Monday, September 22, 2008

A Civil General

A Civil General
by David Stinebeck & Scannell Gill

(Sunstone Press / 0-865-34663-1 / 978-0-865-34663-5 / September 2008 / 160 pages / $20.95)

Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM

Called “The Rock of Chickamauga” for holding the center of the Union line in that Civil War battle, and preventing a defeat from dissolving into a disastrous rout, George Henry Thomas was famous in his lifetime, worshipped and respected in equal parts by the officers and men that he commanded. He is still held in particular respect by serious historians of the period. His funeral, five years after the end of the war, was attended by at least 10,000 mourners, including then-President Grant and his cabinet. Yet General Thomas is also nearly unknown today, especially in comparison to his contemporaries – on both sides of the Civil War. He never wrote a memoir of his service, destroyed his private papers and refused to become involved in politics.

He got on badly with Grant on a personal level, for reasons never made entirely clear to historians. Perhaps this slight novel, told through the eyes of a young officer serving with him, is as good an introduction to the personality and contradictions of this able professional 19th century soldier, who was as personally reserved as he was accomplished – and somewhat of an anomaly among his fellow Union generals. He was born in Virginia, to a slave-owning family, taught those slaves owned by his family to read – in defiance of contemporary law and convention, and married a woman from the North. His closest friend from West Point and during his military career thereafter was Robert. E. Lee… but Thomas chose to remain loyal to the Union during the Secession crisis which split the United States. For that he was all but disowned by his remaining family, and initially distrusted by those for whom he fought.
This book is barely a hundred and fifty pages, detailing only the last two years of the Civil War and concluding with an account of General Thomas’ funeral. It is beautifully written, very much in period style. If it can be faulted, it would be on the grounds of being limited by that style and structure; it is an account of a man seen from the outside, and at the very peak of his military career. The narrator is sympathetic but exterior, leaving the reader much to wonder about. What kind of events, what personal experiences and relationships formed the man who is presented in this account? How did he come to make the wrenching choices that he did, who really were his close friends and bitter enemies? All these questions are left unanswered; it might be that an imaginative novelist might someday have a go at writing an account that would explore General Thomas’ life in more depth. Until then, “A Civil General” will do very well as an introduction to this contradictory and almost unknown hero.

See Also: Celia's BNN Review

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