When Will This Cruel War Be Over?: The Civil War Diary Of Emma Simpson (Dear America), by Barry Denenberg
A book like this has a difficult task. On the one hand, most American readers have little sympathy with the cause of the American Civil War. Indeed, from the time immediately after the Civil War to the present day it has been the task of the apologist for the Confederacy to avoid admitting to oneself or others that the Civil War was really about slavery. It can be about anything else, just not about the attempted destruction of the United States over the right to own and exploit other human beings without anyone else having the right to stop it or even to complain about it. This book features an appealingly moderate Southern belle who is self-doubting and reflective and puts her in a difficult situation in 1864 as the war comes home to roost in her own house and her family and position start to come under immense strain. Does the reader feel any sort of sympathy for the protagonist? Sure, she is a likeable young woman, but she is also not Southern enough that she offends, unlike her boy-crazy and certifiably insane cousin, who more closely represents the South as it was at the time.
This book is a relatively short one and it covers the period between December 1863 and 1864. The lead character, one Emma Simpson, has a mother who is dying, has an aunt who comes to live with her in her family’s house along with an infant and a young adult daughter who is selfish and conceited and rude to nearly everyone. The personal drama of the protagonist is filtered through the growing losses of the South and the horrors of occupation of the protagonist’s house by some Union soldiers. During the course of the year the protagonist’s thoughts and concerns about the fate of the Confederacy are filtered through the gap between the two sets of letters she receives from the front, one from her gung-ho father and the other more pessimistic commentary from a young man who she finds herself drawn to but also wondering about. The epilogue comes and answers some questions with more sadness but also provides a sense of bittersweet closure before there are some photos and captions about the Civil War history.
The book has what it thinks is a provocative title. The answer to the question, though, is that the cruel war will be over when the South surrenders and accepts the destruction of its slaveowning aristocracy. The protagonist and her family, at least those few members of her family that survive the war with their sanity intact, face the reality of their home and that of their neighbors trashed, their peace of mine threatened by the potential of violence that some of their number suffer, their slaves gone, and the need to reconstruct their lives in the face of a brutal defeat. This is a grim story and the author deserves credit for not sugarcoating it but for demonstrating the genuine horrors of violence that were involved in ending slavery. Our lack of sympathy for the Confederacy and its horrible cause ought not to blind us to the horrors that were suffered in defeat by Southerners. War is not pretty, and had the South as a political culture and region been remotely sane it would have been able to come up with a way of freeing the slaves in such a manner that would not destroy their civilization. But the South was not sane, and so the war came, and it was indeed a cruel one, even by the harsh standard of wars.