Despite the surge of critical interest in Battle-Pieces (1866), Melville's first collection of poetry, little attention has been paid to the collection's longest poem, “The Scout toward Aldie.” Even the poem's most astute commentators have emphasized its apparent defects only to extol its biographical and historical attributes. But Melville was never satisfied with mere reportage. The historical and biographical specificity of his poem's subject has distracted readers from the mythic and proleptic intentions of the poem. Here, I would like to re-situate “The Scout toward Aldie” within Battle-Pieces and consider its relation to contemporary social discourses and metaphors of reunification in the wake of the Civil War. In “Scout,” Melville uses a particular wartime experience as the basis for a prophetic utterance that calls attention to the dire problematics at the heart of Reconstruction and the dangerous implications of the sentimental figure of marriage through which that process was then being rendered.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, as intersectional strife escalated and tensions among the states became strained, writers and orators applied the figure of marriage as both a salve to the burgeoning hostilities and a trope by which the looming separation could be more clearly conceived. This “nuptial analogy,” observes Gregory Jackson, was adopted by northern and southern writers alike to “arbitrate regional political differences” and to mediate the mounting antipathy between North and South (Jackson 283).1 Nina Silber in The Romance of Reunion similarly observes that the “image of marriage between northern men and southern women stood at the foundation of the late-nineteenth-century culture of conciliation and became a symbol which defined and justified the northern view of the power relations in the reunified nation” (Silber 6-7).
As the victor of the war, the Union quickly asserted a martial, masculine identity and publicly portrayed the South as a chaotic, cruel, and imprudent woman that required the guiding hand of a steadfast man. Recasting the South as a submissive woman and placing “southern men and woman under a proper model of northern manhood” (Silber 38) was the implicit goal of the northern reunion romances, intended to proclaim the physical dominance of the Union over the Confederacy and undermine the long-held “myth of the Southern ‘cavalier’ ” (Fahs 65). Their sentimental veneer veiled unspoken anxieties about Southern masculinity and aggression. For much of the war, northerners had been “psychologically terrorized by the image of the masterful southern soldier” (Silber 18). Victory presented an opportunity for the North to abolish the vigorous image of masculinity that the South had long possessed and to claim an authority through the use of a gendered model of reconciliation and a conventional narrative of courtship. Northern anxieties about Southern masculinity became embodied in the subtle effort during Reconstruction to “keep southern manhood in check while keeping the northern model of masculinity in the ascendancy” (42). Sentimental uses of the nuptial analogy, as well, allowed for the construction of a national narrative that mirrored a courtship plot. Karen Tracey has called the courtship plot the “most recognized narrative in nineteenth- and twentieth-century fiction” (Tracey 28). This plot, whose “relentless predictability … reinforces, replicates, or registers oppressive cultural dictates” (29) becomes especially problematic for Melville when it bleeds onto the field of battle, obscuring the terrifying reality of a guerrilla war, a form of combat that threatened to continue even after the Confederacy's formal surrender.
Although the oppressive utilization of the nuptial analogy by sentimental writers became most problematic during the period of Radical Reconstruction (1867–77) and after Melville had published Battle-Pieces, it had been circulating through public discourse in the United States as early as 1852 (Jackson 281). Thus, Melville is not responding to this problem of figuration in its most intensified state but instead anticipating the consequences of its continuance. In fact, Melville does not entirely reject figures drawn from domestic life to represent sectional reunion. In the “Supplement” to Battle-Pieces, he twice likens the aftermath of the war to a household in the wake of private domestic conflict. “In private life,” he writes, “true reconciliation seldom follows a violent quarrel; but, if subsequent intercourse be unavoidable, nice observances and mutual are indispensable to the prevention of a new rupture” (NN Poems 186). Three paragraphs later, referring again to the relationship between the disturbed sentiments circulating through postbellum America and the enactment of wise policy, Melville writes that “passionate sympathy, with resentments so close as to be almost domestic in their bitterness, would hardly in the present juncture tend to discreet legislation” (187, emphasis mine). In both these instances, Melville invokes private domestic strife to frame Reconstruction not as a marriage and therefore a new union but rather as difficult reconciliation in a marriage already troubled. As it appears in the “Supplement,” domestic union as applied to Reconstruction is one of tension, trouble, and fragile détente. Melville implicitly rejects a representational model that blithely imagines a new beginning for the United States largely undisturbed by its past.
