The Black Flower: A Novel of the Civil War by Howard Bahr

I have a new favorite book. And as is typical of my favorites, it must come with a disclaimer for those of you who don’t like to be pushed out of your comfort zone: it is heartbreaking, beautiful, and tragic.

The main story of this novel only spans the 48 hour period before and after the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee. Bushrod Carter is a college educated man and seasoned veteran of the Civil War at age 26; he’s been actively fighting for the Confederacy since the war began in 1861. His two childhood best friends, Jack Bishop and Virgil C. Johnson, have been with him for the past 3 years, and all have managed to walk out of each battle unharmed. Through a series of flashbacks throughout the book, we see the history of the three men, what they were like as children, certain events that shaped their outlooks, and mostly, how deeply they care about and love each other as brothers.

The strain of the prolonged fighting has taken its toll on most of the men by the time they approach Franklin and there seems to be a blanketing sense of hopelessness about the troops. Bushrod has adopted a coping mechanism in which he retreats into his “Other” self whenever he goes into battle or when faced with the horrible aftermath. He refers to the dead as the “Departed” and treats them reverently, always asking for permission to take their clothing or accoutrements and then thanking them for it. The men are exhausted and Bushrod is particularly struggling because each time he falls asleep (even when he’s standing upright) he is plagued with dreams in which Jack and Virgil C. are dead.

The foreshadowing is heavy (but well done) and it is clear from the very beginning that there will not be a happy ending. And if you know anything about the Civil War, you know that the Confederates were basically massacred during the brief (but extremely bloody) battle at Franklin. The men obviously know that they don’t stand a chance, but line up and prepare to march into battle nonetheless. Bushrod despises killing and is trembling so severely that he cannot load his musket. Jack is at his side and loads it for him.

Carnton Plantation

Meanwhile, John McGavock has been informed that the Confederacy will be using his home, Carnton Plantation, as a field hospital. He and his wife, Carrie McGavock, stoically accept their fate and begin readying themselves and the house for the wounded. (Carrie McGavock is the central character in Robert Hicks’ Widow of the South, but she plays a secondary role in this novel. I am a fan of Widow, so it was interesting for me to see her from a different perspective.) Carrie’s young cousin, Anna Hereford, is also present on one of her yearly visits and in an unexpected twist of fate, finds herself thrust into the job of field nurse. After the battle, a wounded Bushrod is carried into Carnton and left at the foot of the stairs, and it is here that he meets Anna. They are from very different backgrounds and Anna blatantly states that under different circumstances, she would have never given him the time of day. As it stands, however, at this precise moment, they are perfectly attuned, each making the other whole during the most trying time of their lives. 

Everything I’ve said so far is really just the beginning, the relationship that develops between Bushrod and Anna is the heart of the story, but there is so much more happening simultaneously. The antagonist of the novel is a conscripted soldier named Simon Rope who had a run-in with Bushrod and his friends several weeks prior and who means to take revenge on them all. Also, Anna has been instructed to watch over and protect the McGavock children, Hattie and Winder, who are locked in the only room of the house that is not serving as a hospital, while also helping take care of the soldiers. I won’t go into any further detail regarding those storylines so as not to give too much away.

Back porch of Carnton


I absolutely love this book. I am amazed that such a small and concise story can have such a strong emotional impact. Bahr captures the irony and contradiction of the war perfectly, and his writing is downright poetry. The battle itself is not described, but the grounds, atmosphere, and attitudes of those involved are vividly brought to life. I have visited the Carnton Plantation, so I could clearly envision the surgeon’s table and the bloodstained floors, the hallway clogged with dead and dying men, the beautiful porch with the sky blue ceiling on which dead famous generals were laid out.

Even though I was dying to find out what happened next, I found myself going back and re-reading paragraphs because they were just so beautiful. The grisly scenes of death and destruction are punctuated by tender moments of unfettered love and compassion and agonizingly poignant writing. There is a lot of symbolism and many references to animals, which I found particularly moving. There is a scene involving a wasp that is trapped in the McGavock house amongst the wounded men that broke my heart. Another one of my favorite paragraphs that I read over and over is this one between Bushrod and Anna:

She turned then, and all at once they were standing so close that she had to tilt up her face to look at him. “Give me your hand,” she said. “Please.” So he put out his right hand, palm up, and Anna settled her own in it like a bird alighting. Bushrod thought of when he was a boy and sometimes a chimney swift would come in through the hearth; when that happened, he would always be the one to catch it, he loved to wrap his hand around it and feel the softness and the little hammer of the swift beating heart. Outside he would open his hand; for an instant the bird would lie blinking in his palm, then flicker away so fast he could never find it in the sky. He half-expected Anna’s hand to do the same, but it lay still, and he closed his own around it.

 I feel like I’m doing a terrible job expressing how moving this novel is. The story is gripping, intense, sad, funny, and thought-provoking all at once. The hook doesn’t fully sink in until the battle begins (about 75 pages in), but once it does you will not be able to put it down. Bushrod is a very interesting character and I savored every single second I had with him. The novel is divided into several parts and at the beginning of each part, Bahr includes actual lines from Bushrod’s Commonplace Book, a letter to his mother, and even faculty minutes from the time he and Jack were suspended from the University of Mississippi in 1859 for drunken, unruly behavior; all of which makes him that much more realistic. It is very obvious that the author loved and respected these characters and I think he did a wonderful job of paying homage to the sacrifice that they all made. 

The Black Flower is a heavy, bittersweet and heartbreaking read. Even though I knew how it was going to end, I still felt like I had been punched in the gut when the time came. I cried and was left with a hollow feeling for a few days afterwards, but it was completely worth it. My favorite novels are the ones that evoke sincere emotion; this one has major emotional impact and the awe-inspiring, heartfelt writing is icing on the cake. Even if you don’t typically like Civil War novels, I think you will be blown away by this book. I borrowed it from the library, but will be purchasing my own copy because I want it on hand for whenever I get the urge to go back to certain passages, not to mention numerous re-reads in the future. Bahr has two other Civil War novels, The Year of Jubilo and The Judas Field, which I look forward to reading.