January 11th, 2012

American Civil War Fiction

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April 12, 1861 marked the moment that our nation was plunged into one of its darkest hours.  The first bullet of the American Civil War was fired at Fort Sumpter in South Carolina.  There was no turning back from the anguish that citizens from both North and South would bear for the next 4 years, and long beyond.

I am fascinated with this time in our Nation’s history.  Several of my ancestors went into battle, some for the North and many for the South, a fact that many of you can also boast about!  I feel that there is a certain romance in all the tragedy that surrounds those days – how brave these men were and how brave their families were back at home!  Several brilliant works of fiction have fed my Civil War curiosity over the years.  These books are so wonderfully crafted that they will transport you back in time.  Most of these titles, while they are fiction, have been carefully researched and written with many facts interwoven through the story.  While you are immersed in these works it will be clear that no matter to which side the loyalties fell, the thirst for freedom and the love for their country ran deep in everyone.

book compilation

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
This is the Granddaddy of all Civil War fiction and a must read for anyone who searches for a story with a great deal of fact and military tactics entwined.  Shaara won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975 for his brilliant portrayal of the major players for both North and South during the battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  The book mainly focuses on two characters, General Robert E. Lee and his vision of a final victory for his Army of Virginia, and the young and newly appointed Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who is thrown into command just in time to hold the Union Line at Little Round Top.  The Killer Angels is one of those books that you may read again and again so that you will capture every detail.  It is heartbreaking in the reality in which it shows the thoughts and feelings of many of our greatest military heroes as they face their old friends and their own fears at the hour of death for many.  Shaara was absolutely spot on in his details of the battles, locations and positions of the armies.  These men and their causes will become so real to you that it is impossible not to feel passion for one side or the other.

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Frazier managed to write a beautiful, romantic novel while still working in enough gritty details to appeal to both men and women, and keep all of us under his spell!  The story revolves around Inman, off to join the Confederate Army and Ada Monroe, who has just moved to Cold Mountain.  Just days before he leaves for battle, Inman falls in love with the lovely and frail Ada.  His love for her is what drives him to desert the army and start the harrowing trip back to Cold Mountain.   The book travels back and forth between Inman’s journey home and Ada’s fight to survive alone after the death of her father.  Both of them must fight the brutal “Home Guard” who travel the countryside searching for Confederate deserters and punishing the citizens who help them.  Throughout the book you will meet an eccentric cast of characters who somehow bring the story together.  Cold Mountain is a love story, a war story, and a raw glimpse at how harsh life during the war was for those at home and on the front lines.

March by Geraldine Brooks
Geraldine Brooks is well known from bringing history alive in her novels.  She has done it again in bringing us this gem.  Does anyone remember the March girls and their loving Marmee from the beloved classic, Little Women?  If so, you will remember that Mr. March spent the majority of the story away from the family, fighting dutifully for the Northern Army.  Who was he?  What was he experiencing?  What were his feelings towards his family and being parted from them?  How had the war changed him?  Within the pages of March, you will find your answers.  This isn’t the same gentle tale that follows Louisa May Alcott’s style.  This is an honest look at a man battling good and evil within himself while desperately trying to remain true to his beliefs.  It is the story of a man who must face his failures and keep the love of his family and his hope alive.  March is a very graphic portrayal of the horrors of battle and treatment of slaves.  This novel also won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2006.

The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks
If there was ever a historical book of fiction written for the ladies, this would be it!  The Widow of the South is one of my favorite pieces of all time and I have read it at least 4 times.  Based on real characters and real events that occurred around the battlefield at Franklin, Tennessee, the story weaves around Carrie McGavock and her beloved Carnton Plantation.  As the armies approach her home, Carrie is already grieving the loss of three of her children, the indifference of her husband, and is fighting to keep her sanity.  Without the strength of her house slave, Mariah, the family would have already been in ruin.  Then war blazes through their world and lives are changed forever.  Carrie’s sacred home is turned into a field hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers and she must decide if she will continue to hide in anguish, or come back to life and find a way to help those who are suffering around her.   Her decision gives her life new meaning and through the work that she does and the men that she meets, she begins to feel alive and worthwhile again.  As you read on, relationships are not always what they seem and by the end, you will be uplifted by the strength that Carrie finds to do what is right. Carnton Plantation is on the National Register of Historic Places and is open to visitors who want to honor Miss Carrie McGavock, the true Widow of the South.

What’s your favorite Civil War book?

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January 3rd, 2012

Cecil County & the Civil War

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No Civil War battles were fought in Cecil County, but that doesn’t mean the war didn’t touch the home-front in other ways. Dispatches, letters and reports published in the Cecil Democrat and other newspapers kept local residents informed as they yearned for news about loved ones on the battlefield. There were times when the war raged nearby, and affected Cecil Countians strongly.

One such event was the battle of Antietam in September 1862. It’s this battle, and its importance to Marylanders in particular, that will be the focus of the 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 11 book discussion “Crossroads of Freedom” at the Elkton Central Library. In this book, author James McPherson examines not so much the battle as the politics and personalities surrounding it.

The Confederacy was desperate for recognition by the British and French governments, and as the fortunes of war ebbed and flowed, the Union waged a political counterattack of its own in Europe and England. As McPherson emphasizes in the book, both sides sought a decisive military victory to support their claims in Europe.

Victory was elusive for the Union. At that time, George B. McClellan was commander of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan was the consummate organizer and administrator (his abilities if not his personality would be echoed later by another American general, Dwight Eisenhower). He had built a formidable fighting force. And yet he seemed reluctant to actually fight the enemy, claiming at every turn that he was ill-equipped or outnumbered. In his book, McPherson offers an interesting study of this complicated and talented individual in whom President Abraham Lincoln had to reluctantly put his trust.

Unfortunately for McClellan, it was Robert E. Lee who commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Lee was a military engineer by training (he spent three years in Baltimore building a fort that was never used) and early in the war was given the nickname “Granny Lee” by some who saw him as a milquetoast. When chance and fate passed command of the South’s largest army to Lee, he would turn out to be one of history’s most daring and capable military commanders.

When Lee marched his forces into Maryland, and McClellan finally mobilized to meet the threat to the Union, the result was the huge battle at Sharpsburg. In a single day, roughly 25,000 Americans would be killed or wounded. Many Cecil Countians fought and died there, including the men of Snow’s Battery, an artillery unit made up of volunteers mainly from the Port Deposit area. At least one local father traveled to the battlefield and brought home his wounded teenage son.

Ultimately, it was the Union victory at Antietam that gave Abraham Lincoln the confidence and political capital to make his famous Emancipation Proclamation, freeing enslaved African-Americans in the states “in rebellion” … but not those in border states such as Maryland.

As we mark the 150th anniversary of this battle, this exploration of James McPherson’s book about the events leading up to Antietam—including events before and after the battle in Cecil County–should be a fascinating discussion for Civil War and local history buffs. To register for the program and receive a copy of the book, please call the library at 410-996-5600, ext. 481. (Reading the book is helpful, but not required).

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