Arts » Feature

Quill And Bayonet

Reading soldiers' letters to home


Three years ago, my brother-in-law's parents, Robert and Betty Lou, were sitting outside a sidewalk cafe in a small Belgian villa enjoying lunch. A bent over old man hugging a bag of groceries stopped on the sidewalk in front of their table and stared at Robert. Robert stared back.

"You are man." His English was smothered by his native tongue.

Robert stared back, Betty Lou stared at Robert.

"You killed the shooter. In tower." The old Belgian guy pointed with his face at a five-story bell tower a few blocks down the rubble stone street. Robert and Betty Lou looked at the tower and back at the man.

"Man in tower, the gun man."

In Betty Lou's recollection of the sidewalk event, the old Belgian guy was misty-eyed and thankful. He nodded vigorously and smiled before he walked on. Robert recalled not finishing his lunch.

This is my own Soldier's Story, second-hand from my brother-in-law, about his father's return to war, via his parent's junket through Belgium in 2001. His father Robert had last visited Belgium in 1945, when Uncle Sam paid for the round trip. The old Belgian guy recognized him after 50 years.

Soldiers' Stories: War In the First Person is showing now through September at the Charlotte Museum of History. It's been held over an extra year because of demand and because of the general appropriateness of continuing it in this year of the Present American Conflict. The show accompanies the daily cringe suffered by listeners of American casualties in Iraq. The show also underscores, with belly-felt empathy, the anguish endured by families of the fallen.

The show is a level platform: It's not gory or critical or rah-rah. In the absence of any propagandistic spin, this depiction of American wars through the words of those who lived it is flat sober. Even bland.

But bland is not the word to describe this show. The show is as deliberate as rain and as stunning as an unprovoked slur. It's bad news delivered in a dry-eyed and expressionless monotone by a sister about the death of your father. It's news that makes you stare at your feet, thinking if you never look up at the messenger the news never really came.

Oh I do wish this miserable war would come to a close for I dread ever to hear the crack of a musket or the loud roaring of the cannon. Your brother until death, I. McIntosh. -- Private Isaac McIntosh, CSA; Civil War 1863

The letters in this exhibit are first person connections between those in the conflict and those left behind. The exhibit spans the wars from the American Revolution to the Afghan Conflict, each represented by missives to and from those entangled in the fray -- in training, in the trenches, in POW camps.

Reading and hearing the correspondence is like driving in your car listening to the latest account of an assault on troops in Iraq and having the news interrupted mid-sentence with a personal message from Private Smith to his sweetheart back in Gastonia. The radio drone information drops from your head to your belly and sits there like an eight-pound cannonball (on display here). First person utterances are not easily dismissed.

The Museum has done a fair and level job presenting the information. Political correctness wasn't a criterion. Seven vignettes within the exhibits are thematically arranged, each vignette or display area designed around a tag: Patriotism & Pride, Loss & Loneliness, Frustration & Anger, Changed Worldview, Fear & Despair, Sacrifice & Struggle, and Love & Hope.

We hear the voices of soldiers militant, enthusiastic, broken, hopeful and desperate. On the far left are the wails of a conscientious objector from a confederate POW camp. Each display area is outfitted with a touch screen that delivers the spoken and written letters and short biography of the writer. Each area displays artifacts -- uniforms, maps, photographs, muskets, sabers and souvenirs. The most compelling artifacts are the handwritten letters that accompany the voices reading the text -- unfolded and yellowed paper laced with cursive pleas and assurances to mom and complaints about the food. The letters can tumble you into the trenches.

There's a Mecklenburg County connection to all the correspondence, and this focused view conveys, by extrapolation, the enormous scope of 250 years of American conflicts. In this county alone, there are too many to count. The regional focus serves as a fair, little d-democratic, sampling of the divergent feelings about war in American lives. These letters represent a broad spectrum of views -- from the jingoistic to the jaundiced -- and serve as a microcosm of national feeling. Every man speaks in these letters.

Dear Sir, Your letter inquiring into the particulars of the death of your son was received a few days since. I was close to him when he received his mortal wound. Your son fell at the head of his company, gallantly leading it on to victory. When Captain Porter was found, his breast was pierced with a lance, his left hand cut off with a saber and his face split from the left eye to the mouth with a saber. I saw the Mexican pierce him through the breast with his lance and I immediately dashed at him with my saber... although he has fallen young and in the midst of his usefulness, yet I know that it will be a source of proud satisfaction to you to hear that he fell as a brave soldier... whilst upholding the honor of his country. -- F.W. Desha, Company D, Arkansas Cavalry Regiment U.S.; Mexican War

I feel for the father the moment he read this letter and pray to God he mustered enough "proud satisfaction" to balm his pain for 15 minutes. I know I couldn't.

The quality of the letters varies. Grammatical and spelling errors and occasional non sequiturs illustrate men preoccupied with more pressing issues than syntax, and serve as a subtle indicator of the divide between quill and the trench. Short time and short sentences are more evident in the later wars. Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers wrote both more formally and flowery with fewer incomplete sentences. WWII letters are often terse and understated and matter of fact, and are, inexplicably, the most heartbreaking for me to read. Doubt and soul searching are often addressed in correspondence from Vietnam.

Dear Dad, On Friday, March 29... we received small arms fire from a village. My platoon leader, Gary Scott.... a Negro from Rochester, New York, was killed. He was a fine man, a good leader, yet he couldn't understand the whys of this conflict which called him 10,000 miles from his home -- this conflict which killed him -- why? Fighting for a people who have no concern for the war, he did not understand. Yet they will say he died for his country -- keeping it free. Negative... Tonight the nation mourns the death of Martin Luther King. Not me. I mourn the deaths of real leaders for peace. The people who give the real sacrifice. People like Lieutenant Scott. Tonight the nation mourns Mr. King. They drink their cold beer, turn on their air conditioner, and watch their TV. We who mourn the deaths over here will set up our ambushes, pull our guard and eat our C rations. I will probably get a bronze star. Lieutenant Scott will get a silver star. That will help me get a job someday, and it's supposed to suffice for Lieutenant Scott's life. I guess I'm bitter now, Dad. This war is all wrong. -- Paul Woodall, 101st Airborne Division; Vietnam 1968

If you're thinking about enlisting, or you have a son or daughter, brother, niece or friend thinking the same thing, see this show. It won't try to influence your decision, but it will give you a heads up on the emotional landscape you're considering. You'll visit men and women who risked their lives and their minds fighting for our country. The trip to the Charlotte Museum of History won't earn you any bragging rights for your long treacherous trek to Shamrock Drive, but it will keep you thinking 'til the next time you see your kids, your niece or nephew, or a man in uniform.

The exhibit Soldiers' Stories: War In the First Person will be on display through September 2004 at the Charlotte Museum of History, 3500 Shamrock Drive. Newly added is the sideshow Powerful Persuaders, which showcases dramatic posters from World War II. For more information, call 704-568-1774.

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