19. November 2023 · Comments Off on Just As A Teaser… · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

the notes from the end of That Fateful Lightning, which is now available for pre-release order in Kindle.

Like the story told in my previous series of books, The Adelsverein Trilogy, a lot of the background to this story was new to me. I wasn’t raised in the South, and the ancestors of my one American-born grandparent was a fire-eating abolitionist. Frankly, all I knew about the chattel slavery in the South was what there was contained in generalist history books pertaining to the Civil War and articles in my mothers’ issues of American Heritage. There was nothing much in my store of knowledge about the nuts and bolts of actual practice, as it was in the time in which the first half of this book takes place, so a deep dive into contemporary accounts of travels in the South were required.

Richmond, Virginia, was the second-largest wholesale and retail market in the South: I have tried to describe what Minnie would have seen and experienced in that visit to Shockoe Bottom and create conversations that she would have had with Southerners like Pres Devereaux and Levi Chaffin, Susan Edmonds and with slaves like Hepzibah – all of whom would in real life in that period would have said something like the dialog which I wrote for them. There is a word for readers who will assume that such words are my own thoughts on the matter of chattel slavery, as they are very much counter to contemporary mores. That word is “idiot.” That term also extends to writers who bolt conventional contemporary attitudes onto characters set in another place and time. It is a disservice to readers who honestly want to explore other places, times, and situations, and a grim transgression against the art of building a story, in that it basically puts 21st century characters in unconvincing costumes.

Details are taken from contemporary accounts. Minnie would not have witnessed a slave auction first-hand; so far, all the accounts and pictures that I have found have only men attending the auctions.   For most Southerners, a slave was a luxury good. A first-rate young field hand was worth $1,500-2,000; something on the order of $25,000 to $30,000 in today’s dollars. A slave trained in a particular skill might command an even higher price.

The escape by rail travel of Miss Bonnie Beauchamp and her servant/husband was based on a similar occurrence; that of William and Ellen Craft from Macon, Georgia in 1848. Ellen Craft, who appeared sufficiently white to pass as such, dressed in male clothing, bandages, and spectacles, claiming that injuries prevented her from signing hotel registries and deafness as an excuse to not chat with fellow passengers. They posed a wealthy young planter and his manservant, and gained safety in Philadelphia, Boston and eventually England, after many close calls and fraught moments.

Boston was practically the epicenter of the American abolitionist movement, a movement which roiled the political world in the U.S. for more than two decades, finally culminating in open war. Whether it was slavery, or economics which served as the touchpaper to war is a matter still disputed by historians, but to the real-life contemporaries of Minne Vining, there was no question at all: slavery was the issue.

The existing pre-Civil War US Army was a small one as national armies of the times counted, with a correspondingly tiny medical corp. All of that went out the window when the fighting began. Congress authorized the creation of the Sanitary Commission in June, 1861. The Sanitary Commission served the Union Army much as the combined military medical commands, the Morale, Recreation and Welfare offices and the Red Cross serve our armed forces today.

Although the national leadership of the Commission at the upper levels were male, women made up an extraordinarily large number of mid-level workers, fund-raisers, administrators, nurses, and general support personnel. Being also proud of their contribution, many of those women contributed memoirs written after the war. Those accounts make for stirring reading and I have depended on several of them, especially a memoir left by Rebecca Pomroy to fill out Minnie’s experiences. The account of Minnie’s daily routine at the Columbia College Hospital was taken from Mrs. Pomroy’s memoir. There was a lot of overlap between abolitionists, temperance activists and women’s rights advocates during that period. Many of the best-known women volunteers were active on all three fronts, as well as being friends with each other. Minnie’s friend, Mary Ashton Livermore was one in real life. She also served as reporter and editor for a newspaper which her Universalist minister husband owned.

As related, Mary Jane Bickerdyke was an early volunteer nurse in the western theater. Perhaps we do not realize today how much of a woman’s domestic duties then involved caring for the sick and invalid, before sanitation, sterile surgery, and vaccination for common childhood diseases. Both Mary Bickerdyke and Rebecca Pomroy had cared for invalid husbands for years; they and other volunteer nurses had already done a lot of practical nursing, without the benefit of formal medical training. General Grant endorsed her presence and actions as Union forces advanced down the Mississippi. It was the peppery-tempered General Sherman who responded one of his subordinates complaining about her, demanding that he do something about that ‘damned bossy woman’ by saying, “I can’t – she ranks me.” Mary Bickerdyke was, for all intents and purposes, the head of the Western Army’s medical command. She participated in Grand Review of the Armies in Washington, DC, at General Sherman’s express request.

Mary Jane Safford, the nurse at the Cairo Army hospital when Mrs. Bickerdyke and Minnie arrived, was a real person also – who later studied medicine herself and became a one of the very first female gynecologists to practice in the United States, and a professor of gynecology at the Boston University School of Medicine.

Elizabeth Van Lew of Richmond, Virginia, was indeed a spy for the Union all throughout the war, and upon defeat of the Confederacy, was the first in Richmond to hang the US flag from her house. It has been claimed that one member of her spy ring, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a former slave freed by her family, was placed in the household of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Her spying and philanthropic activities eventually drained her family fortune, and in later life she was supported by the families of former POWs held in Libby Prison during the war.

The character of Colonel Levi Chaffin is based on the experience of General George Henry Thomas, known as “The Rock of Chickamauga” – born in Virginia to a plantation-owning, slave-holding family, but married to a woman from upstate New York. Like Grant and Sherman, he was a graduate of West Point and a veteran of the Mexican War … and he broke with his family in remaining with the Union. His family never forgave him for that disloyalty to his native state. They burned all of his letters, never mentioned his name again, and did not attend his funeral when he died prematurely of a stroke, barely five years after the end of the war. A modest and competent man, he may have been the only Civil War general on either side who never wrote a post-war memoir and burned his private papers.

Finally – this account of the experiences of a 19th century American woman who was not all that unusual as an activist and campaigner for all kinds of causes – fills in or provides a background to certain stories and characters in my other historical novels. Minnie’s deceased younger brother Horace, husband to her dear friend Annabelle, is the bigamous husband of Margaret Becker, of Daughter of Texas and Deep In the Heart. Unknown to Minnie, the unconscious Confederate soldier in her field hospital in the final chapter is Horace Vining’s youngest son, Peter Vining. In the opening chapter of Adelsverein: The Harvesting, Peter Vining returns alone and on foot to his family home in Texas, after the defeat of the Confederacy, and tries to figure out a new life for himself. An octogenarian Minnie herself appears in the first chapters of Sunset and Steel Rails, belatedly providing her grandniece, Sophie Brewer, with the means of escaping Boston and the machinations of her lamentably sociopathic brother. And finally, Minnie’s experiences after the battle at Shiloh are briefly referred to in My Dear Cousin, with Sophie Brewer’s granddaughter Vennie Stoneman as an Army nurse in WWII.

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