My Civil War

Grant had a lot of buttons
on that coat—when he wore it.
Lee, as well. Blue. Gray. They
all did. Gold buttons. So many,
like gusts of sparks from a bonfire
up into a murderous, deluded
firmament. Still, they were men
you’d follow. Wanted to. Stiff hair.
Mustaches. Muttonchops.

Boys did—in flocks, in herds,
wagons, freight cars full. Some
for honor. Some on principle.
Some for the uniform a girl
might fancy and lead them to
bed. Some just to get away from
dirt-poor, hardscrabble to any
who-could-give-a-damn where.

The camps had songs, speeches,
cigars, baseball, decent coffee.
Store-bought and homemade
whiskey. Sutlers’ tents like
Ali Baba’s cave on wagon wheels
when the sergeant counted out
your weekly pay. Girls who
smelled good and were easy as
your pockets when they were full.

Photographers—trunks packed
with knives long as your forearm,
pistols to brandish or tuck into
your belt while you scowled half
a minute at the camera and mailed
the copy to the folks back home.
But what you didn’t notice until
you saw the elephant, until, formed up
in line, you walked into your first—

and shook and threw up
on the grass and kept on walking—
more afraid to stop, go back,
than to stumble on into that
whistling, dismembering air—

were the surgeons’ tents ahowl
back of the line. The bloated, splayed
or peaceful as-if-sleeping dead, notes
in their pockets or pinned to jackets,
saying where what’s left should be sent.

And parts of bodies, heaps—
eskers and drumlins—the glacial
rubble as the battles moved away.
Undertakers reeking chemicals,
carpenters hammering at coffins,
close to the nearest railhead—
the easier for shipping boxes back.

And Gardner, his assistants posing
corpses before the grave details
were formed to dig. The darkroom
in his wagon, developing the plates
he took and sent back to Grady’s
DC studio to be hung so the public
might make some sense—might
take away a story from the wholesale
slaughter they’d lined up to see.

Three. Four more years of this.
Sundown at Wilderness, where wounded
who couldn’t crawl away died
screaming in brush fires that burned
all through the night. The hour, two,
at Antietam or Cold Harbor—abattoirs
that left wreckage no pathologist,
no master butcher, could identify.

If not there, having the luck to miss
grapeshot or a Minie ball you might die
of gangrene, typhoid, sepsis, cholera
at Chimborazo or in Washington,
before a fever burned your mind away
and your heart or lungs surrendered
or Walt Whitman had the chance to write
your last words down and post them home.

I worked with a man whose beard
hung halfway down his chest—
a froth of muddy melting ice.
He dyed cloth with crushed walnut,
cut and sewed his uniform, made
his kit, and drove hundreds of miles
on weekends to reenact.

What is a country? Lines on a map—
across rivers, roads, fields?
Here? Not over there? Is it like
a family? Can anyone come in?

In that photograph—sepia (You’ve
seen it. You know the one I mean)—
along that town’s muddy street,
the letters of the signs above the stores
are sharp. A horse is tied to the rail,
rubbing his flank against a pole.
His tail is whisking flies. It’s blurred.
The flag on the pole is blurred.

Read on . . .

Local Color,” an essay by Christopher Kempf