Life During Wartime: Carl Sandburg’s Poetry of the Macabre

Since I have commenced writing a new novel, I have been forced on a literary diet: most novels and other works of fiction have been strictly eliminated from my daily intake of reading material to reduce external influence. I am ingesting instead heaping loads of non-fiction with a savory accent on history, beginning with Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph J. Ellis’s terrific American Creation (2007), a masterly examination of the founding years of the United States.

After Creation I moved on to Storm Over the Land (1942), Carl Sandburg’s exploration of the American Civil War. Known primarily as a poet, the Illinois-born writer was an absolute fetishist for American ballads and folklore (he was an avid collector and editor of books on the topic) and there is scarcely a more folkloric figure in the history of the United States than Sandburg’s fellow Illinois native and 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

Taken mainly from the four volumes that comprised Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, which won the 1940 Pulitzer for Best History Book, Storm Over the Land is less a biography of Lincoln during the way years and more of a look at the “economic, racial, moral, cultural and climactic factors that interwove” to create the War Between the States.

At times Sandburg’s work can be a tedious recitation of Lincoln’s commands in the field and the military response (or lack of response in the case of General George McClellan, who exercised extreme cowardice in the field, refusing to move his Union troops south of the Potomac River in direct conflict with Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces, and was summarily dismissed by the President and sent home with his tail between his legs).

However, for every moment of brief tedium in Sandburg’s masterpiece, the master suddenly hits the reader with a scene or a moment that is breathtaking in its prose and cold, dispassionate observation of life during wartime. In a chapter titled Seven Days of Battles, Sandburg recounts the testimony of Army Surgeon Daniel W. Hand of the First Minnesota Volunteers after a day of work at amputations in a field hospital:

“It was late in the night before my own cares allowed me to rest, and then, where should I lie down? A cold wind was blowing, and we shivered in our scanty clothing. Every foot of sheltered ground was covered with sleeping men, but near the operating table, under a tree in the house-yard, there lat a long row of dead soldiers. My steward, Cyrus Brooks, suggested we make a windbreak by piling them up against the remnants of a fence. We did so, and then, lying down behind them, we slept soundly until morning.”

In Chapter Eight, Second Bull Run, Sandburg again reaches for the poetry of the macabre in writing of the “red harvest” of the battlefield after the bullets and cannonballs have stopped flying and removing heads and limbs; there is an undeniable poignancy in the following passage:

“Six soldiers lay in an orchard, not in the shade but in a broiling sun, each with a leg off, and with them a corporal with both legs off. Still another of this orchard squad had his side torn by a shell, and he heard the boys with legs off wishing for ripe apples. He dragged himself inch by inch through long grass till he reached apples and threw them to his comrades. Then he faded out.”

Finally, recounting the carnage amid the mind-staggering high body count of the Battle of Gettysburg, Sandburg interrupts the technical, military and political details of the conflict to observe:

“One tree in the line of fire had 250 bullets in it, another tree 110 lead messengers that missed human targets. Farmer Rummel’s cow lane was piled high with thirty dead horses. Farmer Rummel found two cavalrymen who had fought afoot, killed each other and fallen with their feet touching, each with a bloody saber in his hand. A Virginian and a Third Pennsylvania man had fought on horseback, hacking each other head and shoulders with sabers; they clinched and their horses ran out from under them; they were found with stiff and bloody fingers fastened in each other. The pegleg Confederate General Ewell, struck by a bullet, had chirped merrily to General John B. Gordon, ‘It don’t hurt a bit to be shot in a wooden leg.’”

Sandburg once wrote that “man is born with rainbows in his heart and you’ll never read him unless you consider rainbows.” It’s some kind of amazing testament that the poet could maintain such unfettered optimism after so thoroughly exploring the evil that men do in the name of political ideology, something to consider as we head into a new year with overheated political rhetoric the order of the day.