I received a copy of Undaunted Heart from Eno Publishing in Hillsborough, NC a few weeks ago, and finished it up last week. I don’t read every book publishers send me cover to cover – I’m a slow reader and there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. But I had read snippets of the story of the courtship and marriage of Union general Smith Atkins and southern belle Ella Swain before and figured the book, written by Swain descendant and Raleigh area writer Suzy Barile, was enough of a departure to be worthwhile. I do that a lot lately, read books that fall outside what I typically read. I guess by definition if I keep doing that then I’m not doing that. Dang, lost my train of thought…where was I…oh yeah, Undaunted Heart.
Twenty-two year old Ella was the daughter of University of North Carolina president and former North Carolina governor David Swain. Atkins had been colonel of the 92nd IL Mounted Infantry (which Barile for some odd reason referred to as Mounted Cavalry), which was part of Wilder’s Lightning Brigade, and on Aril 17, 1865 was in command of a brigade that was the first to occupy the college town of Chapel Hill. While visiting with Gov. Swain in his home, he met Ella and it was love at first sight.
Predictably, the romance was a scandal, particularly among the women of Chapel Hill. Ella’s mother, despite, over many years, forming a close bond with Atkins, still never took a meal with him. Through family letters discovered in an attic by the author, the courtship, marriage, and many trials and tribulations of the Swains’ and Atkins’s are recreated in an engaging, easy to read style. While the military aspects contain some inaccuracies and will appear muddled to folks used to more precision, they’re really ancillary to the personal story and as such don’t detract from it. In many ways it’s a sad tale: early and sudden death stalked Ella’s family, and did not spare even her in the end. Undaunted Heart gives us a glimpse of life in 19th century America in ways military history can’t.