John William De Forest was a member of a wealthy and cultured New England family. Poor health, however, prevented him from following family tradition in his education, and instead of attending Yale he took a two-year trip to the Near East. On his return, he assembled History of the Indians of Connecticut, the first book of its kind and one that is still consulted by ethnologists for its accuracy and detail.
Afterward, De Forest spent several years abroad, traveling, collecting material for books, and studying foreign languages. He returned to America, married, and was living in Charleston, South Carolina, when the Civil War broke out. He escaped with his wife and child just before the attack on Fort Sumter.
Back in Connecticut, he organized a group of volunteers and led them through a series of Civil War battles. De Forest recorded his experiences in a journal, later published as A Volunteer’s Adventures, which remains one of the best accounts of life in the Union Army. The journal also served as an important source of material for his excellent but neglected novel Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty.
Partly because his writing was factual, accurate, and realistic, De Forest failed to achieve recognition from a generation that preferred sentimentalized versions of history. Only toward the end of the twentieth century did his realism begin to gain renewed appreciation from critics who, like William Dean Howells, admired the way in which De Forest worked, “with a sort of disdainful honesty to the effects of art.”