It’s a little difficult to categorize this book by Stephen Cushman, a professor of English at the University of Virginia. While he subtitles the book, Reflections on a Civil War Battle, that battle being the Battle of the Wilderness, it’s a lot more. Cushman is a student of the Civil War, like many of us. He’s not comfortable with the term “buff.” I’m not either. This book is actually a series of essays arranged in chapters about his passion for studying the Civil War, revolving around his interest in the Battle of the Wilderness. I think “student” applies well to him, as he has deeply studied this battle and other aspects of the war, even going so far as to read period newspapers to glean information. He discusses the various ways we all learn about battles, including eyewitness accounts, newspapers, weekly publications from the period, history books, memoirs, and even novels and poetry. Along the way he makes some very cogent observations. For example, in discussing reenactments, he writes, “Civil War reenactment surged in popularity only after the war could be forgotten and what had been traumatic for millions no longer was. Watkins called Franklin ‘the bloodiest battle of modern times in any war,’ but in fact Sharpsburg-Antietam produced more American casualties than any other single day in any war. For battle trauma it would be hard to beat September 17, 1862, at least in the history of the United States, and yet the reenactment for the 135th anniversary of the battle drew thousands of participants and spectators, many of whom no doubt came to commemorate but none of whom came because they couldn’t forget the stresses of battle. Commemorating the events in the Cornfield or at the Dunker Church or in Bloody Lane or on Burnside’s Bridge is a desirable way to spend the weekend only if forgetting those events is a real possibility.” [p. 56]
Having done some genealogical research into his family, Cushman eventually finds he had ancestors on the confederate side as well as the Union side, including at least one who was a slaveholder. “Was a slaveholder? My ancestor? Well, your quadruple-great-grandfather’s older half-brother is a pretty distant relation, isn’t it? But the rationalization didn’t work, and I felt something pecking at my impeccable Yankee credentials.” [pp. 41-42] He eventually finds one of his ancestors, Albert Cushman, was a confederate guerrilla leader killed at the end of the war. “Why did Albert Cushman deserve to be singled out for death? Did he depredate more outrageously than his fellow guerrillas? Had he done something else to anger Jackson and, if so, did he do it before he was captured or after he was released? … The passive voice conceals who killed Cushman, but the rest of this passage strongly suggests that it was cavalrymen under Newsom’s command, or other Confederates.” [p. 48] His genealogical research has an impact on how he views the battle that’s the object of his interest. “Among my newly discovered Confederate ancestors I found infantrymen, cavalrymen, and artillerymen, as well as musicians, chaplains, a hospital steward, and someone from the signal corps. If the statistical average holds, eight or nine or ten of these men must have died in the war, from either combat or disease. But which ones? And how? And if my New England origins produced so many Confederate ancestors, how many ancestors do I have on the Union army rolls and rosters? And what’s 20 percent of that number? But enough. If learning more means knowing less, I’m not sure I can afford it right now. Having learned that two of my Confederate ancestors belonged to units that fought in the Battle of the Wilderness, the Sixth South Carolina and the Palmetto Sharpshooters, I know even less about what to think when I pass the green sign for the Wilderness,, where Cushmans fought on opposite sides.” [p. 49]
While the book wasn’t what I thought it would be when I bought it, I’m glad to have read it. It’s much more than simple reflections about one battle. It’s reflections on a man’s journey to understand a battle, to understand a war, and to understand what it means to him and to his family. I enjoyed reading it and I think you will, too.