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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

historical thinking

Tragedy Recognizes No Boundaries of Time or Place

Here's one of the things I've learned from the years I've spent studying history. The twenty-first century does not have a monopoly on horrible events such as wars, mass shootings, epidemic disease, or even the loss of a toddler to a horrible accident. Oh, we may be more aware of these events than people used to be, thanks to technology that speeds up the spread of the news. But horrible events have always happened. You can find them in any period of history.

This morning I read a Facebook post in which someone lamented that she wanted life to go back to being like it was when she was growing up. Did she grow up in a perfect era? Of course not. Was the world safer, saner, healthier when we were kids? No. It's only our own knowledge and awareness that has changed. And does it help to solve the world's problems by wishing for a return to a simpler time? It does not. 

Maybe we cannot always learn from history, but historical events may serve to remind us that much of what we struggle against is part of the human condition. Perhaps we all need to take a deep breath and then look at our world with a bit of compassion and sympathy. It should be possible to recognize the existence of tragic events without needing to point a finger at any one culprit. And then, perhaps, we can start taking small steps to make the world a better place.

What set me off this morning was the realization that my great-uncle James McCaskey died on this date--June 16--one hundred and fifty-four years ago. He was a Union soldier, killed in a botched battle during the first year of the Civil War. I re-read the letter his parents received, and I noted once again the stains on the paper caused by the tears of my great-grandparents. The letter reminds me that grief and loss are universal experiences.  Here's the letter:

Mr. Jn. McCaskey,
Dear Sir:

   General Benham appointed the morning of the 16th as the time for our forces to move on "Tower Fort" near "Sesesha" Ville, which is in sight of Sumpter, and about 2 miles from the City of Charlestown.
   We left Camp at 1 A.M. and at daylight marched up to the Fort under a galling fire of Grape, Cannister, Shot, and Shell. I was in Command of our Company. Men were falling on every side. Whilst near the Ft. a Shower of Grape came in our ranks, one of which struck your Son, James, and we think tore off one of his legs, near the body. He fell! This is the last we saw of him. The "Liter-bearers" of General Wright's Div. must, I think, have carried him off the Field.
   I have searched and searched for him but in vain. We all feel confident that he is dead. Jacob Leary fell at the same time and is also missing. James was a noble young man and a brave soldier—was beloved by all his associates. He was like a brother to me, and I lament his loss. You have my sympathy and prayers in your deep affliction.
   The loss in our Co. was 4 killed and 71 wounded. We fought with great disadvantages and in consequence lost heavily.
   If it can possibly be done I will send his Knap-Sack and traps home to you, as I have no doubt you would like to possess them. His Watch and what Money he had, were on his person.
   If any further intelligence of his fate can be had, I will inform you in due time.

Yours truly,
Lieut. Philo S. Morton

Note: His body was never found. His family erected a tombstone above an empty grave.


The Price I Pay for Being a Historian



When people ask me what kind of books i write, it's easy for me to say "historical fiction." And that  answer is a popular one.  I can almost count on someone in any crowd saying, "Ooooo, I LOVE historical fiction." A couple of weeks ago, someone on Facebook recommended that authors should always be ready to answer the question, "What do you do?" with a five-word sentence. Again, i find that answer easy: "I combine fact and fiction."

OK. But when it comes to writing historical fiction, the easy part is over. Fact and fiction are two very different animals, and when you've been trained to stick with facts (and footnote them, too!), the fiction part comes hard.

Over on "ScoopIt" today, I curated an article on this very topic.  It popped onto my computer screen after a long, sleepless night during which I struggled with the facts of Reconstruction in South Carolina and the structure of a fictional book. I'll be re-reading this article a lot in the next weeks, and it occurred to me that there are probably others out there fighting the same sort of problem.

Colin Falconer's description of history as a "pain in the butt" is dead on.  It's messy, it's disorganized, the bad guys often win, and nothing turns out the way it should. Trying to fit the follies of Reconstruction into a novel format -- with a leading character, his antagonist, a clear conflict, rising drama, a crisis at the 75% mark, and a satisfying resolution --is going to be a real challenge. So if I'm quiet for a while, that struggle may be part of the explanation.

Daddy, Where Do Baby Books Come From?

