Saturday, March 20, 2010

Purple Prose

While thumbing through volume 22, part 1 of the Official Records several years ago, I came across the most amusing battle reports. Filed by Confederate Colonel Joseph O. Shelby, they are splendid examples of purple prose. I have a vague recollection of reading somewhere that the reports were actually written by John N. Edwards; perhaps one of my readers can comment as to whether that is correct or not.

For your reading pleasure here are two snippets from Colonel Shelby’s reports:

This is from a report dated 11 December 1862:

“…Upon the eventful morning of the 7th [battle of Prairie Grove], long before the full round moon had died in the lap of the dawn; long before the watching stars had grown dim with age, my brigade was saddled, formed, and their steeds champing frosted bits in the cold, keen air of a December morning, ready and eager for the march. After advancing rapidly and without intermission for several hours, I struck their trail, hot with the passage of many feet, reeking with the foot-prints of the invader. It needed no command now to close up. Their was no lagging, no break in serried ranks, no straggling from the line, but each man grasped his gun with the strong, firm grasp and the strange, wild looks of heroes and born invincibles…” (vol. 22, pt. 1, 149)

The following is from a report dated 31 January 1863:

“GENERAL: On the last day of December, 1862, when the old year was dying in the lap of the new, and January had sent its moaning winds to wail the requiem of the past, my brigade…were on the march for foray on the border’s side….’Twas a bright and beautiful scene. There lay the quiet town [Springfield, Missouri], robed in the dull, gray hue of the winter, its domes and spires stretching their skeleton hands to heaven, as if in prayer against the coming strife, and, drawing near and nearer, long black lines came gleaming on, while the sun shone out like a golden bar, uncurling its yellow hair on earth and sky, stream and mountain, and lent the thrilling picture a sterner and fiercer light. My skirmishers advanced steadily, and now continual shots in front tell that the enemy are found and pressed sorely.” (vol. 22, pt. 1, 199-201)

Snippets of poetry are scattered through the reports as well plus many more examples of purple prose. I have often wondered how officials in the War Department reacted to these reports. Were they amused? Impressed? Horrified? It would be fun to know!


  1. They were written by Edwards. Edwards was a newspaper man. He later penned Shelby and His Men (which one needs to take with more than a few grains of salt) as well as Noted Guerrillas. He was also a Jesse James apologist. In his report on Cane Hill we wrote something along the lines of "the sun of Austerlitz was shining down."