Melville discerned the grievous error lurking beneath the sentimental uses of the nuptial analogy. The South in defeat had not been suddenly transformed into a bride willing to wed the bridegroom of the North. Nevertheless, the fiction of such a transformation had made its way through the Union's collective consciousness. Battle-Pieces is at once a meditation on and poetic rendering of the War Between the States as well as a book that projects the problems of Reconstruction. Melville's anxieties about America's application of the dubious nuptial analogy to the uncertain and fragile process of reunion are most pronounced in “The Scout toward Aldie.”
When read in the context of the pervasive nuptial analogy, especially as it came to be rendered in postbellum reunion romances, “Scout” is both proleptic and reflective. The poem summons an archaic literary past to inform a volatile future and to subvert the figures imposed by the triumphant Union upon the shattered Confederacy. Rather than reading the poem as a versified account of personal experience that recalls a specific historical event and figure of the war (John Singleton Mosby's raids), we should instead focus on how the poem foretells the perils of a nation tenuously reunited after witnessing horrific atrocities. In Monumental Melville, Edgar Dryden argues that the introductory poem of Battle-Pieces, “The Portent,” appears “at once as a reminiscence and a premonition” (Dryden 69). “The Scout toward Aldie” follows a similar pattern. Melville anticipates and critiques the trend by northern postbellum romancers to cast the North as a bridegroom and the South as a willing, naïve bride by both weaving nuptial imagery and allusions with biblical and Miltonic bridal figures and transposing a plot of courtship onto a military operation. “Scout” has its gaze set toward the future of postbellum America and is less concerned with a southern folk hero than with interrogating the narratives and symbols applied by the victor of the Civil War to its foe.
The poem's form, position, and theme are encapsulated in a sentence from the first page of “Benito Cereno”: “Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come” (NN PT 46).2 In this sense, the poem functions typologically but without the promise of revelation. In place of umbra bonororum futororum (shadows of good things to come), Melville's typological vision may best be expressed as umbra umbrarum futurarum (shadows of shadows to come). Resisting the teleological tendencies of his Puritan and Roman forbears, Melville's types/shadows function not as historical events/persons anticipating fulfillment in the future but as shadows prefiguring only increasingly deeper shadows, layering ambiguities atop ambiguities.3
To begin, let us examine how the poem as a proleptic piece cautions its contemporary reader of the dangers of Reconstruction. In the preface to Battle-Pieces, Melville claims that “with few exceptions, the Pieces in this volume originated in an impulse imparted by the fall of Richmond” (NN Poems 52). While Melville had been planning a volume of poetry about the war before the cessation of hostilities, this declaration indicates the centrality of the war's immediate aftermath to the organization and composition of the book as a whole. Stanton Garner attributes this deferral to Melville's desire to wait “until the immediacy of the events on which most of the poems are based had dissipated and his emotions about them could be recollected from the more tranquil and more settled viewpoint of the war as a whole” (Garner 388). We may add that this originary “impulse” also indicates that Melville's temporal gaze is always directed toward the events of the war as well as the nation's uncertain future.
Melville's further claim that the poems were “composed without reference to collective arrangement” (NN Poems 52) is ironic, intended to evoke a valorization of Romantic spontaneous form before carefully and subtly undermining it. Melville, claims Dryden, “seeks [in Battle-Pieces] to apprehend past and present spatially, thereby transforming the historical imagination into a myth which represents particular actions and events as universal forms of representation” (Dryden 67). Thus, Battle-Pieces is a work that must be considered both spatially and verbally. The appearance of poems upon the page and their visual relationships to one another are crucial to any interpretation because they—like a gallery of paintings—form a network of visual and linguistic signs that transcend their chronological arrangement.
A glance at the physical location of “The Scout toward Aldie” within Battle-Pieces is suggestive of Melville's intent. In the Table of Contents of the first edition of the poems, “Scout” immediately follows the section titled “Verses Inscriptive and Memorial” but appears in a typeface elsewhere employed solely for the “Notes” and “Supplement,” distinguishes it from those poems that precede it (see Fig. 1).4 Additionally, by giving “Scout” its own title page, Melville mimics the visual presentation of both “Lee in the Capitol” and “A Meditation,” the other two poems that complete the collection.
