Tuesday, February 15, 2011

WRITING A SAGA

In the advent of the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, I sit, surrounded by reference books, maps, and a sketchy diary belonging to my Great-Grandfather Greenlaw, writing a novel about his early life in the Rappahannock country of Virginia and his role as a Captain in the 2nd Tennessee Regiment of the Confederate Army. What I write is a work of fiction, based on scant facts supplied by my Great-Grandmother’s handwritten copy of his diary and a few records from Virginia Military Institute where he attended school almost three years.

The research is formidable as the Civil War is one of the most written about wars in military history and an epic war comparable to the Greek battles. Great-Grandfather Greenlaw spent part of his service life in a Union prison after he was captured at the Battle of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, or Stones River Battle, as it is more commonly called. What I read about the conditions at Fort Delaware Prison, to which he was sent following his capture at Stones River, is so horrendous that I almost want to skip over that part of his story.

General Albin F. Schoepf was commandant at Fort Delaware and became known as “General Terror,” and the prison gained the name of “The Death Pen.” Hunger, scurvy, and dysentery afflicted the soldiers who boiled rats, ate soup with maggots, and due to overcrowding, contracted smallpox, measles, and other communicable diseases. Great-Grandfather stayed in this prison six months, and the six months must have been too horrible for him to record because he wrote only one line about his imprisonment: “At the Battle of Murfreesboro, I was captured and sent first to Camp Morton in Indiana, then to Fort Delaware…”

Great-Grandfather came out of a war in which he was wounded four times, imprisoned once, and endured battles from the beginning of the Civil War in April 1861 until its conclusion in the Spring of 1865. It was a war with a high number of casualties, and at Fort Delaware alone, 2700 Confederate prisoners died; 2400 of whom were interred at Finn’s Point National Cemetery near the former prison. Their graves can’t be individually identified, and I’m sure some of them were my Great-Grandfather’s compatriots. I’m amazed that he survived the experience.

Great-Grandfather’s remarks in his sketchy diary seem non-committal, as if he was setting down a few facts that he really wanted to forget but felt compelled to pass on so that someone would investigate his reasons for entering that “late great unpleasantness,” as the Civil War is sometimes called. Every morning, I stand before Great-Grandfather’s portrait in the living room and ask him, “So where do we go today, Captain Lawrence Dade?” Sometimes I get at least two pages of writing to carry on his story. He is the hero of a story that will span five generations, so I’m in no hurry to be done with him. As a preview of what I’m learning about the horrors of war, I include the few lines, via his voice, that I wrote yesterday:

“It was presumptuous of me to assume that all men were obsessed with ideals of honor, valor, and glory and that those ideals were only achieved by engaging in the horrors of war. The cost of following atavistic urges that led us into battle was a deadening of the soul. I felt more shame than valor. I had been reckless, perhaps, and undaunted but not valiant. War was a rhythm of fight and fall back, fight and fall back. It sometimes meant capture, sometimes wounds, and often, death. North and South were like waspish lovers no longer enamored with one another, trying desperately to separate…”

Meanwhile, I no longer wonder why the family called Great-Grandfather Lawrence Dade “a melancholy Scot,” and I hope that as the story unfolds, via my conversations with him, he’ll eventually tell me about some peaceful aspect of his earthly life.
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