“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” observed William Faulkner in “Requiem for a Nun” (1951). Seemingly everyone, from Woody Allen to Barack Obama, has paraphrased that line. But for historians Faulkner’s famous quote signifies the inescapable power of the past in shaping the present.
Faulkner’s words provide the leitmotif for Frye Gaillard’s slender “Journey to the Wilderness,” his quest to grasp what the Civil War meant to his Southern ancestors and his own understanding of the conflict. Writer in residence at the University of South Alabama, Gaillard draws upon a cache of family letters to peel back layers of cultural myth, memory and legend. In doing so he exposes the Civil War’s underlying ambivalence, horror and pain.
Gaillard grew up in the 1950s raised on family stories enshrouded by the Lost Cause myth. According to this lore, Southerners fought the Yankees to defend their homes from invasion. Their resolve and valor made the Confederates superior fighters. Their heroic generals, including Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart, were strategic geniuses who used chivalry and dash to overcome their inferior numbers. By 1865 only Yankee industrial might and more men wore the Rebels down. The Confederates’ heroism remained untarnished even in defeat.
Later in life, as he pored over his family letters, Gaillard discovered that the reality of his ancestors’ war experiences clashed with the Lost Cause interpretation. Accounts of cowardice, brutality, disease, heartrending deaths and racial violence seemed to Gaillard “an obvious swirl of contradiction.” “Was the Civil War truly, as I had so often heard, a time of gallantry undiminished by loss? ... Or was there something more ugly and painful?” He also wondered why Southerners held “such a fierce source of pride” for the war.
Eventually Gaillard learned that 1950s Southerners distorted the Civil War’s historical memory, generally ignoring the price their ancestors had paid for disunion and war. Roughly 300,000 men – about 1 in 4 Rebel soldiers – died in the war either from combat or disease. Indeed the War Between the States cast a dark pall over the defeated South, leaving its citizens semi-starved and demoralized and its agriculture, industries and cities ruined.
Gaillard includes many poignant family letters in “Journey to the Wilderness.” Following First Bull Run in July 1861, Franklin Gaillard, an officer in the 2nd South Carolina Regiment, wrote to his father, Thomas Gaillard: “You can form no idea of the thirst created by the excitement and fatigue of battle. The indifference with which one regards the dead and wounded is another astonishing feature.”
Upon learning of the Confederate defeat at Shiloh in April 1862, Thomas wrote: “Oh this terrible war! Who can measure the troubles – the affliction – it has brought upon us all? It has pleased the Almighty to inflict upon us this severe chastisement.” And Franklin described the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 as “the most shocking battle I have ever witnessed. There were familiar forms and faces with parts of their heads shot away, legs shattered, arms torn off, etc.” In September 1866, Richebourg Gaillard, Franklin’s brother, commented on Reconstruction. “The whole North is mad and nothing will cure their madness but blood-letting.”
Although Gaillard pays short shrift to race, especially to the civil rights movement, and continues to over romanticize the “gallantry” of war, his book will give pause to Americans who profess to “love” the Civil War. He offers a sober reminder of “how the past lives on in the present, and how it draws us, slowly if we let it, in the painful direction of a more honest truth.”
John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at UNC Charlotte.
Journey to the Wilderness: War, Memory, and a Southern Family’s Civil War Letter
NewSouth Books, 128 pages