I have been intending for some time to vent about the marches, hymns, and campfire tunes by which we falsely represent to ourselves the imagined musical tastes of the Civil War soldier. The news of yet another new recording featuring Goober Peas is as sure as death and taxes, but more baffling and senseless than either.
Am beginning to wonder if, in our current low cultural state, we are trying to drag down the people of that time to a level at which we can understand them, even patronize them. Food. We understand spoiled pork, salted beef and wormy hardtack well enough to pity the poor devils who had to eat such stuff. Medicine. We well understand primitive surgery, unsanitized tools and dirty operating theaters, and the occasional lack of anaesthetic and we pity the objects of this science. Clothing. Shoddy and homespun, shoeless - the "ragamuffin" state elicits even more pity.
The picture we build is one of a simple chap, wonderfully intentioned, experiencing incredible hardship and an intesely emotional life. The musical piece rounds this all off. In between mouthfulls of maggoty crackers, waiting to hold down the next screaming amputee, brushing mud off the knees that show through worn pants, our barefoot hero rallies enough spirit to sing a few bars of Camptown Races while pining for the downhome taste of some corn likker.
That's the way we like our Civil War soldiers. Square in that box. The Doo Dah factor helps us keep them where we want them.
But what if the Civil War soldier were a person of culture who also had the capacity to sleep in the rain, walk 20 miles barefoot, eat garbage, follow orders, and then discuss the latest happenings on the Paris Opera scene? That would create a tremendous problem for the modern Civil War reader, would it not?
One look, any look, at soldiers' correspondence opens worlds to us. The privates are referencing ancient history, literature and mythology. They love their Shakespeare and organize performances. Their comments are brimming with allusions to Dickens even as they await his next novel. They are setting lyrics for new Civil War marches to the music of Donizetti. And nine times out of ten, the editors of such collections of letters have failed to annotate the non-political, non-military allusions - either from sloth, or more likely, ignorance.
I'd like to come back to this again.