Early one July morning in 1861, about midpoint in this family chronicle, three of its main characters set out from Washington's Willard's Hotel (as it was then called) in an open carriage with a hamper full of turkey sandwiches and champagne. They join a throng of other sightseers on their way to Centreville in Virginia, where the gay crowd is eager to watch Gen. Irvin McDowell's boys in blue trounce Beauregard's rebels at Manassas Junction.
It is a nearly perfect set piece, the mild mist and pale sky foretelling a hot summer's day, the disorderly bustle of military personnel and equipment against the Greek temples of the capital, the splendid ladies with parasols and gentlemen in silk hats waving to one another as the jaunty caravan crosses the Potomac over the Long Bridge. The story has plodded somewhat until this juncture, so the reader, who knows well enough the outcome of the first Battle of Bull Run and appreciates the ironies, anticipates the action as eagerly as the innocent spectators.
He is disappointed. What promised to be a spectacle, or at least a dramatic turning point, turns out to be a pallid little interlude. By the time the carriages draw within sound of the guns, Johnny Reb has turned the battle into a rout. Along with the retreating Federal troops, the holiday sightseers, disappointed and mean-spirited, stampede back to the city. The round trip has taken barely nine pages. So much for Bull Run.
So much as well, it seems, for the War Between the States. Packaged and labeled as a novel of the Civil War, "Watchfires"--its title and section titles are taken from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"--is in reality a discursive narrative about an uppercrust New York clan living during the nation's most tragic era. Three members of Dexter Fairchild's family serve directly in the war--his elder son as an aide on Gen. Grant's staff and his wife and sister-in-law as nurses aboard the hospital ship Franklin Pierce--but their experiences get brief and sketchy attention and the war itself remains far in the background.
In another chapter, the two sisters are aboard the Pierce at a time when the ship is anchored close enough to the duel in Hampton Roads between the Monitor and the Merrimac for them to hear the guns. A sailor reports that the two ironclads are actually touching. The women speculate about the outcome, acknowledge that they are afraid, and then we leave them, their arms about each other's waists, gazing across Chesapeake Bay toward the firing. So much for this historic battle.
Obviously, in this departure from the contemporary settings of most of his fiction, Louis Auchincloss did not intend to turn out a novel "about" the Civil War. Had he wanted to write a northern version of "Gone With the Wind," one assumes he could have supplied all manner of bloody spectacle. Rather, the events of "Watchfires" merely span the war years, starting with talk about Mrs. Stowe's "vulgarly popular novel" and ending with debate over the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. The war is mostly distant drumfire, disrupting the political and business fabric of the times but scarcely altering New York social life. At elegant Fifth Avenue dinner parties, slavery, secession and the war itself are discussed in tones of haughty remove. Manners are still what count.
The author of "Portrait in Brownstone," "The House of Five Talents," "A World of Profit," and nearly a score of other novels, knows the territory, and we trust his descriptions of life among the powerful and privileged, even of a century and more ago. Glimpses of historical figures like "Uncle Corneel" Vanderbilt and accounts of events like the struggle between his New York Central and the Erie railroads provide entertaining minor themes. But the book's principal characters lack dramatic vitality; they seem insufficiently affected by the catastrophic happenings of their times. The best is the family patriarch, Charles Handy, staggering into old age and forgetfulness, yet overtaken by moments of tragic insight. Least sympathetic is his son-in-law Dexter Fairchild, the lawyer who occupies center stage for much of the story. Did the author intend that Dexter come across as so prudish and dull? Even in the midst of a torrid affair with his brother's wife, there is a decorum about him that verges on parody.
Another problem is style. Auchincloss has always been the elegant stylist, but here the language is overly refined, anachronistic; Henry James at his most ornate. One example, this picture of Charles Handy: "His roving, glinting, staring gray-blue eyes were the features that redeemed--or perhaps simply decorated, if ameliorated were too strong a term--the sternness of his aquiline nose, square chin and thin, retentive lips."
For all its overwrought prose, the novel is distressingly cool and detached. Once he accepts the fact that the characters are to be touched only peripherally by the war, the reader deserves at least to be moved by their personal dramas. He is hardly moved at all; "Watchfires" falls short both as historical fiction and as a novel of manners.