It’s not easy writing battle scenes (as Kermit might sing). They are a crisis in the story; possibly the piece of history that inspired the book; the climactic moment of danger for the characters I’ve sent into the breach. I’ve reached this point once more while writing Tigers in Blue, my hands held anxiously above my keyboard, like a soldier with an itchy trigger-finger before the charge. Well, sort of.
There’s a danger as a writer when you hit the action button. It’s as true of suspense or horror genres as well as historical fiction. You’ve spent fifty-thousand words crafting your characters and their story arcs, intertwining their lives, getting the reader to love them or hate them or both. You’ve even managed to set up the visuals, subtly familiarising the reader with the setting where it’s all about to kick-off. The tension is at breaking point. Then you describe one googly-eyed monster or get lost in the blood and guts and everything dissipates in the unreality you’ve just described.
At a line-by-line level it’s hard to portray an epic battle without falling back on the same descriptions. There’s only so many ways you can say bang. The tenth time you talk about ‘sheets of flame’ or the ‘thunder of cannon’ it ceases to have an impact. A good thesaurus helps. I spill words onto my whiteboard from historical accounts to fit in as and when they suit. And I’m constantly reaching for a new way to describe using emotion that will connect, or detail that will engage, the reader.
You might think the solution is to describe it as it really was, and certainly that’s always been my intent. But there are problems there too. For a start, how the hell would I know? I’ve done my best. Flown to battlefields, dressed up in Union blue, camped under the stars, learned to load and fire a Civil War rifle, chased Rebels through the woods. I got pretty excited in a twelve-year-old sort of way. But I never feared for life or limb, never watched my friends bleed out. And there were only a few dozen of us… Also, if described how it really was, I’m pretty sure my main character Private Shire would have next to no idea what was going on, not in the smoke and the chaos and the hand to hand fighting where his universe is the man in front who’s trying to kill him. If you attempt and give a broader view of events, some level of detachment can sneak in. You have to be inventive. Find moments for characters where the big picture is on show and then zoom back in to their immediate world.
I’ve read no end of personal accounts but annoyingly, when it comes to the real nitty-gritty, they often use words like ‘indescribable’, or say that the ‘vivid impressions and terrifying scenes were indelibly stamped on the minds of the participants.’ It’s understandable why their minds may shy from the detail, but it doesn’t help me get to the reality. Do readers even want the true reality or would they rather look away or watch with one eye closed?
Ethically, you can tie yourself in knots. I’m writing about real events, sometimes using characters who lived through these extreme moments in history and a fair number who never made it to the other side. Do I know how they felt when they got up for breakfast that day, as they got into line, as they killed or were killed? In some cases, I’ve spent years with the ghosts of these people. I’ve visited their homes and their graves. I owe them a debt of respect. I want to get this right.
In the end it comes down to best endeavours and trusting my imagination. If I’ve done all I can as a life-long civilian – removed from the time I’m writing about by a century and a half – then I’m as prepared as I can be to step off into my personal writing battle. You have to turn it around. I’ll likely get some things wrong, but by entering their world, portraying the sort of challenges they faced, trying to reach for their possible emotions, I am honouring them, becoming a part of the collective effort to understand.
I must go. The trumpet has sounded, the flags are unfurled and waving high. The first cannon has boomed!
Shire’s Union, books 1 and 2.
Battle Town (short story)
I beg to differ. You don’t hear that term so much these days. A polite apology for having your own point of view and asking if you might offer it up. We’re more likely to stridently announce how someone else is a hundred percent wrong, or maybe never listen to what they have to say in the first place.
I’ve started many posts in the last year saddened by events in the U.S.A. and then predictably found some pretext to relate these to America’s history. What can I say; I’m drawn to it. I find history fascinating for its own sake but it’s of little use if we don’t explore parallels to now and what lessons we might learn. It’s also unavoidable when you’re alternately reading about ante-bellum or Civil War America and then watching the Capitol stormed on the evening news.
