Archive for the ‘Retreat From Gettysburg’ Category

Retreat From Gettysburg

July 7, 2013


Retreat From Gettysburg CoverColor-Enhanced

The first two novels I had published were both set during the American Civil War. After they came out, a number of people suggested that I write a story about Gettysburg. It’s certainly one of the most famous battles of the Civil War. I was hesitant, though. Many wonderful novels had already been set against that battle.

Then a reader from Williamsport stopped at my book table during a signing in Sharpsburg. “You should learn more about what happened in Williamsport after the Battle of Gettysburg,” she said. “It would make a good novel.”

Readers often give me suggestions for future books. Usually I explain that I have more ideas of my own than I will ever have time to explore!

But this time, I was curious enough to do some research. I learned that after the battle, flood waters trapped the retreating Confederate Army in the little border Maryland town. The Civil War almost ended, right there.

Rear of the column LC

A Confederate column retreating from Gettysburg.  (Library of Congress)

I grew up in Maryland. How come I’d never heard about this? When I tried to imagine what the Williamsport civilians experienced during those tense days. I knew what my next book was going to explore.

Williamsport sits on the banks of the Potomac River, within sight of the Virginia shore.

LC Williamsport print

Union troops trying to defend a dam on the Potomac near Williamsport against attack by Confederate forces. (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January, 1862/Library of Congress.)

After the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, the defeated Confederates knew that if they could reach Virginia, they’d be safe on their own soil again.  When they arrived in Williamsport, however, there was no way to get across.

LC Signal officers Williamsport

A Union signal officer in the attic of a farm house near Williamsport, watching the Confederate Army approach, July, 1863. (Library of Congress)

Everyone knew the Northern army couldn’t be far behind.  Civilians lived in an agony of suspense, wondering whether another horrific battle might start in the streets of their town.

The Confederate Army overwhelmed the village. Some civilians were turned out of their homes. In other cases, soldiers took control of only part of the house, allowing the family to use other rooms.

The main character in Retreat From Gettysburg is Chigger O’Malley, a young boy of Irish descent living with his mother in Williamsport.  Chigger’s older brothers and father have all died while fighting for the Union. When the Confederate Army arrives, a wounded Southern soldier is placed in the O’Malley cabin. Chigger struggles to decide how he, as the only O’Malley man left, should respond.

The C & O Canal was, and remains, an important part of Williamsport’s identity.  The photograph below shows an amazing feat of engineering, an aqueduct.

NPS Conococheague Aqueduct

An aqueduct allows one body of water to pass over another—in this case, the Conococheague Creek, near Williamsport. (National Park Service)

By 1900, canal traffic was so heavy that a basin had been created to allow for loading and unloading.

LC Potomac at Williamsport

A canal boat is being loaded with cargo to the right.  The Potomac River is visible in the upper left.  (Library of Congress)

Williamsport is a great place to learn more about the C & O Canal National Historic Park Visitors’ Center, located in the old Cushwa Warehouse.  Within half a mile you can see Lock 44, a lockhouse, a re-watered stretch of the canal, and the Conococheague Aqueduct.

In Retreat From Gettysburg, Chigger had some hard choices to make.  If you have the chance to visit Williamsport, take a stroll and imagine yourself back in his world.  What would you have done?

Heading Home

January 20, 2012

(Special note:  Thank you, thank you!  As I write this, Old World Murder and The Heirloom Murders are ranked in the top 1% of the 8 million books that Amazons tracks, and for the last 3 weeks OWM has been in the top 50 on Amazon’s Best Selling Mysteries list.  The Kindle download of Old World Murder will be available for the special price of $1.99 through the end of January.)

The first novel I ever wrote, The Other Side of the Line, was set during the American Civil War. I was fifteen, growing up in the border state of Maryland, and already long fascinated by the difficult complexities citizens faced during those turbulent years. (That novel, thank goodness, was never published.)

That's me in the '70s, looking over Harpers Ferry from the lookout spot on Maryland Heights.

I spent summers in Frederick and Washington Counties. While attending and later working for a summer camp I canoed Antietam Creek, hiked to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and tramped over the rolling fields of Antietam National Battlefield. In the 1970s and early 1980s, most attention was focused on the military campaigns that raged through those places.  I found myself staring at the beautiful old homes that pre-dated the war and wondering, What happened to the people who lived there? What did civilians experience during the war?

