Some times I do not think I shall live to be very old--but should it be God's will for me and any come to me and ask how it was in the old War times, I will say--that there was really no victory, and no defeat. There were only brave men.
--Bushrod Carter's Commonplace Book Florence, Alabama November 16, 1864"
Howard Bahr, 1946-
Howard Bahr was born Howard Hereford in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1946. Bahr is his stepfather's name. Both his father and stepfather are deceased. However, his mother lives in Jackson, Mississippi, where Bahr teaches creative writing at Bellhaven College.
Tall, distinguished in appearance, Professor Bahr has been on the quiet side when I've met him at book signings. However, he's led an interesting life, and is quite the story himself.
After four years in the Navy, a portion of it in combat in Vietnam, Bahr returned to the States, working as a brakeman on a railroad on the Gulf Coast. He enrolled in the University of Mississippi in 1973. He became the curator of Faulkner's home, Rowan Oak, in 1976, holding that position until 1993. It is not surprising that Faulkner is among his favorite authors.
During his Ole Miss years, Bahr obtained his BA and Master's degrees in English, teaching literature at the University. Although he began a doctoral program, he did not submit a dissertation. Thinking his career at Ole Miss had reached a dead end, he took a position at Motlow State in Tennessee, teaching literature and creative writing.
General John Bell Hood, Commander, Army of Tennessee
John Bell Hood, who had fought at Gettysburg with Lee, witnessed Pickett's Charge, but learned nothing from it. Wounded by an exploding shell he lost the use of his left arm for the remainder of his life. At Chickamauga he lost a leg, amputated just below the hip.
He had pursued courtship of a Richmond belle, Sally Buchanan Preston, known to her friends as "Buck." She repeatedly turned Hood's efforts at courtship aside. Before his transfer to the Western theater of the war, she reluctantly agreed to marry him. The wedding never occurred.
Hood had taken the command of the Army of Tennessee from Joe Johnson who had defended Atlanta using trenches and breastworks. His troops had loved him for his value of their lives.
Hood was a different animal. He was aggressive to the extreme. He despised fighting on the defensive. His objective was to cut off Union troops under the command of General Schofield from uniting with General George H. Thomas, known as the "Rock of Chickamauga" for his stand at that battle on September 19, 1864.
On the night of November 29th, Schofield's troops quietly crossed the exhausted Confederate lines without being discovered, moving on to take the heights of Franklin, Tennessee.
Upon learning that Schofield had eluded him, Hood became enraged the following morning. He would launch a frontal assault at Franklin, Tennessee. He had eighteen divisions of troops, almost 20,000 men.
"When he explained what he meant by 'make the fight'--an all out frontal assault, within the hour--consternation folllowed hard upon doubt by his lieutenants that they had hear aright. They too had looked out over the proposed arena, and could scarely believe their ears. Attack? here? headlong and practicallly gunless, against a foe not only superior in numbers but also intrenched on chosen ground and backed by the frown of more than sixty pieces of artillery?", Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, vol. III, p. 666, Random House, New York, 1976.
Bushrod Carter's War
He was born in Cumberland, Mississippi, in 1838, and baptized at the age of eleven months in the Church of the Holy Cross. He attended the University of Mississippi at Oxford and was educated. He had a love of books and poetry, having been taught by his cousin Remy that without poetry the heart was empty. When the war came he immediately enlisted in the Cumberland Rifles with his pards Jack Bishop and Virgil C. Johnson. He had fought in every engagement entered by the Army of Tennessee. Yet, though he was but twenty-six, his beard and mustache were streaked with gray.
"His own side--that is, the Confederate States of America, which existed for Bushrod only as a vague and distand, and rarely generous entity--had provided him a first-rate Enfield rifle with blued barrel and a rich, oily stock into which he had carved his initials...[H]e was not a sharpshooter; Bushrod preferred to leave his targets to chance."
Through all the fights, Bushrod was uncomfortable, preferring to call his enemies as "The Strangers." In the assaults, he did not look up, nor did he think about what was happening, nor did he know what he did during battle. It was only later that he would remember what he had done. He would rather not remember it.
Now, it is November 30, an Indian Summer day that hunters back home would dream about having. Unlike earlier times he is wishing it is this time tomorrow. He is waiting for something to happen.
