WE HAVE OUR REASONS by DEBBIE LEVY
I wrote a book about the U.S. Civil War. I wrote a book about the Civil War and I am now and probably forevermore drawn to Civil War battlefields and museum exhibits and websites with Civil War ephemera. Me, the daughter of a refugee from Nazi Germany, a person whose roots in the United States are, chronologically speaking, shallow and with absolutely no connection to the War Between the States.
Of course, writers do this all the time, writing about events and people and places to which and to whom we have no personal linkage, only affinity. We have our reasons. An irresistible story, a gap in the bookshelf, a trip to a new place yielding writerly treasure, an editor or agent or friend with a thought—these, and others. Young readers tend to know there’s usually a story behind the story. How else to account for the invariable questions during author school visits: Why did you write this book? What was your inspiration for this book? Where do you get your ideas? For me, the paragraph or half page we’re generally allotted in our books’ back matter to answer these questions is never enough. So it’s a good thing someone invented blog posts.
In January of 2013, my husband and I went to the American Art Museum, one of my favorite Smithsonians in D.C., to see an exhibit called “The Civil War and American Art.” Among the pieces displayed was a painting by Winslow Homer. It’s called “Home, Sweet Home.” In the painting’s foreground, Union soldiers are hanging around their camp. In the background their comrades are listening to a band playing music—presumably to the song “Home, Sweet Home” of the painting’s title. Across the river in the distance, you see another camp.
The painting stayed with me. I went home and started digging around. In quick order I was focused on the Battle of Fredericksburg along the Rappahannock River in December 1862. After this battle, where more soldiers gathered to fight than in any other battle in the war, the Union and Confederate armies camped on opposite sides of the river for the winter. The northerners were disgusted by their humiliating loss. The southerners were disgusted by the damage inflicted on the city of Fredericksburg. There was no love lost between the two sides.
But then, one evening, there was an impromptu concert. That’s the event at the heart of my book, Soldier Song. First the musicians engaged in the usual battle of the bands that characterized these concerts. “Yankee Doodle” from the North. “Dixie” from the South. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” Then one of the bands began to play one of the most popular and evocative tunes of the day, beloved by those sides. That would be—“Home, Sweet Home.” The other side joined in. The song finished, and there was sustained cheering and joy. As one soldier wrote of the evening:
“I do believe that had we not had the river between us that the two armies would have gone together and settled the war right there and then.”
What I great story, I thought, as I dove deeper and deeper into my research, into accounts by Union and Confederate soldiers of the memorable concert; into the Union humiliation in a battle that was supposed to be a glorious victory ushering in the Emancipation Proclamation; into the sad history of the man who wrote the song’s lyrics; into the hardships of winter camp on the Rappahannock; into the poignant account of how a performance of “Home, Sweet Home” earlier in 1862 had comforted President and Mrs. Lincoln after the death of their 11-year-old son, Willie.
And here’s what else I was thinking, and here’s where I circle back to where I started—We have our reasons—I was thinking of my own father, a Coast Guard sailor in the Second World War. He served as a pharmacist’s mate on board a destroyer-escort that sailed back and forth between the East Coast of the United States and the Mediterranean. In 1944, my dad’s ship, the U.S.S. Menges, was part of an Allied convoy that came under German attack. German airplanes blew up the convoy’s oil tanker and its crew, sank another ship, and inflicted serious injury on other ships in the group. The men aboard the Menges spent hours searching for, and retrieving, survivors of the attacks. Among the survivors whom the Menges crew plucked out of the water were . . . two German aviators—two Germans who had rained terror and death down on the Allied ships. They were injured, these Germans. There was grumbling, understandably, among my father’s shipmates about exacting revenge. What Dad did instead was tend to their wounds. Patched up and properly treated, the two aviators became prisoners of war, taken ashore at Algiers.
With my father’s story embedded deep in my psyche, and after years of paging through his Menges scrapbook, I was primed to view the Civil War story I had in front of me as a story about people recognizing and responding to the humanity in their enemies. This isn’t about my dad acting as a hero (although he did, and he was decorated for it). It’s about him acting as a human. So for me, the story of what happened on the banks of the Rappahannock River is about seeing the humanity in our enemies. And related to that is the idea, especially pertinent today, of digging deep for all the commonalities we can muster to try to reach across our divisions and see our opponents, and those who are different from us, as brothers and sisters, children and parents, friends and sweethearts. Just as those soldiers did, at least for one night, in Soldier Song. And as my dad did.
Sure, I wrote a book about the Civil War in Soldier Song—and about society and how I hope it will endure, through people who understand that others don’t have to be The Other.
Those are my reasons.
My father the American World War II veteran married the German refugee. There, another reason.
Debbie Levy’s latest book is Soldier Song: A True Story of the Civil War. She is the award-winning author of nonfiction and fiction books for young people, including New York Times best-selling I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, winner of the 2017 Sydney Taylor Book Award and 2016 National Jewish Book Award; and We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song, a 2014 Jane Addams Award Honor Book and Bank Street College Best Book. She also wrote The Year of Goodbyes, a 2010 Sydney Taylor Honor Book and Kirkus Reviews Best Book. Debbie is a former lawyer and newspaper editor, and lives in Maryland with her husband. They have two grown sons. www.debbielevybooks.com.