The Characters

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 576

Usaph Bumpass is the hub around whom the many spokes of the novel revolve. Although he never actually encounters the leading actors in the two major subplots, Stonewall Jackson and Horace Searcy, their actions affect him so directly that they nevertheless constitute a part of his personal universe. In keeping with his centrality to the novel’s narrative, Bumpass is in most respects an average sort of fellow: He follows orders, does not stick his neck out, and envies those who, like the artist Decatur Cate and the musically talented Gus Ramseur, have special gifts that lift them above the run-of-the-mill. Even Bumpass’ basic equanimity, however, is broken down by the wear and tear of fighting and his apprehensions regarding his wife’s faithfulness, the latter being brought to the boiling point by the appearance of Cate.

Cate’s feelings for Bumpass, a combination of almost brotherly affection and simple pity, make him one of the most interesting characters in the book. Cate believes that he has been truly and deeply loved by Ephephtha and that this makes him and Bumpass confederates in love as well as in war; for Bumpass, however, Cate is simply an intrusion, a painful reminder that Ephephtha is now beyond his influence. The dynamics of this interaction, in which Cate is compelled to pursue Bumpass and he, in turn, is driven to despise Cate, tend to overshadow the relationship that each has had with Ephephtha, who is described as a very attractive but otherwise passive and vacuous woman. In this, she is joined by the rest of the novel’s female characters, who, even when sexually desired, do not seem able to offer their lovers anything more than a temporary respite from the stronger bonds forged between men in battle.

Stonewall Jackson and Horace Searcy are somewhat underdeveloped as individuals but still function as important sources of more expansive points of view. In accordance with the historical record, Jackson is portrayed as a reserved but resolute leader capable of inspiring great efforts from his men, with Thomas Keneally compensating for the absence of psychological data by providing a wealth of tactical military detail that makes it easy to follow the geographical course of the war. Searcy, who bears some resemblance to the famous English war correspondent W. H. Russell, serves to put the South’s need for a quick victory on the battlefield into an international context in which such a victory would help it achieve diplomatic recognition from Great Britain. Other period figures, among them Abraham Lincoln, make brief appearances in Confederates but are generally treated in a conventional, at times stereotypical, manner that does not stray far from the historical record.

Bumpass’ friends in the Shenandoah Volunteers are given far more complex and interesting treatment. Ramseur’s painstaking composition of a “War Symphony,” Blalock’s penchant for grandiose turns of phrase, and Judd’s irrepressibly profane humor are sketched in bold, dramatic strokes that firmly establish their personal idiosyncrasies. The numerous minor characters who make up Bumpass’ regiment and its allies and enemies are similarly presented as a colorful kaleidoscope of men at war, and one comes away from Confederates remembering its quirky privates rather than its famous generals and politicians. To play with the word for a moment, there are a host of “characters” among the novel’s characters, and they add a rich human dimension to its accounts of large-scale maneuvering on the military and diplomatic fronts.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 753

Usaph Bumpass

Usaph Bumpass, a Confederate soldier serving in the regiment of the Shenandoah Volunteers. Malnourished, bedraggled Usaph is a veteran of the war at the age of twenty-three. A poorly educated farmer, he is secretly envious of his two educated friends, Danny Blalock, a schoolmaster, and Gus Ramseur, a music teacher. Usaph constantly worries about the danger of his lovely wife feeling lonely on their farm and being unfaithful to him. When he receives a letter from her, delivered by Decatur Cate, he is sure that Ephie and Cate are lovers.

Ephephtha (Ephie) Bumpass

Ephephtha (Ephie) Bumpass, the beautiful wife of Usaph, reared in the swamps of the Carolinas. She was raped when young, then became accustomed to but not charmed by men’s demands on her. When Usaph takes her from the swamps to Virginia, she thinks that she has been saved, but then Usaph goes to war, and she is convinced that she is being punished for loving him too much. The worldly Decatur Cate represents refinement to Ephie. She is torn between running off to California with him and remaining faithful to Usaph.

Decatur Cate

Decatur Cate, a Union sympathizer conscripted into Bumpass’ regiment. Gangling, hollow-cheeked, and twenty-five years old, Cate is an introspective former portrait painter forced to join the army when Usaph’s Aunt Sarrie has him arrested. While painting Ephie’s portrait, Cate convinces her to become his lover and go to California. Aunt Sarrie intervenes, and Cate is sent to Usaph’s regiment, where he delivers a letter from Ephie. Usaph immediately suspects the worst, and Cate becomes his nemesis.

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a Confederate general and actual historical figure. He is called “Stonewall” for not letting the Union get around his troops. A tall, lean, and handsome West Point graduate, Jackson acts as if time is limited. All the other characters’ fates depend on his military maneuvers.

Lafcadio Wheat

Lafcadio Wheat, the commanding colonel of the Shenandoah Volunteers. Tall, black-whiskered, and thirty-three years old, Wheat is a former lawyer fond of inspiring his men with jokes and personal stories. Usaph becomes his runner and is with him when he dies.

Gus Ramseur

Gus Ramseur, a Confederate soldier and Bumpass’ best friend. A gentleman and a music scholar, golden-bearded Gus is the only man Usaph considers worth saving. Ramseur wants to write an overture of military music after the war.

Horace Searcy

Horace Searcy, an English war correspondent and Union spy. The daring Searcy is an abolitionist who detests the South. He has a secret commission from U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to gather intelligence. Because of his reputation as a world-renowned war journalist, Searcy has letters of introduction and safe passage from both the Union and the Confederacy. Searcy’s identity is discovered after he relays some vital information to the North about the South’s military strategy. He is given passage out of the country on a ship. Before leaving, he tries to persuade Dora Whipple to marry him.

Dora Whipple

Dora Whipple, a Confederate widow who becomes Searcy’s lover and accomplice. Mrs. Whipple already was a Union spy working in a military hospital in Richmond when she met Searcy. After becoming the matron at the military hospital in Orange, she sneaks to Searcy’s room at night. An accomplice of hers is caught, and her name appears on a list of spies. She is tried and refuses to deny being a spy. Accepting her fate and wishing to join her late husband in death, she refuses Searcy’s offer to become his wife and save herself by leaving with him for England.

Aunt Sarrie Muswell

Aunt Sarrie Muswell, Usaph’s aunt who takes care of Ephie during the war. Aunt Sarrie hires Cate to paint Ephie’s portrait, then realizes that Ephie is impressed by Cate’s worldliness. She arranges for Cate to be conscripted into the military in spite of his limp. She then arranges for Ephie to visit an herbalist when Ephie becomes pregnant.

Danny Blalock

Danny Blalock, a schoolmaster and fellow Confederate soldier in Bumpass’ regiment. Danny and Ash Judd are fond of leaving the regiment to find women. Danny dies at Gettysburg, as a major.

Ash Judd

Ash Judd, a farmer and fellow Confederate of Bumpass. Twenty years old, he looks up to Danny Blalock. Ash is superstitious and believes that a witch has put a spell on him that will protect him throughout the war. He drowns in his own blood.

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