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Saturday, August 8, 2015

FORT PILLOW: A NOVEL of the CIVIL WAR (audiobook) by Harry Turtledove

Audiobook Edition Published in 2009 by Tantor Audio
Published in hardback in 2006.
Read by John Allen Nelson
Duration: 11 hours, 13 minutes

The massacre at Fort Pillow truly stands out in a bloody Civil War in which hundreds of thousands of men and women died. Even though the American Civil War had so many casualties, the war itself was remarkable in that the two sides were often quite civil with one another off of the battlefield. There are numerous stories of local truces to trade coffee for tobacco and the like. My favorite is the story of Confederate and Union pickets (perimeter guards) who co-built a cabin in stages during the winter and agreed to share it in shifts as the day went along. Prisoners of War were generally cared for (there were exceptions, but they stick out as exceptions), the enemy wounded were treated by the doctors (the care was bad, but the best that was available), and so on.

Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877)
The battle at Fort Pillow in April of 1864, though, stands out as something different. It was much more like the Missouri Bushwhacker and Kansas Jayhawker fighting. It was more than just Union vs. Confederate. It had a personal side to it that resulted in a massacre. 

The positive side to this book is that Turtledove has clearly done an exceptional amount of research. He presents Nathan Bedford Forrest as a complicated man. An uneducated man who outsmarts most West Pointers he fights against and outshines most of his experienced and educated peers. He truly was one of the most talented officers of the war. But, he was also a slave trader and certainly could not approve of Black soldiers fighting against white men.

An advertisement for Forrest's
slave-trading business.
Fort Pillow was garrisoned with white and black soldiers. The U.S. Colored Troops were roughly half of the soldiers, the balance were white soldiers, mostly  from Tennessee. Even though Tennessee was a Confederate state, these white soldiers had sat out of the war and then volunteered for the Union army when they could or had deserted the Confederate army to join the Union. Tennessee supplied 100,000 men to the Confederate cause, but it also supplied 50,000 Union soldiers. A lot of Forrest's men were from Tennessee and they looked at Tennessee men who became Union soldiers as traitors or worse. Forrest's men also believed that these Union soldiers had attacked pro-Confederate families, including unsanctioned raping and looting. Turtledove hints that even though these attacks were unsanctioned, they may very well have been unofficially approved of by the Union leadership at Fort Pillow. Clearly, the fighting in Tennessee was more than just about secession or slavery - it had a personal dimension as well.

The U.S. Colored Troops had their own problems. The Confederate government had pledged to enslave any black soldiers that they captured, on the premise that they were all escaped slaves. 

Forrest and his men launched a surprise, raid-style attack on Fort Pillow in an effort to pick up more arms and other supplies and in a non-stop effort to harass Yankee soldiers wherever they could be found. 

Fort Pillow was poorly designed and its officers did little to improve its viability. For example, fields of fire were not cleared around the fort, little thought had gone into what would happen if the defenders got in close (the artillery could not hit them due to the limited ability of the cannons to fire downward). 

After some hard fighting it became obvious to Forrest that he would eventually take the fort and he asked for a truce to discuss surrender terms. The original commander of the fort had been killed and his replacement refused to surrender, even though Forrest promised to not enslave the U.S. Colored Troops and that they would not seek reprisal against the white soldiers from Tennessee. He also threatened that if his men were forced to take the fort by force he could not ensure that he could stop them from committing these sorts of atrocities.

And, it turns out, Forrest was right...

Turtledove does so much right in this book. It is well-researched. He makes characters out of people in multiple levels of both armies so that he can give a very thorough view of the battle. He does not get bogged down in the technical details of each weapon, but his description of how to operate a Civil War cannon was detailed and extremely interesting.

What does he do wrong?

- He is repetitive. It is great that he gives multiple perspectives, but he gives long, long multiple perspectives on the same topic.

-He has an annoying habit of having the omniscient narrator tell the reader something and then have the characters note the same thing, think about the thing that they noted, tell another character about that thing and then they discuss whether or not to tell other people about it. Any single one of these devices would have been sufficient. Even worse, sometimes a soldier on the other side of the battle notices the same thing and the entire process is repeated.

-There is a long, rather boring chase of a single Union officer after the battle. He sneaks away from the fort, tries to get to Union lines, gets captured and eventually is executed. Way too long and no real pay off at the end.

In sum, the book is too repetitive. The good parts of the book are simply overwhelmed by the tedium of the slow parts. Easily 25% of the book could have been thrown out or condensed. Probably more.

The reader, John Allen Nelson, did some good work in his reading. He did not have enough unique voices to make each character stand out. But, he was great at adding emotion and drama to the story. He often yelled as he read about the men charging Fort Pillow or becoming wounded. 

But, no matter how well read this book was, the story was damaged by an author that does not seem to believe that his readers can follow along unless they are constantly told the same facts over and over again.

I rate this story 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon here: Fort Pillow: A Novel of the Civil War.

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