My version: eBook
Genre: Historical Fiction, US Civil War
Publisher: Brigid’s Fire Press
First published: 2021
From the cover:
Georgia burns. Sherman’s Yankees are closing in, will the women of La Grange run or fight?
Based on the true story of the celebrated Nancy Hart rifles, The Cotillion Brigade is a sweeping epic of the Civil War’s ravages on family and love, the resilient bonds of sisterhood amid devastation and the miracle of reconciliation between bitter enemies.
1856. Sixteen-year-old Nannie Colquitt Hill makes her debut in the antebellum society of the Chattahoochie River plantations. A thousand miles to the north, a Wisconsin farm boy, Hugh La Grange, joins an abolitionist crusade to ban slavery in Bleeding, Kansas. Five years later, secession and total war against the home fronts of Dixie, hurl them toward a confrontation unrivalled in America’s history. Nannie defies the tradition of Southern gentility by forming a women’s militia and drilling it four long years to prepare to battle. With their men dead, wounded or retreating with the Confederate armies, only Cptain Nannie and her fighting Nancies stand between their beloved homes and the Yankee torches.
Hardened into a slashing Union cavalry Colonel, Hugh duels rebel Generals Joseph Wheeler and Nathan Bedford Forrest across Tennessee and Alabama. As the war churns to a bloody climax, he is ordered to drive a burning stake deep into the heart of the Confederacy. Yet one Georgian town – which by mocking coincidence bears Hugh’s last name – stands defiantly in his path.
Read the remarkable story of the Southern women who formed America’s most famous female militia and the Union officer whose life they changed forever.
The first thing I need to make clear is that The Cotillion Brigade is and absolutely wonderful and rewarding book. Beautifully written and engagingly plotted, is it a book you need to read (now) and cherish.
I know very little about the US Civil war. That there was one, and not much more than that. After reading this excellent book, I know a whole lot more. Amongst the surprises was finding out that it was the Republican Party that was the abolitionist party. That took a while to get used to. I first thought ‘well, if the Southern states wanted to leave, why no just let them?’ But, of course, it’s not that simple. The long and the short of it seems to be something in the region of the Northern states’ not wanting the Union to break up into smaller, squabbling individual countries, because the Southern states were against the power of the national government to prohibit slavery in the territories that had not yet become states.
The book is mainly centred on the (Southern) state of Georgia and the town of LaGrange, which is where Nancy Hill organises the women of the town into a regiment of rifles, as the men-folk, all those who are able, were, on 26 April, 1861, largely sent off to fight for the Confederate Army. This of course, and Georgia’s geographical position, made LaGrange vulnerable to attack from the Union forces. Which is where the other strand of the story comes in, though it starts a long way away. Hugh La Grange (coincidentally, that was his actual surname), becomes a Cavalry officer in the afore-mentioned Union Army and the story follows his path from farm boy, to senior Union officer. The two stories build and are intertwined somewhat chronologically, and especially when they come together in a tension-packed, potentially explosive encounter at the edges of LaGrange on 17th April, 1885. Hugh La Grange has his orders to burn the town to stop it becoming, partly due to its railway junction, a rallying point for the Confederate troops. The LaGrange women have trained for this moment and are prepared to fight and die to protect their homes and their city.
Glen has taken a real, actually happened, story and given it incredible, fresh, vivid life. It gripped me totally from the opening pages (ok, the opening electronic ‘pages’) and never let go. The story was of course, and may be even to people who know a little about the US Civil War, totally new to me but instantly had my attention, largely due to the impeccably drawn, memorable characters on both side. The book’s recreation of Southern life is especially fascinating, as – to an outsider like me – it’s interesting to perhaps try and figure out why the people of the today’s US South are as the are.
The Southern ‘hospitality’ and gentility’ on display in the scenes before the end of the war, that surely represent the final, faded, throws of a society stretching back to the Revolutionary War and even before, to the manners brought over by us lot, the English, is wonderfully imagined. The ‘Coming Out’ Ball, the ‘social norms’ of the period, even the attitude that existed (before the Civil War, leading up to the 1776 Revolution), that one side was fighting for ‘freedom’ – amongst which was the freedom to enslave others – is there in the background, but isn’t really the reason for the book. Slavery doesn’t figure much (apart from being the cause of the conflict of course) in the book. The book is about the people, their lives and their worries caught up in a war they don’t want. They just want to be left alone, especially the residents of LaGrange, to get on with their lives as they always have done. History and Glen Craney, had/have other ideas.
The Cotillion Brigade is the most engaging, evocative, immensely readable book I’ve come across in a long time. For a Civil War novice like me, surprising and educational in turns. But what makes it so fresh and gripping, is the people. The real-life characters, rescued from the black and white history books and given a vital, gripping new life in this truly excellent book.
The Nancy Harts were various troops of female militia raised in the Southern United States during the American Civil War. Named in honour of Nancy Hart, all the troops eventually were dissolved, except for the one from LaGrange, Georgia. Chiefly organised by Nancy Hill Morgan and Mary Alford Heard, around 30 women joined the Nancy Harts which were more formally called the Nancy Hart Rifles. Captained by Morgan; the militia trained for battle, using William J. Hardee’s Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics. Though they trained to fight, they never did, and served mainly as a nursing corps. The militia surrendered to Colonel Oscar H. LaGrange in 1865.
Nancy Morgan Hart (c. 1735–1830) was a rebel heroine of the American Revolutionary War noted for her exploits against Loyalists in the northeast Georgia backcountry. She is characterised as a tough, resourceful frontier woman who repeatedly outsmarted Tory* soldiers, and killed some outright.
I’ve included a couple of colourised photos – don’t they make it more realistic than black and white?
*Could do with her in the UK right now, I’d say.