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...
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