American Civil War histories can be on the grand scale of the demi-continent it was fought over or more precise and localised in their focus. A good friend of mine sent to me across the pond Aaron Astor’s book, The Civil War Along Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau. The plateau is a sudden rising scar of mountains and high valleys that angles across the state, running from west of Knoxville down to west of Chattanooga. Astor draws out wonderfully how the geology and soils of the region shaped settlement, people’s outlook and eventually allegiances when it came to war. I’ve driven over the plateau many times but never stopped outside of an interstate rest area. It’s impressive. The land-trains struggle up and burn their brakes coming down. It was an encumbrance to the Civil War armies too. I set a scene in Whirligig where the Army of the Cumberland is making heavy weather to get their wagons and artillery across.
It was similarly a barrier to settlers steadily moving west in the first half of the 19th century. Having taken decades to seep through the gaps in the Appalachians, the Cumberland Plateau was the next serious barrier beyond the upper Tennessee Valley. The Cherokee were pushed steadily back to the west and eventually expelled from the region altogether by President Andrew Jackson. The soil on the plateau was thin and rocky for the most part, so tended to attract those with little money and few options. In short order the settlers were converted into semi-subsistence farmers who scratched out a living, highly dependent on their neighbours in time of need. Communities often centred on high, small valleys known as coves, many with only one road in and out. Astor describes how the harsh environment was reflected in evocative place names: No Business Creek, Brimstone Creek, Devilstep Hollow.
News into and out of these communities was limited in the early decades of settlement, often only brought in by merchants then passed on by word of mouth. The political tone or spin was often set by the self-interest of the local elites. Over time the isolation broke down to some extent. Turnpikes were built across the plateau and county politics began to live alongside the leading families’ power and influence. However, by the time secession and a probable civil war were on the ballot paper, the scattered populace’s outlook was still so heavily localised that in many cases neighbouring counties voted heavily in opposite directions; some to stay in the Union, others to side with the Confederacy. Tennessee was the last state to secede on June 8th 1861, largely due to the votes of bigger population centres in Western Tennessee. The result for those on the plateau were long years of bitter local fighting, a war within a war, fought almost privately in the mountains.
I’m greatly simplifying Astor’s wonderful history. History and societies are far more complex. And where’s the parallel to today, you may ask? Surely in the modern world we are broad in our outlook, all knowing in our perspective.
I beg to differ.
The Cumberland coves were carved over hundreds of millions of years, ready to hold and shape communities in isolation. Now, I’d suggest, we’ve got busy in recent decades hollowing out virtual coves in the pioneer wild west of the internet. They are carved by algorithms, watered by self-reinforcing social media, and ready to be preyed upon by ‘elites’ that are not local but far away. They distance us from our near neighbours better than any mountain or high forest. And not just in Tennessee. Across America and across the world, whatever our persuasion, we’re listening only to those who tell us what we’ve become accustomed to hearing. I see it in my friends and I see it in myself.
The current international and local isolation doesn’t help. But maybe when the siren sounds and I’ve finally hugged my distant family and absent friends, I’ll find a bar, pick a stool, and start a friendly conversation with someone who I’ll be pleased to disagree with and might return the favour.
The Civil War Along Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau - by Aaron Astor
By Richard Buxton
Battle Town (short story)
It was Christmas Day in 1860 and Lincoln, newly elected president but yet to be inaugurated, was at home in his reception room in Springfield, Illinois. The town was busy. Christmas was not a public holiday. He was trying to cope with a mountain of mail and a constant flow of visitors who were mostly there for their own interests rather than his. South Carolina had seceded five days ago. Civil War loomed, although the first shot wouldn’t be fired until the spring. Amongst the gifts he received from complete strangers this day, was a whistle fashioned from a pig-tail. The sender claimed he’d crafted it just to show it was possible. I can imagine it appealing to Lincoln’s earthy sense of humour. It probably got more attention from him than his more expensive gifts.
