After an Exchange of Punts…

28 10 2007


After it sat mournfully on my bookshelf for many years, I finally decided to read The Twentieth Maine, by John J. Pullen (left).  I really don’t know what prompted me to read it, but I’m glad I did.  The style is not in vogue today, and frankly I would find certain aspects – particularly a lack of formal foot or end notes – infuriating in a work of more recent vintage.  But Pullen was so good at telling the story of the regiment: his work is literature.  In a field that is so sadly devoid of quality writing, these classics are welcome diversions.

A couple of passages in the book reminded me of a project – in fact the first project – I decided to tackle a few years ago.  On page 204, Pullen writes:

As the two armies moved with intermittent contact there would be dozens of skirmishes like this – unexplainable and forgotten fights completely mystifying the troops following the advance guards.  No historians for fights like these.  No markers, except upturned soles on the boots of dead soldiers lying on their backs beside the road, pathetic little monuments striving to the last to preserve the identity of a man.  No record.  No finding out whatever happened – unless, by chance, years later some old veteran might write an account of the affair on such-and-such a day at such-and-such a creek or crossroads.

Pages 207 & 208:

[T]he experiences of the past six weeks seemed, as one of them recalled, “more like a fearful nightmare to us than a reality.”  It was past all remembering.  There had been too many rivers, too many roads, too many days, too many deaths, too many stupid night marches.  Many of the rifle pits and graves they had dug would soon be overgrown with bushes and weeds; those who returned would not be able to find them.  Somewhere there was a plan, a reality, even a destiny perhaps, but a big part of the regiment had vanished in a dream.

Pullen was writing of the days leading up to the arrival of the army outside Petersburg in 1864, but in some ways he captured the anonymity of the period that interested me – the months between the end of the Gettysburg Campaign and the opening of the Overland Campaign.  I had a working title for the project, which at the time I thought of as a book simply because I hadn’t thought of any other kind of project.  I dubbed it An Exchange of Punts: With the Army of the Potomac from Gettysburg to Grant.  The title was much more critical of history and historians than it was of the army’s commander, George G. Meade.

The attraction to that period for me was a function of the lack of information, or rather the lack of summarized information – the lack of a narrative.  Other than Andrew Humpreys’ From Gettysburg to the Rapidan, the literature is pretty much non-existent.  Whether the format is biography, memoir, campaign study, unit history, even letters and journals, writers and editors over the years have given the period short shrift, leaving students with the impression that the opposing armies wandered aimlessly over the Virginia countryside for ten months.  Vast holes are left in most works covering events before and after these ten months, reminiscent of Lindsay Nelson on Notre Dame football highlights: After an exchange of punts, Notre Dame takes over on their own 35 yard-line.  It’s as if history and historians have taken Robert E. Lee’s advice to General A. P. Hill in the wake of one of the engagements that occurred during this time: Let’s bury these poor men, and say nothing more about it.

As I began my research, I asked the advice of some folks who have had success in Civil War publishing.  I was told that my approach was all wrong.  Rather than starting from square one and just letting the information lead me, I was assured that the only way to go about the project was to start off knowing what I wanted to produce (an article, a book), and to also have a pretty good idea of the story I wanted to tell.  Needless to say, I didn’t take that advice.  Even then, I guess I thought of these projects as not having a real end.  I just didn’t realize it.

So I started off reading the aforementioned Humphreys book (which is very good, if very dry), and using reference works like Dyer’s Compendium, Long & Long’s Civil War Day by Day and Eicher & Eicher’s Civil War High Commands I started to construct a time-line.  After about 55 pages of said time-line, I learned a few things.  I learned that a lot more was going on than we have been led to believe.  I learned that numerous casualties were suffered, just about every day.  I learned that most of the freedoms the War Dept. had granted to Meade in the days after he took command of the Army of the Potomac had been revoked, which significantly restricted his operational options (see my earlier post on Dmitri’s blog concerning what Meade wanted to do after Mine Run, and why he couldn’t do it).  And I learned that this project, at least as a traditional, narrative print project, was too big for me.

But I also learned that the reason it was not for me was not so much the topic, but the medium.  I refocused my efforts on what I thought to be a less complex topic and a more flexible medium.  I think in the latter assumption I was right, but maybe not so with the former.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to revisiting Gettysburg to Grant.  I do hope that someone does the topic justice.  The men who served their countries during those days suffered and sacrificed no less than did those who served in any of the other operations which all seem to be known (by someone) as “THE battle that won (or lost) the war.”  But more important, I think we might just learn some things that may challenge conventional wisdom.