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On the Flip Side

As a scholar, I welcome the new insights that have proliferated in Civil War studies over the past several decades.  Historians have used the war as a prism to study various issues apart from the battlefield, the presidential residences, and the legislative halls.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the use historians of gender have made of the Civil War.  Men and women experienced war differently, and issues of masculinity and feminity help shape a more robust understanding of traditional issues, including enrollment and desertion.  But there have been times where I’ve wondered whether that at times these studies go too far.  Sometimes it’s out of sheer ignorance, as in one’s scholar’s elaborate treatment of Zouaves as a regiment of male nurses in effeminate clothing based upon a few passages from the writings of a female nurse.  Over a decade ago I wondered what would happen if I parodied the approach in examining one particular soldier’s recollections.  What follows is a slightly revised version of that parody: 

Maury the Man

Few of you have heard of Dabney H. Maury (1822-1900). He was a rare breed of Confederate general–a Virginian who spent precious little time in the Old Dominion during the American Civil War (although stories that it was because the Virginians didn’t want him are not true–or at least have yet to be proven). His name appears but once in Lee’s Lieutenants by Douglas Southall Freeman; not once in James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom; and Maury is passed over in Herman Hattaway and Archer Jones, How the North Won. Even Shelby Foote, who promised to balance coverage between theaters in his massive trilogy, mentions him but eight times in 2896 pages of text, and always in passing. In light of such distinction, it is indeed odd that anyone would choose to remember him.

Nevertheless, a few people do remember Dabney H. Maury, primarily because he wrote extensively about his wartime experiences. His career, if not distinguished, was honorable enough. In recent years, however, historians, armed with new ideas about how to explore the experience of the Civil War, have returned to old sources to mine them anew. One of these new perspectives about the war seeks to weave questions of gender and sexuality into our understanding of the conflict.  Maury’s writings prove quite revealing in this context, as an examination of Recollections of a Virginian (1894) suggests. In rereading his text with an eye toward issues of gender and sexuality, we come away with an enriched understanding of the adolescence and young adulthood of one of the Confederacy’s more representative soldiers.

Maury was quite proud of being a Virginian. But what did being a Virginian mean to him? Although he spent much time in his recollections detailing his background and heritage, he said virtually nothing about his own mother–although she later visited him at West Point.(25) Rather, to him, Virginia was a society dominated by men, and Maury dwelled lovingly upon their physical appearance. He especially recalled a night spent with Johnson Barbour, “one of the most brilliant youths of his day”; Maury admitted that he “felt his superiority to any boy I had ever seen.” Late at night Maury requested his “bedfellow” to “examine me on matters of general information.”   Unfortunately, this effort at late-night chit-chat proved abortive, for Barbour made clear that he had no interest in fulfilling young Maury’s wish.(12)

Maury found his brother, William Herndon Maury, a “very handsome, attractive young fellow”; his uncle, the renowned Matthew Fontaine Maury, was “the most lovable man I ever knew.” That did not prevent young Maury from lying to a man who took the place of his father: he informed his uncle that he graduated from West Point thirty-fifth in a class of sixty, although the records show that he was thirty-seventh out of fifty-nine–ranking lower relative to his class than did Ulysses S. Grant in the class of 1843.(16)

Dabney Maury entered West Point in 1842 after it became evident that he had no future as a lawyer. As he tells us in his Recollections, his unfitness for the bar was made apparent when he claimed that ignorance of the law justified  breaking it–a sign of his astute quality of mind (19). At West Point he sought the male companionship he craved.  Unfortunately for him, not all cadets were nearly as interested in meeting him: Thomas J. Jackson “received me so coldly that I regretted my friendly overtures, and rejoined my companions, rebuffed and discomfited”(22-23). Among the first classmen that year was Ulysses S. Grant, “a very good and kindly fellow whom everyone liked”(23).

Maury, however, would have to wait several years before his chance came to know Grant better, for entering cadets did not mix with first classmen. He was always on the lookout for companions, including Professor Deshon, who used to “‘get off'” in his conversations–on religion–with Maury (26). Maury’s observational powers were in full force when it came to an examination in optics: “I was thoroughly aroused, and being pretty good at a spurt, I made myself master of the course”(25). Historians of gender and sexuality have always cautioned us to read with especial care the language of adolescence and young manhood: Maury’s intriguing use of language raises all sorts of questions.

Maury graduated in 1846, chose to join the Mounted Rifles, and went to fight in Mexico. He had thrilled to descriptions of how Kirby Smith “leaped astride of a Mexican cannon”; he could not wait to go to war, as “we were girding ourselves to join these glorious fellows”(27).  He was especially happy to run into Grant, now quartermaster of the Fourth Infantry. “We were much together and enjoyed the association,” Maury tells us; Grant “was a thoroughly kind and manly young fellow, with no bad habits, and was respected and liked by his brother officers, especially by those of his own regiment.”(29) Maury also admired the bare torso of General Twiggs: “I had never seen a grander subject for an artist’s study”(30). 

The next year Maury suffered a serious wound at Cerro Gordo, crippling him for life.  It marked the only time during the war that Grant mentioned this supposedly close friend in correspondence (Maury’s name never appears in Grant’s Memoirs).  As Maury recuperated, he continued to admire the “fine physique” of his officers (43).   He was soon sent home to Virginia, where he met Turner Ashby, “one of the most loved of the devoted men of Virginia. He came of a  family famed for their expertness in all manly exercises.” As someone interested in riding, Maury found the Ashbys most compelling, for they “were the famed horsemen of the country.”  Indeed, Turner and his brother Dick “were the pride of all that hard-riding countryside. They were devoted to each other and beloved by all”(47).

Historians of gender and sexuality will find much to explore in the above discussion, especially in Maury’s interest in manliness and physical appearance. A concern with mastery and control seem evident; the choice of words at times seems provocative; Maury celebrates masculinity with a frankness that reminds us that the study of gender need not be restricted to women.  

Comments (4) to “On the Flip Side”

  1. Oh, Brooks, you are cruel! Some things are better left buried in the past!


  2. Being from San Francisco, I find this parody quite tame. Perhaps it would be better told in the format of an underground comic book.

    Amusing, nonetheless.

  3. Brooks, are you *trying* to provoke the re-appearance of a certain cretinous monster from our past?

  4. […] For want of a better word. Quite possibly the only review of Michael Howard’s new book, Liberation or Catastrophe?, to mention Lyotard is that by Investigation of a Dog — but I’m sold! Civil Warriors has an example of a gendered reading of the letters of a minor Confederate general, but make sure you read the whole of the introductory paragraph first. Actually, reading the first paragraph last (like I did) might be even more fun. More serious is Civil War Memory’s report on a lecture by Peter Carmichael on the intellectual roots of two major interpretations of Robert E. Lee (pro-Lee, moralising and “Victorian” vs anti-Lee, revisionist and “modernist”), and why they will never see eye to eye. And Blog Them Out of the Stone Age discusses an article by Richard Betts which questions (but ultimately affirms) the very idea of strategy, and how this might be useful in teaching military history. […]