“A Fatal Mercy”

A review of Thomas Moore’s latest book

by Al Benson Jr.

This book is a work of fiction, historical fiction, about a family from the low country of South Carolina at the time of the beginning of the War of Northern Aggression and for over half a century after that. Having said that, let me hasten to add that it is good historical fiction, good because it has a fascinating story to tell, and good because Mr. Moore knows the history he uses for the backdrop of this story. Once I started reading, I had a hard time putting it down and it seemed to get better as it went along, in spite of the sadness of some of the incidents written about.

The main character is Drayton FitzHenry, the middle son of a family that raises rice on their plantation in the low country of extreme eastern South Carolina. The story covers the period from January, 1860, all the way through to July, 1913, when Drayton, his older brother, Cabell, and Tommy, his grandson, go to the 50th reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Although he was initially reluctant to go to the reunion, Drayton was eventually talked into it by his older brother, and it was good for him that he did go, for it allowed him to unburden himself of a secret about the battle that had haunted him ever since 1867. It was a burden he needed to get rid of.

Let me say this here. I have been to Gettysburg three times over the years, going all the way back to 1961, and then twice after that. I have been across most of the battlefield from the Confederate side to the Yankee side. I’ve stood where Chamberlain’s men stood as they fired on the attacking Confederates, trying to get a feel for what happened to our boys as they crossed that wide open stretch marching into the Yankee guns. I guess, in my mind’s eye I wanted to see if I could see them coming. I couldn’t bring up the vision at that time. But, then, I still had a lot to learn at that time.

One thing I will say about Mr. Moore’s description of the battlefield and the battle, it made me feel  Gettysburg all over again as I had on our visits there. It was a mark of the caliber of this book that it made me feel what I had experienced previously only on the battlefield.

Our protagonist, Drayton FitzHenry, marries the one love of his life, his first wife, Cecelia before he goes off to war. She is a Northern girl, in South Carolina with her father, a professor from the North, yet she marries Drayton, initially against the wishes of both her father and his. Yet once married, she becomes part of his family and remains with them the rest of her life, short though that unfortunately is.
Neither Drayton or his family really wants to see this war come. Yet, when it does come, Drayton, his older brother, Cabell, and his younger brother, Ranse, all go off to fight in defense of their native State.

Cecelia extracts from Drayton the promise that he will not let the war make a heartless brute out of him, but that he will exercise mercy as much as is possible in whatever situation he finds himself. To his credit, Drayton does this, but the doing of it, which happens at Gettysburg, is something that causes him heartache for all the years until he goes back to Gettysburg in 1913.

Drayton’s problem begins on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, when General Longstreet, for whom Drayton is a courier and scout, is asked by the general to scout the Yankee army’s left flank to see if there is a way to get around the Northern army that the Confederates can use to turn the Yankee left flank and change the course the battle seems to be taking.

In the course of his scouting, Drayton comes to Little Round Top, and as he scouts out this area, he discovers that there are no Yankee soldiers on Little Round Top. As he is about to depart to inform General Longstreet he hears a noise and discovers that two Yankee officers have also gotten up to the top of Little Round Top. He gets into the trees out of sight and observes them. With him he has a Spencer repeating rifle that has been appropriated from the Yankees in battle, and his first thought is to shoot the two Yankee officers who are up there with him. But then, the admonition of his wife to show mercy wherever possible comes to him and he hesitates to shoot two men in cold blood from ambush, and so he eases his finger off the trigger and the Yankees leave. At that point, Drayton leaves also and gets back to Longstreet as quickly as he can. But he has further to go than the two Yankees do. He gets back to Longstreet and tells him what he found, but before Longstreet can really do much in the way of moving troops there, the Yankees have already started moving men up to the top of Little Round Top, and we all know the rest of that story. And so, for the time being, although Drayton is sad that the Yankees beat us to Little Round Top, he doesn’t think all that much more about it. His future reflections on that situation come two years down the road.

In February of 1867, Drayton gets to visit with former Confederate General Edward Porter Alexander when both are teaching at the University of South Carolina. Alexander shows him an article written for the New York Times, a tribute to Union General Gouverneur Warren, written in July of 1865.

The article explains that General Warren was the Union officer, part of Meade’s staff, who was responsible for securing Little Round Top for the Yankees, which made the difference in the outcome of the battle. This was the officer that Drayton had seen up there and declined to shoot from ambush, and that act of mercy, a fatal mercy, made the difference in the Battle of Gettysburg, and eventually in the war as a whole. At this point, Drayton feels the eventual loss of the war is his fault for his act of mercy. He lives with the horrific burden on his shoulders until 1913, when he goes back to Gettysburg and is able to unburden his soul at that point in a speech to his comrades in arms of fifty years ago. And while a handful of them react with anger, the majority do not.

Drayton’s second wife, Annalee, (his first wife, Cecelia, the real love of his life) died in 1864 of typhoid fever while he was away fighting and later on Drayton ends up marrying Annalee. She is no carbon copy of his first devoted wife. She is a control freak who wants to dominate every aspect of his being and she does not want him going to Gettysburg for this 50th reunion because he is out from under her control while he is gone. His whole relationship with Annalee and their “marriage” is an interesting sub-plot in this story, but it would drag this review on too long to go into it in detail here. It’s one of those fascinating parts of this book that you will have to get the book to discover. In the end, Drayton is able to resolve it to his (and our) satisfaction.

You may be able to tell from this review that I really enjoyed this book. I have always enjoyed good historical fiction and this book filled that bill. I hope Mr. Moore will go on and do more work in this area. Good historical fiction always imparts a certain amount of historical knowledge and this book does that. I recommend it strongly.
It was published by Green Altar Books, which is a division of Shotwell Publishing in Columbia, South Carolina.

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