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.
My 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.
Those 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.
I 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.
The letter 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 experience.
In 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.