Battle Flag and The Bloody Ground conclude the ‘Starbuck Chronicles’ by Bernard Cornwell, although I wouldn’t put it past the author to return to the story in much the same way he has recently with the Sharpe series. The ‘Starbuck Chronicles’ is full of engaging characters, well-researched historical detail, and fast-paced blood-thirsty action sequences. The first two books are Rebel and Copperhead.
Cornwell’s portrayal of the American Civil War is vivid and convincingly realistic, with his superb attention to detail and accuracy in depicting the tactics of the many skirmishes and battles featured. To add another layer to the story, the series also explores the social and political context of the era, including the role of slavery and the tensions between North and South.
The main character, Nathaniel Starbuck, grapples with issues of loyalty, morality, religion, and personal relationships throughout the course of the novels. In Battle Flag, promoted to officer in the Confederate Army, he is about to be thrown into the blood bath that was the battle of Bull Run. He must navigate the dangers of war as well as political intrigue. He faces difficult choices as he struggles to remain loyal to his cause while also questioning the purpose of war and the leadership skills of his own commanders.
Starbuck’s father, who features heavily in this third book, is a renowned preacher and abolitionist and man who hates his son as a Godless turncoat and is frustrated that the armies of the North have not sent the Southerners to hell already. Some of the historical figures that appear include Union General William T. Sherman, Confederate General John Bell Hood, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, General Ulysses S. Grant and General George B. McClellan.
In the final book The Bloody Ground Starbuck, much to his annoyance, is given command of a punishment battalion of shirkers and cowards. He is viewed with suspicion by his adopted southern comrades and his enemies within the Southern army expect the new command to be his downfall. In heroic form, despite those plotting against him, Starbuck leads the ramshackle unit to join the army in Kentucky, where they become involved in the battle for control of the region between Union and Confederate forces.
Starbuck must deal with personal challenges, including the betrayal of a friend and in-fighting within the ranks of the battalion he commands. The historical figures that appear include General William Howe, Major John André, Nathanael Greene and Charles Lee. In both books, Cornwell expertly weaves real historical fact into the storyline from the point of view of Starbuck, they’re very enjoyable and it’s a shame that I only now have his three early books written under a pseudonym left on my shelf to read.
You could say that some of the battle sequences do become repetitive, especially if you read the books back to back, but Cornwell shows a good turn of phrase in describing such things as the sunlight spilling across the bloody fields full of the dead and dying, juxtaposing the beauty of the countryside with the unnatural death and destruction that characterised the Civil War. There is enough of this poetic prose and description of everyday life in those times to calm the reader’s nerves before the next onslaught of blood and guts.