Books by Mary Clay Berry

Released: Nov. 1, 1996

An ably edited collection of letters revealing life on the Civil War home front. Using correspondence handed down through her father's family, Berry reconstructs the lives of Kentucky politician Brutus J. Clay and his circle of friends and relatives. ``Reading those letters,'' she writes, ``was like walking through the door of a nineteenth-century drawing room and sitting down among its inhabitants busily gossiping about their neighbors, exchanging recipes, and musing about politics.'' The conversational quality is a very real strength of this collection. Berry charts the course of Clay's rise to political prominence, his growth from householder to statesman. She also comments wisely on the culture of the time, a culture in which slaveholders referred to ``our negroes'' and worried about being poisoned by ill-treated kitchen hands seeking revenge, in which scarlet fever and cholera were too common visitors, in which a farmer's perennial worry about floods and drought alternated with concern about whether Kansas was to enter the Union as a free or slave state. Berry's explications of the contents of the letters are helpful, although she sometimes strives too hard for effect. Throughout the pages of this absorbing book, Clay remains a stern yet moderate presence, questioning whether it might be possible to chart a middle course, a ``middle confederacy'' of the border states in order better to separate North from South. Loyal to the Union cause but sympathetic to the rebels, Clay reveals in his letters little-known aspects of Civil War politics, notably a Chicago convention of so-called Union Democrats, called to find ways to defeat the sitting president at the polls. Clay, as Berry notes, ``denounced President Lincoln for using extreme methods to prosecute the war.'' This volume will be of considerable interest to students of the Civil War. (32 pages b&w photos and maps, not seen) (Author tour) Read full book review >