Monday, July 28, 2014

Battle-Pieces in De Peyster's biography of Philip Kearny

Gen. Philip Kearny
Photo: Matthew Brady / National Archives OPA
Among the five hundred plus Melville items compiled by George Monteiro in "Herman Melville: Fugitive References (1845-1922) is the 1869 biography of Philip Kearny by John Watts De Peyster.  Within the entry itself, Monteiro only notes that De Peyster
"Quotes twice from Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War"  --Resources for American Literary Study 33
Before Monteiro's citation, Kevin J. Hayes in the 2007 Cambridge Introduction to Herman Melville (88) noticed the invocation of Melville's poem "Chattanooga" in De Peyster's memorial tribute to Kearny, his cousin and the "American Bayard."

The excerpts provided by De Peyster are substantial. Both appear near the end of the book, one in each of the last two chapters. De Peyster's first quotation from Battle-Pieces is represented as an apt commentary on the death of Kearny.

Kearny's Charge, Battle of Chantilly
General Kearny's gallant charge
Augustus Tholey

From chapter 31 of the Personal and Military History of Philip Kearny:
In reflecting upon PHIL KEARNY'S untimely fall, the lines of HERMAN MELVILLE'S "Battle Pieces" (Chattanooga, 92) must recur to the mind of whoever has read them:
"Near and more near; till now the flags
   Run like a catching flame:
And one flares highest, to peril nighest —
    He means to make a name;
    Salvos! they give him his fame! 
*       *       *       *       *       *     
"But some who gained the envied Alp,
   And — eager, ardent, earnest there —
Dropped into Death's wide-open arms,
   Quelled on the wing like eagles struck in air.
*       *       *       *       *       *
   "The smile upon them as they died;
   Their end attained, that end a height:
Life was to those a dream fulfilled,
   And death a starry night!"
As an echo to the spirit of these lines and their apposite appropriateness, drifts back from the far distant past the kindred idea embodied in the words addressed by EPAMINONDAS to his surrounding and lamenting soldiery. "This is not the end of life, my fellow-soldiers — it is now your General is born!" Born indeed—born to Immortality, whether as regards Existence or Fame!  --Biography of Major-General Philip Kearny, pp 474-5
De Peyster's second long quotation from Battle-Pieces is the entire poem On the Photograph of a Corps Commander minus the title. And here's something interesting. Look how De Peyster has altered the fifth line of the first stanza. In order to make the verse more directly applicable to Kearny, De Peyster replaces "Spottsylvania's charge" (Hancock's celebrated attack on the Mule Shoe) in Melville's poem with "Williamsburg's hot charge."  Adding "hot" to "Williamsburg's" also allowed De Peyster to preserve the syllable count in the line:
Ay, man is manly. Here you see
The warrior-carriage of the head,
And brave dilation of the frame;
And lighting all, the soul that led
In (Williamsburg's hot) charge to victory,
Which justifies his fame.  --De Peyster, Epilogue p 483
De Peyster's omission of the poem's title and deletion of the reference to Spottsylvania show the significance of these elements as pointers to the identity of Corps Commander Winfield Scott Hancock. Yes Melville's verses are absolutely applicable to other military heroes, but the meditation on "manly" inspiration begins with the particular example of one who is precisely identifiable by his office (Corps Commander) and field of honor (Spotsylvania). That's why De Peyster drops both references, to Corps Commander and to Spotsylvania. Lacking the pointers to Hancock, Melville's verses more perfectly suit Kearny, widely lauded as a model of "manly" and "knightly conduct in war. The "eagle mien expressive" of Melville's original Corps Commander exactly matches the mien of Kearny, said to have "the face of an eagle."
When balls began to whistle, his eagle countenance (figure d'oiseau de proie) and clear eye assumed a resolute expression which inspired confidence in those around him.  --Comte de Paris, History of the civil war in America
De Peyster's memorial "Character of Phil Kearny" including the lines from Melville's On the Photograph of a Corps Commander, with the change from "Spottsylvania's charge" to "Williamsburg['s] hot charge," opened the first number of The Volunteer: A Weekly Magazine (New York, 1869).

For more online about the American Bayard, also known as that "One-Armed Devil," check out the entry for Kearny at Ohio Civil War Central. Below, the 1869 biography of Philip Kearny by John Watts De Peyster, digitized version of the Yale volume at Hathi Trust Digital Library.


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