The Judas Field: A Novel of the Civil War, By Howard Bahr, Holt, 292 pp., $25
At the battle at Franklin, Tenn., south of Nashville, on Nov. 30, 1864, Confederate troops, some 7,500 of them, were cut down as they repeatedly assaulted entrenched Union forces.
The battle provides a framework for Howard Bahr's third Civil War novel, "The Judas Field." But only a framework, for as readers of his previous novels, "The Black Flower" and "The Year of Jubilo," know, Bahr is writing not about the clash of armies or the historic meaning of the conflict, but about the ways war affects the lives of those it has touched and, with measured cadences and arresting imagery, about the ways of death.
"In the world the soldiers inhabited," Bahr writes at one point, ``a man could be dead any number of ways . . . by all the chance of battle, but not by battle only" -- also "by tree limb or sun or the slow freezing of the blood."
And "the Death Angel," an image that appears often, ``was everywhere waiting, counting them over and over, eager to subtract. He marched beside them in the ranks; he moved among them when they slept, peering into their faces. . . . He courted them all."
The Judas field of the title is that purchased by Judas with, as the biblical passage has it, ``the reward of [his] iniquity" and known as "the field of blood." The novel is shaped by two journeys to the field, and by their aftermath. The first is that of Cass Wakefield, a soldier in a Mississippi regiment, as it ``toiled . . . through the dust of its own passage, under a sky empty of cloud," while ``overhead, a kettle of vultures circled patiently." The second, 20 years later, is occasioned by a request by Alison Sansing, a woman whom Wakefield has known from childhood and who is now dying of cancer, that he accompany her to see the graves of her father and brother, officers in Wakefield's unit who were killed in the battle.
Bahr, a native Mississippian, has been a Confederate reenactor and curator of the William Faulkner homestead and museum in Oxford, Miss. He currently teaches English at Motlow State Community College in Tullahoma, Tenn. What becomes clear with ``The Judas Field" is that Bahr is creating a Faulknerian chronicle of a Mississippi town he calls Cumberland and its people.
The central figure in ``The Black Flower" was Bushrod Carter, a Cumberland man in Wakefield's regiment who is wounded at Franklin. He is cared for, lovingly, by a young farm girl but dies in surgery. ``Go on -- quick, now -- quick," the girl murmurs, imploring him to surrender to death. Now, in ``The Judas Field," Wakefield several times refers to Bushrod, remembering at one point that they had charged the Union position together.
``The Day of Jubilo" concerned events in Cumberland in the months after the war's end, when renegade Confederates led by ``King" Solomon Gault besiege the town and attack the occupying Union troops. There are several cryptic references to ``Gault's Rebellion" in ``The Judas Field."
By tying together elements from the earlier novels in ``The Judas Field , " Bahr creates what has become a moving, elegiac trilogy on the meaning of war that goes beyond victory or defeat.
``The war," writes Bahr as Wakefield and Sansing and a young companion stand on the ``Judas field" where the Confederate solders fell and were buried, ``would not be over until they were all gone: yankee and rebel, white and colored, men and women -- all those who had suffered by it."