Mary Johnston's Plea

The historian David Blight has written a piece for the Wall Street Journal naming his top-five novels about the Civil War. Only one of the novelists is a Virginian: Mary Johnston. Here’s what Blight wrote about her Cease Firing, published in 1912.

Born into a well-to-do Virginia family in 1870, daughter of a Confederate officer whose cousin was the famous Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, Mary Johnston grew up imbued with the Lost Cause. She was ultimately driven to escape its clutches, though, by writing about the human ravages of war itself. Johnston was a complex woman and prolific writer who embraced suffrage and socialism. In “Cease Firing,” the second of her two war novels, Johnston became one of the first women to write historically accurate, realistic and detailed battle scenes. At Gettysburg, she said: “The dead horses lay upon this field one and two and three days in the furnace heat. They were fearful to see and there came from them a fetid odor. But the scream of the wounded horses was worse than the sight of the dead. There were many wounded horses. They lay in the wood and field, in country lane and orchard.” War was unromantic and unsentimental, in her vivid telling, but also a manly chess game played on an epic scale. From the siege of Vicksburg through to the final retreat to Appomattox, youthful innocence crumbles over and over under the weight of warfare’s weapons, trenches, hospitals and prisons. Ultimately, the book is a plea for reconciliation based on respect for the sacrifice of common soldiers.

I’ve read two of Johnston’s novels in the last couple months: her first, Prisoners of Hope (1898), about a servant rebellion in Gloucester County, and her eighteenth, The Slave Ship (1924), about the Atlantic slave trade. Cease Firing, I suppose, ought to be up next.
IMAGES: Union dead at Gettysburg by Timothy O’Sullivan, July 5, 1863 (Library of Congress); Mary Johnston (Library of Congress)


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