Monday, June 29, 2020

One of Ours by Willa Cather

There are no frontiers left for Claude Wheeler.

Claude knew, and everybody else knew, seemingly, that there was something wrong with him. He had been unable to conceal his discontent. Mr. Wheeler was afraid he was one of those visionary fellows who make unnecessary difficulties for themselves and other people. Mrs. Wheeler thought the trouble with her son was that he had not yet found his Saviour. Bayliss was convinced that his brother was a moral rebel, that behind his reticence and his guarded manner he concealed the most dangerous opinions. The neighbours liked Claude, but they laughed at him, and said it was a good thing his father was well fixed. Claude was aware that his energy, instead of accomplishing something, was spent in resisting unalterable conditions, and in unavailing efforts to subdue his own nature. When he thought he had at last got himself in hand, a moment would undo the work of days; in a flash he would be transformed from a wooden post into a living boy. He would spring to his feet, turn over quickly in bed, or stop short in his walk, because the old belief flashed up in him with an intense kind of hope, and intense kind of pain, -- the conviction that there was something splendid about life, if he could but find it!

Like any American worth his salt, he is a young man of destiny, but without a proper canvas to paint it on. He can feel it, deep within him, but he can’t see it, and therefore cannot understand really what the feeling within him is.

And he is not alone. He is but one of a whole generation of young American men closed off from any frontier like the ones that had defined their fathers and grandfathers.

He wondered this afternoon how many discouraged young men had sat here on the State House steps and watched the sun go down behind the mountains. Every one was always saying it was a fine thing to be young; but it was a painful thing, too. He didn’t believe older people were ever so wretched. Over there, in the golden light, the mass of mountains were splitting up into four distinct ranges, and as the sun dropped lower the peaks emerged in perspective, one behind the other. It was a lonely splendour that only made the ache in his breast the stronger. What was the matter with him, he asked himself entreatingly. He must answer that question before he went home again.

The statue of Kit Carson on horseback, down in the Square, pointed Westward; but there was no West, in that sense, any more. There was still South America; perhaps he could find something below the Isthmus. Here the sky was like a lid shut down over the world; his mother could see saints and martyrs behind it.

Well, in time he would get over all this, he supposed. Even his father had been restless as a young man, and had run away into a new country. It was a storm that dies down at last, -- but what a pity not to do anything with it! A waste of power -- for it was a kind of power; he sprang to his feet and stood frowning against the ruddy light, so deep in his own struggling thoughts that he did not notice a man, mounting from the lower terraces, who stopped to look at him.

The stranger scrutinized Claude with interest. He saw a young man standing bareheaded on the long flight of steps, his fists clenched in an attitude of arrested action, -- his sandy hair, his tanned face, his tense figure copper-coloured in the oblique rays. Claude would have been astonished if he could have known how he seemed to this stranger.

This, then, is the protagonist that Willa Cather presents to us in this, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. In many ways, Claude Wheeler comes from the earthy Nebraska soil -- the way Alexandra Bergson and Antonia Shimerda do -- but he is neither enriched nor ennobled by it. For Claude, the world that birthed him is unable to nourish him, taken over, as it appears to have been, by people with a myopic understanding of destiny.

People like Claude’s brother Bayliss -- a successful businessman who has successfully navigated the contours of success in this new America in a way Claude never will. Cather has a fair amount of scorn to share for men like Bayliss Wheeler, and although she puts the following thoughts in the head of one of her characters, it isn’t hard here or throughout the novel to hear Cather’s own indictment of small-minded businessmen.

She had worked out a misty philosophy for herself, full of strong convictions and confused figures. She believed that all things which might make the world beautiful -- love and kindness, leisure and art -- were shut up in prison, and that successful men like Bayliss Wheeler held the keys. The generous ones, who would let these things out to make people happy, were somehow weak, and could not break the bars.

But Claude does not see any of this complexity. Instead, he tries to fit himself into the world that’s presented to him. Going to school, getting a job, marrying a suitable woman -- as he struggles to fit himself into these and other windowless boxes of expectation, he is incapable of seeing the failure inherent in his attempt.

And no one can tell him. Even his soon-to-be father-in-law, and man of experience and the conquests of an earlier generation, cannot instruct Claude, cannot communicate what it is that helped him find success and which might work for Claude.

He found himself absolutely unable to touch upon the vast body of experience he wished to communicate to Claude. It lay in his chest like a physical misery, and the desire to speak struggled there. But he had no words, no way to make himself understood. He had no argument to present. What he wanted to do was to hold up life as he had found it, like a picture, to his young friend; to warn him, without explanation, against certain heart-breaking disappointments. It could not be done, he saw. The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young. The only way that Claude could ever come to share his secret, was to live.

It is a tragedy waiting to manifest itself. When his faux life comes apart, when his wife leaves, not him, per se, but leaves to follow her own kind of destiny as a missionary in China, much of what Claude has tried to build up around him comes tumbling down.

How inherently mournful and ugly such objects were, when the feeling that had made them precious no longer existed! The debris of human life was more worthless and ugly than the dead and decaying things in nature. Rubbish … junk … his mind could not picture anything that so exposed and condemned all the dreary, weary, ever-repeated actions by which life is continued from day to day. Actions without meaning. … As he looked out and saw the grey landscape through the gently falling snow, he could not help thinking how much better it would be if people could go to sleep like the fields; could be blanketed down under the snow, to wake with their hurts healed and their defeats forgotten. He wondered how he was to do on through the years ahead of him, unless he could get rid of this sick feeling in his soul.

Cather really touched me here, because I have felt the angry weariness of life that Claude Wheeler here feels at the end of his rope. At a low point in my life, I distinctly remember looking around at all the objects that had defined me for so long and rebelling against them as the empty vessels that they were. I was able to climb out of that pit and re-establish my relationship to the world around me, but Claude will continue to struggle.

Struggle, that is, until he runs off to war.

In the novel it is the First World War -- that colossal crime against man and his highest aspirations -- but in it, Claude finds a different pattern for life than the one offered him by his parents and his community. It is a realization that comes over Claude slowly, and first in the simple process of movement, of traveling beyond the confines of the world as he thought he knew it.

Claude seemed to himself to be leading a double life these days. When we was working over Fanning, or was down in the hold helping to take care of the sick soldiers, he had no time to think, -- did mechanically the next things that came to hand. But when he had an hour to himself on deck, the tingling sense of ever-widening freedom flashed up in him again. The weather was a continual adventure; he had never known any like it before. The fog, and rain, the grey sky and the lonely grey stretches of the ocean were like something he had imagined long ago -- memories of old sea stories read in childhood, perhaps -- and they kindled a warm spot in his heart. Here on the Anchises he seemed to begin where childhood had left off. The ugly hiatus between had closed up. Years of his life were blotted out in the fog. This fog which had been at first depressing had become a shelter; a tent moving through space, hiding one from all that had been before, giving one a chance to correct one’s ideas about life and to plan the future. The past was physically shut off; that was his illusion. He had already travelled a great many more miles than were told off by the ship’s log.

It erases his past and lets him begin anew. Claude senses this early on, but only comes to a concrete understanding of it near the end of the novel.

He has already been to the front, and now, in a break away from the action, Claude and his soldier friend David, who, in civilian life, is a violinist, are staying with a bucolic French family. At one point, David performs a piece with the matriarch of the family. It’s a sentimental piece for the French family -- the last piece played by Rene, a son, now lost at the front, before leaving for the war. And Claude finds himself jealous of the talent displayed.

The music was a part of his own confused emotions. He was torn between generous admiration, and bitter, bitter envy. What would it mean to be able to do anything as well as that, to have a hand capable of delicacy and precision and power? If he had been taught to do anything at all, he would not be sitting here tonight a wooden thing amongst living people. He felt that a man might have been made of him, but nobody had taken the trouble to do it; tongue-tied, foot-tied, hand-tied. If one were born into this world like a bear cub or a bull calf, one could only paw and upset things, break and destroy, all one’s life.

