Book Review: The Judas Field

by Caleb Klingler
June 10th, 2009

In Howard Bahrís latest novel, The Judas Field, he continues his popular theme of a Confederate soldier retelling harrowing experiences of the American Civil War. Each of first two popular titles, The Black Flower and The Year of Jubilo, narrates a soldierís life from Mississippi, and how that life was tragically altered by the horrors of war. Bahr teaches English at Motlow State Community College, in Tullahoma, Tennessee, where his unique style once again entertains his audience in another engrossing novel of the Civil War.

In The Judas Field the reader is introduced to the hero, Cass Wakefield, a Civil War veteran from Mississippi who is haunted by his experiences of the war. During the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, Cass must revisit his demons in order to help a dying friend, Allison Sansing. Allison, whose father and brother who both died during the fighting at Franklin, she seeks Cassís help in locating their graves. Bahr flashbacks from the present to past show the reader what happened leading up to and during to witness the action first-hand action. The story as well contemplates life and death, especially with those being haunted by the angel of Death. Cassís father dies during the War with Mexico and his mother shortly thereafter dies of disease, leaving him orphaned at an early age. These episodes with mortality allow Cass to have a keen sense of Deathís presence, which plays a central theme in the book.

At the outset of every battle Cass is already aware that people close to him are going to die. With so much death surrounding him in all aspects of his life, Cass is not limited to seeing spirits merely upon the battlefield. On different occasions Cass is visited by ghosts, and these ghosts foretell the death of people he has left behind at the home front, primarily his wife. These ghostly prophecies leave Cass with two choices: he can either run away from the war and save his wife, or, out of a sense of patriotic duty to his comrades he can stay try to save as many comrades as possible, even though he is always conscious of the fact that people very close to him are going to die, no matter what he chooses.

Aside for being well written novel, historians are always contentious of an authorsí use of fiction as a means to convey history. Such titles as The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane and The Killer Angles by Michael Shaara have become acceptable uses of Civil War literature that help to promote historical discourse. In a recent, Dr Carol Reardon, professor of Military History at Penn State, discussed the concept of Literature and Popular Memory and how it has helped to further the understanding of the Civil War.[1] The Ambrose Bierce Project asked Dr. Reardon a series of questions on how popular fiction has impacted historians. To paraphrase Reardonís responses: she is positive to popular fictionís use amongst historians, however historians must bear in mind that the context of the story is still fiction and not backed by historical truth. As a secondary source however, it is still a valuable asset to understanding the Civil War.

With Dr. Reardonsí opinion, Bahrís novel tries to establish itself as an influence on the historical understanding of the war. When Bahr uses Cassí flashbacks, he undeniably stumbles upon the important perspective of the Civil War veteran, a view that is still being investigated by historians today. Bahrís story would stir memories of any veteran of the Battle of Franklin. In a good memoir, the author gives away hints to personal feelings about past events and upcoming moments, but most importantly about the prospects of the authors owns mortality or those from close companions. This is the impression we read from Cassí character, as he is and Death are constant companions throughout the story, as well as other characters who display similar traits as Cass. Early on in the Franklin campaign, Bahr introduces a young orphaned boy named Lucian, who is pressed into the army from the orphanages. By forcing men and boys into the army, Bahr accurately captures how replacements shortages plagued the Confederate Army in 1864. Lucianís character also to represent the choice Cass makes when he chooses to stay with the army and abandon the prospect of saving his wife.

As a work of historical literature, Bahrís novel pays vary close attention to historical accuracy. The order of battle of the Army of the Tennessee is accurate from brigade level all the way up to the commander of the Army. Cassí 21st Mississippi Regiment which is attached to General Adams Brigade, attached to General Loringís Division, attached to Stewarts Corps and thus attached to the Army of the Tennessee. Bahrís attention to detail is exemplary, Cassís flashbacks details what a soldier from his regiment would have been able to witness. The only inaccuracy this reviewer can find with Bahrís order of battle was Cassí 21st Mississippi. They did not take part in the Franklin campaign, as they were taking part in siege of Petersburg under the Army of Northern Virginia. It is a question why he did not choose a unit that was already apart of Adamís Brigade, the choices of 6th, 14th, 15th, 20th, 23rd, and 43rd Mississippi regiments were could have been chosen, and taken nothing away from the story. The question of why Bahr did not choose one from the many Mississippi regiments in the brigade leads to the hypothesis that he made a simple error in his history, but that is for the author to say.

When Bahr narrates the moments of Cassís regiment during the assault on the Union defenses at Franklin, he again narrates from the view of the enlisted soldier. With the bullets whizzing through the air and the chaos swirling around the men fighting, the regiments push upon the Unionís works leave the reader caught up in the action, from the point of views of Cass and Lucien. The reader will appreciate Bahrís use of Cass and Lucien to tell the story from their viewpoints, as the author is not interested in detailing the whole battle.

The story delivers not only a wonderful novel, but an alternative view to the use of fiction in understanding history. On the outside the reader is left with a wonderful tale about the Civil War; but once the reader examines the historical details, the reader can appreciate the time Bahr spent researching the characters sounding the Battle of Franklin. Bahrís The Judas Field details are as valuable to Civil War literature as The Red Badge of Courage or The Killer Angles.

[1] The Ambrose Bierce Project Journal (Fall 2007, Vol. 3 No. 1 ISSN 1939-4578)