‘A Distant Flame’ – the second time through

I purchased my copy of this novel about the battle of Atlanta in 2005 when author Philip Lee Williams gave a reading in my small NE Georgia town. He signed the copy, but since the novel had won the Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction, he was more interested in my memories of Shaara as my creative writing teacher than talking about the book. I see that I gave the book a positive review on Amazon.

The book is somewhat haunting for a Georgia resident to read simply because the battles happened in the small towns between where I live now and Atlanta–and I’ve visited some of the battle locations.  I-75 carries motorists past sites where thousands were killed. It’s more haunting now because there is so much violence and unrest in the country in addition to the ills of the pandemic.

From the Publisher

In the spring of 1864, the Confederate Army in Georgia is faced with the onrushing storm of General William T. Sherman’s troops. A young sharpshooter for the South, Charlie Merrill, who has suffered many losses in his life already, must find a way to endure—and grow—if he is to survive the battles that will culminate in July at the gates of Atlanta.

From the opening salvos on Rocky Face Ridge near Dalton, through the trials of Resaca and Kennesaw Mountain, Charlie must face the overwhelming force of the Federal army and a growing uncertainty about his place in the war.

Never before has the Atlanta Campaign been rendered—in all its swift and terrible action—with such attention to history or with writing that reaches the level of art. This crucial episode in the Civil War’s western theater comes alive with unexcelled power and drama as it unfolds in soldiers’ hands and hearts.

Throughout the course of the novel, Charlie’s life is laid out in powerful detail. The experiences from his childhood, through the war, and into his twilight years are to a great extent on his mind half a century later when he is to give a major speech in the park of his small Georgia town

A Distant Flame is a book about the cost of war and the running conflict that led Sherman’s Army to the Battle of Atlanta—and the March to the Sea. It stands as a testament to love, dedication, and growth, from the Civil War’s fields of fire to the slow steps of old age.

What impressed me as an author is the fact that Williams made a chart (for research, not to include in the novel) showing where every general and brigade were 24/7 as Sherman moved through North Georgia. I mention this to everyone who says I spend too much time with research.

The novel reads well the second time through, and since it’s been a while since I read it, I don’t remember things just before they happen.



The dead do not whisper at historic battlefields

Jackson Shrine near Fredericksburg

Stonewall Jackson died of pneumonia May 10, 1863, at Guinea Station, Virginia, VA. eight days after being wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville. He probably would have survived the wounds–ironically from “friendly fire”–had the pneumonia not stricken him as he lay in a bed in this house which Lesa and I visited near Fredericksburg several days ago. The house was an outbuilding on the former Chandler Plantation and is preserved today at the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.

His bed is there now, and it is not a quiet one.

We didn’t have time to visit the Chancellorsville battlefield, but did tour the battlefields at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania. There was a light drizzle most of the day. A fitting day, I supposed, to visit hallowed ground where so many were killed in 1862 and 1864. Lesa was a history major with an emphasis on the Civil War. We have both read fiction and nonfiction about the war as well as viewing documentaries such as the very memorable one produced by Ken Burns.


Battlefield Sign

As we walked the site of a nasty engagement at Spotsylvania called The Bloody Angle, we acknowledged that in spite of what we knew before we went there, standing there and reading the signs brought home a host of emotions about the death, fear, horror, resignation, bravery, determination and hope that were felt by the men who died and survived on that patch of ground a century and a half ago.

I don’t see how a writer of either fiction or nonfiction can write about an even without visit these historic sites. To varying degrees, we can sense the dead, hear their voices where they died. Like everyone, writers mourn the dead, the lives stopped in midstream often in moments of terror and pain. But we also mourn the living. The dead are here no more, resting in peace, we hope, but the living carry their memories of the dead and continue to suffer greatly for years and lifetimes. Better to die in the war, I’ve always thought, than to be the child or the spouse of the soldier who died in the war.

Stonewall Jackson’s wife Mary Anna visited him on his death bed in this house and subsequently lived until 1915. She suffered, I think, longer than he did. If I were to write a Civil War novel that included Stonewall Jackson, I would be listening for Mary Anna’s voice, too.



Crawford W. Long Museum Included in Civil War Sites Guidebook

The Crawford W. Long Museum in Jefferson is among the 350 historic sites included in Crossroads of Conflict: Guide to Civil War Sites in Georgia from the University of Georgia Press.

The entry, which includes a photograph of the museum’s historic 1858 Pendergrass Store, notes that the facility “honors the physician Crawford W. Long, who attended the University of Georgia where he roomed with Alexander H. Stephens, the future vice president of the Confederacy. Long is credited as the first physician to use ether for surgical purposes.” Long served in the Athens, Georgia Home Guard and as a surgeon for the Confederacy.