He knows again that his life has been this. Unformed. And he yearns for something more. Something beautiful and tragic to aim himself at. But what? Later, after the performance, Claude and David talk.

“I guess you’ll go back to your profession, all right,” Claude remarked, in the unnatural tone in which people sometimes speak of things they know nothing about.

“Not I. Of course, I had to play for them. Music has always been like a religion in this house. Listen,” he put up his hand; far away the regular pulsation of the big guns sounded through the still night. “That’s all that matters now. It has killed everything else.”

“I don’t believe it.” Claude stopped for a moment by the edge of the fountain, trying to collect his thoughts. “I don’t believe it has killed anything. It has only scattered things.” He glanced about hurriedly at the sleeping house, the sleeping garden, the clear, starry sky not very far overhead. “It’s men like you that get the worst of it,” he broke out. “But as for me, I never knew there was anything worth living for, till this war came on. Before that, the world seemed like a business proposition.”

Did you catch that? For David, who had an ideal to his life, the war is pure destruction. It destroys everything previously worth living for. But for Claude, who has no ideal, the destructive force of the war has the opposite effect. In turning over the soil of possibility, it has revealed furrows in which Claude can plant the seeds of a new life.

And later that night, alone in bed and unable to sleep, Claude puts this difficult idea into a context he can finally understand and act on.

The intervals of the distant artillery fire grew shorter, as if the big guns were tuning up, choking to get something out. Claude sat up in his bed and listened. The sound of the guns had from the first been pleasant to him, had given him a feeling of confidence and safety; tonight he knew why. What they said was, that men could still die for an idea; and would burn all they had made to keep their dreams. He knew the future of the world was safe; the careful planners would never be able to put it into a strait-jacket, -- cunning and prudence would never have it to themselves. … Ideals were not archaic things, beautiful and impotent; they were the real sources of power among men. As long as that was true, and now he knew it was true -- he had come all this way to find out -- he had no quarrel with Destiny. Nor did he envy David. He would give his own adventure for no man’s. On the edge of sleep it seemed to glimmer, like the clear column of the fountain, like the new moon, -- alluring, half-averted, the bright face of danger.

The bright face of danger. An interesting choice of words for Cather, who has written extensively about youth and the “bright medusa.” Does facing danger then becomes Claude’s ideal, the thing worth dying for, the thing through which his own adventure can create both passion and meaning for him?

It would seem so, and I think that’s why the novel falls flat for me at the end. The war may be the thing that helped Claude understand his place in the world. But the ideals of war -- especially the First World War -- pale in comparison, not just to David’s sublime music, but even to the humble scraping together of life Claude was offered at his birth.

Rather than see heroism in Claude’s death, I’d rather view the novel’s end as a call to action for the reader. Like Claude, we all have the ability to begin our lives again, this time on our own terms. Knowing that we can die for an ideal -- and that, indeed, this is the only kind of death that makes life worth living -- we are called to make the difficult and daunting choice of determining our own ideals. I will live for this, will fight for it, and even, if necessary, die for it -- but what is it? What is the ideal that I believe is worth dying for?

At the beginning and again at the end, there no frontiers left for Claude Wheeler. But there are, and always will be for us.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, June 22, 2020

Dragons - Chapter 39 (DRAFT)

By the time we got there it was closer to thirty minutes later. And it definitely was we. Despite the bet-hedging I tried to do on the phone with Caroline, I never even considered asking Bethany not to come with me.

Club NOW was not at all what I expected. No line to get in. No cover charge. No dance floor with neon uplights. No beautiful Cuban women. It did have the pulsating dance music that had drowned out my conversation with Caroline, but with its oak paneling, worn carpeting, and fabric-draped lampshades it looked more like my uncle’s basement bar than a Miami Beach nightclub.

Caroline was sitting on a single chair just inside the front entrance, her head hanging down and sipping something clear and carbonated through a straw. Beside her stood a large, muscular man in a tight polo shirt. He caught me looking at Caroline as we entered the club.

“Are you Alan?” he asked me.

At the mention of my name Caroline looked up hopefully, and practically sprang out of the chair upon recognizing me.

“Yes,” I said to the man I assumed was the bouncer and extended a hand to Caroline, allowing her to clasp it desperately rather than wrap me up in some kind of bear hug.

The bouncer turned politely to Caroline. “Is everything all right now, miss?”

Caroline nodded, turning her body in towards mine. “Yes,” she said quietly, too quietly, I thought, for the bouncer to hear her. “Yes, thank you.”

Bethany came up and stood on the other side of Caroline, placing a caring hand on her shoulder. Bethany was not much younger than me, and Caroline not much younger than that, but still, standing there, I couldn’t help feeling like we were her parents, come to rescue her from a car date gone horribly wrong.

“All right,” the bouncer said. “You all take care then.”

“What happened?” I asked him as he turned to go, worried that Caroline would never tell me.

He shrugged his massive shoulders. “I don’t know. She never told me.”

“Let’s go,” Caroline said quietly, leaning in close, practically whispering in my ear.

The bouncer returned to his regular duties and we stepped out into the warm night air. Just being outside seemed to revive Caroline a little, her voice sounding less trembly and meek.

“Thank you, guys, so much for coming to get me. No one else wanted to leave and I just had to get out of there. I just had to.”

“What was so awful?” I asked, my eyes already scanning up and down the street for an available cab.

“It was Wes.”

It was like a knife in the back, a sucker punch to the midsection, and the rug being pulled out from under me at the same time. My vision blackened and I teetered momentarily on the edge of the curb. In the blackness that surrounded me it felt like I was back in Don’s office, and all I could see were the tears streaming down Caroline’s face and the calculating stare in Amy’s eyes as they fired her.

“Wes Howard?” Bethany questioned, echoing the dark thought forming in my own brain.

“Yes,” Caroline said.

Bethany and I exchanged a pair of uneasy glances. I thought I knew the limit of what he was capable of, but when I looked into her eyes I couldn’t help but wonder if she knew of something even deeper.

“What did he do?” I asked, turning to look at Caroline.

She didn’t answer me.

“Caroline,” I said severely, forgetting all about the cabs whizzing by. “What did he do? Did he... Did he touch you?”

She looked down at her shoes.

“Caroline, honey,” Bethany said soothingly. “You can tell us. We can do something about it. Did Wes do something inappropriate?”

Caroline starting shaking her head. “It’s my fault, really. I didn’t want to come out tonight, but they insisted. They insisted.”

“Don’t do that,” Bethany said angrily, giving Caroline a shake. “Whatever he did, it is not your fault, Caroline. What did he do? Did he touch you?”

Caroline nodded, embarrassed. “He touched us all.”

Bethany and I exchanged another pair of glances, these even darker than before.

“Who?” Bethany said. “Who else did he touch?”

“All of us,” Caroline said, shrugging her shoulders as if having to explain some natural biologic process everyone should already understand. “He can’t keep his hands to himself.”

“Are they still in there?” Bethany asked.

“Yes. Down in the basement. At the karaoke bar.”

Bethany gave me a horrified look. It was filled with equal parts disgust and demand. Do something, it said, as clearly as if she had spoken the words aloud.

I agreed with her imperative. The universe itself demanded that something be done in this ugly circumstance. But what? I didn’t have any idea. And more importantly, was I the guy to do it?

Acting on instinct, I withdrew my hand from Caroline’s and turned her over to Bethany. “Take her back to the hotel,” I said, my voice sounding more confident than I felt. “Get a cab, take her back to her room, and stay there with her until I call you.”

“What are you going to do?”

So she didn’t have any idea either. “I don’t know,” I said, looking back at the door to Club NOW. “Something.”

