THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
After The Night Riders of Harpers Ferry, The Bravest Girl in Sharpsburg, and Retreat From Gettysburg were published, I did a lot of school visits. And many students asked me the same question: Why don’t you write a Civil War story about someone from Wisconsin? I’d lived in Wisconsin for quite a while by then, so I thought that was a great suggestion!
I thought about characters and plot ideas, and did a lot of research and reading. Nothing quite said “This is it,” though, until I found the memoir written by Elisha Stockwell, who was 15 years old when he ran away from his family farm near Alma, Wisconsin, and enlisted in the 14th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment. He wrote:
“We heard there was going to be a war meeting at our little log school house. I went to the meeting when they called for volunteers, and (I put my name down.) Father was there and objected to my going, so they scratched my name out, which humiliated me somewhat. My sister gave me a severe calling down…and called me a little snotty boy, which raised my anger. I told her, ‘Never mind, I’ll go and show you that I am not the little boy you think I am.’”
Elisha’s memoir wasn’t a dry account of tactics. Instead, he wrote about what it was like to be a boy in the Union Army.
Elisha made a perfect buddy for a fictional character. For main characters I created Jamie, a young soldier from Wisconsin, and his cousin Althea, who lives in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
That gave me the opportunity to narrate the Vicksburg campaign from two different perspectives: a civilian trapped in the city during the siege, and a Union soldier engaged in that siege. I like to write stories with no simple “good guys” and “bad guys,” and this story structure, with alternating points of view, let me help readers imagine the conflict from both sides.
I had never been to Vicksburg, so a trip south was first on the agenda.
On trips like this I pay attention to natural environment, too.
I also visited the battlefield and retraced what I could of the route the 14th Wisconsin boys traveled.
I was doing research, but also paying homage to those men who sacrificed so much, so many years ago.
Despite my best efforts, I know I can never truly imagine what it was like for the Vicksburg civilians who endured the horrific siege, just as I can’t ever really know what it was like for the farmboys, like Elisha Stockwell, who marched into unknown terrain and terrifying battle.
The title of my novel, Ghosts of Vicksburg, reflects the idea that many of the people who endured so much knew that their old lives—their old selves—were gone forever.