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The ingredients of Battle-Pieces, ranging as they did from a Renaissance portrait to participation in a cavalry raid, were diverse in the extreme but scarcely representative of what Melville called the "varied amplitude" of the war. Much had to be filled in. Impressions wanted corroboration, and realistic detail was needed. Hence, as he had done on previous occasions, Melville sought a book which would help him flesh out impressions, which would assist him in seeing his object whole, and which would contribute a degree of order. He found such a book in The Rebellion Record. Despite Melville's statement in his introductory note that he served as a "harp in the window, and noted the contrasted airs which wayward winds have played," the poems are frequently specific, detailed, and selective in terms of subject. They were not often the product of white heat generated by immediacy, but rather of the cool calculation which the passage of time makes possible.
The Rebellion Record was a periodical designed to present a history of the Civil War in "a digested and systematic shape," through selected newspaper accounts and official reports interspersed with verse and anecdotes. The material was cumulated in a series of eleven volumes and a supplement. Each volume contained a "Diary of Events," a section of "Documents and Narratives" and a section of "Poetry, Rumors and Incidents." On the whole the quality of the writing was adequate but prosaic, unpretentious except for the poems, which were of indifferent quality. The first eight volumes, covering the years 1860 to 1864, were available to Melville in time to have been of use to him for Battle-Pieces.
There is no evidence that Melville owned a set of The Rebellion Record, but in his note to the poem, "Rebel Color-bearers at Shiloh," he states that the "incident upon which this piece is based is narrated in a newspaper account of the battle to be found in the 'Rebellion Record,'" and the quotation which he gives is accurate. "The Rebel Color-bearers at Shiloh" is, in the order of the poems in the volume, probably the last for which The Rebellion Record is a source. In all, Melville drew upon The Rebellion Record for at least twenty poems, a majority of those which deal with military events. Eighteen concern events before 1863, and of this number twelve contain material which can be traced to The Rebellion Record. Not only did Melville need The Rebellion Record for the nudge it gave his muse but he also depended upon it for raw facts, especially concerning the first years of the war, when his interest had been relatively slight, and which were then as much as five years in the past.
The poem "Donelson," the longest of those for which he drew upon The Rebellion Record, reveals three principal ways in which Melville used the various newspaper dispatches and official reports in this compendium. For narrative purposes, he would follow closely a number of different sources, choosing facts and incidents and weaving them together with little embellishment or expansion. For intensifying drama or mood, he would take a single source and strip it to its essence. Finally, to suggest larger implications and relationships than narrative, drama, or mood alone could provide, he would use his source material as the starting point for a cluster of imagery weighted with moral significance.
An example of diverse sources fused into a unified narrative is the account of the Thursday morning fight (lines 59ff.). Within some fifty lines Melville employs material from articles reprinted from the New York Times, Missouri Democrat, Charleston Courier, and Richmond Dispatch. He took items unique to a single newspaper and also information available in several. In the latter case it is sometimes hard to ascertain the exact source. Thus the Courier and the Dispatch report the use of distinctive arm bands to identify the tatterdemalion Confederate troops (lines 99-101), and only the Times notes a "great profusion of gold lace" worn by Confederate officers (line 104). Both the Times and the Missouri Democrat mention the expertise of the Federal sharpshooters (lines 82-83) and the death of Colonel Morrison (line 80), but only the Times describes the injuries caused by falling tree limbs which had been struck by artillery (line 78) or compares the Union riflemen to hunters at a salt lick in ambush for deer (lines 86-88). Melville took the description of Thursday night at Donelson (lines 136-51) from one newspaper, the Missouri Democrat, adhering to the order of the dispatch and echoing its language, but pruning and refining to create a sense of grim determination in the face of icy misery and danger. An extract from this account shows how closely he followed the original:
The night of Thursday will long be remembered by the troops surrounding Donelson. The weather. . .toward the close of the afternoon became chilly and lowering. About six o'clock a heavy rain set in. During the warmth of the day before . . . whole regiments had cast aside their overcoats and blankets, and without tents, and in a great majority of cases, occupying positions rendering a fire a sure mark for the enemy's batteries, with nothing to eat but cold rations, their condition was deplorable indeed. To add to their discomfort, when thoroughly saturated with rain, a pelting snow-storm set in, continuing all night. As can be imagined, with an enemy in front, continually annoying and annoyed, but little sleep was indulged in. The only demonstration of importance on the part of the rebels, during the night, was a formidable attempt on the right wing to obtain Taylor's battery.... But, cold and hungry, with garments stiff with frost, the soldiers were still hopeful and firm. . . . The universal sentiment was, as blunt Col. Oglesby expressed it, "We came here to take that fort, and we will take it. . . ." (See "Donelson," p. 51.)The passage in "Donelson" which describes the duel between the Union gunboats and the Confederate water batteries (lines 207-22) illustrates how Melville took a prosaic newspaper article, in this case from the New York Times of February 15, 1862 (Rebellion Record, IV, 172), and reworked it in such a way that it becomes not merely terse, effective narrative but narrative with moral significance. The newspaper account relates how the gunboat "Louisville" was damaged:
