Storybook war


On this day in 1863, elements of Robert E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and elements of the Union Army of the Potomac, under the still new command of George Meade, clashed on the hills north of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This meeting engagement would concentrate both armies into the hills and farmland around the town and, by its end on July 3, become the biggest, bloodiest battle fought in North America.

To commemorate the battle I’ve been reading Cain at Gettysburg, a 2012 novel by Ralph Peters and the first in a five-book series concluding with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Peters tells the story from multiple points of view on both sides, from Lee and Meade and their subordinates to the sergeants and privates doing the fighting, and is particularly good at evoking the mixed emotions—the sudden and jarring confluences of excitement and horror, irritation and affection, exhilaration and pathos—that characterize battle. It’s excellent so far.

I wanted to point out this passage that I read last night. It’s narrated from the point of view of a German immigrant private, a utopian socialist and idealist who fled Europe for the United States after military defeat in the revolutions of 1848. Now serving in the 26th Wisconsin, as his regiment passes through Gettysburg on the way to the line on the first day of battle he sees a collection of Confederate prisoners. Peters writes:

For all his professed hatred of those who had forced war upon the country, Schwertlein empathized with the captive soldiers. He had never been a prisoner, but he knew only too well how men felt when they gave all they had, yet were condemned to failure. War was a sorrier business than storybooks told.
— Ralph Peters, Cain at Gettysburg

That last line is the stinger in the passage.

It also neatly expresses a large part of the trajectory of my own interests, studies, and writing. Like a lot of young boys, I became interested in military history through stories of heroes—brave men worth emulating. I still believe in those, and believe wholeheartedly in emulating the great departed (as I’ve written before, Lee is one of mine), but my studies have sobered me on war proper. I’ve learned that the glory of war is like the light of the moon—a reflection of something else, in this case the reflected glory of the handful of men who accomplish great things in those awful circumstances. Our admiration is itself a giveaway. Why else would heroism stand out if it weren’t against the odds and in spite of every conceivable misery—and the scads more modern man has spent all his energies creating?

I mention this because over the course of the holiday week we’ll get plenty of rah-rah, support-the-troops sentimentality without a lot of consideration of what it is we’re supporting or why they need support. (Or, if you really want to play with fire, whether we should.) The flagwaving, fireworks, Lee Greenwood, and beer commercials are fine, but absent a sense of the misery and tragedy of war—its barely fathomable sorriness—such commemoration will only give us storybook images. And, what is more, we won’t understand any side, even our own.

For my part, I’ve tried to convey a little of all this in my own Civil War novel, Griswoldville: what the war was like, how it wore men out and used them up, destroyed them body and soul, and just what it’s like to lose—something our success-obsessed culture can hardly conceive of, much less understand.

Cain at Gettysburg does it exceptionally well. Check it out.

Weaver on Lee

Robert E. Lee (1807-70) shortly after the end of the Civil War in 1865

Robert E. Lee (1807-70) shortly after the end of the Civil War in 1865

While I’m thinking of Richard Weaver, let me recommend his essay “Lee the Philosopher,” originally published in the Georgia Review in 1948 but available online—with a few glaring text recognition errors—here. Writing at a time when the United Nations was brand new and Stalin and Mao’s project of overthrowing the Chinese government had not yet succeeded, Weaver reflects on what a few of Robert E. Lee’s gnomic sayings reveal about the depths of that most handsome and inscrutable man.

One of the deepest, and most poignant, is Lee’s famous remark—recorded in a few slightly different versions—made from the heights overlooking the battlefield at Fredericksburg: “It is well this is terrible; otherwise we should grow fond of it.”


Weaver in “Lee the Philosopher”:

What is the meaning? It is richer than a Delphic saying.

Here is a poignant confession of mankind’s historic ambivalence toward the institution of war, its moral revulsion against the immense destructiveness, accompanied by a fascination with the “greatest of all games.” As long as people relish the idea of domination, there will be those who love this game. It is fatuous to say, as is being said now, that all men want peace. Men want peace part of the time, and part of the time they want war. Or, if we may shift to the single individual, part of him wants peace and another part wants war, and it is upon the resolution of this inner struggle that our prospect of general peace depends, as MacArthur so wisely observed upon the decks of the Missouri. The cliches of modern thought have virtually obscured this commonplace of human psychology, and world peace programs take into account everything but this tragic flaw in the natural man—the temptation to appeal to physical superiority. There is no political structure which knaves cannot defeat, and subtle analyses of the psyche may prove of more avail than schemes for world parliament. In contrast with the empty formulations of propagandists, Lee’s saying suggests the concrete wisdom of a parable.

Take some time to read the whole essay. You can read it at the link above or a few other places online, or collected in The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, an insightful and beautifully written compilation of pieces on various aspects of historical Southern culture, politics, and belief.

And if you’re wondering why, after all this time, people are still invested in Lee and find him fascinating, what strange deeper resonance he has within the mind of the South, here’s Weaver again in The Southern Tradition at Bay, the doctoral thesis that eventually became his first published book:

Military history and autobiography bulk very large in Southern ‘literature,’ and no one acquainted with the history of the South will omit the influence of the soldier. Indeed, an inventory of the mind of the soldier is very nearly an inventory of the Southern mind.