Critics have typically read “Scout” as if Melville had included it in the first section of Battle-Pieces and thus ignore its visual similarities to other poems and sections of the text. There is certainly a basis for this. Rooted in a specific military engagement of April, 1864, “Scout” superficially resembles the earlier poems, all of which chronicle specific events of the war as they occurred. The position of “Scout” as it stands within the collection in fact disrupts the spatial and chronological organization of the book. Mustafa Jalal argues as much when he writes that “Scout”“could be easily placed in the first section with hero-worship poems such as ‘The Victor of Antietam,’ and the two poems on ‘Stonewall Jackson’” (Jalal 75). Of course, in terms of their subject matter, “Lee in the Capitol” and “A Meditation” do not appear ill suited for the first section. But as Jalal aptly observes, “Lee”“expresses a sense of uncertainty about the future of the Union and Reconstruction,” and “A Meditation”“concludes the book with a sense of guarded optimism about the future of the republic” (75). The poems’ mutual concern with the nation's future and reconstruction signal an important difference from the first section of the collection. Scholars who have tended to read “Scout” as if it were included in an earlier section of the book disregard Melville's spatial and chronological grouping of poems. And given that both “Lee” and “Meditation” have their sights set on the nation's future, it is fair to consider that Melville conceived “Scout” as also engaged in part with that future.
The visual idiosyncrasies of “The Scout toward Aldie” as it appears on the page represent carefully calculated decisions by Melville and provide clues to both the reading the collection as a whole and the poem individually. The poem is impressed upon the page in such a way as to bind it with several seemingly disparate sections of the book. Its title and historical referents link it to Battle-Pieces proper, its typeface to the “Notes” and “Supplement,” and its title page to “Lee in the Capitol” and “A Meditation.” The poem's positioning functions as a medium between the sections of the text that precede it and those that follow it, occupying a liminal space between the past and the future, the dead and the living, and the war and the process of reunion. Additionally, Melville carefully weaves a literary past into “Scout” that both underscores the poem's temporal liminality and enables Melville to stage a complex encounter between a literary and national history and the shades of an uncertain future.
Scholarship on “The Scout toward Aldie” has traced its literary traditions. Joseph Fargnoli argues that the poem “transposes the archetype of the quest myth into a counter-myth of irregular fighting in total war in which honour, fame, chivalry, and combat are revolutionised” (Fargnoli 334). Although this assertion is debatable, Fargnoli provides a concise explanation of the poem's formal structure, which he claims “harks back to similar and related ballads and to such English lyrics and verse romances as Surrey's ‘The Seafarer’” (335). Going even further than Fargnoli in her assessment of the poem's conscious employment of literary antecedents, Megan Williams claims that “in contrast to Mosby's institution of guerrilla warfare, the literary forms of ‘The Scout’ are deliberately archaic and accomplish a strange summary of the history of English literature” (Williams 105). While guerrilla tactics were by no means unique to the American Civil War, Williams's last point is worth emphasizing. By summoning various tropes, images, and patterns from English literary history, Melville figuratively positions his poem to meld a contemporary event with a literary past to project a vision of futurity. He looks forward in the tale of the young Colonel waging war against the spectral Mosby toward a nation reunited but torn apart by civil strife and thus maps the shadow of a dim past onto an uncharted future. Though a narrative of the war provided by the victor surfaces in the poem, the ironies inherent in that narrative haunt the text, a fact evident in the repetition of the name “Mosby” in each stanza's refrain. If we examine, for a moment, the poem's setting and its antecedents in English verse, this aspect of the poem's composition becomes abundantly clear.
