Howard Bahr: The Black Flower (1997) Literature and War Readalong January 2014

The Black Flower

This year’s Literature and War Readalong starts strong with Howard Bahr’s powerful book The Black Flower, a novel on the American Civil War. The book is at times a bit patchy, with an eccentric structure and a style reminiscent of an expressionist novel, but it manages one thing admirably well: bringing the Civil War to life for those who were not there.

The book is set in 1864, before, during and after the battle that took place in Franklin, Tennessee. It is told from different POVs, but mostly we see the story unfold through the eyes of Bushrod Carter and Anna Hereford. But Bahr jumps from them to different others from whose point of view we see a small incident or a chapter. One particularly powerful scene is told from the point of view of a wasp.

Anna stays at her cousin’s house, which will be occupied by the army shortly before and after the battle. It will be turned into some sort of field hospital. That’s where Anna and Bushrod meet and fall in love, amidst the chaos and mayhem.

Before he meets Anna we see Bushrod together with his best friends, Virgil and Jack. They wait for the battle to begin and talk about old times. In the afternoon, in what is one of the best scenes of the book, they bury their dead, together with soldiers from the Union. Meeting them up close, shows Bushrod and his friends once more how alike they are and how absurd it is to kill them.

The Black Flower concentrates entirely on these few people and on what happens to them during a short period of time. The strength lies in the way Bahr magnifies details and in his almost expressionist writing. Passages like the one below reminded me of the paintings of Otto Dix.

In the starlight, and in the torchlight as far as it carried, the dead possessed the violated earth. They were draped all over the parapet, festooned in the osage orange hedges, blown back from the embrasures in meaty fragments. In the ditch before the works they lay in geologic strata of regiments and brigades, piled six and eight and ten deep: an inextricable mass of gray and brown, a tangle of accoutrements and muskets, a blur of faces and claw-like hands. Some were almost naked, torn to shreds by canister and rifle fire, the clothes ripped from their bodies;others lay whole and peaceful, dreaming among their comrades. Here and there, dead men who’d had no room to fall stood upright in the pile, still holding their rifles, their faces still set toward the memory of the vanished foe.

Some of the dead were busy. They twitched and jerked from the violence of their passing, they heaved stubbornly as still-living men tried to push up from underneath. The surface layer of wounded writhed and groaned and implored; the whole pile crawled with movement. Steam rose from the fragments, from open skulls and blue pails of entrails. The smell hung close to the ground in the damp night.

If you don’t know a lot about the American Civil War, this book is not going to give you a lot of information. But it will show you how much it cost in terms of human life, safety, and hope. Every war is horrible, but these early wars, with their mass amputations, and improvised field hospitals have a particularly gruesome side. I don’t think that I was fully aware of this. Bahr also describes very well how tired, dirty and worn-out these men were.

Most of the characters in the book are well rendered. Even the minor characters are carefully described. We feel for all of them. Of course we feel particularly strongly for Anna and Bushrod and when the end of the book comes, it’s quite heartbreaking and unexpected.

I was surprised to find almost modernist elements and an episodic structure in this book, as the novel starts rather conventionally. Once I had finished the book, I realised that Bahr not only manged to paint a canvas of this war, but that he also told a tale of  love and friendship without sugar-coating or glossing over anything.

I’m glad that the next book is also on the American Civil War and that it contains an introduction. Background information on a war I’m not that familiar with, was the only thing I was missing here.

Should anyone wonder  – the title is an allusion to Death.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Kailana (The Written World)


The Black Flower is the first book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is the American Civil War classic  The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. Discussion starts on Friday 28 February, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.

26 thoughts on “Howard Bahr: The Black Flower (1997) Literature and War Readalong January 2014

  1. I have about fifty pages left to read so have only skimmed your post–I agree–it’s very good, a little patchy and quite different in form than I thought when I started reading. The good parts are very good, but then it lags a bit here and there–though that is all little quibbles. It’s been quite a visceral reading experience for me, which means I have only been able to read it in smaller chunks. I thought I would have finished it days ago but I need breaks. And I am woefully ignorant really (other than basics) about the Civil War I am sorry to say–haven’t read about it since high school! This novel does just drop you into it all. He manages to capture the horror of it all–very visually without an inordinant number of graphic passages–it’s there but subtley–well, as subtle as you can get in a war story. Strangely there are not a lot of actual battle scenes–in the heat of the moment of it all–it’s all very well done!

    • I think we feel pretty much the same about it. It is patchy and there are a few passages that are very slow but the goods ones are amazingly good. I’m certainly glad we’ve read it. I’m looking foward to read your thoughts. the story takes quite a tunr towards the end.

  2. I finished this last night and just haven’t sat down to write a review yet. The audio was good! I would find myself only half paying attention sometimes, but when the good stuff happened I didn’t want to stop. It was good overall. I am glad I read it because I probably never would have otherwise!

    • Thanks, Carole. I’d say it’s worth reading. It has a few slower moments and confusing POV elements but now that you are forewarned.
      I’d be interested to hear what you think.

  3. This is a truly outstanding book. I found it in my search for a good Civil War novel to read as part of a Civil War Readalong. It is one of the best novels I have ever read and very memorable. I am glad Caroline accepted my suggestion, but was a little concerned about it not holding up a second time. I very seldom read a book twice. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked it again. Part of that is having such a bad memory I did not remember key plot points LOL.

    Bahr has a way of writing that is mesmerizing to me. There is a passage focusing on the meanderings of a wasp that is one of the most astounding things I have ever read. I’m pleased to see other’s have noticed it. His prose is lyrical and poetic. His imagery is evocative. There are images of death throughout. Parts of the book are surreal, but others are among the most realistic portrayals of soldier life that I have read (and I’ve read a lot). He gets in the characters heads and we read what they are thinking. For instance, Bushrod has an “other” who is his foil in battle. Bahr is great at showing the effects fatigue and stress have on what people think, say, and do. Some of the themes are friendship (there are endearing flashbacks to the childhoods of Bushrod, Jack, and Virgil) and loss of innocence, in particular Anna’s.

