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Book Review

The Confederacy's Dashing, Lethal Guerrilla Warriors

WILDWOOD BOYS, by James Carlos Blake, William Morrow, $24, 384 pages

August 29, 2000|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In some ways, James Carlos Blake's novel about the Kansas-Missouri guerrilla campaigns of the Civil War is a useful corrective. Ken Burns' TV documentary, movies such as "Glory" and "Gettysburg" and the novel series by Michael and Jeff Shaara, beginning with "The Killer Angels," have not only revived interest in the nation's direst conflict but reinvested it with a nostalgic grandeur. Blake reminds us that here, as in Vietnam or Rwanda or the Balkans, civil wars can be the dirtiest wars of all.

The protagonist of "Wildwood Boys" is "Bloody Bill" Anderson, who rode with Quantrill's Raiders when they sacked Lawrence, Kan., on Aug. 21, 1863, killing more than 150 residents and Union troops. The following year, Anderson led his own band on similar depredations into Missouri. In reprisal for atrocities by anti-slavery "jayhawkers" and "redlegs," these pro-Confederate "bushwhackers" shot or hanged Unionist farmers and burned their farms, killed prisoners, scalped dead Federals and sported necklaces of severed ears and fingers.

Blake, who won a Los Angeles Times Book Award for "In the Rogue Blood," paints Anderson as a handsome, likable fellow before the war, a lover of down-home music, Shakespeare's sonnets and Poe's short stories. True, Bill and his brother, Jim, were involved in the family horse-thieving business. And he inherited from his father, Will, a touchy Southern sense of honor and a propensity for violence: The elder Anderson, seeing a stranger try to fondle one of his daughters, pinned him to a wagon with a lethal blow of a pickax. Young Bill applauded this--as did the jury.

Still, Blake wants us to regard "Bloody Bill" as more sinned against than sinning. The love of his life--at least in the novel--is his 14-year-old sister, Josephine, with whom he shares a passion that stops barely short of incest. Her death in Federal captivity and the crippling of his two other sisters spurs him to revenge, even though the tragedy was accidental: The old brick building where they were being held collapsed. Later Anderson marries a Texas saloon girl, Bush Smith, who resembles Josephine. His letters to her, before his own death in the fall of 1864, indicate that he has grown weary of war.

But in other ways, "Wildwood Boys" is a morally confused book that only reinforces the legend that "the national imagination" would make of Quantrill, Anderson and the men who rode with them, including Cole Younger and Jesse and Frank James. Blake contrasts the dashing Confederate guerrillas, with their jokes and songs and embroidered shirts, their code of loyalty and their fighting skill, with opponents who are merely brutal, without compensating virtues. This is unfair, and it subverts the novel's claim to be telling only hard truths.

Blake acknowledges that in conflicts without rules, men who kill reluctantly for a cause can't compete, in the long run, with psychopaths who kill for fun. He tries to convince us that Anderson was one of the former, but it's a tough sell, given Blake's own exuberance in describing Anderson's exploits--his prose a mix of grisly details and neo-Victorian scenery-painting.

"No Anderson had ever owned a slave or would," Blake says, "but Will had early implanted in his sons an aversion to bullies of any stripe, and the boys shared in his resentment of these outsiders from half the continent away who would force their [anti-slavery] beliefs on Kansas."

This is how Anderson and his followers saw things, and it's Blake's achievement to get us to understand that attitude and its origins better. It's an attitude that outlasted the war, fostering public support for "populist" mid-American outlaws up to the era of Bonnie and Clyde. But it's also an attitude that motivated lynchers. Surely, slavery and Jim Crow were bullying, too, though hardly a black person can be found in this book--only "unreconstructed rebels."

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