Civil War historical novel: ‘The Judas Field’

By Tom Ryan

Special to the Coastal Point


Americans typically associate the Civil War with well-known events, such as Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, Sherman’s March to the Sea and Lee’s Surrender at Appomattox. A mention of the Confederate disaster at Franklin, Tenn., would likely elicit blank stares, because the Battle of Franklin occurred in a remote western area, out of the sight and consciousness of the conflict’s chroniclers, who were primarily concentrated in the East.

At Franklin, on a cold Nov. 30, 1864, 20,000 Rebel soldiers formed battle lines and marched into a firestorm emanating from Union guns behind breastworks along the Harpeth River. More than 6,000 became casualties, and many suffered while stacked up in a ditch fronting the Union defenses.

In “The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah,” Wiley Sword described these events as “one of the most extraordinary and compelling of human experiences.” It was no comfort to the souls lost that day that few took notice of their sacrifice then or thereafter.

The spirits that haunt the battlefield in the vicinity of the Carter farm cotton gin at Franklin have had to bear the humiliation of anonymity, while their brethren elsewhere, at Antietam, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg, were glorified in song and story.

In 1995, Winston Groom attempted to remedy this omission with the novel “Shrouds of Glory,” describing the military aspect of that appalling collision in central Tennessee, and Robert Hicks’ novel “The Widow of the South” focused on the deeds of Carrie McGavock, an eyewitness to the slaughter at Franklin (see Coastal Point’s Sept. 21, 2018, issue).

Howard Bahr crowned these efforts with “The Judas Field,” which portrays the star-crossed lives of soldiers from a small Mississippi town who survived the sanguinary ordeal at Franklin only to live with its aftereffects. In this version, Bahr concentrates on the heart more than the history of the matter (the title derives from the Biblical reference to “the field of blood” Judas Iscariot purchased with his “reward of iniquity”).

The novel evolves from Army of Tennessee commander Gen. John Bell Hood’s decision to attack a strong Union position at Franklin, in part to convince his men to abandon their ingrained preference for fighting defensively.

One survivor was Cass Wakefield, a sergeant in the 21st Mississippi, who returned to his Cumberland, Miss., hometown after the war to a life afflicted by what is referred to today as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Cass brought home with him a teenage orphan boy named Lucian who had attached himself to the army. They both hung on for years after the war, through dependence on drugs and alcohol.

Cass understood that his fate and those of many fellow soldiers was to “live or die or be broken according to the chance that befell them, but alive or dead or broken, the one thing they would all be was mad.” However, in 1885, Cass’s boyhood friend Alison Sansing, who was dying from cancer, decided to visit the place where her father and brother were killed on the battlefield.

Alison recruited a reluctant Cass to escort her to Franklin. In a traumatizing variation of the Canterbury Tales, Cass and Lucien relive their fearsome battlefield experiences as this journey unfolds.

Howard Bahr frames this story so the reader encounters the numbing distress of men in battle. Soldiers transform into wild animals amidst mindless slaughter, and men caught up in the agonizing sound, smell and spectacle of war find death preferable to the inescapable nightmare that has them in its grip.

The author contrasts the cacophony of conflict with calm before and after scenes that belie what has actually occurred. Normalcy is lost, however, for the survivors who are condemned to a perpetual mental image of the Judas Field.

Howard Bahr has crafted a novel worthy of attention for its insight into a cataclysmic Civil War event, and the prose in which it is presented. The author captures the mood of the times, and transports the reader to a rural Mississippi town and a community in Tennessee where the mayhem occurs.

It is an experience that is distressing and fascinating, and one that makes the Battle of Franklin obscure no longer. For his efforts, Bahr was the recipient of the Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction.

In my next column, the discussion will focus on MacKinlay Kantor’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Andersonville,” named for the notorious Civil War prison located in southwest Georgia.

Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War,” of which signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at or visit his website at