But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the brightest day and in the darkest night—amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours—always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Letter from Major Sullivan Ballou (2nd Rhode Island Infantry Regiment) to his wife, Sarah. Ballou died in July 1861 of wounds sustained in the first Battle of Bull Run.
I first heard Ballou’s letter on the Ken Burns PBS documentary series The Civil War, and it brought me to tears. Erin Lindsay McCabe’s beautiful novel of undying love during the Civil War, I Shall Be Near to You, made my eyes water as well. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to ruin the story. But keep in mind that war stories rarely have fairy-tale endings.)
Sarah Ballou, like almost every wife of a soldier, waited at home for her husband. Rosetta Wakefield, the determined and courageous heroine of I Shall Be Near to You, follows her new husband, Jeremiah, into battle. Rosetta is partially motivated by her love for Jeremiah — who only joined the 97th New York State Volunteers to earn money so he and Rosetta could buy a farm in Nebraska — and partially by her desire to escape life in Flat Creek, New York, where she is tormented by her mother-in-law and a hostile neighbor.
Jeremiah slips away to enlist, leaving Rosetta a letter that explains his leave-taking:
I am writing this letter as your Husband, and that is something Good. It don’t mean a thing is different about my Feelings that I am setting off without you knowing, or seeing you one more time and telling you all my Thoughts. You will cry to Hear them said so that is why I am Going this way, so I can Make myself Leave without causing you any more Pain.
He also leaves a map of the United States and its territories: “Jeremiah has made a heart at Flat Creek and a star at Herkimer. But in the Nebraska Territory he has written, I shall always be near to you.”
Rosetta decides to take Jeremiah’s promise literally. She will enlist with him in the Union Army and “earn a soldier’s pay instead of just a nurse’s or a laundress’s and stay with Jeremiah for as long as this war drags on.” Her impulsive and brave (or foolhardy?) decision shows us that she is no ordinary 19th century woman:
Laying there on our bed is Jeremiah’s work shirt where I left it, the map unfolded beside it. And then like a hornets’ nest in the hot dust that you almost don’t see until it’s too late, but once you have, you can’t not see it for the buzzing in and out of the crack in the dirt crust, the idea of it just comes to me.
Rosetta’s character is based on a real woman, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, who fought in the Civil War disguised as a man. Her family later shared her letters, which were published in a book called An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864. According to McCabe, “the fictional Rosetta is greatly informed by the feisty and strong-willed voice that shines through Wakeman’s letters home”. (Apparently Wakeman was not as “uncommon” as you might think; historians believe there were hundreds of women who saw combat in the Civil War.)
That “feisty and “strong-willed voice” shines brilliantly through I Shall Be Near to You, bringing Rosetta Wakefield (a.k.a. “Ross Stone”) to life on the page. McCabe perfectly captures her youthful enthusiasm, stubbornness, and bravery — and her deep and abiding love for Jeremiah. She doesn’t make the mistake so many writers of historical fiction seem to make, which is placing characters with modern-day sensibilities in a decidedly “un-modern” context. Rosetta may be more independent-minded than other young women of her time, but she is still a product of the mid-19th century. Growing up with no brothers, Rosetta has been treated more like a son than a daughter.
McCabe pays careful attention to detail throughout the novel, describing not only how novice soldiers were trained in the art of war and how they fought on the battlefield, but also how they cooked, ate, slept, bathed, and amused themselves. She also does a masterful job portraying their emotional reactions to the horror and carnage of war. Historical fiction, by allowing the author to let her imagination go beyond recorded facts, can be a very powerful way of making history come alive. No one knows what the real Rosetta’s reaction to seeing a deserter being branded would have been, or how she would have felt visiting dying men in a hospital. McCabe’s storytelling removes the distance between the reader and the historical events, helping the reader empathize with the characters.
As regular readers of this blog probably know, my husband is a Civil War buff. (Yes, it’s called the Civil War. I was recently seated at a dinner next to a gentleman from Mississippi who referred to that conflict in our nation’s history as the “War of Northern Aggression”. Sorry, no.) Jeff has an unending appetite for Civil War books — detailed accounts of military campaigns, biographies of generals, nonfiction covering various aspects of the war (prison camps, spies, battlefield medicine, etc.). Occasionally, he will read historical fiction about the war — for example, he and I both loved E.L. Doctorow’s The March — but he’s more of a nonfiction reader. He loved I Shall Be Near to You as much as I did, which should tell you it’s a really good Civil War novel. (Just in case you don’t believe me.)
I highly recommend Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, by Karen Abbott, a brand-new nonfiction account of four women who served as spies during the Civil War (two for the Union, two for the Confederacy). One of the women, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, makes a cameo appearance in I Shall Be Near to You. Also recently published (and in my TBR stack) is Neverhome, by Laird Hunter, a novel about a woman who disguises herself as a man to fight for the Union, leaving her husband at home on the farm.