The Peripatetic Reviewer
A GRANDFATHER can be a very impressive figure to a ten-year-old, and the grandfathers of my generation were invested with a special aura because of their part in the Civil War. We were the youngest to hear at first hand their stories of Shiloh, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, and shall be the last to remember these veterans. To us they stood for command, for hardihood, and for a gallantry that has long since disappeared from war.
My Grandfather Suydam was of a size to command respect. He was “The Colonel” to everyone in town, and in fact at the war’s end he was Lieutenant Colonel of the Third New Jersey Cavalry at the age of twenty-seven. He had volunteered as a private in ‘61 and had his troop that autumn; promoted to Captain, he served as Chief of Staff to Keyes and then to Pleasonton, and had more than one horse shot under him. (One rolled over on him, injuring his leg. To prevent paralysis, the doctor filled him with brandy and forced him to walk all night long on the deck of the ship bringing him back home.) He had known Lincoln — with his attractive bride he had dined at the White House; he had ridden in the triumphant review of the Army of the Potomac in May, 1865, and like so many of his time, his life was then at its high point though he did not realize it. I doubt if any subsequent command in civil life ever aroused him as much as his charges against Jeb Stuart in the Valley.
I remember his great cavalry saber which I could barely lift, and the heavy horse pistol I was half afraid to draw from the holster; I remember his commission signed by Lincoln and his spurs on the lop of the bookshelf. I remember the “4711” which he used on his handkerchiefs; his black broadcloth and immaculate starched shirts; and I remember his rebuking me for not having had my toenails cut when I crept into his big four-poster one Sunday morning before breakfast.
The stones I remember were probably embellished in the retelling by the Colonel’s six daughters, one of whom is my mother. The most exciting story was prompted by the miniature of Grandmother, painted on ivory. While inspecting pickets in the Shenandoah, the Colonel at full gallop was spotted by a sharpshooter: the horse was killed and he severely hurt. The wagon train in which he was sent to the rear was captured by Mosby’s guerrillas: when Grandfather was being stripped of his belongings he asked if he couldn’t keep his wife’s picture and they tossed it at him. But before the guerrillas could reach their own lines they were overtaken by Union cavalry under General Custer. This had all the switch and drama to dream about, and there was the miniature to prove it! Another story was about the Confederate shell in the library, a dud which had plowed into the ground beside Grandmother while she and the Colonel were riding close to the lines and evidently in view of a Rebel battery. I used to wonder what she was doing so close to the front. And did Lincoln really say to her, at the close of a White House reception: “And now, my dear, if you’ll excuse me I think I’ll put on my old slippers, for my corns are very bad this evening”?
A collection of the Colonel’s papers of the war years has come down to me, and as I mull them over I have a clearer understanding of the young soldier. Here is the special order signed by Meade transferring Captain C. C. Suydam to “The Headquarters of the Cavalry Corps,” and with it a wellbrowned clipping describing the successful raid he led on Winchester, where the Third New Jersey captured five regimental battle flags and put Stuart’s cavalry to flight. Here are calling cards with corners still turned down just as they were dropped on the silver tray in Washington: “Major Genl McClellan,” “Due de Chartres,” “Miss Emily King”; penciled sketches, now faint with age, of the headquarters at Yorktown, Virginia — the artist, Oswald Jackson; a telegram beginning “Richmond taken, Uncle Archie dead . . .”; and the issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper for May 6, 1865, entirely devoted to Lincoln’s funeral.
Most personal of all, a letter from the Colonel’s mother written in October ‘64 after his “providential escape from death and captivity,” in which she goes on to spare him none of the family troubles — asking him whether $18,000 is a fair price for the family farm she feels obliged to sell, telling him she is worried about his younger brothers who have enlisted, and suggesting rather plaintively that after such tong service, he would have “sufficient reason for resigning.” Reading between the lines gives me a clearer appreciation of his loyalties.
As it must have been
The Photographic History of the Civil War, ten bound volumes containing close to 3800 reproductions of photographs by Mathew Brady and his assistants, was published in 1911, the year in which my grandfather died, so I never had the opportunity of looking at them under his guidance. But one of my earliest recollections is of paging through the woodcuts of Harper’s Weekly, which had been bound up in a huge slab-sided volume, a book so heavy that I could only get into it by sitting crosslegged on the floor.
Now comes a book which holds the best of these two superb collections the best of Brady and his anonymous contemporaries and the best of the woodcuts and the line drawings by the combat artists of the 1860s. The editors of Divided We Fought (Macmillan, $10.00), Hirst Milhollen, Milton Kaplan, and Hulen Stuart, have selected 500 of the finest pictures from all available sources, and to cap them they chose David Donald of Columbia University, who has quoted from contemporary sources, usually the combatants themselves, the most authentic, and often the most moving, prose that could be found.
Divided, We Fought brings home the human elements of the Civil War as no other book I have ever seen — the courage, the suffering, the endurance, the humor, and the passion. The portraits are very telling. Here are the bearded giants: Major General Thomas Jonathan Jackson with his wide, steadfast eyes, Ulysses Simpson Grant with that stubborn thrust of his lower jaw, Lee and Stuart, and the clearest of all, William Tecumseh Sherman, his wrinkled face irascible and sensitive; and here are those who brag: Pope, the portly and grandiloquent, Mullock with his flabby cheeks, and little Mac who protested that he never had enough to do the things he dreamed of. The portraits of those who up to now have been anonymous touch the heart more swiftly. I mean Private Jennison of the Georgia Infantry who was killed at the age of sixteen at Malvern Hill; an unidentified private of the Iron Brigade; the three lieutenants of the First Connecticut Artillery snapped at Fort Brady just after the mail had arrived; the Confederate sharpshooter at Devil’s Den; a file of the Sixth Maine after Chancellorsville.
