Michael Fellman’s Inside War: The Guerilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War is a book one finishes and never forgets. Unassailably, artfully, humanely this is how great historians write.
But for the native Missourian, his is a hard book to read. His concepts of psychic numbness, survival lying, and the unwinding of all civic and community responsibility, the hyperbole (the fiction!) of courtly-mannered gentlemen riding with scalps, and the triumphs of greed—this is not your feel good about glory and honor history book.
One of the many heartbreaking stories Fellman relates is that of Daniel De Witt of Jackson County, Missouri. Raided repeatedly by Kansas troops and Missouri State and Enrolled Militia, De Witt kept meticulous lists of everything destroyed, burned, or taken.
Here’s just one that Fellman quotes:
Daniel De Witt, “My loss by Fedrels”
1st Sept 1862 Taken by Union Command to Lieutenant Col Thompson 5th Regiment Missouri State Militia
1 grey mair 5 years old ………$150.00
1 sett of Wagonharnis ……..$30.00
1 pitchfork …………..$1.25
1 singletree to wagon ………..$1.00
12 Wheat stack 50 ct ea ……….. $6.00
This is the shortest of five. The sorrow comes not in the losing of stuff, but in the cumulative realization that the reader attains: there will be no justice for this man’s losses “[s]ince civilian authority had collapsed in much of Missouri, military provost marshals were often the only available agents of the law.” As Fellman says later in the chapter “Civilians in Guerilla War”:
Many civilians felt themselves under attack from Union soldiers and also believed there was no likely legal redress for what was being done to them. The military frequently appeared to be their persecutors and subsequently their judges and juries, beyond whom there was no effective appeal.”
In concluding with poor De Witt, Fellman handles deftly what is known and what can only be surmised.
Someday when normal justice had returned to the land, he would file a claim and be compensated. Even if he himself very much doubted that hope, it was significant that he wrote out his list, for that act itself was evidence of his faith that in all justice he ought to be compensated, that in a proper and attainable peaceful society such wrongs would be righted.”
Here, and as a notion of where the fiction writer can make entry, I would offer some other alternatives to Fellman’s “faith in justice.” Though it is one likely motivation, there is also this possibility. Often those who have endured great wrong and much chaos will become frequent list makers. I have seen this in Hurricane Katrina victims, and in divorce cases. The act of recording a list asserts control over what is far out of control. And the list-making may serve to expiate the wrong, flush it and then organize the evil onto paper where it can be dealt with, wrung dry of its power, or at the very least contained within the borders of the document. Some victims I have seen become serial list makers, until the entire wrong can be recited with dates and times and weather patterns and placement of key players in a room.
So the next step for the fiction writer? Imagine De Witt alone in a devastated house just ransacked. Imagine the paper, maybe the last torn endsheet of Goodrig’s Pictoral History of All Nations. Imagine the nub of the pen he sharpens, the ash of the ink he is mixing as his thoughts circle like angry starlings over rye, never settling, always whirling. Imagine the wind through shattered windows. Imagine the bell ring of the pen down in the ink well, the smell of ash, iron, and water. Then imagine De Witt is writing.