Of Noble Warriors And Maidens Chaste

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Oriana Weems, Alma Lamour, Caroline Fitzhugh, Seth Rawbon, Netley Shiplake, Mordaunt—none of these improbable names is likely to mean anything to the modern reader, but to the generation that lived through the Civil War, and sighed and wept over the novels that it spawned, the names were as familiar as Scarlett O’Hara is to us. For these are some of the heroes and heroines of a genre of Civil War romance that flooded the market almost as soon as the shooting started.

If one sets out today to read these novels, he needs to be a rummager in the musty attics of literature and a bit of a masochist as well. Except for a few books of lasting importance, most notably John William De Forest’s Miss Ravenel ‘s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty and Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage , many of these novels are so bad that there can be only one reason (aside from camp) for rescuing them, even temporarily, from the obscurity in which they so deservedly rest: these popular books reveal much about reading tastes of the period and attitudes toward the war.

The most avid readers of popular fiction during the late nineteenth century were women, and from their ranks came those female writers the likes of whom had earlier provoked Nathaniel Hawthorne to make his disgruntled comment about “that horde of damned female scribblers.” In all justice, Hawthorne should have levelled his blast at scribbling men, too, for they equalled and sometimes surpassed the women at concocting labyrinthine plots and absurdly unrealistic characters.

These novelists seldom bothered the brains of their readers by paying any serious attention to such vital issues of the war as slavery, industrialism versus agrarianism, and the conflict between states’ rights and federal power. Above all, they were generally careful not to shock delicate feminine sensibilities by requiring readers to look too closely at any blood or physical pain. In many of the novels the war is the stage where thrilling dramas of heroism unfold. Battle scenes enable the writer to display the unflinching bravery of his hero. And love, the indispensable ingredient of these novels, seems more poignant, more imperilled, more noble and self-sacrificing, when set against the backdrop of war.

The Sanctuary , by George Ward Nichols, published in 1866, epitomizes the qualities that most appealed to the Victorian lady reader. Nichols had served as aide-decamp on the staff of General William Sherman from the fall of Atlanta in 1864 to the end of the war. From his diary he compiled The Story of the Great March , an account of the march to the sea, the subsequent campaign in the Garolinas, and the surrender of General Albert Johnston. His book, an instant success from the time of its publication in 1865, sold sixty thousand copies within a year. But instead of leaving well enough alone, Nichols decided to try his hand at fiction.

From the opening scene, showing federal troops in pursuit of General John Hood through northern Alabama, to the novel’s close, when the bells of victory blend with wedding bells, Nichols crams The Sanctuary with incident. The characters suffer a breathless number of vicissitudes for the sake of love and patriotism before they are all—well, almost all—safely sheltered beneath the sanctuary, the flag of the restored Union.

With singular ineptitude the author narrates the trials and tribulations of three pairs of lovers. The machinery of the novel creaks and threatens to break down, now going into reverse with an awkward flashback, now making a jolting leap between two scenes widely separated in time or locale. Sometimes the reader is warned of an impending transition by some such phrase as “We left Major Dalton, at the close of our first chapter …,” but more often the scene simply shifts.

David Dalton and Agnes Saumur are the Leading Lovers. Major Dalton is a Georgian whose family has remained loyal to the Union. As well as commanding troops in the northern cause, he has two other pressing problems. The first one concerns Agnes, a Savannah belle who refuses to marry him and forsake the Confederacy. At the time of their parting in 1861, Agnes makes her position clear:

“I will bear all the suffering. Whatever destiny is reserved for the South, I will share,” and she looked heroically proud, her heart within her all the while melting with love for David Dalton. “You may be right,” she continued, “but to me it seems criminally wrong. I cannot follow you. I cannot be the wife of a recreant to our cause.”

Dalton’s other problem is the search for his Lost Brother. Harold Dalton, forcibly conscripted into the Confederate Army, deserts, is recaptured, and is imprisoned in Savannah. There Agnes discovers him and is permitted to nurse the wounds he received at the time of his capture. For a time it appears that both problems may be solved at once when David, attempting to arrange Harold’s release by means of an exchange of prisoners, encounters the noble Agnes. Although her heart has softened toward him, war has toughened his fiber. Agnes, about to tell him of her change of heart, realizes that he has not forgiven her: