The stop wasn’t on my itinerary, but I find my way here nonetheless. It’s four years since I was in America and eight years since I was at Chickamauga in the very north of Georgia, just across the Tennessee line from Chattanooga. I’ve finally made it out to check details for my third book, Tigers in Blue, the last in the Shire’s Union trilogy. The battle of Chickamauga is the epicenter of the first book, Whirligig. It’s where the 125th Ohio were christened the Tigers. This place matters to me, but I still wonder at being drawn back here.
My itinerary took me on a clockwise loop out of Nashville, on to Knoxville and then down to Decatur in Alabama, where the fastest route was via Chattanooga. Why not stretch the extra ten miles south and overnight close to the battlefield? It would be rude not to. I’d digitally booked my motel at short notice and gone bargain basement to keep down the trip cost. It was mostly basement. They had no knowledge of the booking, but there were a couple of rooms left. There was a comical series of visits to the desk to get in, get a cleaner room, understand the wi-fi code (3 trips) and finally to confirm would they like the fridge in my room left open to defrost, as I’d found it? It didn’t affect my mood. I dined at Sonic Burger and looked forward to walking the battlefield in the morning.
The weather had been in the nineties so I’m out early. There are more deer than dogwalkers out under the low sun. Aside from one 30mph state road and the smaller tour roads themselves, the battlefield is more of less as it was. Though there’s an argument to say it was even more unspoiled before 120,000 soldiers turned up to do battle here in September of 1863. The Widow Glenn, whose tiny house was commandeered as a headquarters and burned out during the fighting, would certainly have thought so.
Familiar with Chickamauga, I have no particular agenda and just enjoy the time. Like visiting an old friend. I find my way to the places that mattered to the 125th, but otherwise let my mind wander. It gets extra roving privileges in a place like this and I begin thinking on my connection to both here and to America. But for Covid I would have been here two years ago. Despite all the changes in the world, America seems to be having the same arguments as when I was last on this side of the pond (this based on my scientific sample of news outlets and talking to strangers in Nashville bars). It’s still Trump vs the establishment, race-relations more than ever, still the gun lobby verses the glaringly obvious (just a different school massacre). We have our own protracted issues in the UK, some very similar, and it makes me think how poor we are in our western societies of actually reaching a point of decision. The arguments have long since taken precedence over solutions. Exhibit A: Our clown minister was recently pictured raising a glass and toasting a room full of other drinkers on a date where he had confirmed to parliament that there was no illegal party during lockdown. After seeing the photo for the fiftieth time that day, I watched a news anchor proceed to ask the question, ‘Did the PM therefore lie to parliament?’ Well, yes. Of course he did. You just showed the proof! He’s bang to rights. Yet we’re now so trained to consider the other point of view that we’ll entertain it even if it’s plainly false and patently ludicrous. Whole nations are now confidently basing their propaganda on the fact that western media will listen and broadcast lies as often as you want to tell them. No decision, no move forward.
Maybe it’s why I find history is so attractive. We can debate on the finer points, but for the most part it’s a done deal and you can see the outcome. Chickamauga, in and of itself, settled little, except for the 37,000 men killed, wounded or missing. But put together with the thousands of other civil war engagements (mostly not on Chickamauga’s scale) two things that mattered were decided. The Union would be preserved, and state-sanctioned slavery would end. Given the war cost an estimated 750,000 lives, it makes you wonder if a little prevarication is such a bad thing. As a decision-making process, war is clearly flawed. But decades of arguments, compromises and elections failed to deal with the fundamental wrong of human bondage.
The historical resolution I enjoy while walking the gentle slopes, touching the cool stone of the monuments, finding a bird’s nest in one of the cannon, is all from a safe distance. During the long years of the war, people would have been as we are now. More so, in fact. Frustrated, frightened, angry, wanting the world to move on. When I leave Chickamauga for the three-hour drive down the Tennessee Valley to Decatur, I avoid the news channels and listen to sport instead, something else that usually ends in a result. Unless it’s cricket.
Disaster Emergency Committee – Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal
Shire’s Union, books 1 and 2.
It’s an unsettling time. The true meaning of that depends on where you live. For me, in England, every time I think about the news, my gut feels like it’s been dropped from the white cliffs of Dover. In Ukraine, it’s more literal. They are giving up their homes, losing their lives, facing bleak choices we’d believed consigned to the last century. It forces me to ask, why write about a war in America that started over one-hundred and sixty years ago? There is war now.
My workshop group met this week and my contribution was a chapter from Tigers in Blue. I’ve just completed the second draft of the final novel in the trilogy. When I sent them the chapter to review, Europe was still at peace. Two families have to think whether to stay or leave as Hood’s Confederate army crosses into Middle Tennessee and sweeps north. Their emotions are difficult, for each a mess of attachments to people, to place, to their own tangled pasts. Of course, as a writer you go hunting for those emotions, set scenes where they are most raw and exposed. What to leave and what to load in the wagon, a tearful farewell at the end of the drive, the sound of the first cannon in the distance. I’m attached to my characters, and in writing about those partings – some which I know to be fictionally final – I might get a little watery eyed. It’s all so safe from one-hundred and sixty years away.
