I write Civil War history and fiction, but I have always tried to take a balanced and non-partisan view of events. When I started to write about the Pennsylvania Roundheads, I wanted to capture the nature of their experiences, but I also realized that I needed some way to present both sides of the story of what happened in South Carolina in 1862. I visited the South Carolina Historical Society's archives, looking for a Southern voice. To my delight I found Gus Smythe.
It has always seemed to me to be slightly ironic that I know more about Gus than I do about my own Uncle James, but that is the natural result of the differences between a backwoods Pennsylvania farmer and a wealthy Southern aristocrat. Gus and his family were inveterate letter-writers, so I had an abundance of material from which to draw. James was functionally illiterate; Gus was a college student. James's family had arrived in America in steerage, so anonymous that the ship's manifest did not even list their names. Gus was the grandson of one of the wealthiest men in South Carolina.
Here's a picture of Gus at the age of eighteen. How young he looks! How pampered and sophisticated, seated on an elegant chair, his bow tie and vest displaying his social class. He has a kind and intelligent face, but it is hard to imagine him slogging through a battlefield.
His letters home convey the same general impression. He traveled to war with a personal slave to do his cooking and take care of his things. He wanted a tablecloth to cover the table in his tent. He longed for fresh fruit and clean clothes, and above all else, he wanted his parents to send him candy. He found the realities of the battlefield too much to absorb and soon found a way to transfer himself from the infantry to the signal corps. He spent much of the rest of the war living at home in the family house and doing guard duty several nights a week from the steeple of St. Michael's Church in Charleston.
Why, then, did I choose him as a foil for Uncle James? Despite their differences, the two young men were very similar --in age, in their Presbyterian upbringing, in their conviction that they were doing the will of God, and in their first battle experience. I even found it possible that the two of them had crossed paths in one crucial moment on that battlefield at Secessionville. In A Scratch with the Rebels, we see the war from the viewpoint of a northern backwoodsman--a young man who believed himself to be a descendant of Cromwell's Puritan Roundheads. And then we see it through the eyes of a n aristocrat, descended, perhaps, from the king's own Cavaliers.They reminded me of a much earlier Civil War in 17th-century England, and in that way I found their differences and similarities important for our understanding of the whole conflict.