One hundred fifty years ago today —on April 9, 1865 — Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. The long Civil War was finally over, although its effects would last much longer — in fact, right down to today. The anniversary has started me on a path of reminiscing about my own last ten years.
I started writing about the Civil War in 2004 — not because of any anniversary, but simply because I had retired from teaching, and for the first time in 20 years, I had the freedom to write about what interested me, rather than about the no-less-interesting but more pressurized medieval history that would determine my success or failure as an academic.
I had a family story to tell. My great uncle had actually served in the Civil War, and I had inherited a small bundle of his letters. I wanted to write the story of Sgt. James McCaskey before those letters crumbled into dust. And so I started on a little manuscript that would become a full-size book. My first publisher urged me to “get on with it,” pointing out that the sesquicentennial of the Civil War would start in 2011, and I could be “in on the ground floor” if I had a book or two finished by the start of the celebration.
That was the start of my new writing career. A Scratch with the Rebels was published in 2007. It was straight military history, a documentary account of the first year of the war and the experiences of the 100th Pennsylvania Regiment. It wasn’t a particularly good book, but it appealed to the descendants of the men of that regiment, and they helped to publicize it. Today it’s still in print and into a second edition, thanks to a far-sighted publisher. (In fact, the first edition is on sale for 30% off today to celebrate the end of the war! Click Here.)
Then I took the same set of events and told the story from the point of view of the regimental nurse, who had barely been mentioned in the first book. Beyond All Price came out in 2010 and fulfilled the promise suggested by that first publisher. As interest in the Civil War ramped up, so did interest in the second book and by August of 2011, it became a run-away Kindle best seller, staying at the top of its category for several weeks and earning enough money to force me to hire an accountant.
That’s all I intended to do, really, but I soon realized that the Civil War was too deeply embedded in my soul to let the observation of its sesquicentennial pass without me. So there followed a series of books, tied closely to the actual dates of the war. In 1862, a band of missionaries arrived in South Carolina to help educate the slaves who had been left behind when their owners fled from the invasion of the Union Army. By November of 1862, one woman had established the first black school. In November 2012, I published the story of Laura Towne in The Road to Frogmore.
Stories about other fascinating people began to appear more frequently in the next couple of years as celebrations of the Emancipation Proclamation and the “Day of Jubilee” spread through the academic world. In 2013 I added Left by the Side of the Road — a book of short stories that featured several of the more prominent African Americans who made their mark in 1863 and beyond. Gen. Sherman began to organize his “March to the Sea” in late 1864, and in 2014, I published my first historical novel, Damned Yankee, set directly in Sherman’s path.
And now? Now that the Sesquicentennial has come to an end? Am I finished as well? No, there are still stories to be told. I’m working on a sequel to Damned Yankee — one that is set in the period of Reconstruction immediately after the war. Yesterday, as I reached the end of a chapter, a Freedman had a chance to speak his mind. I didn’t mean the words to be prophetic, but Hector sums up where I — and my new book —are at the moment:
“In time? In time we’ll all be dead. Look, Jonathan, I respect your position, but the simple truth is that most black men are no better off now than they were under slavery. We may be free, and we may even have the right to vote, but nobody’s offering much help when it comes to having a right to eat. The great promise of land didn’t last long, did it? And while the Black Codes may be gone, the land is still in the hands of white men. If we want to work the land, we have to become sharecroppers, which means doing whatever the white man says. We have to borrow money from white men to buy food, and our seeds and farm tools, and then when our crop comes in, we have to give it to the white man to pay what we owe him. So we’re stuck in poverty and beholden to the same men who were once our masters. That’s why I’m still in South Carolina. Someone has to fight back. The war may be over for you, but for me, it’s just beginning.”
So stay tuned. The Civil War may be over, but the fight goes on.