The “brother versus brother” theme in American Civil War fiction is by no means new, but David H. Jones breathes new life into it in Two Brothers - One North, One South. Jones’s characters are real-life Civil War soldiers who fought on opposing sides – and whose story was told by Walt Whitman.
Whitman volunteered in military hospitals during the Civil War, and in this story, he tended to a young Confederate soldier, William Prentiss. William was expected to die within a few days, and he asked Whitman to listen to his story. Whitman was a patient listener, gathering all of William’s details. When William died, Whitman sought out the brother, the injured Clifton Prentiss, who was staying in the officers’ ward at the same hospital.
When Whitman found Clifton, he also met the other two Prentiss brothers, John and Melville. The brothers invited Whitman to draw up a chair to tell William’s story. Whitman talked about William’s decision to fight for the South, his battle tales and stories about mutual acquaintances. The brothers chimed in throughout Whitman’s tale, especially Clifton, who described what he was doing as he fought for the Union.
The story ends with a remarkable coincidence: both brothers were injured at the same battle, nearly 100 yards away from each other, and within minutes of each other – and days before the Confederate surrender.
Jones hit a gold mine when he discovered this family of Union and Confederate soldiers for his story. Having relatives fight on opposite sides of the Civil War was not unusual for those living in the Border States such as Maryland, but their coincidental injuries add further interest to this tale. He struck it even richer by telling the story of the Cary cousins - Hetty, Jenny and Connie - who were an integral part of the Confederate war effort on the home front. These women smuggled goods to the South, created the battle flag for the Confederacy, and tended to the sick and dying. Their story is a welcome tributary of that of the Prentiss family.
The research into Maryland’s divided loyalties, their battalions (both Union and Confederate) and the battles in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania is thorough – probably to a fault. Pages pass where the reader learns a lot about the battle history but nothing about the Prentiss brothers who fought in them. I wonder if Jones was unsure about whether to tackle this book as fiction or nonfiction. So much emphasis is placed on providing historical background that it overshadows the main characters. It is, after all, a story about two brothers divided by a war. I wish more had been said about the brothers – and not so much about the “big picture” military tactics of the Eastern Theater.
Despite this, I would recommend Two Brothers - One North, One South to avid readers of Civil War fiction, especially fans of Howard Bahr and Michael Shaara, and to those with an interest in Maryland’s contribution to the war. Jones’s research can provide the reader with an insightful tutorial of this era – and remind us how devastating war is for both sides of the battle.