I have always been intrigued with Harry Turtledove – a “master of alternative history.” Personally, I am not a big fan of alternative history – I am too much of a realist and can’t think beyond what really occurred in the events he portrays. In any case, I decided to read a historical fiction novel that he wrote about the attack on Fort Pillow during the American Civil War, entitled Fort Pillow.
Fort Pillow was built by the Confederates in Tennessee in the early part of the Civil War. Union troops occupied the fort in 1862. In April 1864, the Confederates decided to attack the fort because Union cavalry from Tennessee and African American artillerymen manned it. Both groups of men were hated by the Confederates – the cavalry because of their activities against their Southern neighbors in the area and the African Americans because they were mostly former slaves and the Confederates wanted to send a message to the Union for arming African Americans.
The Confederates attacked with roughly 1,500 troops and the Union had 300 troops (about half African American). The Confederates soon overwhelmed the defenders and butchered many of the Union defenders – both races. The Fort Pillow Massacre became a rallying cry for the Union troops for the rest of the war.
The book was good in that it brings to life a horrible incident in American history. It provides you both sides of the story from the perspective of the Confederate commander (General Nathan Bedford Forrest) and the Union commander (Major William Bradford) and various lower ranking individuals. At times, it is a gripping account of the bitter fighting between the two forces.
However, I think the story is weakened by a poor development of the plot. The dialogue is too long and certain activities could be summarized in a more succinct manner. It got to the point where I was skimming paragraphs in search of any interesting bits of information. I hope that this is not the best Harry Turtledove has to offer – if it is, I will not reading another book of his.
Finally, I know that it is customary to write in language used in the times, but I think Turtledove went a little too overboard. Based on my upbringing, I have come to believe that using the “N” word in reference to African Americans is racist and wrong – Turtledove uses this word too frequently for my comfort level. I know that using this word less or using another word in its place may detract from its historical setting, but I think that in this case it would be more prudent with the use of the word.
As one person said, if the book does nothing else, at least it shows how far our country has come its beliefs toward African Americans. For that reason, I would recommend it.