Monday, October 30, 2006

Potatoes in the Wheatfield?

Two potatoes, one in Union blue, one in Confederate gray, pause from the fighting long enough to endorse the culinary standards at Gettysburg's Hunt's cafe. [posted with permission].

Some think of commercial exploitation like this as sacrilege, but if that's the case, the student of American culture can hardly avoid acknowledging that blasphemy is as American as apple pie. If there's a dollar to be madeif it will cause curious travelers to take THIS EXITthen it is fair game, even if it involves an event most notable for unspeakable carnage and suffering. Civil War themes are a big draw, bolstering the kepi industry. Cha-Ching!

No one does the Roadside Attraction like American
s do. We may not have invented it, but certainly we were able to broaden the definition of "attraction"and unselfconsciouslyto include everything from 2-story outhouses to the World's Largest Rubber Stamp (for the record, in recent years the world's largest rubber stamp title has moved here).

To amuse myself, I recently searched the ever-interesting Roadside America site for some Civil War-specific destinations. We've all been appalled at the state of Civil War-era medicine. For those of you whose imaginations are lacking, you may want to take in a reenactment of the first reported Civil War amputation, in Philippi, West Virginia, assuming they're still putting on the "show."

If you're passing by Elberton, Georgia, make time for a visit to see "Dutchy," the Yankee Confederate, one of those ubiquitous, town square memorials that was torn down in disgust after only two years. Might have been the unfortunate Federal overcoat.

If your family vacation checklist reads somet
hing like this: 1) Grand Canyon, 2) Yellowstone, 3) Mount Rushmore, 4) Replica Head of William Quantrill, you're in luck. The first three, you can find on your own. The fourth one is here. Is that a bottle of catsup?

This image from a vintage postcard shows the "Lincoln Oak"
in Albany, GA. Maybe some local reader will weigh in on whether the tree is still there, or has subsequently been trimmed to resemble Jimmy Carter.

Georgia has its odd-shaped trees, but truly, Illinois remains the land of Lincoln. Where else would you expect to find the "World's Largest and Ugliest Abe Lincoln Statue"?
One astute observer commented that, "from the highway it appears that Abe is making an obscene gesture with his finger." For my money, the Charleston, Illinois Lincoln statue has the same essential, frighten-the-children quality as the cartoonish Nathan Bedford Forrest statue alongside I-65 south of Nashville.

Happy trails.

Monday, October 23, 2006

"People don't ask you questions like that about your wife"

—John Y. Simon's response to my first question. . .

Lately I have been mining the transcripts of various author Q&A sessions held in the Civil War Forum over the past ten years, featuring 40-some guests, as I collect the material together into some web-friendly format. Here are a few juicy tidbits I came across this weekend.

One thing that I asked of nearly everyone, often the first question, was whether there was anything in their studies that surprised them, or caused them to rethink their understanding of a person, a battle, or event. I love the idea of a scholar or researcher making discoveries, or experiencing revelations, or epiphanies. Here are a few examples of answers to that question by Jeffry Wert, William Marvel, Scott Harwig, and John Simon. And for the fun of it, I've tagged a couple more quotes onto the end, by Terry Winschel and Richard McMurry, just to tweak the sensibilities of those students hopelessly stuck in the Eastern Theater.

Jeffry Wert
, author, among other things, of books on Custer, and Longstreet, spoke with us on January 30. 1997.

Q. We'll start off with a question about Custer. Did you have any preconceived notions about George A. Custer that your research on the man caused you to rethink?

A. (Jeffry Wert): I probably had most of the preconceived ideas that most people had about Custer, and dealt with him in my first book, but now three things strike mereally changed with my research on Custer: 1) was his zest for life; 2) was the regard that his men held for him during the Civil War. I was surprised by the depth and the breath of it; and 3) was Little Big Horn, but that resulted from my lack of knowledge prior to it. My ideas on how it unfolded, and why he did certain things, changed considerably. We don't know all the answers, but his actions make sense -- not all of them, but numbers of them do.

Q. I would like to ask a similar question about James Longstreet, Lee's "Old
Warhorse." How did your understanding of the man evolve during the course of your research?

