His superiors had told Gen. George Crittenden not to go north of the Cumberland River–and he had ignored them and moved his men anyway. This proved not to be a good idea at all, as he discovered when his forces were set upon by the troops of U.S. Gen. George Thomas. Thomas, who was still a year away from getting the title of the “Rock of Chickamauga”, was still operating under an earlier nickname, “Old Slow Trot.” He was far from speedy but implacable once prepared for an attack. They called it the Battle of Mill Springs. Crittenden’s fellow Gen. Felix Kirk Zollicoffer was also on the north side of the river and caught up in the fight as well. Zollicoffer’s habit of wearing a white raincoat proved most unfortunate, as he was shot dead in the altercation. Most of the Confederate troops escaped back across the Cumberland, but much equipment and supplies were left behind.
For the “I Want to Write Historical Fiction but I Don’t Want to Research” Writer
I write historical fiction, but I do not like a whole lot of detail in the books I read, nor do I really like to write it. Hope and the Knight of the Black Lion is set in England, originally just sometime vaguely during the Crusades. Actually, I toyed with the idea of the character who returns after an absence going to Turkey under Suleiman the Magnificent. I thought I might be able to tie the story in with the Reformation and even Martin Luther, rather than the Crusades. I spent a year learning about Suleiman and his time, but also discovered how many conflicts an Englishman could have gotten himself involved in and eventually went back to the Crusades. (Fortunately I worked at a state university library at the time.)
I discovered Crusader Songs appropriate to the time period and was able to include them, and they even advanced the plot by showing the changing attitudes of the Crusaders on their sea voyage. I finally found a letter from “Guy, a Knight” describing the battle of Damietta, a port-controlling city in Egypt. Circumstances surrounding this battle included an armada of ships that set out for Alexandria and mistakenly arrived in Damietta after a huge storm. Many ships were also lost in this storm. Since my knight was supposed to disappear in his Holy Land quest, I had found my opportunity. This battle had a specific date, and better yet, a specific historical man, under suspicion of disloyalty to the French crown, who fought there. Providentially I found my time period and my villain, Hugo Brun de March, together. April 2, 1249 was the date of the battle and it took place as part of Louis IX of France’s first Crusade.
This battle is also important to the story because of an orphaned Arab, Sadaquah, who lives in Damietta but is forcibly removed very shortly before the battle, thus saving his life. He is brought to teach Arabic to, and becomes friends with, my main male character, known simply as the Christian Dog to the Arabs. Later Sadaquah refers to this incident that brought them together as both destroying any ties he might have had with his home and says his friend saved his life simply by being where he was when he was.
The names in my story are either local to the part of England where the people live, like Cloyes, or significant in their meaning. Hope’s name has obvious significance to a story of hardship, loss and desperate danger. Hope in Arabic is Raja, and Sadaquah points out that his English comrade said that word many times a day while trying to get back home, hardly understanding fully all the hopes that would and could be realized. Sadaquah refers to the alms Muslims give to the poor, and also means Righteousness. Rasoul, another Arab character in the story, is a messenger of sorts, reuniting friends, providing safety and help, and that is the meaning of his name. Tahira means purity, and the Arab woman in the story learns that God is the judge and restorer of purity.
I had to find an abandoned castle for some of the story to take place. Fortunately, there is Colchester Castle, a well-known and well-documented location. I was able to find industries appropriate to the time period, places of worship, even an oyster festival to help establish Hope’s character at the beginning of the story. Building the setting around Colchester, I was able to create a manor house for my minor nobleman, and learn about how life ran in such a place. I even got to study earlier English government and how common people involved themselves in the affairs of the nobility. One reviewer commented on how much he learned about medieval life, a whole new vocabulary in the clothing and customs of the day. Robin Hood, for example, may not have worn Lincoln Green but Lincoln Grayne, a finely woven linen fabric that could be any color but was often dyed red.
Nobility bedding down in the hallways of a castle and every available fireplace being commandeered to cook meals for a horde of retainers and guests was another “fun fact” I picked up along the way. I made a decision to use modern speech with a somewhat archaic flavor and the insertion of vocabulary important to the occupations, government and activities of the time. Realistically, if I had written in Chaucerian English, few would have understood it. I have a few Arabic words and phrases as well. This story came after more than twenty years of research and reading, checking sources, confirming most of the facts in many different references, online and in libraries, and though it may not be as detailed as some historical fiction, I am comfortable with the idea that it will give the reader at least of taste of a real time and place.
