I never met Colonel Samuel Emerson Opdycke, but I’d like to say he’s a friend of mine. Earlier this month I wrote a piece for Georgia based Historical-Fiction.com about a writer’s dilemma when it comes to representing history within fiction. It prompted me to think a little deeper about the particular ‘relationship’ I form with historical figures. To be frank, it’s all a little one-sided.
I don’t mean to be flippant. I feel slightly uncomfortable spending so much time with someone who died over a hundred and thirty years ago, and to whom I was never formally introduced. It’s as if I’m some sort of time-slip stalker. I know Emerson from his letters which are published in ‘To Battle for God and the Right,’ by Glenn Longacre and John Haas. They were originally preserved by Emerson’s wife, Lucy, to whom they were mostly addressed. They have the feel of letters that might have been intended for posterity. He wrote a great deal about his experiences post-war. If he didn’t want me to know him, then I guess he wouldn’t have let his wife transcribe his letters.
I also understand him from the writing of his men and his fellow officers in the 125th Ohio; the Tigers. I know him because I’ve been to where he fought: on the battlefield of Chickamauga, atop Missionary Ridge, at Kennesaw and Franklin; all places where his decisions, actions and personal bravery made a difference to the war. I know his horse, Barney, of whom he was so fond. I’ve read the gentle lines to Lucy that bracket his opinionated view of the Union generals. Emerson always knew better; he thought a lot of himself. He thought a lot of his cause too, fighting for the Union but also for freedom. His part of north eastern Ohio was strong in abolitionist sentiment. I took a long detour via Kentucky to visit his burial site in Warren, Trumbull County. I found him in the Victorian centre of Oakwood Cemetery in the middle of the rundown Rust Belt town, though most of its industry arrived long after Emerson’s day. I know of his tragic and accidental death. I know more than he ever did in life in that I’ve read of his only child’s suicide in 1914. I didn’t mention it at the tomb. Sometimes it’s best to keep secrets from your friends.
Knowing all of this is fine, it’s really just admiring him. But when I come to write, to put words into his mouth, thoughts into his head, feelings into his body, it’s like a gentle form of possession. I wonder if he ever felt the cold shiver of me walking beside his tomb. Mr Longacre and Mr Haas studied him too, but they simply published his letters, they didn’t take liberties as a fiction writer does. And now that my book is being sold, more people are coming to know him. Bizarrely, there’s now a whole clutch of people where I live in West Sussex, England, that know of this Colonel from Ohio. What would he make of that? He wasn’t overly fond of England.
I always think of Emerson as older and wiser than me, even though he was just thirty-one when the war started. I guess it’s history that is older and wiser. I’d like to think he’d be content with my efforts. Glory was more in vogue back then and, while I try to be as accurate as I can, I think my added imagination reflects well on Emerson and the 125th, on Opdycke’s Tigers.
You can read more on a fiction writer’s relationship with history at
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