My Dearest Cecelia

Written by Diane Haeger
Review by Teresa Basinski Eckford

Built around a Civil War legend about William T. Sherman and a young southern belle, Ms. Haeger’s latest novel recounts their passionate affair. While fans of romance will find it a three-hankie read, serious historians will dismiss it as mere fantasy.

In May 1837, Cecelia Stovall visits her brother at West Point. There she meets William Sherman, her brother’s roommate. They dance, spar verbally, and meet secretly. When they are found out, her brother whisks her away. Eventually she is married off to a family benefactor. On three or four occasions she and Sherman meet, most significantly when Cecelia works as a spy for the North. In the end, Sherman spares her home, invoking a vow he made when they first met to “ever shield and protect” her. The note is extant, though the author’s version differs from the text of the real one.

Ms. Haeger’s prose is not overly inspiring at first, most notably her weak grasp of point-of-view, male characters expressing themselves in distinctly female voices, and overuse of southern dialect. This improved over the course of the novel but made the first few chapters a tough slog. The plot itself, while good and well-paced, is, from what I have learned, based very little in historical fact. For instance, I have found no mention of Cecelia Stovall being a Union spy. On a more positive note, Ms. Haeger is skilled at creating a believable setting, evoking strong images of the heat of the South and plantation life, while her characters are generally well-drawn. An author’s note detailing what was real and what was fictional might have helped.

Civil War buffs not overly worried about accuracy will likely enjoy this book. I found it a pleasant enough read after the first few chapters, but do not consider it a “keeper”.