The Black Flower is a Civil War novel by Howard Bahr. It is set in the Battle of Franklin in November, 1864. The main characters are member of Adams’ Brigade of Hood’s Army of Tennessee. The central character is Bushrod Carter, a Confederate private. He has seen a lot in the last three years including participation in the Battle of Shiloh and is a hardened veteran. He is soldiering with his childhood buddies Jack Bailey and Virgil C.
The book covers the day of the battle and the day after. It is told from a soldier’s point of view so there is little strategy and tactics. For instance, there is a neat section on recovery of the dead by both sides in no man’s land. “For a while on the Kenesaw line, the focus of the great war shifted; the living found a common enemy in the dead.” Before going into combat, Bushrod tells Bishop “let the black flower blossom as it may”, a reference to combat. The soldiers are appropriately fatalistic. The soldier banter rings true. There is a genuine comradery, but there are also dysfunctional elements. Nebo Gloster is a mentally challenged sad sack and Simon Rope is a conscript who is an evil malingerer.
The disastrous frontal charge in the face of strongly defended earthworks is more implied than graphically recounted. There is a lot of “the fog of war” apparent, as well as the randomness of death in a battle. Virgil C. dies abruptly when Nebo accidentally fires his rifle (ramrod still in the barrel) into the back of his head.
Bahr also has some supporting characters like Calvin Jones, a Professor of Music. He is naturally made a member of a band. This gives Bahr the opportunity to give us the unique perspective of a band playing music going into battle and dealing with the wounded.
The second half of the book shifts to the McGavock house located near the battlefield. It becomes a hospital. Anna, a cousin of the mistress, is there for her annual visit and is pressed into service as a nurse. She is pretty and feisty. She grows into the job purely by surviving the onslaught of horrors. She also is in charge of babysitting the two McGavock children – Winder and Hattie. She has a confrontation with Simon Rope and evicts him from the house because he is clearly unwounded and up to no good. He vows revenge as he retreats to the woods.
Bushrod is lying wounded at the bottom of the stairway when he first meets Anna. Their relationship begins shakily as she is exhausted physically and mentally and Bushrod is in foul humor for obvious reasons. She is unpitying and his mild profanities offend her. If this were a movie, you could expect them to get married by the end. Although they get off on the wrong foot, Bushrod offers to help her get through the throng of wounded to check on her charges who are supposedly safe in an upstairs room. Meanwhile, Nebo has found his way into the room and awakened Winder, who being a boy, is intrigued by this soldier. Nebo is clearly mentally unstable as he attempts to determine which of his collection of ramrods was the one that killed Virgil C. The scene in the fire-lit room is chilling with potential malevolence. Bushrod and Anna barge in and Bushrod is barely prevented from shooting Nebo by the insistent Anna. The relationship takes a step back as Bushrod appears to be a serious PTSD casualty.
Bushrod leaves to search for Jack Bailey. Anna feels something for this “boy” who she is constantly calling a peckerwood, so she follows. Bushrod finds Jack among some corpses. He is barely alive. Simon Rope is hiding nearby and grabs Anna. He has a knife at her throat when Bushrod confronts him. The stand-off ends suddenly when one of Nebo’s ramrods protrudes from Rope’s chest. They bury Jack Bailey and Virgil C. in the same grave. Bushrod and Anna are now clearly in love, but there are dark clouds approaching as Bushrod’s arm wound is giving him increasing discomfort. I won’t go any further, but you can expect to be heartbroken.
This is a truly outstanding book. I found it in my search for a good Civil War novel to read as part of the Civil War Readalong. I am beholding to the readalong for exposing me to a book I would otherwise never have heard of. It is one of the best novels I have ever read and very memorable.
Bahr has a way of writing that is mesmerizing. There is a passage focusing on the meanderings of a wasp that is one of the most astounding things I have ever read. His prose is lyrical and poetic. His imagery is evocative. There are images of death throughout. Parts of the book are surreal, but others are among the most realistic portrayals of soldier life that I have read. He gets in the characters heads and we read what they are thinking. For instance, Bushrod has an “other” who is his foil in battle. Bahr is great at showing the effects fatigue and stress have on what people think, say, and do. Some of the themes are friendship (there are endearing flashbacks to the childhoods of Bushrod, Jack, and Virgil) and loss of innocence, in particular Anna’s.
Bahr is obviously fond of the soldier’s of the Lost Cause. Here is how he describes the survivors of the battle as they prepare to soldier on:
They were like thin, ragged, animated scarecrows, hawking and wheezing and complaining. They were all angles, all sharp corners and bristles, lean and wiry like the long-legged horses the cavalry rode. Even the short ones, the squat ones (there were no fit ones) seemed collected for speed, for driving, for long walking down the winter-deep mud, down the fields and barren valleys into the smoke.
Bahr includes a “The Things They Carried” moment by having Winder examine the contents of Bushrod’s haversack.
There was a tortoise shell comb, a bone toothbrush, a fragment of soap. A tin of George Hummel’s Celebrated Essence of Coffee. A piece of blue ribbon. A dirty rag. Another dirty rag. A stub of candle. Loose minie-ball, rusty tin plate, wooden spoon, a fork with “B.C,” carved in the handle. There was some string, a bundle of letters, a deck of playing cards, two clay marbles and a pretty rock.
The novel is not based on a true story, but the basics of the battle are accurate. The Battle of Franklin was a disaster for the Army of Tennessee. It featured suicidal frontal charges against strongly defended earthworks. In fact, the fighting Bushrod’s unit takes part in is sometimes referred to as the “Pickett’s Charge of the West”. There was an Adam’s Brigade and Gen. Adams did die when his horse got on top of the earthworks.
The only flaw in the book, in my opinion, is a flash-forward midway through to Anna years after the war. It gives Bahr a chance to make insightful comments about the role of Southern women in the evolution of the Lost Cause, but it takes some of the suspense out of the end of the book. This passage would have been better as an epilogue.
I highly recommend this book. I am looking forward to reading the other two in the trilogy – The Year of Jubilo and The Judas Field. At this point I would read anything by Howard Bahr.