The four Christmases to follow would all be in wartime and every one of them would see fighting. Lincoln would be dead before the next peaceful Christmas, along with around 650,000 other Americans, North and South. The war to come would change many things, including Christmas. For decades, even centuries, before the war, European Yuletide traditions had poured into America along with variant nationalities and religions. American practices at Christmas largely paralleled those in Europe. In the same way they followed hat styles in Paris, they adopted Victorian/Germanic fashions in Christmas trees, decorations and cards. Being American, they added a flare for commercialism that left Christmas never quite the same again.
To understand the wartime development of Christmas, you need to consider how the Civil War more widely shaped American identity. What it means to be American has never truly been a constant. It didn’t arrive fully formed with the Declaration of Independence. At the outbreak of war, America was just eighty-five years old. In those years it had never stopped changing and reaching westward, a constant flow of immigrants stirring the pot. Now here was its greatest crisis, a civil war, where the question of what it meant to be American, what the Union represented was a matter of life and death. And here were men and, to a lesser extent, women, thrown together in great armies: English, Scots, Welsh and Irish, German speakers, the Dutch, eastern Europeans; all away from home and all lonely. Any commonality in Christmas traditions really mattered. It helped comfort them but it also gave them a seasonal rallying point in terms of what it meant to be American. The Civil War re-asserted and to some extent reconstructed America. Christmas traditions were a brick in that reconstruction.
You’ll want some proof. Here goes. The first depiction of Santa Claus, as we might recognise him today, dates from the Civil War. It’s true. During his campaign for president, Lincoln hired an illustrator to produce his posters. The artist was called Thomas Nast and, late in 1862, he was asked by one of the most popular periodicals of the time, Harper’s Weekly, to produce their Christmas cover. Knowing Nast as he did, Lincoln himself is rumoured to have proposed the idea of Santa Claus visiting Union troops. Santa Claus appears in the stars and stripes, but he is the same white-bearded, rotund, non-chimney-shaped old fellow that we see in shopping centre grottos to this day. The genius of the image was that it mixed tradition with patriotism at a time the Union war effort was at a low ebb. The cover was so popular that Nast got repeat commissions from Harper’s Weekly for many Christmases to come.
Christmas on the frontline wasn’t quite as joyous as Mr Nast was implying. A Union army was camped to the south-east of Nashville. A Confederate army was close; just a little way down the road to Chattanooga. Battle might come soon. The weather had been clear and mild but Christmas Day it was overcast. Santa Claus, represented by the postal service, turned up for some, usually with food parcels rather than presents, but many would get nothing at all. Peter Cozzens, in his wonderful trilogy on the Chattanooga Campaign, describes a festive season for the officers, especially the Confederates, as they were on home turf and supported by the local citizenry. Elaborate balls were held, the halls decorated with cedars, evergreens and captured battle flags. The Union army had to work harder for dance partners; the Fifteenth Wisconsin put two of its soldiers in drag for a party at the local schoolhouse.
Away from the more organised festivities the soldiers played dice, held chicken fights and the whiskey flowed freely. Food was a preoccupation every day of the year and not just at Christmas, but some made a special effort. Johnny Green of the Ninth Kentucky headed out into the country in search of a turkey. He found eggs and onions but had to settle for a goose. He baked a poundcake and, being teetotal, settled for a quiet meal. Colonel John Beatty of the Third Ohio did a little better. Back in Nashville he acquired a turkey for a dollar and seventy-five cents, but, he said, ‘it lacked the collaterals, and was a failure.’
Beatty’s disappointment with his attempt to honour the day was more in line with the general mood. Melancholy ultimately won out over Yuletide cheer. While Christmas Day offered soldiers a brief escape from the daily grind of army life, it was also a pointed reminder that they were far from loved ones. Many chose to spend the free time they had writing letters home or, seated around the campfire, recalling earlier and happier Christmases. Many would only be ghosts at Christmases yet to come. Over New Year three-thousand would die at the Battle of Stones River.