The real Andersonville,  photographed  from the stockade wall in mid-August 1864.

The real Andersonville, photographed from the stockade wall in mid-August 1864.

This year I set myself a goal of reading fewer but longer books, and to get the year started I decided to tackle a monster: Mackinlay Kantor’s 750-page, Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War novel Andersonville. It took me exactly a month.

I first heard of Kantor’s Andersonville in the early 90s, when TNT aired its own Andersonville mini-series. Reviewers in the Civil War magazines I read condemned the mini-series for grossly exaggerating deliberate Confederate brutality, and compared it—unfavorably—to Kantor’s book, which they implied did the same thing. Both accusations, as it happens, are correct—for reasons I’ll get into—but I spent the next twenty-five years assuming Kantor’s book was a straightforward Yankee screed. Only in the last few years, when I discovered that he was also the author of a children’s book on Gettysburg that I had loved as a kid, did I first become mildly curious about, then genuinely interested in, and finally decide to read Andersonville.

I’m glad I did. Andersonville is a good book, if perhaps not a great one, and poses interesting questions for readers and writers of historical fiction.

The story of Camp Sumter

“Andersonville” is the popular name for Camp Sumter, a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp constructed in southern Georgia in early 1864. (The first prisoners arrived on this day 155 years ago.) Over its year and a half of existence, Andersonville received 45,000 Union POWs, who arrived by train from all theaters of war. 13,000 of them died.

Kantor sets out to tell the whole story of Camp Sumter. He begins with the land itself, exploring the woods and fields through Ira Claffey, a local planter whose three sons have all died in the Confederate army and whose plantation teeters on the edge of collapse through lack of manpower and cash. Ira meets a Confederate surveying crew looking for land for a new prison camp. They settle on a valley on the banks of Sweetwater Creek and construction begins. By the time the camp is finished and the prisoners have begun to arrive, we still have a good 600 pages to go.

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The novel excels in its narrowly focused sketches of incidental characters and the world in which they move. While Ira Claffey and his family’s losses frame the whole narrative, other characters flit in and out of the story—a white trash boy who joins the Georgia Reserves (just like Georgie in my novel Griswoldville) and becomes a guard; Captain Henry Wirz, the Swiss-born commander of the stockade; a local Presbyterian minister who tries to organize charitable donations for the prisoners; one of the camp surgeons; and many, many of the Union prisoners.

The prisoners’ chapters are particularly poignant, as they often give a prisoner’s entire life story up to his time in the camp. One harbors intense homesickness to get back to the German immigrant girl he fell in love with; another, having fled his intensely religious father, has become a prodigal son and falls in with the stockade’s villains; another has become deranged since his capture at Chickamauga and has turned informer for the Confederates, a status he comes to abhor; another is an Irish immigrant sailor trying desperately to dote on his underage boy lover; another, who learned criminality and murder at a young age in the immigrant slums of New York, gathers similarly cutthroat survivors to himself to form a gang; another, the scion of a privileged and worldly Jewish family, retreats inward, losing himself in prolonged reminiscences of his travels. Still others form pairs or trios, sometimes merely on the basis of having the same home state, to try to help each other survive. A few try to tunnel their way out, with tragic results.

And many historical figures—from the obvious Confederate officers like Wirz or his superior, General John Winder; to prisoners like Red Cap, a drummer boy who did clerical work for Wirz; diarists John Ransom and John McElroy; violent “Raider” William Collins; and Boston Corbett, a religious fanatic who, after his release, would become the man who killed John Wilkes Booth—wander in and out of the story. Even those characters that only appear for a single chapter are finely drawn, their life stories familiar, their fates worth worrying over.

The novel unfolds in an elephantine mid-century modernist style, a style that reminded me quite a bit of both Norman Mailer’s 1948 novel The Naked and the Dead and any number of William Faulkner’s books, if you can imagine that combination. Kantor is also interested in typically mid-twentieth century issues—nihilism, the meaninglessness of suffering, whether religion does or does not have anything to offer, and weird sex. He does not use quotation marks and his studies of the characters often freewheel into pure stream-of-conscious remembering.

It’s dense, it’s heavy, but the sheer accumulation of detail adds steadily to the book’s power. One comes to feel the world in which the novel takes place and to sense the immense variety of the people who live in it, of all the fully lived lives coming together in this particular place in southern Georgia. It’s powerful.

Unfortunately, it can also be punishing, something Kantor surely intended but that wears on the reader after a while. When one particularly prominent character is—apparently—shot at random by a guard, Kantor diverts us from his fate for a good twenty pages before revealing that, yes, he was killed instantly. Many of the deaths in the book, of young men wasted away to nothing by starvation, exposure, and diarrhea, moved me; that one felt like a cruel trick.

After the Raiders

Kantor also never entirely overcomes one particular narrative hurdle: What happened while all those prisoners were in Andersonville? Not much, honestly, and so large parts of the book depict people simply existing. Life in the camp was a continuous struggle, so there’s narrative meat there, but it drags in places, particularly once Kantor has finished with the most notorious incident in the camp: the trial and execution of the Raiders.

