A Volunteer's Adventures: A Union Captain's Record of the Civil War

A Volunteer's Adventures: A Union Captain's Record of the Civil War

A Volunteer's Adventures: A Union Captain's Record of the Civil War

A Volunteer's Adventures: A Union Captain's Record of the Civil War

Excerpt

In our age, as everyone knows, mankind's instruments for destruction make Mars himself uneasy. It may, then, appear odd to offer just now a record of a war which to modern readers seems quaint, costumed: thin lines of blue and grey; jostling sabre-wielding cavalry; and the Rebel yell! Yet as this remarkable composite of letters and journal demonstrates, in all times war is essentially war; from Hannibal to Hitler, it is not the quantitative anguish that counts but the fact itself. Thus John William De Forest's coldly temperate truth concerning this bitter, bloody grapple of the North and South is not irrelevant at this moment. I do not mean that the journal pleads, save by implication, for the reign of peace; on the contrary, in many ways Captain De Forest enjoyed war. It does, however, deepen our perspective; in its graphic pages we live again intensely the woe of a past generation under the blight of war. Without flinching, it etches the boredom, the suffering, and--alas!--the wild joy of man in battle. A Volunteer's Adventures is a small but accurate curve in this vast chart of human folly.

Other reasons, too, urge the publication of this version of De Forest's campaigns in Louisiana and Virginia. Before and after the fiery parenthesis of the war he was a man of letters. Within very recent years he has re-emerged in his real stature as a short-story writer and a novelist; after the fashion in American literature, his decorations are being awarded posthumously. True, in his own day, he won the esteem of Howells, who kept re-introducing him and praising him to the reading public:

I have thought it more discreditable to our taste than to his talent that he has not been recognized as one of our foremost novelists, for his keen and accurate touch in character, his wide scope, and his unerring rendition of whatever he has attempted to report of American life; but I do not know that I shall ever persuade either critics or readers to think with me.

Some were indeed persuaded, but such were almost as few as the soldiers in one of the Captain's desperate foray parties. De Forest's firm realism (Howells calls it his "inexorable veracity") in depicting the shallows of woman's character, the chicanery of politics, and the ugliness of war got in his own light. He was not accepted, and until the recent republication of his masterpiece, Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty . . .

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