Things were little happier at home. In a novel written shortly after the war, Louisa May Alcott describes how her ‘Little Women’ woke to find no stockings hung in the fireplace, but a bible under each pillow. The absence of, and concern for, Father, is a constant through the whole day. In the South children were even harder done by. The Union Navy had blockaded all the ports, basic foodstuffs were exorbitant and most presents would be homemade. In a harsh move to manage expectations, General Howard Cobb’s children were simply told that Santa Claus had been shot.
Lincoln spent the four wartime Christmases in the White House and for the last received a present much larger but every bit as odd as his pigtail whistle. General Sherman, having devastated much of Georgia, telegraphed Lincoln. ‘I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah…’
Nast would continue his Harper’s Weekly cover pictures long after the war. Christmas traditions in America, solidified and somewhat unified by a new sense of what it meant to be American, would endure. But this wasn’t the most telling change in Christmas celebrations. Before and during the war, enslaved African-Americans only enjoyed Christmas at the whim of their ‘benevolent’ masters. There may have been extra leisure time, better food, parties and even permission to travel to visit relatives. No doubt the slaves made the best of what was granted to them. The most profound change in the celebration of Christmas brought on by the Civil War was that in 1865, after the total Union victory, four million former slaves were free to make their own plans for Christmas.
History is an escape, historical fiction arguably more so. Today, let’s stick to the factual and I’ll whisk you away from the culminating frenzy that is the US Presidential Election, away from voter suppression and a partisan press, to 1864, a time of honour and common decency in the conduct of a fratricidal civil war; a time of extreme crisis. Thousands of enlisted Americans were dying on the battlefields and in the army hospitals every week but, what do you know, it was an election year.
In the fourth year of the conflict, there was talk of suspending the presidential election altogether, but Lincoln wouldn’t have it, claiming that postponing a wartime poll would allow the rebels to ‘fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.’ This was no small deed on Lincoln’s part. The Union armies were stalled in the east and moving at a snail’s pace in the west. It was widely believed in the country, in his still young Republican party and by Lincoln himself, that it was almost impossible for him to be re-elected. There wasn’t the elaborate and voracious polling industry that we have today, providing false or tilted reassurance to both sides, but Lincoln knew the score. Nobody had been re-elected for three decades. The country was weary of sacrifice and suspicious of Lincoln’s change in the war’s aims to overtly include emancipation. He only stood again, he said, because the country shouldn’t be ‘swapping horses in the middle of the stream.’
‘Events, dear boy, events,’ a British prime minister would say a century later in reference to the lot of a government. In this case, a positive event broke for Lincoln; a great victory won by General Sherman’s army in early September 1864, two months before the election. Sherman wired Lincoln. ‘Atlanta is ours, and fairly won.’ With that city taken in the heart of Georgia, the people of the north could suddenly see the other side of the stream and they believed that Lincoln was the right horse to get them there. All the youthful Republican party needed to do was run a clean election, but it doesn’t hurt to make sure.
In those blessed days it was considered unseemly for the presidential candidates to campaign, so Lincoln and his adversary, General George B McClellan – running on a peace ticket - stayed home and let their respective representatives get down in the ditches of democracy. Papers were the only media and there was little or no tradition of an unbiased press to live up to. Lincoln’s campaign manager was the editor of the New York Times. The editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, went out on the stump for Lincoln. The editor of the New York World worked with McClellan. Beyond the papers, Lincoln tacitly approved more or less any tactic available to secure the vote. Government workers were required to give ten percent of their salaries to the Republican party. They were granted election day off to ensure they had time to vote for Lincoln. In the run up to the election, the same civil servants had been used to send out Republican campaign literature.
There was the difficult question of whether the soldiers themselves should be allowed a ballot. Never had so many men – the only sex eligible to vote – been under arms. The America we know today was still under construction in the 1860s, the war being fought to determine if that was to comprise of one nation or two. Large swathes of the west were yet to be formed into states and admitted to the Union. The eleven seceded Confederate states were out of the election of their own volition, leaving only twenty-five states to participate. In those twenty-five there was a patchwork of fresh legislation pertaining to soldiers voting. Some states had enacted laws for them to vote through their regiments wherever they may be stationed or fighting. Other states allowed soldiers to vote only if they were in their home state. Some made no provision for them at all.
