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  • Melville’s Battle-Pieces and the Environments of War
  • Thomas Dikant (bio)

The American Civil War was an atypical civil war. Instead of dividing the country along ethnic or religious lines, it was a war fought along sectional—that is, geographical—lines and affiliations.1 Partaking in this geographic sectionalism, Herman Melville’s Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War is dedicated to the “three hundred thousand who in the war for the maintenance of the Union fell devotedly under the flag of their fathers,”2 thus identifying with the Northern section of the country. In his introductory remarks to Battle-Pieces, which he published with Harper and Brothers in 1866, Melville makes explicit reference to the war’s geographies: “The events and incidents of the conflict—making up a whole, in varied amplitude, corresponding with the geographical area covered by the war—from these but a few themes have been taken, such as for any cause chanced to imprint themselves upon the mind” (BP, 3). Indeed, many of the poems’ titles in Battle-Pieces are toponyms, place-names such as “Shiloh,” “Malvern Hill,” “Gettysburg,” or “Chattanooga.” Primarily Civil War battlefields (of both land-battles and sea-battles), these toponyms not only denotate geographical sites, but also metonymically stand for the battles that were fought in those spaces, thus providing a historical referent, namely [End Page 557] “[t]he events and incidents of the conflict.”3 Though Melville disclaims any particular logic in the selection of battlefields represented in Battle-Pieces, he actually presents many of the battles and campaigns where the natural environment was a decisive influence, such as the Battle of Fort Donelson, the Battle of Wilderness, or Sherman’s March through Georgia and the Carolinas.

Nineteenth-century military thinking acknowledged the relation between war and the environment. In his famous treatise on military strategy, On War, Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz argues that “geography, and the character of the ground bear a close and ever-present relation to warfare.”4 Clausewitz goes on to elucidate the impact that this “geography, and the character of the ground” have on the strategies in warfare, both in terms of defense and in terms of attack. But, as Clausewitz also acknowledges, the physical environment not only has an immediate impact on military maneuvers; in addition, “[t]he country” is “the source of all armed forces proper” (OW, 79). Although the aim of war is primarily that of destroying the fighting forces, armies can also intentionally invade and destroy enemy landscapes in order to enforce their will. Yet, as the landscape historian and World War II veteran John Brinckerhoff Jackson has pointed out, “Armies do more than destroy, they create an order of their own.”5 The military alters the natural environment in which it wages war and transforms the territorial order, not only of the areas in which it fights its battles, but also of the land that it fights for, transforming the social and political organization of space, the ground on which societies are built.6

In its own engagement with the war’s geographies, Melville’s Battle-Pieces forms a striking contrast to Whitman’s Drum-Taps, the other volume of Civil War poetry that has achieved canonical status. Unlike Melville, Whitman prefers to use generic titles with no specific geographic information, such as “Cavalry Crossing a Ford,” or “Over the Carnage Rose Prophetic a Voice,” thereby presenting the events of the war [End Page 558]

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Colonel Burnsides Brigade at Bull Run, First and Second Rhode Island, and Seventy-First New York Regiments, with their Artillery, Attacking the Rebel Batteries at Bull Run. Sketched on the spot by Alfred R. Waud, July 21, 1861. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. LC-DIG-ppmsca-22443.

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in a mode that transcends geographic and historic specificity. Melville, in comparison, creates strong referential linkages to identifiable geographical spaces and particular historical moments: a literary strategy akin to that of the War-Lyrics of Union soldier Henry Howard Brownell.7 By presenting specific theaters of operations, Melville’s Battle-Pieces investigates the interactions between soldiers and the physical environment in the...