Book Review: Sisters Of Shiloh

Some years ago, I bought a used hardback copy of this book. It is set during the American Civil War, a period that interests me. I decided to keep it in the car, something to read when waiting for things. Things like hospital appointments, a wife on a shopping trip, or being too early when arriving at the Doctor or the Vet.

It took some time to get even one third of the book read in that way. Not that there was anything bad about it, I just wanted to keep it handy in the car. Last week, a four-hour wait for my brakes to be replaced on the car provided the perfect opportunity, and I finally finished reading it.

This is the story of two sisters, as the title suggests. Beginning with their teenage years in Virginia, we see the younger sister Libby fall in love with Arden, much to the annoyance of Josephine, who doesn’t like the man at all, and is going to miss her now married sister. One month after the wedding, the civil war begins, and Arden joins the Confederate Army, assigned to Stonewall Jackson’s brigade.

As the fighting intensifies, they hear of a battle in nearby Maryland. Jackson’s brigade has been involved, and the talk is the fighting was bad, with heavy casualties. The sisters travel to Sharpsburg, (also known as the Battle of Antietam) the scene of the battle. On the grisly battlefield, Josephine fnds Arden terribly wounded, and by the time Libby joins her, he has died. In a rage, Libby cuts off her hair, and vows to join the army, to kill Yankees in revenge for her husbands death.

Fearing for her sister’s safety, Josephine does the same, and they volunteer for Jackson’s brigade, pretending to be young boys who are cousins. They call themselves Thomas and Joseph, and are readily accepted as recruits, due to the need to replace all those recently killed in battle.
(This may sound like a stretch, but it is worth noting that there are many contemporary examples of this happening, on both sides.)

The writing excels in the small details. The problems the girls face in concealing their gender from the rest of the troops in their unit. The harsh weather conditions of extreme heat and cold, with poorly-clothed and underfed soldiers having to undertake long marches then go straight into battle. The day-to-day routine and boredom of life in camp between campaigns, followed by the edge of the seat tension as the sisters find themselves on the firing line in the midst of some of the biggest battles of the civil war.

Along the way, one sister finds love, the other still searches for revenge and peace of mind. They argue, they make up again, and most of all, they display that unbreakable bond of family love, and specifically the unselfish love between the sisters Libby and Josephine that sees them through the worst times imaginable.

This is more than a war story, and much more than a love story. It is a great read, and highly recommended for lovers of historical fiction.

Some American Civil War films

Another film post reblog from 2013, this time on films about the American Civil War. I appreciate this is a very niche interest. 🙂


Something that I have not previously mentioned, I have had a life long interest in the American Civil War. To be accurate, Civil Wars in general, though that will probably be the subject of another post, not in this category. When I was young, there was a television series, called ‘The Gray Ghost’. This was imported from the USA, and concerned the exploits of a Confederate irregular unit, led by the real life officer, Major Mosby. The issues surrounding the causes of the war, States’ rights, Industrialisation and immigration in the North, and the issue of slavery, were not really addressed of course, and it was all about the action. I later read a lot about this war, and carried on the interest into adulthood. Like many others, I favoured the Confederacy, though naturally not from a racist standpoint, more from admiration of the tactical skills of their generals, and…

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Significant Songs (23)

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

The Canadian/American group The Band, were best-known for supporting Bob Dylan, on various tours. Most of the members had been around the music scene since the late 1950’s, and when they got together as a group, something magical happened. Their sound is perhaps best described as Country Folk, and the songs could also be seen as a history of the USA, in lyrics. I first noticed them after the release of their debut album, ‘Music From The Big Pink’, in 1968. This album contained the classic song ‘The Weight’, written by The Band’s front man, Robbie Robertson, and their version of ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’, co-written by Bob Dylan, and The Band’s Rick Danko. The whole album was full of solid tracks, and I felt that it was a worthy introduction to this unusual group.

The second album came out in 1969, and I thought that it was even better than the first. I initially bought the single released from it, ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ around Christmas that year. The B side of this vinyl was the song ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. This combination was enough to ensure that I soon bought the complete album, which I later replaced with a CD, which I still play today, forty-five years after the original record was released. It is hard to describe the effect that this song had on me. The vocal is performed by Levon Helm, the drummer in the group. It has a plaintive air, and is sung in a noticeable southern accent. (He was from Arkansas) Since I had been a small boy, I had always had a fascination with the American Civil War, and The Confederacy. The spirit of rebellion appealed to me, and like most others, I naturally took the side of the underdog in that conflict. I was then 17 years old, and still interested in the subject, and also in music. This combined the two, in a way that I could never have imagined.

