|The Storming of Fort Donelson:|
Terrific bayonet charge and Capture of the outer intrenchments, by the Gallant Soldiers of the West--
Saturday Feby. 15th. 1862 / Currier & Ives via Library of Congress
"Storms at the West derange the wires," is an unconsciously ironic line in Battle-Pieces (1866). In this first volume of verses, Melville more than once descended to doggerel, perhaps in part because at first he found it so difficult to think in the medium of poetry, except off and on:In denigrating Battle-Pieces as so much "doggerel," Fussell is following the lead of biographer Leon Howard (who applied the term "hack work," twice) and before Howard, William Dean Howells. But Fussell could not have been more wrong. Factually wrong, on two counts. One, like I said poetry was not a new cause for Melville; and two, Melville had a very good, very concrete reason for introducing his prairie image. To understand that reason you have first to give Melville credit for meaning something intelligible. Then it helps to look at Melville's reliance on the Rebellion Record. This source was known even before Frank Day's 1959 M.A. thesis on "Melville's use of the Rebellion Record in his poetry," published in 1960 by the University of Kentucky Press and now available online through the Clemson University Digital Press. In 1938 Willard Thorp pointed directly to the Rebellion Record in his Introduction to Herman Melville: Representative Selections, Thorp specifically called attention to Melville's heavy dependence on the Rebellion Record in "Donelson":
But, full of vim from Western prairies won,In view of the fact that the prairies traditionally belonged to the whole nation, Melville's identification of them as a training-ground for Union troops (even with respect to an obviously Western victory) rings hollow; apparently he was half-automatically trying to invoke the old magic of the West for the new cause (Civil War, poetry), but the two worlds simply declined to lie down together. --Fussell, Frontier p377
They'll make, ere long, a dash at Donelson.
A glance through some of the documents and journalistic reports in the volumes of this work which relate to episodes turned into poetry by Melville, shows at once that the Rebellion Record was exploited extensively by him. Either he turned at once to its pages when the impulse to write verse again was imparted to him or he happened to be going through them when Richmond fell. His use of this monumental record of the war varies from the close paralleling and mere "versified journalism" derived from the New York Times account of the capture of Fort Donelson in his "Donelson" to the remarkable reconstruction of the character of the brave General Lyon from the matter-of-fact report of the battle of Springfield as he found it in two newspaper accounts in the Record.
Melville's bulletins throughout the poem are a recasting of selected details from The New York Times account of the battle as printed in the Rebellion Record, IV, 170-176.Fussell does footnote the Hendricks House edition of Melville's Collected Poems which makes me wonder if he only had the version lacking Vincent's Explanatory Notes at the end. (The first copy of Collected Poems I bought online was one of those, without the notes.) Vincent's sentence quoted above is all you need to figure out what Melville means by "vim from Western prairies." Plus vol. 4 of the Rebellion Record that is.
--Melville's Collected Poems p449
As Frank Day found when he went to the Rebellion Record:
Melville's use of "vim," which he italicizes, in his description of the troops' morale, probably was inspired by its use by the Times correspondent, who describes an old man who is stirred by the strains of "Yankee Doodle" as the fleet passes Eddyville: "Off went his hat, and with a vim that sent his hat flying…" (Documents, p. 171). --Frank DayHow the figure of the rejuvenated old patriot might have appealed to Melville and drawn his attention to the word vim may be easier to see in the context of the whole passage from the New York Times account:
An old man, whose head was white as a snow-drift, stood on the shore leaning heavily on his cane and watching with seeming apathy the passage of the boats, whose full appearance his faded eyes probably failed to catch. Just as the Minnehaha passed opposite him the magnificent band of the Fifty-seventh struck up “Yankee Doodle.” Its strains seemed to awaken stirring memories in the old man's mind—off went his hat, and with a vim that sent his hair flying around his head like a snow-bank lifted by the wind, he gave three hearty cheers for the Union—the Union in which himself, his children, and his grandchildren had been born, reared, and protected. --Rebellion Record vol. 4References to the steamer Minnehaha and Fifty-seventh show why Melville conceives of "vim" as a product of "Western Prairies." Earlier in Union preparations for the assault on Fort Donelson, the Minnehaha brought the Fifty-seventh Illinois from Cairo, Illinois to Fort Henry. This regiment was the one formally known as the Fifty-Seventh Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry, under command of Colonel S. D. Baldwin:
It was determined by Gen. Grant to make the attack upon Fort Donelson from two directions— by land from the direction of Fort Henry, and by water up the Cumberland, assisted by an adequate column of troops on the banks. Tuesday night, the Fifty-seventh Illinois, Col. Baldwin, arrived at Fort Henry, on the steamer Minnehaha.As noted by Henry Howe, the seige of Donelson was conducted by troops from western states, chiefly Illinois.
At the first great battle in the west—the taking Of Fort Donelson— an unusual proportion of the soldiers of Illinois took part; and so conspicuously that an eastern poet made it a subject of some congratulatory verses, under the caption of New England's Greeting To Illinois. --Henry Howe, Times of the Rebellion in the WestHowe's anonymous New England poet associated Western prairies with Illinois:
New England's glad hurrahs—No wonder the victory when finally achieved would be commemorated in the North as a victory of the "Loyal West" or "Gallant Soldiers of the West."