The Raiders were Union prisoners, many from New York City, who recreated the predatory gang environment of their urban slums and lived off of their fellow soldiers and prisoners through theft and murder. In response, a band of prisoners calling themselves Regulators tried to create a system of mutual protection and law enforcement and ultimately fought a battle with the Raiders. Having received permission from the Confederate authorities at the camp, a jury of recent arrivals—theoretically less biased—tried the Raiders’ ringleaders and their most violent enforcers and sentenced six to hang.

A true story, and a gripping one—right? Kantor capably dramatizes the incident with a steady drip of violence from the Raiders, futile resistance by the other prisoners, and a gradual increase in tension that finally explodes in the prisoner-on-prisoner war and the hangings. But the first batches of prisoners arrived in the late winter and early spring of 1864, and the Raiders were tried in July, making the Raiders’ run of the prison dramatic but short. With this out of the way, we’re still less than halfway through the camp’s history and only halfway through the book. The rest is good, but it never quite regains the narrative momentum of this solid third of the story.

In the end, relief finally comes for the addled, dropsical, hopeless prisoners when a large number are transferred to other camps in order to reduce overcrowding. General Winder, the general in charge of Confederate POW camps and the obvious villain of the piece, dies in South Carolina. The war nears its end. From here the story becomes somewhat unfocused, seldom revisiting Camp Sumter’s stockade and giving only the vaguest sense of how things end for a number of characters, finally concluding with the surviving Claffeys—defeated, returned to the United States once more—hiring on their former slaves as sharecroppers and watching the empty prison overgrow and crumble.

Character assassination?

Captain Henry Wirz (1823-65)

Captain Henry Wirz (1823-65)

Andersonville was published in 1955, just ten years after the end of the Second World War. That conflict, in which Kantor worked as a war correspondent, looms over this novel in obvious ways. An overpopulated prison camp in which a third of the inmates, who arrived by rail, died of disease, starvation, and at the hands of guards—and commanded by a German-speaking officer in a gray uniform? At the end of the novel, when Union cavalry officers arrive to arrest Wirz at his home, a more or less explicit discussion of the Nuremberg defense occupies the conversation. Camp Sumter will always look a little different since Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and Auschwitz joined it in the rearview mirror.

Kantor does depart from many of the immediate post-Civil War accounts of the prison by humanizing Henry Wirz—somewhat. He is a wildly exaggerated, hysterical, aggrieved man impotently trying to work out his frustrations, especially with a wounded arm that refuses to heal and a chain of command that gives him very limited real authority in his own camp. The result is his mismanagement of the prison, especially in times of prisoner unrest. Wirz’s immediate superiors, on the other hand, especially General Winder, are depicted as sadists intentionally trying to turn Andersonville into a charnel house and starve the Yankees—all propagandistic mischaracterizations originating immediately after the war.

The broader South, as seen through the Claffeys, is complicit as well. Their grief and bitterness at their terrible losses have seeded a deep desire to kill northerners at every opportunity. And though Ira Claffey in particular feels intense discomfort with the camp and the way honorably surrendered enemies are being treated, he and the others of his class are ultimately frozen into inaction by their ambivalence. And so the Yankees starve and waste away. Kantor explains Andersonville as the result of dark, archetypal resentments that somehow bring the cruelty of the camp into existence.

That makes for compelling literature but it doesn’t reflect reality and, thanks to the much wider readership awarded this Pulitzer Prize winner than any of the primary sources it was based upon, it has permanently skewed perceptions of Wirz, Andersonville, and what happened there. Subsequent dramatizations, including the TNT miniseries, have gone further. It is very difficult to watch that film version of Wirz without thinking of an unhinged Nazi commandant, a far cry from the pathetic figure in Kantor and the real person buried several layers down.

Good reading

So I finished reading Andersonville deeply conflicted. It is certainly a powerhouse of a novel, a modernist monument to what the written word can do in spinning whole lost and forgotten worlds into existence through an act of imagination, and its depiction of conditions in the camp, especially as the helpless prisoners weaken and die, is moving throughout—manifested as dread at the beginning of the novel, horror in the middle, and resignation and grief at the end. But it is also clearly a product of its time, obsessed with the things that preoccupied the post-World War II literary elite, and has only reinforced century-old myths and slanders about many of the people involved in the camp. As I wrote on Goodreads, “Four stars seems too low, but five is certainly too high.”

At Andersonville National Historic Site in December 2016

At Andersonville National Historic Site in December 2016

It’s a good book, but if you don’t want to invest the time and effort (literally—this book is a doorstop), check out William Marvel’s Andersonville: The Last Depot, an award-winning history published by Chapel Hill. Marvel includes all the major incidents dramatized in the novel, with special attention given to the Raiders, and assesses the charges eventually brought against Wirz at his trial, where he was convicted and hanged. It’s a well-researched, fair history of the camp from beginning to end.

Finally, nothing can substitute for a visit to the camp itself. I made the trek several years ago and have not forgotten it. Even the remoteness, a good forty minutes away from the nearest interstate, made an impression, and then there was the camp itself, with a few sections of recreated fenceline, the postbellum monuments, and the cemetery. If you’re interested in this topic, by all means read Kantor’s Andersonville, but make time to see the real place with your own eyes.

