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The decades leading up to the Civil War were fabulously rich ones for American literature—an “American Renaissance” in the words of literary scholar F. O. Matthiessen. During this era, some of the nation’s writers—notably Harriet Beecher Stowe, but also Henry David Thoreau and John Greenleaf Whittier—weighed in on the wedge that was driving North and South apart in works such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and “Slavery in Massachusetts.” The war itself, however, inspired no Iliad or Aeneid, at least not at the time it was going on. The closest thing to a classic literary account of the American Civil War is The Red Badge of Courage, written decades later by Stephen Crane, who had not even been born when the war occurred. A few other notable responses include Drum-Taps, inspired by Walt Whitman’s experience working as a nurse in Washington, D.C., and Mark Twain’s account of his short stint as a Confederate soldier in “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed.” Where were the rest of America’s great writers when this grand subject was calling for literary treatment? Some, such as Thoreau and Edgar Allan Poe, did not live to see much or any of the war. Others—Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville—were simply someplace else, hundreds of miles away from the fighting, in Massachusetts or New York. One American writer, however, had an intimate acquaintance with the war, and she did not have to leave home to acquire it.1
When the war began in 1861, Rebecca Harding was living in the city of Wheeling, then still a part of Virginia. Known today by her married name, Rebecca Harding Davis, she was at the beginning of a long literary career, one that would produce a dozen novels, as well as hundreds of stories, including the classic “Life in the Iron-Mills.” Ignoring the war or viewing it at arm’s length was not an option in Wheeling. In an 1899 reminiscence called “The Mean Face of War,” Davis describes Wheeling as “A sleepy old Southern town of which I knew was made by the Government, at an early date, the headquarters of a military department,” in which she witnessed military patrols of the city, bugles and flags, a bodyguard that “galloped madly up and down,” a hall that was converted into a prison, and the appearance on one occasion of wounded prisoners of war. “The sight of these limping, bloody men produced a strange effect upon the townspeople, who hitherto had really regarded the war as a passing disaster, the work of politicians which might come to an end any day,” she explains. She goes on to portray “a sudden passion of rage and malignancy” in the city. The “life-long mask of education or manners” came off the town’s residents, who ran and screamed and yelled.2
Furthermore, Wheeling lay in a border region. A month after the decision by the Virginia Convention of 1861 to secede, the city played host to a convention where some Virginians opposed secession. The ultimate result was a new state, West Virginia, admitted to the Union in 1863. People in this part of the country had an uncommon perspective on the conflict, as Davis explains in her memoir [End Page 58] Bits of Gossip. “Sectional pride or feeling never was so distinct or strong there as in the New England or lower Southern States,” she wrote. “We occupied the place of Hawthorne’s unfortunate man who saw both sides.” Davis’s location proved auspicious for her career—and for modern readers seeking complex pictures of the conflict—for she wrote a...