I couldn’t say how many Civil War regiments there were. It’s probably into the thousands, and I could have picked any one of them. So why did I plump for the 125th Ohio, Opdycke’s Tigers as they came to be known, as a home for my fictitious Private Shire? And how then did their glorious story – more fully revealed to me on a visit to the Carter House – bounce me from penning what was planned to be a standalone novel into writing a trilogy?
When I first conceived of Whirligig, it wasn’t ‘Book One of Shire’s Union’, it was just Whirligig. I knew I wanted it to be an odyssey of sorts: an English boy, Shire, obliged to join the Union Army and fight his way into the South to keep a promise from his childhood. So the regiment he joined certainly needed to be Union. I also wanted to include an event which fascinated me; the fight up Missionary Ridge outside Chattanooga, a spontaneous charge where the Union rank and file surprised not only the Confederates atop what was thought to be an impregnable 300ft crest, but also their own command who hadn’t ordered it at all. Any regiment I used was obliged to have fought on that day.
That narrowed it down considerably, but a quick count through the order of battle lists over two-hundred and twenty-five infantry regiments present for the Union that day. I set about finding a new home for Shire by going through the blue regiments one by one. I don’t think I’d tried more than a dozen before I hit the Tigers. It was love at first sight. Not only did they have a proud record, but also a wealth of contemporary sources. I quickly discovered the regimental history, Opdycke’s Tigers, by Charles T. Clark, Captain of Company F. He detailed not only the great battles but also the day-to-day life and events of the men in the regiment – so important to a historical fiction writer - from their formation in Cleveland late in 1862 to mustering out in 1865.
Better still were the letters of the 125th’s irascible colonel, Emerson Opdycke. Here was a civilian soldier with a hugely high opinion of himself (some of it justified) who had poured out his thoughts and experiences in letters to his wife, Lucy, which she’d preserved following his death and ultimately for Glenn V. Longacre and John E. Haas to publish in The Battle for God and the Right. They are wonderful letters, full of the sort of unbounded American self-confidence that fuelled the officer class on both sides. Perhaps only letters to a wife could be so shamelessly forthright. Sadly, Lucy’s letters back are lost, but I imagine in most of them she would have told Emerson to calm down, to stop putting the noses out of joint of officers and generals more senior than himself. Opdycke became my eyes and ears in the army. Well-connected beyond his rank, he would always know so much more than Private Shire who often needed to be a suitably disorientated hero.
The time came for me to fly across the pond and go to the places that mattered to the 125th in Whirligig. I’d planned a road trip from Chicago to Atlanta. An early stop was Dover, Tennessee, where as a green regiment the 125th arrived a day after a battle, in time to see the bodies still on the field. Quite a shock for Shire. Then it was on to Franklin where the 125th’s first ever action was to push Rebel cavalry out of the town in February of 1863. I was interested by their time there that spring, so well recounted by Charles Clark and Opdycke. How did Union soldiers get by in a largely Confederate town? I visited Fort Granger which the regiment had helped to build. Then I arrived at the Carter House. No Civil War buff can go to Franklin and not visit the Carter House. It changed everything for me.
At the time I knew very little about the 1864 Battle of Franklin except that Opdycke and the 125th were in the thick of it. The battle was, until relatively recently, not so widely written about as other battles less bloody or less critical to the end of the war. I took the guided tour of the Carter House and, standing in their cellar come dining room, listening to tales of Tod and the Carter family, it became clear as day to me that I had to write more than one book. I didn’t know then that my first novel would take three years to complete. Otherwise, I might have run screaming from the cellar. But I was hooked. After their time in Franklin in the spring of ‘63, the 125th eventually came full circle back to Franklin after almost two years of hard fighting further south. They were christened the ‘Tigers’ for their service at Chickamauga, fought their way up Missionary Ridge and right through the brutal Atlanta campaign, only to first shadow and then run from Hood all the way back to Williamson County, until they throw themselves into the climax of the battle at Franklin.
The trilogy, now complete, launched me on many other trips to the States, to all the battle sites where the 125th fought, to Trumbull County where the regiment was raised and where Opdycke is buried, to Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie where Tod Carter was held prisoner, back again and again to Chickamauga and back to Franklin. I never tire of it and thank my lucky stars that a cocktail of happenstance and serendipity led me to the 125th, and to the Carter House.
Reference books for the 125th Ohio Infantry.
Opdycke’s Tigers – Charles T. Clark – Spahr & Glenn – 1895
The Battle for God and the Right – The Civil War Letterbooks of Emerson Opdycke – Edited by Glenn V. Longacre and John E. Haas – University of Illinois Press - 2003
Yankee Tigers – Ralsa C. Rice – Edited by Richard A. Baumgartner & Larry M. Strayer – Blue Acorn Press 1992
Yankee Tigers II – Edited by Richard A. Baumgartner – Blue Acorn Press – 2004