Semmes: Rebel Raider

CAPTAIN Raphael Semmes and his executive officer, John McIntosh Kell, aboard the CSS  Alabama  in Capetown, South Africa, August 1863

CAPTAIN Raphael Semmes and his executive officer, John McIntosh Kell, aboard the CSS Alabama in Capetown, South Africa, August 1863

I’ve studied infantry combat a lot and while you can never grasp every subtopic in your field, I’ve grown keenly aware of one big weakness in my studies—naval history. I’m trying to fix that, and just last week I ran across John M. Taylor’s Semmes: Rebel Raider at my local used book store. This book, otherwise an impulse buy, suggested itself for three reasons: I’m interested in the Civil War, I’m belatedly trying to learn as much as I can about maritime military history, and I also passionately enjoy short biographies of the sort that Paul Johnson writes. They’re a demanding form, the sonnet to the full-length biography’s epic, and push their authors to, in the words of Herbert Butterfield, “search . . . for a general statement that shall in itself give the hint of its own underlying complexity.” Happily, Taylor’s Semmes proves excellent in all three regards.

Raphael Semmes (1809-77), unlike the names Lee, Jackson, or Stuart, is probably unfamiliar to anyone with a less than an enthusiastic interest in the Civil War. Indeed, in the last round of protests of Confederate monuments, Semmes didn’t possess the notoriety to inflame even today’s protesters: “Although the protest was supposed to happen around 5 p.m.,” a Mobile news outlet reported regarding the city’s Semmes statue last year, “it appears the group never showed up.”

That Semmes is relatively unknown is strange—he was the most successful commerce raider before the era of the submarine—but not inexplicable, traits that could apply to his entire life. Born in Maryland, he joined the US Navy as as midshipman at 17 and spent almost all of the next forty years in the service, first for the United States and then for the Confederacy. Though a practicing Catholic from the South, he married into a Protestant family from Ohio and relocated to Alabama, where he tried to pursue both his naval career and a law practice. (This is not as strange as it might sound; lots of pre-Civil War military officers had side gigs, some of them much shadier than lawyering.) One can see his expertise in the law stemming from his strictly observed Catholic faith and Southern code of honor as well as his naval experience. After losing one of his first commands, the USS Somers, to a storm during the Mexican War, Semmes asked for, received, and was exonerated by a military investigation. His expertise in maritime law would prove useful for him during the height of his career.

semmes taylor.jpg

He served in and out of active duty in a variety of capacities—commanding naval artillery under General Winfield Scott in Mexico, a duty which acquainted him with Captain Robert E. Lee of Scott’s staff, commanding a store ship, working for the Lighthouse Service as both an inspector and Washington bureaucrat—until the secession crisis in 1860. An ardent secessionist, Semmes believed the Southern states lived under a tyranny crafted to benefit the industrial classes of the North and, especially, New England. When the Southern states began to secede following the election of Abraham Lincoln, Semmes resigned his commission and immediately accepted a position in the fledgling navy of the Confederate States of America.

After a variety of peacetime assignments (it is often forgotten that several months of peace separated the secession of the first seven Confederate states from the outbreak of war), Semmes was sent to New Orleans to take command of the CSS Sumter, a converted steam cruiser. When Semmes embarked from New Orleans in June 1861, it was the last time he would see the South for over three years.

Semmes immediately proved his mettle. He deftly escaped the Union blockade at the mouth of the Mississippi and began a rapid series of raids on northern merchant shipping. Semmes, suspicious as he was of the New England commercial class, was well-suited to the task, and captured eighteen American ships in six months. Without a friendly port to which to send captured ships, Semmes removed their crews, any useful cargo, and burned them. Of the eighteen he captured, only seven were sunk in this way, but he had sent a clear message and would have an outsize influence. Semmes’s raiding not only hurt the northern economy but also tied down valuable naval resources; “by the end of 1861 Semmes was being pursued by half a dozen vessels that otherwise would have been tightening the blockade of Southern ports (36).”

In serious need of repairs, Semmes brought the Sumter into port at Gibraltar in 1862 for refitting. There the Union navy caught up to him and kept watch for him to depart British waters. Eventually, with the Yankees too close and the estimated repairs to the Sumter too expensive, Semmes paid off his hired crew and he and his officers sailed to England, where they took command of the ship that would create his legend—the CSS Alabama.

Was there ever such a lucky man as the Captain of the Alabama?
— Admiral David D. Porter, US Navy

In a cruise that lasted just under two years, Semmes and the Alabama ranged from the Azores to the Caribbean, rounded the Cape of Good Hope twice, crossed the equator four times, and sailed as far east as Vietnam, a voyage of 75,000 miles without a stop in a single Confederate port. Along the way he captured 64 northern merchant ships, burning 52, causing nearly $7 million dollars in damage to northern shipping. Throughout, despite pursuit by the US Navy, Semmes eluded his enemies through a skillful combination of cunning, local intelligence, daring, and—once in a while—luck. Think JEB Stuart crossed with Captain Blood.

