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Soldiers' Tales 

Two Vermont authors relive the Civil War era

Published November 12, 2003 at 5:00 a.m.

It's hard to imagine two more different boyhoods than those of Webb Baker and Brendan Kane. Both young men grew up in the years just before the Civil War. Both enlisted in the Grand Army of the Republic while still in their teens. But there nearly all similarities between them end.

Webb Baker hailed from a close family in rural Illinois. An "ordinary farm boy," he loved to hunt, fish, search for arrowheads and play a forerunner of baseball called "bull pen." Brendan Kane, on the other hand, was raised in a grim, nameless small town by a mother who gave birth to him in "a stream of obscenities so thick that the midwife scolded her for it during the labor."

While both of these young men experienced the horrors of war, Webb went on to become a leading clergyman and teacher. Brendan, for his part, returned to his own "sunken and sordid self."

There's another difference between the two, and it's an important one. Benjamin W. "Webb" Baker was the real-life great-grandfather of Benson Bobrick, the part-time Brattleboro resident and author of Testament: A Soldier's Story of the Civil War. Brendan Kane is the purely fictional narrator of The Rope Eater, the first novel by Ben Jones of Bennington.

Testament is the sort of book every historian would love to write. Benson Bobrick was fortunate enough to discover an archive of his great-grandfather's Civil War letters chronicling Webb's three years of service, during which he "marched three thousand miles on foot; covered another seventeen hundred or so by boat and rail; fought in numerous battles . . . lost numerous friends and relations and, a sorrow that would never heal, his only and beloved brother."

In Testament, Bobrick does not take a straight historical approach, the way he did in previous books such as Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired and East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia. The book blends techniques of biography, history and dramatic narrative, augmented by Webb Baker's letters, to describe the impact of the Civil War on Bobrick's ancestor. Most chapters begin with a succinct, fascinating overview of a particular battle or march, then quote Webb's letters to reveal his role at the time.

Webb's running accounts of one young private's experiences convincingly capture not only the terrors, but also the drudgery, uncertainty, constant discomforts, illnesses and desperate camaraderie of war. Early on, during the campaign to secure the state of Missouri for the Union, Webb writes to his uncle, "We have been [with]in one day's march of a fight 5 or 6 times but have not got there yet, and guess we never will."

He would not have to wait much longer. Over the next few years, his company would participate in half a dozen major battles and campaigns, including some of the fiercest fighting of the war. Of the battle at Pea Ridge, Webb wrote, "the shot and shell rained thick around us, [and] the air was full of blue streaks marking their tracks in both directions. . . . Such a rattling of musketry and such a whistling of bullets I do not want to hear again. Of course we did our best to return the compliment."

Early on in his service, Webb refers to the fighting as "the fun." Later, when his brother John is considering enlisting, Webb writes to tell him, "You are my only brother and somehow I have forebodings for you." Just two months afterward, in the fall of 1862, the shattered Webb laments, "Oh Mother; How can I say it! But I must!! John is dead!!!. . . . one [bullet] entered his left side at the waistband and passing through his heart came out under his right arm. The other struck him in the neck under the jaw and near the jugular vein and passed up into his brain. Either of the balls would have killed him instantly."

Despite the dreadful losses and agonies, Webb Baker believed firmly in the preservation of the Union. Throughout the conflict, he maintained a remarkably hopeful outlook. At the same time, his letters are full of the typical grousing over food, weather and the stupidity of superior officers that have characterized reports from the front since the Trojan War.

Benson Bobrick's own analyses of the Civil War are remarkably even-handed. He treats us to original and revealing portraits of many officers and political figures, including Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln. He has an excellent eye for the telling detail. He notes, for instance, that during the assault on Atlanta, Sherman's engineer corps rebuilt the destroyed bridge over the Chattahoochee River, 780 feet long and 90 feet high, in less than five days. Best of all, Bobrick's respect and affection for his great-grandfather shine through in every chapter.

Few writers have captured the horror of war more powerfully than Webb Baker, who soldiered on to the very gates of Atlanta, then went home to Illinois to become an ordained minister and earn a doctorate in history. Bobrick has transformed Baker's observations into an eloquent evocation of a hideous yet endlessly fascinating conflict. As human and personal as a good novel, Testament is that rarest of all historical accounts: one written straight from the author's heart.

Ben Jones had to invent the tormented young narrator of his bold and exciting novel, The Rope Eater, but the fictional soldier's story rings true as Testament. After running away from home and working briefly in a grimy tavern, Brendan Kane hears a stirring speech by a glib Northern recruiter. Inspired, he enlists, heads south and almost immediately, encounters unspeakable human misery.

"I moved back from the dead to the living and saw things I should not have seen. Arms and legs stacked like cordwood outside the medical tent. Blind men shuffling forward and tripping over the dead and dying. Men staring in amazement at the gaping interiors of their own bodies. . . . One man seized me by the collar and pulled my face close to his. A stained deck of cards spilled from his vest into a pool of blood draining from his belly. His eyes were flat, yellow to red to black; his mouth gaped around flecks of spittle, but no words came. He glared at me, bellowing, grinding his teeth, then pushed me away."

Collecting as many unmailed letters from fallen soldiers as he can carry, Brendan deserts. Turning his back on the war, he makes his way slowly north. But violence and savagery seem to be waiting for him at every turn. In New York City he blunders into the murderous draft riots, barely escaping with his life.

After drifting to New Bedford, Brendan joins the crew of a mysterious-looking vessel called the Narthex, "a small and squat ship" with a hull "rounded like a salad bowl." Driven by a "dull pounding in his heart" that won't let him rest, he heads north into the Atlantic like his fabled Irish namesake, "not seeking the sea as much as trying to escape from the land."

By degrees, Brendan discovers that he has thrown in his lot with a company of madmen, misanthropes and felons on a most dangerous and improbable venture. His ship is steered by its owner, a surpassingly odd and solitary man named West, "round at all the edges as if he were a heap of melting pats of butter." Inspired by the long-lost journal of a great-uncle, West's design is to locate, in the midst of the polar region north of Greenland, "a temperate archipelago covered by trees of fantastical colors that [grow] from the heat of the earth rather than the sun -- a lush Garden of Eden." The Narthex is bound for "territory that has never been explored fully."

The most dramatic chapters of The Rope Eater chronicle an incredible saga of men pitted against nature and one another, as the crew saws and dynamites its way through shifting ice floes toward an assignation with murder, insanity and cannibalism.

One of the best sections of Jones' novel recounts the horrifying childhood of the ship's fireman, a Muslim who befriends Brendan. And Jones writes beautifully about the Arctic, with its multi-colored icebergs tending toward "blue-white, but with a full range of greens, pinks, and yellows," and its abundant and varied wildlife.

Although the pace of Jones's novel flags in a few places, The Rope Eater is a great literary adventure along the lines of Deliverance. So, what's a "rope eater?" It would be a shame to give away the mysteries at the core of the plot, and I don't intend to. I will say that at a time when so much contemporary fiction seems relentlessly dull and self-absorbed, it's marvelously refreshing to read a good, old-fashioned tale in the tradition of Poe, Melville and Mark Twain.

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