April 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 3
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:
But—and she, poor child, must see it now—there was scarcely recognition in the stern gaze which met her own, and what there was was like the light which momentarily flashes across the rain-clouds, and leaves them again as dark and forbidding as before.
The situation looks hopeless indeed when Agnes, no longer able to nurse Harold (who has been taken away by the retreating Confederate forces), flees to the North, certain that her love will never relent:
Her eyes are fixed upon the spires of the church under whose shadow she had glided—oh, so joyously! —from childhood into womanhood. … a film covers the lady’s eye, coming between her and this fading vision. The ship has gone out upon the broad ocean, and Agnes Saumur has bidden adieu to home, to love, and to David Dalton.
Eventually, of course, everything falls into place. In rapid succession the brothers are reunited, the South surrenders, and so does Agnes. Nichols really lets himself go in the lushly romantic scene of the lovers’ reunion. Let us not go into the twists and turns of plot that finally bring the lovers together, but the meeting finally does occur— at a performance of an opera in New York City. As they sit absorbed in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots , Agnes sees her beloved, who remains unaware of her presence:
And when the curtain rose upon the final scene, and the two lovers, kneeling in the presence of Death, with exquisite melody sang the last sad song of love, Dalton, with his own sad longings, could bear no more, and turned his moistened eyes from the scene. And Agnes, at the same instant, animated by the same emotion, unmindful of the place, conscious only that Dalton was there, and that he sincerely loved her, half rose from her seat, turned, and the lovers were face to face.
Electrified, each gazed in the other’s eyes. In the moment of silence which followed, there was sanctified between David Dalton and Agnes Saumur that perfect marriage of the soul, all-comprehending, eternal.
But Nichols is not content with a two-handkerchief ending. He goes for three handkerchiefs and a resounding anticlimax by having Agnes murmur a place of rendezvous for the morrow before she flees into the night. The final, the grand, reconciliation takes place at an estate on the banks of the Hudson where Agnes is staying with relatives, and—believe it or not—as David clasps her in his arms, the sun sinks slowly in the west!
David’s comrade-in-arms, Major Alfred Horton, and the blue-blooded Bostonian, Kate Noble, are the Supporting Lovers. While Alfred serves with Sherman in Georgia, Kate loyally resists the blandishments of Harry Gray, who stays at home to do a spot of war profiteering. At length the villain is foiled and true love rewarded when Alfred returns, a conquering hero, and kisses away “the tears of joy which filled Kate’s eyes.”
But love does not always conquer, as the Tragic Lovers, Zimri and Charlotte, discover. Zimri, a handsome and intelligent slave, is the natural son of his owner and a quadroon slave woman. Zimri has good reason to hate his white half brother, General Ralph Buford, who lusts after Charlotte, Zimri’s beautiful quadroon wife. Zimri courageously assists Sherman’s soldiers whenever he can, his hatred of Ralph becoming a passionate desire for revenge when his half brother abducts Charlotte. In a spectacularly melodramatic episode that, nevertheless, contains more genuine emotion than any other scene in the book, Zimri sets fire to the cabin where Ralph has spent the night with Charlotte. Though the girl dies, her seducer escapes. In due course Zimri has his chance for revenge, but even as the slave chokes the life out of his half brother, the author cannot resist a small oration:
This was more than the struggle for life as between man and man—more than that between the seducer and the betrayed husband. The spirit of Freedom had the spirit of Slavery by the throat, and meant to strangle it to death. It was that kind of equality which does not require special legislation, but has its abiding power in the fact that it asserts itself. It was that terrible power which, with the consciousness of newborn freedom, springs into life full armed, and woe be to him who menaces that liberty, and seeks to re-enslave.
If Nichols seems to sound here like an advocate of black power, he more frequently patronizes or even caricatures the Negro. In general he depicts the slaves as simple-minded, deeply religious creatures, bowing to their godlike white saviors and even, according to the stereotype, possessing to a man a strong sense of rhythm. At one point he describes a group of Negroes as “sable disciples of Terpsichore.” Only Zimri, who has far more white than Negro blood, seems to have real initiative and intelligence.
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.
