Visiting Our Past: Writer untangles web of Civil War

Rob Neufeld
The Asheville Citizen-Times

Heads up. David Madden, a Black Mountain resident, has written a book, “The Tangled Web of the Civil War and Reconstruction,” that deserves special attention.

First, there’s Madden’s background. In 1992, he founded the U.S. Civil War Center in Louisiana. Since 1962, he’s been writing novels and essays that have earned him a unique place among American literary writers.

A Knoxville native, now he’s combining his best scholarship and writing into a volume that proposes we look at the defining period in American history as would a novelist.

“Possession of the facts and the artifacts alone is not enough,” he offers in his essay, “For the New Millennium: New Perspectives on the Civil War and Reconstruction.”

“We miss the War,” he points out about our knowledge of history, “to the extent that we fail to place the facts we know in the richest possible contexts and to illumine them by personal emotional involvement,” among other things.

What would Lincoln say?

That’s the goal: study history the way your history teachers told you to - make no assumptions while bulking up on information. Plus, Madden would add, humanize the participants.

In 1996, Madden delivered a keynote talk at the Gettysburg Address Commemorative, in which he adopted the voice of Abraham Lincoln.

As Lincoln, he regretted the general forgetting foot soldiers in favor of the fame of politicians and generals. He noted how Americans have missed the war through narrow vision, and by myopically focusing on the antiquarian.

“The task,” Madden’s Lincoln says, “is to look at the War through fresh perspectives, through every conceivable perspective ... (to) understand all aspects of the war in such a way as to actively pursue solutions to the problems of today.”

Begin with the individual and see yourself in him or her.

Might schools make the Civil War and Reconstruction a major subject of study and meditation?

For those staggered by the amount of Civil War material out there, Madden provides guides and lists about where and how to start a broad education.

He devotes one of his chapters to “For Cause and Comrades,” James McPherson’s book about “why men fought in the Civil War.”

Madden values McPherson’s contribution — categorizing over 1,000 writings by Civil War soldiers by type of motivation — and then Madden adds that, nonetheless, “motives must be examined in their mixed state.”

When, for example, a Confederate naval lieutenant writes his fiancée that “the path of every ball is directed by our kind father,” who protects him, we can attribute that statement to a religious belief, or we can try to see beyond the intended reassurance to a story.

At our border

One of the stories of the war that Madden looks at in different ways is something close to our border — the October 1861 plot by Union guerillas to burn nine key railroad bridges in east Tennessee.

When east Tennesseans opposed secession in 1861, Madden recounts, the state government saw no option but to put them down with military and police force. The mountaineers had even been calling for a separate state, evoking memories of the 1784 movement for the state of Franklin.

As the war started and east Tennessee became occupied territory, Parson Brownlow, editor of the Knoxville Whig, held up as a model of resistance “a Union man of high character who will disguise himself and travel hundreds of miles at his own expense to serve true men (who are) to him personally unknown deserves to be immortalized and to live forever.”

Well, taken at face value, that kind of word choice could go under the category “terrorist.”

The Rev. William Blount Carter is generally considered the hero of the bridge-burning campaign, having received the attention and approval of General George Thomas, and then everyone up to President Lincoln.

A.M. Cate, engaged by Carter to take care of four of the nine bridges, said, 10 years later when he was applying for a pension, Carter not only kept out of the fray, but kept his role as pay agent secret and appropriated much of the money intended for fighters to his friends.

Carter, meanwhile, was left in the dark about Generals Sherman and McClellan having changed their minds, so that there was to be no invading force accompanying the bridge-burning.

Now, what we have left, along the railroads from the Alabama to the Virginia border of Tennessee, is just a bunch of guys fighting hand-to-hand.

At Strawberry Plains, a bullet pierced the thigh of guerrilla leader William Pickens, causing Pickens to lose his torch and matches in the Holston River.

“A small but powerfully built guard, James Keelan, grabbed Pickens,” Madden relates. “As they struggled, one of the raiders rushed to Pickens’ aid, but in the darkness he mistook his colleague for the guard and hacked at him viciously with a long homemade knife.”

Though four of nine targeted bridges were torched, the Strawberry Plains debacle stands out for its chaos and horror.

A boy’s tale

To get another view, we turn to David Madden’s Civil War novel, “Sharpshooter.”

Willis Carr, the narrator, tells how, when he was 13, his great-grandfather had anxiously awaited the delivery of the Knoxville Whig and then, sitting as always by the hearth fire, boomed out Brownlow’s fiery, biblically inspired injunctions to the household.

When conspirators came to the Carr household to gather a bridge-burning party, Willis sneaked along. “It would be something different,” he says of the activity.

He almost gets his first glimpse of a slave when the party captures seven Confederate soldiers in a tent, but Capt. Fry, the leader, rejects the slave’s offer to help, saying, “Some of them will betray you.”

After the bridge-burning, everyone disbanded, but Willis went to Knoxville to see where the action was. “Which way is the Unionists?” he asked someone, and ended up being shown and ushered into Castle Fox Prison, fetid with 100 men crammed into a small basement.

Luckily, being young, Willis was asked by a rebel officer if he wanted to join the Confederate Army. And despite being jeered and cursed at by the prisoners, he answered, “Yeah.”

“But at the door,” Madden has Willis tell us, “I turned and winked, the way my big brother Jack always winked to tease you, make you guess what he meant to do.”