I cannot recall any modern songs about the Civil War in America. This one stands alone, not only for the orchestral composition, the unusual instruments, and the heartbreaking vocals, but also for the way it tells a story of a country, and men broken by war and tired of struggling; sad to see the end of an idea, and the loss of a cause. This simple song says all that, you just have to listen. It has been put to me that this is a ‘Country’ song. I suppose it is, in a way. It is one of the few Country songs you will ever see written about on this blog, but it has remained one of my most enduring favourites for decades.

The song gained a much bigger audience, when covered by Joan Baez, in 1970. She enjoyed worldwide success with her version, so much so, that many believe it to be one of her songs. It was written by Robbie Robertson, who left the group in the late 1970’s, and still continues to work today aged 70, after a successful solo career. Sadly, many of the other members of The band are no longer with us. The singer on this track, Levon Helm, died of cancer in 2012.

The star-studded farewell concert, held in San Francisco in 1976, was later turned into a well-known film by Martin Scorsese, and called ‘The Last Waltz’. This featured a particularly poignant rendition of this song, one of my favourite versions. It still gives me a chill, after all this time. Here it is. Play it loud.


Some Western films

The Western has been with us for as long as Cinema has existed. Some of the earliest silent films were Westerns, and their popularity endures to this day. I have tried to avoid the John Ford classics, as well as others, like ‘High Noon’, on the grounds that they are very well known, hence too familiar; with the same criterion excluding John Wayne, and there are far too many to choose from, given his long career. Despite this, at least two of my choices are very obvious, and repeatedly shown on TV. I will attempt to justify their inclusion, and to introduce the other three to some new viewers.

Open Range. Directed by, and co-starring Kevin Costner, this 2003 film treads familiar ground. Cattle herders, clinging to the long-held right to graze their animals on the open range of the title, come up against an unscrupulous rancher and landowner, who controls the nearby small town. This sounds like the same old story, and it is, to some degree. There is a magic in the mix somewhere, that takes it up a notch, and raises it well above the crowd of similar offerings that we have seen before. Robert Duvall, as the boss of the small group of herders, gives yet another superb performance, as a man who can see that his time is coming to an end, and he must adapt, or fade away. His one last act of defiance, is not to give in to the vicious landowner, and his gang of thugs. Kevin Costner, returning to the screen after disastrous performances many years earlier, shows that he acts best when he says less. The script is good, and the characters make you want to follow their stories, and to see the outcome. There are nice performances by Annette Bening, as an over-the-hill love interest, and Michael Jeter, in a great character role, as the livery stable man Percy, who throws in on the side of the underdogs. Period feel is good, and the climactic gunfight is totally believable, edge of the seat stuff. Here is the complete film-in widescreen, as it should be seen.

Bad Company. Perhaps not strictly a Western, as it is set much earlier than most, during the Civil War, in 1863. We have to go all the way back to 1972, to see a young Jeff Bridges steal every scene he is in, as the immoral young bandit. A little known film, deserving of a much greater reputation, there is so much to enjoy in this meandering tale of misspent youth. Young Drew (Barry Brown) is a well-brought up Northern boy, trying to avoid conscription into the Union Army. He heads West. and soon falls in with a band of youngsters, some little more than children, and joins them on their journey along the wrong path in life. On the way, they learn harsh lessons, and encounter all kinds of diverse characters. In addition to well-observed performances from the leads, every tiny part, every cameo, is played to perfection by some wonderful, almost unknown actors. A real gem, unfortunately hard to track down these days. Here is a short clip, that gives a flavour of the film.