The Alabama’s cruise ended at the Battle of Cherbourg in June 1864, when the USS Kearsarge threatened to box the Alabama in and Semmes offered single combat. The Kearsarge sent the Alabama to the bottom. Semmes and his officers, rescued by a British yacht, escaped to England. Though Semmes would later claim the Kearsarge had an unfair advantage in that it had primitive armor plating—chains draped along the sides of the hull near the engine—the Alabama was in bad repair, much of its powder was wet, its shells had defective fuses (a problem for Lee at Gettysburg as well), and, most importantly, it did not need to engage the Kearsarge.

Taylor makes this seemingly unnecessary engagement understandable, because he makes Semmes understandable. Chivalrous to a fault, Semmes took extraordinary care over the legality of his seizures and chafed at northern accusations that he was no more than a pirate. He lived by a strict code strongly inflected both by his Southern culture and his religion and held himself to a high standard. That the Yankees he captured did not confirmed his prejudices against the northern industrial and commercial classes. He was appalled to capture multiple northern vessels to find that their captains enjoyed the services of “stewardesses” or “chambermaids.” Their true function could not be clearer to Semmes. “These shameless Yankee skippers,” he wrote after one such capture, “make a common practice of converting their ships into brothels (77).”

“Old Beeswax”

“Old Beeswax”

Taylor’s attention to Semmes’s character and beliefs make this short book (the main body of the text is 110 pages) especially valuable. Semmes—a short, aloof man who waxed and twisted the ends of his mustache (his men called him “Old Beeswax”), who smacked his lips as he talked, who seemed to take no special notice of anything happening below the quarterdeck but always knew what was going on aboard his ship; a strict disciplinarian; a gentleman who took pains to reassure his prisoners that they would be treated well; a Catholic who kept a shrine in his quarters; a crafty, intelligent, and aggressive raider who nevertheless had a wry sense of humor—is as colorful and timeless a seafaring character as any invented by Sabatini, Stevenson, Conrad, CS Forester, or Patrick O’Brian.

But he is also a man of his era. He not only believed in the legality of secession but came to believe it necessary: the north had a Puritan-bred culture of alien moneygrubbers that was incompatible with the older traditions of the agrarian South. He was a 19th century culture warrior. Though he only ever owned a few personal servants, he favored the expansion of slavery to provide a bulwark against the north’s economic oppression. His wartime raiding was not only his military duty, it was an opportunity to stick it to the New Englanders he held ultimately responsible for the crisis. He did not soften these attitudes post-war, either: “Avoiding the false humility and the evenhanded praise of friend and foe that would mark later memoirs,” Taylor writes,

Semmes portay[ed] the war as a struggle between good and evil in which the South is on the side of the angels. He repeatedly compares the South’s struggle for independence with the English civil war two centuries earlier. He likens the South to the king’s Cavaliers, the North to the barbarous Roundheads. As for slavery, Semmes could not conceive of blacks’ prospering in a situation where they were left to their own devices (106-7).

Taylor lays all of this out clearly and succinctly. He also writes elegantly, relating the entire career of the Sumter and the Alabama without turning the central 70 pages of the book into a litany of names, dates, and naval jargon—a striking achievement. Some passages, such as the duel with the Kearsarge or Semmes’s several daring escapes from the Union navy, are even exciting.

It’s also witty and fun, finding ways to portray the human side—that is, the absurd and surprising sides—of the war. For instance, after overtaking the Ariel, a steamer owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt bound for Panama and, presumably, the gold fields of California, Semmes discovered that instead of a haul of gold and goods “he had on his hands a packet with some five hundred passengers, including a rather embarrassed company of U.S. Marines.” When Semmes finally bonded the Ariel and let her go, the female passengers gave him three cheers. Another time, Semmes captured a ship with a personal “stewardess”—“a category of passenger of which Semmes was quite disdainful”—to the captain aboard:

In the case of [the Yankee captain’s] companion Semmes’s attitude was fully reciprocated; she was so reluctant to board the Alabama that the Confederates had to tie her into a boatswain’s chair to transfer her to the raider. Once on the Alabama, however, the feisty Irish-woman, whose name is lost to history, marched up to Semmes and denounced him as a pirate! This was one charge for which Semmes would never stand still; when the woman refused to stop her tirade, Semmes ordered that she be doused with water—the only time he treated one of his female prisoners so roughly (73).

If there is one flaw in Semmes: Rebel Raider, it is that the introductory chapter on Semmes’s pre-war life and the final chapter on his post-war career are too short, too cursory. This is more a problem with the final chapter, which passes from the publication of Semmes’s memoirs in 1869 to his death in 1877 with no description of anything in between. But this is a minor problem and natural to the form, which must be selective, and there are full length biographies of Semmes—including one by Taylor—for these details.

And speaking of “natural to the form,” Semmes’s relative lack of fame—strange but not inexplicable, as I said at the start—is due to his line of work. As a captain in a small, weak navy whose ports were all blockaded, forced to operate for years at a time without a trip home, sailing aboard a British-built ship with a hodgepodge crew of Liverpudlians and other foreigners, and commanding a few hundred rather than thousands of men, Semmes “had no legion of postwar admirers” and had won his victories at sea in what “has been perceived as a land conflict,” leaving “no ‘Little Round Top’ or ‘clump of trees’ to mark them (vii-viii).”