A. (Jeffry Wert): I wish there had been more personal material, first of all, but they seem to have been destroyed in the fire that consumed his house after the war. But with that said, I found him to be a better general than I thought he would be. I think he was very much of a realist about war, far more than other Southern generals. Despite his post-war politics, most of the men who served under him never lost their respect or admiration for the man. And, finally, I was surprised at the dissension among the Army of Northern Virginia officer ranks, particularly among 1st Corps officers, in their perception of alleged favoritism towards Virginians.

William Marvel, author of Andersonville, The Last Depot, and many other titles.

Q. During the course of your research on Andersonville, were there any
discoveries or realizations that substantially changed your understanding of Civil War-era prisons, and prisoners?

A. (William Marvel): Yes. Specifically, the degree to which the suffering on the Southern side was much less as a result of deliberate maltreatment than was originally thought. And also how much worse the treatment of Confederate prisoners by Union soldiers was, than was originally believednot that the Union guards were particularly malicious, but they were much more stern and tended to shoot much more frequently for minor infractions than I was led to believe by the rather cursory secondary works on the subject.

And at Andersonville in particular I was impressed by the efforts that
were made to meet the needs of the prisoners. It was generally believed that the Confederates tended to force the Union prisoners into such actions as crossing the dead line so they could be shotfor sport, virtuallyand that the prisoners were starved deliberately. In fact, only on a few occasions was food deliberately withheld from them, and most of their suffering resulted from the general poverty of the Confederate government. The only administration policy to withhold food from prisoners was actually exercised by Union prison authorities, in retaliation for the perceived deliberate starvation of their own prisoners in Confederate hands.

D. Scott Hartwig
, then chief historian at Gettysburg National Military Park, joined us on Thursday, July 18, 1996:

Q. In your capacity as historian at the Gettysburg battlefield, I imagine
you've had the opportunity to tramp all over that hallowed ground. Can you think of any discoveries you've made, or revelations you've had, which resulted from a more intimate knowledge of the topography of the battlefield?

A. (Scott Hartwig): Sure, lots of themthis would be the case with any battlefield that you're able to spend a lot of time on. When you can walk a field from many different angles and approaches, you learn the subtleties of the ground. When you start to understand those, the battle begins to become understandable, and you can fill in details that the soldiers who were there may not have mentioned. Last year I did a program on the attack of Laws' brigade on Little Round Top, and the Confederates all mentioned that Union sharpshooters were posted behind a stone wall, near the Slyder Farm, and I couldn't find the stone wall. There wasn't one, and I looked and looked and looked, and I kept walking down the line where the wall would have been, and there it was. I found the remnants of it. So there was confirmation, to me, that there had been a wall there, and that the wall had been removed after the warfor unknown reasons. That's just one example.

John Y. Simon
, speaking on September 29, 2000, is the editor of the The Papers of U.S. Grant.

Q. Dr. Simon, welcome. You've been editing "The Papers" since 1962. Are you getting tired of Grant yet, or still finding new information, or new sides to the man?

A. (John Simon)
I've never thought that I understood the man fully, and for that reason I've never become tired of him. People don't ask you questions like that about your wife, and I've been married to her for a long time. Grant's a very real person, and one with many dimensions to him. There's still more to learn and I'm eager to do it. We're into the presidential years now, but I'm still fascinated by the Civil War period. And there are documents that we haven't found yet, but those that are coming to light, almost daily, cast new perspectives on Grant.

Q. What do you think, based on your readings of his correspondence, may be the biggest misconceptions about Grant? Was there anything that you were surprised to learn, or which slowly changed your perception of him?

A. (John Simon)
Well I've been increasingly impressed by what a good writer he is. He has the capacity to express what he's thinking in the clearest possible form. He's a maker of memorable phrases. One of our interesting discoveries many years ago was when he wrote the famous line about fighting it out on this line if it takes all summer, he originally wrote, "If it takes me all summer." Then he went back and crossed out the word "me." He's conscious of just who's doing that fighting, and knows that that word "me" is inappropriate. Normally, the words just flow out as they did in the celebrated letter that he wrote at Appomattox, but when necessary he revised what he was writing.

Bonus Stonewall had nothing on Grant question:

Terry Winschel
, chief historian at Vicksburg National Military Park, joined us on December 5, 1996.

Q. How do you think Grant's movements from the time that he crossed the
Mississippi till he invested Vicksburg compare with Stonewall Jackson's Valley campaign?