Tombstone. One of the more familiar choices, I grant you. Arguably the better of the two films portraying the life and times of Wyatt Earp and his entourage, released within a year of each other, in 1993 and 1994. This is the earlier version, with Kurt Russell as Wyatt, (the other version starred Kevin Costner in the role) and the intense Stephen Lang, as his arch-enemy, Ike Clanton. There is the familiar build-up, with the Earp clan slowly taking control of gambling and saloons, before branching out into law enforcement, to safeguard their interests. The famous real event, The Gunfight at the OK Corral, is featured of course, but it is a long story, and spans most of Earp’s life. There are two things that make it special though, and they really do make a difference; not only deciding who made the best ‘Wyatt Earp’ film, but giving this one a place in the Western Hall of Fame. The first is obvious really, the casting. Everyone is completely right for their part, down to the smallest extra, and the list reads like a ‘who’s who’ of anyone good, that was around at the time. Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn, Powers Boothe, Billy Bob Thornton, Charlton Heston, Jason Priestly; and I could go on. Even Robert Mitchum is there, though unseen, as a narrator. The other thing that makes this film an instant classic, is the standout performance from Val Kilmer, as Doc Holliday. I am not normally a huge fan of Mr. Kilmer, but he proves himself in this film, beyond any doubt. He crams it all in, humour, pathos, style, and class. When he is on screen, you cannot take your eyes off him. You may well have seen it. If so, watch it again. Here is the trailer, from the American release.

The Long Riders. This is a marvellous film from director Water Hill, made in 1980. It tells the story of the Jessie James gang, with their compatriots the Younger brothers, Miller brothers, and the Ford brothers. This is familiar stuff, again well-trodden in film history. What makes this one different, is an unusual casting decision. They chose real acting brothers, to play the parts of brothers on screen. Stacy and James Keach play the James boys, with all three Carradines as the Youngers, and Randy Quaid and his brother Dennis, are the  Millers. The Guest brothers, Christopher and Nicholas, complete the set, as the Fords. This idea works so well, with the interplay between the characters completely believable, as well as some physical similarities adding to authenticity. There is obvious sympathy for the gang. Treated unfairly after being on the losing side during the Civil War, they seem to have little option other than to embark on a life of crime. The disastrous bank raid at Northfield Minnesota, contributing to the demise of the gang, is a brilliantly staged set piece. This is a hugely enjoyable, ‘modern’ western, with a feel for the characters that goes beyond the normal ‘man with a gun’ storyline. This clip shows the shootout during the bank raid in Northfield. Amazing stuff, at least at that time.

The Outlaw Josey Wales. It couldn’t be ‘Westerns’ without a Clint Eastwood, or could it? I might easily have decided not to include anything he has done. I never liked any of the ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ that he was so famous for, and the later films, such as the Oscar-winner ‘Unforgiven’, are, in my humble opinion, overrated. This one is different, in every way, yet still familiar Eastwood territory, and directed by him, as is often the case too. Made in 1976, this deals with a vengeful man, whose wife has been killed by border raiders during the Civil War. He joins the Confederate militia, and becomes a ruthless killer, searching for those responsible for his wife’s death. Betrayed after the end of the war, he heads off to start a new life. On the way, he meets an Indian squaw, a displaced old lady and her daughter, a wily Indian Chief, (a fantastic part for Chief Dan George) and he also reluctantly adopts a mangy stray dog. This unlikely group band together with the few inhabitants of a Ghost Town, and go off to settle on a farm, left to the old lady by her dead son. Once there, they have to fight off warlike Indians, and then agree an uneasy truce, when Josey’s old nemesis from the Civil War finally tracks him down. This is a film that has everything, and unusually, a film where everything works. And works very well. Here is the trailer.

I hope you find something new here, or are inspired to revisit old ground. Either way, I think you will be pleased with most, if not all, of this selection. If you are not a fan of Western films, then you may never explore any of them. I would just ask that you look beyond the saddles and six-shooters for once, and you will discover some legendary performances.

The Right to Bear Arms

When I was a child, my favourite presents were always toy guns. I had soldiers, and a castle, as well as a Wild West fort: my Dad had made me a wooden sword that I liked to carry around, but the guns were best. I had a ‘Davy Crockett’ flintlock pistol, authentic in every way, save size. It had a working lock and trigger, a ramrod for loading, and a sparking flint when fired. As I got older, these toys became even more authentic, and increasingly sophisticated. My next handgun of note, was a replica Colt.45, ‘Wyatt Earp Buntline Special’. This had a swing out cylinder, containing realistic cartridges, and even came with a cleaning kit, all in a presentation box.

I soon graduated to a half-size sniper rifle, a replica M40 Remington. This came complete with a working telescopic sight, as well as a metal bolt and firing pin, that worked in exactly the same way as the real weapon. There were dummy cartridges, and they would eject from the breech when the bolt was worked.

