Manticores, Myths, and Memory (part one)

(Part one of four)

Paul Ashdown and Ed Caudill are co-authors of the latest book in the Engaging the Civil War Series, Imagining Wild Bill: James Butler Hickok in War, Media, and Memory (Southern Illinois University Press). In this series, they’ll talk a bit about their work on Civil War-era figures, including Wild Bill, and their places in media and memory.

Part One: Salvaging History

British psychiatrist Alan McGlashan observed that war “acts like a depth-charge in the deep waters of the unconscious,” unleashing repressed myths and fantastic characters. At other times, myths enchant and give life fullness. But war forces us to confront that “mythic style of life in its most savage and destructive form.” War gives myth a bad name. If he is right, myth must have been in great disrepute after such a bloody ruction as the Civil War.[1]

McGlashan was writing in 1976, a century after the remarkable year that saw the American centennial celebration interrupted by sensational news of George Armstrong Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn, the murder of his friend and one-time scout, Civil War veteran Wild Bill Hickok, in a Deadwood saloon, and the James-Younger gang’s botched Northfield, Minnesota, bank robbery. It also was the year Thomas Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog,” first came to the United States as an advocate for the theory of evolution, later co-opted by Herbert Spencer and others to re-interpret history in terms of social Darwinism, itself something of a myth, and which still hold great sway in the public imagination and political discourse. [2] 

At about the same time, Col. John Mosby—once the feared “Gray Ghost of the Confederacy”—and a political opponent prepared to settle an argument in Virginia with double-barreled shotguns at twenty paces. In Tennessee, Nathan Bedford Forrest, the “Wizard of the Saddle,” had been threatening to silence taunts from General Judson Kilpatrick, General William Tecumseh Sherman’s cavalry chief during the March to the Sea, by dueling the rival general with sabers on horseback. The violence unbound by the the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Indian wars had spread across the continent, and was hardly over. War and its bloody aftermath saw an even more fervent embrace of certain cultural myths—such as individualism, the frontier, agrarianism, the Lost Cause, the rebel, manifest destiny and egalitarianism.[3]

McGlashan was warning of a chaotic, war-churned and media-saturated world

being torn from . . . ancient moorings . . . . The order-loving part of the mind looks on appalled as these grotesque avatars, that belong to the fantasy life of the deep unconscious, shoulder their way into the everyday world, jostling us in the broad noon-day streets. . . . It is the world of myth, which we have too long repudiated, returning upon us in irresistible strength.

The avatars McGlashan had in mind arose during and after the world wars. They were more likely to be Dionysian rock stars, mystics, revolutionaries and bacillary weaponry than 19th century generals and Western gunfighters, but perhaps the era was not all that far removed from 1876, a watershed year in an America on the cusp of the modern world.[4]

*     *     *

We began our research into war, myth and memory just as the 20th century was coming to an end. Initially, we wanted to find out how the Civil War was being remembered in the run-up to the Sesquicentennial in 2015. We looked at some of those mythic figures released by the “depth charge” of the Civil War, particularly the myths’ origins and afterlife. The more we got into the story, the more the depth charge seemed to be primed with printer’s ink and loaded with myth as it was launched into popular culture.

Consider the case of Lt. Col. George Ward Nichols. Born in 1831, Nichols came of age in Boston before leaving the country to study art in Paris. He later wrote for the New York Evening Post, specializing in art and music criticism. But the fighting in “Bloody Kansas” drew him to the fields of battle where he reported on the growing crisis. He joined the army, served on Sherman’s staff in 1864 and 1865, and wrote an account of his commander’s March to the Sea. Rushed into print, The Story of the Great March from the Diary of a Staff Officer aggrandized and mythologized Sherman as the fires still smoldered in Georgia and the Carolinas:

General Sherman is terribly in earnest in his method of conducting the war, but he is neither vindictive nor implacable . . . . Yet there is a depth of tenderness, akin to the love of woman, behind that face which is furrowed with the lines of anxiety and care, and those eyes which dart keen and suspicious glances. Little children cling to the General’s knees and nestle in his arms . . . . [5]

The mythmaking becomes even more evident as Nichols makes Sherman into a symbol congruent with America itself. The New York Times praised the book’s “spirit-stirring narrative.”

