The Orphan Mother

28926201The Orphan Mother is the third Civil War era novel from Robert Hicks. While not strictly meeting the definition of a trilogy, each of the three novels focuses on participants in the bloody 1864 Battle of Franklin, Tennessee.

The first of the three books, The Widow of the South, tells the story of Carrie McGavock, mistress of the Carnton Plantation house and the property on which she personally cared for and preserved the graves of some 1,500 casualties (from both armies) of the nearby battle. McGavock maintained the cemetery for the remaining years of her life, and it is open to the public even today. A Separate Country, the second of the three books, looks closely at the life lived after the war by the Confederate general in command of Southern troops at the Battle of Franklin, John Bell Hood, and is largely set in New Orleans. Now comes The Orphan Mother, which commences shortly after the end of the Civil War and recounts the story of Mariah Reddick, Carrie McGavock’s personal slave, a woman who experienced no other life but service to Carrie until the war finally ended.

Mariah Reddick is the preeminent midwife in the city of Franklin, Tennessee. She offers her birthing services to black and white families, alike, and by now has had a personal hand in the birthing of a significant portion of its citizens. The only thing different now is that she gets to keep the fees she collects for her services rather than having to turn the money over to the family that owns her. Mariah is doing well, and feeling confident about what the future holds for her and her only son Theopolis, who just happens to be the best shoe and boot maker in the city of Franklin.

hicks

Robert Hicks

Theopolis, though, has bigger ambitions than ministering to the feet of his fellow townsmen – he wants to represent them in the state government. But when Theo is murdered by an angry mob at the first political event he tries to speak at, Mariah’s world comes crashing down around her, and all she wants now is to identify the men who killed her son so that she can somehow bring them to justice. Mariah will learn much about her town and the people in it during her search for her son’s killers, but she will also meet a man with the ability to change the rest of her life, if she will only let him – and if he can bring himself to tell her the truth about her son’s death.

The Orphan Mother is a fine addition to Robert Hicks’s Civil War books, and it leaves me anxious to see what comes next from Hicks. Civil War fiction (as with all serious historical fiction) is a tool by which a good novelist brings history to life by allowing readers to witness historical events through the eyes of those who lived it. Robert Hicks makes that happen in The Orphan Mother.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

The Fateful Lightning

The Fateful Lightningis the fourth and final book in Jeff Shaara’s story of the Civil War as it was fought in the American “west.”  The book, a detailed accounting of Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” follows three previous novels dedicated to the battles of Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, respectively.  As in each of those books, Shaara tells his story by placing his readers into the boots of several key real-life characters from both sides of the tragic struggle.
As it should be, the book’s primary focus is on Union general William Tecumseh Sherman, the chief engineer behind the slash and burn ride that hastened the end of the war.  In addition to seeing the march from Sherman’s point of view, Shaara has his readers do the same from the points of view of two of Sherman’s adversaries: General William Joseph Hardee and Captain James Seeley, a Confederate cavalryman.  And, interestingly, the book’s fourth main character is a slave known throughout only as Franklin because the young man has never known another name to be directed his way.  (When first questioned by the Union officer who befriends him, Franklin is not even sure whether Franklin is a first or a last name – all he knows is that it is his only name.)

The Fateful Lightning begins on November 16, 1864 as Sherman starts to move his army out of Atlanta, a city that has been largely destroyed as a result of his assault on the city.  It ends on April 25, 1865 (seventeen days after Lee has surrendered his own army to Grant) in Raleigh, North Carolina, when Sherman receives the letter that will finally allow him to relax:  Confederate general Johnston’s surrender of the largest segment of the Confederate army still in the field.  From that moment, the American Civil War is effectively over.
Author Jeff Shaara
Sherman was a complicated man, one I have had mixed emotions about for a very long time.  With time, I have come to be an admirer of his military skills and his eventual willingness to wage “total war” on the South in order to end the fighting as quickly as possible.  But as a born and bred Southerner, I have long wished that Southern civilians had not suffered so greatly at his hands.  For that reason, I think that the real beauty of Jeff Shaara’s historical fiction is the way it humanizes historical figures, even to the degree that they become – be they sympathetic characters or more questionable ones – the real people they were, with all the weaknesses and doubts that the rest of us have to contend with in our own lives. 

