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  • The Office of The Dead Letter
  • Elizabeth Duquette (bio)

The inaugural issue of Beadle's Monthly, a Magazine of To-day (January 1866) opened with "Ball's Bluff," a poem by Augustine J. H. Duganne about the failed Union attempt to cross the Potomac at Harrison's Island in October 1861.1 Best described as a rout, the battle of Ball's Bluff was not one the magazine's predominantly Northern readers were likely to recall with pleasure; seventeen hundred Union soldiers assaulted the river's steep banks—fewer than half returned. Mere weeks after the battle, T. Hal Eliott captured Northern horror at its devastation in the poem "Ball's Bluff—October 21, 1861," in which an enraged speaker orders mothers, fathers, and lovers to ask, "Who answers for these lives,— / Who let them die?" (Friedlander 1588). These questions linger for Eliott, but they are answered decisively five years later in Duganne's poem, which has no problem assigning blame for Ball's Bluff; the soldiers were not allowed to die but were murdered by the "false" and "hostile" South (5). "Heroic" Union soldiers were, he writes, "mowed down like cattle" by "wild" Confederate "demons," "reckless with rebel spleen" (5). If the battle of Ball's Buff revealed the "unchivalric character of the Civil War" to Eliott's readers in 1861 (Friedlander 1588), five years later "Ball's Bluff " would transform the battle's "grand despair" into the storied stuff of legend, Union soldiers into martyrs to "Freedom's Will" and "Freedom's Cause" (5).2

This brief comparison provides a crucial context for reading the next item in Beadle's Monthly: the first installment of Metta Victor's The Dead Letter, An American Romance.3 Identified by Catherine Nickerson as the first full-length detective narrative by a woman in the United States, The Dead Letter follows "Ball's Bluff " literally and thematically, for it too considers the horror of murder in the context of the Civil War. Like Duganne, Victor is eager to identify the guilty, but her ambitions [End Page 25] are national, not regional or partisan, in scale. Whereas the speaker in "Ball's Bluff " notes "Our teeth were set with hate," Victor's characters struggle, sometimes failing, to contain their strong emotions, as the novel works to diffuse the "grand despair" caused by murder (5).4 Relying on a key trope for the taming of chance—the dead letter and its office—The Dead Letter regularizes events that appear inexplicable or random in an attempt to repair the damage done to the (national) family by (widespread) murder. In marked contrast to early reunion romances such as John W. De Forest's Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867), The Dead Letter recognizes that "a house divided" will continue to be torn apart, not brought together, by strong feelings.5 Although Victor's narrative of domestic security restored speaks to the conditions that made reunion romances compelling, her vision of reconstruction is shaped—even scarred—by violence and murder. Whereas the romance of reunion focuses on affective conversion, Victor's strategy in The Dead Letter proposes instead that the resolution of uncertainty and the reconstruction of law are necessary preconditions for reunion.6

In reading this early detective novel as offering a substantial argument about the Civil War and Reconstruction, this essay participates in the reevaluation of how the war shaped American literary history, a project that has energized scholars in recent years. No longer content to discount literature written during or about the Civil War as uninteresting propaganda, scholars have developed new ways of engaging the vast literary output of the period, in the process raising key questions about genre, race, gender, and the nature of war itself.7 These emergent modes of reading—some built on practices designed to engage with popular genres from adjacent periods, others that rely on methodological premises or innovations in related fields like history, sociology, or political philosophy—have made it possible to challenge categories of analysis that have long structured nineteenth-century literary history, including the sharp differentiation of the ante- and postbellum periods, a divide marked most notably by the narrative of realism's...


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