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Best Novel Of The Civil War

July 2024
14min read

Shortly before Christmas in 1864 a captain of the Twelfth Connecticut Volunteers came home to New Haven from the Shenandoah. His appearance was hardly that of the returning hero. He was thirtyeight. His coarse blue fatigue uniform was threadbare and begrimed with vestiges of Virginia mud and the dust of two days’ travel on the railroad. His face, thin and sallow from the effects of malaria and dysentery, was all but hidden behind an enormous ragged brown mustache and three weeks’ growth of beard. His body was emaciated to a wolfish thinness. He had served honorably for over two years in the South and had been slightly wounded at the siege of Port Hudson, and he was returning with the same captain’s bars on his shoulder straps he had carried away in 1862. By all accounts, John William De Forest’s military career was closing on a note grim and unsuccessful enough to match the mood of the nation.

Both the Union and the Connecticut captain survived that terrible winter of ’64—65. When spring came, in fact, De Forest had so far regained his health that he was permitted to re-enlist in the Invalid Corps, a special cadre for incapacitated veterans, and was assigned a desk job in the Provost Marshal General’s office in Washington. Moreover, during these months of convalescence and the unexpected return to duty he was occupied with another task. Now, while memories were fresh and the inspiration strong, he was writing a book. It began as thinly veiled autobiography, a novel of his own experiences. But in the writing it outgrew the bounds of mere personal adventure to become a panorama of the war.

So powerful were the thoughts and emotions working within him that the whole story, which in characteristic nineteenth-century fashion ran to thirty-seven chapters and five hundred pages, was completed in ten months; by December, 1865, it was in the publisher’s hands. De Forest called it Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty . In spite of the clumsy title, which will never fit the marquee of a movie theater, no better novel of the Civil War has ever been written.

It might be hard to believe such a major work could have been composed so swiftly and under such circumstances if another and greater writer had not accomplished a similar feat at almost the same time. While De Forest labored in Washington’s summertime heat to finish Miss Ravenel’s Conversion , a second-class clerk in the Bureau of Indian Affairs was putting the last touches on a slender pamphlet of poems. One of these verses was “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Thus in that short season when victory was won, the Union saved, and Lincoln lost, the events were simultaneously memorialized by a great poem and a fine novel.

Whitman’s elegy has become perhaps the single most famous poem in our literature. It is one of history’s minor ironies that John De Forest’s achievement has had to wait almost a century for recognition. If the Civil War Centennial helps to rescue Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from oblivion, it will be a case of longdeferred justice.

Both Whitman and De Forest wrote under the pressure of vivid, intimate, and recent memories. Whitman’s soul-wrenching months in the hospitals of Washington and Virginia issued almost at once in Drum Taps . But Whitman’s knowledge of war and battle was marginal when compared with De Forest’s. The Connecticut veteran had a matchless advantage over the poet and indeed over nearly every other writer of his day—he really had fought in the war. “Served two years in Louisiana under Butler and Banks,” runs the laconic letter he later sent Harper’s as a publicity release, “& one campaign under Sheridan in Virginia. Was in the battles of Georgia Landing, Pattersonville, the Opequan, Fisher’s Hill, & Cedar Creek, also two grand assaults & a night attack on Port Hudson. Including battles, assaults, skirmishes, & trench duty, saw forty-six days under fire. Served as Inspector General of division, Aid on staff of igth Army Corps, Adjutant General of Veterans Reserve Corps, & commandant of a Freedman’s Bureau District.”

This was indeed a comprehensive and respectable record. If, as Robert Penn Warren has recently reminded us, the Civil War is “the great single event of our history,” it remains a commonplace but immensely significant fact that virtually all the finest writers of the emerging generation did not fully participate in the crucial event. James, Howells, Twain, Adams, were passed by or escaped direct involvement. John De Forest, together with Lanier, Bierce, Whitman, and a few others, knew the glory and the horror at first hand. They were there in the field.