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“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, June 15, 2020

Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather

Some call this, Cather’s first published novel, a little clumsy, and I tend to see what they mean. Alexander is Bartley Alexander, a middle-aged construction engineer and well-renowned bridge builder, and his bridge is his latest and most significant project, an immense span over a ravine and river in Canada.

Or is it?

Here’s how we’re introduced to Bartley Alexander. The dialogue is between his wife, Winifred, and an old professor of his.

“I should like to know what he was really like when he was a boy. I don’t believe he remembers,” she said suddenly. “Won’t you smoke, Mr. Wilson?”

Wilson lit a cigarette. “No, I don’t suppose he does. He was never introspective. He was simply the most tremendous response to stimuli I have ever known. We did n’t know exactly what to do with him.”

A servant came in and noiselessly removed the tea-tray. Mrs. Alexander screened her face from the firelight, which was beginning to throw wavering bright spots on her dress and hair as the dusk deepened.

“Of course,” she said, “I now and again hear stories about things that happened when he was in college.”

“But that is n’t what you want.” Wilson wrinkled his brows and looked at her with the smiling familiarity that had come about so quickly. “What you want is a picture of him, standing back there at the other end of twenty years. You want to look down through my memory.”

She dropped her hands in her lap. “Yes, yes; that’s exactly what I want.”

At this moment they heard the front door shut with a jar, and Wilson laughed as Mrs. Alexander rose quickly. “There he is. Away with perspective! No past, no future for Bartley; just the fiery moment. The only moment that ever was or will be in the world!”

A man of the fiery moment, with no past and no future. And while others seem to admire him for this and the success that it has brought him, Bartley’s internal world is much different from their ideal.

He found himself living exactly the kind of life he had determined to escape. What, he asked himself, did he want with these genial honors and substantial comforts? Hardships and difficulties he had carried lightly; overwork had not exhausted him; but this dead calm of middle life which confronted him, -- of that he was afraid. He was not ready for it. It was like being buried alive. In his youth he would not have believed such a thing possible. The one thing he had really wanted all his life was to be free; and there was still something unconquered in him, something besides the strong work-horse that his profession had made of him. He felt rich to-night in the possession of that unstultified survival; in the light of his experience, it was more precious than honors or achievement. In all those busy, successful years there had been nothing so good as this hour of wild light-heartedness. This feeling was the only happiness that was real to him, and such hours were the only ones in which he could feel his own continuous identity -- feel the boy he had been in the rough days of the old West, feel the youth who had worked his way across the ocean on a cattle-ship and gone to study in Paris without a dollar in his pocket.

In Bartley’s internal thoughts he lives almost entirely in the past. Indeed…

The man who sat in his offices in Boston was only a powerful machine. Under the activities of that machine the person who, at such moments as this, he felt to be himself, was fading and dying. He remembered how, when he was a little boy and his father called him in the morning, he used to leap from his bed into the full consciousness of himself. That consciousness was Life itself. Whatever took its place, action, reflection, the power of concentrated thought, were only functions of a mechanism useful to society; things that could be bought in the market. There was only one thing that had an absolute value for each individual, and it was just that original impulse, that internal heat, that feeling of one’s self in one’s own breast.

And it is in this state, and in his worldly travels that Bartley meets and becomes re-acquainted with Hilda Burgoyne, a woman now of middle-age like him, but whom he had once loved in his fiery youth.

Bartley looked at Hilda across the yellow light of the candles and broke into a low, happy laugh. “How jolly it was being young, Hilda! Do you remember that first walk we took together in Paris? We walked down to the Place Saint-Michel to buy some lilacs. Do you remember how sweet they smelled?”

“Indeed I do. Come, we’ll have our coffee in the other room, and you can smoke.”

Hilda rose quickly, as if she wished to change the drift of their talk, but Bartley found it pleasant to continue it.

“What a warm, soft spring evening that was,” he went on, as they sat down in the study with the coffee on a little table between them; “and the sky, over the bridges, was just the color of the lilacs. We walked on down by the river, did n’t we?”

Hilda laughed and looked at him questioningly. He saw a gleam in her eyes that he remembered even better than the episode he was recalling.

“I think we did,” she answered demurely. “It was on the Quai we met that woman who was crying so bitterly. I gave her a spray of lilac, I remember, and you gave her a franc. I was frightened at your prodigality.”

“I expect it was the last franc I had. What a strong brown face she had, and very tragic. She looked at us with such despair and longing, out from under her black shawl. What she wanted from us was neither our flowers nor our francs, but just our youth. I remember it touched me so. I would have given her some of mine off my back, if I could. I had enough to spare then,” Bartley mused, and looked thoughtfully at his cigar.

They were both remembering what the woman had said when she took the money: “God give you a happy love!” It was not in the ingratiating tone of the habitual beggar: it had come out of the depths of the poor creature’s sorrow, vibrating with pity for their youth and despair at the terribleness of human life; it had the anguish of a voice of prophecy. Until she spoke, Bartley had not realized that he was in love. The strange woman, and her passionate sentence that rang out so sharply, had frightened them both. They went home sadly with the lilacs, back to the Rue Saint-Jacques, walking very slowly, arm in arm. When they reached the house where Hilda lodged, Bartley went across the court with her, and up the dark old stairs to the third landing; and there he had kissed her for the first time. He had shut his eyes to give him the courage, he remembered, and she had trembled so --

Bartley started when Hilda rang the little bell beside her. “Dear me, why did you do that? I had quite forgotten -- I was back there. I as very jolly,” he murmured lazily, as Marie came in to take away the coffee.

In exactly this way Hilda, I believe, is actually the bridge of the book’s title. She is Alexander’s Bridge, not across space, but back across time. A bridge to a past that Bartley thinks he so desperately needs.

The Vibration of an Unnatural Excitement

But that bridge is fraught with danger. For as he indulges himself, each time he journeys across it and enjoys the powerful pulsation of Life that it offers, he finds it increasingly difficult to return, to resume his life in the present and the security that it offers. The compulsion becomes so real that it takes on a kind of dark presence in Bartley’s life.

Left alone, he paced up and down his study. He was at home again, among all the dear familiar things that spoke to him of so many happy years. His house to-night would be full of charming people, who liked and admired him. Yet all the time, underneath his pleasure and hopefulness and satisfaction, he was conscious of the vibration of an unnatural excitement. Amid this light and warmth and friendliness, he sometimes started and shuddered, as if some one had stepped on his grave. Something had broken loose in him of which he knew nothing except that it was sullen and powerful, and that it wrung and tortured him. Sometimes it came upon him softly, in enervating reveries. Sometimes it battered him like the cannon rolling in the hold of the vessel. Always, now, it brought with it a sense of quickened life, of stimulating danger. To-night it came upon him suddenly, as he was walking the floor, after his wife left him. It seemed impossible; he could not believe it. He glanced entreatingly at the door, as if to call her back. He heard voices in the hall below, and knew that he must go down. Going over to the window, he looked out at the lights across the river. How could this happen here, in his own house, among the things he loved? What was it that reached in out of the darkness and thrilled him? As he stood there he had a feeling that he would never escape. He shut his eyes and pressed his forehead against the cold window glass, breathing in the chill that came through it. “That this,” he groaned, “that this should have happened to me!”

Note the way he looks across the river. He will do this numerous times in the remainder of Cather’s short novel, the author, I believe, conflating the twin bridge metaphors -- the external one across space and the internal one across time. He looks longingly at the span across the river not because he wants to be there, but because he wants to be then, and even he, a character in a novel, cannot resist the power of the author’s comparison.

And, of course, the past is intoxicating, not just to Bartley, but as they continue to relive it as he visits London again and again, to Hilda.

