Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels poses several upendings of size to point out human fallacies of perspective.
The Lilliputians, five to six inches high, see Lemuel Gulliver as a “Man Mountain” and find his outsized complexion and the quantities of food he consumes to be grotesque. In Brobdingnag, Gulliver is tiny and finds the giants who keep him as a pet to be repulsive. He describes the awful size of the pores on their noses or the hideous ruggedness of gooseflesh on a breast and such. Swift points out through Gulliver’s impressions that humankind often can only perceive from one angle, one given size. Yet humanity makes sweeping judgments on large and small. And frequently in the absence of other perspectives, the one witness’s judgment becomes the only judgment. One vision leaves us a lopsided, solipsistic, skewed view.
Something to do with perspective jumped out at me this morning reviewing population figures in Missouri from Michael Fellman’s great Inside War: The Guerilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War and from http://www.ozarkscivilwar.org/
In 1860, Missouri was a state of 1,182,012 inhabitants (1,063,489 White; 3,572 Freedmen; and 114,931 enslaved Blacks). Ninety percent of the population lived on small farms or in villages the size of Springfield, which was home to around 2,000 people. 1 in 8 households held slaves compared to 1 in 2 in the deep south states. In Greene County (population 13,186) 1,668 enslaved Blacks represented 12.6% of the inhabitants. Throughout the rest of the Ozarks slave ownership was very rare, and slaves represented 0-5% of the populace. Fellman describes the Ozarks as “populated by southern mountain whites who were both bitterly negrophobic and haters of presumptuous southern planters and their Missouri counterparts.”
At the Battle of Wilson’s Creek there were roughly 17,400 combatants involved. Many of them were not from Missouri. Using William Garrett Piston and Richard Hatcher III’s masterful Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Who Fought It we can draw out these figurues. The Confederate Missouri State Guard fielded 9,171 soldiers (not all armed); Of 5,400 in the Union’s Army of the West, 2,316 were Missourians, more than half of those German-Americans from St. Louis.
So when we write a book, be it a history book about a battle, or even a novel that is largely just about a battle, we risk Gulliver’s dilemma. What do I mean? 11,487 Missourians fought each other at Wilson’s Creek. That’s less than 1% of the population of the whole state. So if that combat is all we want to see of Missouri life at that moment in August of 1861… okay, then. But we have loosed a Man Mountain with only tiny thoughts to the squeaking people in the rest of the countryside.
There are rare exceptions to the battle-centric tendency of history. Fellman’s 1989 Inside War was almost entirely about the Missouri populace. And in 1994 I had the privilege of marketing The White River Chronicles of S. C. Turnbo, the Civil War section of which was all from civilian witnesses.
At the start of the 21st century, historians of the war in the west published and wrote from the fruit of yeoman work using as many primary documents as can be had and focusing on civilians or common soldiers as often as possible. Louis S. Gerteis’s Civil War St. Louis is a superb example. It is my hope that some historian will be so furious about what I “got wrong” in my novel that she will write Civil War Springfield (we deserve such a book, I promise!), and publish it with Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina, or Moon City.
Piston and Hatcher’s Wilson’s Creek draws in the perspective of common soldiers and civilians. Their book was the first I can recall to emphasize the hometown cohesion of units, and the ways in which soldiers were much more concerned about upholding the honor of a hometown (or their own honor in their villages) than they were about upholding their honor in the sovereign state of Missouri or in the Union. Piston and Hatcher were also first to point out the nitty gritty of logistics, too, frequently enumerating the headache of satisfying the Gulliver-sized appetites of an army in the field.
Its subtitle, The Second Battle of the Civil War… , is an example of a second Gulliver’s dilemma, one that happens a lot in considerations of importance and scale on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. I know David C. Hinze and Karen Farnham would dicker with that “the Second Battle.” In their book , The Battle of Carthage, they say 1,100 St. Louis Germans faced 4,000 armed and 2,000 unarmed Missouri State Guardsmen at Carthage. This was July 5, before Wilson’s Creek, even before Manassas.
Let’s think about Gulliver’s dilemma and the way historians play up or play down a battle or skirmish or engagement. If you were one of John Q. Burbridge’s rugged but untested soldiers from Louisiana, Missouri, up north of St. Louis, then the advancing of 1,100 well armed St. Louis German-Americans all in formation would make, arguably, a life-changing, lifelong impression on you, not to skip over the immediate mortal danger part. 1,100 angry, organized and armed men—that’s as if every soul in the nearby river burg of of Clarksville got several snootfuls of java, marched north, and came after you. For contemporary perspective, imagine yourself on a prairie with a cross section of your homies. Next imagine your reaction when half the population of Cabool shows up across the way armed with awesome rifles, and eight wicked cannon. And then consider how you’ll feel when, after the smoke and terror passes, way down the road, some historian determines that what you have been through does not qualify as quite big enough to be termed a battle. Perspective? Put me down, mistress Glumdalclitch. Your big city makes lil Gulliver feel lonely and forgotten!