The first five stanzas of “The Scout toward Aldie,” which introduce the setting and central figure Mosby, are crucial in establishing the poem's genre and politics and the dominant tensions that guide the poem's action and its proleptic thrust. The wilderness between Vienna, Virginia, the location from which Melville had departed when he accompanied Lowell's scouting party in pursuit of Mosby, and Aldie, where Mosby and his men roamed, is heavily forested, a commonplace in English pastoral literature. Jonathan Cook observes, for instance, that the “aura of strange enchantment that hangs over the sylvan setting” is “evocative of Spenser's fairy land on the edge of the familiar world” (Cook 74). Prior to the violation of its sanctity by the scout the forest appears as a dreamscape, a wilderness invested with a timeless, Arcadian magic. Mosby seems a “satyr's child,” fire-flies possess a “fairy gleam,” the “settled hush of birds in nest / becharms” and “all the wood enthralls” (NN Poems 140, ll. 26-28). What complicates the scene of action, though, are the images of institutional order that encroach upon the sylvan setting. The poem, in fact, begins with an image of deforestation. Union “troopers,” to properly fortify their camp, have begun to fell the “great trees” while the camp itself sits on “the slope / Of what was late a vernal hill,” but now appears “like a pavement bare” (139, ll. 1-3). In order to carve out protection for themselves the northern regiment demolishes what they can of Mosby's haunt.
The camp stands as the sole outpost of a dominant institutional order attempting to occupy the “perilous wilds” (NN Poems 139, l. 4). This intrusion is apparent from the sky as well. The monumental symbol of the Union's might, the Capitol Dome, overshadows the mythical woods of Virginia. The narrator observes that “from pine-tops one might ken / The Capitol Dome—hazy—sublime—/ A vision breaking on a dream” (140, ll. 31-33). The figurative shadow cast by the Dome introduces a looming presence upon the scene and disrupts the dreamscape of this American fairyland. The mythical quality of the Virginian woods is shattered by the “vision” that the Dome imposes upon the observers below. In one sense this vision is a literal sight that perverts the physical beauty of the Arcadian scene, but it is also a glance into the future, a vision in the prophetic sense of the physical dominance of the North over the South and of the shadow, beneath which Virginia will hereafter operate.5 The figure of the sovereign appears in the guise of the young Colonel, who is introduced “mounted and armed” and sitting “like a king” (140, l. 51).
If the first five stanzas of “Scout” establish the temporal direction of the poem's gaze within the poem itself, the next two stanzas introduce the poem's primary trope, the figure of marriage. By characterizing the Colonel as a sovereign figure recently wed, Melville at once draws attention to both the dangers of tyranny that threaten the victorious Union and the circulating political representation of the South and the North as bride and bridegroom. The regal terms in which Melville casts the Colonel establish him as both a masculine figure par excellence and the human vessel of Law. His haughtiness and pride are both individual and national. Even more suggestive of Melville's occupation with marriage is the fact that the colonel is newly wed and has brought his “sunny bride” with him to the camp, rendering him both “hero” and “bridegroom” (NN Poems 140, l. 45).
Both stanzas describe the relationship between the Colonel and his nameless bride. And yet, Mosby and the bride appear in each stanza's refrain. The first reads, “His sunny bride is in the camp—/ But Mosby—graves are beds of damp” (NN Poems 140, ll. 41-42). For Hennig Cohen, this pairing of the Colonel's bride and Mosby creates an “ironic contrast between the bridal bed and the grave” (Cohen 288). By way of this formal technique, Melville foreshadows not only the Colonel's death and the bride's impending widowhood but also the poem's dominant ironic pattern. The Colonel, as we shall see, continually speaks of Mosby as a bridal figure, and this unwitting misconception transforms the bridal bed, the symbol of consummation and union, into a grave. Although the Colonel's bride is innocent of malice, her presence signifies the way in which the logic of domestic sentimentality and, more specifically, the figure of marriage bleeds onto the field of battle. The echoes that accumulate in the stanzas in which she appears recall famous women who betrayed bridegrooms in the interests of a nation. The Colonel's adherence to a narrative whose ironic underpinnings he fails to recognize are the very things that spell his doom. In these two stanzas the dominant nuptial figure is exposed, revealing the inherent fallacy in its use in representing the relationship between victor and foe.
