Posts Tagged ‘Civil War reenacting’

A Memory of Muskets – A Retrospective

July 12, 2018

Although setting books at different historic sites and museums is one of my favorite things about writing the Chloe Ellefson series, I do enjoy getting her home to Old World Wisconsin every now and again. The 7th mystery, A Memory of Muskets, does just that.  Like me, Chloe thinks it’s special:

I should come out on site every single day, Chloe thought wistfully. It was a magical place, one of the few living history museums in the country where it was possible to wander all day and still not see everything. She loved inhaling wood smoke, and the acrid tang of coal from the smith’s forge, and the faint floury scent of native grass seed heads baking in the sun. She loved looking out the window of a period kitchen to see garden and field, and prairie or woods beyond. She loved watching the seasons change—loved feeling them change, much as Wisconsin’s early European and Yankee settlers had. Her responsibilities kept her indoors and behind the scenes all too often.

The Schulz Farm at Old World Wisconsin, featured in A Memory of Muskets.

I decided to focus on the experience of Wisconsin’s German immigrants during the American Civil War. I’d already established that cop Roelke McKenna was partially of German descent, and this allowed me to create a plot thread that had personal impact for him—and for Chloe as well.

And how could I fail to include Milwaukee’s beloved German Fest?

Another day at work.

Civil War reenacting provided the perfect activity to link the historical topic to outdoor museum work. I had been active in the hobby myself, sometimes driving many hours to participate in events.  I’d also coordinated an annual reenactment at Old World Wisconsin when I was a curator there. And I met Mr. Ernst when he attended his first reenactment at Old World, so I’ll always have good memories of my reenacting days.

When I’m starting to make notes for a mystery, I look for any source of controversy that can be used in the plot. Reenacting can be a surprisingly contentious hobby. Individual units have different standards of authenticity, and different goals. (Ironically, some reenactors who look fantastic don’t always act that way.) The worst thing a reenactor can be called is “farb,” a term that implies an absolute disregard for authenticity.

Since the book is set largely at Old World Wisconsin, I had to involve Chloe’s boss Ralph Petty, a “misogynistic megalomaniac with a graduate degree in micromanagement.”  Ralph invites a unit with wretched standards to participate in an event at the site, and writing the over-the-top scene where that group does a battle reenactment was great fun.

The death of an unidentified reenactor also provided a nice opportunity for Chloe to get involved in the investigation. The detective is impressed with her analysis of the victim’s belongings:

“You’ve told us plenty,” Goresko assured her. “Anyone would think you’re an experienced profiler.”

“It’s what I do every day, actually. Artifacts are clues to the people who left them behind. Sometimes I have only the tiniest scrap of information, and have to dig deeper to get a sense of the person who made or used the item, and how they felt about it. Analyzing a reenactor’s belongings isn’t much different.”

SPOILER ALERT:  Plot points discussed below!

The books I most enjoy reading have plots that present personal challenges to the main characters, and I try to do the same in my own stories. Chloe’s inability to enter the old cabin on the Roelke farm causes stress:

Squaring her shoulders, she approached the cabin. She opened the door, stepped inside…and instantly felt what she’d felt before. Something dark vibrated in this musty space. The air felt heavy with unhappiness. Chloe felt an uneasy tremor in her chest. …This was a sweet cabin, and she was going to have to tell Roelke that one of his ancestors left a whole lot of bad juju inside.

The Gotten cabin, in the Kettle Moraine State Forest near Eagle, served as inspiration for the old Roelke cabin.

Unable to hide her feelings, Chloe takes a leap of faith and tells him. Roelke’s reaction was intended to suggest that he has some old family issues weighing on him—bad memories from his childhood. Chloe is tapping into something much older, a moral dilemma that shaped the lives of Rosina, Leopold, and Klaus in the historical plotline.