Few men have so harmoniously united common sense and genius as General Sherman. He can hardly be styled a representative man, but he is altogether original, and is, at the same time, a pure outgrowth of American civilization . . . . He is a striking type of our institutions, and he comprehends justly the National Idea.[6]

With this success, Nichols looked for another big story to interest New York publishers. In 1865, in Springfield, Missouri, he stumbled across a sometime-lawman and Union scout with a talent for gunplay and tall tales. James Butler Hickok, soon to carry the appellation “Wild Bill,” spun amazing tales of his Civil War heroics and the shootings and stabbings that befell him in a peculiar backwoods patois. Nichols acknowledged that

one who has lived for four years in the presence of such grand heroism and deeds of prowess as seen during the war is in what might be called a “receptive” mood. Be the story true or not, in part, or in whole, I believed then every word Wild Bill uttered, and I believe it to-day.[7]

And there we have a myth, true or not, believed because a listener is receptive. Although some Western newspaper editors disputed the truth of Nichols’ story when it appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in January 1867, the story resonated with Eastern newspaper readers, and by the end of the year stories about the fearless scout and Indian slayer already were in print. Nichols pulled the amazing trick of creating two mythical characters, one of high status and one of low, before he retired from mythmaking and became president of the Cincinnati College of Music.[8]

This is the sort of thing that captivated us as we charged into the crowded Civil War theater of the absurd, a weirdly contested memory play with explosions going off all around. From the beginning, the war had been interpreted, and then remembered, through powerful filters that were themselves sieves of cultural myths. We focused on those and other themes in our books on Mosby, Forrest, Sherman, and Custer. Each came out of the war as an incubator of some larger mythic dimension, and then lodged in the public consciousness into the 21st century, regardless, in some cases, of their actual historical importance or identity. The myths illustrated how the Civil War in particular, and perhaps war in general, amplified national mythology.[9]

(to be continued….)

[1] Alan McGlashan, Gravity and Levity (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976), 75-76.

[2] On Huxley and Spencer, see Edward Caudill, Darwinian Myths: The Legends and Misuses of a Theory (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997).

[3] James A. Ramage, Gray Ghost: The Life of Col. John Singleton Mosby (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999), 279, 283; Brian Steel Wills, A Battle from the Start: the Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 348.

[4] McGlashan, Gravity and Levity, 82-83, 11920.

[5] Joseph G. Rosa, “George Ward Nichols and the Legend of Wild Bill Hickok,” Arizona and the West 19:2 (Summer 1977), 136; George Ward Nichols, The Story of the Great March from the Diary of a Staff Officer (New York: Harper and Bros., 1865), 119.

[6] “New Books: The Story of the Great March,” New York Times, August 14, 1865, 124.

[7] George Ward Nichols, “Wild Bill,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 34 (February 1867. Joseph G. Rosa, Wild Bill Hickok: The Man and His Myth (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996). The article is reproduced as an appendix, 214-40.

[8] Rosa, Wild Bill Hickok, 26-30.

[9] William C. Davis, The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996); Matthew Carr, Sherman’s Ghosts: Soldiers, Civilians, and the American Way of War (New York: New Press, 2015); Paul Ashdown and Edward Caudill, The Mosby Myth: A Confederate Hero in Life and Legend (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2012); Paul Ashdown and Edward Caudill, The Myth of Nathan Bedford Forrest (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005); Edward Caudill and Paul Ashdown, Sherman’s March in Myth and Memory (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), Inventing Custer: The Making of an American Legend (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).

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