Semmes: Rebel Raider is an excellent short introduction to the tiny Confederate navy, to the complexity of the Civil War political scene, to the ways in which global warfare could effect events in the United States and vice versa, and to one of the great maritime commanders who is less well known than many of his contemporaries in the infantry and cavalry.

My top nine Civil War novels


For the upcoming release of Griswoldville, here's a list of my personal favorites from the vast body of Civil War literature. This is by no means an exhaustive list—there's a lot of good stuff out there and plenty I still haven't read, like Thomas Keneally's Confederates, Mackinlay Kantor's Pulitzer Prize-winning Andersonville, or even Gone With the Wind—but simply a list of the books I've been most moved by, have most enjoyed, and have most often returned to over the years.

So here, in no particular order, are my nine favorite Civil War novels, with a few honorable mentions or bonuses thrown in just because:

Rifles for Watie, by Harold Keith

rifles for watie keith.jpg

My mom ordered Rifles for Watie from the God's World Book Club flyer when I was in fourth or fifth grade. I remember plowing through the novel, simultaneously disappointed that it did not take place in the Civil War I was familiar with—the Eastern Theatre—and fascinated by the war it did depict. Rifles for Watie is a story of intrigue, in which Jeff Bussey, a young Union soldier, infiltrates the Confederate Indian cavalry of Stand Watie, a Cherokee leader. Watie hopes to acquire repeating rifles for his cavalry troopers, and Jeff, despite the friendships he has formed, must stop him. The novel respectfully depicts the Cherokees, their attitudes toward the war, and the chaotic Western Theatre, and is unusually realistic for children's fiction thanks to the author's many interviews with elderly Civil War veterans. Rifles for Watie won the Newbery Medal in 1958. 

Also recommended: The Perilous Road, by William O. Steele, about a young pro-Confederate Tennessean who discovers his brother has joined the Yankees; G. Clifton Wisler's Red Cap, the story of a drummer boy imprisoned in Andersonville; and Brotherhood, by Anne Westrick, a daring novel about a boy in post-war Richmond who finds his humanity tested when his brother joins the Ku Klux Klan.

Shiloh, by Shelby Foote

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If you find yourself daunted, as I do, by the sheer size of the late Shelby Foote's three-volume, 2,900 page, 1.2 million word The Civil War: A Narrative, start with Shiloh instead. Shiloh is a short, beautifully written and poignant novel taking place across about three days but encompassing the beginning of the war, the secession crisis, and the conflicts within the United States as a whole. Told through multiple points of view, from commanding generals on down to yeoman privates and a squad of volunteers, Foote's novel gives you glimpses of all the major events of the battle through several interpretations, and hints broadly, because of the battle's course and results, at what the outcome of the war must be. More importantly, it brings you into the battle, giving you that difficult to achieve feeling of what it must have been like, to make you understand the experiences of the soldiers themselves. A great book.

Also recommended: Shelby Foote also edited Chickamauga and Other Civil War Stories, a collection of short stories from authors including Ambrose Bierce, Thomas Wolfe, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Eudora Welty. More about Bierce below.

The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara

killer angels shaara.jpg

I came to The Killer Angels through Gettysburg, the 1993 film adaptation. As a kid I had a VHS copy of the movie, recorded off TNT, which I watched on a near endless loop, but when I finally read the novel I found the only thing superior to the film. Shaara's book is much like Foote's Shiloh in that it is the dramatic, beautifully written story of a single battle that, through its multiple points of view, offers a sweeping look at the whole war. But it differs from Shiloh in its scope thanks to the sheer scale of the battle, the largest ever fought in North America, and in the thoughtful, melancholy introspection of its major characters, especially James Longstreet, Lewis Armistead, and Joshua Chamberlain. One of the most popular Civil War novels ever published, justifiably so, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975.

Also recommended: Promise of Glory, by C.X. Moreau, covers the September 1862 Battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam) and owes a lot to The Killer Angels in terms of structure, focus, and tone. Promise of Glory doesn't reach the heights of Shaara's work, but it's a solid fictional recreation of another important moment of the war.

The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane

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Justly regarded as a classic, The Red Badge of Courage suffers somewhat from its near constant presence in high school reading lists. This is the story of Henry Fleming, a young Union army private, and his experiences during the (unnamed) Battle of Chancellorsville in the spring of 1863. While Crane was not a veteran of the war, he did his homework and crafted a short novel of unflinching psychological realism, capturing every vicissitude of dread, cowardice, and reckless courage over the day or so that Fleming wanders through the battlefield. While this novel clearly made later works of grim, realistic war fiction like The Naked and the Dead possible, Crane's story is apolitical, unembittered by ideology, and narrowly focused on one thing—courage—and what it means. Actual veterans praised Crane's work, and it's still worth reading a century on.

Also recommended: Ambrose Bierce, an older contemporary of Crane and a veteran of the war's western theatre, wrote a number of short stories based on his experiences. "An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge" is an early stream-of-consciousness story about a Confederate saboteur who is about to be hanged, and "Chickamauga" depicts the horrific aftermath of battle as seen by a child.

