When I first started writing Wilderness, I had no specific agenda in mind other than to try and tell a good story about an old man and his dog. I had no notion that my character, Abel Truman, was an American Civil War veteran—let alone a Northerner who had fought for the Confederacy. All I knew was that he was a physically broken, emotionally bereft recluse whose reunion with society would reveal, painfully and irresistibly, the still-vital heart within him.
Soon enough though, my interest in the Civil War—and Abel’s complicated attitudes toward that conflict—began to assert itself in the narrative. The war’s horrific violence—with death tolls exceeding anything the country, or the world, had ever seen—soon transcended its overtly political origins, much as Abel’s character and story began to change, to enlarge with its telling. The simple tale of an old man and his dog grew more complex—more personal but, at the same time, encompassing a broader view of the America that was and the America that is. As Abel says to Edward when trying to explain to the Indian boy what the country had become: “We were one thing—now we’re something else. The war mixed it all up.”
When he enlists, Abel Truman is already a wrecked man. Having assumed responsibility for his infant daughter’s crib death, and with his wife driven mad with grief, he finds himself wandering, numb, steeped in drink, expelled from the Garden of domestic bliss. He lets this tragedy define his life, and when he finally enlists for the Confederacy it is simply because that is where he is at the time, geographically, and because of the hope that the annealing fire of war might be the thing to either make him whole again or end his suffering. For Abel, the causes of the war—States Rights and the “peculiar institution” that drove the armies against each other—is no factor at all.
The place feels melancholy as a Sunday evening, and the moment I stepped from the car onto Saunder’s Field, I knew that this was where the cauldron of Abel Truman’s warring days would reach its boil.
But as a foot soldier directly responsible for the bloody work of those days, Abel has to participate and, when his comrades in arms are killed or wounded, he has to respond. And when he encounters the evils of slavery firsthand, he finally realizes the intensely personal dimension of the war that lies beyond politics and even bloodshed. The war is the end point of this period of Abel’s life. His life in exile afterwards—living in a place as far away as he can possibly get from the landscapes of war—is simply what Abel has to do to come to grips with and understand everything he’s seen and everything he’s done.
To make Abel’s interior journey believable, I quickly realized I needed a far more solid understanding of thewaythe war was fought. Before writing Wilderness, I knew very little of the American Civil War and so began my study where it made sense to begin: with the solid basics of James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and the lyric romanticism of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative. Afterwards, I moved on to specific battle histories and was introduced to the fields of Shiloh, Antietam, Chickamauga and Chancellorsville. I spent six months on Gettysburg alone. All the while, I was looking for the “worst” of those awful battles to serve as the cauldron that would boil off Abel’s indifference.
Somewhere along the line, I read about the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864. The first clash between Lee and Grant, the Wilderness marked the last, best chance for the Confederacy to turn the war back in their favor. Over the course of the battle that took place in those tangled woods, there was little in the way of panoramas of ranked lines clashing and much in the way of soldiers using the bayonet and musket-butt against each other. The fighting was by necessity close and by inclination personal. It was the last time the oft-retreated Army of the Potomac would cross the Rapidan River and the last time the Army of Northern Virginia would mount a real offensive. So there is a sense of desperation—of endings and finalities—palpable in the descriptions of the fighting that went on in those dark woods. And when I visited the battlefield, I found the Wilderness was a dark place. The trees there are close and strange and would have been closer, stranger still in the spring of 1864. The place feels melancholy as a Sunday evening, and the moment I stepped from the car onto Saunder’s Field, I knew that this was where the cauldron of Abel Truman’s warring days would reach its boil.
The story of Abel—broken, suffering—became, in the course of its telling, the story of America at war and after. What it was and what it became. Broken, yes, but far stronger at the break.
Read our review of Wilderness.