Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 106: Judith W. McGuire, “Our Beleaguered City” (#130)

Judith W. McGuire, “Our Beleaguered City” (1862/1867/1889) from The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

Note on the weird dates: 1862 was when McGuire wrote her diary; 1867 was when it was first published; but this text is taken from the 1889 edition.

"Our Beleaguered City" tells the story of a few days in the battle outside Richmond from the POV of someone not directly engaged in the fighting itself. (McGuire was a nurse.) Now most of the piece is given over to recording the events of the battle, which is interesting: without a front-line presence--or Twitter--we can imagine that McGuire is getting most of her information by gossip and the observation of others. This seems very odd to me; I mean, the end of Google Reader was big news where I live, so it's not always easy to put myself in the mindset of someone getting info in this way.

Now, there is another source of observation for the Richmonders, which is direct observation--from a distance--of the battle going on just outside. McGuire notes that lots of people took up posts on top of buildings to watch the battle, which was
a scene of unsurpassed magnificence. The brilliant light of bombs bursting in the air and passing to the ground, the innumerable lesser lights, emitted by thousands and thousands of muskets, together with the roar of artillery and the rattling of small-arms, constituted a scene terrifically grand and imposing.
That's also hard for me to really imagine: what would it be like to be so close to the front-line that you can observe the battle, but far enough away that it takes on an aesthetic sublimity?

There's one final part of the diary that reminds me of how different McGuire's mindset is from my own. After she notes that the Richmonders were watching, she asks
What spell has bound our people? Is their trust in God, and in the valour of our troops, so great that they are unmoved by these terrible demonstrations of our powerful foe? It would seem so, for when the battle was over the crowd dispersed and retired to their respective homes...
There's other ways to describe the Richmonders who stayed to watch the battle, not all of them positive. Yet, in 1862, from the Southron perspective of McGuire, that's all she offers.

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