THE GOD OF WAR: WHEN I RODE WITH N.B. FORREST – THE LETTERS OF HENRY WYLIE, A HISTORICAL INTREPRETATION BY ROBERT S. CHAMBERS (King Phillip Publishing, Cleveland, Ohio, 1996, 288 pages) Book Review by TVCWRT Preservation Chair John D Mason
Robert S. Chambers is a former high-school teacher and parks manager in the Cleveland, Ohio area where he has lived for the past twenty years. A self-professed student of the American Civil War for the past three decades, in this, his first novel, he has used the construct of a soldier’s letters home to bring the sterling career of Confederate Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest to life. Concentrating on the period between December 1861 and August 1865, this book chronicles Forrest and his “Critter Cavalry’s” activities through a series of letters from the protagonist of the book, Henry Wylie, to his wife Elizabeth. These letters were, as Wylie points out in an early missive, written “whenever he had a moment off the saddle.”
Not only do the letters cover all of Forrest’s major engagements throughout the war, they also perhaps cleverly set the stage for a future series of novels also based on Wylie’s letters. As Chambers says (page 3), “[Wylie’s] almost clairvoyant ability to be at the site of breaking news events was uncanny.” Apparently, Wylie was present at the murder of “Wild Bill” Hickock, on vacation in Martinique when Mount Pele erupted, saw John L. Sullivan win boxing’s heavyweight championship after a herculean 77 round brawl, and was even present at the wreck of the famous Locomotive 382 and horrific death of its engineer – Casey Jones. Sadly, Wylie’s news career was cut tragically short on April 15, 1914 when he perished from the deck of the Titanic after heroically saving a number of the doomed luxury liner’s passengers. Yes, we still have a lot yet to learn from the pen of Mr. Wylie.
There have been a number of books published on the life and campaigns of LTG Forrest that will provide considerably more detailed information about his individual actions than that provided in The God of War. Three that come quickly to mind are A Battle from the Start: the Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest by Brian Steele Wills, That Devil Forrest by John A. Wyeth and Albert Castel, and Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Escort and Staff by Michael Bradley (I mention this latter work in particular because Wylie was purportedly a member of Forrest’s escort). In fact, Wills and Wyeth have both authored multiple works on Forrest’s career, and all are certainly worth reading. But the book that kept coming to my mind as I read of Wylie’s travails was Henry Kyd Douglas’ I Rode with Stonewall, more snarkily known among some Civil War historians as Stonewall Rode with Me. And I believe this comparison may well have been at least unconsciously intended by the author, but intended in a positive way, for it gives the author the leeway to tell the story as it happens.
The book begins with a letter dated October 3, 1861, in which Henry informs Elizabeth that he had joined Company C of the Forrest Rangers commanded by Captain Charley May. In this, Wylie details a pretty good account of the way in which a regiment was formed as well as what the early days of basic training were like. While May was in fact a historical character, most of the other men mentioned are fictional. This is important to remember, or otherwise, the reader will quickly forget that this work is historical fiction: this story is a fictional tale of historical events.
From here, Wylie goes on to describe all of Forrest’s major campaigns – the escape from Fort Donelson, Shiloh, the multiple raids into Tennessee, Brentwood and Brice’s Crossroads, Fort Pillow, on to Franklin and the Battle of Nashville, and finally to the defeat at Selma and final surrender. There are also detailed accounts of the chases and capture of the forces of Samuel Sturgis, Abel Streight, and William Sooy Smith. While not reported in depth, the engagements as presented are generally presented accurately – at least as accurately as they could have been from the viewpoint of a solitary soldier. And the asides Wylie injects in reporting on these battles give them life.
There are some discrepancies here and there, mainly things that Wylie probably would not have known at the time. For example, he discusses the fighting at the “Hornet’s Nest” at Shiloh, when, according to Steven Woodworth in The Shiloh Campaign, there was no evidence that that name would have been used at the time of the battle (page 70). And in one letter, Wylie confided to Elizabeth that “the general if fixin to cut off the movement of Gen. Sturgis and his big army at a small crossroads on Brices farm . . .” I suspect that at the time this letter was written, very few people outside of LTG Forrest himself knew what he was planning to do. But these small blips can be forgiven because they give perspective to the reader, and keeps them up to date on the pending action.
Actually, and this is a tribute to author Chambers, the reader comes to like and appreciate Wylie’s reporting more and more as the book progresses, and forgets that he is not real. As with Henry Kyd Douglas, Wylie does sometimes come off as being too necessary to the events at hand. But the reader can overlook this because of the humanity with which he reports those events. Plus, his presence allows the author a vehicle to more fully tell Forrest’s story. Those who have served will easily recognize the different emotions soldier’s experience, especially those in combat, go through, and Wylie’s evolution is no exception. First there is the exuberance – the excitement of battle. Then, once one has “fought the bull” as Wylie likes to say, that starts to change. Loneliness creeps in. And fear. And sadness at the loss of friends. The angst that soldiers feel becomes almost palpable. Wylie makes this clear in his reporting on the massacre at Fort Pillow where the reader can almost trace the progression from one emotion to the next. The desire to return home to family is poignant. Wylie fast becomes a family friend.
If truth be told, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and indeed, probably looked forward to each letter as much as Elizabeth would have. Each chapter is accompanied by a “footnote” at the end of the book that adds substance where needed, but also points out what is factual and what is fictional. It is the perfect book for the individual who wants to learn generally about Forrest’s campaigns without the in-depth narratives found in standard historical texts. More importantly, the reader comes to like Henry Wylie, indeed to the point of pulling for him. It is a work that is fun and easy to read, and I recommend it to anyone interested in this country’s most seminal event. Besides, who can’t wait to get Wylie’s insights on boxing?