I heard the muffled drum beat slow,
I heard the soft flute's tones of woe,
I saw the coffin in the ground,
And the loud volley fired around—
And many a manly veteran there,
With faltering step and brow of care.
Dashed from his eye the tear that fell
In token of a last farewell.
Ira Seymour Dodd alludes to "ghoulish burials" after battle. In the strictly relative comfort of "settled camp," the frequency of funerals permitted only the "scantiest ceremony" which did nevertheless feature "a parting volley over the grave":
There are no funerals on the march; there are none after battle. On the march, if a man falls out of the ranks stricken with mortal sickness or exhaustion he is left to be picked up by the ambulance, perhaps to die alone by the way. The column cannot halt. After battle, there are but ghoulish burials. But in settled camp the decencies of death are rudely observed.The first funeral in our company was that of one of our serjeants, a young man whom we all loved. He died shortly after Christmas-time. A box of good things from home had lately arrived; out of the boards of that box we managed to make a coffin for our dear comrade and the whole company marched to his grave. But the most of our dead were buried without coffin and funerals became too common for any but scantiest ceremony. A drum and fife playing the Dead March, a firing squad of three to give a parting volley over the grave, then the chaplain, then the body of the dead soldier wrapped in his blanket and carried on a stretcher by two men followed perhaps by half-a-dozen intimate friends, and that was all. --Ira Seymour Dodd, Song of the Rappahannock
In the same mood and equally relevant to Melville's Civil War context is this July 1863 description of burial rites in camp, submitted by one North Carolina correspondent of the Auburn, New York Advertiser:
A SOLDIER'S BURIAL.From the Manchester (New Hampshire) Weekly Union, Tuesday, September 27, 1864:
It is really a sad sight, and one that can not fail to leave a deep and melancholy impression upon the heart, to witness the performance of the last solemn rites to the remains of a departed comrade. A burial: a sad duty among all conditions of life, and under every circumstance; but to lay a loved one gently 'neath the turfs and flowers of home, is not attended with such utter loneliness as characterizes the interment of a soldier in a distant state, far from home and weeping friends. The preliminary preparations are brief. As soon as death has ensued, the body of the deceased is placed in a rude pine coffin and conveyed to the place of burial; his comrades, with a slow and steady tramp, and "arms reversed," sadly follow their old companion's remains to the grave side; while the band, with muffled drums "beats the soldier's last tattoo."— The body is soon lowered to its final resting place, the earth is restored to its place, and a small new mound marks the spot where lies in obscurity another soldier of the army of the Union. A parting volley is fired over the grave, and he is left, "to sleep the sleep that knows no waking." --3rd Artillery Regiment (Light) NY Volunteers
At Pine Bluff, a strong garrisoned town, surrounded almost by a bayou whose stagnant waters under a torrid sun became green with a loathsome scum, “the muffled drum beat,” and parting volley mark daily, nightly and hourly the last of a soldier.Necessity might only permit the barest of formal honors, even for heroes of the American Revolution, as when they buried Colonel James Willliams at King's Mountain:
The next morning, for want of suitable conveyance, the friends of Colonel Williams concluded to bury his remains were they were. They were accordingly interred with the honors of war, between the camp of the patriots and the river, a little above the mouth of Buffalo creek—on what was long known as the Fondren, then the old Carruth place, now belonging to Captain J. B. Mintz. Having performed this touching service, and fired a parting volley over the newly made grave of one of the noted heroes of the war of independence, the army, late in the day, renewed its line of march apparently up Broad river.... --King's Mountain and its HeroesObsequies in the camp of General Hooker, as reported (a month before the Battle of Chancellorsville) in the Boston Traveler, March 31, 1863:
"The funeral of a private is attended by a corporal and eight men who march with reversed arms to the sound of solemn music, and the last honors—three volleys of musketry—are duly given over the soldier’s grave."
A long-standing military tradition was to honor the dead by showing their weapons were no longer hostile. Whereas naval fleets traditionally discharge seven rounds in commemoration, their on-land counterparts were able to shoot three times as many for a total of 21.
