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The fate of the foot soldiers // Souls caught up in war


A Novel of the Civil War

By Howard Bahr

Nautical & Aviation, $24.95


Howard Bahr, a Mississipian who now teaches at a state college in Tennessee, writes his "novel of the civil war" from the Confederate side, but his story is hardly partisan. Bahr is not interested in causes or in the outcome of battles. Rather he is intent on examining _ in chilling detail _ the impact the brutal enterprise we call war has on the human soul.

The Black Flower, a remarkable fictional debut for Bahr, covers a day in the American Civil War, beginning with a battle on the evening of Nov. 30, 1864. The conflict takes place in the obscure village of Franklin, Tenn., the same site that Winston Groom chose for his Civil War novel, Shrouds of Glory. In Bahr's novel, we follow the fortunes of Bushrod Carter and his pals from Cumberland, Miss.

At 26, Carter is already a veteran soldier. He has been facing the Strangers, as he calls the enemy, since Shiloh. For him, the romance of war has long been stripped away. In the course of the day that he is facing, everything else will be taken from him as well: his friends, the possibility of a woman's love, not to mention life itself.

Bahr's foot soldiers are hardly the usual stereotypes of the genteel Southern gentlemen. They swear. They stink. They care little for the honor of the South. Grown weary of a fight they don't understand, they think little of the officers who are sending them out on these suicidal missions.

They are, in short, utterly human.

"If only those boys over there could get to know him for a while _ if only they could learn what a charming, what a really extraordinary fellow he was _ perhaps they would not be so keen to erase all the possibilities he represented," Carter thinks about himself just before the battle begins.

Such aching reflections permeate this affecting novel where war is described not by the movement of troops but by the gestures of individuals, from the raised arms of the bloated Departed to the slim fingers of a woman caressing a dead man's brow. Union and Confederate soldiers alike are depicted as individuals caught up in a madness not of their own making.

The Black Flower is not a cheerful book to read. Its landscape, like the denouement of a Shakespearean tragedy, is littered with the bodies of young men. But death is not, we are convinced by novel's end, the ugliest aspect of war. Worse is the anonymity in death faced by so many of the soldiers, their utter loss of individuality in the carnage of war. After the battle, bodies are stacked like dried corn husks in the hallways of a farmhouse turned into a hospital. Dead generals are lined up across the porch like discarded shells. There is little to indicate that these men were once individuals with rich and textured lives.

The Black Flower tries to return some of that texture to its protagonist's life. He expresses his fears. He buries his buddies. He makes contact with a woman named Anna who puts on a yellow dress for him.

Before the battle begins, Carter recalls the time when the two opposing armies had to stop fighting to clear up the bodies that had been piling up thickly on the field. "Federals and Confederates alike had removed their jackets and so were practically indistinguishable, and the thought came to Bushrod that if trouble erupted now he would not know whom to flee," Bahr writes. While digging the graves for the Departed, Carter meets one of the Federal soldiers who puts out his hand and introduces himself: Bill Provin of Cairo. "Bushrod's raising would not suffer him to leave the man's hand dangling in mid-air," writes Bahr. They shake hands. "Bushrod thought it the strangest thing he had ever done."

The passage underscores the dominant theme of The Black Flower: War is fought by people. People with birth dates and histories who might have had futures. When Anna's brother rummages through the things in Carter's haversack, "an impoverished collection, everything broken, rusty, dirty, bent, tattered," he is surprised to discover "only the little book with the close writing suggested that there was anything mysterious about being a soldier." Carter was a soldier who died at the battle of Franklin. A man with whom Anna might have have fallen in love. Now she is left only to remember the way he spoke her name.

Margo Hammond is the Times book editor.