We so often read about immigrants enduring absolutely horrible voyages from Europe to the US. While researching this book I found a wonderful account from a German man who wrote of delightful evenings spent on deck. That inspired Rosina’s experience, with the voyage providing a happy respite between challenges in old world and new. One reader wondered if she and Leopold could have found a private moment on board ship. I’m pretty confident that they could.

When Rosina finds herself pregnant, she has no easy options. Did she make an unfair choice when she married Klaus, or did she do the best she could in a difficult situation? I thought I might hear from readers unhappy to discover that Roelke descended from Leopold, but no one mentioned it.

And speaking of moral dilemmas…Roelke meets Ralph Petty for the first time in A Memory of Muskets. In the end, he threatens to reveal Petty’s family secret if he doesn’t stop harassing  Chloe. Did you cheer Roelke on, or did you think he went too far?

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse of the complexities of hosting a Civil War reenactment at a living history museum.

Reenactors on the green at Old World Wisconsin, probably late 1980s. (Before the 2010 tornado took down the trees.)

You can explore relevant people, places, and the past on mwebpage for A Memory of Muskets. Resources include a Google map, images of key artifacts, a Discussion Guide, audio files, and links to lots of additional background material.

Why A Memory Of Muskets?

September 11, 2016

Readers often ask why I chose a particular historic site and theme to feature in a new Chloe Ellefson mystery. It has become tradition to share what I found special in each new book. Here are some of the elements found in the 7th mystery, A Memory of Muskets.


After four adventures away from home Chloe is back at her own site, Old World Wisconsin. I chose in particular to feature the Schulz Farm, which has been restored to its 1860 appearance. This is a fabulous collection of historic buildings, one of my favorite exhibits at Old World. The architecture reflects building styles in Pomerania.

Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin

The German Schulz Farm, 2016. If you look closely you’ll see gardeners repairing the woven garden fence, right by the house.

It was also one of the first buildings I ever worked, way back when. Flax processing is one of the major activities at the Schulz Farm. I was so excited to finally learn to weave!

Kathleen Ernst, Schulz Farm, Old World Wisconsin

That’s me weaving linen, 1982.

After delving into Chloe’s background in earlier books, it also felt like a good time to learn about her friend Roelke McKenna’s heritage. The book includes a plotline that shares the story of the first of Roelke’s German ancestors to immigrate to Wisconsin—just as the American Civil War begins.

Bishop & Son, Watertown, WI - KAE

Bishop & Son, Watertown, WI.  (Author’s collection)

Wisconsin has a strong German-American population, and I was pleased with the opportunity to share a bit about that cultural group. A key scene takes place at German Fest, Milwaukee’s huge annual celebration of all things German.

Welcome to German Fest

The book is set in 1983, the year  German-Americans celebrated the tricentennial of German immigration to America.

Version 2

The premise of A Memory of Muskets involves preparations for Old World’s first Civil War reenactment. This was fun because I once was responsible for coordinating Civil War events at the site. Activities often involved the German Schulz Farm. The 3rd Wisconsin Regiment and other top-notch groups presented thematic programs that reflected different aspects of the war on the Wisconsin homefront.

Civil War event, Old World Wisconsin

Reenactors marching through Old World Wisconsin’s Crossroads Village, sometime in the 1990s.

I was a reenactor myself for over a decade. It was a wonderful hobby. I learned a lot, had some amazing experiences, and made some special friends.


Interpreting refugee life in  Tennessee with Sue (L) and Yulanda (R), 1995.

I also met my husband, “Mr. Ernst,” through reenacting. So yes, I have lots of special memories!


We were wearing 1860s attire when we met in the Sanford House driveway at Old World. Two years later we revisited the spot before our period wedding at the site’s restored church. (I’m afraid I don’t recall the name of the tintype artist who took this image.)

In the coming weeks and months I’ll share more detailed behind-the-scenes photos and stories. In the meantime, I hope this serves to pique your interest in Chloe’s latest adventure! Happy reading.

Hearts of Stone

March 10, 2013


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!