When, in stanza six, the Colonel and his bride consummate their union, the narrator fondly remarks:
Ah, love in a tent is a queenly thing,
And fame, be sure, refines the vow;
But fame fond wives have lived to rue,
And Mosby's men fell deeds can do. (NN Poems 140, ll. 46-49)
The irony introduced in the previous stanza is here emphasized by way of the passage's biblical and Miltonic echoes. The line “love in a tent is a queenly thing” recalls the biblical tale of Jael and Sisera from the Book of Judges, wherein the fleeing foe of the Israelites, Sisera, enters the tent of Jael, who promises him protection, only to later drive a tent stake into his head once he has fallen asleep. Stanton Garner notes that Colonel Lowell—whom Melville had followed while sojourning in the field—had stayed with his wife not in a tent but in a cottage. Garner attributes this change to “poetic license” (Garner 307), but the echoes of the tale of Jael and Sisera render Melville's transformation of the Colonel's residence more deliberate and weighty. The allusiveness of the stanza not only ironizes the Colonel's final tryst but also establishes a figural shadow beneath the text that anticipates both the Colonel's death and Melville's prophetic vision of the fate of the Union.
While the biblical Jael haunts the first three lines of the stanza, the remaining lines direct us to Samson Agonistes. Milton reinterprets the story of Jael through Dalila's final speech, which Melville had heavily marked in his copy of Milton's poetic works. The speech is a bold declaration of Dalila's conviction that her betrayal of Samson will guarantee that she “shall be nam’d among the famousest / Of women” (Milton 982-83). She asserts that by defending her “countrey from a fierce destroyer,” she “chose / Above the faith of wedlock-bands” (985-86). Dalila cites Jael as an exemplary justification for her actions. Melville's lines echo Dalila's valorization of the fame and honor she believes her betrayal will win her. The “fame” that “refines the [marriage] vow” (NN Poems 140, l. 47) points toward both the Colonel's fame and the kind of fame Dalila exalts. In Milton, it “refines the vow” by purification, and in Melville, it refines by a clarification that reveals a corruption in the vow itself.6
For Jael and Dalila alike, fidelity to their respective nations takes precedence over their culturally defined roles as placid domestic figures. At the end of the Civil War, as the North attempted to reunite with the wounded South, to invite under the folds of its tent a foe it now publicly rendered as a bridal figure, the visage of Milton's Dalila, a woman for whom loyalty to “countrey” superseded “wed-lock bands,” continued to haunt sentimental representations of that reunion.7
After the Union troops have left their camp to venture into the Virginia woodlands, the Major and the Colonel sit on a low-hanging bough. The Colonel, breaking the silence, cries out “Come! … / to talk you’re loath; / D’ye hear? I say he must be stopped, / This Mosby—caged, and hair close cropped” (NN Poems 145, ll. 228-31). Although the image of closely cropped hair would seem initially to recall the Roundheads of the English Civil War, thereby indicating homologous factional divisions in the American Civil War, the Colonel's violent desire to unman Mosby has its source in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy offers a set of prescriptions governing the treatment of women captured in battle. Melville would likely have been familiar with this practice through Tasso's use of it in canto 16 of Jerusalem Delivered. The biblical passage reads as follows:
When thou goest forth to war against thine enemies … and thou hast taken them captive, And seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her, that thou wouldest have her to thy wife; Then thou shalt bring her home to thine house; and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails; (Deuteronomy 21:10-11, emphasis mine)
This biblical echo is in keeping with the poem's concern with the proper method by which a foreign female captive may be fashioned into a wife. The irony of the Colonel's forceful outburst is two-fold. By desiring to crop Mosby's hair, the Colonel seeks to effeminize the Confederate guerrilla and to transform him from a male prisoner-of-war to a feminine captive. Additionally, the Colonel's boasting and inexplicable outrage speak to his exaggerated masculinity, which itself mirrors the North's myriad attempts to assert its own masculine identity upon the South and to rehabilitate an enemy it had feminized. To apply such a figure to a combatant like Mosby is a kind of hubris that spells doom for the headstrong young Colonel. This parallels a similar tendency among postbellum northern writers to cast the North as a masculine figure and the South as feminine, which signals peril the moment the seemingly submissive bride decides to take up her hammer and smite the unassuming man.