Within a literary tradition that could be characterized by Hemingway’s dictum, “Never write about anything you don’t know everything about,” this situation had far-reaching effects, both for De Forest and for younger writers. Miss Ravenel’s Conversion rests firmly on a basis of the intimate, first-hand knowledge of its creator. On the other hand, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage , which most readers consider our best Civil War novel, depends for its veracity upon the skillful way Crane confines himself to the mind of his schoolboy-soldier. Both books respect the rule of experience.

Besides this fund of first-hand military experience De Forest had little to recommend him in 1865 as the potential author of a major novel. Before the war, it is true, he had published five books—two novels, two travel books, and a history of the Indians of Connecticut—but none of these had caught the popular fancy. His personal experience had perhaps been wider than that of other Connecticut Yankees; he had lived in Syria and in Europe and read widely in French, Italian, Russian, and English literature. Tolstoy’s War and Peace , which was begun a short time before Miss Ravenel’s Conversion , was not available to De Forest until some years later; it is clear, however, that the Russian and his provincial American contemporary were both attempting the same feat: to write a national prose epic on the theme of war.

Miss Ravenel’s Conversion , then, grew out of De Forest’s European experience as well as his American, and is distinctly European in scope and tone. Like Thackeray and George Eliot, De Forest is not concerned with unusual individuals isolated from society, but rather with normal people in constant and concrete relationship with their world. In other words, De Forest is a social realist; in fact, he is one of the very first in our literature. Twenty years before Howells and Garland initiated realism in this country, De Forest had already naturalized the European novel and given it classic expression in Miss Ravenel’s Conversion .

De Forest was a pioneer, and his book suffered the fate often reserved for trail blazers. It was a complete failure with the reading public of 1867, the year Miss Ravenel’s Conversion actually appeared, because it was ahead of its time. Not many people in 1867 were prepared to confront the brutalities, the sectional hypocrisies, and the corruption which, in De Forest’s narrative, went along with the heroism and sacrifice of the war. To be sure, a few discerning critics like William Dean Howells of the Atlantic Monthly praised De Forest’s book, and this esteem served to keep its reputation alive in subsequent generations. In 1939, partly as a result of the national love affair with Gone With the Wind, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion was at last reprinted and caused a flurry of interest.

The present-day reader, inured by Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and James Jones to the soldier’s patois , and trained by historians to detect oversimplified versions of the Civil War, is in an even better position to appreciate De Forest’s forthrightness and his keen understanding. If we can keep our own perspective and yet enter imaginatively into John De Forest’s, we can find in this work not only a forgotten masterpiece of American fiction but also one of the earliest and most discerning images of the Civil War as the crisis of American culture.

In keeping with the canons of realism, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion has a commonplace plot. De Forest asks us to imagine a family of refugees, a widower father and his blonde, blue-eyed daughter, come to New Boston, in the little New England state of Barataria, from New Orleans in the months just after Sumter. Dr. Ravenel is a mineralogist and in spite of southern birth an implacable foe of slavery. “Ashantee” is his sarcastic nickname for southern society. Lillie Ravenel, however, like most young people, is passionately devoted to her native region and openly exults in the faces of the New Bostonians at the news from Bull Run. So she has little more than a flirtation with Edward Colburne, the patriotic and athletic young lawyer who manifestly prefers her company to that of the college widows who hang like ivy on the social fringes of staid Winslow University. Lillie is attracted instead to a handsome, red-faced Virginian, Colonel John Carter. This charming, irreverent, sherry-drinking West Pointer has not followed his state into secession but is instead recruiting a Baratarian regiment.

Colburne raises a company to serve under Carter, and the scene shifts to the battlefields of Louisiana and Mississippi. Lillie and her father return to New Orleans, where the Doctor is treated as a traitor and beaten over the head one dark night. This event begins to influence Lillie’s ideology. Illogically, but inevitably, she begins “to see that Secession was indefensible, and that the American Union ought to be preserved.”

Equally illogical but believable is Lillie’s marriage to Carter. Though she has the hair and eyes of the traditional romantic heroine, Lillie is a very different character from fictional figurines in Godey’s Lady’s Book . For one thing, she has a sense of humor. For another, she is a wife capable of sexual feeling. “It was curious,” De Forest observes, “to see how slowly she got accustomed to her husband. … She frequently blushed at encountering him, as if he were still a lover. If she met the bold gaze of his wide-open brown eyes, she trembled with an inward thrill and wanted to say, ‘Please don’t look at me so!’ He could tyrannize over her with his eyes; he could make her come to him and try to hide from them by nestling her head on his shoulder; he used to wonder at his power and gratify his vanity as well as his affection by using it.”

