One “Horrid Saturnalia” of Sentence-Writing

I’m always on the lookout for interesting sentences. I recently came across a doozy while looking through Kate M. Scott’s History of the One hundred and fifth regiment of Pennsylvania volunteers: a complete history of the organization, marches, battles, toils, and dangers participated in by the regiment from the beginning to the close of the war, 1861-1865. (The book’s subtitle alone should clue you in on the style of writing you’re in for!)

The sentence is 183 words long and summarizes the 105th’s experience at the Bloody Angle on May 12, 1864. It appears on pp. 102–3. Strap in:

There were days when they lost more men and done harder fighting, but on this day they were sleepy, tired, hungry, and wet; and no wonder they were tired and worn, for they had been almost constantly engaged since they entered the Wilderness ; and who can describe the fighting that was done there — not on the open field, face to face with the enemy, as at Gettysburg, where they met the foe with waving banners and Solid marching columns, but amid the densely tangled brushwood and in the ravines and glens of the Wilderness the conflict raged, and the thunders of the artillery, the fierce shrieking of the shells, and the sharp rattle of musketry, all combined, echoed and re-echoed, making the scene one horrid saturnalia of sound, that might well have been copied from Dante’s Inferno; while the smoke of battle, unlimned by one ray of sunlight, settled down like a dark funereal pall upon the scene, and all through this horrid, ensanguined ground the dead and dying lay — Union and rebel together, death having brought them to one common level. Like the leaves of autumn they covered the crimsoned ground — crimsoned with the life-blood of the bravest hearts of both the North and the South.

The length of the sentence emulates the experience it’s trying to describe: a single, long, grueling, cumulative experience that winds its way through the Wilderness and across the Spotsy landscape.

Note there’s a second, 25-word sentence at the end. I’ve included it so that the long sentence can fully accomplish its job. The shorter sentence has more impact because it follows the much longer sentence. The dash in that final sentence creates a dramatic punch.

16 Responses to One “Horrid Saturnalia” of Sentence-Writing

  1. My great-great-grandfather’s regiment, one of 25 boys from my family who served in the war. He was a horse racer and tailor, enlisted at the beginning of the war, and was shot through the lower left lung at Fair Oaks, May 31, 1862. He was in too serious condition to evacuate to Washington and so was left behind in hospital when McClellan fled the Peninsula. The Confederates nursed him back to health and gave him a parole and some money, and he walked home to central Pennsylvania in the autumn of 1862. Because he never reported back to the Army, to this day he is listed as “Died of Wounds.” He did, however, join the Pennsylvania militia when Lee invaded the state the next summer, though it’s doubtful he saw any combat. After the war he continued horse racing and running the family tailor shop – which existed until well into the 20th century – and dealt in real estate and cattle. In 1873 he married the cousin of Edward Anderson Irvin, Captain, later Major, Company K, 13th Pennsylvania Reserves, the “Bucktails,” who was captured with his company at Mechanicsville, exchanged, badly wounded in the head at South Mountain and left for dead, recovered, then wounded in the arm at Fredericksburg, where his command penetrated farther into the Confederate line than any other unit that day. He went on to be a Pennsylvania State Senator and a hugely successful businessman. Irvin’s family were close friends with ours, and so his cousin became my great-great-grandmother. My grandmother grew up with her grandfather in her house, as did my grandfather with his, so I spent 25 years in the presence of two people who grew up in the presence of Civil War soldiers. Priceless.

  2. Whew, what a long, very dramatic, one-sentence quote. Where was the publisher’s editor?

    1. Ha–great question! Probably unconscious from the hit on the head provided by that sentence….

  3. It is evocative of the event it’s describing but would have been even more interesting and readable with at least two fewer semi-colons, possibly nixing all three. I was out of breath when I got to the end….

  4. So. Chris, what kind of grade would you give if one of your students submitted a paper with a sentence like that?

    1. If I could tell the student knew what he/she was doing, and that the sentence wasn’t just a random run-on, I’d definitely give them credit for being artful. But in general, because I’m teaching mostly freshmen, I urge them to writer short sentences instead of long sentences until they have the hang of the grammar. There are fewer opportunities to make errors in a short sentence!

    1. Most readers probably wouldn’t even realize WHY the sentence seems so overwrought, although many of them might be apt to write with those sorts of semicolons themselves.

  5. If I used semi-colons and dashes to convert six sentences into one in an appellate brief I’d expect a few pointed questions from the panel. LOL In all honesty, however, that technique suited Bruce Catton well by overusing “and”.

  6. Not the style I learned, the simple and direct bsentence, but I enjoyed both the author’s sentences and your commentary.

  7. That regimental is quite a book. Using it as a source of the Wilderness troop movement maps, the author included a scene where Grant stood outside his HQ on the night of May 6 and conjured the political, military, and economic forces (with some religion thrown in), that would produce victory.

    I concluded, and still do, that its chief value was in capturing how it felt to the soldiers. I wouldn’t quote/cite it for facts, but I would consider quoting/citing the interpretations.

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