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A battle over Civil War history and art

By Ray Burson / March 7, 2002



Paulette Jiles's Civil War novel, "Enemy Women" (reviewed Feb. 21) is certainly good fiction. The narrative holds the reader's attention and the imagery shows the author's poetic skills. However, your review is off the mark when you describe her as "a remarkably effective historian."

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One should be wary of the Missouri Civil War history that Jiles promulgates, especially in the novel's prologue. At the outset of the Civil War, Doniphan, Mo., population 99, was a crude hamlet of 18 houses around a wooden courthouse. The county's citizens, though largely pro-South, did not all flock to the Southern cause. Many fled, and others tried to remain neutral. Ripley County was a no man's land throughout the war as both sides tried to exercise control.

The author's description of a massacre of 60 civilians at a farm southwest of Doniphan on Christmas Day, 1863, is fiction, not fact. In the skirmish, Union forces killed some 35 Confederates, captured more than 100, and freed some 100 Union prisoners. There were no casualties on the federal side. There are no eyewitness or other contemporary written reports that document the killing of civilians. The allegation of a "massacre" was made only recently by a local historian trying to convert family legend into historical fact.

Jiles does make effective use of excerpts from historical documents, even though many don't refer to southeast Missouri. One should read this book for its romance and its drama while remembering that its rendition of history provides more flavor than fact.

Sincerely yours,

Ray Burson

Ripley County Historical Society

Doniphan, Mo.

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