A. (Terry Winschel): Grant's movements after he crossed the Mississippi River were bold, decisive, and kept his opponent unbalanced, and in that regard compare quite favorable with Stonewall Jackson's movements in the Valley. They demonstrate that Grant was master of the situation, and was a bold and aggressive officer. In a 17-day period, Grant's army would push deep into Mississippi, encounter and defeat Confederate forces in five engagements, and drive Pemberton's army back into the city's fortifications.

It is a brilliant campaign that is studied by professional soldiers to this date, and Grant's campaign for Vicksburg is highlighted in the chapter on offensive operations in the army's current field manual FM100-5.

Gettysburg is fascinating-but-irrelevant question:

Richard McMurry
, author of Two Great Rebel Armies: An Essay in Confederate Military History, speaking with us on Thursday, August 1, 1996

Q. Thank you for being with us tonight. In your book Two Great Rebel Armies, and elsewhere, you have made the pointconvincingly, I thinkthat the war was won and lost in the West. I wonder if you would start us off this evening with a summary of that argument, for the benefit of any Virginia-centric members who may be in attendance.

A. (Richard McMurry): I think the best way to answer that is just to ask people to look at a map, and to ask where the armies were in 1861, 1862 1863, 1864, 1865. If you do that you will see that the armies that started out in 1861 in Missouri and Kentucky were in Tennessee, Mississippi in 1862 and 1863. They were in Georgia in 1864. They were in the Carolinas in 1865. And where were the armies that started out in Virginia in 1861? Or to put it another way, the Federal armies captured, if memory serves me correctly, 9 of the 11 Confederate state capitals. The western armies captured 8 of them, including Columbia, South Carolina and Raleigh, North Carolina, which means that at the end of the war, the western Union armies were about 160 to 170 miles from Richmond. What it amounts to is that Western battles and campaigns produced results. Eastern battles and campaigns produced stalemates. And I would just summarize it all by saying that no battle fought east of the Appalachian Mountains had any military impact on the outcome of the war.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Behind every great caricature, there's a great caricature

"Many say, they would almost worship you, if you would put a fighting General, in the place of McClellanThis would be splendid weather, for an engagement. . ."
Would-be National Security Advisor Mary Todd Lincoln to Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 2, 1862.

Some good advice from the First Lady (though I don't imagine Ambrose Burnside is who "they" had in mind). Full transcript of the letter is here; an image of the letter itself is here: Mary Todd Lincoln remains something of an enigma, or a caricature, in a way that's rarely challenged. Her eccentricities and illnesses later in life are, I think, often projected on her personality retroactively, as if she were always that way. As if the unspeakable losses she suffered wouldn't have put anyone's sanity or daily demeanor to the test.

Civil War history offers many caricaturesthe hero, the scapegoat, the scoundrel, the marble mansome so comfortable we never question them, others are so well embraced, they have achieved the status of assumed truth. But the truth is never so simple, and not surprisingly, the people who have studied particular individuals in any depth invariably paint a more complex picture. So it is with Mary Todd Lincoln, and her relationship to the president, which is sometimes seen as one in which the president is merely tolerating an unstable spouse, while privately reflecting on his lost love, Ann Rutledge (John Y. Simon wrote a thorough essay on the subject of Lincoln and Rutledge that can be read here).

When Jean Baker, a biographer of Mary Todd Lincoln, participated in a Q&A in the Civil War Forum on June 9, 1998, I asked her what the biggest misconceptions are today regarding Mrs. Lincoln. She replied:

certainly the biggest misconception is that Mary Todd Lincoln was a terrible wife and mother, which was a devastating criticism of a 19th century woman. It's a hard stereotype to beat down, even though there's a lot of evidence to the contrary. Certainly Mary Todd Lincoln had a temper, and she was very strong-minded, and had a lot of independent ideas, and when she got to the White House, tried to arrange things in a way that few of her predecessors had done. So, I think this is the image that the American people have of her, as undermining her husband, often embarrassing him, because she spent a lot of money.

But I think that's the wrong way to think about her, and I think that's what my research certainly indicated to me. I found her forceful, interesting, intelligent, and to turn the stereotypes upside down, a very supportive wife, and an excellent mother. The evidence for this is clearit exists in the relationship that Lincoln had with his wife. There are not a lot of surviving letters between the two, but the ones that we do have are clear evidence of a very warm, loving, and certainly sometimes tempestuous relationship.

