History gains more meaning when coupled with some imagination. For example, consider the effect of a typical news item on its readers in the autumn of 1864. Imagine yourself in a small city, perhaps in Ohio. A son or nephew or friend or brother had months ago “jined the cavalry,” and he wears the Union blue on the frontlines someplace in Virginia. Weeks ago, the last time you heard from him, his health was good, and his regiment was in the Shenandoah Valley. Like everyone in your community, you had scanned the long, long casualty lists printed in the newspapers through the summer and dreaded finding a particular name. The arrival of news from the front, even news of victories by Union troops, inspired feelings of anxiety. That summer and autumn, every day was a dangerous day for a soldier on the front lines. Even in victories on the battlefields alarming numbers of men fell dead or maimed. In the absence of definite news about the safety of your soldier, no news was arguably better than vague news. Vague news only plowed furrows in a fertile imagination and sowed seeds of worry and fear.
Most Americans, North and South, received war news late and in fragments. In the North, the Big City newspapers, particularly those from New York, paid correspondents to follow the armies in the field. The journalists telegraphed their dispatches to the main office and the news reached the crowds on Broadway while the ink on the latest edition was still wet. Readers in far flung destinations had to wait until other newspapers could reprint the stories from the pages of the New York Herald or the Tribune or the Sun or one of the papers from Washington, Philadelphia or Boston. Five days after the battle at Tom’s Brook, word of the affair was still trickling to small town Main Street.
A typical example of the second-hand news story appeared in the October 14 edition of the Dayton Daily Empire in Ohio (above). Cobbled together from two different accounts in two New York newspapers, the apparently heavily edited, error-riddled synopsis of the battle of Tom’s Brook filled about six inches of a single column and offered only a sketch of the fight. The story gave no news of casualties. To modern readers, the bare-bones treatment seems almost cruel in its tantalizing brevity. Ohioans wondering about the safety of some soldier in Custer’s division, in the 2nd Ohio Cavalry for example, could find little comfort in knowing that yet another clash of cavalry had produced more dead, more wounded and more captives, all of them still nameless.
If I am writing about a deceased historical figure, I go visit. Cemeteries appeal to me because they don’t change much from generation to generation, so in many cases I see in the 21st century what visitors looked upon in the same spot in the 19th century. With imagination, I can feel a little more connected to the people I am writing about if I try to look at the place through their eyes. More important, grave markers often reveal something of the person beneath the stone or of the family that marked the grave for posterity. Since I am hungry for every scrap of understanding I can find, I think going to the grave can help. Consider my visit to the community burying ground in Warrenton, Virginia.
I went in search of the grave of Gen. William H.F. Payne, who commanded a brigade of Confederate cavalry at Tom’s Brook. I did not know much about Payne before my visit, so 20 minutes in that cemetery proved fruitful. The first thing I noticed was there were Paynes buried all over the place. I knew that the family had been prominent in northern Virginia, but seeing all those headstones gave me new insight into the power and influence of the prolific Paynes.
General Payne’s grave lies in the Confederate section, and the specific location told me a few things as well. He had the wealth and social stature to acquire a prime burial plot on the top of a hill near the heart of the cemetery, immediately behind the towering, brilliant white monument to the Confederate dead. There is symbolism in that he is as close to that big monument as it is possible to get, and the monument almost literally stands on his grave. The location suggested to me that Payne was a True and Devoted Confederate, and two bronze tablets on his impressive rough-hewn grave marker confirmed that he was a patriot above all else.
The tablet on the front provides Payne’s resume, and a similar tablet on the back proclaims what Payne valued. The words read as though they come from a eulogy or an obituary. I quoted these words in Decision at Tom’s Brook to help explain what motivated the man. The more I investigated Payne, the more important he became to my telling of the story. He, like General Rosser, was a warrior who thirsted for battle. Together with artilleryman James Breathed, they represented the type of man who kept the Confederacy alive in those final months of the war. Never give up; never give in; never apologize.
Most of the historians I know count cemetery visits among their research trips. Gravestones can, as in the case of W.H.F. Payne, serve as valuable interpretation tools. So I urge all writers to “go visit” the dead. In future posts in this “Discoveries Among the Dead” series, I’ll write about L.L. Lomax’s grave, which is also in the Warrenton cemetery, and the Rosser family plot in Charlottesville.