Self’s debut Civil War novel fictionalizes the true story of his ancestors and their place in United States history.
Alabaman Jon Self is a true American patriot with relatives who fought proudly in the Revolutionary War, but he attempts to remain neutral when the Civil War breaks out. He takes up blacksmithing to avoid the draft, but three years into the war, conscript hunters urgently need to fill the dwindling Confederate ranks. After they threaten to take Jon’s oldest son, Jon signs up with the 58th Alabama Regiment, leaving his beloved Mary and their five children behind. Against his will, and caught up in something far beyond his power, Jon fights in a series of intense skirmishes, surviving alongside his buddy John Laster. “Numb and dangerous” after so much violence, death and pain, Jon is captured in a final confrontation with Union troops at Missionary Ridge in Georgia and loaded with his fellow POWs onto a train heading north to the “frozen hell” of the Rock Island prison camp. The camp held more than 12,000 Rebel soldiers during the 20 months of its brutal existence, and such specifics don’t escape the author’s notice. In well-researched and footnoted tangents, he discusses such subjects as training and leadership issues within the Confederate States Army, the splintered nation’s burgeoning railway system and the importance of the new technology of photography. Self also excels at depicting the unusual behavior of men at war; for example, he describes opposing troops laying down their arms to observe the Sabbath when distant church bells pealed. Later, similar chimes, when heard from the prison camp, “seemed to be a mockery of God’s injustice.” The author mentions the frequency of the letters between Jon and Mary, but he only quotes a few snippets; readers may wish that he showed more of their correspondence. The lives of tenacious Mary and her brood don’t come into focus until the final chapters, at times making the book feel a bit like Gone with the Wind from Ashley’s perspective. But Self’s decision to concentrate primarily on Jon’s travails helps keep the book at a steady, readable pace.
A succinct historical war novel that combines thorough research with a moving family tale.