War is Hell on the Homefront, Too

I go to bed at 9:30.

Though I repeatedly tell my hipper friends this, they treat it as if it’s an urban legend, something that on the surface seems plausible, but can’t possibly be true. So, every once in a while they test me. Someone will come over at seven with a three hour long documentary in order to prove to him or herself that I am “not just a brilliant and incisive observer of human interaction, but an actual participant on occasion as well!”

Ha, wrong-o buddy. That was me with the dog nodding off on the couch at exactly 9:30.

Anyway, we watched this movie, Sherman’s March, which was a beautiful meditation on love, loss, and Burt Reynolds.

It got me thinking of Lucy Virginia Smith French. I’m guessing that none of you know Mrs. French, unless you are related to her, but she was a writer who lived in McMinnville during the Civil War and she kept a diary. Civil War diaries are pretty much a dime a dozen, but what sets French’s apart is, I think, her great and terrible honesty and her willingness to chronicle her descent into hopelessness.

Much of the diary reads like this: “We’ve just gotten news that our fine, brave boys have defeated Sherman at Atlanta and Hood is on his way back for a victory celebration at this very minute” and then, three days later, “Dreadful news. Sherman is on his way to the sea.” Over and over again, events reported early as victories are rereported as great tragedies. It’s emotionally exhausting just to read it, let alone live it.

And there’s a moment, early on in the war when she relegates the two women who help her run the house and tend her four children to the back yard because she is afraid they’ll kill her and her family in their sleep. Then, not three months later, she brings the women back in the house because it’s too much for her to run the house and tend the children and by this point, she’s convinced they’ll all die anyway and, if the enslaved women are helping in the house, at least she won’t have to be alone until that happens.

But the part that really got me, that still haunts me, is her entry on Lincoln’s assassination. By this point, frankly, I was expecting her to break into great shouts of “Well, he got what he deserved, that fucker.” But her response was utter despair.

It caught me off guard because it’s not a response to Lincoln’s death that we really talk about–well, except our generous uncle Walt, who always mourns what we cannot–that, for all the seceding and the warring and such, at some level the South felt somewhat safe with Lincoln as President, because he wanted those states back in the Union.

So, I think French felt that Sherman’s march was a pivotal moment, the point at which she understood that war could be waged in a way that decimated whole cities and took into account no standards of decency or formalities of rules of engagement. And when Lincoln was killed, she was terrified because she was certain that the North’s response would be to march into the South and just start slaughtering Southerners–men, women, and children–until the blood lust was satiated.

I could try to loop this back around into having something to do with the movie, but I guess it really doesn’t come back to that very naturally.

9 thoughts on “War is Hell on the Homefront, Too

  1. well, except that i think it does in some sense tie back into McElwee’s own concern for how Sherman himself was dealt with during and after the war by both sides–even if we think of Sherman as a hero now, it’s still on some level as a tainted hero, and we lose track of how much our own contemporary opinions of him are based on the public responses of the time, of which we generally know so little (as you’ve pointed out), and see the condemnation of Sherman as a product of historical hindsight rather than as a lingering after-effect of that same time period. hopefully that came out coherent.

  2. Sherman’s March is one of those movies that is like a train wreck you can’t stop watching.

  3. Greeks don’t even eat dinner sometimes until 9:30! The last time I went to bed that early was when I woke up at like 2am and couldn’t go back to sleep.

    Really good observations on the journal, too. It makes me want to read it.

  4. I’m so glad someone else goes to bed at 9:30. Good thing trivia ends at 9 p.m. sharp. People think I’m crazy, but I remind them I’m also much more pleasant before 7 a.m.

  5. T. You told me his other movie was better. True or not?

    M. 9:30?! If I had to wait until nine thirty at night to eat dinner, I’d be so grouchy I’d be ripping the heads off of small Greek children and drinking their blood to satiate my hunger. The Greeks would invent a meal for 5:15 just to keep me at bay.

    Ha, it’d be a little awesome to be a minor Greek monster, like a Minotaur, but smaller!

    E. Exactly. If folks saw me at 6 out walking the dog and conversing with the neighborhood cats, with as friendly as I am, there’d be widespread pandemonium as people tried to leave their significant others for me only to find their significant others already gone chasing after me.

  6. I think Time Indefinite is his best film, and it looks, by the rating it has, that imdb readers in general agree with my assessment. Just as beautiful and much more personal, but without losing any of the force of Sherman’s March. Six O’Clock News is also really good, but not comparable in my opinion, and I, sadly, haven’t had the chance to see the new one, Bright Leaves, even though it played at the Belcourt. I happened to be broke during the week it was around. Blecch.

  7. Pingback: Things on My Mind « Tiny Cat Pants

Comments are closed.