The day after the Battle of Chancellorsville, a soldier on the losing side, William L. Aughinbaugh of the 5th Ohio Infantry, reflected on the spectacle of violence he had just survived:
To see the flashes of the muskets and the blaze of the artillery at each discharge, and watch the train of fire following the shells, when they were fired, and see the ‘bombs bursting in air,’ would have been a grand, a magnificent sight, could one have looked upon all this as he would at a play on a stage, without seeing behind the curtain, but when one saw the dead and dying around him, all feelings or thoughts of the beautiful left him(May 7, 1863)
What makes this passage remarkable – especially in the context of Aughinbaugh's growing disillusionment with the war effort – is not only the self-consciousness with which it both invokes and rejects the linkage of beauty and violence but also that it implicates, in its allusion to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” one of the iconic texts of American cultural identity. In his own way, Aughinbaugh recognizes here the ways in which myth and aesthetics, those handmaidens of war, can derange both our perceptual and emotional responses to the real world around us. The soldier, predisposed to see the battle in romantic and nationalist terms, is finally liberated, conceptually, by the actual bloodshed he witnesses: bloodshed that measures the cost of his disenthrallment.
In this one moment, in one man's private journal, we can discern some of the seeds of a complex literary history that would unfold in the late-nineteenth-century as American writers sought to come to terms with the meaning of the Civil War. Making generalizations about how they did so is a hazardous business – because many different strategies were brought to bear, from many different perspectives – but one of the signal impulses of the era was to move beyond the constrictions of Romance and to go, as Aughinbaugh puts it, “behind the curtain.” This desire to get at the “reality” of the war (however that reality was conceived) helped generate a distinctive strain of literary realism that took its place within a broad, evolving, many-faceted, and at times controversial artistic movement in the United States.