Hearts of Stone


Hearts of Stone by Kathleen Ernst

I’m often asked where my interest in the American Civil War comes from. Growing up in Maryland, I had lots of opportunities to visit Civil War battlefields.  Since Maryland was a border state, I also had plenty of opportunities to consider the experiences of people on both sides of the conflict. And in addition to learning about the soldiers’ lives, I always tried to imagine what it was like for civilians who found themselves in the midst of fighting.

After moving to Wisconsin, I got a job at a large living history site called Old World Wisconsin. For the first two years that I worked there I spent every day in period clothing, going about daily chores from spring through fall.

Author Kathleen Ernst, Old World Wisconsin, 1982

I got a lot of hands-on practice with cooking, craftwork, gardening, livestock, etc., etc. Later, I did a lot of the research that helped develop new programming at the historic site. Some of the details in my books come from those experiences.

Three of the farms at Old World Wisconsin  have been restored to the 1860s.  Working at those helped me gain insight into women’s work during the Civil War years.

I'm spinning flax at the 1860 Schulz House in the German area, back in 1983.

I’m spinning flax at the 1860 Schulz House in the German area, back in 1983.

During that time I also got involved in Civil War reenacting. Most visitors come to Civil War reenactments thinking only about soldiers and battles.


These men honor soldiers who fought in the Civil War by portraying them at special events and reenactments.

Civilian reenactors in the units I belonged to tried to add an additional layer by portraying the experiences of women, children, and non-military men at events around the country.

I usually portrayed rural working-class women.


This is my husband and me in a makeshift campsite for refugees at a Civil War event at the Wade House Historic Site.  This photo dates to the 1990s.

Civilian refugee camp reenactment.

Camping  with my friends Sue and Yulanda, sometime in the 1990s, at another event portraying people displaced by the war.

Here I portrayed a rural woman at Pickets Mill Battlefield Historic Site, Georgia.  (Don't worry, the pipe was just for show.)

Here I am at Pickets Mill Battlefield Historic Site, Georgia. (Don’t worry, the pipe was just for show.)

In October, 1994, I participated in a refugee camp scenario planned as part of a huge reenactment held in Spring Hill, Tennessee.  The day we set up camp was marked by torrential rain, and soon the entire area was a sea of mud.  I slept in a small tent that evening, but I remember well the women who managed to spend the night under makeshift shelters formed from quilts and gum blankets—just as families left homeless during the Civil War had to do.

We portrayed refugees at an army-run camp.

Fortunately it didn’t rain all weekend!

The event organizers had worked hard to prepare a full weekend for the participants.  We were busy with food preparation and cleanup, inspections from the provost guard, and interacting with other reenactors and event visitors.

Meghan and Stephanie, two of my fellow refugees.

Before that event was over, I knew I wanted to write a novel about children who end up as refugees during the Civil War.  Hearts of Stone began taking shape in my mind.

My main character, Hannah, is a young teen forced to leave home her three younger siblings when the war tears her community apart.  With both parents dead, she tries desperately to keep her little family together.  She takes the young ones to Nashville, believing that city provided their best hope, but her heart aches to be back home on Cumberland Mountain in Tennessee’s eastern mountains.

The children participating in the scenario at Spring Hill were adorable, and what an experience for them!  But watching them made me feel sad as I thought about all the real children who became homeless during the Civil War.


These girls helped me imagine Hannah’s little sisters, Mary and Maude.

When the event was over, I needed to do a lot more research.  So, I went back to Tennessee.  I visited libraries.  I read letters and diaries and old newspapers.  I went hiking in the mountains, and I drove the route Hannah and the children took to Nashville (at least as closely as I could, considering how much has changed since the 1860s.)

I looked at photographs and artwork, too.

Civil War refugees

This photo of real Civil War refugees is from the National Archives.

This newspaper illustration portrays a refugee camp.

This period newspaper illustration shows refugees camping in the woods.

It took me about ten years to research, write, revise (many times!) and find a publisher for Hearts of Stone.  I believed in the story, and was delighted when Dutton published the book.  I hope it touches your heart.

PS:  Once published, this book had a wonderful reception!  Among other honors, Hearts of Stone was named an Editors’ Choice Selection of the Historical Novels Review.


