Haunting writing brings home the Civil War
November 24, 2008 · Updated 6:45 PM
By Breck Longstreth
When I visit my parents in Virginia, I slide into a life that's somewhat surreal. At 53, I'm younger by 30 years than most of their friends. And when you're hanging with the mid-80s set in the South, you find that the Civil War is still a presence. Always referred to as ``The War Between the States,'' the conflict which began 145 years ago is a frequent topic of conversation among these elderly Virginians.
Civil War historian Shelby Foote, author of The Civil War: A Narrative, once said in an interview, ``People want to know why the South is so interested in the Civil War. I had maybe, it's a rough guess, about fifty fistfights in my life. Out of those fifty fistfights, the ones that I had the most vivid memory of were the ones I lost. I think that's one reason why the South remembers the war more than the North does.''
It's not that my parents and their friends espouse the mid-19th-century Southern cause, these many years later. They believe, as do all good people, that all men are created equal, that it was wrong to have had slavery, and right to abolish it. But for their generation, the Civil War has an immediacy that's lost on the rest of us. Their grandparents, whom they knew as children, fought in ``The War Between the States.''
Last month, my husband and I were at a dinner party in Virginia, when two of my parents' friends started talking about the novels by co-authors former congressman Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen, Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War, and Grant Comes East. These two books, both historical fiction, present an alternative history -- one in which Robert E. Lee wins the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Everyone at the party agreed that had the South won the war, it would have been a disaster for the country.
I jumped in and said that I was reading MacKinlay Kantor's Andersonville, an epic Civil War historical novel about a Confederate prison in Georgia. I observed a collective wince from my fellow diners. Even in 2005, apparently, the notorious stockade in which 14,000 Union soldiers died is a sore subject, a source of embarrassment.
``Andersonville'' is only the second Civil War novel I've read. The first was Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara, who won the Pulitzer Prize for it in 1974. This moving masterpiece tells the story of three days -- July 1-3, 1863 -- and of the men who fought in the Battle of Gettysburg. If you've never read it, do. If you have no interest in the Civil War, read it anyway. You won't regret it.
You won't regret ``Andersonville'' either, though at 750-plus pages, it requires a commitment. It took Kantor 25 years to research and write this novel, but his efforts paid off -- he won the Pulitzer in 1955.
``Andersonville'' begins and ends with the story of Ira Claffey, a veteran of the Mexican War (1846-48), who is living on his Georgia plantation with his daughter Lucy and his wife, Veronica, who is mad with grief over the death of her three sons in the war. It's 1864, and the powers-that-be in the Confederacy have decreed that a prison be built on land adjoining the Claffeys'. Though the Claffeys are fictional characters, most of the prison officials and many of the prisoners in Kantor's story are taken from history.
The Claffey family's story provides a linear narrative that helps to ground the book and give it chronology and structure. Another neighborhood family, the Tebbs, also help to drive the plot. The widow Tebbs is the local scarlet woman, and she and her several children, all by different fathers, are recurring characters. Among the book's most poignant story lines is the relationship between one of those children, Coral Tebbs, an amputee wounded at Gettysburg, and a young Union soldier who escapes from the prison.
Kantor deftly tells the underlying story of the horrors of Andersonville by giving the reader innumerable vignettes of individual prisoners. He tells of their lives before the war, during the war, and most compellingly, of their lives after arriving at the prison. From February of 1864 until the war ended, 50,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned at Andersonville. Crowded cheek by jowl on 28 acres, prisoners weren't provided with shelter or fresh water, and weren't given enough food. Consequently, the death toll was horrifically high.
Near the end of the book, the war over, Ira Claffey wanders over the grounds of the deserted prison. He remembers a passage from the fifth-century Greek war historian Thucydides, quoting the statesman Pericles' funeral oration for fallen Athenians: ``?their story is not graven only on stone over their native earth, but lives on far away, without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other men's lives.''
Kantor's novel is the graven stone bearing witness to the tragedy of Andersonville prison. It's we, the readers, who carry the story into the future, woven into our own lives.
Sidebar: Kids' view of conflict
A couple of weeks ago, I told a friend that I was going to be writing my next column on Andersonville, the historical Civil War novel by MacKinlay Kantor.
``Oh!'' she said, ``Have you read Pink and Say?'' She then proceeded to tell me about this wonderful children's book by Patricia Polacco, who also illustrated it. When I looked it up on the Web, ``The School Library Journal'' recommended it for grades four and up. But ``Booklist'' deemed it appropriate for ages 5-9. So, as you can see, it's a book with wide appeal, and a parent of an older child shouldn't be put off by the fact that it's a picture book.
Polacco tells a true story from her family. Her great-grandfather, Sheldon (Say) Curtis is a 15-year-old white Union soldier wounded in Georgia during the Civil War. He is discovered by a young black Union soldier, Pinkus (Pink) Aylee, who picks him up and carries him to safety at his mother's house. Pink's mother, Moe Moe Bay, cares for Say until he's healed.
Pink and Say become fast friends, and Say tells Pink and his mother about the time when he touched Abraham Lincoln's hand. He says to the other boy, ``Touch my hand, Pink. Now you can say you touched the hand that shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln!''
When marauding Confederate troops come to Moe Moe Bay's house, the boys hide and Pink's mother is tragically killed. Pink and Say are captured and taken to Andersonville, the Confederate prison in Georgia (see book column). There they meet different fates: Pink is hanged, and Say lives to tell his tale.
The book ends in Patricia Polacco's voice: ``When my father finished this story he put out his hand and said, `This is the hand, that has touched the hand, that has touched the hand, that shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln.''' And, on the very last page she writes, ``This book serves as a written memory of Pinkus Aylee since there are no living descendants to do this for him. When you read this, before you put this book down, say his name out loud and vow to remember him always.''