Thursday, June 20, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 58: Mary Bedinger Mitchell, A Woman’s Recollections of Antietam (#142)

Mary Bedinger Mitchell, "A Woman’s Recollections of Antietam" (1886) from The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

As we've discussed before, I think, eyewitness histories are a great way to do an end-run around our own historical knowledge; i.e., we know how the whole Civil War turned out, so we know what the meaning of Antietam was--"the bloodiest day," a nominal victory for Lincoln, a failure on the part of McClellan, etc. By reading an eyewitness account, we skip the meaning and get into the experience.

Unfortunately, this eyewitness account was published 20+ years after the events of 1862; so while it does nicely describe some of the experience, it also gives us a more canned form of history, with references to some other events and a reliance on summary to capture the town's experience, rather than a dramatization of what Mary herself experienced at 12, when the war came to Shepherdstown.

There's a curious similarity with Bierce's Civil War story from this Sunday, in that Mary spends a lot of time describing the landscape, but also makes it meaningful--though, in this case, meaningful for the everyday life that is soon to be interrupted; so we hear of how a hill was tedious if you had a wheelbarrow--which will be less an issue when Mary is helping doctors amputate limbs.

Mary also gives some sense--through pure assertion--of the miserableness of the Confederate refugees going through the town. However, it's worth noting that the prevailing tone of the piece is something more like slight amusement, the sort of ironic detachment that time gives. So we can laugh at the story of the amateur nurse who nearly gets shelled and is focused primarily on not spilling the gruel she needs for one of her charges; or the story of the younger sister who is sent from one ad hoc hospital by her sister (really Mary) in order to stay safe with her mother at another ad hoc hospital--only mom thinks this position is too dangerous, so sends the kid back.

Some choice lines:

September, 1862, was in the skies of the almanac, but August still reigned in ours; it was hot and dusty. 
Some doctors also arrived, who—with a few honorable exceptions—might as well have staid away 
Of course they [amateur hospital aides] were uncouth and often rough, but with the wounded dying about us every day, and with the necessity that we were under for the first few days, of removing those who died at once that others not yet quite dead might take their places, there was no time to be fastidious; it required all our efforts to be simply decent, and we sometimes failed in that. 
It is curious how much louder guns sound when they are pointed at you than when turned the other way! 

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