The composition, the artistry of these photographs, is the peer of anything taken in the two World Wars. Whether it is the Starboard Battery of the U.S.S. Pawnee or the wives in camp at Brandy Station, the wounded stretched out at Fredericksburg or the Palmetto Battery of Charleston, these pages strike that perfect balance between the individual and the group action. These are places that challenge the imagination: Pulpit Rock, the summit of Lookout Mountain, Atlanta in flames, the McLean house at Appomattox; and the running commentary, quoted now from Mary Chesnut’s Diary, now from Colonel Lyman, now from Sherman’s letters, or from the reminiscences of John B. Gordon or an unknown corporal, has a dramatic authenticity no fiction can ever rival.
What makes an American
On the completion of his monumental four-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, Carl Sandburg told his publishers that he never again would write a long book. Next time, he said, he’d cut the text off on the day he reached 100,000 words, cut it right off — and start another book. But every author is entitled to make an exception for his autobiography, and when Mr. Sandburg began to recall the long, long thoughts of his youth, he was swept forward on a tide of reminiscence which overflowed his promise. You must take him at his own pace and I imagine readers will grow impatient with such a detailed tour of boyhood. Always the Young Strangers (Harcourt, Brace, $5.00), which appeared on the author’s 75th birthdays, is the chronicle of his first twenty years (1878—1898); it is a fresh slice of Americana ; it is the jack-of-all-trades education of a writer, and in a class by itself.
Carl’s father, August Sandburg, was an emigrant from Sweden who fetched up in Galesburg, Illinois, where he swung hammer and sledge in the C.B.&Q. blacksmith shop ten hours a day, six days a week. An unsmiling, resourceful man, powerful in his shoulders, deft with his hands, who never lost his Swedish ways or accent, the elder Sandburg supported a family of seven on $35 a month, and not until a mortgage which had been “sleeping” for nineteen years pulled him down into debt did the zest go out of his day. With his accordion and Bible, he was a strong determinant of Carl’s character — stronger, I gather, than the amiable mother who accepted so cheerfully the neverending burden of child-raising and housework.
“Sholly,” as his father called him, had first to free himself from the cocoon of the old country. In his infancy he used only Swedish words to tell what he wanted, and to this day some of those homely phrases seem to him of more color than their Fnglish equivalents. But from the first Carl was an American boy born close to the tracks and trained to be handy. He held the lamp until his arms ached while his father carpentered in the cellar, fetched the water from the pump — many buckets on washday — grubbed in the garden, and carried on a personal feud with the stove—the fighting words were “Charlie, the coal is gone!” Who can say what chemistry it was that made this one of the five children susceptible to words, to cyclopedias, to A History of the World and Its GreatEvents (sold by a polite book agent), to the Youth’s Companion and any book he could get about Napoleon.
Carl was perceptive, with a quick sense of humor — there are glints of it in every episode — he liked people, and was brimming with energy, a fine inheritance for a boy coming up the hard way. When he worked in a drugstore he had an unforgettable run-in with a drug addict; when he shined shoes in a barbershop, he had a smile and a nod for the customers that resulted in tips, and on Saturdays he would scrub the backs of those who came in for a weekly bath; for sixteen months he delivered milk with Sam Barlow and did not miss the impression his well-favored boss made on the housewives; he worked with a tinsmith, tried to learn the potter’s trade, washed pop bottles from seven in the morning until six at night, guzzled all the pop he wanted and had diarrhea; he was water boy on a road gang — and for these and other jobs too numerous to mention he received approximately $3 a week, and an incomparable knowledge of human nature.
Always the Young Strangers is written in a prose which catches the naturalness, and at times the awkwardness, of the acquisitive boy. The sevcnlyfive-year-old is always there in the background, and can sometimes be heard weighing and comparing, but he is never obtrusive. This is a book about the sunlit, gaslit American of the late nineteenth century, a book happy in tone, eager, full of character, and domestic in its interests.
How they splurged
The Last Resorts by Cleveland Amory (Harper, $5.00) is a volume in which the bits are better than the whole. At its best it is a shrewd, unsparing account of those who splurged at Newport, Bar Harbor, Jekyll Island, Tuxedo Park, in the heyday of our plutocracy; at its second best, it is waspish journalism cluttered with fashionable names and leaden wit and hardly to be distinguished from the column of Cholly Knickerbocker. Mr. Amory has a good ear for gossip and is an indefatigable collector of fashions. In satirical sketches he tells of the dudes and the belles, of the hostesses and dancing masters, of Ward McAllister and Harry Lehr, George F. Baker, Irene Langhorne, Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, and Mrs. Stotesbury. He writes with a dislike so little concealed that it constitutes a snobbery of its own. And he has succeeded in telling only half the story, for he has omitted the real reason for going to resorts: people went, and still go, in search of pleasure. They wanted to have fun, and in the old days they found it in house parties and on picnics, in dances that could be lovely, in the delicious food, in amusing talk and in flirtations. But his book has neither time nor skill for such amenities; it is intent on disparagement only, and is endlessly repetitious.