Rebel is the first in a series of Civil war novels (the Starbuck Chronicles) by Bernard Cornwell of Sharpe’s fame. The story starts at the beginning of the war in Richmond. The hero, Nathan Starbucks, is a naïve Northern divinity student who has exiled himself from his famous abolitionist/minister father by going south. He is being assailed by a mob of rebels who insist he is a Yankee spy. He is rescued from being tarred and feathered by his best friend’s father (Washington Faulconer) who is a wealthy land-owner.
Faulconer is an interesting character. He had set his slaves free ten years earlier, but is excited about secession because it will give him an opportunity to show off his military ability. He recruits a military unit which he pompously calls Faulconer’s Legion. He outfits it with his own funds and envisions it as an elite unit that will gloriously play a leading role in the only battle that will be necessary to win independence for the Confederacy. Faulconer takes Nathan under his wing and makes him an officer. He sends Nathan into the backwoods to recruit a Mexican War veteran and local crime boss, Thomas Truslow. Truslow is as crude as Nathan is genteel, but they develop an unlikely bond. Nathan also meets Truslow’s vixen daughter Sally who is a revelation to the impressionable Nathan. She is a feral beauty and it s lust at first sight. He reluctantly marries Sally off to the father of her soon-to-be baby after Truslow insists being a minister-in-waiting is good enough to perform the ceremony.
Faulconer decides not to wait for the war to come to him, so he leads a commando raid on a railroad trestle. The raid is a farce with Faulconer showing little command sense and he blames Nathan for the failure of the mission. Nathan (and the reader) begins to get the impression that Faulconer is not the great patron he appeared to be.
Starbucks becomes obsessed with reacquainting himself with the saucy Sally. He rediscovers her in a Richmond brothel. She is there after she was way-laid by order of the loathsome Ethan Ridley who is an aide to Faulconer, fiancé to his daughter, and father of Sally’s child. The baby is aborted and Sally is tortured via rape into behaving herself. She likes her new life as a high class prostitute, but asks the seduced Nathan to kill Ethan for her.
With a Yankee invasion imminent, Faulconer ships his Legion off to Manassas to help win the upcoming battle. Truslow has risen to an unofficial leadership role by weight of his fierce personality. Truslow finds his status unsurprising, opining “the army shouts at you, shits on you and does its best to starve you, so you get by the best you can, and the best getters-by are the ones who thieve best.”
Before the battle, Faulconer insists Nathan return north to his family. Nathan reluctantly agrees, but on his way he runs into the Union flanking column marching to surprise the Rebel left. Meanwhile, Faulconer is off to see Gen. Beauregard about moving the Legion to the right where he is sure the action will be. When Nathan hastens back to warn his Rebel comrades, he convinces second in command Maj. Bird (Faulconer’s brother-in-law) to reposition the unit into a blocking position. Bird rises to the moment as does the unit. Nathan, Truslow, and Nathan’s best friend Adam Faulconer are heavily involved in the fighting. Nathan gets his wished-for confrontation with Ethan Ridley.
The combat depicted in the book is a strong point of the book. Cornwell has a way with action and his characters behave realistically under the stress of battle. He accurately portrays the innocence of a virgin army. When the first member of the Legion is killed by a cannon ball, the men gather around in wonder and grief. They worry about how his mother will take it. They do not anticipate how soon they will be hardened to the death of one man. Cornwell describes the three types of soldiers. Some of the men are “effortlessly brave”. “They went calmly about their business, stood straight in the face of the enemy, and kept their wits sharp.” The second type is the soldiers who “oscillated wildly between bravery and timidity, but responded to the leadership of the brave men.” The last type is the minority that are cowards. They “huddled far back in the trees, where they pretended to be busy loading or repairing their guns…” He also describes how Civil War officers would expose themselves to enemy fire to inspire their men.
The book does end on a high note with the section on the Battle of First Bull Run. Although there was no Faulconer’s Legion, the rendering of the battle is pretty accurate. The brigade it is attached to, led by Nathan “Shanks” Evans, was real down to Evans’ barrelito of whiskey. The fighting in the book accurately reflects the experience of Evans’ brigade. The reader can learn a lot about the Battle of Manassas through the book. Real war figures like Evans, Beauragard, Lee, and Jackson make cameo appearances in the novel.
Having read the entire Sharpe’s series, I am a big Cornwell fan. However, Rebel is not up to that series. Cornwell spends most of the book developing the characters, so it is a bit slow. He throws in the raid on the railroad seemingly to break ennui. I assume the other books in the series flow swifter now that the characters have been fleshed out. The characters are interesting, if inconsistent. Nathan is hard to like. You get tired of his constant whining about how he is going to go to Hell for being a normal young man. Thomas Turslow is by far the coolest character. One problem with the character development is Cornwell has a high percentage of the main characters completely changing from their introduction to the end of the book. For instance, the reader is led to believe that Thaddeus “Pecker” Bird (the schoolmaster who hates kids) is a prim loser, but he turns out to be a cool-headed combat leader. The sympathetically portrayed Washington Faulconer goes from benevolent savior of Nathan to arrogant, incompetent buffoon. But most disturbing is Cornwell’s transformation of Sally from a hillbilly hellion to a Machiavellian gold-digger. And this is brought about by raping her into submission!
Rebel is the first in a series of novels that leaves you wondering if the strong close bodes well for the sequel, but causes concern that the next book will be similar in slow buildup. I am not real confident going into the next book, entitled Copperhead.