"Daddy, Where Do Baby Books Come From?"  In a slightly different form, that's a question I hear at almost every book signing.  Readers always seem curious as to where their authors find the stories they write about.  "Is this book fact or fiction?" "Did this really happen?" "Is John (or Mary) a real person?" "Why did you choose this place?" "Is that character someone you know?"

Of course, the answers are different for every book, and sometimes, I confess, I don't know the answers myself. But in the case of Damned Yankee, I can tell you exactly where the idea came from. This is book five in a series of works about the Civil War in South Carolina's Low Country.  I've written about Union soldiers and Confederate soldiers, about Pennsylvania regiments and South Carolina militias, about Union nurses and abolitionist schoolmarms from Boston, about slaves and freedmen. And because I'm a historian by training and profession, I have always tried to stick to the facts, using real people -- their letters, journals, newspapers and family pictures. Even though I grew up in the North, I've lived in the South for 25 years, so I hoped I was able to take a balanced view of events.  Still, a family friend kept nagging at me: "Why don't you ever write about a Confederate family?" he wanted to know.  And he was right -- that was a topic I had ignored.

I knew exactly who I wanted to write about next.  My research had introduced me to a Low Country family who had suffered unimaginable losses as a result of a civil war that they had wanted no part of.  I knew who they were and where they had lived. I had even walked through their house and visited the church they attended. Some of  their intimate family letters were publicly available, and I had read them in great detail. There was just one problem.  I also knew that they had living family members who had had a hand in publishing those letters. It was quite likely that they knew a great deal more about their Civil War family than they had revealed in the letter collection. They also controlled much of the source materials I was going to need, and they might not take kindly to a stranger snooping about in the family attic.

There was only one honorable path to follow: I asked permission of the one great-niece I could identify.  And the answer came back quickly.  She was polite but clear. "No, thank you," she said.  "Someday I want to write my great -aunt's story myself, and I won't let anyone else have access to her materials.  I thank you for your interest in our family, and I wish you great success in your writing career, but please write about someone else."

Ouch! All the preliminary research I had done -- probably a year's worth of reading and planning -- was wasted. Still, I wanted to explore the broader picture of Southern families who suffered greatly from the war through little fault of their own.  What to do? I fell back upon that old TV adage: "The names have been changed to protect the innocent."

As I changed the names of the main characters and their locations, I realized I was creating something new -- not a historical account-- but my first novel. Once I got used to creating fictional names, the fictional characters came easily.  I moved them from another southern city to Charleston, and that presented the family with a new set of challenges.  I gave the father of the family a new occupation, which in turn gave him a new back story about where he was educated.  I changed the number of children in the family and added a couple more girls to the mix. The original family had slaves but almost never referred to them by name.  I could give my new family some interesting slaves whose strong characters influenced a couple of  the family's decisions. As their circumstances changed, so did their troubles. And because this fictional family was facing a series of disasters that were different from those I originally knew about, so they took a much different path in finding their solutions.  I had a novel on my hands.

In the end, there was almost nothing that could have been connected back to the original family. What didn't change? The message! By not using a real family, I had told the story of "Every Family" who lived in the South during those tumultuous years. And I had been able to bring to life several of the ways in which the Civil War affected the lives of all who lived through it.

Are the Grenvilles real people? No.  Do they resemble the family that became "off limits" to me? Not in the slightest. Oh, there are a few real people in the book.  Once I put the Grenvilles in Charleston, they had to know people like the Calhouns and the Middletons -- because everybody in Charleston knew those family names. The military commanders are all real, as are several of the peach growers in Aiken.  This story is not fantasy.  Its events and dates are accurate. The situations are authentic and, above all, the suffering is real and well-documented.  Only the characters themselves have been changed, not just to protect the innocent, but to give them a more univeral reality.

Laura Towne and Ellen Murray

We're getting back to The Road to Frogmore this week, starting with Laura's dearest friend and life-long companion, Ellen Murray.  The relationship between the two is problematic, primarily because they lived 150 years ago and societal norms were much different then.   Ever since the book came out, I have had people sidling up to me and whispering, "So, what do you think? Were they Lesbians?" My quick answer is "I don't know and I don't care." 

