GEORGE MASON OF VIRGINIA, 1787
North and South is the first of three projected novels about a group of Americans caught up in the storm of events before, during, and after the Civil War.
Some would argue that the Old West is the essential American experience. It is probably the most romanticized. But for many others, the central experience of the still-unfolding story of our republic remains the War Between the States.
As Richard Pindell of the State University of New York wrote in an article on Gone with the Wind, it is, first and foremost, "entirely our war." Its causes reach back beyond Jefferson to the first white speculators who trod our shores. Its effects reverberate onward to the nineteen-fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties like a storm that refuses to surrender its fury.
Out of the primary issues of slavery and secession there came glory, misery, and myth. Robert Penn Warren has said the war gave the North its treasury of righteousness and the South its great alibi. It also gave American blacks, if not freedom in fact, then at least the legal basis for freedom. To American families on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line it gave an estimated 600,000 dead.
Historians say the war marks our national coming of age. A brief period of two decades taught us more about ourselves and American society than we had learned in all the years since the arrival of the first colonists. More, perhaps, than we cared to know.
And yet we remain fascinated with the period. We refight its great battles in books and articles, classrooms and discussion groups. We ponder its cautionary lessons or ignore them, and see its central issues still spilling blood in our streets. It is this power, this sometimes tragic outreach of past events, that attracted me to the subject, as it has attracted so many other writers and scholars.
Some interesting reactions have attended the preparation of this book. At a party not long after the subject was announced, a woman asked - and rather testily, I must say - "How can a Yankee presume to come down South and write about us?"
The last word bothered me. I wanted to reply that I thought of myself as an American, not a tub thumper for a particular region or cause. But I tried to give her a better answer: "The same way any professional writes about any period he didn't directly experience. By studying, walking the ground, trying to extend a storyteller's imagination into the minds and hearts of characters." So this may be a good place to comment on the book's historical content.
The primary purpose of North and South is to entertain. Still, I wanted the story to be an accurate reflection of the period; not so much a retelling of every last incident that contributed to the outbreak of war in Charleston harbor, but a fair presentation of prevailing attitudes and tensions on both sides.
There were, for example, voices like Cooper Main's here and there in the South. And when the cavalryman O'Dell speaks of the need to resettle new freedmen in Liberia, he is only saying what quite a few Northerners said - including, on occasion, Lincoln. Many who were strongly in favor of abolition did not believe blacks worthy or capable of full participation in American democracy; regrettable as that view may seem today, to distort it in a historical novel, or omit it altogether, would be a disservice to accuracy and to all those who have struggled so hard to change such attitudes.
Although I have tried to make the book historically correct, there have been minor alterations of the record in a few places. There has always been a reason for such alteration. A couple of examples should demonstrate.
Company K of the Second Cavalry Regiment served with distinction in Texas in the late 1850s. The officers and men of my Company K are, of necessity, fictitious, and so is the incident at Lantzman's - although it is not unlike those that actually took place during the period. Details of life and activity of this famous regiment are faithful to the record.
Sometimes I have made a change for reasons other than the requirements of the story. In memoirs of West Point life written in the last century, for instance, the plural form of demerit is spelled the same way - demerit. I added an s because in a contemporary book, the correct spelling looks like an error.
Another question I heard during the writing - this one, too, occasionally put forth with a distinct edge - was this: "And which side do you take?''
I never answered because I always found it the wrong question. I see only one worthy "side" - the side of those who suffered. The side of those who lost their lives in battle, and those who lost their lives more slowly, but no less surely, in bondage.
Here we confront another great lure of the subject: its fascinating and tragic paradox. The schism should not have happened, and it had to happen. But that is my interpretation; as one historian has said, "Every man creates his own Civil War." The statement helps explain the fascination of the conflict, not only for Americans but for millions of others around the world.
It is time to pay some debts. A great many people played a part in the preparation of this book. Foremost among them are two editors - Carol Hill, who helped shape the plan, and Julian Muller, who did the same for the manuscript. The work of each was invaluable.
For assistance with research I must especially cite the Library of the United States Military Academy, West Point, and particularly the map and manuscript librarian, Mrs. Marie Capps.
The reigning expert on the Academy in the mid-nineteenth century is, I think, Professor James Morrison of the history department at York College of Pennsylvania. Professor Morrison is also a former Army officer and West Point faculty member. He answered many questions he doubtless found naive and spent precious time providing me with a copy of the Tidball Manuscript - a memoir of life at the Academy by Cadet John C. Tidball, class of 1848.
Tidball's narrative deserves publication and widespread attention. If professional historians wrote with a fraction of the color, humor, and humanity of this nineteenth-century soldier, history would be a more attractive study to many more people. At the end of the handwritten Tidball papers, I found myself wishing I had known the man. I know I would have liked him.
The Beaufort County, South Carolina, Library and its branch on Hilton Head Island were once again of inestimable help in locating scores of obscure source materials. I owe special thanks to Ms. Marf Shopmyer, who kept faithful track of my seemingly endless requests for books, documents, periodicals, and newspapers of, and dealing with, the period of the story. Appreciation is also due to the cooperative staff of the South Carolina State Library, Columbia; I have seen few research libraries to equal it.
My thanks to Rose Ann Ferrick, who once again brought not only superior typing ability to a heavily marked manuscript, but sharp-eyed and frequently witty editorial judgment, too.
Having acknowledged the assistance I received, I must now stress that no person or institution cited should be held accountable for anything in the book. The story, and any errors of fact or opinion, are solely my responsibility.
The late Bruce Catton gave us writing about the Civil War that is without equal. Since first reading Catton, I have never forgotten his metaphor "the undigestible lump of slavery." So much said in just five words. I have made free use of the metaphor in the book and here acknowledge that fact.
The good counsel and good humor of my attorney, Frank Curtis, have been a source of strength and cheer. I also owe a special debt to Mike and Judi, whose friendship I prize and whose kindness helped me through dark days that inevitably accompany any long stretch of creative work. I don't expect they know how much they buoyed me, which is why I thank them now.
Lastly, I thank Bill Jovanovich for his continuing interest in the project, and my wife, Rachel, for her never-ending support and affection.
Hilton Head Island
August 24, 1981