Manassas: v. 8 (Civil War Battle) (Civil War Battle S.)

Written by James Reasoner
Review by John R. Vallely

These three novels are the first of a projected eight-volume set on the American Civil War as seen through the eyes of one Southern family – the Brannons of Culpepper, Virginia. Each of the eight will feature a particular battle as its title (and, incidentally, have a colorful battle scene painted by noted Civil War artist Don Troiani on the book jacket), but readers should be aware that the battle of the title is only a relatively small part of each volume. Readers should also be advised to read the novels in succession if at all possible. The characters are not difficult to analyze, but the chronological development of the conflict itself is important to the story Reasoner attempts to tell.

A further note of caution may be necessary for some. The fortunes and misfortunes of the Brannon clan are written with a definite Southern bias. These are not evil slaveholders fighting for a racist social system. Rather, the protagonists are noble yeoman farmers who reluctantly go to war to save their homes and families from Yankee outsiders.

Even the most casual student of American history is aware of the enormous body of literature devoted to the Civil War (Cold Mountain and The Killer Angels are two of the more recent bestselling novels), and Reasoner can expect to be read with a critical eye by the legions of Civil War buffs and amateur Civil War historians who consistently devour novels and histories of the time period. The author will certainly take some warranted criticism for his treatment of Stonewall Jackson’s personality. His friendly, warm personality will certainly come as a shock to students of the conflict. Readers will be comfortable with Reasoner’s view of life for whites in the mid-19th century South. He has obviously done his homework.

The main characters, the sons and daughter of Abigail Brannon, are Virginia farmers caught up in the South’s rebellion in 1861. We follow the diverse wartime adventures of each family member as the conflict evolves, expands, and inexorably consumes and destroys their prewar society. Three of the sons are in the Confederate forces by the end of the third volume, and all of them encounter actual participants (notably Stonewall Jackson and Nathan Bedford Forrest, to name the most significant so far). Also putting in appearances are stock fictional characters from Confederate central casting: the salty riverboat captain, beautiful and virginal women, the rich and cowardly plantation owner, the loyal slave, hordes of valiant Southern soldiers, and an equal number of faceless Yankee invaders. Each Brannon son participates in the campaigns and battles in their respective war zones (Corey in the Western fighting along the Mississippi River and his brothers with Jackson and in Jeb Stuart’s cavalry).

The military background and campaign analysis speak volumes for Reasoner’s research. The battle scenes themselves are surprisingly lacking in dramatic impact, and this is a major disappointment. The author consistently falls short in his description of that part of Civil War fiction that will attract most of his public to read the novels in the first place. The unrelenting description of brave Southerners standing up to Yankee aggression also takes a toll. The battle action will not replace The Killer Angels, and the characters and stories will not make one forget Cold Mountain, but Reasoner does a credible job in illustrating one family’s reaction to the terrors of Civil War America.