For nearly thirty years after the surrender at Appomattox, the American Civil War was notable in American fiction mainly for its absence. Memoirs, diaries, and regimental histories began to appear before the ink on the treaty was dry, but no Lev Tolstoy emerged to immortalize the torn consciences and crippled psyches of the men on the battlefield and the women who fought beside them, tended the wounded, or waited at home. Men who had fought were unwilling or unable to use their experiences in novels; authors who had not—such as William Dean Howells and Henry James—were reluctant for other, possibly more complicated, reasons to describe what they had not seen. It was only with the appearance in 1895 of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage that the War Between the States became a subject for serious fiction, and, by then, the conflicts that had caused the war had lost their immediacy and become a part of regional or national mythology. Until at least the middle of the twentieth century, the war was primarily the province of Southern novelists, from William Faulkner to Margaret Mitchell, who used it to explain or justify the damaged souls and cultural obsessions of their characters.
It is not surprising, then, that contemporary authors interested in finding a social canvas broad enough to encompass their disturbing visions of the present should turn to this definitive period of national crisis as a fresh and relatively untouched milieu. In his latest novel, American Falls, John Calvin Batchelor re-creates the tense and brooding atmosphere that hung over a country at war with itself. Using vivid language and powerful imagery, the author narrates a fast-moving adventure story that is, at the same time, a haunting study of corruption and despair.
American Falls is set during the last, troubled months of the Civil War, when the mood of the country, North and South, seemed to vacillate regularly between weariness of bloodshed and lust for revenge. Batchelor’s antagonists—a loyal but doubting Southerner and a dogged Cavalry captain still recovering from battle wounds—are secret agents in the service of their respective governments. Beset by confusions and surrounded by physical and moral chaos, they struggle to make sense of the disintegrating world around them and to disentangle their personal loyalties from their external commitments. The title of the novel, referring literally to Niagara Falls, where the story begins and ends, takes on other meanings as the narrative progresses, for the Americans on both sides are clearly fallen men, and the country they inhabit is both dangerous and corrupt.
John Oliphant, Philadelphia-born but tied to the confederacy through the family of his Sea Island wife, is called back to the Continent from England, where he has been acting as an agent and financial courier for the Southern cause. He is to provide a link between the Richmond government and a group of calculating and vengeful Confederate officers who have gathered in Canada under the secret leadership of Ambassador Jacob Thompson to launch a nationwide guerrilla attack on the major cities of the North. The year is 1864, the time late October, shortly before the election that will determine whether the Union will go for George Brinton McClellan and negotiated peace or will swing back to Abraham Lincoln and the black Republicans, mired in the stalemate of the costly Virginia campaigns. The South has lost the war—everyone acknowledges that. By disrupting the Northern elections, the secret corps of rebel guerrillas hope to encourage the antiwar interests throughout the Union—the Copperheads and the pro-Southern Sons of Liberty—to riot and take power, thus forcing an end to the war on terms that will allow for the recognition of a separate but equal Confederate nation.
Oliphant plunges almost immediately into a confusing whirlpool of activity. As he leaves Canada and boards the New York train at Niagara, he finds himself, almost against his will, aiding a company of black volunteers that has been assigned to guard a group of escaped Confederate prisoners of war. Turning away from a group of angry civilians, shaking with emotion and suffering from an acute toothache, he finds himself forced to risk his cover to assist a group of saboteurs control a new recruit who is desperate to effect a single-handed rescue of the escapees. Oliphant’s duty is to the Confederacy and to his chief, Secretary of War Judah Benjamin, yet he can only see disaster in the plots being hatched around him. When Oliphant arrives in Manhattan, he is particularly repelled by the intention of the local agents to buy the services of the brutal street gangs of the city, gangs that had, only months before, burned orphanages and hanged blacks from lampposts during the infamous Draft Riots. In love with his wife’s sister, Narcissa Royall Winwood, herself an agent, and pursued by the wife of New York’s head spy, Oliphant is frustrated by his inability to control his own life and his failure to determine effectively the proper course of action for his restless agents.
Oliphant’s Northern counterpart is Captain Amaziah Butter, First D.C. Cavalry, on temporary assignment to the United States Secret Service, one of the notorious Lafayette Baker’s handpicked men. Having successfully tracked down evidence of the Canadian plot in his native Maine, Butter is sent to New York to take over the surveillance of the rebel spies recently crossed at Niagara. He becomes convinced, on somewhat shaky ground, that Oliphant is the master spy, the mainspring of action of the great plot, and sets out to persuade his superiors to do something to...
(The entire section is 2320 words.)