The broad historical canvas upon which Confederates takes place is filled out with sharp portraits of individual actors as well as wide-angled panoramas of clashing armies. The protagonist, Usaph Bumpass, is a foot soldier whose vivid responses to battle are the dramatic high points of the novel. More general perspectives are provided by two important subplots, one focusing on the military strategies devised by General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (a real historical figure) and the other depicting the journalistic and espionage activities of Horace Searcy. Both subplots offer a bird’s-eye view of the warfare that Bumpass experiences at first hand, and, through Keneally’s deft alternation of close-up and long-shot, his complicated narrative moves forward at a brisk pace.
With the exception of a few flashbacks, Confederates is set in 1862, at a time when the superior fighting qualities of the Southern troops enabled them to meet larger and better equipped Northern forces on terms of approximate equality. Bumpass and his fellow Shenandoah Volunteers, although already bloodied in battle, have not yet lost their initial enthusiasm for the justice of their cause and the defense of their homeland. These hopes are bolstered by the confident leadership of Stonewall Jackson, whose ability to act quickly and decisively has so far befuddled the Union generals sent to fight against him. This is a source of immense frustration to Horace Searcy, who knows that the Confederacy would be defeated if the North made vigorous use of its advantages in numbers and supplies; it is also the cause of much anxiety among Southern leaders, who know that time is against them and an impressive military success is an absolute necessity. The race between Searcy’s efforts to get his information to the North and the South’s attempts to win a resounding victory is a major element of suspense in Confederates, given that most readers will be unfamiliar with the outcome of the particular battles fought in 1862, although they will know that the South is destined to lose the war.
Bumpass himself is also a battlefield within whom a serious conflict rages, in this case involving his wife, Ephephtha, and the itinerant artist Decatur Cate, who painted her portrait just before being drafted into the Confederate army. Cate brings Bumpass a letter from Ephephtha, and thus to the volunteer’s natural contempt for the conscript is added the raging jealousy of an absent husband. Something about the way Cate treats him, alternately overfamiliar and patronizing, convinces Bumpass that Cate has been his wife’s lover; since his suspicions are, in fact, correct, he begins to persecute and bully Cate with the help of his cronies Gus Ramseur, Danny Blalock, and Ash Judd. The artist responds to this harassment by refusing to defend himself, infuriating Bumpass all the more—to the point that he considers murdering him at the first opportunity.
These dramatic conflicts are played out against a background of escalating military tension, as Jackson prepares for a northward advance that will give him a chance to overwhelm the opposing troops piecemeal before they are able to concentrate into a superior force. A series of brilliantly executed maneuvers allows the Confederates to get around the Union flank and threaten its supply and communication lines, and, for a moment, it appears as if the South has won the crushing victory it so desperately needs. The superior resources of the North, however, even when mishandled, enable it to stalemate the Confederates at the bloody Battle of Antietam. Here, the Shenandoah Volunteers are decimated, Cate is killed, and Bumpass is so badly wounded that he returns home to be reconciled with, and ultimately to forgive, Ephephtha.
These major plot developments rest upon a rich variety of subsidiary incidents, many of which deal with the strong sexual passions aroused by the enforced separations and chance encounters that often occur in wartime. Searcy has a brief and tragic relationship with Dora Whipple, who is executed (Searcy, a British subject with the equivalent of diplomatic status, is only deported) when her links with his spy network are discovered. Two of Bumpass’ comrades-in-arms, Danny Blalock and Ash Judd, have a bizarre menage e trois with a farm woman that comes to a premature end when they are shot at by her crippled son; and Colonel Lafcadio Wheat, having spent a passionate night with a wife whose husband is away at war, manages to give Bumpass an inkling of those differences between lust and love which will eventually enable him to come to terms with Ephephtha’s adultery. Sexual desire is never far beneath the surface of Confederates, since its characters’ increasing familiarity with death is accompanied by powerful urges toward anything that affirms life.
As this last point suggests, it is the novel’s graphic depiction of the violence and horror of war that provides the fundamental motivations of its characters as well as the framework of its plot. This is accomplished, as in most good descriptive writing, by selecting the telling detail rather than piling on the adjectives and adverbs: It is the eyeball dangling from a socket and the intestines spilling out of a stomach that bring home to the reader what happens when flesh meets bullet or artillery shell. Where historical novels in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott display masses of men colliding on an epic scale, Confederates takes readers into the center of the struggle and offers overwhelming evidence of the traumatic transformations which occur in the ordeals of combat.
Beston, John B. “An Interview with Thomas Keneally,” in World Literature Written in English. XII, no. 1(1973), pp. 48-56.
Burke, Jeffrey. “Novel of War,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXII (October 5, 1980), p. 3.
Hospital, Janette T. “Keneally’s Reluctant Prophets: Analysis and an Interview with the Novelist,” in Commonweal. VII (May, 1976), pp. 295-300.
Kroll, Jack. Review in Newsweek. XCVI (September 15, 1980), p. 89.
Michaud, Charles. Review in Library Journal. CV (September 1, 1980), p. 1752.
Motion, Andrew. Review in The Times Literary Supplement. November 23, 1979, p. 11.