Traveller, by Richard Adams

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Probably the strangest book on this list, and one of the strangest I routinely recommend, Traveller is the story of Robert E. Lee—as told by his horse. Adams, who is most famous for his other animal epic, Watership Down, retells the course of the war through a goodhearted but ignorant animal witness. It sounds goofy, but the story works well because it brings a fresh sense of pathos to the war through a narrator who only half understands what is going on. In a half-comic, half-tragic irony, Traveller ends the war thinking his side has won, and the note of triumph he brings to his storytelling only deepens the reader's sense of loss. Surprisingly engaging, and even more surprisingly moving.

Also recommended: For another outside angle on a major Civil War figure, read A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, by Stephen Harrigan. This novel offers a portrait of Abraham Lincoln as a young, ambitious frontier lawyer and brims with colorful real life characters and incidents even if the narrator, a failed New England poet, is fictional. Though the story transpires decades before the war, this novel, like Traveller, is freighted with irony and sadness because of what we know is coming.  

Woe to Live On, by Daniel Woodrell

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Like Rifles for Watie, mentioned above, Woe to Live On tells a story from an out-of-the-way corner of the war, one where most of the usual narratives and assumptions about North and South don't apply. Set in Missouri, the novel follows Jake Roedel, son of a German immigrant, his best friend Jack Bull Chiles, their planter friend George, and George's slave Daniel as they fight with a group of Bushwhackers, Confederate guerrillas led by Col. William Quantrill, in the confused, morally grey irregular warfare of the back country. Rivalry with other fighters, the Lawrence Massacre of August 1863, liberation, friendship, love, death, and birth all play a part in this dramatic, surprisingly funny, and moving novel. Woe to Live On is also the basis of Ride With the Devil, a film adaptation directed by Ang Lee.

Also recommended: While taking place postbellum, True Grit, by the great Charles Portis, is deeply informed by the war. The narrator Mattie's father was a Confederate veteran, as is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, who refers to hanging Judge Parker as "an old carpetbagger," lost his eye while fighting with Quantrill in Missouri.

Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier

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A combination of Homer and Appalachian family lore, Cold Mountain tells the parallel stories of Inman, a Confederate soldier returning to his home in western North Carolina as a deserter in late 1864, and Ada, his beloved, who is working desperately to keep her farm afloat after the unexpected death of her minister father. Episodic in the manner of the Odyssey, with grotesque and monstrous dangers along the way, Cold Mountain is full of brilliantly realized characters and evokes both a real time and place—and their dangers—as well as the world of myth. It's a magnificent novel, full of longing, hope, melancholy, and meditation on danger and death, and deservedly won the National Book Award in 1997.

Also recommended: The Second Mrs. Hockaday, by Susan Rivers, tells the story of the teenage wife of a Confederate officer who is recalled to his regiment the day after their wedding. Through letters, diary entries, and court records, a mystery involving adultery, slavery, hidden pregnancy, and murder uncoils across the decades following the war. I didn't quite buy the ending, but the novel is a powerfully evocative and brings postbellum piedmont South Carolina to life.

The Black Flower and The Judas Field, by Howard Bahr

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These are the books I've most recently discovered, and how I missed them until two years ago I don't know. The central event of each is the disastrous 1864 Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, a few hours of appalling waste that shape the rest the characters' lives. The Black Flower, Bahr's first novel, takes place over the day of the battle and follows Bushrod Carter, a teenage private, and Anna Hereford, a young woman staying with cousins at a house near the center of the battlefield. The Judas Field is the post-war story of Cass Wakefield, a middle-aged veteran, as he accompanies a dying friend on her quest to find the bodies of her brother and father. Both are powerful, beautifully written works that evoke the time and place well and bring home the war's horror, pain, and overwhelming loss—the war's fruits for most of the ordinary people who took part.

Also recommended: The Year of Jubilo, by Howard Bahr, the second book of this loose trilogy, centers on the return of Private Gawain Harper to Mississippi after the war. Harper hopes to marry his sweetheart, but her father will only consent if he helps kill the brutal leader of the local Home Guard. Another vivid evocation of early Reconstruction.

Griswoldville is in the final stages of proofing and will be available soon. I hope you'll read and enjoy it, and that you'll check out some of these other great books as well. Thanks for reading!

A visit to Antietam

Bloody Lane, Antietam National Battlefield Park

Bloody Lane, Antietam National Battlefield Park

Friday I got to visit Antietam National Battlefield Park for the first time. Despite my interests, studies, and profession, this is only the fourth Civil War battlefield I've been able to visit, after Gettysburg (twice), Kennesaw Mountain, and Griswoldville. (I could count Atlanta, but that battlefield is buried beneath Jimmy Carter Boulevard now.) 

The Battle of Sharpsburg, a.k.a. Antietam, occurred September 17, 1862 in the fields surrounding Sharpsburg, Maryland. Major General George McClellan, the Union commander of the Army of the Potomac, having accidentally acquired a copy of Confederate General Robert E. Lee's marching orders for his invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania, moved to confront Lee while his army was divided. Lee drew his army up around the town of Sharpsburg, where a few bends of the Potomac River created a defensible position. McClellan attacked, and his troops kept up pressure on Lee all day, but the battle proved indecisive. McClellan refrained from attacking the next day and Lee was able to escape across the river into Virginia. 

