Another excellent piece by David Brooks in The New York Times today. It is a reflection on the difference in soldiers from the Civil War to today. The language, the letters, the thoughts, are so completely different. We look so small today in comparison.
In our current era, as the saying goes, we take that which is lower to be more real. We generally believe that soldiers under the gritty harshness of war are not thinking about high ideals like gallantry. They are just trying to get through the day or protect their buddies. Since World War I, as Hemingway famously put it, abstract words like “honor” and “glory” and “courage” often seem obscene and pretentious. Studies of letters sent home by soldiers in World War II suggest that grand ideas were remote from their daily concerns.
But Civil War soldiers were different. In his 1997 book “For Cause and Comrades,” James M. McPherson looked at the private letters Civil War soldiers sent to their loved ones. As McPherson noted, they ring with “patriotism, ideology, concepts of duty, honor, manhood and community.”
The mentality of the soldier in the Civil War era was not only different, but their language was different. Nothing was short. No “text” language. And they were not afraid of their feelings.
One of the most famous letters was written not at Gettysburg but on July 14, 1861, on the eve of the First Battle of Bull Run. It was written by Sullivan Ballou, an officer from Rhode Island. Ballou had lost his own parents when he was young and, having known “the bitter fruit of orphanage myself,” he declared himself loath to die in battle and leave his small children fatherless.
“My love for you is deathless,” he wrote to his wife. “It seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; yet my love of country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.”
It’s not just love of country that impels him, but a feeling of indebtedness to the past: “I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.”
Truly a different era. Our era of special interest politics looks pathetically small to the thoughts of these young men in these letters.