The team of writer and activist Mary Johnston and artist N. C. Wyeth offers a fascinating case study of non-veterans collaborating to interpret Civil War battles.
Recently, I read portions of Johnston’s Wyeth-illustrated novel Cease Firing (Houghton Mifflin, 1912). It occurred to me that this picture in the book, accompanying her account of the May 12, 1864, fighting at Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle, may now be the least known of its nationally circulated and publicized depictions:
(This black-and-white, online version of the artwork is in the public domain; Wyeth’s original painting resides in a private collection but is viewable in low-rez color here. That, by the way, is from a thumbnailed catalog that inventories many of Wyeth’s other historical works, including some of his sketched studies of Civil War soldiers. Wyeth’s Wiki entry is here.)
And Wyeth’s grim vision of the Bloody Angle only hinted at the horrors of Johnston’s, which began with self-narrating stabs by a Confederate’s blade:
The breastwork here was log and earth. Now other bayonets appeared over it, and behind the bayonets blue caps. “I have heard many a fuss,” said the first bayonet thrust, “but never a fuss like this!” “Blood, blood!” said the second. “I am the bloody Past! Just as strong and young as ever I was! More blood!”
The trenches grew slippery with blood. It mixed with the rain and ran in red streamlets. The bayonet point felt first the folds of cloth, then it touched and broke the skin, then it parted the tissues, then it grated against bone, or, passing on, rending muscle and gristle…. Where weapons had been wrested away men clutched with bare hands one anothers’ throats. And all this went on, not among a dozen or even fifty infuriated beings, but among thousands.
Houghton Mifflin had teamed Johnston with Wyeth for her first Civil War novel, The Long Roll, published in 1911. Parts of its narrative were set at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Some of you will recognize Wyeth’s The Vedette which, it turns out, appeared in The Long Roll to illustrate the December battle’s fringe operations along the Rappahannock. The online, public domain version is in color:
The general’s widow, Mary Anna Jackson, published a blistering critique of The Long Roll in The New York Times and The Richmond Times-Dispatch in the fall of 1911. Mary Anna presented testimony by the general’s friends and former associates along with her own objections to the novel’s emphasis on his eccentricity, slovenly dress, and humble origins. Wyeth, ironically, escaped the barrage; the criticism extended to his frontispiece–a “hideous caricature” and a “likeness of some brutal prizefighter…all animal without one spark of intelligent illumination”–but left the artist unnamed and implicitly blamed the picture’s misrepresentations on the author.
On the one hand, Johnston was not without Confederate pedigree and nostalgia. A recent biographical essay in Encyclopedia Virginia quotes her recalling a Southern childhood spent with a father who had been a Confederate artillery officer and was cousin to Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. “We lived in a veritable battle cloud, an atmosphere of war stories, of continued reference to the men and to the deeds of that gigantic struggle.” On the other hand, her Civil War writing reflected her hatred of war and dislike of Jackson, as noted in historian Wallace A. Hettle’s detailed account of the 1911 dispute between Mary and Mary Anna.
The Encyclopedia Virginia essay also describes Mary Johnston’s later writing on behalf of woman suffrage (and her resignation from one of its advocacy groups to protest their racist rhetoric) and against lynching.
Speaking of Civil War Spotsylvania, it’s my pleasure to welcome a new blog: The Mule Shoe: Facts and Myths. Its host, Virginian Russ Edwards, has devoted years of painstaking research to the fighting along the Mule Shoe salient and its component angles. He’s focused particularly on the connections between the Doles’ Salient events of May 10, 1864 and those at the West Angle (“Bloody Angle”) and East Angle on May 12, the little-known story of Confederate artillery at the Mule Shoe, and the identification of fortification remnants surviving in the area today.
Noel G. Harrison
A public-domain version of Cease Firing is here; one for The Long Roll is here. Special thanks to Craig Swain and Harry Smeltzer for some of the few recent, online historical discussions, here and here, of Wyeth’s Civil War pictures.