- Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War by Stephen Cushman
Readers simply looking for standard coverage of Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, William T. Sherman, Ambrose Bierce, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain would do well to delete this title from their Amazon wish lists. Because while Belligerent [End Page 104] Muse examines the intellectual habits of these Civil War icons, it is anything but a straightforward treatment of them or their war-related writings. Rather, the book reads as a series of revelatory conversations with author Stephen Cushman, a professor of English, in which the foundations of how we currently write about and remember the Civil War are exposed as never before. To be clear, this is a study of sensibilities, the true meanings and origins of words and phrases, the development and deployment of rhetorical techniques, and the original motivations and intentions that are still buried in canonical Civil War texts. Put another way, Belligerent Muse is an eye-opening exploration of the earliest history of Civil War history itself.
Beginning with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and second inaugural address, Cushman dissects the literary artistry behind each document to reveal dual layers of function and purpose. On the surface, these were speeches designed to consecrate a cemetery and to usher in a second term in office, respectively. On a deeper level, though, these texts represented a shrewd president turning the death and destruction of 1863 into fuel for still more bloodshed necessary to save the Union and then taking the opportunity to foreshadow his political plans for a surprisingly reconciliatory brand of postwar Reconstruction.
Cushman’s take on Whitman and Memoranda during the War in chapter two cleverly traces the roots of “bottom-up” history back to the “Leaves of Grass” poet. However, in a historiographical twist, Cushman also dispels the idea that modern historians have knowingly followed in Whitman’s footsteps. In other words, Whitman came first, but a historical trendsetter he was not—the underlying lesson being that sometimes the latest innovations in Civil War history are actually some of the oldest, if we know where to look.
Most readers will know Ambrose Bierce, the subject of chapter 4, for two things: his Civil War short fiction (most notably among it “An Occurrence at Owl Creek” and “Chickamauga”) and The Devil’s Dictionary. But within the development of writing about the Civil War, Cushman finds new importance in Bierce. As a junior officer present at the Battle of Chickamauga but also as an observer of the war who had not attended West Point, Bierce spent the rest of his life trying to overcome feelings of inferiority through writing. In the process, the pages of Belligerent Muse demonstrate how he unwittingly harnessed this insider/outsider position to pen fiction capable of decoding military history for a vast audience of non-veterans.
These insights duly noted, the true standout sections of the book deal with two of its elite military commanders, William T. Sherman and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Cushman’s investigation of Sherman, a man whose name has become synonymous with wartime ruination, is both imaginative and methodical; it recontextualizes his Memoirs of General William T. Sherman as the capstone of a surprisingly artistic life. In this rendering, which takes full stock of the general’s penchants for painting and travel writing, readers find a particularly creative version of “Uncle Billy” who resolved, [End Page 105] through writing his account of the war, to “shape the realities of others, providing them with representations of reality that will make reality seem like the representation” (88).
Though relatively brief in comparison to Sherman’s chapter, Cushman’s handling of Chamberlain and the different versions of his (alleged) salute to Gordon’s troops at Appomattox raises worthwhile questions about the historical authority so often conceded to the Civil War generation and about the ultimate ownership of a narrative once it passes from historian to reader (or, in the case of Chamberlain, back and forth several times...