But the question opens up a historical issue that at least deserves examination. For several centuries, and particularly in England, strong, independent women had chosen to form bonds with other women rather than to enter into marriage with a man picked for them by their families.  In 1886, in his book The Bostonians, Henry James wrote of a relationship that he called "a Boston Marriage, " basing his descriptions on the real-life relationship his sister had with another woman. The two woman had a somewhat formalized agreement to live together as equal partners in a family relationship, relying on their own assets, not the financial support of a man.  

The ties between Laura and Ellen seem to have been of this nature. They were both strong women, talented and educated, and they lived and worked in roles that more "properly" might have been taken by a man.  Occasionally, as happens in the book, a man expressed his attraction to one or the other of the women, only to be put off kindly with a "Not interested, thank you." Ellen was an educator; Laura was a doctor. Neither had any desire to be a housewife or subservient to a man. They shared their responsibilities and the housework.  When they traveled to South Carolina in 1862, they shared a common goal -- to bring education and medical care to people whose lives of slavery had not equipped them to live as freedmen. In the courses of their activities on St. Helena Island, they often ran afoul of the men in charge of the Army, or the tax office, or the administrators of confiscated plantations because their goals were not the same as the goals of those in authority.

Laura and Ellen referred to each other as friend, companion, partner, They lived together for over 40 years.  At one point in their lives they adopted several orphaned black children.  Their home lives were inseparable from their work activities. But what should I say when someone asks, "Were they Lesbians?  That's not a term they would have used, so the question itself is anachronistic. Did they have a sexual relationship? Again, I don't know, and I really don't care. People in the mid-19th century seldom talked about their sex lives, and there is no reason to think Laura and Ellen would ever have done so.

The people who knew them best accepted them as a family unit.  Laura and Ellen lived into their eighties, still devoted to one another. Their memorial headstones stand side by side in the cemetery of the Brick Church on St. Helena Island, although their families took their bodies home to be buried with their respective families. Their lives told a single story. Their accomplishments were pointed toward a single goal.

I remain convinced that without each other, neither of them would have been able to bring their dream of freedom and equality for the former slaves into reality.

The Real St. Valentine?

Was there a real St. Valentine?  Historians can argue about the details, but the Roman Catholic Church provides an official view:

"Valentine was a holy priest in Rome, who, with St. Marius and his family, assisted the martyrs in the persecution under Claudius II. He was apprehended, and sent by the emperor to the prefect of Rome, who, on finding all his promises to make him renounce his faith ineffectual, commanded him to be beaten with clubs, and afterwards, to be beheaded, which was executed on February 14, about the year 270.

Additional evidence that Valentine was a real person: archaeologists have unearthed a Roman catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to Saint Valentine. Alongside a woodcut portrait of him, text states that Valentinus was a Roman priest martyred during the reign of Claudius the Goth [Claudius II]. Since he was caught marrying Christian couples and aiding any Christians who were being persecuted under Emperor Claudius in Rome [when helping them was considered a crime], Valentinus was arrested and imprisoned. Claudius took a liking to this prisoner -- until Valentinus made a strategic error: he tried to convert the Emperor -- whereupon this priest was condemned to death. He was beaten with clubs and stoned; when that didn't do it, he was beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate [circa 269].


Saints are not supposed to rest in peace; they're expected to keep busy: to perform miracles, to intercede. Being in jail or dead is no excuse for non-performance of the supernatural. One legend says, while awaiting his execution, Valentinus restored the sight of his jailer's blind daughter. Another legend says, on the eve of his death, he penned a farewell note to the jailer's daughter, signing it, "From your Valentine."

He is the Patron Saint of affianced couples, bee keepers, engaged couples, epilepsy, fainting, greetings, happy marriages, love, lovers, plague, travellers, young people. He is represented in pictures with birds and roses." [http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=159]

Another version says that the day of his execution just happened to be February 14, the Roman festival of Lupercalia, in which Roman girls drew names out of a box to see who their  lover would be in the coming year.  So the two ideas--lovers and friendly farewell notes—gradually grew into our current celebration of hearts and flowers. 

The next time someone asks you to "Be My Valentine," however, you might want to remember what happened to the first Valentine!