Perry Lentz (b. 1943) is a retired Professor of English at Kenyon College. In 1967 at age 24 he published The Falling Hills a novel about the notorious “Fort Pillow Massacre” during the American Civil War.
The Modern Reconstruction of Fort Pillow
Fort Pillow was located on the Mississippi River above Memphis, Tennessee and was garrisoned by a regiment of white Tennessee Union Loyalists and two regiments of black Troops. When the Fort was stormed by the Confederate Army of General Nation Bedford Forrest in April, 1864 the majority of the black Union soldiers were killed, many of them after throwing down their arms and trying to surrender.
Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest, C.S.A.
Lentz, a native of Alabama, clearly shows his prejudices. When dealing with the Confederates, Lentz’s writing is vivid and his characterizations are life like. We come to know and to like both the fictional characters and the real historical figures, like General Nathan Bedford Forrest, that populate the narrative. The white Union soldiers, both historical and fictional, are generally disreputable and dysfunctional. There is not a single black character in the novel who is not a caricature of a stereotype.
The main Confederate character is Captain Hamilton Leroy “Lee” Acox. A Tennessee lawyer, Acox served in an infantry regiment in the Army of Tennessee through all of the terrible battles fought in that theater of war from Shiloh to Chickamauga. Wounded at Chickamauga, Acox goes home with a commission as a recruiting officer hoping to sit the rest of the war out. Acox desperately does not want to leave his wife, Amanda, who has just suffered the devastating deaths of the couple’s two children from disease. However, Acox is reluctantly drafted to lead a company in the cavalry corps of Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
The main Union character is Lt. Jonathan Seabury. Seabury is from a family of Bostin Brahmins and is young and idealistic. A fervent abolitionist, Seabury wants to command black troops. With his romantic and idealistic notions, Seabury is soon disillusioned by the reality of garrison duty with former slaves in the Western Theater of operations.
The other fictional Yankee is John Arness Suttell, who is best described as a homicidal sociopath. The novel opens with Suttell, then a corporal, leading his squad in ambushing a group of Confederate officers as they come out of a house after having dinner with their mother. Suttell, the son of a poor hardscrabble farmer from West Tennessee, harbors a deep hatred for the planter aristocracy of South, who he believes are responsible for the deaths of his father and younger brother.
Lentz is excellent in describing the horrors, deprivations and sheer savagery of war. I was especially fond of Chapter 7 which is basically a short story stuck in the middle of the novel. It involves the life and death of a Confederate trooper named Bob Perry who was a former “slave catcher.” As I said, Lentz is much better when dealing with the Southerners than with the Yankees, and the story of Bob Perry is one of the best works of fiction which I have read in a long time.
Fort Pillow was commanded by a regular army officer named Lionel Booth. When Booth was killed during the battle, command passed to Major William Bradford, a minor Tennessee politician who was loyal to the Union. In real life, when Forrest demanded the fort’s surrender, Bradford pretended to be Booth and refused. In actual history, not covered in the novel, Bradford was taken prisoner and shot by Confederates several days after the battle for allegedly attempting to escape.
In Lentz’s hands, Booth is a washed up old regular army officer, just trying to survive the war so he can retire with this pension. Bradford is depicted as a cowardly political opportunist.
I couldn’t help thinking that by today’s standards The Falling Hills is probably a racist book. As I said there is not one fully developed black character in the entire novel and the black characters who are described are stereotypically lazy and ignorant. Although there is historical truth in the lack of training and the assigning of second rate officers to command black troops, I feel that Lentz probably crosses the line. Although this book is still in print, thanks no doubt to Professor Lentz’s stature as a distinguished literature professor, I doubt it could be published today. The Falling Hills would have been a much better book if at least one black Union soldier had been fleshed out and made into a fully realized human being. A student of literature and future professor, Lentz’s writing sometimes seems like it came out of Willy Wanka’s Faulkner Factory, and can be pretentiously literary.
Dr. Perry Lentz
Having said that, for those into Civil War literature, The Falling Hills is a great read. The Bad Catholic gives it four out of five Rebel Flags.