    Bahr is obviously fond of the soldier’s of the Lost Cause. Here is how he describes the survivors of the battle as they prepare to soldier on: “They were like thin, ragged, animated scarecrows, hawking and wheezing and complaining. They were all angles, all sharp corners and bristles, lean and wiry like the long-legged horses the cavalry rode. Even the short ones, the squat ones (there were no fit ones) seemed collected for speed, for driving, for long walking down the winter-deep mud, down the fields and barren valleys into the smoke.”

    Bahr includes a “The Things They Carried” moment by having Winder examine the contents of Bushrod’s haversack. “There was a tortoise shell comb, a bone toothbrush, a fragment of soap. A tin of George Hummel’s Celebrated Essence of Coffee. A piece of blue ribbon. A dirty rag. Another dirty rag. A stub of candle. Loose minie-ball, rusty tin plate, wooden spoon, a fork with “B.C,” carved in the handle. There was some string, a bundle of letters, a deck of playing cards, two clay marbles and a pretty rock.”

    The novel is not based on a true story, but the basics of the battle are accurate. The Battle of Franklin was a disaster for the Army of Tennessee. It featured suicidal frontal charges against strongly defended earthworks. A common feature of battles in the closing stages of the war. In fact, the fighting Bushrod’s unit takes part in is sometimes referred to as the “Pickett’s Charge of the West”. There was an Adam’s Brigade and Gen. Adams did die when his horse got on top of the earthworks.

    The only flaw in the book, in my opinion, is a flash-forward midway through to Anna years after the war. It gives Bahr a chance to make insightful comments about the role of Southern women in the evolution of the Lost Cause, but it takes some of the suspense out of the end of the book. This passage would have been better as an epilogue. Although not a big fan of nonlinear structure, I did not mind it in this book. I did not find it patchy. I have to say that the flash backs (and flash forward) came without warning and were not spaced well. It is also a very small world around that house, but this is acceptable in a novel that attempts to bring characters together for dramatic purposes. I have to admit I found Anna’s age at 24 to be puzzling. Why did Bahr choose to make her desirable and yet an old maid?

    I loved the main characters and cared for Bushrod, Anna, and Nebo. The supporting cast are well developed. Simon Rope is loathsome and his encounter with the wounded soldier is chilling.

    Things you get in this book that are seldom written about in Civil War novels: the role of bands, care for the wounded, burial of the dead

    Favorite scenes: Nebo in the room with the children (not knowing if he was evil), Anna meets Gen. Forrest, the final confrontation with Rope

    One minor correction, Caroline. You are right that the burial scene is a good one, but it is a flashback to an earlier campaign. It was not associated with the Battle of Franklin. A key point was to establish Simon Rope’s animosity toward the trio. It does a great job pointing out the fraternization between common soldiers that the Civil War is famous for.

    I can tell you that “Killer Angles” will be very different, yet a great companion to this novel. This years Readalong starts very strong, in my opinion.

    P.S. anyone who does not like these two books is a real peckerwood ( a term I had always assumed was dirty until the chaste Anna used it several times).

    • I was surprised that you liked a book with such a modernist structure, and I guess that structure misled me into beliveing they buried theit dead just before the battle. Yeah well.
      I think the book would have benefitted from more diting and that might have even turned it into a commercila success. The writing is very anachronistic, the style seems to come directly from an earlier time (40s). A bit like Gert Ledig’s book that we read two years ago. The writing is great, I wouldn’t chnage anything about the scenes but rearrange the structure would have been good. Yes, seeing Anna on her own was a spoiler.
      But I did like it and would never have read it, if you hadn’t mentioned it. Kailana and Danielle liked it too.
      Nebo was one of my favorite characters as well.
      The wasp episode is very unique and shows how good a writer he is.

    • That’s a grim quote.

      I remember mentioning to you that I couldn’t think of a civil war novel, but then right after that I came across one. I failed to write down the title as I was in a rush, but if I come across it again, I’ll let you know.

  4. I tend to like modernist literature a lot, if only for the fact that I do not read much of it, but when I do it is a refreshing change from what I usually do read.

    This sounds really good. I think that amputations were a particularly horrible and characteristic aspect of the American Civil War.

    There are tons of non fiction books on the conflict. I also highly recommend Ken Burns’s The Civil War documentary series. It is fairly comprehensive but it also shows the human effect of the conflict.

    • Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll have a look.
      I don’t know enough about this war.
      The amputations sound awful. It had such gruesome scene in which he describes how buckets got filled. Shudder.
      I thought this modernist apparoch was a good way for a book like that. Yiu would like it, I’m sure.

  5. Wonderful review, Caroline! I liked very much how you described Bahr’s prose – as ‘expressionist writing’. That passage you have quoted was quite interesting but hard to read, because of what it describes. It is interesting to know that though the book starts in a conventional way, as it progresses Bahr plays with the structure of the book. Sorry to know that the ending is heartbreaking and unexpected. It looks like the ‘Literature and War Readalong’ is off to a wonderful start this year 🙂

    • Thanks, Vishy. It’s interesting that we all had a similar reaction. We thought it would be quite conventional but then he headed off into other directions.
      The end was sad but very realistic. I’m glad I’ve read it.

    • I was very glad I’ve read it. He captures so well what this war – any war – means in terms of human cost. The style was very unique. Will be reading The Killer Angels next, followe by The March. Maybe you would like to joj the discussion?

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