The Personal Loss of War as Illustrated in C. S. Harris’ Good Time Coming
When we think of war or read about it in textbooks, the first things we notice are the big things: who fought whom and why, how many lives were lost, or what gruesome new technology was used. But there is a much subtler aspect to the great conflicts of history – the personal one that touches lives in ways that often go unrecorded. To learn about these, we have to go to primary sources like letters and diaries or turn to historical fiction to fill in the blanks and breathe life into otherwise remote actors and events.
It is in this area that C. S. Harris’ American Civil War novel, Good Time Coming, excels. It is both the coming of age story of a young girl named Amrie and a chronicle of the ravages of war for those left behind to defend their homesteads and mourn those who die on the battlefield. Situated north of the valuable commodities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the small town of St. Francisville, Louisiana, takes a beating by the Union soldiers while its men – and anyone else who could reasonably defend it – were off fighting. But it is the psychological and emotional toll of losing one’s innocence, sense of safety, and human dignity, this novel best brings to light – and with it, an important part of history that has previously been confined to the shadows.
The loss begins in small, subtle ways that give quiet hints of the horrors to follow. When Amrie’s treasured gold cross necklace is ripped off her throat by a Union solider, she experiences “a sense of violation [she] couldn’t begin to explain.” The tragedy here isn’t just a beloved the loss of piece of jewelry, but the loss of innocence it represents. Until that time, she trusts in soldiers, believes they will not harm women and children, but experience teaches her the opposite is true. Later on, when thinking of that cross, she realizes, “Its theft seemed somehow inevitable, a symbol of all I’d cherished, yet now perceived ever so dimly was slipping away forever.”
Years go by and, after much additional hardship, Amrie is slowly able to place the change the war has brought about in her. “There was something about watching the joy with which those men had sat about willfully destroying our lives- something about the naked hatred I had seen in their sweat-sheened faces – that shocked and troubled me more than I could have explained. But beyond that, it had awakened something in that hadn’t been there before. I, too, had learned to hate.”
While Amrie is the main character of this tale, the same could be said for many across the South. Because of the prevailing culture, Southern women (and their children) were kept sheltered from problems that were considered men’s business. Sometimes this was an issue of power, sometimes it was meant to avoid upsetting their more delicate natures, while other times it happened simply because men believed women didn’t have the brain power to deal with such matters. When men were away at war, women were forced to face this harsh reality; some, like Amrie’s mother, rose to the occasion by finding unknown wells of strength within, while others suffered a painful shock as they adjusted to the realities of wartime life, and a few gave in to forces they didn’t have the ability to fight.
Safe No More
There are many aspects of life we – like our ancestors before us – take for granted. We don’t really stop and think about our daily lives; we go about them in a kind of fog until something happens to jolt us out of complacency. For Amrie, that something is war. “The war was like some giant paddle stirring up the quiet, predictable rhythms and patterns of our lives. The result was mostly dislocation, trauma, hardship, disease and death.”
Most of that trauma is inflicted by Union soldiers who seem to view the residents of St. Francisville as less than human, to be mistreated as they please. As Amrie’s mother says, “Without [General] Williams to stop them, the troops are breaking into houses, smashing furniture, shredding whatever women’s and children’s clothes they can find. Who’d have thought our own former countrymen could behave like the worst Vandal hordes? It’s as if that’s why they are fighting – for the opportunity to steal.”
While their leaders turn a blind eye or participate, and without punishment to curb them, the soldiers give into their basest inclinations toward lust, greed, and bloodthirsty violence. As the war continues and more Northern soldiers take to terrifying the women and children of the South, raiding their homes and farmyards, raping the mothers and grandmothers, “We could only hide the things that were the most valuable and therefore most at risk.”
It is during that time Amrie realizes she is in special danger as a budding woman. Whereas she used to be able to run and play as she pleased, just another child to be ignored, now she is fair game for the gangs of marauding soldiers. She is no longer safe anywhere. “I was probably more vulnerable here, in our house and yard, than I was roaming the swamps and bayous with Finn,” she thinks. She has become a sitting duck in her own home.