The Piper Farm, Antietam National Battlefield

Those questions stayed with me when I moved to Wisconsin in 1982, and I started digging to find the answers. Twelve years later, I received a contract for Too Afraid To Cry:  Civilians in the Antietam Campaign.

This was a from-the-heart project.

The research done for that nonfiction book led to my first three published novels, The Night Riders of Harpers Ferry, The Bravest Girl in Sharpsburg, and Retreat From Gettysburg.

The war-time exploits of Theresa Kretzer, who lived in this private home in Sharpsburg, MD, provided inspiration for my second book, The Bravest Girl in Sharpsburg.

I later published two more Civil War novels but as my career developed, I moved in new directions.  My most recent historical mysteries for young readers, published by American Girl, have let me delve into a variety of eras and places. My Chloe Ellefson mysteries for adults focus—so far—on Wisconsin history. I do love plunging into new themes and settings!

Thirteen years have passed since Too Afraid to Cry was published. This September, however, marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. Next week I’ll be flying to Maryland to be interviewed for a documentary Maryland Public Television is producing to commemorate the event.  That’s prompted me to revisit the stories I found so compelling way back when.

The Pry House, Antietam National Battlefield

It’s also reminded me that the trajectory of my writing career can be traced back to those days when I wandered through Western Maryland, intrigued by the power of battlefield landscapes. The old houses that remain stand as silent tribute to what everyday people—those who didn’t choose to go to war, but instead had war descend on them—once endured.  I’m grateful to the MPT producers who’ve given me this opportunity to return home, in more ways than one.

Whitewater Canal State Historic Site

October 8, 2009

When I was a kid, I attended a summer camp perched on a steep rise above the C&O Canal near Sandy Hook, Maryland.  We hiked miles and miles along the shady towpath, finding the ruins of old lockhouses, and wood ducks, and all kinds of adventures along the way.  Later, during one very rainy spring break, my friend Ruth and I biked the entire length of the canal.  So my fondness for canals goes way back.

In fact, my first published book, The Night Riders of Harpers Ferry, is set along the C&O Canal.  During one long Wisconsin winter, the writing process took me back—at least in my imagination—to some of my favorite haunts.

Replica packet boat, Whitewater Canal State Historic Site, Indiana

Replica packet boat, Whitewater Canal State Historic Site, Indiana

All those memories came back last weekend, when I visited the Whitewater Canal State Historic Site in Metamora, Indiana.  Visitors to Metamora can take a short ride on a replica packet boat, the Ben Franklin III.   What struck me the most was the peaceful sensation of silently gliding along the waterway.   It wasn’t hard to imagine the lure of 19th-century canal life.

The Whitewater Canal was conceived in 1836, when Indiana legislators passed the Internal Improvements Act to help entice new white settlers and business to the area.  Unfortunately, the state of Indiana actually went bankrupt in the 1840s, and private investors had to take over the canal project.

In my own travels along canals and towpaths, I’ve been most fascinated by the lives of those who worked the boats and the locks.  The guide on the Ben Franklin III did talk of those people.  (I learned that fistfights sometimes broke out among rival boatmen wanting first passage through a particular lock.)

Today, Belgians do the work once done by mules.

Today, Belgians do the work once done by mules.

However, he spoke most about the men who built the canal.  Most of them were Irish laborers who had fled famine in Ireland, working for years to pay off their passage to America.  It took eleven years to build the canal (which then operated for only eleven years.)   Some men, perhaps those with big families, were still in debt when the canal was finished; they were then assigned to labor on one of the new railroads.  The guide made me wonder what life was like for these men and their families.  Poor, illiterate, more likely to rent shabby shacks than to own homes, they left little evidence of their personal lives behind.

I actually touched on this topic in another book, Retreat From Gettysburg, which is about an Irish-American boy in the canal town of Williamsport, Maryland.  That book is set during the Civil War, however, and explores different themes.   If I ever write another book set along a canal, I’ll dig a little deeper into the lives of those immigrants who gambled their future on new lives as laborers in America.  And the next time I walk or bike along a canal towpath, I’ll remember the men who sweated to provide me such a pleasant outing, all these years later.