John William De Forest

American Civil War Captain (United States) Major (United States)
John William De Forest
John William De Forest.png
Born(1826-05-31)May 31, 1826
Seymour, Connecticut
DiedJuly 17, 1906(1906-07-17) (aged 80)
New Haven, Connecticut
GenreRealistic fiction
SubjectAmerican Civil War
Notable worksMiss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty
Military career
AllegianceUnited States United States
Service/branchUnited States Army
Union Army
RankUnion army cpt rank insignia.jpg Captain
Union army maj rank insignia.jpg Brevet Major
Unit12th Connecticut Volunteers
Battles/warsAmerican Civil War

John William De Forest (May 31, 1826 – July 17, 1906) was an American soldier and writer of realistic fiction, best known for his Civil War novel Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty.

Early life and career

De Forest was born in Seymour, Connecticut, (then called Humphreysville), the son of a prosperous cotton manufacturer. He did not attend college, but instead pursued independent studies, mainly abroad, where he was a student in Latin, and became a fluent speaker of French, Italian, and Spanish. While yet a youth, he spent four years traveling in Europe, and two years in the Levant, residing chiefly in Syria. In 1850, he again visited Europe, making extensive tours through Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Greece, and Asia Minor. From that time, he wrote short stories for periodicals, having already authored several books.

One of his earliest works, The History of the Indians of Connecticut, from the Earliest known Period to 1850, shows his interest in history. Written from 1847 to 1850, The History of the Indians of Connecticut is critical of the settlers treatment of the Pequots and of King Philip's War, which is somewhat surprising given the early date of the scholarship.[1] The non-fictional work also foreshadows De Forest's later fiction in its subject, realism, and occasional violence.

The honorary degree of A. M. was conferred upon him by Amherst College in 1859.

Civil War

With the advent of the American Civil War, De Forest returned to the United States. As a captain in the Union Army, he organized a company from New Haven, the 12th Connecticut Volunteers. He served constantly in the field until January 1865, taking an active part under Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel's command in the southwestern states, and under Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley.

Graphic descriptions of battle scenes in Louisiana, and of Sheridan's battles in the valley of the Shenandoah, were published in Harper's Monthly during the war by Major De Forest, who was present on all the occasions thus mentioned, and though experiencing forty-six days under fire, received but one trifling wound.

De Forest mustered out from the volunteer army in 1865 with the brevet rank of major.


After being mustered out of the army with the rest of the Veteran Reserve Corps of which he was the adjutant general, De Forest transferred to the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (more commonly known as the "Freedmen's Bureau" and was appointed Assistant Commissioner in charge of the post in Greenville, South Carolina. His experiences there, published in magazines of the period and eventually in collected form as A Union Officer in the Reconstruction (1948, new edition LSUP 1999) shed light on the conditions in the South during the Reconstruction.

His magazine articles of his time in the army were also collected published posthumously as A Volunteer's Adventures (1946, new edition LSUP 2001).

In 1867, De Forest published his most significant novel, Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty. William Dean Howells praised him as a "realist before realism was named," but most early critics argued that the Romantic elements of De Forest's plot mixed poorly with the admirable realism of the battle scenes, and the novel fell through with the audience in 1867. Reeditions in 1939 and 1956 reintroduced De Forest as an author, but the full range of his experimentalĂ­sm in this early novel has still not been fully understood. In Miss Ravenel's Conversion, De Forest tried to come to grips with writing experiences De Forest himself had, and which did not fit any of the idealist and romantic patterns that war literature had followed so far. Consequently, there are a number of scenes that portray war with a graphic sense of bloody reality (f. i. the siege of Port Hudson), but there are also burlesque and comical passages, as well as reflective moments.

Writing for The Nation a year later, De Forest called for a more general movement in American literature toward realism; the essay's title, "The Great American Novel," is generally credited as being the first known use of the term.

He died in New Haven, Connecticut, of heart disease.


De Forest wrote essays, a few poems, and about fifty short stories, numerous military sketches, and book reviews, most of which were anonymous. In 1873, he contributed to The Atlantic Monthly a short serial story entitled "The Lauson Tragedy."

His published books include:


  1. ^ Trigger, Bruce G. & Washburn, Wilcomb E. The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas. Cambridge University Press (2000)