The Society of Midland Authors’ Children’s Literature Award winner!

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30 Responses to “Hearts of Stone”

  1. Labyrinth-Living Says:

    I would LOVE a copy of this book! Did you know Norskedalen has Civil War reenactment s in October every year?

  2. Cathy Weber Says:

    This book sounds great. I would love to in a copy. Thank you

  3. Cathy Koester Says:

    I’d love to read more of your books.

  4. Pamela Says:

    I have been involved with refugee immigrants and their issues in the Midwest for many years and your comments on our own social, familial, disruptions during the civil war is particularly poignant. The impact of civil war is something no one should ever forget. Stories do double duty: they help us remember and honor our past and give us cautionary tales for future behavior.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Pam, your comment really touched me. I’d love to think that in some small way reading Hearts of Stone might help people imagine not just the plight of refugees 150 years ago, but the plight of all the innocents caught up in wars and political disruption today. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Susan Apps Bodilly Says:

    I would love a copy of this book!I haven’t read it yet,but am so intrigued and interested after reading this wonderful blog about how you did your research for it. Thank you for all of the great photos!

  6. suekey12 Says:

    I don’t think I’d ever thought of refugees of the Civil War before reading this. Thank you for opening my mind to the idea. I’d love to read your book and learn even more.

  7. Sarah Sue Bird Says:

    I love reading about the Civil War and going to re-enactment sites. It would be so much fun to win this book. I wish I could be a re-enactor!

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Sarah – never say never! Perhaps you’ll find yourself in a position to get involved in reenacting one day. You don’t have to camp out–I’m glad I did it when I could, but my camping days are pretty much behind me. Anyway, thanks for commenting.

  8. Ruth Nelson-Lau Says:

    As always, any of your books would be a welcome addition to our library.

  9. Kathleen White Says:

    It sounds very interesting! The Civil War, being such a unique period of time in our history, has its own fascination and this book shows another aspect of it.

  10. Jane Kirkpatrick Says:

    What I’m amazed about is that you haven’t aged since 1990! How did you do that? Hearts of Stones is a new book of yours for me…I’m in love with Chole Ellefson but willing to fall in love with Hannah.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Oh my, you’re too kind, Jane! I feel as if I’ve aged quite a bit–as I said earlier, I don’t sleep out at reenactment events any more. However, my interests and passions haven’t changed, which is a rather lovely thing to know as time goes by. Every new project brings a teensy bit more understanding, both in terms of content and in craft.

  11. Mary Beth Steven Says:

    I love these pictures! It makes sense that your characters are so believably true to the era of the Civil War. It reminds me of the weekend I spent reenacting as an infantryman during Boscobel’s Civil War Days a bunch of years back. It was such a valuable experience as far as impacting my effectiveness to teach about the Civil War.

  12. Liz V. Says:

    I’d love to read this book and share it with my family.

    Read you’ll be in Annapolis soon!

  13. Sue Says:

    Hearts of Stone just went on my to-read list! I have become fascinated about the lives of women and children during those War years since researching a Pittsburgh Arsenal explosion that killed 78 civilians, mostly women workers (wrote about that on my own blog and later developed a lecture on it for our local History Ctr). This sounds fascinating, and of course one of your strengths is highlighting the stories of women who’d otherwise slips through the cracks in history).

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hi Sue – we obviously share a lot of interests! I love your term–highlighting the stories of women who’d otherwise slip through the cracks in history. I wasn’t familiar with the story of the Pittsburgh Arsenal explosion. I’m so glad you’ve brought that to light!

  14. Debby Rabe Says:

    Kathleen, I often think of the challenges faced by women during the early times of our history. I have emence admiration for the determination and resourcefulness they had. I can say with certain conviction that I would not be up for the challenge. I admire your research into putting the story together. Your writing is inspiring. Your books are on my, soon to read list. Your storytelling is a rare talent. Please keep writing. Thanks for all you do!

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Debby, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I’m with you – it’s hard to imagine that I’d have the strength to face so many challenges. I find that so many of the stories I uncover about such women don’t just inspire stories; they inspire me as well.

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