Recently, I had to fortunate privilege of acquiring and reading a book that I might not have normally picked up in a bookstore. Usually if I take a chance on historical fiction – especially Civil War historical fiction – I pick a book that follows a character that I know I’ll become attached to. I look for the books with strong female heroines that break away from their conventional roles within the domestic sphere in one way or another. However, this book is a major departure for me, but a very pleasant one.
Gabriel: A Novel of the American Civil War by Matthew J. Watros follows the story of Gabriel Ballard – an ancestor of the book’s author – from his enlistment to his mustering out of the Union army between August of 1862 and July of 1865. The narrative details everything from his family life and their thoughts on his enlistment, to the drama and politics of army life within a company/regiment, to the traumatic experiences of combat during the Civil War. The novel also touches on problematic and controversial moral subjects like the institute of slavery and the true causes of the war. Characters throughout the book express their views – which do not necessarily reflect the views of the author – and accurately blurs the lines that are drawn in contemporary times, obscuring labels, and shattering modern assumptions about what the war really meant to the soldiers and citizens that endured it.
The story, based on letters and diaries of the very characters it follows, is rooted in fact, though some aspects like exact dialogue and tiny details here and there come from the imagination of the author. Matthew Watros is a student of the war and adds great context for the reader, especially in the latter half of the book that follows Gabriel during the Atlanta Campaign, as well as visuals in the first few pages to explain the breakdown of army unit and rank organization – which is a huge help for those who are not familiar with the Civil War and how it was fought. The maps occasionally featured at the beginning of some chapters are a huge help in orienting the reader to the events and locations taking place in the story. A veteran of the Marine Corps, Watros drew on some of his experiences in the service to get inside the mind of Gabriel and his comrades. His resources, kindly provided by family members who knew about Gabriel’s story, were an invaluable asset to his journey in writing the book. His efforts in telling Gabriel’s story to its fullest extent is the dream of many historians and genealogists.
There are some editorial issues and the occasional typo, but when one considers that this book is self-published, it’s forgivable. I’ve personally published some books that unknowingly contained typos and errors that survived several rounds of edits. The adult language and content were unexpected, and because of that I would not recommend this for a younger audience. The writing style is simple, easy to read, and straight forward, making it accessible and engaging for even the casual reader. The pace was a little slow through parts one and two, but this is only because of the world building the author was obligated to do in order to explain Gabriel’s community and early days in the army. These are also the parts in which Gabriel is not fighting, which also attributes to the slowness of the plot.
I loved the book for a number of reasons that heavily outweigh the above critique. The book’s candid portrayal of army life, especially the drama that unfolds amongst Gabriel’s fellow enlistees from Dryden, New York is refreshing in a war narrative. It’s so accurate to the typical in-fighting and political backbiting that historians may see within the higher ranks (generals) but may not consider as an issue in the lower ranks (captains and lieutenants). Watros’ depiction of battle, down to the unimaginable gore of combat wounds, had me fixated and truly invested in Gabriel’s experience. The story’s core themes of loyalty to friends, family, and country, were recurring, drawing me back to reflect on the attitudes and personalities of the common soldier. Gabriel’s worry for his family, especially his love-interest Martha “Rill” Marsh, is endearing and relatable. His anxiety and conflicted thoughts on the war add another depth of realism to his story that can sometimes be forgotten about when studying the blue and red blocks on a battlefield map. Each block represents hundreds and thousands of men, each with individual goals, dreams, and thoughts and Watros’ portrayal of Gabriel hammers that home for the reader. is
For any Civil War buff, this is a fantastic accompaniment to books like Hardtack and Coffee by John Billings, putting a face to the common soldier experience. Watros’ labor of love in the writing the story of his ancestor is admirable, and I highly recommend it.
Gabriel is available through Amazon at THIS LINK
However, the author also sells copies for $25, slightly cheaper than regular retail. Contact Matthew through: Gabrielnovel@outlook.com