The Bloody Ground
© 2001 Bernard Cornwell
In the fall of 1862, Robert E. Lee took the initiative after a string of triumphs over the bungling Union army and launched an attack into the north, aiming to bloody the Federal army’s nose in its own territory and provoke the people of the United States into pressing for peace– for how many people would support a distant war against the south when the shells were falling in their own fields, with their own homes used as quarters for wounded soldiers? Despite a record of impressive incompetence, McClellan managed to intercept Lee’s army on September 17th, resulting in the bloodiest day of combat in the entire war. McClellan didn’t lose disastrously and that for him was a triumph…but the victory owed more to the Union officers who found Lee’s battle orders wrapped around a few cigars not far from their lines — and The Bloody Ground is the story of how they got there. The likely end of the Starbuck chronicles, Bloody Ground is wet with death both triumphant and tragic.
‘Til now, every battle involving Nathaniel Starbuck — who chased a girl into Virginia right as the war erupted and decided to fight for the south to anger his abolitionist father — has been a victory for the Confederacy, largely thanks to McMilquetoast, with some assistance from the stunning heroics of Starbuck’s company. Here the streak ends, though the Union victory owes more to the actions of secondary characters, especially Starbuck’s counterpart — his best friend Adam, who despite being the son of a southern aristocrat, fights for the north, and here becomes involved in the murky world of intelligence. Adam is a tragic character, far more sympathetic than Starbuck but so earnest that Cornwell prefers to punish him instead of reward him; rewards are for scoundrels and brigands in Cornwell’s world. But perhaps the scoundrels deserve the rewards more: Starbuck, after all, has to cope with being Enemy #1 to Washington Falcouner, who has seen fit to “promote” him to the leader of a punishment battalion known encouragingly as “The Yellowlegs”.
The Bloody Ground‘s intensity is fitting for the bloodiest day of the war, though combat takes a backseat to the espionage threads; there are spies everywhere, including a man pretending to be a southron in Starbuck’s ranks to avoid capture as a Union raider who, Iago-like, starts turning his company against him. Considering that Starbuck’s company will be present in some of the battle’s bloodiest moments — the skirmish in the cornfield and the orgy of death that was the Sunken Road — you’d think his life is in peril enough from the Union army, without adding murderous subordinates into the mix. Starbuck is at his most likable in The Bloody Ground, though; while his motives for fighting may have been petty, he is admirably devoted to his comrades-in-arms, especially those scorned by officers, and a protector of underdogs. (“I am Starbuck, defender of whores!”)
Quite a fun read, but the ending is rather distressing. The bloodletting doesn’t stop with minor characters, and I’ll leave it at that. It seems a shame this series has been discontinued, but if Cornwell had to choose between Starbuck and Sharpe, I’m glad he chose Sharpe. Speaking of whom, I think I left him about to invade France…