I don’t have to imagine those scenes any more. I can watch them every day. Ukrainian men in Krakow, saying goodbye to their families and climbing onto an air-conditioned bus to go and fight. A bewildered mother with her children stepping down from a twenty-first century train in Berlin, nervously approaching a couple who hold up a sign: Room for three. Stay as long as you need. The forlorn wagons that clogged the river crossings in Tennessee are replaced by Hondas, Volkswagens, Skodas, but they’re still more composed of desperation than hope. In 1864 the Confederate government passed its third conscription act, for all men aged seventeen to fifty. The war was three years old by then. The Ukrainians asked men 18 to 60 to stay and fight within a matter of days from the Russian invasion.
Many people tried long and hard to avoid the American Civil War. They really did. It had been lining itself up for decades: conflicting vested interests, misaligned hopes and dreams, juxta opposed views of what constitutes a human being. In the end, those differences firmed up on either side of the young states’ borders and the fighting began. I’m not so sure the current war was as inevitable. It’s rooted in one sour man. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up over our incredulity that war could come to Europe in this century. That was a view based in hope. Where would we be if we planned based on despair? We should know evil when we see it though, whichever century it’s living in.
The workshop group were positive about the chapter, my friends citing how it chimed with the here and now. I’d rather it didn’t. I’d rather be left with the challenge of evoking the past, summoning it ghost-like into the reader’s mind to fade gently away when they close the cover and go about their peaceful lives. I’d rather be left to imagine.
Disaster Emergency Committee – Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal
Shire’s Union, books 1 and 2
In modern, popular culture, the word soul is used at least as often in its musical context as it is for considering an eternal life beyond the earthly realm. The idea of a soul, the precious core of our being has, in many places, fallen out of fashion. But I would argue that, regardless of your religious outlook and what you write about, taking the time to consider the wellbeing of your character’s soul can lend extra depth to your writing.
I’ve completed the first draft of the last book of my Shire’s Union Trilogy. As I approached the last few chapters it became increasingly emotional for me. Not only was I looking to complete story arcs for Tigers in Blue, I was also finishing character arcs that span all three books. I have spent eight years with some of these characters. Their outcomes matter to me a great deal. Not all of them have made it this far. Whether or not those remaining survive to the end of the story, I have to do my best to understand their state of mind this far into the war. For my real historical characters that means working with what can be gleaned from the historical record and putting myself in their well-worn shoes. For my fictional characters, it feels just as important to be true to the people – to the souls – I have created on the page.
Of course, to most people of the mid-19th century, looking after their soul would have been a daily preoccupation, as natural as we today might look to eat well or to exercise. Prayer and religious service, in preparation for the life to come, would have been part of their routine as it still is for many. Life was seen as a burden or a trial for what was to come, and here was a civil war – an extreme time. For the soldiers, death was a daily companion, whether from conflict or more often disease. Civilians could see their towns burned to the ground or find the aftermath of a battle left rotting on their doorstep. They lived in constant fear of a fateful letter arriving to tell them a husband or son was dead. It was a time of great displacement. Homes were lost, lives were inverted. Living such a precarious existence, my characters would have an overt and spoken concern for their souls. I intend to reflect that as I review my first draft and begin the enjoyable process of revising the novel.
Understanding how they would act and what they would say is part of what we do as authors, but beyond that, I believe that consciously considering the health of every soul can allow a writer to reach deeper into their characters. Whether you think of the soul as a concept or as a real thing, it allows you into the core of a character, to their essential self, to the centre of their shaped being from where they look out onto the world. If you can touch that as a writer, then you’re about as fully in their perspective as it’s possible to be.
All stories are about how people are changed by their life-experience. Without change, there is no story. My characters have been in a vicious, fratricidal, all-enveloping four-year war. None of them can remain unaltered. They have buried friends and family, lived through the chaos and bloodshed of battle, gained love and lost love. If they were the same people at the end of three books as they were at the start, then I’d be a poor writer. Shire, my main character, has steadily amassed a collection of physical scars. He has a tear shaped burn on his cheek gained from a riot in New York; a pink dot on his chest from a spent bullet at Missionary Ridge; a healed wound in his calf taken in the winter of 1864. But what are his scars on the inside? Today we might talk about mental health or PTSD. Back then they might have talked about a wounded soul. How much of the simple-hearted boy who left England is left when Shire lines up for his final battle? By this time, the soldiers were exhausted, both in body and spirit. Some were no longer prepared to fight, too damaged to face going home even if they could. Others were prepared to throw themselves recklessly into death rather than survive a lost war. People were shaded towards good and towards evil. None were unscarred. They had come to know both the savage and the better angels that live in men’s souls.
Shire’s Union, books 1 and 2.
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.
CHRISTMAS SALE! Whirligig and The Copper Road eBooks will be on sale via Amazon from December 4th through December 11th.
This article was originally published as a guest post entitled ‘A Civil War Christmas’ on Mary Anne Yarde’s Coffee Pot Book Club in 2017.