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The Names of Civil War Generals


I used to love them. It didn’t matter what side
They fought for, or for what. What mattered was
The music of the name in my mouth when I said it
Under my breath on the porch in summer.
There was Sheridan, who took a flag at Five Forks
And led a charge that turned the tide of battle.
His name was tied up with that flickering banner,
Adorned with the county name and state
Of whatever regiment he had happened upon,
Turned cowardly in the hail of bullets and ripe
For rousing. On the other side there was Longstreet,
His name conjuring epic marches and the dust
Raised by all soldiers of all wars. Jackson was action,
Brilliant strategizing by lantern-light with Lee,
Whose name I could say just by touching
My tongue to the roof of my mouth, and who thus
Seemed gentler than he must have been.
In contrast, Grant was always cruel, his name
Appearing in the last pages of the gold-leafed book
That is the Civil War like shards of flint
Scattered in topsoil. McClellan was a skittish horse,
Done up in so much finery he trips himself.
Burnside was his sideburns, his only legacy,
But also the dead at Fredericksburg on the slope
Under Marye’s Heights. Hood was his eyes,
Cavernous where he lay under the shadow
Of the knife at Gettysburg, the sleeve of the arm
They had to amputate knotted daintily
At his shoulder. Meade was a mean day-drunk,
His eyes beady and bloodshot. And Pickett
Was his charge, as well as those fences his men
Died draped over. It has been so long since
I cared to read about those men, their acts
Of bravery and cruelty. But sometimes, driving
West through Indian country, I encounter
Their names again where they have become
Counties and creeks, and am reminded that
That war I loved was only training ground
For the slaughtering they would do out there,
In that land that, along with everything else
It must bear, must bear their names forever.
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