It’s been two weeks since I read a book about the Civil War, and it feels strange. My draft novel is done, at least for now. It’s not so much a novel about the Civil War as it is a novel of the Civil War.
If you grew up in the South, or even if you didn’t, what happened in the years 1861-1865 affected you, even when you didn’t know it. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents were children of Civil War veterans. They experienced the war in very different ways, both in the fighting and in civilian life.
My mother’s grandparents were Franco-German immigrants who settled in New Orleans and descendants of the Acadians expelled from Canada after the French and Indian War who settled in what we called “the river parishes” – the stretch of territory along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. The men generally fought for the Confederacy; after 1862, the women, children, and elderly men discovered life under Union occupation.
My father’s grandparents experienced much the same. The men fought for the Confederacy; after the fall of Vicksburg in 1863, their families in southern Mississippi lived under sometimes loose, sometimes tight federal occupation. My great-grandfather Samuel Young was the only son in the family to survive the war.
Much like World War II affected the Baby Boom generation, the Civil War affected my grandparents’ generation. A terrible and collective experience of one generation would inevitably affect their children. Louisiana had the highest per capita income in the country in 1860; it had the lowest in 1865. Family members had died in the fighting; the social order was in chaos and upheaval. What happened to my ancestors was repeated millions of times in both the South and, in a different way, the North.
My history classes in middle school, high school, and college focused on broad themes about the war – like slavery, state rights, battles, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow Era, and the rise of the “Lost Cause.” When you write a novel rooted in the war, you discover that, while all of that is important, the broad themes don’t tell you much about how people lived, died, fought, and coped with the war.
I turned to reading and research – not only histories but also memoirs, newspaper accounts, sociological studies, photographic essays, fiction, and even poetry. I had to be selective, and so I focused on 1863 and post-war Mississippi, including Grierson’s Raid of April 1863; the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia in 1864; and the battles in April 1865 around Petersburg and Appomattox. But general histories were needed, too, and Bruce Catton’s The Army of the Potomac Trilogy and James MacPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom were among the readings as well.
Three books were particularly helpful: Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era by Frances Clark and Rebecca Jo Plant; Hearts Torn Asunder: Trauma in the Civil War’s Final Campaign in North Carolina by Ernest Dollar; and Ends of War: The Unfinished Fight of Lee’s Army after Appomattox by Caroline Janney. Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches and Irene Hunt’s Across Five Aprils were two works of fiction backed by extensive historical research, and they were both an inspiration. But everything I read helped in at least a small way.
The bibliography includes 84 books and two web sites. They represent an infinitesimally tiny portion of what’s available to read about the Civil War.
It’s awe-inspiring to read what soldiers and civilians alike experienced, including some pretty horrible things. Tragedies abounded. The devastation, especially in the South, was extensive. Soldiers on both sides committed crimes against civilians.
And yet, people coped and went on. They found strength in community and faith. What they had known was gone forever, except in memory.
Even if the novel never sees the light of day, this has been a humbling and rewarding experience.
Top photograph by Thomas Kelley via Unsplash. Used with permission.