As far as a mother, Mary Lincoln was totally engaged with her children. She played games with them, she dressed up as characters from Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. She gave parties for them, and we're all familiar with birthday parties today for kids, but in the 19th century, and especially in the small provincial capital of Springfield, Illinois, mothers were mostly much less engaged than Mary Lincoln.

So, to sum all this up, I think that we need to get beyond the image of Mary Lincoln that was promoted by her arch enemy, William Herndon, whom many of you will remember was [Lincoln's] law partner in Springfieldwe need to get beyond his view of her, as he once called her the "hellcat of all time." And it's his image of her in a biography of Lincoln that he wrote that has really stamped her reputation as an impossible mother and wife. And that's something that I think is wrong.

Likewise, when Harold Holzer, who has written much highly-regarded material on Lincoln, fielded questions in the Forum on August 26, 2000, he commented on the damage done to Mary's reputation by this same arch enemy, saying Herndon was

an invaluable source on their law practice together, but less reliable on his controversial 'interviews,' which were probably skewed to shine positive light on the people he liked, and do harm to those he didn't. For example, he hated Mary Lincoln (though she probably hated him first). [He was] presumptuous in that he gave the ridiculous public lecture after the assassination claiming Ann Rutledge was the only woman Lincoln ever loved, brutally hurting the widow. Even if we believe (and I'm not sure) that Lincoln did once love Ann, he certainly loved Mary later, and ardently.

Another participant in the session queried Holzer about Lincoln as suitorwhat it was about him that appealed to Maryasking "what attracted her to him? As you say, he was marrying upto her family, certainly, he could well have appeared as 'undesirable' from a marrying standpoint." I interjected that it must have been the hat, but Holzer offered more:
That's a very good question indeed. The answer must be that Mary deserves lots of credit (she doesn't often get) for seeing something in Lincoln that few, maybe none, of his contemporaries perceived in 1840: that he could 'go places.' He was brilliant, he probably wrote her great letters (they didn't survive, of course), and she was after a big future, and saw it, wisely, in him. Then there's the hat, as David says.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

When Jenny Reb Shipped Out for the Front

Earnest defenders of the cause busy themselves in blurring the distinction between slaves impressed into labor for the army, and so-called black Confederate soldiers in the ranks, but no one seems willing to celebrate the honor of the truly forgotten, and curviest, Confederates. While perusing transcriptions of wartime Southern newspapers tonight, I came across this intriguing item from the New Orleans True Delta by way of a Natchez paper:

NATCHEZ DAILY COURIER, April 1, 1862, page 1, column 2

Women in for the War. We find the following dispatch in the New Orleans True Delta of last Saturday evening. We publish it for the information of our readers: Natchez, March 29. The girls, one hundred and three rank and file, each in herself a Joan of Arc or a Maid of Saragossa, have completed their military organization, and are in for the war. They will leave here by steamer for New Orleans on Monday morning. Give them a warm embrace. Hurra for Mississippi!

Imagine that, a full company of fighting women heading off to war, fully 58 years before they had the right to vote. I ran across this particular snippet while scrolling the addictive web site maintained by Vicki Betts, University of Texas at Tyler, the URL for which was posted on one of the history lists. Ms. Betts describes here website, found here, as "Beyond the usual commercial online newspaper databases . . . which includes articles from less frequently cited Southern papers. These transcribed articles, searchable by word, focus primarily on the Southern homefront, although there are some Northern papers and some military letters home, etc."

Alas, the saga of the female company was short lived. One week later, the day after the folks of Natchez turned out down at the landing "under the hill," the Daily Courier offered a correction to its April 1st article, this time citing the New Orleans Bee:

NATCHEZ DAILY COURIER, April 9, 1862, p. 2, c. 2

All Fool's Day. A large number of persons took a stroll yesterday afternoon on the steamboat landing, with the fond hope of witnessing the arrival of the young female Mississippi volunteers. But they saw nothing of the kind, though there were at that time on the levee many a Miss Volunteer of another sort. It was soon whispered in the crowd that they had been badly sold it being All Fool's Day, and then one by one they all retired, very much excited against the newspapers, and more particularly the True Delta, which published on Sunday, with a flaming heading, a telegram from Natchez, "from a respectable party," in which it was announced the girls would leave that place for this city on Monday. The female company turns out to be a military canard. N. O.
Bee, April 2.

