St. Martin's hardcover - 322 pages
Cover art by Dennis Lyall
Book reviewed June 2006
Rating: 7/10 (Recommended)
Review by Aaron Hughes
Fort Pillow by Harry Turtledove tells the story of the Fort Pillow Massacre from the point of view of the combatants on both sides, including several actual historical figures. Harry Turtledove has often written alternate histories of the Civil War, but Fort Pillow is his first Civil War novel to adhere strictly to the historical record (although he has published historical fiction set in ancient times under the pseudonym H.N. Turteltaub).
It is not science fiction by any definition, but we are reviewing Fort Pillow at Fantastic Reviews because it is a book that deserves an audience. Turtledove fans should not shy away because it is not SF, and readers interested in the Civil War should not be put off by the fact that Turtledove is a science fiction writer. Fort Pillow is an entertaining and thought-provoking story that will appeal to both groups of readers.
I also recommend Fort Pillow to everyone who was disappointed with last year's best-selling, hugely-overrated Civil War novel The March by E.L. Doctorow. The March was an undeserving nominee for the National Book Award, the criteria for which continue to baffle, and might well have won the award had the judges not managed to find an even worse book, the impenetrable Europe Central by William T. Vollmann. The March entirely failed to convey the horrors of the Civil War or to hold the reader's interest in its main characters, whoever they were supposed to be.
Fort Pillow puts The March to shame. Turtledove does not share Doctorow's literary pretensions, but he knows how to tell a good story. His crisp and clear prose carries the tale well, despite the occasional cliché (such as a Union officer describing General Forrest as "trouble with a capital T"). The soldiers' down-home dialogue is amusing and sounds authentic. The novel is very thoroughly researched - Turtledove is a trained historian with a Ph.D. from UCLA - yet never bogs down with details. Turtledove's straightforward language lends power to the story, as the matter-of-fact descriptions make the gruesome battle seem more real. Particularly vivid is the long night after the battle, when the surviving federal soldiers wait to see if they will die from their injuries or at the hands of the Rebel troops.
While Turtledove makes no excuses for the Southerners' continuing slaughter of Union soldiers after the fight was effectively over, he shows that a major cause of the debacle was the death early in the battle of the most experienced Union officer, who might have been wise enough to surrender sooner. Turtledove offers an interesting character study of the Union's second-in-command, Major Bradford. The prestige-minded Bradford is resentful of his superior officer, then terrified when command falls to him, which in turn makes him feel compelled to continue the hopeless fight to prove his bravery. One often thinks of great military leaders rallying their troops and refusing to accept defeat, but at Fort Pillow Major Bradford's failure to concede only worsened the Union's losses and caused his men needless suffering.
In sharp contrast to the Union's shaky leadership was the efficient confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, famous to this day for his simple directive to "git thar fust with the most." Turtledove harbors great admiration for Forrest's tremendous skills as a military leader, which he developed in spite of (or perhaps because of) his lack of education and military training. At the same time, Turtledove does not conceal Forrest's flaws, particularly his fervent racism - Forrest made his fortune as a slave trader.
But then, there were few white combatants on either side who were not racist. In Fort Pillow, the Union's white officers and enlisted men refer to the black soldiers with racial epithets just as commonly as the Southerners. Indeed, the white Union soldiers had far more in common with the Confederates than they ever had with their black comrades. There are several effective scenes in Fort Pillow where we see how the white troops on both sides, who fought each other so savagely, could just as easily have been fast friends. For example, after the battle, General Forrest and Major Bradford pause in the middle of berating each other to commiserate over both losing a brother to the War.Turtledove does an excellent job of examining the race issues that make the Battle of Fort Pillow worth remembering today, and he does it without disrupting the engaging story of the combat. The most fascinating aspect of Fort Pillow is Turtledove's insight into what pushed the Southerners beyond the commonly held racist beliefs of the time to such wholesale, irrational hatred to motivate their unrestrained butchery of their black adversaries. Even though most of the Confederate troops did not own slaves, Turtledove shows that they understood that their society was built from a foundation of slavery. They were enraged by the sight of black soldiers, because these soldiers were a threat to the social and economic underpinnings of the South. To see black men fighting as bravely and as proudly as anyone else exposed the moral bankruptcy of the South's slave economy. The Union troops were no better people at heart, yet the Rebels made themselves into worse human beings by their continued defense of the morally indefensible.
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|Copyright © 2006 Aaron Hughes|