This was at a time when all adult males of my acquaintance had served in the Armed Forces during World War Two. They had been familiar with firearms, and some had even smuggled back various examples. One of my uncles had a fully-functional Walther P-38 pistol, that he would allow me to ‘play’ with, unloaded of course. My Dad had returned from his time in India, with a Gurkha Kukri, and a Lee-Enfield bayonet, and these were given to me as souvenirs. There was still plenty of armed conflict in The World at that time; Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Aden; and rumours of trouble in a place that we used to call Indo-China, now known as Vietnam. Many of my relatives were overseas, doing their National Service, a compulsory two-year military conscription. I had always assumed that I would eventually be called up, until I was told that this would be ended by the Government, before my ninth birthday.

Still, I was convinced that there would be another war that I would have to go to, at some time in the future. After all, the Cold War was upon us, there was a wall in Berlin, and Soviet missiles on the way to Cuba. With this seeming an eventuality, I resolved that I would not go unprepared. I would become an expert on weaponry, especially firearms, artillery, and armoured vehicles. With no Internet to rely on, this would have to be achieved by studying books, films, and newsreel footage. I would also make numerous trips to the nearby Imperial War Museum, luckily a short bus ride away, and free entry too. This was, and is still,  a marvellous place, with row upon row of all weapons imaginable, from medieval pole arms, to every rifle and pistol ever manufactured. There are also full-size tanks and aircraft, and examples of artillery of various calibres.

So, starting with the matchlock firearms of the 17th Century, through to the then current trend for assault rifles like the AK-47 and M-16, I began to study the evolution of guns across the ages. I had to categorise of course: Pistols, Revolvers, Rifles. Sub- Categories: Automatic, Single-shot, Bolt-Action, Smooth bore.Then there were Tanks, Armoured Cars, Assault Guns,Tracked vehicles, Self-propelled guns, Wheeled vehicles. I would also flirt with Mortars, Anti-Tank weapons, Mines and Hand-grenades, as well as towed Artillery, Naval guns, and Aircraft weaponry. I had set myself an impossible task perhaps, but I was determined to give it my best shot. And I had never even fired a gun, or held a loaded weapon. I soon began to excel in the subject.

When I went to see the film ‘Zulu’ (at the age of 12), I immediately recognised the Martini-Henry rifle used by the British troops, and was satisfied that the correct weapon was being shown. I became critical of ‘out of place’ firearms in films, or on TV. I would be particularly incensed if a repeating rifle, shown in a film about The American Civil War, was described as a Winchester. I knew that it would be a Henry, and would probably only be in the hands of a Union Soldier. When a film about the Second World War was shown, I would pontificate on the merits of the Soviet PPSH, as opposed to its German counterpart, the MP40. I was known to comment that the Dreyser Needle Gun gave the Prussians a distinct advantage over the French Chassepot, though actually unsure if this was really the case. And all this before my thirteenth birthday!

As I grew older, my interest did not diminish. This was fuelled by the eventual chance to actually fire some guns, at long last, courtesy of some friends and colleagues who were members of some of the many gun clubs in the London area at that time. I was able to try an assortment of handguns, and some rifles, single-shot only though. The excitement soon wore off, as I discovered that I was an average shot, at best. I also tired of banging away at paper targets in dark tunnels, standing in what felt like a telephone kiosk. There was the chance to try shotguns, outside in the open. This held even less interest for me, as I had no desire to kill birds and small animals, or to wear body-warmers, flat caps and wellington boots, wandering around a cold field. Whenever I looked along the sights of a gun, toy or real, it was always a person I imagined at the receiving end, not a crow, or paper circle.

I did just enough shooting to decide on my favourite handguns. After much consideration, I decided that I would need an automatic, for more fire-power from the larger magazine, and a back-up revolver, in case of jamming. I rejected many fine examples, to arrive at my final choices. The revolver would have to be the wonderful Colt Python .357 magnum, with 6-inch barrel, which I still consider today to be the best revolver for general purpose use. The automatic was a harder choice, but I settled on the Browning Hi-power 9mm, with its 13- round capacity magazine, and proven track record.

This was all fantasy of course. I was by then in my twenties, considering marriage, and the purchase of a flat in South-West London. These guns were very expensive, as was membership of a gun club, the only legal way to own them. There would be Police checks, Licences, background checks, and after all that, you couldn’t even take them home! I wanted to carry the thing around, ready for defence. It would be left in the bedside table, handy for blasting any burglar, or intruder. I could conceal it in the glove compartment of my car, and soon settle any road disputes. What use was it to me, locked away in the secure case in the gun club, with the ammunition kept separately?