Well, it was fun while it lasted, but rest assured that discrediting the account will not impede someone among today's serial memorialists from ordering a governent tombstone for a member of this phantom unit (quick, someone get the word "memorialist" into the dictionary).

There are some fascinating tidbits at Betts' site, which is particularly enjoyable for the convenient access and searchable text (though heed her warning about double-checking the transcription before you get serious with citations). I found a number of items about slaves joining in the attack on the Yankees, which was interesting. There was also an item about the "Preacher's Regiment," an Arkansas unit with "no less than eight preachers in the regimentone of whom is over seventy years of age!" There is an indignant editorial about "Negro parties," which sound, frankly, like they must have been the best parties in town, but the editorialist is suspicious about where the party-goers were finding the provisions for such general feasts.

There was this strange snippet:

TEXAS BAPTIST [Anderson, TX], April 6, 1860, p. 2, c. 4

During the past session of our court, nineteen negroes chose masters for themselves and were made slaves for life. Wise choice, far better than to sink to the level with the free blacks of Canada and the North."

Not sure what to make of that. I will indulge myself here and include several full excerpts from my casual reading tonight. You can dig out some highlights of your own. It's always striking to recognize how much the people of the past sound like the people of today, just with different trappings. We're no smarter today, and less hearty—that much seems plain.

Most interesting, to me, were the helpful hints for health, and hearth. A couple of letters to the editor offered detailed instructions on making homemade salt from the dirt of the smokehouse—not as white as you'd like, but just as good as imported. Other helpful entries told how to clear a room of bedbugs, which, disgustingly, are enjoying a resurgence in hotels and motels today. I can't tell you how disappointed I was to learn that this archaic bug of the past—something I thought would always be relegated to books, and quaint "goodnights" about sleeping tight—is still with us, as tenacious as the Taliban (if you travel a lot for work, you might not want to read this at the NYTimes, or this at the LATimes (subscription required for both). But I digress.

Lastly, I'll paste in a bit of an editorial from a no-nonsense author in Fort Smith, Arkansas that sums up the centrality of slavery in the secession crisis as succinctly as possible.

AUSTIN STATE GAZETTE, June 22, 1861, p. 4, c. 1

Interesting to Housewives.—Fly time is now fairly upon us, and these troublesome little insects are as much of a nuisance as the Black Republican army in St. Louis. The weapon wherewith to repel this invasion may be found in the following, which we find in an exchange: Take three or four onions and boil them well in a pint of water, and then brush the liquid over your glasses and frames, and the flies will not light in smelling distance of them. The receipt is a safe one, and will do no injury to your furniture.

CHARLESTON MERCURY, May 24, 1861, p. 4, c. 2

How to Take Care of the Hair.--As to men, we say, when the hair begins to fall out, the best plan is to have it cut short; give it a good brushing with a moderately stiff brush, while the hair is dry; then wash it well with warm soap suds; then rub into the scalp, about the roots of the hair, a little bay rum, brandy, or camphor water. Do these things twice a month--the brushing of the scalp may be profitably done twice a week. Damp the hair with water every time the toilet is made. Nothing ever made is better for the hair than pure soft water, if the scalp is kept clean in the way we have named. The use of the oils or pomatums, or grease of any kind, is ruinous to the hair of man or woman. We consider it a filthy practice, almost universal though it be, for it gathers dust and dirt, and soils whenever it touches. Nothing but pure soft water should ever be allowed on the heads of children. It is a different practice that robs our women of their most beautiful ornament long before their prime; the hair of our daughters should be kept within two inches, until their twelfth year. —Hall's Journal of Health.

SAVANNAH [GA] REPUBLICAN, August 20, 1861, p. 1, c. 5

A Remedy for Killing Bed Bugs.—When the crevices are large enough, insert gum camphor, or make a solution of two ounces of camphor and one pint of alcohol, and apply in the cracks with a feather. Follow up the application a few days and you will exterminate your disagreeable visitors. In warm weather musquitoes [sic] may be kept at bay by keeping a cloth wet with camphor near the person.

