"Roundheads and Ramblings"
Where do baby books come from? I get a
variation of this question at almost every talk I give. Readers want to know
where or how their favorite authors come up with their stories. At first,
I found it easy to answer. I wrote "A Scratch with the Rebels" to
tell the story of my great-uncle's Civil War regiment and their experiences.
Buet the full story is much more complicated.
interest in James McCaskey started when I was only a child. I could remember
seeing a mysterious headstone that bore the name of my great-uncle James
McCaskey, who was killed in the Civil War. It was only much later that i
returned to Pennsylvania to learn more about him. After much searching, I found
this marker in the same Pennsylvania cemetery where many of my other McCaskey
ancestors are buried. It reads:
April 12, 1839
June 16, 1862
James Island, S.C.
details are all correct; the military action on James island was the Battle of
Secessionville. The problem is that the notification of his death says
that his body was never found. The official records say that the Confederate
troops buried the Union soldiers killed in the battle (some 509 of them) in
unmarked graves on the battlefield. North Sewickley Cemetery records indicated
that the headstone was placed in 1875, after Mrs. Jane McCaskey purchased three
adjoining plots and ordered three matching stones — one for her recently
deceased husband John, one for herself, and one for her missing eldest son
James. A tombstone does not always equal a real burial, of course.
Obviously, James's headstone marks an empty grave, a not uncommon phenomenon
during a war that swallowed up so many young men on distant battlefields. The
Grand Army of the Republic honors James McCaskey's service every Memorial Day
by placing a flag on the grave site, but even their records stop short of
stating that he is actually buried there.
learned more when I discovered in my mother’s attic a small packete of letters from
Uncle James written during the war. James McCaskey was killed in the
little-known Battle of Secessionville in June 1862. I was moved by the
letter of notification written by his commanding lieutenant -- and particularly
touched when I realized that on that letter the blotches were caused by
someone's teardrops that had made the ink run.
that really got my attention, however, was written by a fellow soldier who
described the experience of the battle in a letter to his sister. It was
full of bravado -- almost exhilaration -- as he talked about those who had been
wounded or killed. He said things like, ""Not me! I didn't
duck, neither. I stood up cause I wanted to see where the bullets was
comin' from." For a long time I couldn't understand why the sister had
passed this letter on to James's parents. It didn't feel comforting to me.
It seemed almost heartless, as if the neighbor had thoroughly enjoyed his
one way or another, I've been working through those conflicting emotions of
cockiness and grief ever since. They led me to explore the Civil War
holdings of several local libraries and genealogical societies in western
Pennsylvania and in South Carolina. I discovered one treasure trove of
artifacts at Penn State, and another at the at the US Army Military History
institute. Each one took me deeper into the story. It took me twenty-five years to get it all
down on paper.
"A Scratch with the Rebels" is a story of two soldiers--one North, one South--and their experiences at a little-known early battle in South Carolina. it is also the story of an unusual Pennsylvania regiment, known as "The Roundheads."
Here are a few images to whet your historical appetite.
I have found that my writing improves when i have in my mind's eye some clear pictures of the characters and locations. One of the advantages of the first edition of "A Scratch with the Rebels" was its many illustrations, even though some of them came out too small to be appreciated. For those of you who are similarly visually-oriented, I have put up a Pinterest board on the Roundheads and their experiences in South Carolina. I found the maps of the Battle of Secessionville especially helpful. They were drawn for this book by a doctoral student at the University of Memphis whose specialty was geography. You can find all forty-four illustrations here:
The story of most wars contains a little violent action, interspersed with long weeks of stand-around-and-wait. The Civil War was no exception. The soldiers joined up in August. Their first view of warfare did not occur until November, but when the time arrived, the sea battle at Port Royal Sound was one to remember. Here's a sketch that appeared in one news account:
I have not been able to find a photo of the whole Roundhead Regiment, but this picture of the 50th Pennsylvania gives us a hint of what they must have looked like when assembled. Both the 50th and the 100th were in South Carolina in 1862, so it should be a fair representation:
Then, of course, there are the individual people. We always wonder what they must have looked like. The photo below was taken in the spring of 1862 on the grounds of the Leverett House in Beaufort, South Carolina. It shows (looking from left to right) the chaplain , a staff sergeant, a slave, the commander of the regiment, the doctor, and--seated in front--the regimental nurse-matron who mothered them all. We'll learn more about her next week.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
On a muddy South Carolina
battlefield, a sergeant sat propped up against a hedge and tried to focus on
the spot where he thought his leg should be. There was nothing – only the
tattered remains of his trousers and a pool of blood that grew ever larger. The
whistle of artillery shells had stopped, and the sudden quiet was as jarring as
the previous battle noises had been. Shock had deadened the pain, so that all
he felt was exhaustion as he closed his eyes. Sgt. James McCaskey had fought
and lost his only battle.
