Edgar Allan Poe at Gettysburg
I’ve just finished Walter Jon Williams’ 1989 short story, “No Spot of Ground.” In Williams’ alternate history, Edgar Allan Poe does not die in a dissipated, incoherent condition in a Baltimore charity hospital in 1849, but recovers to conquer his alcoholism with the help of a wealthy Maryland widow, marries the widow’s beautiful young daughter, and founds a successful literary magazine. With the coming of the war, Poe goes south and obtains a commission as a Colonel in the Confederate army.
Poe is old for field command — just two years younger than Robert E. Lee, to the day — but he manages to advance in spite of his prickly relations with his fellow officers. Poe is personally brave enough, but hardly an heroic figure. As depicted by Williams, Poe is vain, dismissive of the skills of other officers, considering them to be his social and intellectual inferiors. They are, he believes, mere vulgar prose in contrast to his elevated poetry. Poe is utterly paranoid about their plots against him. Every burble of disorganization or mislaid communication in the field — things that a later generation would refer to with the acronym SNAFU –Poe views as part of a larger plot to make him look like an incompetent. Poe has little regard for the common Confederate soldier and, one imagines, the feeling is mutual. Poe imagines the entire Federal army facing him across the lines. Williams also gives the reader a glimpse of Poe’s obsession with romantic death, and his inability to move past the loss of his first wife, Virginia Clemm (1822-47), even though he assures himself he’s moved on. Unlike the Confederate officers of another recent bit of Civil War fiction, here Poe carries all the prejudices and attitudes of his day and place.
The main action of Williams’ tale takes place in late May 1864, when Poe unexpectedly takes command of George Pickett’s division at Petersburg, and moves with them into the line north of Richmond near Hanover Junction, just after the Battle of North Anna during the Overland Campaign. But much of the story is told in flashback, including a segment where Poe commands one of Pickett’s brigades in the famous assault on the third day at Gettysburg:
The sound was staggering, the banging and the clanging of the guns, guns, guns, but fortunately Poe had nothing to do but keep his feet moving forward, one after another. The officers had been ordered to stay dismounted, and all had obeyed but one: Dick Garnett, commanding the brigade on Poe’s left, was too ill to walk all that way, and had received special permission to ride.
Garnett, Poe knew, would die. The only mounted man in a group of twelve thousand, he was doomed and knew it.
Somehow there was an air of beauty about Garnett’s sacrifice, something fragile and lovely. Like something in a poem. The cemetery, their target, was way off on the division’s left, and Pickett ordered a left oblique, the entire line of five thousand swinging like a gate toward the target. As the Ravens performed operation, Poe felt a slowly mounting horror. To his amazement he saw that his brigade was on the absolute right of the army, nothing beyond him, and he realized that the oblique exposed his flank entirely to the Union batteries planted on a little rocky hill on the Yankee left.
Plans floated through his mind. Take the endmost regiment and face it toward Yankees? But that would take it out of the attack. Probably it was impossible anyway. But who could guard his flank?
In the meantime Pickett wanted everyone to hit at once, in a compact mass, and so he had the entire division dress its ranks. Five thousand men marked time in the long grass, each with his hand on the shoulder of the man next to him, a maneuver that normally took only a few seconds but that now seemed to take forever. The guns on the rocky hill were plowing their shot right along the length of the rebel line, each shell knocking down men like tenpins. Poe watched, his nerves wailing, as his men dropped by the score. The men couldn’t finish dressing their ranks, Poe thought, because they were taking so many casualties they could never close the ranks fast enough, all from the roaring and the soaring of the guns, guns, guns. . . He wanted to scream in protest: Forward! Guide center! but the evolution went on, men groping to their left and closing up as the shells knocked them down faster than they could close ranks.
Finally Pickett had enough and ordered the division onward. Poe nearly shrieked in relief. At least now the Yankees had a moving target.
But now they were closer, and the men on the Yankee ridge opened on Poe’s flank with muskets. Poe felt his nerves cry at every volley. Men seemed to drop by the platoon. How many had already gone? Did he even have half the brigade left?
The target was directly ahead, the little stand of trees on the gentle ridge, and between them was a little white Pennsylvania farmhouse, picture-book pretty. Somewhere around the house Poe and his men seemed to lose their sense of direction. They were still heading for the cemetery, but somehow Garnett had gotten in front of them. Poe could see Garnett’s lonely figure, erect and defiant on his horse, still riding, floating really, like a poem above the battle.
The cemetery was closer, though, and he could see men crouched behind a stone wall, men in black hats. The Iron Brigade of Hancock’s Corps, their muskets leveled on the stone wall, waiting for Garnett to approach. . . .
And then suddenly the battle went silent, absolutely silent, and Poe was sitting upright on the ground and wondering how he got there.
I don’t consider myself a fan of the alternative history genre, but I liked Harry Turtledove’s “Lee at the Alamo,” and enjoyed this one, as well. Has anyone else read it? Thoughts?