Where soldiers were allowed to vote, the suppression and intimidation wasn’t subtle at all. In some cases, expressing support for McClellan could get you put on punishment duties, court-martialled or even dismissed. In other regiments, where they had to return to their own state to vote, those putting a hand up to say they would vote Republican were given furloughs to go home, while Democrats were kept in camp. No vote for them. There was little secrecy in how you voted in the 19th century. Parties printed their own colour coded ballots; you would simply collect one from a party representative. Everyone on hand knew exactly how you were voting. And going against the prevailing sentiment for Lincoln would have been a gutsy move. There were court challenges on soldier voting right up to the Supreme Court. Is this starting to sound familiar?
These shenanigans didn’t really matter in the short term. Sherman’s victory ensured that Lincoln won by a landslide. The war was won within six months. Lincoln was a sound horse, but assassinated almost at the moment of victory. But in the longer term, as is so often the case with changes brought in during the civil war, the ability for soldiers to vote bore fruit in the future. Eventually all soldiers on duty, even those outside the re-established Union, were able to post an absentee ballot. That in turn led to civilians being able to do the same. In 2020, I’m privileged to know many Americans casting their votes from the UK. And mail in voting is happening in unprecedented numbers. The outcome of the war had a more fundamental impact of future elections though. Before the war only very few free blacks were allowed to vote, even in the north. In 1870, the 15th amendment prohibited states from denying a male citizen the right to vote based on ‘race, colour or previous condition of servitude.’ Women would have to wait a lot longer for the franchise.
We can look in on the past, but we can’t truly escape the present. We’re in another time of crisis and accelerated change. Not just America, but globally. What is happening right now in our world that will steer our children’s future?
Battle Town (short story)
I’ve been away. For the last two weeks or so I’ve been sightseeing in Nashville…in 1864. It’s been great. I visited the Tennessee State Capitol, completed just five years back. I took in a show, The Married Rake at the New Nashville Theatre and downed a few drinks afterwards. I tried some of the street food: buttered corncob, apple cake and deep-fried pickle. It’s a cold November though, and there are more soldiers on the streets than civilians. The barricades are guarded. The forts bristle with cannon. There’s no trust in this city.
It's a perk, I guess, at a time like this, to be able to research and write about another time and place, to live in the minds and experiences of characters I know well. I know a lot of authors and poets and this year it’s been a pretty universal experience that we have all struggled to write. Of course, that’s not a great hardship. Nurses have struggled to nurse; teachers have struggled to teach. But us writers are a sensitive lot. If the post drops through the letter box and sets my dog Duffy to barking while I’m in full flow, it can take me half an hour, a sweet coffee and several biscuits to rediscover my creative equilibrium. Poor me.
My focus on Nashville has helped. I’ve e-ghosted into the past of many civil war towns and cities. New York and Franklin in Whirligig; Atlanta and Pittsburgh in The Copper Road. The resources are amazing. The US Civil War has been so intensely studied by historians. I imagine it ranks close to the world wars in terms of the amount of material. For Nashville I was able to find an on-line civil war map of the city with dozens of points of interest. Military hospitals, prisons, the rail depot. All had a period picture attached and allowed me to jump off to more specific studies. It made it easier to imagine what Shire, my understated hero, would see from the train as he entered the city. I could understand where he might stay, how long it would take to walk from one place to another, what saloons he might frequent (surprisingly absent at this time). I set him and Tuck up in digs with a view of the covered rail bridge and it triggered an idea for the narrative.
There is also a wealth of written material, from the time and from every decade since, concerning the mood of the city. Loyalties were mixed, Union or Confederate, but heavily tilted to the latter. Those favouring the South did their best to smuggle medicines and materials to the distant Rebel army. The Union military police had spies everywhere. Nashville was not a comfortable place to be.
