On April 2, I posted to this blog that I had started reading Rebel, the first book in the Starbuck Chronicles, Bernard Cornwell’s Civil War series and decided to make Civil War books my theme for April. Later that same day, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell declared April to be Confederate History Month and set off a firestorm over his failure to mention slavery. He has since apologized. I’m sticking with my plan although and have read two books so far.
I sort of feel sorry for McDonnell. I think he really was interested in promoting all the Civil War history that can be found in Virginia. Just today, I was in Spotsylvania county and right along Route 3, in amongst the commercial district, is Old Salem Church, site of a Civil War battle that was part of the Chancellorsville Campaign. The Civil War Album has good pictures, including the monument to a New Jersey unit that overlooks busy Route 3. There are signs of the war everywhere in that part of Virginia. I’d be happy if people did come and visit them because it might mean they will continue to be preserved. In a rapidly expanding section of the state, it’s harder and harder to justify saving fields and viewscapes so any focus on the war would mean more preservation. It’s a piece of history that is essential to an understanding of contemporary events. According to historian Shelby Foote it changed the verb tense from the United States are to the United States is. A defining moment.
In addition, the battefields are cemeteries as well. I just finished Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, a fascinating examination of a rather odd topic. Many bodies were simply never recovered and ended up victim to spring plowing. A culture in which death was a marked event–women wore mourning clothes for a year after the death of their husbands–was stunned by the sheer carnage of the war. Yet they tried to maintain their practices, and after the war was over, the Union made a concerted effort to locate, identify, and, if at all possible, return bodies to their families, a massive, expensive undertaking. The victors made no such efforts for Confederate soldiers, leaving it up to southerners to make efforts to bring their loved ones home. The prodigal sons were not welcomed home with great rejoicing and, even though slavery ended, essential questions about states’ rights were never resolved. There are places where the whole thing still rankles a little even after 145 years and a monument to the victors forever overlooks the defeated land.
Today, I picked up the Hornet’s Nest by Jimmy Carter, which I found at the Book Exchange, my paperback book exchange store. I guess I missed the subtitle or was in a Civil War fog because I thought the book was about the Battle of Shiloh. Turns out it’s actually about the Revolutionary War with a focus on a battle in northern Georgia. A quote from The Wall Street Journal says that the book is about a piece of history “overlooked by Massachu-centric historians.” There’s another bit of North/South rivalry. Jon Stewart can make fun of it being so long ago but you know what they say about forgetting history.
I’m not sure I’m going to keep reading Jimmy Carter’s book. Frankly, so far it’s not very good historical fiction. There’s a lot of friendly lecturing from a Whig about the political situation. I know that he needs to fill in the context but good historical fiction manages to do that in a more subtle way than simply having a character parrot definitions and describe situations. I almost never abandon a book once I’ve begun, but I’m not that far along and I have a collection of Civil War essays along with two more Cornwell novels that fit the theme.
April also includes Earth Day and I’ve got several environmentally themed books including Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard and Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition by Wendell Berry on the pile. There’s also Whose Woods These Are, Michael Frome’s history of the national forest service and Mountain in the Clouds: A Search for the Wild Salmon by Bruce Brown. Both of these came from Moyer’s Book Barn in Strasburg, PA. I grew up nearby and when I was home in March, my parents and I took a tour of our old stomping grounds.