Bear to the prairies of the West
The echoes of our joy,
The prayer that springs in every breast,—
"God bless thee, Illinois!
Finding enthusiastic "vim" inspired by Illinois troops in the Times report, Melville then must have mentally associated Illinois with prairies as everyone did, and as he did elsewhere, for example in the poem Trophies of Peace. The old patriot's "vim" stirred up by the Illinois regiment gets translated creatively into something else: high spirits among troops in the cheerful early stages of a key battle. As Frank Day noticed, Melville assigns that vim to the fresh and still upbeat troops, the Illinois soldiers who brought it with them from "Western prairies."
So Melville's image of "Western prairies" does not as Fussell thought refer to military drills and marches over the prairies before the Civil War--though such operations certainly were extensive and significant. As a look at the source for "Donelson" in the Rebellion Record makes clear, by "Western prairies" Melville means Illinois.
Prairie "vim" has to be something like the energetic, wild-and-free feeling communicated in a letter to the Illinois Journal and reprinted in the New York Mirror, December 4, 1841, under the heading THE WESTERN PRAIRIES:
In short, I love the feeling of freshness, and freedom, and wildness which a man on the prairie alone can so well feel.Further along in Melville's poem the depiction of Fort Donelson corresponds in essential details to the same Times article wherein Melville found vim associated with the Illinois Fifty-seventh:
The ground around the Fort is a rolling upland, covered with heavy timber and dense undergrowth, and broken for miles around into ravines, bordered by precipitous bluffs, whose sides, steep and rocky, almost forbid the passage of even a goat. The Fort itself is situated upon a high bluff, which slants with an easy descent to a point at the water's edge on the north, and is probably not less than one hundred feet above the level of the water. To the rear the bluff has been to some extent levelled for the distance of a mile. On this artificial table-land stands the Fort, whose lines of fortifications and rifle-pits cover the entire levelled space. --Rebellion Record vol. 4 p171Here's what Melville made of it:
More of the extensive borrowings that Day inventoried:This stronghold crowns a river-bluff,A good broad mile of leveled top,Inland the ground rolls offDeep-gorged, and rocky, and broken up—A wilderness of trees and brush.The spaded summit shows the roodsOf fixed intrenchments in their hush;Breast-works and rifle-pits in woodsPerplex the base.—
the phrasing of the lines "Grant's investment is complete—/A semicircular one" follows remarks in the Times that "the Fort is completely invested" (Documents, p. 173) and that forces were extended "both up and down a line parallel with the river…thus enclosing the Fort in a semicircular line" (Documents, p. 171).Not only that, but Day shows also how Melville occasionally blended choice bits from two articles reprinted in the Rebellion Record, the NY Times article and another one from the Missouri Democrat. In a single stanza, illustrating the carefulness of his method, and at the same time destroying Fussell's idea of Melville's writing anything "half-automatically" in "Donelson."
--Frank Day on Donelson
Bottom line, the probability that Melville mined this long, literate, dramatic, and richly detailed Times account for "Donelson" is right around 100%. Strange then that so thorough and wise a scholar as Stanton Garner would feel bound to doubt or rather downplay Melville's borrowing habits:
The influence of the Record has been detected in at least twenty of the poems, but the importance of the borrowings has been overstated, tempting readers to believe that Battle-Pieces is "versified journalism," and, therefore, that both the author and his poems were distant "from the actual events of the war." That idea is rooted in Raymond M. Weaver's conception of Herman as a "mariner and mystic" who stood aloof from earthly concerns, for a mystic looks only above and a mariner looks only beyond, at the inscrutable sea. That leaves unexplained the lively interest in the social and political issues of the time demonstrated in many of Herman's other works....
Herman had no need to embellish what he already knew, nor did he. In fact, he may have used the Record somewhat less than has been supposed. It has been noted that in both "Donelson" and in a column reprinted from the New York Times the word "vim" appears; but at the time that word was in common use, as is demonstrated by General Sheridan's philippic against Jeff Hobart. Again, although a piece from the Missouri Democrat and "Donelson" both use the word "sortie," that is the kind of military term that war introduces to the civilian vocabulary. --Stanton Garner, Civil War World pp389-90Garner is wrong when he doubts Melville's borrowing of "vim" and "sortie" as well but absolutely right I think about his more important claims for Melville's artistry as a poet. For the legacy of stone-cold imperviousness to the high quality of Battle-Pieces, blame not only or mainly Weaver but also William Dean Howells and Edmund Wilson, and distinguished followers of theirs like Andrew Delbanco.
Hats off then to Garner for battling Wilson's verdict of "versified journalism." Garner's own great line
"Herman's mind contained a rebellion record of its own." --Civil War Worldreminds me of Dylan on Dylan: "All my songs are protest songs."
For further study...
Donelson in Melville's Battle-Pieces
Donelson, online text
Frank Day on Melville's Use of the Rebellion Record
Hennig Cohen, Introduction to 1963 ed. Battle-Pieces
Rebellion Record vol. 4 at Google Books
Rebellion Record vol 4 at Hathi Trust Digital Library