After miles of outlying streets and little gloomy houses, they reached London itself, red and roaring and murky, with a thick dampness coming up from the river, that betokened fog again tomorrow. The streets were full of people who had worked indoors all through the priceless day and had now come hungrily out to drink the muddy lees of it. They stood in long black lines, waiting before the pit entrances of the theatres -- short-coated boys, and girls in sailor hats, all shivering and chatting gayly. There was a blurred rhythm in all the dull city noises -- in the clatter of the cab horses and the rumbling of the buses, in the street calls, and in the undulating tramp, tramp of the crowd. It was like the deep vibration of some vast underground machinery, and like the muffled pulsations of millions of human hearts.

“Seems good to get back, does n’t it?” Bartley whispered, as they drove from Bayswater Road to Oxford Street. “London always makes me want to live more than any other city in the world. You remember our priestess mummy over in the mummy-room, and how we used to long to go and bring her out on nights like this? Three thousand years! Ugh!”

Bartley is referring to antiquities in the British Museum, a place he and Hilda used to frequent when they were young and in love. They talk about places where they might go and have some dinner, and then Bartley asks Hilda if she is not too tired.

“I’m not tired at all. I was just wondering how people can ever die. Why did you remind me of the mummy? Life seems the strongest and most indestructible thing in the world. Do you really believe that all those people rushing about down there, going to good dinners and clubs and theatres, will be dead some day, and not care about anything? I don’t believe it, and I know I shan’t die, ever! You see, I feel too -- too powerful!”

The carriage stopped. Bartley sprang out and swung her quickly to the pavement. As he lifted her in his two hands he whispered: “You are -- powerful!”

Indeed she is. She is a bridge, not just to the past, but to the immortality of youth.

But, of course, it is not to last. In the morality play that all novels of the time must apparently be, Bartley will pay for his indulgence. The dark presence that is his youth exerts greater and greater pressure on him until it forces him to choose between the life he has now and the one he had already lost. In his desperation he writes to Hilda from the comfort of his Boston study, surrounded by the things of his current life which have always given him such happiness.

How is it, I ask myself, that everything can be so different with me when nothing here has changed? I am in my own house, in my own study, in the midst of all these quiet streets where my friends live. They are all safe and at peace with themselves. But I am never at peace. I feel always on the edge of danger and change.

He goes on.

It seems that a man is meant to live only one life in this world. When he tries to live a second, he develops another nature. I feel as if a second man had been grafted into me. At first he seemed only a pleasure-loving simpleton, of whose company I was rather ashamed, and whom I used to hide under my coat when I walked the Embankment, in London. But now he is strong and sullen, and he is fighting for his life at the cost of mine. That is his one activity: to grow strong. No creature ever wanted so much to live. Eventually, I suppose, he will absorb me altogether.

And eventually, it does. Bartley decides to abandon his current life and move permanently to London to be with Hilda and to resume the path of his youth. He pens a pained letter to his wife, but is called away to inspect his bridge project before he can deliver it. With the potential of his decision tucked carefully in an envelope in his breast pocket, he boards a train and begins his journey north.

The train stopped at Allway Mills, then wound two miles up the river, and then the hollow sound under his feet told Bartley that he was on his first bridge again. The bridge seemed longer than it had ever seemed before, and he was glad when he felt the beat of the wheels on the solid roadbed again. He did not like coming and going across that bridge, or remembering the man who built it. And was he, indeed, the same man who used to walk that bridge at night, promising such things to himself and to the stars? And yet, he could remember it all so well: the quiet hills sleeping in the moonlight, the slender skeleton of the bridge reaching out into the river, and up yonder, alone on the hill, the big white house; upstairs, in Winifred’s window, the light that told him she was still awake and still thinking of him. And after the light went out he walked alone, taking the heavens into his confidence, unable to tear himself away from the white magic of the night, unwilling to sleep because longing was so sweet to him, and because, for the first time since first the hills were hung with moonlight, there was a lover in the world. And always there was the sound of the rushing water underneath, the sound which, more than anything else, meant death; the wearing away of things under the impact of physical forces which men could direct but never circumvent or diminish. Then, in the exaltation of love, more than ever it seemed to him to mean death, the only other thing as strong as love. Under the moon, under the cold, splendid stars, there were only those two things awake and sleepless; death and love, the rushing river and his burning heart.

There is more. The bridge he has been sent to inspect collapses and Bartley and countless others die, but this passage seems more like the climax of the novel -- or if not its climax, then at least its essence. Because the forces that Bartley is wrestling with -- those of death and love, the rushing river and his burning heart -- are, in the end, unresolvable. They subsume the struggle that is the wrenching of meaning out of life, either one just begun or one already half-lived.

Is that clumsy? In a way, I guess it is.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, June 8, 2020

Dragons - Chapter 38 (DRAFT)


I was leaning up against the wall of the beach hut, my arm wrapped around Bethany and my thoughts a million miles away. It was my phone ringing again, but I didn’t want to answer it. I didn’t want anything to disturb this moment of serenity. It was stolen, sure, it didn’t belong to me, it didn’t belong to either of us, but somehow we had found it and made it real. I closed my eyes and tried to will the phone to be silent.

On the third ring, Bethany, whose ear was a lot closer to the noise than mine was, fished a slender hand into my pants pocket and used her nimble fingers to extract it from its cotton cocoon. I felt her probing in places she may not have intended and it sent a shiver up my spine.

Bethany held the phone up for us both to see, its tiny screen glowing brightly in the dark night.

“It’s Caroline,” she said aloud.

“Who?” I asked, my mind still not willing to connect the dots of my actual existence.

“Caroline Abernathy,” Bethany said, and began moving as if she meant to answer the phone, but held it higher for me to take instead.

“Hello?” I said sleepily, pressing the phone against my ear.


There was a frantic tone in Caroline’s voice, and she was shouting to make herself heard over some pulsating dance music.


“Oh my god, Alan! Where are you? I need you to come get me. Will you please come get me?”

Now there was more than frenzy in her voice, there was fear, and it snapped me back to reality. I sat quickly forward, withdrawing my arm from around Bethany’s waist, and pushing her unconsciously aside.

“Where are you?” I said. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know where I am!” Caroline screamed in my ear. “At some club, they dragged me here, I didn’t want to come, and now I want to go home!”

Caroline was incoherent, her voice loud enough for Bethany to hear it, and now she looked at me with great worry and concern.

“Caroline,” I said as calmly as I could. “Slow down. Where are you?”

“I tell you...I don’t know...where I am!”

She was crying now, full throated sobs punctuating her speech.

“Ask someone,” I said insistently, fearing that she was in trouble, and feeling, surreally, like it was Jacob that I needed to rescue.


No, not Jacob. Crazy Horse. My unborn daughter. But she wasn’t in any danger, was she? She was still safe in her mother’s womb.

“Isn’t there someone you can ask? A bartender? Find out where you are and we’ll come get you.”

“Oh!” Caroline said long before I finished, probably missing my slanted reference to Bethany being with me. “Right! Hold on!”

The club noise got louder as the phone fell away from her face, and I could faintly hear her screaming her question to someone nearby.

“Is she all right?” Bethany asked me during the pause.

“I don’t know,” I replied, not having time for anything else before Caroline was back on the line, her voice hot, desperate, and lost.

“It’s called Club NOW. Club NOW! Do you know where that is?”

“I’ll find it,” I said, being sure to use the right pronoun this time. “Just stay put until I get there.” I quickly calculated the time it would take us to get off the beach, flag down a cab, and get to the place where all the nightclubs were. “Give me twenty minutes.”

“Can you hurry? Please, Alan?”

“Are you all right?” I asked her pointedly, worried about the abject tone in her voice.

“Just hurry, please. I really need to get out of here.”

+ + +

“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, June 1, 2020

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Lewis Wolpert

This was a frustrating read. In alignment with its subtitle, the author tries to explain “the evolutionary origins of belief,” essentially, why humans believe (sometimes correctly and sometimes incorrectly) that one thing causes another.