One sidelight is that this book also has an illustrated version. I tried to capture some of the feel of a Medieval manuscript with gilded leaves, jeweled page corners and elaborate designs, though mine are created with shapes and textures from my graphic design program, Photo Impact, and reproduced throughout, instead of painstakingly hand-drawn page by page.
U.S. Gen. George Thomas had faced the same agonizing choice as Robert E. Lee at the outbreak of the Civil War. Both Virginians, they had had to choose between their state and the nation they had sworn to defend. Thomas had stayed with the Union, and today was living up to his nickname of “Old Slow Trot” as he neared the Confederate troops under Brig. Gen. George B. Crittenden in Kentucky. Crittenden had made a number of mistakes: aside from the matter of entering Kentucky in the first place, which under law was a neutral state, he had placed his forces in such a way that they had their backs against the Cumberland River. His most drastic mistake, however, was lack of proper intelligence: he didn’t know Thomas was approaching.
This will be a series of articles written for my other blog, In Defense of History, a place where I post civil war research.
In my novel, They Met at Shiloh, Robert and his pards find themselves standing at the edge of the Hamburg – Purdy road staring downhill at the gathering mass of Confederates preparing to march upon them. A steep slope of about 75 yards leads up to the camps of Peabody’s brigade and the memorial to Colonel Everett Peabody surrounded now by trees and young forest. The 25th’s camp site was their last stand before the regiment disintegrated and scattered along with the rest of Peabody’s brigade.
Two groups of Union forces were on the move in Kentucky this day…or at least trying to. Troops of Grant’s command, under McClernand, struggled along through increasingly unpleasant weather and ground conditions. Theoretically, they made up one arm of a two-prong assault down the Mississippi, the overall intent of which was to take Vicksburg, Miss., and reclaim the Father of Waters for the union. In practical terms, Grant could not really have expected this to succeed, especially in one of the bitterest winters in memory. Afloat, gunboats under the overall command of Brig. Gen. C.F. Smith were working up the Tennessee River, intending to threatened Ft. Henry. These ships represented the waterborne arm of the two-pronged assault. They were not making much progress: Ice was so bad on the Mississippi that shipping was blocked just below St. Louis.
The USS “Hatteras” steamed into the harbor Cedar Key, Fla., and wreaked a path of destruction. She destroyed seven blockade-running ships, albeit rather small ones. Crews from the Hatteras then went ashore and wrecked the railroad depot, tore up a telegraph office, and ruined a wharf. Miscellaneous other damage caused the community disruption for some time. Elsewhere, in Kentucky, Gen. Felix Zollicoffer knew he was in trouble with his superiors, but did not yet know just how much trouble he was about to be in. He had taken his troops from Mill Springs north across the Cumberland River, and then been ordered back to his previous position. He stayed where he was, unaware that Federal forces under Gen. Thomas were a good deal closer than he realized.
I am in love with the ability to recall an out of print book free of charge! More than anything else, this has revolutionized research by and large for those of us who write in the civil war time frame.
Two good examples of this are Google Books and Project Gutenberg, even more so for Google since they improved their iPad app. I can now download my bookshelf to my device (it used to only read from an internet connection) and be able to treat the pdf files as a virtual book a la iBook with page turns, etc. Project Gutenberg offers a variety of book formats for any device. What the epub files offer me over Google Books is the ability to highlight and make notes via iBooks.
Though there are some limitations still with Google Books, i.e. inability to make notes or copy text, I’m greatly satisfied with where this technology has taken us. There’s a wealth of primary source material out there that has sat in special collections for decades (one or perhaps a handful of collections depending on the source) requiring travel, working with a curator to navigate the unique file systems, and limited time for study.
