Sunday, July 04, 2010
Knoxville 1863 by Dick Stanley
(Lulu/CS / 0-557-29707-9 / 978-0-557-29707-8 / February 2010 / 228 pages / $14.50 / B&N $13.05 / CreateSpace $7.98 / Kindle $1.99)
Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM
The American Civil War began nearly a hundred and fifty years ago and ended after four years of savage fighting. There is no one left alive today with first-hand memories of that paroxysm of incredible violence that shattered the United States and then roughly stitched it together again. And the memories, especially in the South are barely diluted, even after all this time – for it was the bitterest kind of war, happening among kin and one-time friends, as it did. Fighting took place along the Washington DC/Richmond axis as the opposing armies menaced each others’ capitals, slashed across the South from Atlanta to the sea, all down the trans-Appalachian waterways and the Mississippi River, in Kansas and Missouri, which bled and bled again – and even as far west as Texas and New Mexico. Even places far removed from battlefields were not left unscathed, for the armies in blue and grey were recruited and marched away from everywhere, to the cheers of the hometown folks. But after three years of fighting, the cheers are muted, the war seems to have lasted forever, and blasted the ordinary pre-war lives of its characters into a thousand fragments. But still they carry on; and this story touches on some of the reasons why and how.
Knoxville 1863 is a worms-level view of a shatteringly unsuccessful Confederate assault on a heavily fortified earthwork bastion, a key part of the Union Army lines defending Knoxville, Tennessee. Knoxville was a strategic nexus, in an area of East Tennessee which had not favored secession, but where many local citizens had familial connections to the Confederacy. This is made plain in the opening chapter, where Leila Ellis, the young widow of a Confederate officer brings a special meal to the young Union officer commanding the Sanders redoubt. The Union was besieged at Chattanooga; and a force under General Longstreet was supposed to prevent the Union Army of Ohio from coming to reinforce. Longstreet threw elements of three brigades at Ft. Sanders in a bungled surprise attack, thinking that his infantrymen would be easily able to climb the sides of a ditch before the redoubt and overwhelm the relatively untried Union garrison. Instead, the ditch below Ft. Sanders turned into a kill-zone, with one of the most lopsided casualty rates of the whole war: more than 800 Confederate to a dozen Union.
This reconstruction of the event, the days leading to it, and the existence of those involved, and the aftermath, conveys the fluid mix of 19th century stoicism and elaborately observed social custom. Knoxville 1863 and A Civil General are two of the best recent novels that I can think of which bring out a sense of this. These are not modern Americans, dressed up in period clothes. The author weaves an intricate web of characters, of soldiers and artillerymen on both sides, men and boys – the relatively untried Union troops on reduced rations, the battle-worn Confederates starving and shoeless, all of them feeling the cold of a bitter winter in east Tennessee. The various characters are expertly drawn; the details of their lives, their friends and their various sympathies are conveyed in spare and workmanlike language. Each chapter and each character is almost a period steel engraving, full of vivid and authentic detail. The only criticism that can be made of this structure is that readers expecting a single straight-line narrative, featuring an unmistakably central character may be a little disappointed at having their attention and sympathetic interest split among that handful that carry the story more or less equally.
See also: The Author's Website
Dick Stanley's Amazon Page
The PODBRAM Review of A Civil General
Celia's Review at The Deepening
Celia's BNN Review of Knoxville 1863