Of Noble Warriors And Maidens Chaste

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In The Sanctuary Nichols’ women—cherished, angelic, chaste, unfalteringly noble, and not very smart—fit just as neatly into the accepted stereotypes of the late nineteenth century. For instance, in describing Agnes Saumur he refers to the tender sensibilities of Woman and speaks tactfully of her judgment as being “different” from that of Man.

As for the war, the background against which all of this melodrama is enacted, Nichols seems reluctant to remind his feminine readers too forcefully of the truth of General Sherman’s famous pronouncement. “War is hell,” but for the most part the author avoids depicting its true hellishness. The book contains many scenes of troops on the move, fording rivers and engaging the enemy, but of the real effects of Sherman’s march the reader is given only rare and fleeting glimpses:

But here, where the man in arms treads, the fruit is blasted, the stalk withered. Your heart aches at the wanton waste. You ride swiftly by through deserted villages. You are deaf—for you must be—to the cries of fainting mothers covering their starved dead children among the ashes of homes once so happy.

General Sherman himself appears in the book as a Presence rather than as a fully developed character. As one might expect of a loyal aide-de-camp, Nichols portrays Sherman in flattering, almost reverential, terms. One close-up scene in the General’s tent shows him as “a strange, grand figure” but emphasizes his Spartan habits and impatience with pretentious ceremony:

 

This was no Roman consul nor modern emperor traveling in grand state, with pompous mien and brilliant retinue, but a citizen-general of the Republic … in the simplicity of an unselfish devotion to his country doing the work which lay before him.

The reader of Nichols’ Story of the Great March discovers that he was capable of achieving plain style and straightforward narrative, a talent that the author carefully buries in writing his romance. Since The Sanctuary was so popular and is so typical of its genre, one can hardly accuse Nichols of misjudging the taste of his audience or blame him too harshly for so obviously catering to it.

If one were to pick the Civil War romance, the one novel written before 1900 that contained everything to delight the hearts of lady readers, he might well decide on John Esten Cooke’s Surry of Eagle’s-Nest (1866). Cooke was himself a glamorous figure, a Virginian with a distinguished war record, having served as an officer on Stonewall Jackson’s staff.

 
 

Cooke, like Nichols, was well aware that the majority of his readers would be ladies. On nearly every page he addresses his audience as “dear reader,” “my fair reader,” or “mesdames” and pays tribute to southern womanhood on a number of occasions:

Do not the prayers of women shield us often? I think so. They prayed with all their hearts in the late revolution, and were angels to us all. The soldiers of the army and the women did their duty; had the rest done likewise, we might have been the founders of an empire!

The author has omitted nothing to make feminine readers sigh and swoon. There are heroes enough for several books: Philip Surry, whose military career resembles Cooke’s own, is a descendant of cavaliers who leaves his ancestral home, Eagle’s-Nest, to fight for Virginia; Mordaunt—darkly handsome, mysterious, Byronic— after wandering the world as a soldier of fortune, has returned to fight for the Confederacy. What female heart would not throb to read “that some great tragedy had darkened this man’s life—some mortal poison embittered a character grand, noble, and magnanimous”?

Most heroic of all are the Great Captains of the Confederacy: Jeb Stuart, cavalier par excellence, now singing to the music of a banjo, now receiving garlands from southern maidens, but above all, Stuart, “the splendid war-machine”; Turner Ashby on his milk-white horse, fighting his way from Strasburg up the Shenandoah Valley, the general of whom Surry says, “I loved and admired him as the pearl of honor, the flower of chivalry.” Surry’s particular hero is General Jackson, no longer “Fool Tom,” but Stonewall—eccentric, deeply religious, indomitable. Surry is with him when he receives his death wound while reconnoitering at night near Chancellorsville, accidentally shot by some of his own troops. After Jackson’s death Surry calls him “the idol of the Southern people,” “this man of destiny,” and bemoans his loss:

The form of Jackson had vanished from the scene: that king of battle had dropped his sword, and descended into the tomb: from that moment the star of hope, like the light of victory, seemed to sink beneath ebon clouds.