Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 127: William Howard Russell, The Union Army Retreats (#81)

William Howard Russell, "The Union Army Retreats" (1863) from The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

William Howard Russell provides an interesting boots-on-the-ground (or in-the-stirrup) view of the Union Army defeat at the First Bull Run / First Manassas. He repeatedly stresses that he never knew how bad the rout was: even though he was caught up in the retreating army, he kept telling people that he thought McDowell would stop the retreat at Centreville. Russell describes the confusion and fear of the retreat.

Also, in this long section, Russell describes how the Union soldiers were a nuisance and a danger, both to civilians and each other; including reminding us how one Union soldier asked for a drink from his flask and nearly drained the whole thing. Russell also makes sure to tell us that, despite all the terror around him, Russell did his part to act nobly and stem the retreat; and how Russell was fairly cool and calm and even ironically detached from the proceedings.

What we don't hear from Russell is what he has no way of really knowing: not just what the war is like as it happens, but what it means. So when Russell is more interested in the means of the war than the ends, he may remind us of his fellow Englishman, Arthur Fremantle, whose account of the war hit on how gallant the Southrons were; but he also reminds us that, for the man in the field, the war is often a case of simply the few feet in front of him. (It may also remind us of the treatment Russell gave to the Carolinians post Secession, when he noted that they were terribly amateur and faddish.)

But what's funny to me here isn't just that Russell thinks the Confederates and the Union soldiers are terrible at what they do--amateurs and cowards; what's funny is how much Russell esteems his own part in the struggle as a detached observer.

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