Written by Barry L. Brown and Gordon R. Elwell, the Georgia Civil War Commission publication is an expanded update of the 1994 edition of the guidebook. The 304-page new edition, which arranges Georgia sites into nine regions beginning with the Chickamauga Battlefield in the northwest, includes 65 black and white photographs, 190 color photographs and images, and twenty maps.

According to the University of Georgia Press, “The impact of the Civil War on Georgia was greater than any other event in the state’s history. Approximately eleven thousand Georgians were killed and the state suffered more than one hundred thousand in total casualties. Georgia was extremely influential in this nation’s most tragic conflict, and the war touched every corner of the state.”

Born in Danielsville, Georgia, Crawford W. Long (1815-1878) first used ether for surgical anesthesia on March 30, 1842.

“Do a Georgia resident, friend planning a cultural tourism vacation to the South, or student of the Civil War might enjoy this guidebook? If so, click the Share This button below to send a link by email or recommend this post on your favorite social site.”

Coming Attractions on Malcolm’s Round Table

November 17 – An interview with author Vila Spiderhawk
November 21 – Second Annual Blog Jog Day
December 17 – Virtual VHP Dine-a-Round


Fine storytelling: ‘Above the Fray, Part II’

Above the Fray Part Two Above the Fray Part Two by Kris Jackson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Part I of “Above the Fray” (CraigsPress, May 2009) follows the exploits of protagonist Nathaniel Curry, a fifteen-year-old telegraph operator from Richmond, with the Union Army Balloon Corps from the Peninsula Campaign during the spring and summer of 1862 through the Battle of Antietam that September.

Part II begins as General Ambrose Burnside, who was placed in command of the Army of the Potomac in November 1862, is pushing into Virginia with the objective of capturing the Confederate capital at Richmond. En route, the Union Army will suffer a costly defeat at Fredericksburg in December with a battle plan that Nathaniel sees as “simple to the point of folly.”

Richmond will not fall until the spring of 1865, two years after Chief Aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe has resigned from the balloon corps due to pay and logistics disputes. The Union Army Balloon Corps, a civilian contract organization, disbands in August 1863.

Curry, however, is not out of the war. There’s no precise way to say just how he stays in the war without giving away the inventive plot. Both the Union and the Confederacy want him to spy for them, for he is either an exceptionally streetwise chameleon or a man protected by the gods. He is equally at home with generals and prostitutes, with Southern slaves and northern infantrymen, and with soaring above the fray of a battlefield and with slogging it out under fire on both sides of the lines.

Taken together, parts I and II of “Above the Fray” give the reader a balloonist’s view of the Civil War from Atlanta to Richmond to Washington, D.C. Jackson’s research is broad and impeccable, his ear for dialogue is well-tuned, and his rendering of the war from multiple theaters and perspectives is stunning.

One evening Curry and his friend Vogler are sitting in camp with several of the many historical characters, Thaddeus Lowe, James Allen and Ezra Allen reading mail.

“‘Solly,’ Nathaniel Curry said, ‘you get more mail than the rest of us together.’

“‘Vogler looked over his glasses at him and smiled.

“‘What are you reading now? What language is that?’

“‘It’s German. This is the journal of the Royal Society of Prussia.’

“‘Wouldn’t they speak Prussian?’

“‘No. You’re thinking of Russia where they speak Russian.’
“‘Oh. The letters aren’t the same as ours.’”

Vogler then tells his fellow aeronauts he’s reading an account of several record-setting balloon ascents by aerialists Henry Coxwell and James Glaisher in England who reached a height of over 37,000 feet. The second flight occurred about the same time the balloon corps was at Antietam. The aeronauts are excited about the record, and they discuss the impact of the cold temperatures and thinner atmosphere on both the aerialists and their balloon.

Such accounts expand the reach of the novel to events far from the field of battle, greatly adding to the perspective of both the characters and the reader. Similarly, events Nathaniel observes at the Second Battle of Bull Run in “Above the Fray, Part I,” bring him to the attention of those conducting the controversial court-martial of Union General Fitz-John Porter in Part II where the issues of politics, command competency and scapegoats intertwine.

Is it likely that a young telegraph operator from Richmond would be on speaking terms with President Abraham Lincoln, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee, and multiple officers in both the northern and southern chains of command? Perhaps not.

But Kris Jackson makes it credible and entertaining. “Above the Fray, Part II” is fine storytelling by an author who knows the territory. When Nathaniel Curry approaches Appomattox Court House in the spring of 1865, he has come a very long way from that long ago day when he inadvertently rode a balloon into the sky with Professor Thaddeus Lowe, that day when Lowe said, “The sun’ll not rise today, Nathaniel. You and I shall have to rise to meet it.”

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Note: The trade paperback cover of Part II looks slightly different than the one displayed here by GoodReads.

Copyright (c) 2010 by Malcolm R. Campbell, author of “The Sun Singer” and “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire.”