In doing so, the author comes up with a hypothesis. It was the rise of tool making in early humans that gave us this system of “causal” beliefs. To make effective and ever more complicated tools, the author seems to argue, we needed to understand and correctly predict that one thing causes another, an awareness that we then mapped onto all aspects of the world around us.

The evolution of the skills for tool making and the use of tools, together with language, opened up a whole new set of mental operations. Humans were now thinking about the causes involved in all sorts of activities: hunting, food gathering, social relationships, illness, probably dreams, and even life and death itself. This, I am proposing, is the origin of what we now call beliefs.

But maybe, assuming Wolpert is even in the right ballpark, it’s not tools that gave rise to beliefs, instead it’s beliefs that gave rise to tools. Or some unidentified third thing that gave rise to both beliefs and tools at the same time. It’s never very clear which is the chicken and which is the egg, and the author actually does very little to make such distinctions clear.

I must admit that the transition from understanding cause and effect in relation to tool use, to trying to understand the weather and death, is not easy to explain, and probably requires creative thinking. It is possible that the evolution of consciousness and language could have been involved. It has been argued that people experience consciousness because they are aware of their own casual actions.

What what that I said about some unidentified third thing?

The problem is pretty much that Wolpert admits this fuzziness. So although he claims again and again that he has made an argument, he never cites any actual evidence in support of his claim. Instead, he makes two hundred pages of interesting observations, few of which seem to cohere into any plausible mechanism that explains his hypothesis.

And worse, sometimes he just makes assertions.

I think that religious beliefs were adaptive for two main reasons: they provided explanations for important events, and offered prayer as a way of dealing with difficulties. Those with such beliefs most likely did better, and so were selected for.

Were they? I don’t know. And I don’t think Wolpert does either.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, May 25, 2020

Dragons - Chapter 37 (DRAFT)

“Is everything all right?”

Shit, I was thinking. An in-person interview. That means I’ll have to find time to fly to Boston. Unless they were planning to send someone out to meet me. That would be more convenient, but what are the odds of that? Will they at least pay my plane fare?

“Alan,” Bethany said. “Is everything all right?”


“You look like you just got some bad news. Is everything all right at home?”

“Yeah,” I said quickly. “It’s fine. It’s nothing.”

“Is it Jacob?” she said, clearly not believing me. “Is he sick?”

I forced myself into the moment, thrusting my wayward thoughts aside. “No, he’s fine,” I said reassuringly. “It’s nothing, really. Just some everyday bullshit. I’m sorry it interrupted our conversation. Where were we?”

Bethany looked at me searchingly, perhaps wanting to move on, perhaps not. Then she looked down. “I was embarrassing myself in front of you,” she said. “Telling you all kinds of things I shouldn’t have.”

“Like what?” I said, genuinely surprised.

“Like all that business with Mary. I shouldn’t have told you that. She’s your boss.”

“What’s that got to do with it?” I asked, sensing a change, and wanting to rekindle the connection that had evidently been lost. “She treated you like shit. She treats everyone like shit. It’s okay. You can say it. It’s just you, me and the ocean out here.”

She smiled and then gave me a look, a look like I hadn’t seen in a long time, something that took me back to a time when Jenny and I were dating. It was nice, but awkward, and we both had to look away.

“And then I cried in front of you,” she said with gentle annoyance. “Of all the monumentally stupid things to do, a woman crying in front of her male boss has got to be at the top of the list. I can only imagine what you think of me.”

I felt the whirlpool of my worldly thoughts draining away as I realized she was doing that thing women do when they want you to reassure them, to come to their rescue. Sometimes that meant they were flirting with you, and the realization that Bethany might be flirting with me—that she had recognized my half-hearted overtures and had decided to respond in kind—it seemed to transport me. It was tantalizing, the idea that here, amidst the reminders of all the roles we were forced and we forced ourselves to play—husbands and wives, supervisors and employees—it was tantalizing that she still wanted me to think about playing one more, tantalizing and frightening at the same time. I wondered wildly how to respond, suddenly unsure if I wanted things to progress or not. In such situations, I knew, there were things you could say to shut it down, to clearly communicate that you weren’t interested, and there were other things you could say to unequivocally drive it forward, and still other things that were coy and playful, not undeniably leading anywhere, but keeping the door open and both players in the game.

“I don’t think any less of you,” I said, meaning every word but at the same time conscious of how scripted I sounded.

“You’re just saying that.”

“No,” I said. “Really,” feeling the indignation as if it was real. “You didn’t know what she was. You needed some advice and went there in good faith.”

She nodded her head ruefully, as if knowing I was right, but unable to accept it. “But I haven’t told you the worst of it. The part that makes me really upset.”

I waited the requisite number of seconds. “I’m listening.”

She settled back on her hands, her strong calves and bare feet dangling off the ledge and her white blouse glowing in the moonlight. Was she arching her back? Or just stretching?

“How does Jenny like staying at home with Jacob?”

I remembered the phone call from earlier that evening and the way it had made me feel isolated and impotent, and I realized that this conversation, this script no one had written but everyone knew by heart, would probably end at the same destination. I suddenly wanted to derail it. I wanted something, but not this. Maybe it was the sea air. Maybe it was the kind of day I had had, starting in one time and place and ending in another. Maybe I was just sick of pretending, of play-acting, of trouble-shooting other people’s problems as if I knew how to fix everything.

“She hates it,” I said. “She can’t handle it. I called home earlier tonight and caught the two of them in the middle of a battle royal. I had to talk them both in off the ledge. If I hadn’t called, I think Jenny would have wound up hurting him.”

It was a stark confession, but it fell effortlessly off my lips, and felt good doing so. These things were true, weren’t they? Sometimes you had to say them out loud to really be sure.

“Maybe Jenny and I should change places.”

She said it flippantly, giving me enough latitude to take whichever meaning I preferred. I looked at her and our eyes locked. Are you still flirting with me? I sent silently. I’ve dropped my fa├žade. Will you?

Slowly she nodded, lowering her eyes as if unsure of her footing in this new territory.

“What I mean is I’m thinking about quitting and staying home with Parker.”

“You are?”

“I am,” she said, her words starting to flow more easily. “It’s taken me a while, but I’m finally beginning to realize that Mary wasn’t just rude, she was manipulating me. She manipulates everyone. She gets you to do what she wants by making you second-guess your own instincts. I was struggling, and she knew it. God was telling me to stay home with my baby, but I didn’t want to listen.”

Oh, fuck. God.

“Don’t look at me that way, Alan. He’s real, you know, and sometimes He tries to tell you things. But you have to listen, and I wasn’t. I was so focused on trying to be something I’m not, something I thought I wanted to be, that I couldn’t hear Him even though he was talking directly to me.”

I held my tongue. Bethany and I didn’t see eye to eye on God, but we didn’t have to. He was part of who she was, and if we were going to walk together on this beach, I was going to have to accept that and not judge her.

“Look, it doesn’t matter. What matters is Mary played me, and I came back to work after Parker was born just like she wanted. By reacting the way she did, by treating my pregnancy with so much disgust, she made me think that’s how all professional women felt, that all successful women dumped their kids in daycare and got back to work as soon as they could. If that’s what I wanted to be, that was what I was going to have to do. She didn’t even have to convince me. Just looking at me the way she did, I couldn’t imagine it any other way.”

As I listened, letting go of my expectations of her, it became clear that all our scripts truly had been left behind, and I found a new exhilaration absent the fear that had accompanied the previous one. Boss and employee, husband and wife, father and mother—we had not only dropped all of our existing roles, importantly we had failed to pick up the new one we had been toying with, not wanting it, not even for the frivolous thrill play-acting it would bring. Out here, alone and in the presence of infinity, we had become just two people talking honestly with each other, all of our pretense left at the foot of the wooden hotel stairs with our shoes.

