Copperhead: Ball’s Bluff, 1862
© 1993 Bernard Cornwell
Nathaniel Starbuck is a man with a mighty grumpy enemy. Wealthy Virginian planter Washington Falcouner rescued Starbuck from a mob, asking him for his service in arms alongside his son, Adam, in return. Seeing as Adam and Nate were the best of friends, and Starbuck found soldiering to be his kind of adventure, it didn’t seem too bad a bargain….but after the events of Rebel, Nate’s benefactor is now his nemesis. It’s not that Nate suddenly decided he disliked fighting for the south against his native Union: no, he’s quite happy in the Confederate army, because he likes fancying himself a rebel. Once he was a timid seminary student, the scion of a respectable family — and now he’s a rugged heathen, living the life of a gallant soldier at war, all adventure and romance — and not a thought given to respectability Fiddle-dee-dee! But the same weakness that led Nate from the north into the Confederate army and lost him his father’s affections has lost him his patron’s warm wishes, and now he has to survive the imminent defeat of the Confederacy on his own. They can’t hardly beat back Little Mac, the new Napoleon, the man with the largest, best-armed military force ever seen on the continent! But as one of Nate’s comrades notes, it ain’t over ’til the pig has stopped squealing. Copperhead is second in the Nathaniel Starbuck series, and takes its characters down some unexpectedly delightful roads.
Although its title herald’s “Ball’s Bluff”, a skirmish surely few readers have ever heard of (outside the ranks of devoted ACW historians), Copperhead is more a spy thriller dominated by the evolution of its characters than it is a tale of combat. Not that I’m complaining: I don’t too much like reading about southern aristocrats exhulting in their victory as slaves fan them at Twelve Oaks The book begins with a skirmish and ends with McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign in 1862, which — if you remember that the war didn’t end until 1865 — you might guess proved unsuccessful, despite the material advantages of the Union army. Cornwell’s story explores the question of why, and the speculative answer is the shadow war of intelligence and deceit, one in which Starbuck becomes an unwilling participant. He’s already regarded as suspect because his father is an abolitionist preacher, but when they discover that a Union intelligence officer named James Starbuck is corresponding with someone in the southern ranks, someone feeding him potent information, trouble ensues for Nate, and leads to him meeting Death.
de’Ath, that is — it’s French. I’ll not spoil anything, but the spy games are on the level of Where Eagles Dare. What makes the novel for me is the unexpected transformation of Nate’s best friend Adam, from a soft plantation prince into a man who seizes the reins and becomes a rebel of an altogether different sort. (This continues in the third novel, Battle Flag, which I had to check out immediately after finishing this one, because I’ve been well taken by the story.) Other characters shine; the aforementioned de’Ath, who is a Confederate intelligence officer, and….the Son of Sharpe! I didn’t make the connection until I was finished with the novel, but I immediately liked the fellow as presented in the story, and when I later realized, I liked him all the more. (He reappears in Battle Flag, so much the better!) Nate is still by far the weakest Cornwell protagonist I’ve encountered: as amusing as his weakness for the ladies is, it doesn’t compensate for the fact that he’s a character without spirit: he’s a rebel without a cause, and he seems more self-indulgent than anything else.
Even if the main character is a bit of boob, I’m steadily enjoying this series — mostly for the cast, but with the usual honors given to Cornwell’s strengths. His wicked sense of humor is on full display, too, moreso than in his more recent works.
Apologies for the multiple Gone with the Wind references, but I’ve been rewatching the movie this week.