"Roundheads and Ramblings"
Meet the Characters
This is my favorite -- and also the best-known--picture of Miss Laura M. Towne. She was a Unitarian, an Abolitionist, and a medical
student. | In 1862, at the age of 37, she left her Philadelphia
home to travel to the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Her purpose: to do
whatever she could to help the newly freed slaves become useful and
productive citizens. The Road to Frogmore
, published in 2012, tells the story of the first few years she spent in South Carolina during the Civil War.
Laura Town and her life-long friend Ellen
Murray joined the Port Royal Experiment in 1862 to test their
abolitionist ideals against the realities of slaves abandoned by their
owners in the Low Country of South Carolina. They hoped to find a place
they could call home, as well as an outlet for their talents as
schoolteacher and doctor.. It seemed like a good idea at the time, until
. . .
Until they experienced the climate—violent storms spawned over the
Atlantic, searing heat, tainted by swamp gasses, cockroaches, bedbugs,
swarming mosquitoes,and “no-see-ums” that left nasty bites in their
Until they met the slaves themselves—full of fear and resentment of
white people caused by centuries of cruelty, slaves who had never seen
the outside world, slaves whose superstitions included breath-sucking
night hags, evil graybeards living in local trees, and unfree spirits
rolling down the roads at night in balls of fire.
Until the dedication of the missionaries found itself tested by lack
of food, furniture, medicine, and the bare necessities of life. Until
the unity of the abolitionist effort fell apart under the strains of
religious differences and unrecognized prejudices.
And until the combination of battle wounds and a raging smallpox
epidemic made death their constant companion. Could these two
independent women survive the Civil War and achieve their goal of
turning slaves into citizens?
For the next week or so, I'll introduce you to some of the real people with whom she worked-- and those against whom she had to struggle in order to establish the kind of school she wanted to provide for the children she loved.
Almost all of the characters I have featured in A Scratch with the Rebels
also appear in Beyond all Price
. The two books differ, however, in a couple of significant ways. "Scratch" is straight documented history. "Beyond All Price" is a fictionalized re-telling of the story of Nurse Nellie Chase, who is barely mentioned in the historical monologue. From the beginning, Nellie's story fascinated me because so little could be known about her. For those of you who don't recognize the name, Nellie is the
heroine of my book,
Beyond All Price.
She was a teen-age runaway,
"married" to a gambling, hard-drinking, cheating musician who was
regularly on the run from the law, dragging Nellie with him. To escape
his abuse when he wanted her to become the madame of his new brothel,
she signed on with a Union regiment as their matron and head nurse.
When I discovered this picture of her, crumpled up as if someone meant
to toss it away, at the Military History Museum, I was thrilled. Now I knew what she looked like! And ever since then I've been saying with great confidence that only one picture of
Nellie existed. It shows Nellie in Beaufort, SC, with the
staff of the Roundhead Regiment in March 1862.
David Welch, the editor of the Roundhead Regiment website, and I had both
hunted in vain for other pictures of her. I enlisted the help of a
librarian in Philadelphia because we knew she had had a CDV taken there.
I combed the archives of the Army's Military History Museum. David
read every Civil War newspaper he could find. We plundered Google
Books. Nothing. No record of her existed beyond this crumpled photo in
Carlyle, PA. We knew only that after a year with the Pennsylvania Roundheads, she moved on to other
Civil War battlegrounds, ending up in Union-occupied Nashville as matron
of Hospital No. 3 in the spring of 1863.
Then, a couple of years ago David sent me this picture taken in 1863. It showed three women on a small "carte de visite."
At the bottom was a handwritten label: Nurses. Hospital No. ?. Summer
"63." The picture had been part of an auction held in 2006; it was
listed as a rare CDV taken in Nashville. It sold for $720.00.
had a single stunning question for me: Is the woman on the left Nellie
I've tried putting the cropped images side by side. Study them for yourself:
hairstyles are identical. The faces are rounded ovals with symmetrical
features. Both women have noticably sloping shoulders --almost looking
as if they have no collarbones. They have full lips but not a wisp of a
smile. (I tried running facial recognition software on the two photos,
but since one is full face and the other a profile, I could not get a
for the Nashville picture, we know that Nellie was one of three nurses
working in Hospital No. 3 at the time this picture was taken. I've
confirmed those facts from published letters in the Walt Whitman Collection that mention her. She was
in a supervisory position over the others, which would fit with the
image of her reading to the other two.
As a historian, I cannot prove that this new image
is a picture of Nellie Chase. But as a novelist (who is permitted to
tell lies, even whoppers), I can say that this is the Nellie of my
what do you think? Is this my Nellie? If you have read the book, is
this how you think she might have looked? Does the picture bring her
character into clearer focus?
General Isaac Ingalls Stevens was a very different sort of general than Gen. Hunter. He graduated first in his class from West Point and had an early career as an engineer. He also served for a time as a congressman. He was a small, dapper gentleman — popular with his men because he looked after their interests and cared about them as individuals. The general plays a part in several of my books because he was a “hands-on” general, always involved in what was happening around him. There is a lovely moment in A Scratch with the Rebels
when Stevens discovers Col. Leasure helping in the field hospital after the Battle of Secessionville and is moved to tears by his dedication.
His personal habits may have left something to be desired, however. He was much given to foul language. The Roundheads chaplain, Rev. Browne, hated him for his habit of cursing and using profanity at every small annoyance. He was also a hard drinker, leading to Col. Leasure’s complaints about his drunken orations and tendency to spray spittle as he delivered them. And Nellie Chase regarded him as an enemy because he was none too fond of women, with the exception of his own wife, on whom he doted.
