Inman, a Confederate soldier beset by flies drinking at the neck wound he sustained in the Petersburg campaign (1864), is in a hospital ward. He is desperate to get out of the war and back to his mountain home in western North Carolina. Aman born blind asks Inman to describe his battle experiences. Inman wishes that he had been blind enough to miss the horrors he had seen at Malvern Hill, Sharpsburg, Petersburg. He dwells particularly on the battle of Fredericksburg (1862), the one-sided slaughter of so many thousands in the Union army under the hapless General Burnside. (The senseless carnage there depressed the North, and Lincoln said in despair, “If there is a worse place than Hell I am in it.”) Inman recalls a Confederate walking among the Union wounded with a hammer, finishing each one off with a blow to the head. He wanted their boots.
At Fredericksburg, “the Federals kept on marching by the thousands at the wall all through the day, climbing the hill to be shot down.” Robert E. Lee was triumphant, but admitted, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” Inman can still hear the “slap of balls into meat.” He is not one of Lee’s innumerable Southern worshippers.
Longstreet looked like a stout hog drover. But from what Inman had seen of Lee’s way of thinking, he’d any day rather have Longstreet backing him in a fight. Dull as Longstreet looked, he had a mind that constantly sought ground configured so a man could hunker down and do a world of killing from a position of relative safety. And that day at Fredericksburg was all in the form of fighting that Lee mistrusted and that Longstreet welcomed.
Inman is the man’s only name. In the course of his long, tortuous walk home (mostly by night) west along the back roads of North Carolina, he pictures Cold Mountain as the only haven left to him in the war-torn world. In his mind it is peacefully isolated, except for Ada, the gentlewoman from Charleston he met in her father’s mountain church. He loves her inarticulately, unsure that with her background, and with what war has made of him, she can ever love him. All we know about him, all he seems to know about himself, is that he is a damned good killer.
Curt, grave, and resourceful as he is—a ringer for Clint Eastwood—the Inman we get to see is just a man things are always being done to. He is the South itself in extremis. The land he walks, its folkways and its speech, are more fully and deeply realized for us than Inman himself. The eternally distant lovers are just a hopeless longing in Inman’s mind. But symbolically, the one book Inman carries is the endearing account of journeys through the Southern wilderness in the eighteenth century written by the pioneer naturalist William Bartram. Inman’s …