I have read a lot of Civil War history in the last few decades, much of it associated with Sherman’s “march.”  But I can honestly say that after reading The Fateful Lightning, I have a better understanding of that famous campaign than I had coming in to the book.  At well over 600 pages in length, this one takes a while to absorb, but it is most definitely time well spent. 

Post #2,587


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My 2014 Civil War Reading: A Nine-Book Tour

Entering 2014, I planned to do more Civil War history reading than I’ve managed in the previous couple of years.  As the year draws to a close, I am a little disappointed in the number of Civil War books I’ve read, but I’m very pleased with the quality of those books – and by how much I enjoyed them and learned from them.

When it comes to reading books, I’m not a nonfiction snob at all – really, I’m almost the opposite. So, because nonfiction titles generally make up only about one-third of my average year’s reading, I was surprised to find just the opposite for my CW reads: six nonfiction titles and three novels:  

  • Travels to Hallowed Ground – Emory Thomas
  • How to Lose the Civil War – Bill Fawcett
  • Fierce Patriot – Robert L. O’Connell
  • Clouds of Glory – Michael Korda
  • Grant and Sherman – Charles B. Flood
  • The Marble Man – Thomas L. Connelly
                                 and
  • The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee – Thomas J. Fleming
  • I Shall Be Near You – Erin Lindsay McCabe 
  • Shiloh: A Novel – Shelby Foote
Travels to Hallowed Ground, The Marble Man, and Shiloh: A Novel were re-reads for me, three books I’ve been partial too for a long time.  

The Marble Man (first published by LSU Press in 1977) does a good job of deconstructing much of the myth that surrounds General Robert E. Lee.  Thomas Connelly does this by showing exactly how, and when, the myth was constructed, in the first place, and he does his best to separate fact from fiction.  The book, of course, was not very popular in the South, but I actually saw a copy at the wonderful bookstore in the basement of Lee Chapel in Lexington, Va.  Kudos to the shop manager there for including it on her Lee shelves.

In Travels to Hallowed Ground (published by the University of South Carolina Press in 1987), historian Emory Thomas recounts his visits to various Civil War battlegrounds and the lasting impact that those visits had on him. Sites visited include: Harpers Ferry, Petersburg, Shiloh, Fort Pulaski, and the Bennett Place.

Shelby Foote’s Shiloh: A Novel (published by The Dial Press in 1952), is a character-driven, fictional look at one of the War’s pivotal battles.  The approach that Foote took in this novel became pretty much the blueprint for the immense success that Michael Shaara would later have with his prize winning novel The Killer Angels – and of course it has become the “go-to” approach for Michael’s son Jeff and numerous other authors since then.

My two favorites of the nine books, though, were both published this year: Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman (Random House) and Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee (Harper).  These two biographies, one of a Union General and one of a Confederate general, are remarkable in the amount of information (and speculation) that they pack into single volumes.  Although Michael Korda’s Lee biography is 785 pages long and Robert L. O’Connell’s Sherman book is just over half that length, the books are equally excellent.

Novels The Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee and I Shall Be Near You, are very different pieces of historical fiction.  The first, a nice blending of speculative history with historical facts, fits in a popular genre known as Alternate History.  The second is a novel about a newlywed woman who follows her husband to war and, when she catches up to him, disguises herself as a man and fights alongside him and their childhood friends.  Several women are have known to fight as common soldiers on both sides, so this is not as farfetched as it first sounds.

Grant and Sherman: The Partnership That Won the Civil War is an excellent dual-biography of two of the North’s greatest, and certainly most successful, Civil War generals.  The book explores the unique collaboration that was made possible by the distinct personalities of these two men.  Their personalities meshed into the perfect fit, and the decision to have them work together as a unit, was the beginning of the end of the Confederacy.

How to Lose the Civil War was the only disappointment I had in my Civil War reading this year.  It makes good points, and builds good cases for those points, but very little of the information is new or surprising- and, for the most part, it is very dryly written.  

I’m already looking forward to next year’s Civil War reading, and I’m in the process of choosing a few books with which to begin the year. Most of them have been on my shelves for a while already – and I added two or three last month – so I think I’m good to go.