On 31 August  only one Confederate prisoner remained at Gratiot Street [Prison] (there is no record of his release).
So ends Louis S. Gerteis’s engaging chapter “A Friend of the Enemy” in Civil War St. Louis. In a dearth of good record keeping at an overwhelmed prison, this understated conclusion is the topper. If it’s not in the written record, Ricoeur’s “resources of anamnesis placed in reserve,” did something really happen? Or are we free to assume within reason? Without record of parole, is this poor bloke’s carcass still rotting, chained at the corner of Eighth and Gratiot in downtown St. Louis?
That’s not reasonable, so we have to make it up. He died in hospital. He walked out when no one was looking. Officials, tired of watching him, let him loose and celebrated with so many beers on the landing, they lost his papers. And he married a showgirl and they had great looking kids and a schnauzer they called Franz Sigel.
Gerteis’s passage brings to mind an impasse between me and a historian who was kind enough to read the Ontario Review piece I’ve posted at What is Forever? Now, don’t get me wrong. Writers thrive on feedback, and it is an honor to have something I made up read by anyone, let alone a busy and accomplished scholar. It’s the impasse that intrigues me, as if the historian and I had stumbled on a wide, sandy desert in the middle of a hike through Mark Twain National Forest. Neither of us could agree how to cross the wasteland.
After reading the piece, the historian gave me some excellent pointers on equipment adjustments. We talked about militias and home guards. And then he came to the fragging, in which the hero kills his cruel, new lieutenant, after which the Paw Paw militia the hero serves with covers it up. Now there’s enough in the historical record to discover Union militia and home guards in Missouri of every stripe—from murderous revenge seekers more hellbent than killers in Njal’s Saga, to freeloaders and downright closeted traitors like those in my story.
The historian said, “There’s nothing in the record, in the documentary evidence of a fragging like that. No one writes about one or reports one.” Right, I said. They cover it up at the end and lie.
Sometimes the human face can form a line flatter than death on an ekg. And that’s what the historian’s face assumed. “So you made that up?”
Wind whistled over a wide, sandy expanse. “Well, aside from that, everything else is just fine,” the historian concluded.