“Journey to the Wilderness: War, Memory, and a Southern Family’s Civil War Letters,” by Frye Gaillard

Frye Gaillard

Frye Gaillard

Reviewed by Rod Davis

A beautifully written personal and moral quest in search of insufferable truths, Frye Gaillard’s Journey to the Wilderness brings as much clarity to the lingering darkness in the Southern soul in a few emotionally honest pages as I have seen in volumes of hagiography, professional Southernism and clichéd pensives that plague analysis of the Civil War. As one who grew up in the South, including Texas, and was nurtured on myths of the Lost Cause, I followed Gaillard’s argument against the hollowness of all that with both emotional and intellectual respect. In following the letters and memories from his own family’s ties to the very beginning of the Confederacy and the subsequent horror of the war that it precipitated, Gaillard makes his way to the truth through what might called baptism in the blood of his own deeply implicated kin.

A prolific author of books about the South, including country music, Gaillard has long been a passionate civil rights advocate, evolving from a family that included five members of the Confederate army, two of whom were killed. In his introductory essay to the letters, Gaillard recognizes the courage and hardships endured by the combatants and the entire South. But he also calls out the enduring wrongheadedness of the secession. Especially as replicated in post-war generations who continue to try to rationalize the evil at the heart of the war’s oft-invoked gallantries.

Even now, reconciliation has failed for many Southerners, as “Forget Hell” slogans and Confederate battle flags attest. “For my Southern family, and for many others, the generations that followed [the war] set out gamely to soften the edges, search for the heroism and the goodness, refuting the notion of General Grant that the South had simply been in the wrong,” says Gaillard.

“For nearly a century after the war,” he adds, “[t]here was a barrage of writing, reaching its pinnacle in Gone with the Wind. The cornerstone of our collective understanding was that the South was never wrong, not fundamentally and never in its heart, and scattered through the ashes of Southern defeat was something too proud and precious to die.”

With Journey to the Wilderness, Gaillard convincingly finds otherwise. “In the end,” he says, “the illusion didn’t work, not in our collective heart of hearts, and the hurt gave way to something worse—to a vast dishonesty driven by guilt, and obscured by a desperate love of the past[,] … our dirty Southern secret, hidden only from ourselves and tied so inextricably to the war.”

Gaillard’s confrontation with memory begins with an important contextual foreword by historian Steven Trout looking closely at the human price of the war. The bloody toll was over 622,000 killed and an estimated 3 million total casualties, not counting the attendant starvations, dislocations, poverty and other miseries—all to defend a slave-based economy.

Trout notes the butchery of troops on both sides—the lethality of artillery volleys at close range; the ubiquitous minié ball, which flattened on impact like a kind of hollow point and turned any kind of hit into a grotesque wound. He suggests that Civil War tactics, including close order formations and trench warfare, anticipated the carnage that would come in World War I. It is precisely this otherwise unthinkable scenario of mass destruction that the Southern mythology has twisted and romanticized as a way to remember.

Setting the record straight has been a long time coming. Gaillard cites Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream (1949) as one of the early books that influenced young activists in the late 1960s by putting the Lost Cause myth into play in emerging civil rights struggles: “The South grew more sensitive to criticisms, more defensive and dishonest in its thinking,” Smith wrote. “For deep down in their hearts, southerners knew they were wrong. They knew it in slavery just as they … know today that segregation is wrong. It was not only the North’s criticism that made them defensive, it was their own conscience.”

Gaillard’s contribution here is to weave past and present into personal reexamination believable because it’s painful. The several generations of relatives who saw the war coming, took part in it, or later tried to rationalize it include a true believer in the Cause, a politician who saw the war as a tragedy of Greek dimension, a war-weary surgeon, and an ordinary young man killed because he felt he had to serve. “The other voices fall with that range,” Gaillard says, “and the effect for me is a sadness that far outweighs Southern pride.”

The most ardent of the Gaillards to support the war, Franklin, was certainly one of the bravest, a survivor of some of the most brutal battles, including Gettysburg. It was Franklin’s journey to the jungle-like Virginia forest known as the Wilderness that led to his death. “Oh this terrible war,” Franklin began to admit in his letters home, which gradually lost the blind optimism of his earlier correspondence. His brother Richebourg Gaillard had been taken prisoner twice during the war and by the end of it wrote, “I see nothing ahead. All is dark and pretends no good for us of the south. The whole north is made and nothing will cure their madness but bloodletting.”

Then it was over. “As this final reality settled hard on the south,” Frye Gaillard says, “there was no way to disguise it, no way to mitigate the despair… And there it was—not just a momentary depression, but a mindset filled with defeat and distrust, a bleakness that seemed to have no bottom. No wonder the sons and daughters of the next generation searched for consolation, some noble echo of the fierce Southern pride that helped bring the nation to war in the first place. No wonder the heart and psyche of the South—particularly the white South—became such a tangled knot.”

In its honest recounting of the cost of the war to the real people and real families of the South, Gaillard does not indulge in fantasies or set up rhetorical straw men. This is his family. To tear free of the beliefs for which they lived, and died, is to destroy a little of himself. So it must be. For this descendant, there can be understanding, but no equivocation.

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