Immediately following the Colonel's outburst, the two officers notice something hanging from the bough upon which they are perched. The Colonel dismisses it as merely “a bit of frayed bark” (NN Poems 146, l. 234) while the Major, with keener eye, recognizes it as rope from a lynching. Like the stanza preceding it, this moment highlights the Colonel's willful misreading of the reality of his situation. Even as he longs to annihilate Mosby, the Colonel refuses to acknowledge the terror that Mosby poses and the symbols of death that hang from the boughs of deformed trees. Several stanzas later, and having been sent out into the wilderness to locate Mosby's troops, the Major returns to the scouting party with several of Mosby's men in tow. As he washes himself in a nearby spring, he exclaims to the Colonel, “Halloa! they gave you too much rope—/ Go back to Mosby, eh? elope?” (148, ll. 308). The image of the rope returns in this line but is now likened to the rope used in nuptial rites to symbolize the covenant and union of marriage. The rhyming of “rope” and “elope” emphasizes their relationship to one another. In one fell swoop, the ropes used for lynchings, those used for binding captives, and those used in marriage rites are all symbolically tethered, and none is free from the implications of the others. Such a grim and ironic figure, we may recall, was already foreshadowed by the hanging body of John Brown in “The Portent” swaying from the beam before a gathered crowd. We see Melville's ironic powers used to full effect in this interplay of symbolic resonances: the circle of nuptial bands foreshadows the noose. The subtle entanglement of meaning and symbol exposes the folly of applying sentimental romantic tropes and figures to two halves of a nation bloodied by intersectional strife.
The Colonel interrogates Mosby's men:
“Where were you, lads, last night?—come, tell!”
“We?—at a wedding in the Vale—
The bridegroom our comrade; by his side
Belisent, my cousin—O, so proud
Of her young love with old wounds pale—
A Virginian girl! God bless her pride—
Of a crippled mosby-man the bride!” (NN Poems 150, ll. 386-92)
The strange moment adds resonances to the marriage theme.8 The bride's body, though, remains indistinct while the bridegroom is characterized by his “old wounds pale” and his “crippled” figure. The nuptial imagery in this scene complicates other instances we have examined: the Colonel's misrecognition of Mosby as a bridal figure and his own young wife who waits expectantly in the tent pitched within the clearing. The marriage in the Vale parallels the Colonel's nuptial. Both brides are young and wed to soldiers. The grooms, though, possess telling physical differences. The “wounded mosby-man” is crippled while the Colonel is able-bodied, gallantly galloping among the wounded, “a healthy man for the sick to view” (141, l. 87). The parallel couplings play with the tropes of a sentimental approach to sectional reunion by first maintaining a clear separation between northerners and southerners. Unlike the antebellum and postbellum novels that plead for intersectional reunion by marrying northern men to southern women, Melville reinforces the distance between the two couples. The wounded southern soldier also potentially functions as an allegory for the wounded South after the war, while the Colonel represents a more robust and self-assured Union. The irony of the mirrored couples arises when the hearty Colonel dies by a bullet and the wounded man survives.
Of the men caught by the Major, only one attempts to flee. We later learn that this “Sir Slyboots with the inward bruise” is actually Mosby himself (NN Poems 159, l. 689). This individual, described as being but one of Mosby's men, is not shot but instead hurled against a tree by a guard and falls “pale as a lover” (148, l. 315). The Colonel cannot recognize his captive for who he is. In a darkly humorous turn, he nevertheless exhibits a surprising degree of suspicion when he encounters the veiled woman. The narrator notes that “The Colonel's eye took in the group; / The veiled one's hand he spied—enough!/ Not Mosby's” (151, ll. 412-13). Even after this initial assurance, the Colonel still demands that the woman lift her veil, for “’tis in masks like these / That Mosby haunts the villages” (ll. 426-27). The Colonel's unconscious conviction that Mosby will appear to him in the form of a woman allows the real Mosby, who remains unmasked, to be set free.9
When the Colonel finally assures himself that the reticent woman is indeed a woman he suddenly assumes an affected chivalry. He bows deferentially toward her at one point and later plays “the outdoor host / In brave old hall of ancient Night” (NN Poems 155, l. 570-71). When he recognizes that his “cordial words” do little to ease her “private grief” (ll. 582-83), he sends her off, seizing only her letter, an act that sets into motion the events leading to the destruction of the Union regiment. The Colonel's attempts at wooing the southern girl play out in brief the kind of courtship plot that would dominate postbellum reunion romances, but with a twist.
