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A Review of “A Fatal Mercy, The Man Who Lost The Civil War,” by Thomas Moore


*We can add to Tom’s long list of achievements his proper raising of three sons and his very positive influence on his step-children. Within two or three hours of learning of his death yesterday, I had a few ideas and thought, “wow, I need to run that by Tom.” I’m still in the hit in the face stage; shocked to follow, I suppose. Here, I repost my 2019 review of his last major novel, an instant classic on several fronts. He was approached, though I don’t think the porject evolved far, about turning A FATAL MERCY into a TV or Netflix mini-series, which, if done correctly, would be excellent. Don’t wait for that; buy the book. 


The boy had it right in quoting his grandfather: “courage and fortitude are never in vain … no good cause is ever lost because all good causes are lost causes.” Even if he didn’t exactly understand the last part of it, that quote expresses an oft-felt theme, if not a rule, of life and of a higher civilization. It is the theme of his grandfather’s story from 1863 through 1913.


Was Drayton FitzHenry the man who lost the War for Southern Independence? The man himself certainly thought so, perhaps with good reason. Then again, the reader can, likely will, come to understand that there may have been a good reason behind the losing. The story is simple in its complexity, and visa versa.


Moore has really written two books in one. A Fatal Mercy is an in-depth study of the human condition and of Christian morality, Western in origin – Southern by the grace of God. On the one hand, the book is a stirring rendition of The War. In that alone, it is fantastic martial fiction, at once woven by an elegant and commanding imagination and steeped in painstakingly researched history. The story is compelling, riveting.


That is especially high praise from me. Unlike my father, I am not a “Civil” War buff. As a child, the old man dragged me from battlefield to battlefield, constantly uttering information gleaned from his (separate) War library. I certainly gained a respect – and the good manners to at least phrase “Civil” with those all-important quotation marks – but I never developed the … obsession. This book, all through its 727 pages, engendered some of that. This is a work my father would have read – and liked. Those of you who knew him, know that is higher praise.


Perhaps highest of all, is what that aforementioned history and the associated culture, presented alive and burning, generates with regard to what I see as the second grand interpretation, a thoughtful, reasoned, and unapologetic defense of relevant antiquity, classical knowledge, honor, and the grandeur of Western Civilization.


I am a student of classical Greco-Roman tradition. Here, Moore writes as well and true as any: “One reason we study the Classics, apart from the value of the knowledge itself, is for what they may teach us about our times.” With this sentiment, Cicero concurs: “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”


Today, most Americans, Southerners included, are ignorant of history, children easily led astray from their ancestral heritage. Moore addresses this issue, with direct examples, slightly dramatized, through the eyes of his protagonist. Drayton’s book-long dilemma revolves around a momentary eye of the storm at Gettysburg. Rather, around the eye of the fish hook, as Shelby Foote put it if we stretch Foote’s geographic definitions to include Little Round Top (and it is, topography-wise, a sub-eye). See: The Civil War, a Narrative, Stars in Their Courses, p. 479, Random House, New York (1963).


Of that terrible battle and its defining outcome, Bruce Catton wrote: “There was no pattern to any of this, except for the undesigned pattern that can always be traced after the event.” Never Call Retreat, Encounter at Gettysburg, p. 186, Doubleday, New York (1965). If this is true – and who doubts Catton – then Drayton’s dilemma is understandable. Drayton lived out the maxim: “Iniuriam facilius facias quam feras – Easier to do a wrong than to endure one.” – Syrus, Maxims. As he refrained from the former, so he endured the latter. Both counts are attributable to – and tribute to – his wisdom and honor.


And, there is an honor, and a wisdom, about Drayton FitzHenry that is rare among literary creations. Odysseus has it, as does Frodo. That wisdom moves beyond the narrative of the War, the horrors of Reconstruction, and into the following age. Along with other, innumerable truths, a lesson and a warning speak directly to us. It finds different ways of expression:


  • The kindly nature of a freed slave towards her former master;
  • The correct realization that the War ended the original American Republic, freeing one class of slaves only to create another;
  • Understanding the force and effect of the demonic legal trilogy of 1913: to this end, three separate quotes, conjoined (by me, for my purposes): “Power transmutes into Empire. Empire begets hubris. Hubris brings ruin. … [O]ur virtues will be needed by America, perhaps even the world, more than ever. … We must do the best we can and leave the consequences to God.”

Moore’s articulate, enrapturing characters witness the end of a Republic. We stand at the very possible end of an Empire. Then, in the fable, and now, in our reality, both intelligent free will and resolve to honor Providence properly combine. Sayeth the poet: “Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo – If I can’t move Heaven, I’ll raise Hell.” – Virgil, The Aeneid, VII, 312. The men at Gettysburg, of both sides, did exactly that. A Fatal Mercy does the same, does both in fact, recalling the horror and heroism of combat while instilling pride in the genteel, the cultured, the learned, the respecting, and the respectable. It is all of powerful magnitude.


The Author states: “My principal goal was not just to write the best contemporary novel of the War, but also to place my protagonist in an excruciating moral and emotional dilemma and see how he would resolve his inner conflict.” Moore has done that, and greater still. This book is a timeless Classic.


Also: The letters… The burning of the letters, Chapter Seventeen, moved me. The reader will, I trust, understand soon enough.


(Picture: Amazon/Green Altar Books – Shotwell/Moore)


A Fatal Mercy, The Man Who Lost The Civil War, Thomas Moore, Green Altar Books, Columbia, SC (2019).