Thursday, January 22, 2015

Casualties

Casualties: A Novel of the Civil War
© 2010 David Rothstein
465 pages



The year is 1863, and Tom Connor just survived the Battle of Gettysburg. His kid brother didn't, though, and agonized emotionally he is looking forward to a Christmas furlough with his wife, Laura, in Indiana.  But war's not that simple, and instead of going home for Christmas, Tom is captured by the Confederate army and sent south, to a town that has been abandoned several times because of yellow-fever epidemics and chronic flooding: Cahaba.   The Connors have been separated by the war for years, and this latest incident is too much for Laura to take. Her childhood home ruined by war, her brother-in-law perished, and now her husband, abandoned by General Grant to whatever fate will befall him, deep in the misty swamps of Alabama?   Leaving the family store in the care of kin, Laura decides to travel to Alabama and fetch her husband out of prison.   Can one woman travel through a war-torn wasteland, evading bushwhackers and starving refugees?  Such is the premise of Causalities, a novel that uses Laura's descent from civilization into the wilderness to shock readers with the brutalities war visits not only on soldiers, but on innocents.

The tale is told back and forth, through both Laura and Tom's perspectives.  Although Cahaba doesn't have as bad a reputation as Andersonville, it may deserve it, for prisoners were housed in a frequently-flooded warehouse presided over by a man whose response  to pointed inquiries about prisoner neglect is to drone on existentially about the meaning of honor and duty in war.  Prison camps during the war were aatrocious sanitation was nonexistent, and the food was miserable if available. Starvation and disease visited the camps every night, and escapees or rabble-rousers were shot in cold blood by guards. Some of Tom's experience seems to have been drawn from Andersonville, like a gang of hoodlums preying on their fellow prisoners, and eventually being put on trial and executed by the prisoners themselves.  Laura's story is no less traumatic: while she is able to navigate through the country on the kindness of strangers, as she hits the war-ravaged south things change. Armies are active here, and leave behind them an expanse of burned-out homes and fields littered with diseased bodies. In the absence of law, gangs of highwaymen prey on villages whose men are off at war. Laura is in turn dependent on the kindness of others, and the agent of it:  after serving as a nurse after a battle, she is stricken with disease and rescued by newly-freed slaves. Laura, in her journey, will experience both extraordinary kindness and utter depravity.

Although Rothstein's characters can get a bit formal and preachy at times, the research is well-grounded. Neither side is particularly heroic, and the easy companionability between "the Yankee woman" and the southerners who she helps and helps in turn hints that the people of America are not divided, hostile camps doomed to enmity, but have been abandoned to that by willful politicos on either side.   Laura's journey touches on the major calamities of the war -- disease, starvation, raids by armed forces; families torn apart by divided loyalties, or destroyed completely by the butchery of battles like Gettysburg and Cold Harbor. Tom's quieter role would be a rude introduction to the obscenity of POW camps for any reader who has not experienced a place like Andersonville.  Although it has its limitations, this was quite good for a first-time author, and the focus on civilian life sets it apart from most Civil War fiction.

Related:
This Republic of Suffering, David Faust

[2015 Reading Challenge -- A Book Set In Your Hometown, 4/52)

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