From the moment she enters the Union camp, the southern woman acts out a role intended to lead the northerners to their doom, in much the same way that the northern narrative of reconstruction, frequently circumscribed by the conventions of marriage plots and the strict adherence to nuptial allegory, refuses to recognize the potential for deception. The Colonel's repeated misreading of Mosby, Mosby's rangers, and the young woman as well as the fictions he clings to despite all evidence to the contrary are precisely what allows the Confederate guerrillas to succeed. All the while, the Colonel's true bride waits at the camp in Vienna only to be greeted by the lifeless body of her “hero” and “bridegroom” whose belief in a fictional nuptial bond obliterates his legitimate one.
When the Union troops discover that they have been deceived—that they had Mosby in their grasp, had allowed him to escape, and had failed to recognize the veiled woman and her black servant as pawns in Mosby's game—they are too late to avert tragedy. The Colonel is slain, and Mosby's men disappear into the woods. When the Major learns the nature of Mosby's deception, he mutters, “Women (like Mosby) mystify” (NN Poems 160, l. 735). Having been thus deceived, the dead Union troops lie lifeless, their “faces stamped with Mosby's stamp” (l. 749). The attempt to impress a northern law and masculine order upon the South results in an ironic inversion of that impressment, wherein the misread foe has impressed the mark of death on the faces of those who would seek to quell him. The Song of Songs, a poem practically without peer on the subject of nuptial passion, ends with the bridal figure uttering, “Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death” (Song of Songs 8:6). Mosby's “stamp” inverts this passionate command from bride to bridegroom. As the Colonel lies lifeless, the narrator observes that a “ball through heart and hand he rued” (NN Poems 159, l. 717), affirming that the immaterial seal of Dalila's “wed-lock bands” has been transformed into the physical wounds dealt by Mosby's bullets. As he clasps the Colonel, the Major “in a hollow revery” declares, “‘The weakest thing is lustihood; / But Mosby—’ and he checked his mood” (ll. 719-21). The Major's final reverie sums up the quality that led to the Colonel's demise: “lustihood.” The word suggests the Colonel's exaggerated masculinity as well as the strange sexual desire lurking beneath his speech and in his attempts to project onto Mosby the figure of the bride. The Colonel comes to represent in part the Reconstruction-era North, a self-professed sovereign imposing upon his foe the highly volatile figure of marriage, an analogy invested with fallacious gender assumptions. This innate “lustihood,” though, forbids him from recognizing the shadows beneath his own fictions.
The images of bridegroom and bride embody many of Melville's own anxieties concerning the future of the United States as a cohesive national body. Melville situates “The Scout toward Aldie” between the past and the ambiguous future, much as he situates the poem typographically in the volume, between those poems that reflect directly upon the war and those whose subject is its immediate aftermath. In Melville's refiguration of Lowell's tragic pursuit of Mosby the poem manages also to anticipate the dangers lurking in the shadows of the sentimental narratives of sectional reunion proffered by the North following the war. Ever wary of sentimental discourse, especially when applied to race (as Peter Coviello's reading of “Benito Cereno” evidences) and national narratives, Melville dramatizes in “Scout” the absolute failure of sentimental reading in a space of continued combat where the field of battle and domestic life bleed into one another.
As we observed earlier, in the “Supplement” Melville shows himself not entirely averse to employing the material of domestic life to figure the project of Reconstruction. But his analogies suggest not a new union figured in terms of courtship and marriage but an old union just barely sustained in the wake of bitter conflict. These analogies do not gender either the North or the South stereotypically, nor do they offer any satisfying conclusion. In this way, they evince Melville's suspicion of easy narratives that bear within them implicit power structures (organized by gender) and untroubled endings. The kind of anticipatory critique of the postbellum reunion romance that “The Scout toward Aldie” offers does not undermine the content of the “Supplement.” Instead, it demonstrates the extent to which Melville's fears about the looming process of Reconstruction were as much representational as they were political.
More than a decade before he published Battle-Pieces, Melville had declared that the American people were “bound to carry republican progressiveness into Literature, as well as into Life” (“Hawthorne” 524). In the aftermath of the Civil War, Melville inverted the claim. Literature would be bound to sustain a project of “republican progressiveness.” Through its delivery of conventional narratives and figurations would make sense of the national reconciliation and “verify in the end those expectations which kindle the bards of Progress and Humanity” (NN Poems 187).