War history is often reduced to strings of dates and statistics, with obligatory but superficial references to the tragedy and horror of battle. We know, for example, that the Battle of Franklin was fought Nov. 30, 1864, and that General Hood’s Confederate army suffered more than 1,700 deaths in a five-hour period. But what was it really like to take part in such killing? And, more importantly, how did it affect those who survived?
To see war through the eyes of those who fight requires either a memoir or a well-researched novel. The Judas Field is the latter, a richly detailed, beautifully written exploration of the effects of war on the human body, mind and spirit. Its author, Shelbyville resident Howard Bahr, has captured in its pages what must be one of the worst wounds of battle—the memories that will never fade, that will hold their bearer prisoner to the past. The recollections, as Bahr’s protagonist Cass Wakefield learns, are often prompted by little, unpredictable things: “[H]is memory was like one of those moving picture machines in the city arcade. If he wasn’t careful, somebody would drop a coin in the slot, and the cards would begin to flip, and the figures jerk to life in a dim, flickering light.”
The Judas Field, Bahr’s third novel, is set in 1885, 20 years after the Civil War. Cass resides in his hometown in Mississippi with his comrades from the war—both the living and, in sometimes disturbingly real visions, the dead. When he’s not wandering the country selling guns for a living, an irony he fully appreciates, he is usually in the town tavern, avoiding human contact. He emerges from the bar into nights populated by other tortured souls whose bloody memories likewise leave them sleepless. It is an existence uninterrupted by joy. Then Alison, a war widow he has known all his life, asks him to go with her to Franklin, Tenn., to retrieve the bodies of her husband and brother, whom Cass helped bury after the battle. At first repelled by her request, he soon realizes he must go, drawn by all he can’t forget.
While traveling north by train, Cass begins to relive the final campaign of the war, beginning with the retreat from Atlanta and ending at Franklin. This is where the novel hits its stride and Bahr demonstrates his command of the intricacies of Civil War soldiering. In addition to being an award-winning novelist and an English teacher at Motlow State Community College, Bahr has been a Civil War reenactor, one of the thousands of people who dress as soldiers and re-create the sights and sounds of battles long forgotten by the modern world. He knows the rip of rifle fire, the body-shaking thump of cannon, and the sting of smoke in the eyes. To these material details Bahr has added a plausibly imagined, almost tangible sense of fear and desperation that can make the reader cringe in sympathy. This is not a sugarcoated celebration of the glory of combat, but a brutally realistic portrayal of savagery. The fighting, as Bahr’s characters discover, is driven by rage over what is happening to them and their friends; their desire to protect and avenge one another. The killing becomes a personal act, unrelated to the plans of the generals. So, in the midst of battle, Cass is transformed. “It always happened: one minute he was begging in his mind for it to stop; in the next, he wanted it to last forever, wanted them to keep on coming so he could kill them.”
But Cass and his buddies are human, and humans must try to cope with the consequences of their actions. In the aftermath of the battles, on the long marches from one killing spree to the next, Cass and his friends talk not only of home and loved ones, but about God. Why is He letting this happen? What will become of them when it is their turn to die? Like amateur but accomplished theologians, they speculate on the limits of God’s power and what part He is playing in the war. As one of Cass’ friends observes, “If we live, I will take you over the next field myself, and maybe you will learn what you can only learn the hard way: that God is there with you, and whatever sorrow you are feeling—well, how infinite must the sorrow be in His heart? ”
As the soldiers of Cass’ regiment march toward the slaughter field of Franklin, they come across a young orphan sent off to fight. In an act of grace Cass adopts him, offering the protection of his group of friends who, knowing what war will do to the boy, try to shield him from the worst of it. The war is too horrible, however, for even noncombatants to be spared the images of carnage. Twenty years later, on the memory-haunted return to the battlefield, the two are still together, still struggling to understand a war that won’t let them free, the violence that never seems to end. Cass tries to explain to Alison what happened, but the words he knows—indeed, any words—aren’t equal to the task. She is left not entirely understanding what haunts her friends, but is herself scarred by it—by the loss of loved ones and the loss of what might have been for the survivors.
Though Bahr’s primary theme in The Judas Field is the effect of war on the individuals who fight, Alison’s situation seems symbolic of the larger effects of war on society. They are effects visible today, as modern Americans debate issues ranging from battle-flag displays to civil rights. We may not know exactly what happened on those fields 140 years ago, but we still bear scars from the events. And we must wonder from time to time whether the inherited memories will always be too strong to let us go.