Such a plethora of heroes would seem to require at least two or three villains, but there is only one, Fenwick. More malignant than Shakespeare’s Richard in, he is an all-round, multipurpose villain—seducer, blackmailer, forger. And that is not all. The war having ended when Cooke wrote his book, the author probably hoped to appeal to many northern readers, and he assigned to Fenwick evil tasks that, in other pro-Confederate books, were performed by Yankees. This protean scoundrel is thus a renegade southerner turned Union spy. With the possible exception of Sherlock Holmes’s enemy, Professor Moriarty, Fenwick may be the most durable villain in literature. As early as Chapter vi he is shot in a duel by his sworn enemy, Mordaunt:
If the bullet of his adversary had passed the one-thousandth part of an inch nearer to the femoral artery, the wound would have instantly proved fatal.
But he recovers, later to cross swords by the light of the moon with Mordaunt, who backs him up against a gigantic oak:
Rushing upon him, with his sabre at tierce point, Mordaunt drove the keen weapon through his breast, and the point was buried in the tree beyond.
Again Fenwick survives to go about his dirty work, grinding his teeth and shaking his fists the while.
The nineteenth-century ladies who filled their parlors with massive, ornate furniture and fancy bric-a-brac wanted their novels to be equally crammed with plot, and Cooke was not the man to disappoint them. As the story opens, Philip Surry receives his commission as a captain, falls in love with May Beverley, and observes the first duel between Mordaunt and Fenwick. May, pledged to marry the wastrel Baskerville though she does not love him, is the kind of heroine every lady reader would have liked to be, unassailably virtuous and peerlessly beautiful. Surry first sees her in Richmond:
Fancy a maiden of about nineteen, with a figure rounded, slender, and as flexible as the stem of a river-flag—waving hair of a deep chestnut, twisted up into a shining braid on the snowy neck; and eyes—ah, those eyes! —they were languishing, brilliant, and of an intense and dazzling violet—that tint which the summer sky wears when the purple of the sunset dashes against the blue. … As she stood there in the moonlight, keeping time with her slipper to the strains of the “Mocking Bird,” I thought she was some fairy—not a girl of flesh and blood!
Mordaunt has sworn vengeance against his erstwhile friend, Fenwick, who had earlier abducted Mordaunt’s wife. Fenwick had kept his captive at Elm Cottage in the wilderness; there she had borne Mordaunt’s son, who was promptly spirited away by Fenwick, and there she lived in madness for many years. She was cared for by her “keeper,” Mrs. Parkins, and at the last, just before her death, by her beautiful young cousin, Violet Grafton —Heroine Number Two. Surry begins to learn the tragic story when he stumbles on the cottage and seeks shelter for the night. Mordaunt is determined to avenge his wife and to protect Violet from the foul clutches of the evil Fenwick.
As if this were not enough to keep everyone busy, Surry and Mordaunt also find time to pursue their military careers, fighting in the battles of First Manassas and Chancellorsville, receiving rapid promotions, and covering themselves with glory.
The plots unfold in a manner that must have gratified the lady readers. May and Philip are united when Baskerville releases her from her promise. With the sound of artillery fire in the distance, the lovers pledge their devotion fervently, but with Victorian propriety:
Yet who shall dare to laugh at the spectacle of a proud and beautiful girl, long fettered by a hateful contract, shuddering at a loathsome union with a man she despises—who shall laugh when she gives way to her heart, and, falling weak and overcome into the arms of one who has loved her long and dearly, murmurs, “Take charge of my poor life—direct my fate—I have loved, and love you only!”
Later, Mordaunt is reunited with his long-lost son, who appears from the blue. Learning that Fenwick now holds the lovely Violet prisoner, Mordaunt pursues him to Elm Cottage, where his wife had died long before. One would expect that Mordaunt has earned the right to do Fenwick in, but that unworthy dies in an even more melodramatic way. Achmed, Mordaunt’s handsome young Arab servant, who has cherished a hopeless passion for Violet, dashes in and stabs Fenwick to the heart, an organ one would not have thought he possessed. In his dying throes, shouting words of implacable hate, Fenwick fires his pistol, wounds Achmed, clutches the air, foams at the mouth, and falls dead. The scene’s finale must have caused the readers’ tears to fall like rain:
Dragging himself along, Achmed reached her [Violet’s] feet, and, taking one of her hands, pressed it closely to his lips, murmuring some faint words … in his native tongue.
“He says he is happy for he dies for you!” exclaimed the deep voice of Mordaunt, as he stood with arms folded across his heaving bosom.
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!