another. They understood that well enough.
That wasn’t the only time in my life that I drank – I never was teetotal as you call ‘em – but it was the only time I had to pay attention to whether I wanted a drink or was just bored.
I went into Washington city a couple of times – one-day trips, you know, just to see something besides tents and redoubts and soldiers’ campfires. Saw a play, sort of a waste of time. Got a look at the White House and the Capitol, about finished, not quite, the second time I saw it. But you know, how much could you do really? Wine women and song ain’t necessarily what they’re cracked up to be. Maybe if I’d been 20 it would have been different. I sort of drifted back to camp, still bored, still empty inside, still waiting for springtime.
Now these eastern boys – the other officers, I’m talking about – they didn’t know right off just what to make of Grant. I knew. And I told ‘em. All us western boys told ‘em the same thing. “We’re going to see some fighting!” Well, you know, the eastern boys were always saying we western boys were bragging, high on ourselves talking, and maybe we’d be a bit lower when we had to change fighting for talking. But they couldn’t back us off. We said, “Where Grant is, there’s going to be some fighting, and if Sherman was here too we’d probably get the war finished up this summer sometime.” See, to appreciate Grant, you had to see him for a while, or you had to see him in action. I never was in a spot to see him during any fighting, but the stories were always the same. That man could go to sleep in the middle of wildcats, and never miss a snore – and if the cats knew what was good for ‘em, they’d let him sleep, too!
Like I said, I never happened to be needed around headquarters if we were fighting! (That’s a joke for you.) But we all saw him plenty other times. If there was ever a man looked like he could put his head through a two-inch plank if he should happen to be of a mind to, it was him.
Quiet cuss. Can’t remember hearing of him blowing about what he was going to do like poor old Fighting Joe Hooker got himself into trouble doing. And he wasn’t always on a hair trigger like Sherman, or just always irritable like Meade. Quiet, half somewhere else half the time. He did a deal of thinking, I’m told. Probably he wasn’t as smart as Sherman – not too many people were – but he was thinking about things right along. That’s the reputation he got, anyway.
Anyway, we’d seen him, those of us that had been out west when he was there. A couple of the boys had served with him when he was just a colonel. We knew. The other boys weren’t so sure. Fighting Joe had come highly touted and he’d fizzled out pretty badly the year before. For that matter, pretty nearly all the West Point boys weren’t looking too good. “It’s like they took all the brains and all the cleverness at West Point and poured it into Bobby Lee,” one boy said one night, “and there wasn’t much left for the rest of them to divide among ‘em.”
And didn’t we hear all about Bobby Lee that winter! But when they started talking about how we were like to get whipped again the first time Lee and Grant matched up, I always said hell no. Look at ‘em in enemy territory, I’d say. Lee tried it twice and got whipped both times right away. Grant had spent the whole war moving into enemy territory and I didn’t recollect him having to retreat yet. Was taking on all of Mississippi – without a supply train! – any easier than invading Maryland or Pennsylvania? But Grant succeeded and Lee didn’t.
Oh, they’d say, but Lee is brilliant! You watch how brilliant he is, how daring, how fast he’ll outsmart anybody we put up against him! Lord, you’d ‘a’ thought he was on our side, the way they talked! Proud of him, they was. I’d say, well, maybe, but it ain’t easy to be brilliant when you have got a bulldog sunk his teeth into you and holding on, and that’s Grant all the time.
See, you know how it all came out; it would be hard for you to believe how Lee had that whole army buffaloed before Grant came. I believe I told you once, we didn’t come off the hills at Gettysburg not just because we’d been mauled – we knew the rebs had been plenty mauled themselves – but because our generals were a little afraid to try another fight, for fear that Lee would pull another miracle out from under his hat. Can’t prove it, but I knew it. And if you was Meade, maybe you’d ‘a’ hesitated too before risking a sure win. I’m not calling anybody scared, just saying.
Anyway, that was the last winter we spent in Lee’s shadow. A year farther along there wasn’t any question that he’d met his match, and no question how the war was ending. But in March ’64 you could have got decent odds either way.
But the western boys knew we were going to see a pile of corpses. None of us had any idea how many there was going to be, not even those of us who’d been at Fredericksburg. I don’t know about anybody else, but I was half the time kicking my heels into the ground saying when are we going to get started – and the rest of the time wishing the winter wouldn’t ever end.