“And now you feel differently,” I said.

“God, yes,” Bethany said, her eyes tearing up again.

I held out my arm. It felt honest and natural. And Bethany accepted it in the same spirit, scooting over to nestle in next to me, her head in the crook of my shoulder.

“It’s okay,” I said, squeezing her warmly. “You don’t have to be anything you don’t want to be. Not for David, not for Mary, not even for me.”

She touched my thigh, but there was nothing provocative about it, and it did not arouse me. It was just a human touch, her inner need silently matching mine, desperate for the non-judgmental connection it seemed only we could offer each other. On our beach that night there was no history and no presumptions, just two people who had found each other lost in the same maze. In a few minutes, I knew, we’d get up and resume our independent searches for the way out, but for that moment, for that endless and fleeting now, we blissfully shared the simple understanding that neither one of us had built the damn thing—at least not intentionally.

She sighed heavily. “Why are things so difficult?”

I shook my head, my chin brushing through her hair, the fresh smell of it filling my nostrils. “I don’t know, Bethany.” I said soothingly, almost adding, I wish I did, but holding it back. The waves came crashing in, and I felt comfortably lost in the limitless possibilities of life.

+ + +

“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, May 18, 2020

A Campaign of Giants by A. Wilson Greene

This one has a nice story behind it. Here’s what I said at the end of my post on On to Petersburg by Gordon C. Rhea:

Sadly, there are apparently no more works coming anytime soon from Rhea’s masterful pen. But he does leave this reader with some kind of hope for the future.

“The executive director of Pamplin Historical Park, A. Wilson Greene, is the leading historian of the Petersburg Campaign. He has recently completed the first book of a multivolume study that when finished will stand as the authoritative word on the campaign.”

It’s already on my "Books to Get" list.

That was in September 2018. I’m writing now in August 2019 and, needless to say, A Campaign of Giants, subtitled The Battle For Petersburg, and further subtitled Volume One: From the Crossing of the James to the Crater, is that referenced work.

Let’s jump right in. It is Saturday, June 18, 1864. Much of Grant’s army has already crossed the James River, and major pieces of it are hurling themselves against earthwork lines hastily thrown up by the Rebels in an attempt to capture Petersburg and cut the supply lines for the Confederate capital at Richmond. As you read this extended excerpt, know that I am including it because it is essentially the story of the entire campaign in miniature.

Colonel [Joshua Lawrence] Chamberlain had emerged from the obscurity of regimental command on July 2, 1863, when his unit, the Twentieth Maine, successfully defended the far left flank of the army on Gettyburg’s Little Round Top. Chamberlain would receive the Medal of Honor for his heroism that day, but a more immediate reward resulted in his promotion to command of Griffin’s First Brigade. Chamberlain’s outfit included five depleted veteran regiments and an oversized new one, Pennsylvanians all. The thirty-five-year-old Chamberlain had been a professor at Maine’s Bowdoin College when he left the classroom in 1862 to fight for the Union. His distinguished postwar political and literary career -- including a penchant for self-promotion -- and the attention paid him by modern writers and filmmakers have elevated Chamberlain’s stature well beyond what it was on June 18, 1864, although without doubt the colonel from Maine enjoyed a sterling reputation among those who knew him.

Are you with me so far? A citizen soldier, in the proudest American tradition. Elevated to command because of his courage, competency, and good fortune. Now, for the situation he’s facing.

Chamberlain had managed to advance his brigade across the railroad and into cleared ground south of Baxter Road, where Confederate shells played havoc with his waiting troops. The colonel placed his seasoned regiments, averaging about 250 men each, in his first line, extending along a front of about 400 yards. The 121st Pennsylvania anchored his left with the 142nd Pennsylvania, 150th Pennsylvania, 149th Pennsylvania, and 143rd Pennsylvania aligned, in that order, left to right. The rookie 187th Pennsylvania, numbering about 1,000 muskets and innocent of any combat experience, deployed in a second line some fifty yards behind the first and covering about three-fourths of the length of its five sister regiments. Two batteries -- Capt. Patrick Hart’s Fifteenth New York and Capt. John Bigelow’s Ninth Massachusetts -- came forward to provide close support, joined later by a third set of guns.

The war has been going on for a long time. Pennsylvania would in total organize 215 numbered infantry regiments in the Civil War, and the rookie 187th is now making its appearance. The “veteran” regiments of the 121st, 142nd, 143rd, 149th, and 150th are all down to about 250 men, meaning that each has lost 750 or more to battle wounds, death and/or disease. And note the precision that Greene attempts when placing each one on the battlefield. This, I’ve discovered, is often the mark of a serious historian.

While supervising the initial deployment, Chamberlain and his staff looked up to see a Confederate shell that exploded immediately above them. The blast unhorsed every officer in the colonel’s entourage, severely wounded Chamberlain’s mount, Charlemagne, and claimed the lives of three men while wounding seven others, including the brigade color bearer. Chamberlain retrieved the flag and held it aloft as his troops withdrew a short distance to a safer location, awaiting orders for an assault against the main Confederate line.

Needless to say, mortal danger abounds. For his men. For Chamberlain and his officers. Even for his horses.

Those orders, according to Chamberlain, arrived in the person of an unidentified lieutenant colonel bearing instructions “in the name of the general commanding” for Chamberlain’s brigade to assault the enemy’s works alone. An astonished Chamberlain purportedly penned a three-paragraph response to the unidentified general officer (presumably Meade) explaining the operational situation and suggesting that if an attack be made, the entire army should be ordered forward. When the staff officer returned, he brought the welcome news that the rest of the army would, indeed, be ordered forward, but that Chamberlain’s advanced position dictated that his brigade lead the effort.

Perhaps because of the hasty movement across the James, general officers are far from the troops that they command. Orders are sent based on the sketchiest of operational understandings. Some brigade or even regimental commanders question the orders they are given, some carry them out, and some firmly refuse to do so.

This tale had been repeated so often as to become generally accepted as factual. Its pedigree, however, is suspiciously limited to Chamberlain’s own testimony and that of a sergeant in the 143rd Pennsylvania, Patrick DeLacy, both writing several decades after the war. The notion that Meade would send direct orders to a lowly brigade commander, bypassing both Warren and Griffin in the process, is illogical, as is Chamberlain’s claim that he directed a written response straight to the army commander without going through channels. No evidence exists of any order designating Chamberlain to lead the attack, although the peculiar terrain that prevented a coordinated advance among Warren’s units might have left Chamberlain with the impression that his regiments had charged alone. The complaints of Sweitzer’s soldiers that Chamberlain had failed to provide support on their left demonstrates that both of Griffin’s attacking brigades went forward without a firm physical or visual connection. Chamberlain’s postwar version of events has come under question in other contexts and this seems to be an example of the eloquent colonel’s fondness for enhancing his personal reputation and that of his soldiers at the expense of the truth.

We see only through a glass darkly, and one of the things darkening the glass is the desire of the combatants to promote their own brands rather than communicate (or even understand) the truth. Again, like any serious historian, Greene is trying to get to the truth, and is willing to call into question anything that seems fishy or otherwise calculated for the approval of posterity.

It is incontestable, however, that Chamberlain’s Pennsylvanians charged ahead about 3:00 P.M., consistent with Warren’s wishes. They faced a daunting task. Kershaw’s Division, thought by the Federals to be 3,000 to 5,000 strong and well supported by artillery, waited behind the works of the old Dimmock Line and the hasty barricades constructed by Beauregard’s forces early that morning. Ransom’s Tar Heels and Elliott’s South Carolinians Dug in on Kershaw’s left, opposite Chamberlain, as part of an unbroken chain of Beauregard’s brigades. Chamberlain’s men would top the small ridge behind which they had sought protection, descend into the valley of Poor Creek, and then climb toward the Confederate line across shelterless ground. Chamberlain explained to his regimental commanders that they were to move quickly down the slope, break ranks to cross the stream as rapidly as possible, then re-form on the other side and rush the enemy. The veterans in Chamberlain’s first line knew that many would never return from such a mission, and an officer in the new 187th Pennsylvania shared their concern. “My heart dropped to my shoes,” he remembered. “Cold drops stood on my forehead [and] my blood was frozen solid.”

