A review of R. E. Mitchell. Souls of Lions (Bloomington, Indiana: iUniverse LLC, 2014).
Very seldom do I review novels, even historical ones. But R. E. Mitchell’s volume, Souls of Lions, after just a few pages, captured my attention and kept me glued to my couch seat for several days until I had finished it…and with its surprising and fascinating ending. At the end, tears swelled up in my eyes, as I bid goodbye to characters I had grown to know and whose eyes I felt that I could see through.
The plot basically concerns two brothers, George and Walsh Hawkins, both very young and from Person County, North Carolina, and several of their friends who are members of the 50th North Carolina Regiment during the last six months of the War for Southern Independence. George and Walsh actually existed, although Mitchell has recreated various situations and added imagined and fictitious dialogue.
We follow the 50th on its painful and gruesome march, many times as a rearguard unit against General Sherman’s overwhelming numbers, from Savannah through ravaged South Carolina, to Averasborough and then to the fields of Bentonville, and at last to the final emotional farewells in Greensboro, where the Army of Tennessee, and particularly Hardee’s command, lay down their arms and disbanded.
Through it all we get to know these two brothers, we see through their eyes, experience their unbearable suffering due to Yankee might, ruthless bummers, lack of provisions, and the very cruel winter of 1864-1865. Although author Mitchell conveys fully, at times, the desperation and hardships, we also see a true spirit of courage and incredible sacrifice and a real love of country, and, even more, a certain nobility that inhabits these poor farmer boys.
One of the excellent characteristics of Mitchell’s narrative is the obvious research and attention to historical detail he incorporates. You can actually trace the march from Savannah to Bentonville using a good chronology—Mitchell knows his facts and geography. But even more, he is able to express both the sufferings and hardships, as well as the courage and, yes, even moments of simple joy.
Here is an example of his description of the despair that can afflict a soldier in such circumstances:
“An exhausted, starving man lives only for the moment. The past is meaningless, like a disjointed, noisy dream. It is hard to hold. There is a bit of something here, a piece of something there, all loosely joined memories held together by invisibilities. Of what point are they? Yet, they are the things every man has done, the commonplace. George had eaten thousands of meals, slept in bed countless times, all without giving it much thought. But now his desperation was a concentration of plain, simple memories, a singularity of infinite desperation, like struggling to draw a breath, and so the future had become everything.” (p. 112)
And of the superhuman courage, emotion, and exhilaration that comes in the midst of contested battle, here is Mitchell describing a successful Confederate counter-attack by the 50th in the heat of Bentonville:
“The smoke had cleared enough for him [George] to see the [Yankee] skirmishers reforming. Several were kneeling, reloading their rifles. He charged them recklessly, swinging his rifle like a club until the enemy fled back into the brush. George charged after them and soon found himself back among his company. He was flying as though in a dream, destined to rule the world. There was nothing they could not do. They were invincible. Here at last there was glory and honor, not of this world, but of another dimension, where all his senses were compressed by time, an excitement so exhilarating, he felt immortal.” (p. 135)
Tears came to me as Mitchell, speaking through his characters, recounts the death OF young Willie Hardee the general’s only son, aged only sixteen. Learning of young Willie’s wound, George asks: “How serious is it?” And his compatriot’s reply: “Mortal, they say. I guess the general finally gave in. I guess it was hard to say no when a lot of sixteen-year-old boys were fighting and dying. I guess they did some good…Anyway, we’re asked to pray for the boy.” Then, on hearing of Willie’s death from Captain Van Wyk, George sadly exclaims: “I’m sorry…a lot of Willies have died in this war. A lot of fathers have lost their sons.” (pp. 139, 143)
And, again, I felt the emotions as the news reaches their camp outside Raleigh that Marse Robert had surrendered at Appomattox: “The men tried all that day to understand the meaning of Marse Bob’s surrender. Some denied it was true. It couldn’t be true. Why, Lee had whipped Grant at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor….” (pp. 155-156) And then thinking about what surrender would mean, in one of the finest summations of what separated those valiant Southern boys from their Northern counterparts, George declares:
“It [the war] will be OUR fault….that is the way it will be told. We liked things the way they were. It was the Yankees who wanted to change things. They want to change the world. But when you think about it, I imagine that most folks are farmers same as us. When you think about, that should be enough. But the Yankees want to lay up treasures on earth. The whole country will be belching smoke and puffing steam. A man will try to sleep at night to trains and the whistles of steam. I reckon now we’ll see the kind of world they want to make. It ain’t likely to include us.” (p. 156).
The final laying down of arms and banners at Greensboro also captures the bursting emotions and the memories of men who, despite their seemingly infinite hardships and sufferings, had an incredible esprit de corps and composed an army scarcely paralleled in human history: “One by one, the regimental flags dipped and were surrendered. The men lowered their heads with the flags and wept. Tears flowed freely down every face. Not one could hold back the tears. To capture an enemy flag was a great feat, but to lose the colors, a disgrace.” (p. 163) And at General Hardee’s farewell, “[T]he soldiers cheered…They reached up to touch the general and shake his hand,” and one companion of George and Walsh expressed their emptiness: “I feel like a hound with his teeth pulled….At times I prayed for this day, but with a different ending. It just don’t feel right.” (p. 164)
There is also a heroine in Souls of Lions. Her name is Sally Jo, and she catches George’s eye in the midst of what probably is the low point during the Carolinas campaign. It would be unfair to reveal details of their amazing romance, for it comprises a special ingredient that makes this novel so rewarding and heartrending. Needless to say, if you are like me, you will not have a dry eye after reading this volume.
At the very end, thirty years later in 1895, at a reunion of those now aged heroes of the 50th on the battlefield at Bentonville, “a band played, the Goldsboro Rifles paraded by the light of the campfires, and the Confederates commenced to sing the old songs. George listened for a while and then joined the singing. His voice cracked with emotion…of sadness and joy, of sweet memories and bitter ones. He had known suffering but little joy, defeat and no victory, but through it all he had done his duty…. (p. 194)
Thus, with Souls of Lions Mitchell’s vision, through the eyes of his larger-than-life characters, becomes reality. Through this stirring account of their pain, but also their unexcelled courage and heroism in defense of their country and a way of life, we can see what they saw and fathom what they felt.