Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 856
David Madden sets Willis Carr’s stories about his experiences as a soldier during the American Civil War within the framework of a meeting of the Knoxville chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy on March 21, 1928. Indeed, the entire story takes the form of the report of the organization’s secretary. Introduced by Professor Jeffrey Arnow, a member of the history department at the University of Tennessee, Carr tells the women gathered in the music room at Bleak House what he remembers about the siege of Knoxville (in November and December of 1863), part of which he spent as a sharpshooter in the tower at Bleak House itself.
Carr’s story is rambling, slightly unfocused, and structured by the process of association. He is roughly eighty-two years old, having been born on Holton Mountain, Tennessee, in 1846, and he was fourteen when he served under Confederate General James Longstreet in what his hostesses prefer to call “the War Between the States.” Carr remembers that he was suffering from a fever when he reached Knoxville in 1863, which accounts for the haziness of his recollections. He does remember Bleak House clearly and tells his audience that there was a man painting a fresco on a wall downstairs during the military action. He remembers, too, that he was one of four sharpshooters sent up in the tower of the house. When one of them was killed and the other two wounded, Carr sighted an officer on a white horse dashing back and forth between the Yankee and Rebel lines. He remembers thinking that this was a hallucination induced by fever, for no officer on either side would behave so recklessly, and he shot at the man, thinking that he could do the phantom rider no harm.
Two years after the war was over, Carr returned to Tennessee from the West. Stopping in some small town—he thinks that it was Pulaski—he met and sketched a man introduced as the killer of General Sanders during the fight at Knoxville. Having returned to Holton Mountain and swept the decomposed body of his great-grandfather into the fireplace, Carr remembered one day while hunting bear the officer on the white horse in Knoxville. It came to him that this might have been General Sanders, and he remarks to his audience that he has walked all the way to Knoxville to revisit Bleak House in an attempt to determine if he, Willis Carr, is really the sharpshooter who killed the Union general.
To this point in the story, Carr has the characteristics of the kind of heroic figure his audience might be expected to admire. He goes back to the start of the war in his speech, however, and in explaining his involvement destroys his potential for heroic status in their eyes. He explains that his East Tennessee family, with the exception of his mother, were Union sympathizers. His grandfather, father, and brothers took part in raids against railroad bridges instigated by Parson Brownow to handicap the movement of Rebel troops. Carr himself ended up in Longstreet’s army because he was picked up in Knoxville as a Union sympathizer and agreed to join the Confederate troops to keep himself from being hanged. He intended to desert to the Federals as soon as possible, he remarks, but he enjoyed being a sharpshooter so much that he remained with Longstreet and served at Gettysburg and in the Wilderness.
Carr remembers the actual Confederate attack on the fort, renamed in honor of General Sanders, in Knoxville, and describes how helpless he felt watching his comrades being slaughtered. When General Longstreet himself was shot, during the Wilderness Campaign in Virginia, by one of his own troops, Carr got discouraged and deserted in a Yankee uniform. Picked up by Confederate soldiers and taken to Andersonville Prison, he was saved from execution as a deserter only because he was recognized as a sharpshooter by one of the Federal prisoners. Carr was made a guard by the Commandant of Andersonville, Captain Wirtz. A black Yankee soldier, formerly the slave of a Cherokee plantation owner, told him about the Indian Sequoyah, who invented an alphabet for Cherokee, preserving it as a written language, and this encouraged Carr to want to learn to read and write. The prisoner taught him, but one day the prisoner stepped over the dead line and was shot by his pupil.
Carr is not sure why he killed this man, just as he is not certain if he is the sharpshooter who picked off General Sanders. He has read much about the war in the years since it ended, and he tells the members of the Knoxville Daughters of the Confederacy that he cannot believe that he was really a part of the Civil War until he can answer both questions. He notes that he remembers sketching the faces of his three fellow sharpshooters on the west wall of the tower in Bleak House, and if the sketches are still there, they would provide him with firm evidence of his participation. Still, he remarks, he does not think that he has the strength to climb all those steps.
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