When a painting of her younger brother, who had passed away years ago, is ruined in a raid and previous family heirlooms stolen or destroyed, she finally succumbs to fear. “The idea that someone could take all this from me – my sense of identity, my connection to ancestors I’d never known, the image of my dead brother – made me feel anxious and vulnerable in a way I’d never before realized I was.” She would know no peace until the war was over.
Dehumanizing the Enemy
Dignity can be lost in so many small ways, chipped away day by day, death by a thousand cuts, as it were. Of course, having to give up their treasured fine possessions is humbling to the Southern women. Amrie knows this hardship firsthand, and sees it in the homes of her neighbors. “I suspected the Walfords’ carpets – like our own – had been cut up into squares last winter and sent off to Virginia and Tennessee for the soldiers to use as blankets…We were all used to this sort of thing, salvaging trims and ribbons from worn out dresses and hats; using rough homespun sheets on our beds and cutting up the linen of our old sheets for drawers and chemises. Some folks were even cutting up old saddles and leather chair seats for shoes.”
Then “real money” disappeared and “shop-owners needing to give change started handing out promissory notes –‘Good for fifty cents at Meyers Emporium’ – and folks used those amongst themselves as money. Barter had always been common amongst the plain folk; now, everybody did it.” Those used to flaunting their money by buying whatever they pleased or showing it off through luxury goods were now made equal with the poor they once shunned; they, too, had to clean themselves with harsh soap, wear coarse homespun, and barter for what they needed.
But even those things pale in comparison to the ultimate humiliation: wartime rape. Though it is still used as a weapon of war today, as C.S. Harris writes in her notes at the end of the book, “it is one of the commonly accepted truisms of Civil War historiography that rape was extraordinarily rare in the Civil War.” But as she researched, she noticed the rape was there; it was just very well hidden in euphuisms such as “plunder and pillage,” “the greatest indignity possible committed upon women,” “the worst insult imaginable” or “horrors.”
The author shows this aspect of war in brutally realistic terms, sparing nether slave nor genteel woman, young girls or grandmothers – just as the soldiers showed little deference to rank, wealth or age.
Because of the stigma associated with the forced loss of virginity/chastity in rape cases, women have always been loath to report the crime, but it held a special shame for white Southern women. As Amrie’s mother explains, “Southern men pride themselves on taking care of their womenfolk and children, providing them with food and a home, and protecting them. So when those Federal soldiers forced that girl, they weren’t just shaming her. They were deliberately shaming her father and her brothers, too. It’s probably the main reason they did that to her. So you see, if that girl were to admit her rape, she wouldn’t simply be sacrificing her own honor, she’d become complicit in the Yankees’ degradation of her family, her town…the South itself.”
So a woman who was raped during the war was perhaps the ultimate victim – physically accosted, sometimes impregnated, no doubt traumatized, and then unable to even tell anyone what occurred, for fear she’d be branded a traitor – all for an act to which she did not consent and over which she had no control. And for over one hundred years, those stories were lost in polite silence and unspoken pain. Toward the end of the book, Amrie is thinking about the bond formed by soldiers that gets recorded in the history books and in novels. She notes, “But the likes of Homer and Sir Walter Scott never talked about what we experienced, about the bonds formed amongst women and children left alone in times of war to face hardship and deprivation and dangers, to confront marauding armies and the battle every day to find food and stay warm and simply survive.”
History may have ignored those left behind, but today, thanks to novelists like C.S. Harris, we are hearing their stories once again. A part of history is being restored and with it, our understanding of the vulnerabilities, emotions and trials of our ancestors.
If you’d like to read more from C.S. Harris about her inspiration to write Good Time Coming, why she touched on certain themes, her research, and more, check out Nicole’s interview with her.
About the contributor: Nicole Evelina is a historical fiction and women’s fiction author, as well as a book reviewer for HNS, Historical Honey and Sirens. She can be found online here.