Monday, August 17, 2009

Book Review: Undaunted Heart

Undaunted Heart:
The True Story of a Southern Belle & a Yankee General
By Suzy Barile

After four blood-soaked, war ravaged years, the end came; Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant’s victorious Army of the Potomac and within a month the rest of the armies of the Confederacy would follow Lee’s example. The Civil War was at long last over and it was time for the nation to bind up its wounds and let the healing begin.

On Easter Sunday, 1865 a brigade of General Sherman’s army entered the sleepy hamlet of Chapel Hill, home of the University of North Carolina. The next day David Swain, the former governor of North Carolina, and president of the university, met with Smith Dykins Atkins, the General in charge, to formally surrender the city, and in the process invited him to dinner. Neither Swain nor Atkins knew it at the time, but it was an evening that would change both of their lives, for it was on that night, the General would meet the woman who would become his wife, Governor Swain’s daughter, Ella.

The author, Suzy Barile, great great granddaughter of Smith & Ella Atkins, has done an admirable job of telling their story. The star-crossed love affair between a Union General and a Southern Belle does carry with it an element or two from Romeo and Juliet. Relying heavily on family correspondence as well as journals and diaries of Chapel Hill locals Ms. Barile, gives her readers a nearly three dimensional view of her subjects, and their relationship that some found shocking and scandalous, and yet at the same time foreshadowed the reconciliation between the warring sections of the country that would ultimately take place many decades later.

If the Ms. Barile’s book has a flaw it is that the difficulties of Reconstruction on a national level are hardly mentioned, and when they are it is only when they directly affected the Atkins and Swain families. Ms. Barile has missed an opportunity to juxtapose the happy union between Smith Atkins & Ella Swain against the tumultuous happenings taking place during the Reconstruction era in the South. Such juxtaposition would have given a deeper understanding of the symbolism in the Atkins-Swain marriage.

That being said, Ms. Barile, has given us an intimate look at the lives of her great great grandparents. Theirs was a marriage, like so many others, filled with joy and hope, happiness and sorrow, triumph and defeat, living and dying. And that is where Ms. Barile’s book gloriously succeeds. She has resurrected Smith Atkins, Ella Swain and their families from the pages of history, given them flesh and bone, and breathed them to life again.

ISBN 978-0-9820771-1-5, Eno Publishers, © 2009, Soft Cover, 260 pages, Photographs, Endnotes, Genealogy, Bibliography & Index. $16.95


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Erik Hotton said...

Thank you Suzy, Now I know the rest of the story about my relatives. The book was a great insight to life during and after the war for members of both sides. I enjoyed learning more about the woman my sister is named after. Also learned that my Grandmothers name was changed from Emma to Eleanor Swain and found out where my mothers name, Margaret Louise, ties in.