I’m going to post a lie. A couple of them, actually.
At least I think they’re lies. They’re not mine. (The Liar’s Golden Rule: make the fib bigger than yourself. Lying has a remarkably selfless quality when you do it that way.) The first is Thomas Jefferson’s. “The passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge,” Jefferson wrote in his famous description of Harpers Ferry in Notes on the State of Virginia, “is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature. . . . This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.” Turns out Jefferson had never been there. According to a contemporary who claimed to know, Jefferson’s copped his description “from the representations of others.”
The other one belongs to John W. Geary, who commanded a Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry during the Civil War. In October 1861, Geary’s men fought a violent skirmish with Turner Ashby on Bolivar Heights—an affair also known, in the olden tradition of naming places so simply that later cave-dwelling historians could find them, as Schoolhouse Ridge. After the fight, a Federal victory, Geary reported that Ashby’s men snatched up the Union dead, “stabbed them through the body [and] stripped them of their clothing” and then “left them in perfect nudity.” Geary must have lived by the fibber’s Golden Rule, too. He didn’t think much of using one lie—that Ashby mutilated the dead—to undercut what he thought was a more pernicious one still emerging: just six months into the war, Turner Ashby’s passionate admirers had transformed him into a luminous meridian. The “knight of the Valley” was already becoming the romantic, chivalric symbol of their quest, their ideals, and their homes.
And yet lies sometimes carry essential truths. Jefferson’s lyrical Shenandoah Valley was and is, after all, a uniquely, stupendously beautiful place to call home. As for Geary, well, I don’t think Ashby humiliated corpses. But border war was blooded and brainspattered business. Ashby’s men carried not only pistols but Bowie knives. At least one of them wanted hatchets. On Schoolhouse Ridge another one even rode bareback and sought the enemy’s mettle with a war club.
The collision of these truths is what Blood Image is all about. Much like the Potomac and the Shenandoah rivers flowing toward each another at Harpers Ferry—a junction Jefferson described as a war between natural forces: earthshaking, breathtaking, begotten of and begetting sublime revelation—we have to understand beauty and brutality as manmade forces of war colliding and seeking passage. In their meeting was the charismatic power of Turner Ashby’s image.
Ashby’s beatific chivalry wasn’t a romantic, shimmering anachronism. It wasn’t a lie born in the innocent imaginations of people who recited their Walter Scott but didn’t understand the horror of war. Instead, it was a truth born in the imaginations of a people who did understand, and who created his image to succor themselves against violence. Ashby the blood image was a kind of deceit, but only of a very human and substantial kind. It was an emotional cordon; it was the interior defense of a people who feared becoming what they feared, fighting for cause but gurgling with bloodlust, savaging an idyllic Valley they idealized as an Arcadian home. Ashby protected them, indeed: against the brutalizing, dehumanizing effects of the war they celebrated. Then as now, in a post-September 11 world marked also by terrifying collisions, you don’t have to believe that Ashby mutilated the dead to know that such things could—that in this war such things did—happen.
Paul Christopher Anderson is an associate professor of history and Alumni Master Teacher at Clemson University. His book, Blood Image, can be purchased at 40% off during LSU Press’s Civil War Sale.