For Want of a Period…

I was entering the text for Sweitzer’s Brigade Tablet at the Wheatfield of Gettysburg into HMDB as part of my morning mental calisthenics today.  Maybe it was operating on one cup of coffee at the time, but the description of the brigade’s activities just had me stuck proofing the typing over and over.  As I’ve complained about before, Gettysburg’s Battlefield Commission seems to have abhorred any punctuation on the tablets as a general rule.

sweitzersbrigadetablet

July 2   After 4 p.m. moved from the Baltimore Pike near Rock Creek with the Division left in front to support of Third Corps line Third Brigade was detached to occupy Little Round Top and the Brigade crossed Plum Run followed by First Brigade and went into position on the edge of woods west of the Wheatfield facing partly toward the Rose House First Brigade on the right   Brig. Gen. Kershaw’s supported by Brig. Gen. Semmes’s Brigade having attacked this position and First Brigade having retired the Brigade retired across the Wheatfield Road and formed on the north side of the woods facing the road when by order of Brig. Gen. J. Barnes the Brigade advanced to the support of First Division Second Corps and engaged Brig. Gen. Anderson’s Brigade at the stone wall at the south end of the Wheatfield but the supports on the right having given away the Brigade was attacked on the right and rear and it retired under a heavy fire to a line north of Little Round Top and there remained until the close of the battle

Generally I try to follow explicitly the punctuation used on the marker, tablet, monument, etc.  I’ve compromised that standard a bit to make the text as displayed “in the field” work within a “as displayed on the web” marker entry.   Because ALL CAPS doesn’t look good in the web displays, of course capitalization is modified.  The most apparent change is the use of period punctuation where a period is clearly implied by a leading capitalization.   For example, looking at the actual bronze tablet, while there is no period after “Third Corps line” on the second line of the tablet, the third line leads with “Third Brigade…”, without any conjunctions, as such implying the end of a sentence and the beginning of the next.  In other cases, where the text lists unit after unit, and a comma is flat needed just to avoid confusion, I’ve added those.   I know some sources like to seed in more punctuation where clearly more is needed.   I’m not going to fault them, as it makes the text easier to read.  However, I stick to my purist views and contend the text should be presented as close as possible (to include misspellings) to what is seen on the field.

This tablet, however, pushes the bounds of any rules I might try to craft!  Look at that long run-on third sentence – Brig. Gen. Kershaw’s supported by Brig. Gen. Semmes’s Brigade having attacked this position and First Brigade having retired the Brigade retired across the Wheatfield Road and formed on the north side of the woods facing the road when by order of Brig. Gen. J. Barnes the Brigade advanced to the support of First Division Second Corps and engaged Brig. Gen. Anderson’s Brigade at the stone wall at the south end of the Wheatfield but the supports on the right having given away the Brigade was attacked on the right and rear and it retired under a heavy fire to a line north of Little Round Top and there remained until the close of the battle.

My goodness!  Say that without taking a breath!  Elementary School English teachers are passing out as they read this.  No wonder we find the fighting at the Wheatfield confusing!  This one long sentence sums up about two hours of combat in the Wheatfield for the Brigade.  “They attacked us and we moved there and then we were told to move there and we fought again and were put in a bad spot and moved back over there and stayed for the rest of the battle.”  You still with me?  Every brain cell that still functions in my head calls out to edit this sentence; rewording to pull out passive voice and breaking it into three, maybe four sentences.

But there in lays my point.  I could write a better sentence.  I could possibly relate the actions in the Wheatfield better in the space permitted on the tablet (although better minds than mine have committed volumes to the topic and still not clarified it to the pedestrian level of consumption required for a “public display”).   But I would be tampering with an artifact.  It was written by a team of respected authorities of the battle, who were mostly veterans of the battle, with their perception of what occurred in mind.  In spite of nearly 100 years of further research which might have illuminated the events, could anyone really say the tablet is invalid on its face?  Perhaps the “running and rambling” of the text was actually meant to convey the confusing and fluid nature of the combat in the Wheatfield.  Or perhaps it was just the way a particular member of the board spoke and wrote.   Or perhaps the copy-editor just took the day off when the tablet was sent to the vendor for casting.

But it is a reminder, if you will, that we have to view history with the good and the bad; the proper with the unkempt; the simple with the complex.  Even if the history is written in run-on sentences with no pausing for a breath and with no punctuation and having been written in passive voice with no end to the string covering hours if not days worth of activity mentioning half a dozen units by numerical designation only and referencing three different battlefield positions….

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5 responses to “For Want of a Period…

  1. Craig,

    Very Faulkner, isn’t it? :-)

    Eric

  2. Eric,
    To be honest, given the time frame the text was written, I was thinking of a Henry James influence. Might be John P. Nicholson was reading “The American”?

    Craig.

  3. I wonder if they avoided punctuation because of the difficulty in setting such small characters in the signs.

  4. Robert,
    Well what about the periods placed after the unit designations – 5th and 6th lines. Also a minority of the Brigade/Battery tablets such as this one exhibit punctuations. Even stranger…. the itinerary tablets, which from my understanding were recast in the last few years, also have no text punctuation. But then again that is what I’d call “respectful and faithful” representation of the original interpretation. And there are periods after the “AM/PM” abbreviations.

    I think the GB tablets were produced by a local vendor, or possibly a mix of local and outside vendors. In contrast the original tablets at Antietam and Chickamauga-Chattanooga (as well as Shiloh and Vicksburg if my memory is correct) were produced in a foundry at Chattanooga. So you may have a point – that different vendors had different typesets.

  5. O.K., guess I can’t use that as an excuse for those guys. Maybe the vendor just told them that he’d cut them a break if they would drop some of the punctuation… or, maybe the vendor just didn’t have his morning coffee and took it out on the client by leaving out some punctuation here and there. O.K., maybe I’m reaching again.