- Rebecca Harding Davis's Stories of the Civil War Era: Selected Writings from the Borderlands
With the publication of this collection, editors Sharon Harris and Robin Cadwallader introduce modern readers to Rebecca Harding Davis, one of the foremost literary realists and important woman writers of the nineteenth century. Davis's Civil War stories, the first of which were published in 1862, are among the earliest examples of Civil War fiction. In them, she shows how divided loyalties tore families, friends, and communities apart—particularly in her native West(ern) Virginia—leading to guerilla warfare that spared no one. At the same time, Davis deftly shows the fallacies and shortcomings in the rhetoric of both sides. As a result her stories starkly portray the hard reality of the Civil War; they don't romanticize it.
The editors of this collection, as well as the University of Georgia Press, fail readers, however, with the book's astonishingly poor annotation. There are numerous errors just in "David Gaunt" that could have been avoided with simple research. They place Romney "near the Kentucky border" (27), when it is more than two hundred miles from there. General Frederick Lander is identified as the Union commander in the 1861 battles at Philippi and Rich Mountain even though General George McClellan was the man in charge (69), while McClellan is given credit for recapturing Harpers Ferry in 1861 when General Robert Patterson actually deserves the credit (57).
The editors, at times, overreach in their analysis. In "Paul Blecker," the title character compares families sending their sons off in the American Civil War to those who sent their sons to fight in the English Civil War with Oliver Cromwell and in the American Revolution, specifically at the Battle of Monmouth. Rather than make the obvious comparison—i.e., revolutionaries against the English Crown in both of those wars—the editors attempt to make the claim that it was a single African American soldier named "Oliver Cromwell" that was the link between Monmouth and the English Civil War (123).
In other instances as well, the editors fail to provide complete information. In their introduction, the editors place the "divided politics" and "ideologies" of the Civil War period solely between 1860 and 1877, failing to include any discussion of the antebellum period and sectional differences that led to the secession of southern states in 1860 and 1861 (xviii). The most egregious example, however, is the fact that Davis wrote two versions of "Ellen." The first, published in Peterson's in 1863, is the version included [End Page 96] in the collection. That story ends very happily for the title character. The editors write in their introduction that "legendary tales come with an expectation of a happy ending; thus Ellen's fate becomes a challenge for Davis in a time of war" (xxvi), but they fail to mention the 1865 version published in Atlantic Monthly, in which the happy ending is changed to a tragic one.
The collection also leaves out one of Davis's most important Civil War short stories, "The Yares of the Black Mountain" which was published in 1875. The story not only depicts one Unionist family's struggle in an Appalachian community during the war, but also the lasting effect of that loyalty long after the war ended.
The problems with this collection should not detract from its primary purpose of introducing readers to Rebecca Harding Davis's exceptional short stories. For a better contextual analysis of her work and its place in both Civil War and Appalachian history, read Kenneth Noe's "'Deadened Color and Colder Horror': Rebecca Harding Davis and the Myth of Union Appalachia," in Confronting Appalachian Stereotypes: Back Talk from an American Region, edited by Dwight B. Billings, Gurney Norman, and Katherine Ledford (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1999).