Reading Corner | Civil War characters’ story resonates today

From the first chapter to the last, “By the Red Glare” is a complete indictment of the peculiar institution of slavery, but the story is told with a deep understanding of the views and emotions of both black and white South Carolinians 150 years ago.

The historical novel is set in Columbia, “the cradle of succession,” as the Union army of William Tecumseh Sherman approaches the capital of South Carolina in the closing days of the Civil War. In his foreword, historian Marion B. Lucas writes: “Sibley-Jones combines a handful of Columbia’s famous residents … with inventive fictional characters who carry the moving narrative of love, ambition and ideals overshadowed by the looming power of historical events larger than any individual can truly fathom.”

The chief protagonists work in the overcrowded Confederate hospitals on what is now the University of South Carolina campus. Administrator Joseph Crawford and surgeon Dr. Thompson are fictional. The hospital’s head nurse is Louisa Cheves McCord, “a real-life, strong-minded widow who has already given her only son to the Confederate cause,” Lucas writes. “Louisa is a brilliant intellectual who successfully built a reputation as a classical economist in a state long dominated by males.”

Lucas is the author of “Sherman and the Burning of Columbia.”

Nothing is sugarcoated, and at times, “By the Red Glare” is not for the fainthearted reader. The opening sentence: “The tree to which Jim Wells was chained stood dead-center in the front yard of his father’s sprawling plantation in Greenville. … His father had put him there. Mr. Wells told his wife it was the safest place for their deranged son.”

In Chapter 17, “The Whipping Post,” Sibley-Jones writes a chilling and powerful account of the public punishment of a slave, Jeremiah, as witnessed by a horrified Joseph. It’s a scene Joseph cannot forget and figures in his increasing doubts about the validity of the war.

Joseph and Dr. Thompson, and the other characters, are complete, fully developed. We know and understand what they are experiencing, thinking and feeling.

The dialogue is terrific and in one scene puts readers right into the conversation, or perhaps quietly listening, in the home of Louisa McCord.

In 2015, particularly in the wake of the senseless murders of nine people in Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, we find disgusting the views of Louisa McCord and other slave owners. It’s indeed difficult to find much likeable about many of these late-1864 residents of Columbia.

Yet, Sibley-Jones’ characters help us understand, perhaps, some of the lingering racism that we face 150 years after the Civil War – the very sort of hatred evidently in the muddled mind of Dylann Storm Roof, charged in the mass shooting.

Pat Conroy, editor at large for Story River Books, writes on the book’s jacket that the characters of “By the Red Glare” are “great symbols of the cruelty and courage inherent in the Civil War-torn South, but the truths we glean from their riveting story resonate still today, passing the test of historical fiction with high honors.”

Sibley-Jones is a teacher at the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville. Conroy terms Sibley-Jones “… a fine new voice in southern fiction,” and few will care to dispute the dean of South Carolina writers.

D.G. Schumacher is a senior writer on The Sun News editorial board.

Horry County Literacy Council receives grant

The Horry County Literacy Council has received a $1,020 award from the ProLiteracy National Book Fund, which provides U.S. adult education and literacy programs with grants to help purchase educational materials and resources to support literacy initiatives.

New Readers Press, the publishing division of ProLiteracy, provides the National Book Fund materials, which are written to meet the needs of adult literacy students, instructors and trainers. Programs can choose from more than 400 titles.

Lorraine Woodward, executive director of the Horry County Literacy Council, said the materials will be used to help those preparing for the GED test, and online courses will enable tutor trainers to better serve clients in Horry County.

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At a glance

Title | “By the Red Glare”

Author | John Mark Sibley-Jones

Publisher | The University of South Carolina Press

Length | 236 pages

Cost | $29.95