By William Shelton • April 09, 2021
The span of days between April 9 and April 12 mark the pivotal dates of the start and end of the American Civil War. This terrible time of rending brought many changes to the social, political, and philosophical consciousness of the United States. The historian and author Shelby Foote said that our civil war defined us as a single country rather than a loose group of states, and changed the way that Americans refer to their country. Prior to the war it was common to say "...the United States are...", whereas after the war the phrase was changed to "...the Unites States is...".
Almost as soon as hostilities ceased in April of 1865 those who had witnessed it, participated in the conflict, or observed from the safety of foreign shores, began putting pen to paper to tell of the experience. Most of the early writings, though first person narratives, were colored by the raw emotional experience of the writer and range from biased, to inflammatory, to outright apologetic. Only after time passed and cooler heads prevailed, starting in the early 20th century, did we begin to see objective published works on the subject. Carl Sandburg's book Storm Over the Land, is a fine condensation of his earlier work on the life of Abraham Lincoln. John Brown's Body, the epic Pulitzer Prize winning poem published by Stephen Vincent Benét in 1928, is a moving, lyrical, and highly quotable, distillation of the war. Bruce Catton's three volume history of the Civil War is a dense and academic review of this period, and an interesting contrast to the three volume narrative series written by Shelby Foote, which is equally accurate, but more conversational and free flowing. One is a great read, and the other is a great cure for insomnia.
The field of historical fiction centered on the American Civil war is legion. From highly romanticized corset bursting tales to the very unique genre of alternative history, there is a fictional account of the war available for any reader interested in the topic. Every reader probably has their own favorite.
Personally, my favorite is a book first published in 1966 and has been called "...the first truly historical Black American novel." That book is Jubilee by Margaret Walker. Ms. Walker used the family stories related to her by her grandmother in Alabama as the basis for her Doctoral thesis at the University of Iowa, which evolved into the novel Jubilee. Margaret Walker is most famous for her biography of Richard Wright, as well as the 1942 volume of poetry, For My People, as well as unsuccessfully suing Alex Haley for plagiarism.
Another work of historical fiction, all but obscure today, that was frequently read to me as a child by rather august great-aunts, is So Red The Rose by Stark Young. This 1935 novel, and film by Paramount Studios of the same year, was greatly overshadowed a year later by Margaret Mitchell's successful novel and film. So Red The Rose was a particular favorite among earlier generations of my family for the simple reason that my great-grandfather was one of the characters taken from life, like so many people of the Natchez, Mississippi area, that were used as characters in the book.
It is very fitting and proper that a period of our nation's history that reshaped how we define ourselves should be recounted in historical narratives, and used as the backdrop for fictionalized work. Even after more than one and a half centuries the consequences of this conflict resonate today. For those interested in learning more about this bloody period of rebirth, ThriftBooks offers numerous options for delving further.