Stevens died, as he lived, in the middle of the action. At the Battle of Chantilly, September 1, 1862, he had a horse who from under him. Quickly seizing another mount, he was dashing across the battlefield when he saw his flag bearer fall. He immediately grabbed the flag from the dying man’s hand — thus making himself a prime target — and was immediately shot, dead before he hit the ground.
General David Hunter is one of my favorite Civil War characters, not because of that crazy mustache and terrible comb-over, but primarily because he acted upon his beliefs. Sometimes he was wrong—as a matter of fact, he was often wrong—but his motives were pure. His judgment, however, was weak; it makes me want to pat him on the back and say "bless his heart." Three examples come to mind.
In early May 1862 he became frustrated with Washington’s inability to provide any answer to a pressing problem. South Carolina’s coastal area was full of slaves who had been abandoned to their own devices by their owners when the planters and their families fled ahead of the Union invasion. Were the slaves now free? To Hunter, they seemed free in practical terms, if not legal ones. When the government would not issue a statement freeing them legally, Hunter stepped in. He declared martial law, which put him in charge of the region. Then he issued a proclamation freeing the slaves.
It didn’t work, of course. Lincoln reacted with fury and repealed the proclamation, sending the slaves back into a condition of uncertain servitude after only 10 days of freedom. The US president was not yet firmly enough in control of Congress to proclaim emancipation, which was contrary to the wishes of many border states. Lincoln’s Emancipation proclamation would take another several months to go into effect, and he did not appreciate one of his generals preempting his decision.
The second of Hunter’s ideas involved taking all of those “freed” slaves and enrolling the men into black US Army regiments. Now, I admit that was a bad idea in May 1862 because it did not have the support of the Army’s hierarchy. And in retrospect, Hunter’s idea of ordering bright red pantaloons to serve as the black soldiers’ uniform would have done little but turn them into targets. Once again, Hunter was just ahead of his time. Later that year, the government officially approved the creation of black regiments. And from that decision several strong and effective regents came into existence. Hunter’s mistake was that he did not have official support for a very good idea.
His third decision is one that resonates with me because it resulted in many deaths, including that of my own great uncle. Hunter was the commanding general when the Union Army attacked James Island in their drive to reach Charleston. This time, Hunter had a careful battle plan, but he believed it would be necessary to delay the attack several days in order to secure backup. Seeing that delay as a chance to go back to Hilton Head for several days to clean up administrative details and to visit his wife, who was waiting for him there, he left his second-in-command in charge.
He gave General Benham what he believed to be clear orders, and then trusted him to comply. Instead, Benham found a loophole in the orders, and used it to send his men into a poorly-conceived attack against a Confederate fort at Secessionville. They failed badly, and several hundred Union soldiers were killed. Worse, the drive to capture Charleston had to be abandoned.
Hunter was a good man, with high morale standards and humanitarian goals. His failure came from his inability to look ahead and foresee the outcomes of his actions. After Secessionville, he was never again allowed to command troops. He spent the rest of the war serving on various military boards and courts Martial. He retired in 1866.
One of the most painful aspects of America's Civil War was the way families could find themselves with conflicting loyalties. All started out as Americans, but brothers sometimes chose different sides when Confederates faced Yankees. In the story of the events leading up to the Battle of Secessionville, two such sets of brothers make an appearance.
I have no pictures of the Campbell brothers, but their story contains a heart-stopping moment. Alexander Campbell was a recent immigrant from Scotland. He found work in New York City as a stone cutter, while his brother James went on to Charleston and became a drayman (a driver of a heavy-duty wagon). Alexander had tried his luck in Charleston for a few months, but the attraction of a certain lovely young lady drew him back to New York. When the war broke out, he joined the 79th New York Regiment and accompanied it when the regiment was sent to South Carolina as part of the force to take control of Port Royal Sound. His brother James joined a local Charleston militia, which was called to active duty in March 1862 in the 1st SC Infantry, Charleston Battalion. The two brothers were both involved at Secessionville in June 1862. Private Alexander was a flag bearer, who planted the regimental flag near the Confederate fort. Lt. James Campbell was one of the gunners behind that fort. When the Rebels ran out of ammunition, James helped to roll logs down the breastwork aiming to take out the flagbearing Yankees. Neither brother was wounded in that battle, but they corresponded with each other afterward, both hoping they would never again be forced to fight against one another.
The Drayton brothers were better-known. Their family owned a huge rice plantation outside of Charleston along the Ashley River. The plantation house and gardens are still there and are popular tourist destinations. But in 1861, the two brothers chose different paths. Captain Percival Drayton was a commander in the U. S. Navy and remained loyal to the USA. In the South Carolina Expeditionary Force, he was the captain of the gunboat Pocahontas
. As such. he was one of those firing on Fort Walker during the Battle of Port Royal. Later, at Secessionville, he sailed into the Stono River and led the small group of gunboats in the bombardment of the Confederate fort.
His brother, General Thomas Fenwick Drayton, was a classmate and lifelong friend of Jefferson Davis. He was the commander at Fort Walker who surrendered to the Union attack. During the Battle of Secessionville, Thomas was in command of a large army stationed just north of Savannah and was awaiting orders to march to the defense of Charleston, should the Yankee attack on Secessionville succeed.
It was widely recorded that Ann Drayton, the mother of these two opposing commanders lay mortally ill during the Port Royal battle. Her dying words were quoted as mourning the tragedy in which "Percy fired at Tom. Tom fired at Percy."
Her sons both survived the war, although Mrs. Drayton did not live to see it. Percy had a distinguished naval career, but he died in late 1865 of an obstructed bowel -- not a war-related injury. Thomas was less distinguished. After several other lost battles, he was removed from command and assigned administrative duties. After the war, he was unable to regain his South Carolina property. He moved to North Carolina and became an insurance salesman until his death at the age of 81.