Civil War Profiles – Novels shape our understanding of the Civil War


Instructors at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., led students on a “staff ride” at Gettysburg battlefield to expose them to the strategy, tactics and rigors of warfare. Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about Gettysburg, “The Killer Angels,” is included on the reading list for these future military leaders.

Educators recognize that the essence of a subject under discussion is retained more readily when students relate to writing that piques their interest. Historical fiction often accomplishes this objective better than standard historical texts.

Award-winning author E.L. Doctorow lent his talents to a rendition of Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous — or infamous, depending on your viewpoint — “March to the Sea.” Simply called “The March,” it carries readers along with some 60,000 Union soldiers as they live off the land from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia. Doctorow brings to life the people, black and white, slave and free, who Sherman encounters during this unprecedented expedition.

When Atlantic Monthly Press published the novel “Cold Mountain” in 1997, it likely did not anticipate the immense response it received. Charles Frazier’s characterization of Inman, a wounded Confederate soldier who walked away from a military hospital in Virginia, captures readers’ imaginations as they follow the deserter on his trek toward home and the sweetheart he left behind on Cold Mountain in western North Carolina.

Inman’s adventures and the contrasting characters he meets during this journey are the main focus of this narrative. “Cold Mountain” is not expressly an anti-war novel, but it does portray the repudiation of incessant death and dying, and longing to salvage a semblance of normal life.

Stephen Crane received laurels for “The Red Badge of Courage,” a convincing portrayal of a soldier’s reaction when he “sees the elephant” (i.e., is exposed to combat conditions) for the first time during the Civil War. This story illustrates the fine line between cowardice and courage as well as their ramifications — seen through the impressions of young Henry Fleming.

Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” has framed our perception of the Old South and motivated readers to learn more about this era. Since its release in 1936, this tale about antebellum Southern society, the tragedy of civil strife and survival in the aftermath has sold an estimated 8 million copies.

Combat caused post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in soldiers during the Civil War, just as it has in modern conflicts. Howard Bahr depicts this debilitating medical condition in his novel “The Judas Field” in which Cass Wakefield returned to his hometown of Cumberland, Miss., after the war, yet traumatic combat experiences continued to haunt him.

Two decades later, in 1885, Wakefield confronts his anxieties generated during the dreadful battle at Franklin, Tenn., as a member of the 21st Mississippi Regiment, when a female friend convinces him to accompany her to recover the bodies of her father and brother, who died there. Reluctantly, the soldier returns to the scene and relives the agonizing sound, smell and spectacle of war.

Another offshoot of the Battle of Franklin, Tenn., is the “The Widow of the South,” by Robert Hicks. During five hours of the bloodiest fighting of the Civil War, Carrie McGavock’s Carnton Plantation becomes a Confederate army hospital.

This historical novel describes Carrie’s decision to dedicate a portion of her land for a cemetery in which 1,500 Rebel soldiers killed in the battle are buried in state plots, including North Carolina , Kentucky, Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri and Texas.

All of these states had units that fought as part of the Confederate Army of Tennessee at Franklin. The cemetery actually exists, and it reflects the impact that wartime conditions had on the civilian population, as well as the men in uniform.

Georgetown, Del., native George Alfred “Gath” Townsend, an outstanding journalist and war correspondent, contributed to this Civil War genre. “Katy of Catoctin” covers the period from 1859 to 1865, beginning with John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., and ending with the capture and conviction of the John Wilkes Booth conspirators who perpetrated the assassination President Abraham Lincoln. The main story takes place in Maryland — specifically in the Catoctin Mountain battlefields west of Frederick.

Novels such as these are an important part of the Civil War dialog. Fictional accounts generate a desire to learn more about the 19th century conflict that threatened our nation’s unity.

Thomas J. Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” — available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.