"From behind a hedge on that battlefield, a
young Confederate private picked his way through the bodies, following orders to gather up
the abandoned weapons and tend to the wounded. Pvt. Augustine T. Smythe was
stunned by the mayhem that met his eyes, particularly the sight of a soldier
who lay with his leg shot entirely away. He whispered a silent prayer, as was
fitting for the son of a Presbyterian minister, that he would never again have
to witness such horrors.
"The Battle of Secessionville, fought out in
the early hours of June 16, 1862, on James Island, South Carolina, brought
these two young men together for a single moment. But the events of the Civil
War had been drawing them together for almost a year. James and Gus were
approximately the same age. Both were first-generation Americans, the sons of
Scotch-Irish immigrants to the United States. Both stood firm in their
Presbyterian faith, and both believed passionately in the cause of their
countries. Both wanted to enlist from the day the first shot was fired at Fort
Sumter; both had to spend months persuading their parents to allow them to join
the army. They set out for their first battle on the same day – November 7,
1861-- and both missed the action by arriving too late. Both chafed at enforced
inaction and longed to get into a real battle. Each of their Scotch-Irish
mothers might have warned her son to be careful for what he wished.
They were just two soldiers, alike in many ways
but different in the one trait that mattered on that battlefield. One was
North; the other, South. Sgt. James McCaskey belonged to the 100th Pennsylvania
Regiment, known to their comrades as “The Roundheads.” They came from the farms
of western Pennsylvania, determined to defend for all men the Calvinist
principles they most valued – self-reliance, industriousness, and liberty. Gus
Smythe served in the Washington Light Infantry, part of the 24th South Carolina
Volunteers. He was a college student from a well-to-do Charleston family and an
ardent supporter of the Confederate right to secede from a political union that
did not serve the needs of its people. This is the story of how they came to
their opposing positions, and how the Battle of Secessionville altered not only
their own lives, but the lives of all those who shared their experiences.
sheds new light on this bloody encounter by utilizing the words of the soldiers
themselves—taken from official records, local newspapers, and diaries—to
“recreate the experience of one small theater of operations in one short period
of time during America’s Civil War” (p. vii). Through her extensive
narrative, which revolves around the experiences of two ordinary soldiers, the
author provides an element that has previously been lacking in treatments of
Secessionville. This history with a “personal touch” allows the reader to
understand events as seen from the perspective of the common soldier in
addition to the vast divide between the reality of official personnel and young
men in the ranks."
--Jennifer M. Zoebelein, The South Carolina Historical Magazine,
Vol. 111, Nos. 3-4 (July--October 2010), pp. 184-186.
Thanks to whoever finally got the message and repaired the Vistaprint website. We were down all day yesterday, so I posted my Harriet Tubman excerpt over on Blogger. Now that we're up and running again, here it is for those of you who missed it.
[On June 2, 1863, Harriet Tubman led 150 black Union soldiers on a raid to free slaves from plantations along the Combahee River in South Carolina. The following is a description of that raid taken from my "Left by the Side of the Road."]
Colonel James Montgomery was the first to disembark at Beaufort. He strode to General Saxton, saluted crisply, and shouted so that all could hear. "Sir, I have the honor to present to you some 750 former slaves, newly liberated from the plantations along the Combahee River through the efforts of the 2 South Carolina Volunteers under the leadership of Miss Harriet Tubman."
A gasp went up from the crowd and then applause and cheers filled the morning air.
The passengers now poured off the boats and for a while, chaos reigned. Saxton had planned well for this moment, however, and his officers soon sorted the newcomers into manageable groups. A hundred or more strong young men had volunteered to join Montgomery's regiment, and a couple of black sergeants soon had them lined up and marching toward a makeshift camp. Miss Tubman bustled about, identifying the elderly and ailing so that Dr. Rogers and his staff could assess their conditions and arrange for their medical needs to be treated in one of the local hospitals. The remaining family units assembled close to the docks. Each group of fifty or so had its own military officer and one of the teacher-missionaries.
General Saxton addressed these groups last. "I have arranged for you to be transferred to St. Helena Island, where your needs will be met. Military rations are already there and will be distributed to each family, along with temporary shelter in the form of tents. As soon as we determine how many houses will be needed, we'll be assigning you to empty dwellings on the island. If we need more room, our Army engineers will provide building materials to help you erect your own new homes. Please tell your leaders about any special skills you may have that can help us build your new community. We'll want to identify the cooks, the carpenters, the farmers, the stable hands, and so forth. Welcome to the United States and freedom!"
