Best Novel Of The Civil War


It should not surprise us to detect in Miss Ravenel’s Conversion that strain of nostalgia which we have come to expect in all evocations of the Civil War. It hovers most of the time in the background, but on one occasion at least finds eloquent voice. That moment comes after the description of the battle of Fort Winthrop, when De Forest ends the chapter, remarking, Those days are gone by, and there will be no more like them forever, at least not in our forever. Not very long ago, not more than two hours before this ink dried upon the paper, the author of the present history was sitting on the edge of a basaltic cliff which overlooked a wide expanse of fertile earth, flourishing villages, the spires of a city, and, beyond, a shining sea flecked with the full-blown sails of peace and prosperity. From the face of another basaltic cliff two miles distant, he saw a white globule of smoke dart a little way upward, and a minute afterwards heard a dull, deep pum! of exploding gunpowder. Quarrymen there were blasting out rocks from which to build hives of industry and happy family homes. But the sound reminded him of the roar of artillery; of the thunder of those signal guns which used to presage battle; of the alarums which only a few months previous were a command to him to mount and ride into the combat. Then he thought almost with a feeling of sadness, so strange is the human heart, that he had probably heard those clamors uttered in mortal earnest for the last time. Never again, perhaps, even should he live to the age of three-score and ten, would the shriek of grape-shot, and the crash of shell, and the multitudinous whiz of musketry be a part of his life. Nevermore would he hearken to that charging yell which once had stirred his blood more fiercely than the sound of trumpets: the Southern battle-yell, full of howls and yelpings as of brute beasts rushing hilariously to the fray: the long-sustained Northern yell, all human, but none the less relentless and stern; nevermore the one nor the other. No more charges of cavalry, rushing through the dust of the distance; no more answering smoke of musketry, veiling unshaken lines and squares; no more columns of smoke, piling high above deafening batteries. No more groans of wounded, nor shouts of victors over positions carried and banners captured, nor reports of triumphs which saved a nation from disappearing off the face of the earth. After thinking of these things for an hour together, almost sadly, as I have said, he walked back to his home; and read with interest a paper which prattled of town elections and advertised corner lots for sale; and decided to make a kid-gloved call in the evening and go to church on the morrow.

This is unusual rhetoric for a realist to employ, but its very incongruity lends the passage power to move us. Apparently, De Forest has joined hands with John Esten Cooke and the other romanticizers who manufactured the first myths about the Civil War. Actually, however, the writer has remained true to his code. For what has been more characteristic of the veteran—particularly veterans of this war—than to reach through the bloody horrors of the past to recaptureperhaps even to see for the first time—the glory of the war?