Two things make Antietam significant: First, it is the bloodiest single day in American military history. 23,000 men were killed and wounded in just twelve hours of combat. Second, as Antietam was the closest thing to a victory the Union had achieved in the east up to that point, the battle offered President Lincoln, hitherto an advocate of a limited war to preserve the union, an opportunity to expand the war's scope and put extra economic pressure on the Confederacy by announcing the Emancipation Proclamation, which would theoretically liberate all slaves in areas still under Confederate control if the war were not ended by January 1, 1863. This was not actually a popular move, especially since further disaster awaited the Union armies later that year.

I arrived before the visitors' center opened and the first spot I walked to was the western end of Bloody Lane, where the 24th Georgia Volunteer Infantry deployed in support of Colquitt's Brigade during the battle. Among the privates of the 24th's Company E, "Rabun Gap Rifles," was Abraham Lafayette Keener, an ancestor on my maternal grandfather's mother's side. Abraham has a small role to play in my forthcoming novel Griswoldville.

I walked the length of Bloody Lane to the park observation tower. Bloody Lane was a deeply rutted road at the time of the battle--natural entrenchments for the defending Confederates under D.H. Hill. Despite repeated assaults by much larger Union forces, Hill's men held out for nearly four hours. During that time, over 5,000 men were killed and wounded along that stretch of road. The Confederate dead lay three deep in a few places.

After climbing the observation tower I walked to Dunker Church, scene of some early fighting and maneuvering during the morning of the battle, and watched the excellent half-hour film available at the park visitors' center. I am, to be frank, usually underwhelmed by the films at national parks, but this one was produced to a high standard and featured dramatic and moving reenactments of some of the major events of the battle. I bought a DVD copy for use in the classroom.

From there I drove to Burnside's Bridge to complete my visit. 

If you haven't visited Antietam, do so. It's an important site for Civil War history and the park is well-maintained and beautiful. Strikingly so. Walking around on a sunny, cloudless June morning, I found it hard to imagine all the death that occurred there. But it's important to try.

A gallery of the photos I took. I forgot my Nikon before I got on the road, but I hope my phone's camera suffices.

Confederate heraldry

Turned this up in a bit of late research for a minor part of Griswoldville.

The novel's protagonist, young Georgie Wax, is consumed with knights and medieval stories and takes a keen interest in heraldry as a result. After being called up to the Georgia militia, he passes hours of boredom trying to create a blazon—or official, formulaic description of a coat of arms—for his unit's battle flag

Here's the flag's original designer, William Porcher Miles, in a letter to General Beauregard in 1861, describing the heraldic principles in his new design:

Actual Confederate battle flag, not the ones you see flapping behind pickup trucks.

Actual Confederate battle flag, not the ones you see flapping behind pickup trucks.

This was my favorite. The three colors of red, white, and blue were preserved in it. It avoided the religious objection about the cross (from the Jews and many Protestant sects), because it did not stand out so conspicuously as if the cross had been placed upright . . . 

Besides, in the form I proposed, the cross was more heraldic than ecclesiastical, it being the 'saltire' of heraldry, and significant of strength and progress (from the Latin salto, to leap). The stars ought always to be white, or argent, because they are then blazoned 'proper' (or natural color). Stars, too, show better on an azure field than any other. Blue stars on a white field would not be handsome or appropriate. The 'white edge' (as I term it) to the blue is partly a necessity to prevent what is called 'false blazoning,' or a solecism in heraldry, viz., blazoning color on color, or metal on metal. It would not do to put a blue cross, therefore, on a red field. Hence the white, being metal argent, is put on the red, and the blue put on the white. The introduction of white between the blue and red, adds also much to the brilliancy of the colors, and brings them out in strong relief.

Blazon, saltire, azure, argent—heraldry relies on a vast, arcane vocabulary of largely French origin in a convoluted and rigid syntax meant to preserve the design of a given coat of arms with the permanence of a molecular formula.

Thus, the flag of England is Argent, a cross gules and the flag of Scotland is Azure, a saltire argent. And these are simple blazons. Entertain yourself sometime with more complicated ones.  

So here, as a special first look at Griswoldville, is what Georgie comes up with:

Gules, a saltire azure charged with thirteen mullets argent. I was unsure how to account for the fimbriations, the white borders of the cross, and occupied myself for hours sometimes in shifting this subordinary back and forth through my primitive blazon.

It's worth pointing out that the commonly repeated bit of lore that the flag's design stems from the St. Andrew's Cross of Scotland, because of the vast sea of Scots-Irish farmers who supposedly formed the backbone of the Confederate Army, doesn't enter into it. Just good, sound artistic principles within a body of established tradition here—with a few politico-religious considerations thrown in.

Miles's concluding paragraph to Beauregard begins with my favorite line in the letter: "But I am boring you with my pet hobby in the matter of the flag." What amateur vexillologist hasn't said some version of this?