I would give a word of caution regarding primary source materials, especially like the ones that I’ve been using for my own particular brand of fiction. One needs to filter out the primary motives of the author. Some of my materials (see my research page) are regimental histories written decades after the war and primarily for the survivors and their families to recount their common experiences. These contain a certain lack of objectivity (not their primary purpose) and may at times contain objective opinions or one-sided information regarding a battle or a prominent figure. These should be used for gaining a flavor of the common experience of the regiment, how they saw what was happening around them, how the author saw it (regimental histories are written by single individuals), and data on where the regiment was at any given time in the narrative. Sometimes this information can be had from other sources, but the regimental history can be relied upon for accuracy for dates and actions engaged in.
War of the Rebellion Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies
One favorite of mine is the Official Records of the Rebellion, a copious collection of orders of battle, field reports, correspondence, and battle reports. Not everything can be found, but one can usually find individual regiments mentioned in brigade and division reports to clarify what a unit was doing on any given date. The same can be said for normal daily operations. What I like about tracking down where a regiment was is you usually get some little snippet of anecdotal data that can only add to the narrative of your story. I like fleshing these out, placing my characters in the regiment and then building a framework of the historical record, adding scenery, characters, emotion, and conversation to build a story around the story. This is one of the best resources for this data I’ve found. These are as close as you can come to real narrative data to the events as they are often real time records.
Personal Recollections of a Cavalryman With Custer’s Michigan Cavalry Brigade in the Civil War
The second, as I’ve already alluded to above, is the regimental history. Written from a designated point of view using collected reports from its time in the war, the regimental historian builds a dialogue, sometimes first person, recounting what he and the regiment experienced. The hard marches, the battles, the politics of army life, and the synopsis of the experience that comes with time, these are the real trademark of the historian. These histories also help fill a void in building the narrative based on recorded fact. They add that flavor of tension at times, recalling events that loomed large with the regiment and giving the story arch needed to place action with fact. It does not do to have a regiment in a battle but in the wrong place (Chamberlain’s 20th Maine behind the stone wall on the third day in the Movie Gettysburg, anyone?) doing things that it never had opportunity to do because it was somewhere else. These experiences built the character of the regiment and I like using that in my novels to not only be factually accurate but to pay tribute to those men now long gone. Having this sense of commitment is important, in my opinion, to the historical fiction novelist as fact is often more entertaining than fiction.
Edwin McMasters Stanton was confirmed by Congress as Secretary of War, two days after being nominated. Formerly Attorney General (during the Buchanan Administration), the choice had political elements of a most interesting nature. Stanton had made a number of public statements exceedingly critical of Lincoln. Moreover, he was quite well known to be a friend of Gen. McClellan, who was not devoid of political dreams of his own. Stanton would be a controversial figure in history–held by some analysts to be sneaky, dishonest and underhanded; regarded by others as one of the prime movers in the victory of the Union in the War. It is entirely possible that both are true.
The 57th Mass. Volunteers was a Veteran Volunteer infantry unit who participated in the last campaigns of the war, a campaign that differed from every other in the civil war. Grant, now a Lt. General and in command of all the Union forces, orders Mead’s Army of the Potomac to march and unleashes unrelenting and daily combat the likes that no one in either army had ever experienced before. This book draws from personal letters and the war record of this unit as it marched and fought in every battle from the Wilderness to the siege at Petersburg and the final chase of Lee’s forces to Appomattox.
Noteable in this record are the accounts of those taken prisoner and paroled and of thier experience in the exchange sysetm (though prisoner exchanges had largely been halted there was still some activity going on). Overall a very good unit history, written for the modern day (as opposed to a history written for the civil war generation).
Gen. Ambrose Burnside was supposed to be leading an invasion force of nearly 100 ships to Hatteras Inlet, N.C. Instead he was spending his time on continuous rescue missions as the ships of his fleet were torn by fierce winds and storm. Many were being driven onto shoals and sandbars as their anchor lines were dragged or broke entirely. Burnside was seen on one tugboat personally leading a rescue party to the “City of New York” which was loaded with stores; he was willing to let the stores go but wanted to rescue the crew. All of this chaos was going on within the relative shelter of the inlet; many of the ships of the mission had not made it even that far, could not attempt the entrance as long as the wind blew, and were at the mercy of the storm on the open ocean. As this was taking place in the dead of winter the storm was probably not a hurricane in the technical sense, but few cared to debate the finer points of meteorological terminology.