There had been ‘incidents’ in America. A young man had climbed a tower, then shot and killed random strangers below. An unemployed man had returned to his former place of work, heavily armed, then he shot and killed many former  colleagues. Worryingly, I felt that I understood them. They had a grievance, however imagined, and they had the guns, so the means to settle it. They probably did not take anything personally, and meant no harm to specific individuals. They were just convenient targets, objects to satisfy the disaffection with their lot in life.

Then, in Scotland, came the ‘Dunblane massacre’; the killing of numerous  innocent children, by a gun enthusiast, and gun club member. Everything changed in the U.K. No more personal weapons, even at gun clubs. Shotguns were still allowed, as were target pistols, and small-bore rifles. (We had to remember Olympic success…). I couldn’t rationalise this rule. A shotgun was an extremely destructive firearm, needed little skill in operation, and was still readily available to a large percentage of the population. It could be reloaded quickly, and, at short range at least, a kill was more or less guaranteed. But then of course, the upper classes and aristocracy like to use their shotguns. Where would their late summer be, without the killing of thousands of defenceless birds at short range? So, shotguns could never be outlawed, and we would all have to take our chances with the owners of that type of weapon.

During all this, I was still sitting somewhere, arguing that the Americans could never have hoped to win in Vietnam, as the M-16 Assault Rifle was not suited to the combat conditions found there. The opposition favored the AK-47, Russian and Chinese made weapon. This had many chromed parts, making it more resistant to dirt in the breech and receiver. The M-16 constantly fouled in these areas, due to the mud and humidity found in South-East Asia.

People must have thought that I was insane. Thousands were dying every day as a result of the Worldwide use of these firearms, and I was praising their design successes. Murder by shooting was on an unimaginable increase in the USA, and the West Indies. Even in the U.K., gun crime was spiralling, though thankfully, most of this was gang related, so few innocent bystanders were affected. Working in Emergency Ambulances, I experienced this first-hand, going from no gunshot injuries in my first year, to sometimes 20 a year, in latter years. These were illegally owned guns of course. There were no gun clubs supplying Jamaican Yardies, Russian mafia, or Serbian gangsters in London. They were all smuggled in, with consummate ease.

The Police responded in kind. From a few Firearms Officers in the 1960’s, drawing pistols when needed, Specialist Firearms Branches were formed, all over the U.K., and on a large scale in London. Officers carried sidearms, and machine-pistols, as well as Tasers, CS Gas, and the conventional truncheon or Asp.

I changed jobs, from the Ambulance Service, to Police Control rooms, seeing it from both sides. But I would still like some guns. I still read about them, still pined for that Colt Python, still wanted to carry it in a shoulder holster. Let’s face it, not many people argue with a .357 revolver pointed at them. It gives you that edge, gives you control, albeit temporarily, of any situation. Someone breaks into your home at night, they are not expecting you to come out of that bedroom behind a 6-inch barrel, with magnum firepower.

Trouble is, what if nobody ever breaks in?

How long is it before you leave the window open, in the hope that they will? You sit up all night, pistol ready, waiting for the creak of the floorboard, that finally gives you the chance to open fire, to shoot someone, to justify all those years of gun ownership. I reckon it is not too long before you slip that catch, or leave your door ajar. In America, random, mass shootings continue, almost on a monthly basis. This can only be a consequence of Liberal gun laws, and the hangover of the outdated second amendment of the U. S. Constitution. I would still like to own guns. I can buy de-activated weapons legally, to admire, or to display, though I cannot see the point, as I cannot use them, should I feel the need.

With maturity, I can see the good sense of the gun laws in most European Countries. I really could not be trusted with a gun, so it is right that I am not allowed to own one. Trouble is, who can be trusted? Certainly not the ‘Batman’ killers, or Michael Ryan, who killed 16 people in Hungerford, England, or Anders Breivik, in Norway. The list goes on and on.

My conclusion is that we do not have ‘The Right to Bear Arms’, anywhere. No one can be trusted, as nobody knows when the day will come when we ‘lose it’, or decide to fulfill our darkest desires. If you really want to ‘Bear Arms’, join the Army, or the Police. They, at least, have some checks and balances, however imperfect. I will just have to keep on reading, and realise that I will never be carrying that Colt Python, or Browning.

Just as well too.