As a fiction writer I’m a parasite, benefiting from the historians who have set up these resources. I hope by adding in a slice of imagination I give something back, that I bring the city to life. That’s the goal. Of course, I need to physically go there at some point and I know from past experience that when I do, I’ll have a strange sense of déjà vu. I visited Franklin for the first time in 2013. It was eerily familiar as I drove through the town square where Shire and the 125th Ohio had fought their way into town a hundred and fifty years before. Odder still, on that same trip I visited the Chickamauga Battlefield outside Chattanooga. I’d read several heavyweight history books to understand the choreography of the battle. I’d already written the first draft and I was here for four days to gain some detail. It’s a big site; many square miles. I found my way to a spot where – from the safety of my study - I’d placed Shire at the peak of the battle to witness the Union rout. I’d seen no pictures or paintings. Just maps and words. And there it was. Just as I’d imagined it.
There was no one with me. I couldn’t have shared that feeling if there was. Being alone didn’t stop me smiling from ear to ear. I guess it will be a while before I can visit Nashville, but I know some other places that Shire and I can visit.
Battle Town (short story)
Tigers in Blue is under construction. It’s the third volume in the Shire’s Union trilogy. I’ve talked in the past about how writing a second novel compares to writing your first, so what’s it like to be setting sail again? Do I want to change my approach or adapt my style? What themes might I want to draw out for this final instalment? To what extent does what has gone before steer what I’m yet to write?
A lesson re-enforced when working on The Copper Road with my editor, Patrick Lobrutto, was to make sure that all of the characters have story arcs were complete and satisfying within that novel. In order to ensure that for Tigers in Blue, I’ve had to revisit their wants and needs, understand their motivations, both conscious and subconscious. Getting going has been a little like a family reunion, a wedding perhaps, where you may not have seen everyone for a while and need to catch up, remind yourself what they’ve been doing, what makes them tick. Perhaps they’ve found something, or someone, new to wind their clock. Of course, all my characters are several years into a brutal and murderous war. It’s unlikely their circumstances will be on the up. So maybe the wedding analogy isn’t a good one. More a like a wake where we see who’s still alive and kicking. For a trilogy you have the added challenge that there are story arcs that span the series and not just one book. The stuttering on-off, love vs friendship relationship between Shire and Clara being the prime example.
To get into their mindsets, I’ve done a lot of free writing. A campfire is always a good setting (readers will know I do love a good campfire scene). Just get a bunch of characters together, pick a big theme – love, home, death - give them all a shot or two of whiskey and let them talk it out. There’s no need to use the end product, but it’s surprising how much your characters will share if you get them nice and relaxed and use your god like author powers to switch off any reserve they might naturally have. First person is excellent for this, so writing a letter from a character perspective, or a diary entry. It’s a sneaky way to prize out their secrets.
Shire being my main character, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about him. His conscious and subconscious want is what it’s always been, namely Clara, but his experience of America and the grim war that he can’t escape have changed him. When he arrived in New York in Whirligig, he was almost twenty-two, naïve as to the wider world and almost laughable as a soldier in his early days. Two years later he would be considered a veteran in the Union Army. He’s fought many battles, combat and personal. He carries physical and psychological scars from the men he has seen killed or who died because of his decisions and actions. What would this do to his character? How much of that naïve Shire, the boy who left England, is left? Consciously or not, I think Shire wants some of that boy to survive. There’s a tension between trying to preserve some vestige of himself and the changes the war imposes on him. It's the same for his squad and for the characters outside of the armies. For those who survive, in a sense that survival is only partial; they will all be changed people after the war.
Ultimately, you have to leave the exercises and pen the novel. That remains the biggest adventure for a writer. I know the history and the setting. The time comes to let my characters back into the world and see how they fare. Wants and needs will clash. Not everyone can be there at the end.
Whirligig - Shire's Union Book I
The Copper Road - Shire's Union Book II
Battle Town (a short story)