Men were about the charge an entrenched line of determined defenders. They were frightened, but they would do it anyway, believing it was necessary and honorable to do so.

The Maine colonel attempted to calm the nerves of his anxious soldiers by delivering an inspirational speech and positioning himself at the head of the lead column. “Attention! Trail Arms! Double-quick, march,” Chamberlain intoned as the buglers sounded the advance. The men crested the ridge and began to take musketry and artillery fire while yelling “like a pack of infuriated devils,” then plunged into the morass at the base of the hill. Chamberlain, on foot, reached the little stream, whose banks were festooned with dwarf trees and thick vegetation. Enfilading fire peppered the drainage, and Chamberlain saw that maneuvering through this terrain would be a deadly business. He turned to his left and began to give instructions for the men to oblique to their left in order to expedite their advance. As he did so, a minie ball ricocheted off the ground and into his right hip, passed through his lower abdomen, nicked his bladder and urethra, and came to rest just under the skin behind the bone near his left hip.

Correctly diagnosed. A deadly business.

The wound was as painful as it was serious, and Chamberlain staggered under the blow. Fearing, however, that by falling he would demoralize his men, the colonel thrust his officer’s sabre into the ground as a prop and continued to stand as his troops rushed past and ascended up the slope. Eventually, a loss of blood compelled his collapse. In the meantime, some of Chamberlain’s men reached the base of the Confederate works before the lethal fire pouring from the muzzles of rifles and cannon stopped them, and then drove most of them back down the hill, leaving the ground blanketed with casualties. A few intrepid souls remained at the base of the works, in defilade and hoping that a renewed attack or nightfall would provide them relief. The green soldiers of the 187th Pennsylvania broke when they reached the ravine, and although some of them rallied, their hesitance robbed the brigade of whatever slim chance it enjoyed of breaking the Rebel line. “Our boys killed ‘blue bellies’ to their hearts content,” wrote a satisfied captain in Kershaw’s Division.

An unsupported attack, breaking hard against an entrenched line, and fizzling, leaving some men in retreat, some dead, and some pinned down in an impossible situation.

Two of Chamberlain’s aides, Lts. West Funk and Benjamin Waters, spied their colonel lying down in the mud and muck and dragged him out of the defile. Chamberlain remained conscious and ordered the subalterns to notify the brigade’s ranking officer that he was now in charge. He also instructed them to find support for the artillery, which was on the near side of the railroad cut and in danger of capture should the Confederates come screaming down the slope in a counterattack. Funk and Waters did as they were told, and Chamberlain remained alone, his life blood oozing into the Virginia soil.

Meanwhile, the attention of combatants, commanders, and historians alike are drawn to the gallantry of their officers, men bravely committed to achieving the practically impossible. To wit, the following three paragraphs.

When Captain Bigelow of the Ninth Massachusetts Battery learned of Chamberlain’s wounding, he sent some men to retrieve him. The colonel waved them off and, thinking his wound fatal, urged them to devote their attention to those who might be saved. The cannoneers ignored this plea and, under fire from Confederate ordnance, loaded Chamberlain onto a litter and carried him to a spot behind Bigelow’s guns. Eventually, an ambulance transported the colonel to a field hospital several miles distant, where the first surgeon he saw declared him a lost cause.

By this time, the colonel’s younger brother, Capt. Tom Chamberlain, had learned of his sibling’s dire situation and persuaded two surgeons form his old brigade, Dr. A. O. Shaw of the Twentieth Maine and Dr. M. W. Townsend of the Forty-Fourth New York, to examine his brother. These physicians recognized a difficult case but decided to attempt to repair the damage to Chamberlain’s internal organs. Chamberlain had not been fully sedated, and at one point during the procedure his suffering became so acute that the doctors considered abandoning their work to spare a dying man such agony. Chamberlain, however, encouraged them to continue, and against all odds they managed to complete their work and provide the colonel at least the chance for recovery.

Warren and Griffin both reached the hospital once the fighting ebbed for the day and watched somberly, believing like most others that the gallant colonel would soon breathe his last. At Chamberlain’s behest, they hurriedly drafted a request to promote the wounded man to brigadier general, hoping that the honor could be approved before the sufferer expired. Their request reached Grant’s desk on June 20 and by virtue of Special Orders No. 39, the general-in-chief named Chamberlain a brigadier general of volunteers to rank from June 18. Despite the work of Shaw and Townsend, Chamberlain also considered himself mortally wounded and wrote a heartfelt letter to his wife on June 19, pledging his undying love and promising to meet her in heaven. But God had other plans for Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Transferred to the Naval Hospital in Annapolis, Maryland, Chamberlain received excellent care, and on September 20 he earned a discharge and a convalescent furlough. On November 18, 1864, Chamberlain would return to active duty.

But God had other plans. What tribute to gallantry would be complete without the obligatory appeal to Providence? Disappointing that the Almighty wasn’t focused on rescuing any other members of His flock.

Chamberlain’s brigade failed to break the Confederate line for reasons other than simply the wounding of its popular commander. Like Sweitzer, Wheaton, and Martindale, the Pennsylvanians had charged with what they perceived as little direct support on their left.

And there you have it. As I said, a story in miniature of the whole campaign -- and maybe the entire Civil War. Courageous action, hampered by political jockeying and uncoordinated attacks, and lauded with providential appeals to heart-tugging gallantry.

All That Is Possible For Men To Do

I really want to underscore the juxtaposition of what happened in the trenches versus what happened in the command tents of this campaign. Here’s a description of another uncoordinated and unsupported attack on the Confederate line.

Ayres ordered his division forward at 3:00 P.M. in concert with the rest of the Fifth Corps, but he made little progress. “Just as soon as we raised the top of our works the rebs opened,” wrote Sgt. Charles Thomas Bowen of the Twelfth U.S. Infantry. “Sometimes a solid shot would knock a file of men ten feet in the air or a charge of canister tear down half a dozen files.” Bowen thought that “the air seemed full of iron of all shapes whizzing by us” and the officers ordered the regulars to hit the dirt. “We gradually sunk ourselves in the sandy soil by a regular hen scratching with our hands,” admitted Bowen, who considered the resistance to be “the heaviest artillery fire I ever was in … Arms, legs, headless trunks, & heads without bodies were strewn in every direction.” The 146th New York suffered a similar nightmare. Their officers quickly called a halt to the slaughter and the men employed their bayonets and tin cups to create “a miniature breastwork” behind which they made themselves “as small as possible to avoid Confederate fire.” A shell decapitated the Fifth New York’s color bearer, splattering his brains over his comrades before that regiment reached cover.

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Dushane’s Marylanders hardly moved forward at all, but on Ayres’s right Kitching’s heavy artillery regiments formed in two lines and advanced at the signal. Kitching reported the loss of 159 men to a “fearful fire of artillery and musketry” and his soldiers, too, employed “bayonets, spoons, hands, sticks, -- almost anything … to ‘scratch dirt,’ and like magic a line of two or three thousand men who are one moment exposed to every shot will be pitching head foremost into the earth, like moles.” Field’s troops were beginning to arrive and they contributed to the almost effortless repulse of Ayres’s division. “The men went in, but not with spirit,” thought Colonel Lyman, “as much to say, ‘We can’t assault but we won’t run.’” Ayres managed to shift some of his troops into abandoned Batteries 22 and 23 on the Dimmock Line, facing west, and thus refusing the army’s left flank. Warren suggested that the assaults be renewed that evening, but Meade disapproved. “We have done all that is possible for men to do,” confessed the army commander, “and must be resigned to the result.”