Often in battle he thought there was another Bushrod Carter who took his place who did those things he did not want to remember. At times the other would speak to him. He heard it now.
"All a-tremble over things that ain't happened yet, that might not happen atall. I won't have this, won't have it. Now, listen. Listen--
Bushrod shut his eyes tight, and in the dark behind his eyes arose a vision: the battlefield, the tangled breastworks of the enemy floating closer and closer, what had been life's endless prospect shrunken to a few yards of brittle grass. And the Departed! The Departed rising from the earth like blackbirds, by the hundreds, by the thousands, groaning and chattering, disappearing forever into the smoke--
That was Hawthorne said the voice. Remember what he said. The black flower. Let the black flower blossom as it may--"
His pards are as they always are. Jack, the cynical one. Virgil C. the clown.
"'This is all folly,' Bishop went on, 'and I for one am inclined to forego the whole thing. See those trees yonder?' He swept his arm toward the river. 'They will make this whole end of the line bunch up toward the center, and it'll be a fine day for hog killin, won't it Bushrod, old pard?'"
"'If you are killed, said Virgil C., 'can I have your watch?' 'No!' said Bishop. 'I have told you a hundred times, that watch was give to me by my mother, and I intend to carry it even unto the grave.'"
The army formed up at the McGavock family place, Carnton Plantation. The breastworks are visible a mile and a half away over clear plain. It is a killing field.
It is over around two a.m. Jack was right. It was a good day for hog killin. Bushrod is buried beneath the dead seven and eight deep at the Strangers' breastworks. He is rescued, and carried back to Carnton. He has been struck in the head with the butt of a musket. The tip of a finger has been shot off. But he is alive.
At Carnton Bushrod will be cared for by Caroline McGavock's cousin Anna. Each have known love and lost it. Perhaps they have one more chance.
The Long Road to Publication
Howard Bahr submitted "The Black Flower" to several publishing companies. All rejected it. Ultimately, The Nautical and Aviation Pulishing Company of America, Baltimore, Maryland, published the novel as part of a project to launch a series of historical fiction. The novel was largely overlooked and rarely reviewed.
In 1998, Henry Holt and Company, New York, published "The Black Flower" as a new work in a trade paperback edition. Robert Wilson, reviewing the novel for the NYTimes wrote:
Howard Bahr's first novel was published in hardcover last year by a small press in Baltimore, but despite being nominated for several awards it escaped the attention of most reviewers and readers. Now appearing in paperback, it's being republished as if it were new. The success of ''Cold Mountain'' certainly has something to do with this, since ''The Black Flower,'' like that surprising best seller, is, as its subtitle reminds us, ''A Novel of the Civil War.'' Let me promise right now not to compare Bahr's bold effort with ''The Red Badge of Courage,'' ''The Killer Angels,'' the film ''Glory'' or a certain public television documentary. Forget Margaret Mitchell, Shelby Foote and even Charles Frazier. Bahr's novel is too eccentric and too uneven to support such comparisons. And at moments it's almost too good to support them."
Wilson particularly found Bahr to write with a post Vietnam ferocity, establishing the malignity of war and its pointlessness, calling "The Black Flower" a deeply moral novel. Indeed it is.
The Reviewer Wraps Up
Just how good is "The Black Flower?" It was nominated for The Stephen Crane Award, and won The Lincoln Prize from Gettysburg College and The LSU Michael Shaara Award for Civil War First Fiction. It was also nominated for the the Sue Kaufman First Fiction Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In addition, the novel was chosen as both a Book-of-the-Month Club and a Quality Paperback Book alternate. It was also considered a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1998.
I have walked the terrain of Franklin. I've been to Carnton, the Carter House Gin. It is small wonder that among Civil War historians the Battle of Franklin is frequently called the Pickett's Charge of the West. Surveying the ground, Hood's "lieutenants" were correct. So was Bushrod's cynical friend, Jack Bishop. The very lay of the land would funnel the army into a trap where they were subjected to enfilading fire.
The Killing Field at Franklin
Bahr wrote a significant novel regarding the futility of war. In stark and at other times, dream like, prose, he reminds us that there is no glory in war. As Bushrod tells us it is hard to tell the difference between winning and losing.
The McGavock Family Cemetery
Just walk through the McGavock Family cemetery at Carnton. You'll agree.