DALLAS HERALD, May 22, 1861, p. 2, c. 5

The Rusk Enquirer says that a number of young ladies of Cherokee County have formed themselves into a corps of sharpshooters, for rifle practice. At their first practice, they had an effigy of Old Abe, for a target, which they completely riddled with bullets. The Enquirer adds: "Talk about wiping out a people whose women and children are expert rifle and pistol shooters! The idea is absurd."

FORT SMITH NEW ERA, August 20, 1864, p. 3, c. 2

No man ever yet saw an American who hated slavery, yet upheld the rebellion; and no one ever saw an American who justified and wished to perpetuate slavery who had not at least a sneaking tenderness for the rebel cause. For all practical purposes, the rebellion and slavery are related as mother and child.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Mad Freak of Heroic Incompetence

"The dense forests wholly or partly in which were fought so many battles of the Civil War, lay upon the earth in each autumn a thick deposit of dead leaves and stems, the decay of which forms a soil of surprising depth and richness. In dry weather the upper stratum is as inflammable as tinder. A fire once kindled in it will spread with a slow, persistent advance as far as local conditions permit, leaving a bed of light ashes beneath which the less combustible accretions of previous years will smolder until extinguished by rains. In many of the engagements of the war the fallen leaves took fire and roasted the fallen men. At Shiloh, during the first day's fighting, wide tracts of woodland were burned over in this way and scores of wounded who might have recovered perished in slow torture. I remember a deep ravine a little to the left and rear of the field I have described, in which, by some mad freak of heroic incompetence, a part of an Illinois regiment had been surrounded, and refusing to surrender was destroyed, as it very well deserved. My regiment having at last been relieved at the guns and moved over to the heights above this ravine for no obvious purpose, I obtained leave to go down into the valley of death and gratify a reprehensible curiosity."

from "What I Saw of Shiloh," by Ambrose Bierce

Shiloh is among my favorite Civil War battlefields to visit, for a number of reasons. There are familial connections, on my wife's side; the Western Theater aspect, involving troops from states in which I lived (North and South); and perhaps most of all, the pristine condition of the battlefield, situated as it is far from urban en
croachment (not that it isn't threatened by development, particularly in the area of power production on the Tennessee River).

On my first visit to Shiloh, I drove several hours to fit it in to the one free day of a business trip to Little Rock. I arrived around noon, and had four or five hours to tour the field before my return trip. For most of the afternoon, there were no other visitors in sight. My second visit was with the Civil War Forum, a two-day, intensive tour with Stacy Allen, and talks by Larry Daniel and Wiley Sword (who laid out his theory of where A. S. Johnston really fell, outlined in the revised edition of his Morningside classic, Shiloh, Bloody April).

Even then, the field was empty, and peaceful.
It's a complicated battle, and the Park Service has done an admirable job of delineating, with coded markers, two days of overlapping action on the same ground. Even so, the movement of opposing troops over the battlefield is a confusing morass.

As a Civil War buff, and someone intimately involved in Civil War publishing, I have taken a particular interest in battlefield guides, whether NPS brochures, USMA staff rides, or the "General's Tour" feature of Blue & Gray magazine. And I was especially excited to see the publication of modern guides written by some of our best Civil War historians today, Shiloh, A Battlefield Guide, by Mark Grimsley and Steven Woodworth, and Gettysburg, A Battlefield Guide, by Grimsley, and Brooks Simpson.

Mark Grimsley will be the guest in the next live Q&A session in The Civil War Forum, October 21, at 4:00 p.m. EST, to discuss what goes in to creating a worthwhile battlefield
guide, how to "read a battlefield" (the subject of one of his presentations), and to field questions about his other books, and his ground-breaking military history blogs, Blog Them Out of the Stone Age, and Civil Warriors.

Above: top of Iowa monument at Shiloh; at right, Professor Grimsley, and Jethro.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

I'm just about the only person I know who has an abiding interest in the American Civil War, and yet has never taken the time to read Charles Frazier's spectacularly successful first novel, Cold Mountain (even as I typed this, I had to go back and change "Harbor" to "Mountain," a mistake I make every time I reference the book or movie).

