Of Noble Warriors And Maidens Chaste

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And so Cooke has given his readers daring heroes, chaste and lovely heroines, a dastardly villain, incessant action both on and off the field of battle, and love both pure and lustful.

Today, one is likely to read these novels with mixed feelings of interest, frustration, and incredulity. It is undeniably interesting to read the authors’ accounts of the battles in which they took part and their impressions of the military leaders with whom they rode and fought. It is also frustrating, for they were far too mindful of their “delicate” readers to give undiluted descriptions of the actualities of battle. Cooke, in particular, seems to have regarded the war, at least in retrospect, as a glorious adventure. Speaking through his hero, he says:

I often look back now to those days with a longing desire to live them over again. … It was a life all excitement and romance which we lived at that epoch—days of fighting, of incident, of adventure; nights of hasty slumber, in rude bivouac under the forest trees, or of long, confidential talks by the smouldering campfires. …

Occasionally, though, a glimpse of truth forces its way into his pages. Surry does not fight at Sharpsburg but sees the battlefield just after the fighting has ended:

Before me was a picturesque valley, hemmed in upon the east by the wooded ramparts of the South Mountain, and traversed by the winding current of the Antietam … a landscape which must have been charming only the day before.

Now it was torn, dismantled, and swept bare by the besom of war. All day the opposing battalions had charged backward and forward through those smiling fields; from behind those peaceful farm-houses, now crowded with the dead and wounded, sharpshooters had delivered their hot fire; the corn was trampled under-foot; the ground ploughed up with shot and shell; the whole face of nature desolate.

More often, however, as with Nichols, the romanticist in Cooke remains firmly in control over the realist.

But to the modern reader incredulity is the feeling that prevails as one closes these Civil War best sellers, these hodgepodges of war story, soap opera, and Gothic thriller. What an appetite our ancestors must have had for unreality!