Tennessee Valley Civil War Round Table

Education and Preservation


Patriots and Rebels

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

My Love, My Enemy

Mr. Hewitt has attempted an historical novel set in the American Civil War period; the main characters, Fairfax and Cassandra Cole, reside in Huntsville, Alabama.

Fairfax Cole, a wealthy young graduate of West Point, has married a young belle from Virginia and brought her to Huntsville to start their lives together.  Cassandra has abolitionist tendencies; when her father-in-law presents the newly married couple with a wedding gift of two slaves, Cassandra insists that her new husband free the slaves and employ them as hired servants.  The couple lives about ten years in our fair city of Huntsville.  When the war begins, Fairfax becomes a major in the Confederate Army.

Early in the war, Fairfax is ordered by General P. T. Beauregard to assume the identity of a recently captured US Army officer, Major Wiley, whose orders were to report to the war offices in Washington, D.C.  Amazingly, Fairfax apparently resembles Wiley enough to be his twin.  Reluctantly, after some grueling indoctrination and surgery on his earlobe to more closely resemble the captive, whose ear was clipped by a minié ball, Fairfax infiltrates the war offices without too much trouble.

I don’t buy it.  It seems incredible to me that a young man, born and bred in the Deep South, could ever pass as a Pennsylvania man.   Hewitt goes to a lot of trouble to spin a yarn about the protagonist getting tutored on the violin, an instrument at which Wiley was proficient.  But he never even broached the subject of the difference in regional accents, which seems an obvious flaw.

Later in the story, commanding officers, subordinates, and even Wiley’s wife are convinced that Fairfax is Wiley.  Sorry.  I just don’t buy it.  The southern man’s accent would have instantly betrayed him.

While her husband is off serving the rebel army, Cassandra meets with the local Huntsville abolitionist group and is afforded the opportunity to become a spy for the United States government.  She has some outrageous experiences in her service, most absolutely unbelievable.  She is riddled with guilt because she is working against her husband’s Cause.  And Fairfax, acting as Major Wiley, starts investigating abolitionist agents in his hometown of Huntsville–including his wife, who is identified only by her code name, Lavender.

Sad to say, Mr. Hewitt’s story is clumsily told.  Awkward punctuation distracts from the dialogs.  A competent editor should have caught the most blatant spelling and grammatical errors — for example, the term “minié ball” is misspelled (minè) throughout.    The writer mentions “Handle’s Messiah,” which certainly would upset the composer, Mr. Handel.  On page 151, “chocked up” should be “choked up.”  A gentleman speaks with a “tilt” in his voice.  Huh?  “Least the trackers catch them” should read, “lest the trackers catch them.”   The family enjoys a “desert” of pecan pie instead of a dessert.  Modern colloquialisms “in his face” and “mentally retarded” don’t fit with the time period. Flashbacks are poorly related, ruining the continuity.

I am no expert on the customs of the civil war, but I’ve learned a bit from my reading and studies.  Cassandra, a middle aged woman of some wealth, travels in a stagecoach.  One supposes she was dressed in the hoopskirts of the day, which makes it rather unlikely she could perform the gymnastics Mr. Hewitt pens for her:  She jumps onto a saddled horse, gallops it to the coach, and then grabs the bridle of the lead horse in the stage coach and gets the 6 hitched horses stampeding so she can accomplish her getaway!  Another time she travels alone to the train depot to meet an agent of the US government . . . kills numerous soldiers single-handedly and is never discovered . . . makes a stupid mistake during one of her impersonations, mentioning her husband . . . slays soldiers in her own home and drags 4 bodies in a cart to the outskirts of town, including that of her butler — but no one ever shows up at her home to investigate.  How did she hide all that blood?  How did no one recognize her butler?  Where did this genteel woman learn to shoot all the different firearms she wielded?

Mr. Hewitt’s treatment of a love scene between the two is gross and explicit.  At one point when Fairfax’s identity is in question, the wife of the Yankee officer claim examines the rebel’s private parts, supposedly to make a determination of his identity.  Ewww!

There were a couple more things that didn’t ring true in the story, such as a freedman’s village south of Huntsville and a female secretary in the US army offices.  Just more instances of things that raised my eyebrows.

Another oddity in the style of the writing:  the author writes that a female servant uses “a subservient falsetto” when she is under stress, and Mrs. Cole reprimands her for this mannerism.  This brings to mind a scene from the movie, Gone with the Wind; that type of stereotype does not bear repeating.

The author includes some war-time trivia which, though interesting, is of questionable taste — like graphic description of hogs feeding on the corpses after the battle of Gettysburg.

Life goes on at the Huntsville home after the war ends.  And though Fairfax has no apparent employment, the Coles are living in their home with their original furniture intact and lots of meat and delicacies, with paid servants — even though General Ormsby had headquartered in that home.  These facts just don’t jive with my impressions of life in Huntsville as recorded in contemporary diaries from Huntsville.

So . . . my recommendation would be to skip this one if you are looking for a good civil war story with Huntsville as a backdrop.


Reviewed by Kathi Paul

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