Thursday, February 3, 2011

CIVIL WAR READALONG: "The Sword of Antietam"

I am participating in the Civil War Readalong hosted by War Through the Generations.   My plan is to read several young adult novels on the war and comment on their quality and accuracy.  The first book is The Sword of Antietam  by Joseph Altsheler.  It was published in 1914.  Altsheler was a prolific writer of youth fiction.  He did series of books on the French and Indian War, Great West, Young Trailers, Civil War, World War, and Texas.  The Sword of Antietam is part of the Civil War series.  There happens to be a copy in our school library so there you have it.

The book is what you would expect from a book for teenagers written in 1914.  The prose is workmanlike and a bit repetitive.  The soldiers talk floridly which was probably fairly authentic, but still cringe-inducing.  The main character is Dick Mason, a Yankee soldier from Kentucky.  He is an officer in Winchester's Regiment.  Being an officer, he is not only in the thick of the fighting, but also privy to some of the strategic discussions of command.  He is also too good to be true, as you might expect.  So are his friends.

The book is pretty accurate and a teenager can learn a lot about the Civil War in 1862 from it.  Altsheler obviously has done his research.  He even includes the entire text of Lee's famous "Lost Order".  The book covers Second Bull Run, Antietam, Perryville, and Murfreesboro.  You do get a feel for the movements of the armies.  The combat is not graphic, but you do get the impression that they were very bloody.  You also get a clear picture of tactics.

The main drawback of the book is it gives you the feeling that the Civil War was an incredibly small world.  There are  thousands of men involved, yet there are some incredible coincidences and contacts.  Dick finds a wounded friend's body at night in a corpse-covered field within minutes with the help of a Rebel who he had met earlier on picket duty!  Dick meets his BFF who is now in the Rebel army a couple of times during the campaign.  Guess who finds the "Lost Order"?  Dick's mother shows up to help find his injured body at a later battle!  Men are getting killed in seemingly suicidal frontal charges into the mouths of cannons and volly fire and yet none of the main characters gets killed.  Realism is not a strength of this book.

This book is definitely not for adults who love literature.  A teenager could learn from it, but it is fairly long at 340 pages.  I would be surprised if anyone had opened it up in twenty years at our school.  The prose is as dusty as the book was. 


  1. The three young adult civil war novels i remember reading are Red Badge by Crane, Across Five Aprils by Hunt and Traveller by Adams. Im sure there are more over the years. Red Badge remains the best because despite being short it benefits from Stephen Crane's youth and eye as a war correspondent. Aprils was only so so since much of it was set on a farm with not that much battle involved. Traveller is the most unique since its told from the first person perspective of Lee's own horse. If you have an imagination it works. Like Crane's book it has a down to earth quality to it. Havent read it in years tho.
    Sword of can tell just by the title that it was written a good while back. Only calvary officers wore swords right?

  2. I do have Across Five Aprils on my list. It is highly regarded, but I have never read it. I do not expect to like it. Another is "Rifles for Watie". Thanks for the mention of "Traveller", I was trying to remember that book told by Lee's horse. Check out the web site.
    I have read "Red Badge" already and it is good, but not worthy of its acclaim. I found his transformation from a coward to a warrior to be unrealistic. BTW Crane did not become a war correspondent until after he wrote the book. He based the combat on talking to veterans.

  3. I wasn't aware you were only going to read YA novels. Too bad Morpurgo didn' write on the Civil War. At least not as far as I know. I'm sure he would be much better.

  4. I am not reading just YA, but I am starting with them. I will get to Killer Angels and Cold Mountain later. Do you know anyhting about Ann Rinaldi?

  5. I had forgotten about Rifles for Watie.
    Ann Rinaldi writes more historical romance for YA. Mainly girl characters. Just looking at the covers is enuff for me. Dont think you would be interested.
    that makes sense about Crane. He began as a war correspondent in the Spanish American War i think? which would even for an idiot like me be long after the Civil War. Didnt he write Open Boat based on when he was adrift off a ship once? something like that.
    Red Badge is liked by students cause its so short of course. Its not really well developed character wise. Most of the characters are allegory. "Coming of Age" again. Still it was a young man writing about a young man which is its power i think. Sorta like that Catcher in the Rye. which i neve saw much in but is famous.

  6. Crane is portrayed in "Rough Riders". I think the actor does a good job of reflecting his excitement of seeing combat. His first sight of combat came a couple of years earlier in the Greco-Turkish War. He died in 1900 before he could parley his real-war experiences into the next great war novel.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.