William R. Trotter has crafted a magnificent Civil War novel, epic in proportion and sweeping in its treatment of the last three years of that bloody conflict. The setting is North Carolina, a theater of the war rarely touched on in most historical accounts. Yet North Carolina was pivotal to the Confederate cause.

Wilmington is the center of the action, largely because of Fort Fisher, the biggest earthen fortification in the South. It embraced a mile of sea defenses, a third of a mile of land defenses. From under its protection poured the commerce so vital to the Confederate states. Because it was built of sand and dirt, naval shelling tended to throw up geysers of the mix without major damage to the fortification or its gun crews. Trotter is a masterful storyteller, and he makes the characters real and imaginary come alive for the reader. There is William Lamb, the fortress-building engineer; Belle O'Neil, the seductive siren and Confederate spy; Jacob Landau, the Bavarian Jew and prominent Wilmington merchant; Gen. Benjamin Butler, a vicious political infighter and corrupt official of the Union; and there is Zebulon Vance, governor of North Carolina and one of the Confederacy's great political figures. Quite a few more lives are closely intertwined in the spinning tornado of a terrible war.

In a couple of instances, Trotter has fudged a bit with history, which he freely admits in an author's note. There is no Shelborne's Point or Uhwarrie River. Nor was there a CSS Hatteras. But these are minor matters, used only to move the story along faster.

Fans of Civil War narratives should be thrilled with Trotter's latest effort, but casual readers with little interest in history should also find it enchanting and hard to put down. The author tells a gripping story of history very well indeed. Lloyd Armour is a retired newspaper editor.

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