However, at most military funerals what many mistake for a 21-gun salute is actually an honor guard team firing three volleys from rifles. This tradition comes from traditional battle ceasefires where each side would clear the dead. The firing of three volleys indicated the dead were cleared and properly cared for. --A Final SaluteSo then, unaided as yet by Faust we learn that military funerals traditionally and ideally include the "firing of three volleys from rifles." Moreover, the ceremonial "parting volley" served a practical function on the field of battle, signaling "the dead were cleared and properly cared for." Of course there's another kind of military parting volley, meaning gunshots rattled off either in real or apparent retreat, or at the fleeing enemy. Some sources explain the verbal type of parting shot, witty and devastating, as a corruption of Parthian shot. (Others disagree: one interesting dissent is offered by Michael J. Sheehan at Wordmall.) In Sheridan at Cedar Creek Melville pointedly evokes then promptly excludes the hostile sort of parting volley:
After the battle, the "firing in the Valley" Melville describes is only (only!) the usual ceremonial "parting volley" over the grave. In this case, over many graves or heaped "mounds" for who knows how many corpses. The thematic twist or turn away from hero worship at the end of Sheridan at Cedar Creek is real enough:--Melville's Sheridan at Cedar Creek-Poetry FoundationShroud the horse in sable—For the mounds they heap!There is firing in the Valley,And yet no strife they keep;It is the parting volley,It is the pathos deep.
But the irony in the grave at the end of Melville's poem is finally existential and thus no fault of any war hero who is not also Lord of the Universe (or better, and less blasphemously, the Dark Lord of this world, the Arch Enemy). Lately even the ablest of Melville critics like Tony McGowan in the October 2015 Leviathan detect backhanded blame for Union officers including Sheridan. In the particular case of "Sheridan at Cedar Creek," however, readers looking for evidence of Melville's impulse to deflate overblown military reputations should not overlook the precise denotation of "parting volley" that Melville settles on. The "volley" in Melville's A Dirge for McPherson is likewise the parting volley of military last rites. In "Sheridan at Cedar Creek," Melville's last musket-shots fire over hurriedly heaped mounds of the unknown dead. Fittingly, the parting volley he depicts is ceremonial and the experience of it profoundly sad--more pathetic than ironic.There is glory for the braveWho lead, and nobly save,But no knowledge in the graveWhere the nameless followers sleep. --Sheridan at Cedar Creek
"With a parting volley, his surviving comrades and friends left the noble gentleman and gallant officer to that sleep which shall know no waking save that of the last trump which shall proclaim the end of time.” --United States Army and Navy JournalHow burials actually happened at Cedar Creek I don't know. Key details in Melville's poem are taken from newspaper accounts (Sheridan's waving his hat) and pictures (the horse's foam flakes are shown in the Harper's Weekly cover of November 5, 1864). Perhaps in similar fashion, details of Melville's treatment of burial practice in and after battle might derive from a contemporary newspaper account. Melville's singular "grave" of plural "followers" in the penultimate line seems gloomily suggestive of a mass grave-trench. And with Faust at hand now via Kindle, I'm newly inclined to read Melville's contrast of "glory for the brave" and oblivion for "nameless followers" as possibly an implicit reference to the "privileged treatment" accorded to dead officers, Union or Confederate (Faust's This Republic of Suffering, p77).
"The sadness of these burial scenes cannot be imagined." --Civil War in AmericaHowever it was, having brought us graveside to mourn (as often happens in individual poems of Battle-Pieces and structurally, too), Melville does not need to undermine anybody's act of heroism. Indeed, the pathos of it all depends on first appreciating brave deeds then confronting their ultimate futility. Sheridan himself admitted and lamented his inability to give names of all the fallen:
I submit the following list of the corps, division, and brigade commanders, who were wounded in the campaign, the killed having already been especially noticed, regretting that the scope of this report will not admit of my specifying by name all the many gallant men who were killed and wounded in the numerous engagements in the Shenandoah valley.... --The Rebellion RecordThat Melvillean twister at the end--where knowledge ends and you confront The Void--is awful, just insofar as when Melville's speaker calls horse and rider "brave," and says "nobly" done, he really means it.
"PATHOS, n. [Gr.] ...that which excites emotions and passions."Pathos may be out of vogue, but Melville embraces it.
Glorious PHIL. SHERIDAN," as the soldiers call him, mounted on a favorite horse, now almost jaded, hove in sight, and hearing of the contest, he started from Winchester, with an escort of 275 men and when first seen near the field he had less than thirty men with him, so rapidly had he traveled. Riding through the fields to the left of the pike he passed along in front of the Sixth and Nineteenth corps. Such cheering, such wild enthusiasm I never heard or had any conception of before. Talk of popular favorites -- SHERIDAN was the most popular man in the world at that moment: his presence inspired confidence more than what he said. Riding along the line, recognizing the greeting he received by waving his hat, he uttered modest words of encouragement and good cheer. Hundreds of eyes, unused to the melting mood, were dimmed with tears at that moment, and all thanked God for the return of Gen. SHERIDAN. This should not be considered as any disparagement to Gen WRIGHT, who, up to this time, had been in command; he, personally, had been vigilant and active, but circumstances were against us, and at the right moment the real Commander arrived. A man not grateful for such a welcome would be less than human -- his heart must be stone. --New York Times, October 27, 1864
- More on the parting volley