At he turned to Laura Towne. "Sorry to keep you in the dark about all of this, but we wanted to make sure the boats made it back safely before any announcement. I've asked Colonel Montgomery and Miss Tubman to join my staff in the mess tent for a debriefing. Would you and Miss Forten care to join us? I'm sure you must be curious about how all this came about."
Col. James Montgomery opened the meeting by describing Miss Tubman's efforts. "She has been prowling around the interior for the past month with her small band of spies. They infiltrated the plantations, talked to the slaves, and learned where the river had been mined to prevent any invasion. She promised her people that they would be rescued when they heard gunboats blowing their whistles. Yesterday she met my gunboats at the mouth of the Combahee and served as our pilot, guiding us around the Confederate torpedoes and taking us straight to the banks of the richest plantations in the area. But she should describe what happened from there."
Harriet beamed with pride as she stood. She described the scene as slaves dropped whatever they were doing and ran to the banks of the river when they heard the whistles. Some tried to wade out to the boats while others clambered into rowboats. A few overseers tried to hold the slaves back. Others, frightened lest this be a trap, hesitated on the banks.
[The following passage is a direct quote from Miss Tubman's own account, as told to Sarah Bradford and published in "Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman." (1869) ]
"I ' de to take der caps off an' let de people wooly heads," she laughed, "but some uh dem slaves trust us, even if we black like dem. So I stood on de uh de boat an' I sang to em:
Of all the whole creation in the East or in the West,
The glorious Yankee nation is the greatest and the best.
Come along! Come along! don't be alarmed,
Uncle Sam is rich enough to give you all a farm.
"Dat was a song I made up 'cause I don't know de Gullah language an' we had trouble ' each udder. But dey unnerstood bout Uncle Sam. Dat did de trick ' dey all come on da boats.
"I see such a sight," said Harriet; "we laughed, ' laughed, an' laughed. Here you'd see a woman a pail on her head, rice a smokin' in it jus' as she'd taken it from de fire, young one hangin' on behind, one ' ' her forehead to hold on, 'tother ' diggin' into de rice-pot, eatin' all its might; hold of her dress two or three more; down her back a bag wid a pig in it. One woman brought two pigs, a white one ' a black one; we took 'em all on board; named de white pig Beauregard, and de black pig Jeff Davis. Sometimes de women would come wid twins hangin' ' der necks; 'pears like I see so many twins in my life; bags on der shoulders, baskets on heads, and young ones taggin' ', all loaded; pigs squealin', chickens screamin', young ones squallin'."
Long-time readers of this blog may remember a posting from two years ago, when I celebrated the choice of Harriet Tubman as the new picture for our $20.00 bill. The text of that post reads:
"This will just be a brief note, but I must comment on the delightful choice of Harriet Tubman as the American woman to be portrayed on our new twenty-dollar bills. She was my choice all along, but I feared she would lose out to other figures whose stories are better known. Now that the choice has been made, I have this silly impulse to shout, "Way to go, Harriet!"
"Here's a simple dictionary definition of this remarkable woman -- what the internet will tell you about her:
Tubman, Harriet |ˈtəbmən|
( c.1820–1913), US abolitionist; born Araminta Ross; known as the Moses of Her People. She was born a slave in Maryland, but escaped via the Underground Railroad in 1849. Following what she called direct messages from God, she returned to Maryland numerous times to lead about 300 slaves to safety in the North. During the Civil War, she spied and served as a scout for the Union.
"Oh, but she was so much more. It's not enough to say she was a Union spy. To understand her, you have to visualize this tiny woman standing on the deck of a Union gunboat, singing at the top of her lungs to reassure terrified slaves to come out of hiding and let the Union troops transport them to safety and freedom.
(Both of those books are available in Kindle editions as well as paperbacks on Amazon.
I'll try to post one of those stories here sometime later this week.)
I am still waiting to see that $20.00, but this morning brought good news about another tribute to one of my favorite Civil War personalities. While the Treasury Department dithers about putting women on currency (and worries even more about letting one of those women actually be of African descent), the Gullah people of St. Helena Island, South Carolina, have moved ahead to honor one of their own.
This month marks the ground-breaking ceremony and fund-raising activity to fund a bronze statue of Harriet Tubman in Beaufort, SC. You can read the complete article about the Harriet Tubman Monument at: