Rushville Republican

September 3, 2013

Is wordsmithing a lost art?

By Paul Barada Rushville Republican
Rushville Republican

---- — I have always enjoyed good writing by those few who excel at the art of putting words together in exceptionally readable ways. Not that I can do it, but I like to think I can recognize it when I read it. I just finished reading a rare book, published in 1904, by General John B. Gordon. What is particularly interesting, at least to me, is that Gordon was a Confederate General who wrote “Reminiscences of the Civil War.” The book is an extraordinarily well-written narrative about his Civil War experiences.

Prior to the war, Gordon attended the University of Georgia and later studied law in Atlanta and was admitted to the practice of law after passing the bar exam. During the war, Gordon rose to the rank of major general, was wounded five times, but survived to lead the Confederate surrender at Appomattox.

After the war and Reconstruction, he served as a United States Senator from Georgia from 1873 to 1880 and again from 1891 to 1897. He also served as the Governor of Georgia from 1886 to 1890.

As I mentioned, his writing style is very readable, but it also fits the times in which he lived. This week I’m going to share a little of what he wrote over 100 years ago, and I think you’ll find his style engaging and easy to follow. The “Introduction” to his whopping 465 page narrative is only about two pages long. I think you’ll enjoy this backward glance to a time when the nation, particularly the South, was still recovering from the effects of the Civil War.

“For many years I have been urged to place on record my reminiscences of the war between the States. In undertaking the task now, it is not my purpose to attempt a comprehensive description of that great struggle, nor an elaborate analysis of the momentous interests and issues involved. The time may not have arrived for a full and fair history of that most interesting period in the Republic’s life. The man capable of writing it with entire justice to both sides is perhaps yet unborn. He may appear, however, at a future day, fully equipped for the great work. If endowed with the requisite breadth and clearness of view, with inflexible mental integrity and absolute freedom from all bias, he will produce the most instructive and thrilling record in the world’s deathless annals, and cannot fail to make a contribution of measureless value to the American people and to the cause of free government throughout the world.” (Now, that’s a lengthy sentence, but one well worth reading!)

The introduction continues: “Conscious of my own inability to meet the demands of so great an undertaking, I have not attempted it, but with an earnest desire to contribute something toward such future history these reminiscences have been written. I have endeavored to make my review of that most heroic era so condensed as to claim the attention of busy people, and so impartial as to command the confidence of the fair-minded of all sections. It has been my fixed purpose to make a brief but dispassionate and judicially fair analysis of the divergent opinions and ceaseless controversies which for half a century produced an ever-widening alienation between the sections, and which finally plunged into the fiercest and bloodiest of fratricidal wars a great and enlightened people who were of the same race, supporters of the same Constitution, and joint heirs of the same freedom. I have endeavored to demonstrate that the courage displayed and the ratio of losses sustained were unprecedented in modern warfare. I have also recorded in this volume a large number of those characteristics and thrilling incidents which illustrate a unique and hitherto unwritten phase of the war, the story of which should not be lost, because it is luminous with the noblest lessons. Many of these incidents came under my own observation. They marked every step of the war’s progress, were often witnessed by both armies, and were of almost daily occurrence in the camps, on the marches, and between the lines; increasing in frequency and pathos as the war progressed, and illustrate the distinguished magnanimity and lofty manhood of the American soldier.

“It will be found, I trust, that no injustice has been done to either section, to any army, or to any of the great leaders, but that the substance and spirit of the following pages will tend rather to lift to a higher plane the estimate placed by victors and vanquished upon their countrymen of the opposing section, and thus strengthen the sentiment of intersectional fraternity which is essential to complete national unity.”

Despite using what we, today, might call “high-flown rhetoric,” Gordon gives an immediacy to his writing that easily takes the reader back to the postwar years of the American Civil War – when sectional bitterness was still a fact and when the lingering vestiges of Reconstruction were still on the minds of millions of Americans and reunions of the Blue and Gray were regular occurrences which attracted thousands of veterans. To John B. Gordon the Civil War was still very real, even more than thirty years after Appomattox. But notice his style of writing! Clear, understandable, even if not concise by modern standards.

The point is that everybody of the generation who fought the war wrote that way. And it is worth our time to reflect on how well the writers of that time expressed themselves. If only we could all do as well today.

That’s -30- for this week.