by William R Trotter
Carroll & Graf 2003. 554.
. $26.00. ISBN:0786712236
The Fires of Pride is the concluding volume of William R Trotter’s epic novel of the Civil War in North Carolina, which began with The Sands of Pride, published last year. The Fires of Pride is such a seamless continuation of the first book that the two should really be considered a single novel published in two volumes. The Sands of Pride broke off abruptly, leaving most of the plot threads hanging. Fires of Pride picks up where the first book left off, and brings the story to a thunderous conclusion.
The Fires of Pride begins in July of 1863, following Lee’s disastrous defeat at Gettysburg. The South’s military fortunes may be in decline, but in North Carolina the Confederates are hatching an audacious plan to drive the Union forces into the sea. The Union Monitors cannot enter the state’s shallow coastal inlets, and the Rebels are building a powerful ironclad to sweep the US Navy’s wooden ships from the North Carolina coast.
Trotter is the author of an excellent three volume history of the Civil War in North Carolina, and knows his stuff. Even more than The Sands of Pride, this book feels like a Civil War technothriller. The first several chapters take place well behind the lines, picking up the personal stories of characters introduced in the first book. It makes for a slow start, but the action quickly heats up once the Confederate ironclad sails. After that, the book focuses on a series of land and sea battles, leading up to the climactic Union assault on Fort Fisher. As with any good technothriller, the weapons become characters in themselves, and Trotter describes their performance like a steam age Tom Clancy.
Credit Trotter with knowing a good thing when he sees it. He recognized that the war in North Carolina featured some larger than life characters, and incidents worthy of Hollywood. The capture of Fort Fisher was the Navy’s largest amphibious operation until Guadalcanal, and Trotter’s description of it is gripping. He fictionalizes to some degree, but sticks reasonably close to the historical facts. (He also mostly points out his inventions.) Trotter gives us believable sketches of such historical characters as Will Cushing, David Porter, and Ben Butler. He also engages in some intriguing speculation about the reasons behind the bizarre military blunders of Braxton Bragg, which contributed greatly to the fall of Fort Fisher. Indeed, the book’s most vivid scenes revolve around the consequences for brave men on both sides of blunders by commanders who sometimes paid little heed to the facts on the ground, or the welfare of their troops.
Trotter creates some memorable fictional characters as well, of whom the most interesting is Bonaparte Reubens, a veteran of the French Foreign Legion who serves in the Union Army. Reubens appeared briefly in The Sands of Pride as a minor character. In the new book, Trotter reveals more of his true background, and for a time gives him center stage. In the book’s most ambitious subplot, Reubens is seized by a vision of a future South free of racism and tries to act on it, with tragic results.
Although Trotter provides a synopsis of The Sands of Pride at the beginning of the book, it is probably not possible to fully enjoy The Fires of Pride without first reading the earlier book. At 554 pages, the Fires of Pride is a somewhat shorter than Sands, which came in at 754 pages. 1,308 pages is a long tale, but as your reviewer neared the finish, he was sorry that the book was going to end.