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Reliving the Civil War in words, deeds

Books on the War Between the States are inspiring. Just ask the folks who reenact it.

August 29, 2008|Julia Keller | Chicago Tribune

STREATOR, Ill. -- The sky, fittingly, was blue and gray. Muted versions of both colors met and rested in the infrequent clouds, giving the day, despite its abundant sunshine, a sense of mission and melancholy.

"It grabs you and gets in your blood," said Tom Arliskas. "It grips you."

He was talking about the Civil War reenactments held by the western region of the North-South Skirmish Assn. On this summer day, Arliskas joined dozens of men and women who gathered at the Sandy Ford Sportsman Club near this Illinois town, dressed in the motley gear of Union and Confederate troops, the butternut and the blue, and toting the deadly tools of that terrible conflict: long-nosed muskets and snipped-off carbines. Wood and iron and brass.

The Civil War is the most word-bound of all of our wars. It is the one that has inspired so much of our great literature, from novels such as Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage" to Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain" to great nonfiction works such as Shelby Foote's solemn, three-volume chronicle.

Books about the Civil War just keep coming. And unlike other subjects that also draw forth constant reassessments, the Civil War produces works that are fresh and lively and new, that end up moving you and educating you in wholly unexpected ways. "Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters" by Elizabeth Brown Pryor, recently published in paperback by Penguin Books, is but the latest Civil War book to illustrate this phenomenon: the eternal fascination with, the endless mystery of, the war that split the country in order to tie it back together again, stronger than ever.

What gives the Civil War its peculiar and abiding literary flavor? There would be few better places to find out, I decided, than here amid the men and women who honor those long-dead combatants by learning about their weapons and their ways of battle. That learning extends to the shooting range, of course, where Arliskas joined his friends in smoothbore musket competitions, but it starts out somewhere else: on the page.

"I've got a spot in my house," said Arliskas, a machinist from Milwaukee. "There's a bookshelf filled with books about the Civil War and an old lamp and a reading chair. I sit there for hours and read. To me, that's happiness. That's comfort. That's contentment."

Rick Keating, a commercial artist from Varna, who has been coming to reenactments with his wife, Debby, for a quarter of a century, credited the diaries and letters of Civil War soldiers -- more, even than the guns -- with keeping him and his fellow reenactors on the march. "I have a library of more than 400 Civil War books," he said. "You're always finding out more and more."

That spirit of discovery infuses "Reading the Man," the latest Civil War book to probe that dusty, complicated time in American history, a time when so much was so uncertain: Would the country survive? In her introduction, Pryor notes that reading the letters written by Civil War figures such as Lee are attempts to "move out of our own moment to connect with a larger collective experience." Reading, then, is much like reenactment: You move beyond the confines of your own narrow world into the immense landscape of the past and its vanished populace.

Pryor, whose admirable book restores a rich human dimension to the too-often-mythologized portrait of the South's military champion, believes the Civil War is so associated with literature because literacy itself had become a big deal in those days. More people could read and write, and they left accounts of the war for us to find and savor. "Never before," she writes, "had the country produced such an outpouring from statesmen and common foot soldiers, plantation mistresses and self-styled journalists."

The letters are tributaries that have led to a seemingly nonstop river of books, books that rarely seem repetitive or stale or beside the point. Works such as "Reading the Man" allow us to wonder, with Lee's own letters as our guide, what it was like to be an Army officer forced to choose between his state and his nation. Lee, of course, chose the former, and his military prowess kept the war going far longer than it should have. He was on the wrong side of history -- not just the losing side, but the wrong side, because Lee, as Pryor makes clear, supported slavery and was an unrepentant racist. But his story is worth knowing about because his deeds changed the nation.

"You know how we live on hope," Lee wrote on Aug. 8, 1862, to a fellow officer. "I have always hoped that a better time was coming."

A better time did come, once the South fell and emancipation began. The past, though, must never be forgotten. Dan Davis, a machinist from Joliet, Ill., whose curling mustache and crinkled face and blue Union cap made him look as if he were on his way to Shiloh, is determined that it won't be. He collects Civil War memorabilia and bought his first Springfield musket in 1972.

"It's a way of life," he said. And like the books, it is a way of keeping the past fully present.

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