I can't satisfactorily explain why I haven't read it yetI still plan to. Really. It's a little odd that I've put it off, because I very much enjoy artfully done, authentic, historical fiction. And I love the atypical story line of Cold Mountain (atypical for Civil War fiction, but, in fact, something of a classic quest story as old as Gilgamesh), and from what I've skimmed, the prose looks beautifully wrought, and mesmerizing. It is interesting to me that Inman is an actual ancestor in the author's life. I like the fact that the narrative is a journey, that it isn't, at heart, a tale of battle, or a fictionalized portrayal of great generals. Frazier stands as a kind of anti-Shaara, and that appeals to me in a big way. Okay, that settles it. Tonight I'm moving Cold Mountain into the nightstand rotation.

I suspect, but try not to admit it, that my avoidance of the novel initially had to do with the fact that it was so immensely populareven outside of Civil War circlescausing the inner-elitist in me to momentarily stall any deep interest. I should also say that I'm a relatively slow (deliberate) reader with a ridiculous backlog of books. By the time I had an opening on the active stack for Cold Mountain, I had read untold numbers of reviews, had skated around the periphery of 100s of online discussions about the book, and had even stood transfixed at parties where people who would not read a nonfiction Civil War book to save their lives, enthusiastically summarized Frazier's story. Not long after that, I was seeing trailers for the movie. I did eventually rent the film, thought it was great, and was quick to purchase the soundtrack (I am not ordinarily a big customer of sound tracks, but Jack White's renditions of some essential American sounds was irresistible, like the "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack, or Ry Cooder's work on numerous films).

Charles Frazier is a true inspiration to those of us who know, deep down, we have at least one good novel in us, and hope we, too, can buck the lottery-like odds of getting a novel published, and noticed. Frazier went from underpaid English teacher, to stay at home dad hanging with the other moms on field trips (driving for elementary school field trips has been a great source of enjoyment for me, in this, my 2nd childhoodwhere we live, my kids go to places like NASA Ames Research Center, or Pacific tidepools, a stark contrast to the only field trip I can remember taking as a kid, out to the local water treatment plant in small town Iowa (not that it wasn't interestingin fact, it answered many unspoken questions). I just did a Google search out of curiositykudos to the 8th grade faculty for creating a virtual tour of the very same water treatment plant that so impressed me in the early 70s.

I digress, but only barely. Frazier came out of nowhere, quit his job, finished his book and got Atlantic Monthly Press to buy it for $100,000. The success of that novel led Random House to pay something on the order of $8 million for his 2nd novel, based on a one-page synopsis. In the new book, Thirteen Moons, the Civil War is only incidental to the larger, decades-long timeline, and focuses on the Eastern band of Cherokee who managed to avoid removal to the Indian Territory.

I was excited to learn that Frazier has again incorporated subjects of great interest to me, specifically Native Americans, and Indian participation in the Civil War (way back when, I managed to get two embarrassingly amateurish articles published in an old Civil War glossy on Stand Watie, and Ely Parker). Making an appearance in Thirteen Moons is the endlessly intriguing William H. Thomas, of the Thomas Legion, memorialized in Vernon H. Crow's out-of-print (I think) Storm in the Mountains: Thomas' Confederate Legion of Cherokee Indians & Mountaineers. What a fascinating story. Thomas, who was not himself a Cherokee, formed a Civil War command that remains one of the most unique and colorful outfits in the annals of the Late Unpleasantness.

The saga of the Eastern band of Cherokee is a bigger story than Thomas's Legion, of course, and I'm anxious to see how Frazier treats the subject in Thirteen Moons. He wrote a little essay in 1997, at (subscription required, probably), under the title, "How the Author Found the Inspiration for his Civil War-era Novel Among the Secrets Buried in the Backwoods of the Smoky Mountains." Inman's trek, and the Cherokee, it becomes clear, are just different stories about the same place:

Last year, when I was nearly finished with the book, I went looking for yet another grave. I climbed up the hill where my father says the real Inman is buried. There's nothing to tell exactly where he lies. Just a bunch of sunken oblongs with wooden markers rotted down to stubs or flat stones with unreadable scratching on them. All anonymous. If he's there he has a fine view to the forks of the Pigeon River, where once stood a Cherokee town called Kanuga, not a trace of it left but potsherds in the river sand. His long view is up toward Cold Mountain. I am in his debt and I wish him peace.