At this time the boats were within some four hundred yards, and were on the point of using grape-shot, when a shot disabled the steering apparatus of the Louisville, by carrying off the top of the wheelhouse, and knocking the wheel itself into fragments. There was a tiller aft, and this was instantly taken possession of by the pilot—but he had scarcely reached it, ere the rudder was carried away by a shot from the Tyler. Of course the boat became instantly unmanageable, and swung around, receiving a shot in the woodwork towards the stern, which, I believe, wounded several seamen. Under this circumstance, it was thought best to retire, and accordingly the whole fleet fell back to the position it had occupied in the morning. The most serious damage sustained during the action was from one of those monster one hundred and twenty-eight-pound shots, which passed through a bow-port of the Louisville and dismounted the second gun on the starboard quarter, killing three men and wounding six others. A captain of one of the guns was cut completely in two, and spattered his brains over Captain Dove, who stood by him, and otherwise so mangled him that scarcely a resemblance of humanity remained. (See "Donelson," p. 51 .)For the "Louisville" passage Melville winnows out journalistic wordiness and compresses details; for example, the number of damaging shots which the vessel received is reduced to one. This increases the pace of the narrative and heightens the drama. Moreover, it provides a focal situation which may be invested with cosmic implications. The projectile from the Confederate battery is a planet, a malign and fateful wanderer in the skies. When it destroys the steering mechanism of the ship, the ship drifts uncontrolled, "lawless," itself useless and a danger to the fleet. The figurative language drawn from astronomy and the law underscores two ideas which recur in Battle-Pieces: the role of Fate in the lives of men and the need for mechanisms of control by individuals and society.
A final point should be made about the way Melville used The Rebellion Record. In the deliberate choice of certain material Melville contributed to the thematic and structural unity of his book. I have suggested that opposition and reconciliation constitute the principal theme of Battle-Pieces. Melville's use of a sentence from the New York Times of February 17, 1862 is a minor but telling instance of the ramifications of this theme: "In some cases, a few of our wounded were cared for by the rebels, although they were without fire, and could give them but little valuable assistance." The sentence is the basis for this passage in "Donelson":
Some of the wounded in the wood
Were cared for by the foe last night,
Though he could do them little good,
Himself being all in shivering plight. (Lines 254-57)
The function of this passage is to portray the universality of suffering and the compassion of the enemy. Melville's view that the Union was right on the issues of the war is quite clear. Du Pont's fleet "warred for the Right," Stonewall Jackson "Stoutly stood for wrong," and the defeat of the Confederacy was "Treason thrown." Therefore the use of an incident which reveals such a curious display of generosity raises questions.
The explanation is that Melville took the first opportunity to speak out for compassion and humanity, the foundation, as he saw it, upon which the opposition of North and South could be reconciled. The irony of the war was rooted in the fact that men were dehumanized by the very ideas that they fought for. In order to attain a reconciliation, principles would have to be subordinated to individuals. Melville could make his point best by emphasizing individuals, common soldiers trapped in a common misery, and by playing down the abstract issues of a "war of Wrong and Right"—to quote the words of "Look-out Mountain." "Donelson" happens to be one of the more ambitious poems in Battle-Pieces and the first in the sequence to have as its subject a military engagement in which the Union was victorious. Hence Melville could afford the luxury of depicting the humanity of the foe.
The nature of the ingredients which went into the making of Battle-Pieces—the Bible, Milton, Shakespeare, personal experiences and impressions, paintings, the illustrated weeklies, newspaper articles and official reports from The Rebellion Record—indicates Melville's distance from the actual events of the war. This was not entirely a disadvantage. Melville had long been uneasy about his dependence upon personal experience, sensing a danger in "immediate literary success, in very young writers" (to quote from Pierre), because of his memories of the days of Typee and Omoo. Nor could "mere reading" of The Rebellion Record or anything else serve as a substitute. His solution was not the recording of a "rich and peculiar experience" nor the skillful retelling of a tale once told. Instead, in the best of the Battle-Pieces, he distilled the essence of the experiences of war, pointing out their symbolic significance, universal application, and complexity. At a distance Melville could see the lineaments of the fundamental.
--Hennig Cohen, Introduction to The Battle-Pieces of Herman Melville pp.15-19