La sainte passion (De Forest makes clever use of the Creole setting to employ phrases he could not have printed in English) has other devotees in the Ravenels’ New Orleans household. One is Mrs. Larue, a relative by marriage. She is the dark temptress of the tale; but again, she is as unlike the conventional dark-haired, black-eyed vamp of popular fiction as Lillie is from Hawthorne’s Phoebe Pyncheon. Her Creole eyes and rounded shoulders offer grave dangers to Carter. After some months of military inactivity, Colonel Carter makes an “astronomical expedition” to Washington (that is, he seeks the political patronage that will bring him a brigadier’s star). Mrs. Larue conveniently takes passage on the same ship. Though Carter tries feebly to fend her off, he is no match for a woman who spouts Michelet by moonlight and drapes her bare shoulders in a diaphanous veil. The inevitable seduction soon takes place.

When the adultery is discovered by the Ravenels, Lillie and her baby son leave Louisiana and the Colonel. Carter, genuinely sorry for his error but also slightly mystified that they were making “so much of the affair; such affairs were altogether too common to be made so much of,” takes to the field and leads his brigade into the battle of Cane River, where he dies, bravely and profanely, with a Minié ball in his side. Captain Colburne, matured by battle as Lillie is matured by marriage, returns at last to New Boston and wins the pretty widow. “It grieves me,” the author concludes, “to leave this young woman thus on the threshold of her history. Here she is, at twenty-three, with but one child, and only at her second husband. Two-thirds of her years and heart history are probably before her. Women are most interesting at thirty: … then only do they attain their highest charm as members of society.” As the ironic and dispassionate chronicler of domestic life and feminine psychology, De Forest is surely the superior of most of his predecessors in American fiction, and in this novel at least, he is the peer of Henry James and Howells at their best.

But Miss Ravenel’s Conversion is much larger than a love story. The novel includes social profiles of northern and southern cities, political life in Barataria and Washington, contraband cotton intrigue, a plantation experiment by Dr. Ravenel with Negro freedmen, and a cast of characters drawn from every social class. De Forest’s Negroes and Irish soldiers, his saloonkeeperpoliticians, his Butternut cavalrymen from Texas, represent virtually the whole spectrum of national types. De Forest is at pains to demonstrate that our Civil War affected everyone, from the Governor of Barataria down to “Major” Scott, the leader of the ex-slaves on Ravenel’s farm who has such trouble with the Seventh Commandment.

At times, to be sure, the Yankee moralist’s voice drowns out that of the detached social historian. Such often happens with the theme of temperance. He still recoils from the evils of drunkenness as he came to know them in the South and in the Army. Through Edward Colburne (in some respects the author’s alter ego) the novel preaches the cold-water cause. Nevertheless, De Forest is capable at times of talking like a modern sociologist. This mark of resolute honesty is most clearly manifest in his battlefield and hospital scenes. Compared to them, the bloody episodes in the novels of his more popular contemporaries ring about as true as the libretto of an operetta.

This may be most neatly observed in the case of John Esten Cooke, whose Mohun in 1869 so far outsold Miss Ravenel’s Conversion . Cooke was a Virginian, and his story helped to initiate that southern conquest of the North by book, myth, and movie that began right after Appomattox and has yet to stop. Cooke knew the realities of war as well as De Forest, for he had served on General Jeb Stuart’s staff, but when it came to putting them on paper he preferred the grandiose imprecisions of romanticism. Here, for example, is a typical battle passage from Mohun : I set out at full gallop, and soon reached the column. At the head of it rode Young, the beau sabreur of Georgia, erect, gallant, with his brave eye and smile.

I pointed out the enemy and gave the order.

