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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Five Forks: Waterloo of the Confederacy: A Civil War Narrative by Robert Alexander (Michigan State University Press) The Battle of Five Forks was one of the last battles of the American Civil War. A week later, Lee surrendered. Two weeks later, Lincoln was dead.

Five Forks tells the story of this small but crucial battle from the point of view of a contemporary American, a battle that occurred on April Fool’s Day, 1965. In telling this story, Robert Alexander, a writer and former school teacher with a PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, makes generous use of primary sources, magazine articles, letters, and autobiographies, to give a flavor of the times. He juxtaposes the story of the battle, which he tells through narrative, letters, and journal entries, with his own impressions, viewing the South through Northern eyes. Through use of the semi-autobiographical narrator, the story gains immediacy and personal detail. He, a northerner, is doing research on the battle, while at the same time visiting his fiancée, a southerner who lives in Richmond – and his view of the war changes as he begins to learn the Southern version of the conflict.

Alexander also interweaves the stories of commanding generals and the common soldier to tell how the two armies got to Petersburg .

In addition, he views contemporary American society through the story of Five Forks . By focusing on one battle at the end of the war, Alexander attempts to elucidate the entire war and its place in the development of modern America . If it is true that we meet our future coming to us out of the past, then, Alexander posits, America is still grappling with issues unresolved by the Civil War. Those issues are not just the obvious ones of race and class, but also the more ephemeral issues surrounding the mythos Americans live by.

Alexander is not a historian, and this is much more a literary work than a battle story. However, the immediacy with which Alexander tells his tale leads the reader to experience Five Forks – the land, the smells, the cries – as if present there in 1865. Thus, he does not just describe a battle; he captures the spirit of all battles, all wars.

Five Forks, lucid and thought provoking, has appeal for the general reader as well as the Civil War aficionado; it belongs in your Civil War collection.

A Southern Soldier's Letters Home: The Civil War Letters of Samuel Burney, Army of Northern Virginia by Nat Turner (Mercer) Samuel A. Burney, born in April 1840, was the son of Thomas Jefferson Burney and Julia Shields Burney. He graduated from Mercer University , then at Penfield , Georgia , in 1860. He joined the Panola Guards, an infantry component of Thomas R.R. Cobb’s Georgia Legion in July 1861. For the next four years he served in the Army of Northern Virginia both in Virginia and in Tennessee . Burney was wounded in March 1864 and served the remainder of the war on commissary duty in southwest Georgia .
After the war Burney returned to Mercer’s school of theology, served as pastor of several churches in Morgan County , and was pastor of the Madison Baptist Church until shortly before his death in 1896.
These letters of a college graduate in the 1800s, a soldier in the civil war, written to his wife – Sarah Elizabeth Shepherd – are lyrical and beautifully written. Burney describes battles, camp life, theology, and the day-to-day dreariness of life in the army. A Southern Soldier's Letters Home is an astounding collection of letters for anyone interested in the Civil War or the South.


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