Tuesday, May 28, 2019
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No Common War is a fictionalized history of the author's family's participation in the abolition movement and the Civil War. The names of key persons and places are real. The Union soldier on the book's jacket is Moreau Salisbury.
In 1835 two Salisbury brothers accompany the Great Cheese, a 1,800-pound monstrosity created by the leading citizens of Sandy Creek, New York, to Washington City to promote the town and celebrate New York State. In the nation's capitol, they witness the whipping of a slave on Christmas Day. Mason Salisbury demands to know if the slaver is a Christian, and is struck across the face with the whip. Worse would have happened but for Mason's brother Lorenzo's striking the slaver with the butt of his shotgun.
Mason becomes an implacable abolitionist, frequently speaking for the cause and showing his scar. He helps escaped slaves reach Canada. in 1861 his son, Moreau, is at seminary at Cazenovia when Ft. Sumter is fired on. Moreau returns home, telling his father he cannot reconcile "Thou shalt not kill" with killing, even against the abomination of slavery. Moreau's mind is changed when he discovers an escaped slave trying to get to Lake Ontario (four miles from Sandy Creek) and his family shelters the man until he can be transported to Canada. Moreau does not know that Mason, his father, has manipulated his discovery.
Afterward, Moreau and his cousin Merrick (Lorenzo's son) join the 24th New York Volunteers, but not before Moreau falls in love with Helen, a local girl.
The 24th is billeted outside Washington, held in reserve when the Union and Confederate armies meet at Bull Run, but witness fleeing Union soldiers and disillusioned civilians who went to see a spectacle but discovered war. During the winter the 24th bivouac on the grounds of Robert E. Lee's Arlington, Virginia plantation and venture into Washington for drinking and womanizing.
The summer of 1862 is a succession of battles. The 24th meets rebels for the first time at Cedar Mountain. Moreau and Merrick see men killed, smell powder and blood, hear the screams of the wounded. They stand abreast and fire at Confederate soldiers also standing abreast and firing at them.
The 24th fights at Groveton, is part of the disastrous charge at the sunken railroad at Second Bull run, fights its way up South Mountain under heavy fire, and then Antietam. The 24th is in the third wave through the cornfield at Antietam.
Antietam remains the bloodiest single day in American history. There are almost 22,000 casualties. The cornfield will be crossed and recrossed fifteen times, and when the battle is over a person could walk across it without touching the ground for the bodies.
Moreau is shot through the ankle. Merrick receives a Minie ball in the knee. Word of their wounds reaches Sandy Creek. Moreau's and Merrick's fathers go to the battlefield, arriving the day after the end of the battle. They find their sons in among the four acres of wounded. Surgeons are amputating limbs, men are crying out in pain, blood pools under the boards and tables used for surgery. The two fathers talk a surgeon out of amputating their sons' legs.
Moreau barely survives the trip home. Merrick dies along the way.
At home, Moreau becomes increasingly depressed, angry, distant from his parents, cruel to Helen who has waited faithfully for his return. He becomes addicted to morphine. He considers suicide. There are terrible arguments with Helen, the grief of Moreau's mother whose love cannot reach her son, anger at Mason for supporting the war, and finally a violent father-son confrontation. The family is desperate. Mason tries to find the freed slave, to remind Moreau what he had fought for, but cannot locate him. It is a long, brutal winter.
But spring will come, and with it love and trust. The price has been high.