That, I think, may be the best summary of all. We have done all that is possible for men to do, if, by men, you mean the men in the squads, companies, and regiments that are offering themselves up for slaughter on the off chance that someone, somewhere can pierce the Confederate line and turn the tide of battle for the scattered and distracted Federals.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I get it. Like Lee at Gettysburg, or Grant at Cold Harbor, you don’t really know what men can do until you throw them with love and patriotism into the meat grinder of battle. And in the brutal efficacy of combat, there are only so many tools in the toolbox, and most of them are thinking, breathing people with inner dialogues and others who love them. But at some point, does it not become essential to break out of the mold that has been cast for you, to recognize meaningless slaughter for what it is, and to seek some other way of solving your problems and resolving your differences?

That, unfortunately for the American Civil War, was never the job of the generals. It was the job of the politicians. And they, famously, were abundantly inadequate to their task.

The Incident at Stony Creek

But the lessons explored above are manifest in dozens of other Civil War engagements. The Petersburg Campaign has other and somewhat unique lessons to teach us, to better understand the heartlessness of man and the horror of war.

When the Federals reached the narrow bridge over Stony Creek, they found a deep stream defined by precipitous and rocky banks. General Wilson and his staff forced their way across the span near the head of the column, leaving the impression that the commander “was confoundedly alarmed.” A bottleneck occurred as the frantic aggregation of cavalry and hundreds of terrified blacks attempted to gain access to the slender bridge. The Second New York Cavalry, First Connecticut Cavalry, and Fifth New York Cavalry tried to blunt the pursuing Confederates. They inflicted a few casualties, wounding Maj. James Breathed of Lee’s horse artillery, but the mass of retreating humanity turned the entire operation into anarchy. “The men were almost completely demoralized,” remembered Chaplain Louis Boudrye of the Fifth New York Cavalry, “at least one third having either thrown away or lost their arms in the flight.” Some troopers desperately endeavored to ride their horses down the steep slope and across the wide stream, many of them tumbling into the swirling water. “Men and horses mingled in almost every conceivable shape, struggled to reach the opposite bank,” remembered Boudyre, “while bullets whizzed among the trees, and shells screamed over our heads.”

Lomax and Wickham applied the pressure at Stony Creek. “They fired right smartly … & partially checked us but … the enemy retired rather sullenly until our sabres began to knock their caps off,” boasted a trooper from the Third Virginia Cavalry. “They then fled precipitately exposing to view about 1500 negroes scampering across the fields (of all sizes & sexes) with great bundles of plunder stolen from their masters’ houses, upon their backs. … Such screaming & yelling as they sent up Pandemonium itself could scarcely beat.”

Are you following the scene here? The Confederates have repulsed another anemic Federal charge -- this time of cavalry -- and are chasing not just the soldiers, but a passel of (soon to be former?) slaves, who are desperately trying to reach the perceived safety of the Union lines. And the slaves in question are not just young men (like the Union soldiers), but include whole families: men, women and children. Now, brace yourself before reading on.

Many soldiers in blue and gray commented on the tragic abandonment of infants and toddlers, tossed aside by desperate slave mothers facing the awful choice between escaping slavery or being seized with their offspring. “Little nigger babies could be found lying in the woods nearly dead that were thrown away by the Yankees in their flight,” wrote a Virginian, choosng to blame Northern soldiers under the standard premise that few of the slaves left their homes voluntarily. The African Americans vied with Union troopers at the crossing of Stony Creek, faring poorly in the competition, and many were left stranded on the north side, to be captured or killed by the pursuing Confederates. “Negro women were seen throwing their little babies ruthlessly aside,” reported Pvt. John Gill of the First Maryland Cavalry Battalion, although it is possible instead that the mothers sought safety for their infants by placing them out of harm’s way. “Our men became greatly enraged, and it was difficult to restrain them. It was a question of quarter or no quarter, and it was mostly no quarter.” An officer in the First Vermont Cavalry confirmed that “the Rebels seemed to be inflamed with rage against the Negroes for running away, and leaving the ‘Yankees,’ would sabre the ‘Niggers’ without mercy.” Only about 200 of the runaway slaves managed to navigate the creek and keep pace with the fleeing Federal horsemen. Few Civil War scenes involving noncombatants would present greater horror.

It’s a good thing those Southerners were fighting for their right of their States to secede from the Union, because I’d hate to think of terrified mothers and their babies being slaughtered for some unimportant reason. Was there anyone, I wonder, who witnessed this scene and seriously asked themselves what they were doing in the war and why? If it hadn’t happened to me before this, I’d have to believe that this is the incident that would have pushed me off the pacifist cliff. I mean, really. Is anything you want so important that it warrants the murder of mothers and their babies?

The Sacrifice of Life Was Useless

I was happy to see, however, that some in the Union army began to question some of the tactics of their commanders.

The soldiers manifested their disillusionment in several ways, most pointedly in their disinclination to execute frontal assaults, the standard tactic in most engagements. “One thing is certain,” averred Lt. Col. Hazard Stevens, “our men are not so ready to charge earthworks as they were, so many of the best officers and men have been killed that the remainder are rather averse to rushing in blindly.” Surg. Nathan Hayward of the celebrated Twentieth Massachusetts, a unit that had seem more than its share of savage combat, agreed that “the Second Corps will no longer charge works with the vigor and enthusiasm with which they commenced their series of charges.” Citing the death or wounding of twenty brigade commanders and seventy regimental leaders in such assaults, Hayward asserted that “the sacrifice of life was useless and the soldiers knew it.” He decried that “orders for the charges have been given in the coldest methodical official manner … not the presence of general to encourage and inspire the men by the example of their own determination,” and insisted that these reluctant soldiers “are not cowards; they are eager to meet the rebels on an equal field. But they have lost faith in the wisdom of generals who order assaults … with what they consider insufficient means.” Lt. Claron I. Miltimore of the Thirty-Seventh Wisconsin simply concluded that “Grant and Lee are building a mighty slaughter pen for many an innocent victim as the ox who walks coolly to the slaying floor.”

This is a much different army than the one Grant took into the Wilderness in early May 1864. In two short months, assault after fruitless assault has not only worn it down, it has shown it the absolute futility of the approach still championed by its generals.

And perhaps nowhere is that futility more apparent than in the debacle that is “battle” of The Crater. Greene uses this as the climax to this, his first volume on the Petersburg campaign. It is the slaughter that ensued when some Pennsylvania miners tunneled under the Confederate line and exploded a mine directly beneath it, creating a deep and steep-walled crater that the waiting Union troops were unable to exploit. Instead, inexperienced troops (mostly African-Americans) were marched down into it, where they were shot mercilessly by the surviving and surrounding Confederates.

Wounded men … were the exception in the crater that grim afternoon. “The slaughter was fearful,” explained Captain Featherston. “The dead were piled on each other. In one part of the fort I counted eight bodies deep.” Pvt. James Paul Verdery of the Forty-Eighth Georgia entered the crater, but found the center “invisible to the eye owing to the many dead & dying Blacks piled upon one an other.” David Holt of the Sixteenth Mississippi thought that the scene in the crater “was the most horrible sight that even old veterans … had ever seen,” exceeding the carnage at Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle. Surgeon Minor considered the spectacle unnerving. “The ditches were almost filled with the dead. Men had to walk on the dead, could not find room for their feet. Such a sight,” he informed his sister, “was never seen before.”

It was a nightmare. But in many ways, only a sequel of what had come before, and a preview of what horrors were yet to come. I’m anxious to read Greene’s forthcoming volumes.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at