“Little more than a startlingly vivid dream”

Emerging Civil War is pleased to welcome Richard Heisler of Civil War Seattle

Recently, while working through material related to the journey of Washington State’s surviving Gettysburg veterans to the 50th anniversary reunion, I had an unexpected jolt of inspiration. The short article I was reading in a 1913 newspaper seemed rather unremarkable at first, but ended up as anything but.

It started as simply another account in a regional newspaper of some of the happenings at the great reunion. In the early days of July 1913, newspapers across the country were peppered with accounts of the goings-on in Gettysburg. Much of it was similar and redundant from paper to paper. It rarely stands out as especially captivating reading.

This particular piece appeared in a Bellingham, Washington, daily, and recounted the appearance of the “Girls of ‘63” in the reunion’s great tent on the afternoon of June 30. On the eve of the first official day of the reunion, a group of surviving women—who had been among the young girls and women who greeted the Federal cavalry as it rode into town in 1863—met with survivors of Buford’s division and Confederates of Wheeler’s command. It was a part of the reunion recounted in papers across the United States. The details and description of the “Girls,” their singing, and the reactions of the veterans were generally similar in most newspapers.

I was determined to read the short piece in its entirety, just to be thorough. By the end, a few simple sentences mesmerized me as being as profound and poignant as anything I can recall reading about the men who fought in that conflict. It is a rare moment to read something that, in its sheer simplicity, can fundamentally transform a relationship to a subject.

Typical of the period, the author of these few paragraphs was unnamed. It does not appear to have been a syndicated piece, though, as I have not located anything containing the same text elsewhere. The author who crafted this masterful bit of prose remains a mystery to me. This writer’s ability to paint a portrait with words was as evocative to me as any artwork or piece of music.

The 1913 reunion was an enormous spectacle of public memory and emotion. Ranging from the haughty orations of governors and politicians to the tearful reunions of old comrades or adversaries, it was a national—and very public—catharsis. This writer quietly stripped all of that away. His words left me alone with an old soldier coming to terms with his part in the great battle, a catastrophic war, and—in this lonely, existential moment—life itself. While the old veteran stood looking across the hallowed ground of the old battlefield at Gettysburg, so too he stood looking over the precipice of his own mortality. It is a powerful and deeply human moment to consider, and the author, in a few sparse and graceful sentences, allowed me in my mind to contemplate it along with the aged veteran. I was transfixed by these carefully crafted lines:

Every man turned back the leaves of memory and read the dimmed pages of history as he saw it enacted on the field of battle. He lived through the terrible drama anew. He saw its tragedies, victories achieved and hopes blasted.

And glancing subconsciously over the scroll of his eventful life he doubtless came to the present and found it uncertainly and grievously near the bottom of the page. And probably he rejoiced that he was able, by the grace of a generation that appreciates his courage and sacrifice in war, to live over his humble part in the conflict which has come to be little more than a startlingly vivid dream.

What a spellbinding description, the experience of being a combatant on the battlefield at Gettysburg five decades earlier, recalling the battle as “little more than a startlingly vivid dream.”

I expect not everyone will read these lines and be affected by them in the same way as I was, but I hope they will be a cause for some inspiration—not only for what is written about, but also for the writer’s elegant simplicity. I thrive in my work when I feel genuine empathy towards the soldiers and veterans I study, write, and speak about.

These few spare sentences in an unheralded Washington State newspaper resonated with me perfectly. I only wish I could find more of the unknown author’s writing.

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