Larry S. Chowning,
Soldiers at the Doorstep
(Tidewater, 1999)

History is often best told by those who experienced it.

Not everyone knows someone who knew someone who was alive during the Civil War. But Larry S. Chowning does, and he's willing to sit down and share a few tales with anyone willing to hear them.

Chowning brings the conflict to life in Soldiers at the Doorstep, a recounting of various stories by those who lived them and passed them down through friends, children and, in a few cases, slaves. Chowning is from the tidewater region of Virginia, so you'd expect these stories to be sympathetic to the South -- and you'd be right. The Yankee soldiers here are portrayed mostly as thieves and vandals, villains who rampaged through the South leaving starvation and misery in their wake. But, as Chowning points out in his preface, similar stories can likely be found in any northern state where Rebel soldiers made their way; an occupying army is often hard on the people who live there, no matter who's right or wrong or in between.

The stories collected here aren't the tales of glorious battles, and you won't find much in the way of troop movements or political agendas here. Instead, you'll read about people whose food, livestock and silverware were stolen, whose men and boys were threatened with death or conscription, whose communities lived in fear. You'll read about people who sacrificed much to protect their children or strike a blow for their cause. You'll meet slaves who loved their masters as well as slaves who were abused by them.

The great events and personalities that drive a war can be found in any number of texts. Much rarer is the human side of the story, and that is what Chowning captures here. His narratives are simple and easygoing, like a story you'd hear on a shady porch, spoken in a soft Virginia drawl over a glass of cold lemonade. This is a part of history that should be remembered, too.

review by
Tom Knapp

11 April 2009

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