The virtues of the past don't stand if the virtues of the present fail...
He is trapped between worlds. The former has raised him, the latter has ripped the learning of the first away, replaced it with new laws, responses, expectations, fears. None are real anymore. He is not real anymore. He knows this as he sits silently watching the silent flag. Wonders if they will both one day fly away into the white flecked sky, two other motes to be consumed by the enormous wholeness of it all. To the arms of God, if there is a God, although a God would not allow war. No God would allow that. But some God has.
Can one snippet of history inspire an entire book? That was the question I asked myself after hearing a single sentence in a free online lecture. That sentence related to real-life historical figure Charles Harvey Brewster, who at the end of the American Civil War found himself recruiting African American soldiers for the Union. Part of his role – and this was what fascinated me – was to write love letters for their illiterate wives to their men at the front. The concept of this young man with little experience of ex-slaves and romance being a bridge between the two was one I couldn’t shake.
There was war and there was love and there was damage and there was hope. Beyond this, though, it was very much a case of the world of men meeting the world of women. It was one of those strong ideas that won’t let you go, and I wondered where it would take me. Initially it became a play, then a screenplay. There was still more, though, and I had to keep persevering with it, until finally a novel emerged.’
I hope Charlie’s Wives will offer insight into a time that had enormous potential for social change, although it’s actually quite a contemporary novel. While it’s set in the past it deals with racism during a period when America was over-loaded with returned soldiers who had been damaged by their experiences of war. This is similar to what’s happening in the US right now and it was firmly in my mind as I wrote. I can’t help but wonder what America and the world would be like now if the opportunities for equality at the end of the Civil War had been allowed to flourish. That they weren’t was a tragedy of epic proportions.
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I am scared most to death every battle we have, but I don't think you need be afraid of my sneaking away unhurt.
Thus wrote Adjutant Charles Harvey Brewster of the 10th Massachusetts to his sister Mattie in 1864, in one of over 200 letters he would pen during his four years of service. Born and raised in Northampton, Massachusetts, Brewster was a 27-year-old store clerk when he enlisted in Company C of the 10th Massachusetts Volunteers in April 1861.
During the next three and a half years he fought in many of the major battles of the Virginia campaigns - Fair Oaks, the Seven Days, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, the "Bloody Angle" at Spotsylvania - rising through the ranks to become second lieutenant and later adjutant of his regiment.
His letters, most of which were written to his mother and two sisters, record not only the horrors he witnessed on the battlefield, but also his own inner struggle with his own values, convictions and sense of manhood.
In a thoughtful and illuminating introductory essay, David W. Blight explores the evolution of Brewster's understanding of the terrible conflict in which he was engaged. Blight shows how Brewster's attitudes toward race and slavery gradually changed, in part as a result of his contact with escaped slaves and his experience recruiting black troops. He also examines the shift in Brewster's conception of courage, as the realities of war collided with the romantic ideals he had previously embraced.
This literate collection of 137 letters chronicles the experiences of an ordinary Union soldier caught up in extraordinary events. At times naive and sentimental, at times mature and realistic, Brewster's correspondence not only provides insight into the meaning of the Civil War for the average Yankee, but also testifies to the persistent power of war to attract and repel the human imagination.