The market for fiction related to the American Civil War seems to be growing, but it is rare to encounter a writer who decides to focus almost completely on the “home front” aspect of the war years. This is what Carolyn Schriber has chosen to do in setting her tale in South Carolina, by looking at a family whose patriarch, Jonathan Grenville, is a New England-born teacher who married the daughter of a well-to-do Deep South landowner, and as a result suspected by almost everyone as somehow “disloyal to the cause.” This tension, Schriber underscores, becomes especially trying during the war. It happens because there were many “causes” in the conflict – love of country, love of state, loyalty to family and friends, individual conscience (for Grenville is quietly ashamed that his wife’s family own slaves). This is just to name a few.
This book is not an action-oriented tale of battlefield and comradeship. It is instead a thoughtful narrative, driven by dialogue between and among the characters as the war begins and continues in all its challenges and emergencies; these strains that the war placed on the civilians, becomes the heart of this story. What action exists in the book is usually related in letters the family members receive from relatives and friends in the Confederate Army. The Battle of Secessionville, when Union forces attempted to capture Charleston, South Carolina, is described in a letter as a hail of “shot and cannonball,” until the ammunition ran out, at which point the Rebs seize “every loose item to use as a projectile.” In this way the point is made that the South bankrupted its resources in the war.
The pains of the war are told more in discussions of the events like the steady decline of food supplies in the South (the Grenvilles tirelessly tend their vegetable gardens to hold back hunger). The inevitable decline of the South is told quickly in the last pages, which makes a nice metaphor for the painful defeat that no one wanted to face or dwell on.
Damned Yankee is a fine tale of the war from the perspective of the overlooked bystanders who bear no arms but suffer equally from the ravages of the conflict. It is recommended to anyone who enjoys Civil War fiction.
Reviewed by Terry Shoptaugh
These are the people you don’t read about in history books.
A Harvard-educated New Englander. He was welcomed as a teacher by a school for apprentices in Charleston, South Carolina. But when his history lessons about the founding of America clashed with the pro-secession rhetoric of local slave-owners, he was out of a job. Can he find a way to reconcile his abolitionist sentiments with the practical need to support his family in a region whose economy is based on slavery?
A wealthy Southern belle. She has always believed that her ancestors were benevolent slave-owners and that they treated their slaves with dignity and respect. Now she has inherited the family plantations, only to see the institution of slavery come under attack as an unmitigated evil. The coming of the Civil War threatens her land, her children, her marriage, and the values that have always sustained her. How much will she be willing to sacrifice in order to help her family survive?
A female slave. She was given to her mistress when they were both very small because they shared a common grandfather – a fact that everyone knew and no one talked about. The war offers her a promise of freedom as well as the prospect of a bittersweet separation from her beloved cousin. Will the bonds of family stretch or break?
A Confederate soldier. He supported secession and eagerly volunteered for the Army,
believing, like most young men, that he was invincible. And like too many of those young men, he was wounded and taken prisoner. The aftermath of his war experience left him with wounds far deeper than those that caused the amputation of his leg. Can he conquer the pain, the flashbacks, the disability, and the nightmares that keep him incapacitated and unable to return to his former life?
The newly-weds. The couple married in haste, realizing that the coming of war might mean a long period of separation. But the young wife did not expect to receive a black-bordered letter telling her that her husband had been killed in battle. Now she faces life in wartime as a widow and the mother of newborn twins. She can return to her family or seek to make a a new life for herself. Which way will she turn?
The children. Uprooted from their home and school by a series of family disasters, they face an uncertain future. The teenage boy gives up his dream of becoming a dairy farmer. With tears streaming down his face, he begs his cows to run away because Confederate soldiers are confiscating all cattle as food for the army. His brothers and sisters struggle to adapt to new conditions of poverty, hunger, and hard work. And they watch with fear as those circumstances threaten the stability of their parents’ marriage. Will the family stay together or scatter as their friends and neighbors have done?
An educated ex-slave. Despite his free status, he realizes that freedom is just a word -- meaningless without respect in the eyes of the community and without the ability to interact on an equal basis with those who once were his owners. Will his freedom really liberate him or will it destroy him?
America’s Civil War was more than a political disaster. It was a human tragedy, and everyone – North and South, young and old, black and white, rich and poor – everyone was caught up in that broken world. Yet somehow the victims held on to the hope that love for one another could mend the tears in the fabric of their lives. These are their stories.