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Best Novel Of The Civil War
June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
Shortly before Christmas in 1864 a captain of the Twelfth Connecticut Volunteers came home to New Haven from the Shenandoah. His appearance was hardly that of the returning hero. He was thirtyeight. His coarse blue fatigue uniform was threadbare and begrimed with vestiges of Virginia mud and the dust of two days’ travel on the railroad. His face, thin and sallow from the effects of malaria and dysentery, was all but hidden behind an enormous ragged brown mustache and three weeks’ growth of beard. His body was emaciated to a wolfish thinness. He had served honorably for over two years in the South and had been slightly wounded at the siege of Port Hudson, and he was returning with the same captain’s bars on his shoulder straps he had carried away in 1862. By all accounts, John William De Forest’s military career was closing on a note grim and unsuccessful enough to match the mood of the nation.
Both the Union and the Connecticut captain survived that terrible winter of ’64—65. When spring came, in fact, De Forest had so far regained his health that he was permitted to re-enlist in the Invalid Corps, a special cadre for incapacitated veterans, and was assigned a desk job in the Provost Marshal General’s office in Washington. Moreover, during these months of convalescence and the unexpected return to duty he was occupied with another task. Now, while memories were fresh and the inspiration strong, he was writing a book. It began as thinly veiled autobiography, a novel of his own experiences. But in the writing it outgrew the bounds of mere personal adventure to become a panorama of the war.
So powerful were the thoughts and emotions working within him that the whole story, which in characteristic nineteenth-century fashion ran to thirty-seven chapters and five hundred pages, was completed in ten months; by December, 1865, it was in the publisher’s hands. De Forest called it Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty . In spite of the clumsy title, which will never fit the marquee of a movie theater, no better novel of the Civil War has ever been written.
It might be hard to believe such a major work could have been composed so swiftly and under such circumstances if another and greater writer had not accomplished a similar feat at almost the same time. While De Forest labored in Washington’s summertime heat to finish Miss Ravenel’s Conversion , a second-class clerk in the Bureau of Indian Affairs was putting the last touches on a slender pamphlet of poems. One of these verses was “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Thus in that short season when victory was won, the Union saved, and Lincoln lost, the events were simultaneously memorialized by a great poem and a fine novel.
Whitman’s elegy has become perhaps the single most famous poem in our literature. It is one of history’s minor ironies that John De Forest’s achievement has had to wait almost a century for recognition. If the Civil War Centennial helps to rescue Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from oblivion, it will be a case of longdeferred justice.
Both Whitman and De Forest wrote under the pressure of vivid, intimate, and recent memories. Whitman’s soul-wrenching months in the hospitals of Washington and Virginia issued almost at once in Drum Taps . But Whitman’s knowledge of war and battle was marginal when compared with De Forest’s. The Connecticut veteran had a matchless advantage over the poet and indeed over nearly every other writer of his day—he really had fought in the war. “Served two years in Louisiana under Butler and Banks,” runs the laconic letter he later sent Harper’s as a publicity release, “& one campaign under Sheridan in Virginia. Was in the battles of Georgia Landing, Pattersonville, the Opequan, Fisher’s Hill, & Cedar Creek, also two grand assaults & a night attack on Port Hudson. Including battles, assaults, skirmishes, & trench duty, saw forty-six days under fire. Served as Inspector General of division, Aid on staff of igth Army Corps, Adjutant General of Veterans Reserve Corps, & commandant of a Freedman’s Bureau District.”
This was indeed a comprehensive and respectable record. If, as Robert Penn Warren has recently reminded us, the Civil War is “the great single event of our history,” it remains a commonplace but immensely significant fact that virtually all the finest writers of the emerging generation did not fully participate in the crucial event. James, Howells, Twain, Adams, were passed by or escaped direct involvement. John De Forest, together with Lanier, Bierce, Whitman, and a few others, knew the glory and the horror at first hand. They were there in the field.
Within a literary tradition that could be characterized by Hemingway’s dictum, “Never write about anything you don’t know everything about,” this situation had far-reaching effects, both for De Forest and for younger writers. Miss Ravenel’s Conversion rests firmly on a basis of the intimate, first-hand knowledge of its creator. On the other hand, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage , which most readers consider our best Civil War novel, depends for its veracity upon the skillful way Crane confines himself to the mind of his schoolboy-soldier. Both books respect the rule of experience.