During the siege of Petersburg, Va., in 1864, the Union army attempted to blast a hole in the formidable line of entrenchments protecting the Confederate defenders from attack. Pennsylvania coal miners now serving in the military dug a tunnel under these entrenchments and loaded the cavity with explosives.
The resulting blast subsequently led to more Yankees being killed or wounded than Rebels.
In “Cold Mountain,” one of the latter unfortunates was a young North Carolinian. While recovering from a severe neck wound in a hospital after a train ride back to Raleigh, N.C., Inman, the soldier, decided to walk away from the madness that had engulfed the country the past three years, and return to Cold Mountain in the western part of the state, where Ada, his beloved, awaited and prayed for his survival of the ravages of war.
Charles Frazier grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, and, as the author of this novel, introduces the readership to this remote region and its people. Inman’s experiences during the long trek of some 400 miles on foot and the characters he encounters along the way are the heart of this story.
Hinting at what lies ahead, the author employs a quote from British biologist Charles Darwin’s journal written 25 years earlier: “It is difficult to believe in the dreadful but quiet war of organic beings, going on in the peaceful woods, & smiling fields.”
Inman had to overcome a number of obstacles to reconnect with Ada, a comely, well-bred Charleston, S.C., native who had migrated to Cold Mountain with her father to escape the unhealthy climate of the coastal areas.
Frazier’s descriptive narrative brings the scenes along the route Inman traveled into sharp focus. The author blends the countryside and the residents who inhabit it into a series of diverse encounters that reveal the complexion of Inman’s mind, as well as his heart.
From the blind-from-birth vendor pushing his cart of boiled peanuts outside the hospital in Raleigh to the three ne’er-do-wells Inman fought off at a small roadside community, this venture was off to an animated and challenging beginning.
Before long, he arrived at a wide body of water that required ferry transportation from “an apple-cheeked girl, dark about the head and skin so as to suggest Indian blood back a generation or two” who drove a hard bargain by charging him $20 to cross over the Cape Fear River in her dugout canoe. The short trip, however, quickly transformed into a dangerous encounter.
While Inman employed ingenuity fueled with determination to reach his promised land, Ada, after the death of her father, had trouble adjusting to the demands of living on Cold Mountain. The educated, yet less than resourceful, young woman learned to rely on Ruby, a local girl well acquainted with the fine arts of survival in an arduous environment.
While the war continued to rage throughout the Southeastern states from Virginia down through the Carolinas and Georgia, Inman traipsed in the opposite direction. Along the road in the dark of night, he encountered a dastardly country preacher about to dispatch a young woman carrying his illegitimate child in her womb — the author, however, propels Inman to the rescue!
The diverse characterizations continue during this lengthy sojourn, including a band of gypsies on the road toward Salisbury and Odell the peddler, who offered Inman a pull from his flask of Tennessee liquor with “flavors of smoke and leather and other things brown and rich.”
Ultimately, Inman survived the perilous and grueling journey, only to encounter an unavoidable threat. Danger lurked on Cold Mountain, just as it did on the lowland battlefields Inman had abandoned.
More than 3 million readers worldwide propelled “Cold Mountain,” a 1997 publication, to the National Book Award, and this American odyssey ranks among the best Civil War novels. A 2003 film of the same name based on the “Cold Mountain” storyline stars Jude Law (Inman), Nicole Kidman (Ada) and Renee Zellweger (Ruby).
Another fictional account of an important Civil War event is novelist E.L. Doctorow’s “The March.” Next, we will discuss this “magisterial” rendition of “unforgettable characters” who populate Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s devastating march through Georgia in 1864 and the Carolinas in 1865.
Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War,” available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. His latest book, due out in May 2019, is titled “‘Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken’: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863.” Contact him at email@example.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point