Shell shock. Battle fatigue. Soldier’s heart. As early at the 1600’s it was known as Swiss Disease. In the 1860’s some even called it “nostalgia,” thinking that simple homesickness could account for the disorientation, straggling, malingering, alcoholism, “cowardice,” and desertion that plagued the Union and Confederate armies. In Howard Bahr’s novel of the Civil War, the debilitation follows a small group of comrades back to their Mississippi hometown, where they continue to relive their war experiences. Those experiences gradually center on the heartbreak of the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee.
Cass Wakefield and Roger Lewellyn enlisted in the rebel army in those heady days when it appeared that the war would be over by the end of the summer of 1861. Serving in the Army of Tennessee, they fought at Shiloh, Stones River, Chickamauga, and the Atlanta Campaign, along with the dozens of smaller actions and skirmishes throughout those years. They saw men die in every conceivable way, from the gruesome to the mundane, losing comrades at each step of the long march that brought them to Franklin. They also picked up a boy, a toughened orphan named Lucifer, who they promptly renamed Lucius. On his own, Lucius would adopt the name Wakefield and become mascot, comrade, and fellow sufferer in the line of battle.
Now, twenty years after the war, Lucius is addicted to laudanum, Roger carries the deep psychic wounds of an artist confronted with butchery, and Cass uses alcohol to numb his pain. All three, and most of the men of their town, wander the streets in the middle of the night like ghosts in search of a place to haunt. But when Alison Sansing, daughter of their regimental commander and sister of the dashing Perry, asks Cass to help her recover the bodies of her beloved father and brother, he agrees to accompany her to Franklin.
What Alison, one of Cass’s oldest friends, doesn’t tell him is that she is dying of cancer and this trip is the final obligation of a life filled with her own pain and heartbreak. As their train rolls through the Southern countryside, she begins to see the landscape through which the men of her acquaintance marched and fought. And Cass begins to recall and relive both painful and humorous episodes from his soldiering life. It isn’t until they reach Franklin that they discover that both Lucian and Roger have followed them, and their emotional journey becomes a volatile one.
Howard Bahr is a rare combination of historian and author, skilled at gently and gradually exposing details of the soldier’s life and their direct battle experiences at places like Franklin while exploring the deeper battles hidden in human memory. His writing is both insightful and evocative, with a perfect balance between description and psychological depth, while his characters are fully realized in all their glory and agony. It’s not for nothing that his novels have been named Notable Books by the New York Times. (Hey, Pulitzer people: were you asleep?)
For a historical account of the Union’s commander at Franklin and Nashville, check out Benson Bobrick’s Master of War. Robert Hicks’s Widow of the South is a fictional account which details the life of Carrie McGavock, whose house was a Confederate hospital and who almost singlehandedly dug up and reburied Confederate dead on her own land.
Check the WRL catalog for The Judas Field