The author, John C. Bush, has created a fictional drama around the real-life ancestors of his wife, Sara. He used military records, the National Archives, other historical tomes, and family stories to pin down the location and dates where the ancestor, Tom Benton Files, served in the army. Then he used his imagination to create some of the man’s adventures in his journeys across the U.S. throughout the war and afterwards.
Here’s the plot: Tom Files is born and raised in north Alabama, but when the war between the states breaks out, he is determined to be a patriot – a defender of the United States of America, which his ancestors fought and died to establish and protect – and not a southern rebel. The Files family owns no slaves, and neither do his neighbors. But Tom’s reluctance to join the rebel army was the cause of some unpleasant midnight calls to frighten him into joining the southern forces.
After the family was subjected to a violent visit from the Home Guard one dark night, Tom leaves his wife and two little girls in charge of the farm while he rides off on his hard-working mule to join the First Alabama Cavalry, United States Volunteers. The story is told by the older daughter, Mary Frances, affectionately known as Fannie, who is a “tweenager” at the beginning of the story in January of 1863.
Fannie and Mattie, her mother, manage to carry on at the farm . . . suffering the losses common to most of the residents of a war-torn area. Their food and livestock are eventually confiscated by soldiers from both sides. They are harassed by some of the rebel families. But they survive with the aid of some helpful neighbors. Another daughter is born. The war ends. But Tom does not return until two years after the war was over!
Tom had some explaining to do – and that is the meat of the story, Patriots and Rebels. While Fannie tells us in her simple, if ungrammatical, prose how life begins to get back to normal with her daddy back from the war, Tom spins out the epic of his journeys around the fireside after the babies are put to bed.
The story that John C. Bush develops around his protagonist is lucid and poignant. Tom Files is an anomaly – a southerner who fights for the Union – and is therefore trusted by neither Johnny Reb nor Billy Yank. In fact, during his journeys he falls victim to both sides. He explains to his family that he was afraid to return home after the war because of stories he heard about returning Union veterans in the south being tortured – sometimes killed – in front of their families. He says he didn’t even dare to write to them for fear the Home Guard would find out and wreak havoc on the little family left behind.
Tom tells how, when his stint with the cavalry ended, he decided to travel with some army friends up to their home in the Midwest, where he felt he would be safe. He encounters some runaway slaves when he stays at the home of a Quaker family, so the issue of slavery is discussed. He finds the seeming disinterest of the northerners in his family background disconcerting. He gets a job at a prosperous farm to earn money for the journey back to Alabama; and then is warned by some local “Copperheads” to leave the area, as they didn’t like the idea of a southerner turned Union soldier.
When Mr. Files starts home to north Alabama, the war is still on. On the way back, he is imprisoned alternately by both the Confederates and the Yankees, both of whom fear he is a spy! The beatings he receives from angry rebel prisoners leave him with permanent injuries.
The ponderings of young Fannie help the reader consider the plight of the character who stands up for what he feels is right – against the popular tide. The story gives the reader a feel for home life in the war-ravaged Tennessee Valley, as Fannie describes their work in the garden, their visits to town for church. And Tom himself describes the amazing journey across the lines and his return to hearth and home.
At times, the framing of this “story within a story” is clumsy and therefore distracting. And the narrator’s name is variously written as Mary Francis or Mary Frances. Sometimes the author’s educated vocabulary creeps into the farmer Tom’s mouth (vacillate, for instance). Nevertheless, the simple, no-nonsense yarn of Tom Files comes through.
John C. Bush tells a great story. His author’s notes at the end of the book relate how he blended the facts and events he researched with fictional and historic people and events. I myself know very little about the lives and service of my civil war ancestors; how I would love to have someone flesh out a story like this around them! It’s not a dull recital of the exploits of a military unit – it’s the story as it might have happened to the real people in the real Tennessee Valley, just as they might have told it. It’s a good read.
Review by Kathi Paul