“All right!” exclaimed Young, and, turning to his men, he whirled his sabre around his head and shouted,


The Column thundered on, and as it passed I recognized Mohun, his flashing eye and burnished sabre gleaming from the dust cloud. …

“Charge!” rose from a hundred lips. Spurs were buried in the hot flanks; the mass was hurled at the enemy; and clashing like thunder, sword against sword, swept everything before it.

De Forest’s months and years in the field had been served with the infantry, not with the cavalry, and this perhaps helps to explain the down-to-earth, anti-chivalrous accuracy of his prose. Unlike Cooke, whose episodes all run together in a welter of adjectives and repeated metaphors, De Forest makes us see and hear each moment of battle.

On went the regiments, moving at the ordinary quick-step, arms at a right-shoulder-shift, ranks closed, gaps filled, unfaltering, heroic. The dead were falling; the wounded were crawling in numbers to the rear; the leisurely hum of long-range bullets had changed into the sharp, multitudinous whit-whit of close firing; the stifled crash of balls hitting bones and the soft chuck of flesh wounds mingled with the outcries of the sufferers; the bluff in front was smoking, rattling, wailing with the incessant file fire; but the front of the Brigade remained unbroken, and its rear showed no stragglers. The right hand regiment floundered in a swamp, but the others hurried on without waiting for it. As the momentum of the movement increased, as the spirits of the men rose with the charge, a stern shout broke forth, something between a hurrah and a yell, swelling up against the Rebel musketry and defying it. Gradually the pace increased to a double-quick, and the whole mass ran for an eighth of a mile through the whistling bullets. The second fence disappeared like frost-work, and up the slope of the hill struggled the panting regiments. When the foremost ranks had nearly reached the summit, a sudden silence stifled the musketry. Polignac’s line wavered, ceased firing, broke, and went to the rear in confusion. The clamor of the charging yell redoubled for a moment and then died in the roar of a tremendous volley. Now the Union line was firing, and now the Rebels were falling. Such was the charge which carried the crossing and gained the battle of Cane River.

De Forest has allowed his mighty subject to provide the emotion for the events; he has dispensed with the language of metaphor. Herein lies one of his signal contributions to American literature. If a major problem for the modern writer has been to devise ways to purify language of inherited abuses, here is an early forerunner of Crane and Hemingway who has done just that.

Implicit in De Forest’s style and subject matter is a second innovation in American letters. Miss Ravenel’s Conversion is consciously aimed at both male and female readers, at the casual magazine subscriber as well as at the serious highbrow. This attempt to widen and deepen the American novel-reading audience was singlehanded, premature, and a failure; De Forest was not able to expand the narrow and timid sensibilities of a predominantly feminine clientele wedded to books like Mohun . But the effort is worth our respect today, for it demonstrates one man’s determination to redefine the writer’s relation to society, a connection traditionally tenuous and thwarting for most of our finest nineteenth-century writers, by presenting to that society something new—a full and meticulously honest image of itself. In 1867, we are forced to conclude, American men and women did not choose to gaze into a mirror as clear and revealing as Miss Ravenel’s Conversion .

That the candor of De Forest’s style extended to other areas is demonstrated by the intelligence of his analysis of the underlying conditions and the possible consequences of the Civil War. Almost half a century before Charles Beard and the economic determinists, John De Forest had the insight to play down simple minded abolitionist explanations and to note the importance of cotton, the spirit of capitalistic speculation, and the political party as shaping factors in the sectional conflict. He saw the war as an immensely complicated confrontation of industrial democracy and a vicious aristocracy.

Happily, the common man had triumphed and slavery had been abolished, but the two were not necessarily connected phenomena. Nor were they necessarily happy auguries for the future. Whether that struggle would impart to the reunited nation “a manlier, nobler tone” De Forest did not know. He did, however, recognize the dangers that lay ahead, and Miss Ravenel’s Conversion has much wider significance than simply as an interesting literary curiosity. Because of De Forest’s experiences, his novel literary code, and his notions of audience, his book offers an image of the Civil War peculiarly revealing of the American mind on the eve of peace. It is an image amazingly free of sectional bias. Through a realistic imagination have been filtered the common experiences of the critical years behind an uncommon vision of the troubled decades ahead.

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?

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