Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Nathaniel Starbuck Chronicles, by Bernard Cornwell (1992-96)

Perhaps it takes a Brit to write good historical fiction about the American Civil War. It seems difficult for Americans to gain perspective on the way that, for all its savagery and horror, the Civil War began as a series of small skirmishes that most people expected would soon end. The leaders of North and South would come to their senses, sit down together and work things out. Yet the skirmishes got steadily larger and bloodier, the voices of reason and restraint grew fainter, and the United States stumbled into full-fledged civil war.

Bernard Cornwell captures that sense of war momentum building until it became unstoppable in his tetralogy of novels under the overall title of The Nathaniel Starbuck Chronicles. The action is set mostly in Virginia, during the period from the war’s beginning to the Battle of Antietam on Spetmeber , 1862 (known to southerners as the Battle of Sharpsburg, as noted by Cornwell) - still the bloodiest single day in all of American history.

To help give a sense of the way the Civil War tore apart families and states as well as a nation, Cornwell created two protagonists who break with their families, friends and neighbors to fight on the opposing side. The titular Nathaniel Starbuck is the son of a fire-breathing northern protestant preacher who has nothing but contempt for the southern states and their people. Nathaniel finds himself in Virginia when war breaks out, having run away from home and college in an act of impulsive youthful rebellion. He is visiting a friend from college, Adam Faulconer, son of a wealthy Virginia planter.

Somewhat implausibly, but lending great forward impetus to the story line, Nathaniel finds himself more and more determined to maintain what began as a shallow rebellious gesture. He joins the rebel army in Virginia and finds, for the first time in his life, a place where he feels he belongs.

Meanwhile, Adam Faulconer is struggling with his conscience. He is a unionist, pacifist and abolitionist at heart, and sees his hopes of national reconciliation fading month by month, battle by battle. In desperation, he concludes that only a quick northern victory can save the south from total annihilation, and resolves to help bring that about by becoming a Union spy in his native Virginia.

The titles of the four novels follow Nathaniel’s and Adam’s respective journeys of self-discovery: Rebel (1993), Copperhead (1994 - a pejorative nickname for the peace movement in the North), Battle Flag (1995), and The Bloody Ground (1996 – a description of the Antietam/Sharpsburg battlefield).

As with all Cornwell’s wartime novels, those who are disturbed by graphic descriptions of horrific violence, killing, maiming, suffering and all the other evils of war should probably avoid The Starbuck Chronicles.

The five criteria:
1.     Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. It’s been a while since I’ve done much Civil War reading, but these novels made me want to revisit that era. There wasn’t, however, that thrill of discovering historical events I’d never heard of before.
Score = 4
2.     Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. Taking four novels to cover the events of less than two years in just one theater of the Civil War allowed a wealth of historical detail.  
Score = 5
3.     Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes. Cornwell’s usual meticulous research was on full display. And, as always, the Historical Notes at the end explain any deviations from strict historical fact and/or chronology.
Score = 5
4.     Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Yes. Always a tricky question for novels where historical characters interact with fictional ones. Cornwell resists the too-common tendency (among American novelists)  toward hagiography in fictionalized versions of such legendary figures as Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson. Maybe it’s that British perspective, but Cornwell feels free to present Lee, and especially Jackson, as very human.
Score = 5
5.     Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?
Yes. I fear that, since the last of these four novels was published in 1996, Cornwell will not return to the Civil War, but one can always hope. 

Score = 5

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