Savannah: Fredric C. Beil. Publisher – 2008
$25. 95 – 447 pages
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, not yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happens to them all.
- Ecclesiastes; 9: 11-12
For most of us, the historic struggle for American independence has been elegantly embalmed in tasteful rhetoric and imagery: Washington at Valley Forge; The Surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown; the numerous statues of “Mad” Anthony Wayne – all depicted with grandiose posturing and melodrama. Such is not the case with Charles F. Price’s latest novel, Nor the Battle to the Strong – an imposing chronicle of General Nathanael Greene’s 1781 campaign through Virginia and the Carolinas. Price literally brings this elusive chapter of the Revolutionary War down to earth.
Historically, both the conflicts and the personalities depicted in Nor The Battle to the Strong have been pushed to the background of textbooks and nearly forgotten, their significance reduced to footnotes and postscripts to grander and more imposing events. However, for a brief, shining moment, Nathanael Greene hung on the cusp of fame – stood with George Washington and Lafayette as one of the Nation’s most capable military leaders. Then, came the summer of 1781 and the battle of Eutaw Springs.
From the first page, Nor The Battle to The Strong reflects the author’s impressive research. The reader is quickly immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of a rag-tag encampment composed of demoralized soldiers, often accompanied by wives and children. Many are former farmers or reluctant conscripts and the majority of them have neither weapons nor uniforms. Further, they seem to be at the mercy of drunken, inept or brutal officers who march them in meaningless circles. This is a regiment of the Continental Army of the United States.
The action of this novel is seen through the eyes of two remarkable characters: General Nathanael Greene and private James Johnson. Alternately, we view the action from high and low: Greene’s lofty perch from which he plots the “chess of war,” and then through the astonished eyes of “wee Jamie,” a runaway indentured servant who has joined the Continental army, believing it represents safety – a refuge for him and his sister, Libby. While Greene writes effusive letters to politicians and fellow officers plots campaign strategy and consults with his staff, young Jamie learns the art of butchery and pretends Libby is his wife so that his companions will not pursue her as a sexual companion. Greene envies the dash and glamour of his peers, ponders his lapsed religion (Quakers do not engage in warfare), and yearns for “a place in history;” Jamie devises a plan to “elevate himself” by becoming a member of the First Dragoons.
What then, do these two men have in common? At the crux of Price’s novel is a paradox. When Jamie learns that he may well be the direct descendant of a legendary warrior, the Scottish “Wee John, the Crowner’s son,” he begins to dream of a heroic encounter – an event that will carve his name in the family history. General Greene dares to dream of honor, fame and position. For both men, the battle of Eutaw Springs represents a predestined goal. However, for both, the battle will bring painful revelations.
Nor The Battle to The Strong is filled with characters that are locked in a great struggle to create a nation; yet all of them have a “hidden agenda.” The struggle for American Independence is a means to an end - personal glory. The irony of their travail may be this: regardless of the success or failure of their personal quests, they all (inadvertently, perhaps) contribute to the greater good: the creation of this country.
This novel is packed with the names of remarkable men who live on in the names of our cities and counties: Sumner (two of them), Lee, Washington, Hampton, Henderson, Blunt, Marion and Pickens – all emerge as vibrant and flawed beings who played a part in the shaping of our history. Especially memorable (and tragic) is “Light Horse Harry Lee.”
However, the real power of this novel resides in the beauty of the writing. Price’s descriptive passages are memorable. The serene beauty of the march by night on the eve of the battle stands in sharp contrast to the horrendous carnage of the battle and Jamie’s daunting ride through the British lines. The book bristles with vivid characters, including a defrocked Methodist preacher who has the ability to make people “bark like a flock of spaniels, foam at the mouth and pop their teeth;” a man who sleeps with a pig and a horse named Jesus.
There is much more. It will have to suffice to mention one detail: Wee Jamie falls in love, and true to the family prophecy, he lives to find a sassy, heavily armed girl named Agnes who waits for him in Burke County.