Posts Tagged ‘The Bravest Girl in Sharpsburg’

The Bravest Girl In Sharpsburg

July 21, 2013

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

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I’m often asked where my interest in the American Civil War comes from. I grew up in Maryland, so 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.
Pry House

I wandered over the Antietam National Battlefield for years, always wondering what happened at the historic homes still standing. This is the Pry Farm. (Antietam National Battlefield photo)

I spent about ten years collecting stories about the civilians who lived in Western Maryland during the Civil War. All that research eventually led to my only nonfiction book, Too Afraid to Cry:  Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign. Several of the stories I discovered involved young people and would, I thought, make great novels. I was particularly fascinated by what I learned about Teresa Kretzer and Savilla Miller.

These two young women were both from big, established German-American families in Sharpsburg. They grew up on the same block in a small village.  And yet, when the war came, their politics and loyalties were different. The Kretzers supported the Union; the Millers, the Confederacy. And both Savilla and Teresa took risks while actively supporting their beliefs.

After I decided to fictionalize their stories, I dug into more detailed research. Teresa is remembered for hanging a huge American flag over Main Street, much to the consternation of her Secessionist neighbors. When the Southern army arrived she saved the flag from destruction by hiding it in the smokehouse. Several people  left accounts of Teresa and her flag, and Teresa was interviewed as well.

civilians at Kretzer home

Teresa described the long day she and many of her neighbors enduring in the Kretzer cellar during the Battle of Antietam. (Period sketch by Frank Schell)

Then the project came to a halt. I knew much less about Savilla. A young Maryland officer serving with Stonewall Jackson left a wonderful description of Savilla standing on her front steps while Confederate soldiers retreated through Sharpsburg, dispensing water amidst falling shells. But I had nothing else.

Then something…well, interesting happened. I made one final research trip to Western Maryland, without turning up anything new about the Miller family. My last stop was the Antietam National Battlefield—just to say hi, since I had long since worked through their archives. As I was getting ready to leave, I mentioned to one of the historians my frustration about the lack of more detailed information about Savilla Miller and her family.

“Well,” he said, “a collection of letters from the family was just donated to us. Want to see them?” As I recall now, someone had found the letters at a garage sale years earlier, and had always intended to donate them to the National Battlefield. The donation didn’t happen until right before I gave up on finding personal insights about the family.

The letters gave me shivers, particularly one that I think was written by Savilla. It talked about how the war had made old friends feel like enemies—the theme I wanted to explore in my novel.

Unfortunately, Savilla Miller’s house is no longer standing. It was torn down years ago, and replaced with a gas station. The postcard below provides only a hint of what the street looked like before the Miller home was demolished. The big stone house on the right is the Kretzer House. Beyond it is the large side yard, then a frame house…and beyond that, you can just see the edge of another stone house. That was the Miller house. These two families, with such differing points of view during the Civil War, lived very close to each other.

Sharpsburg street Kretzer

The Kretzer House is still standing, on Main Street in Sharpsburg.  It is a private home, but if you visit Sharpsburg, you can stand on the sidewalk and imagine Teresa hanging her flag from her bedroom window. The smokehouse where she hid the flag is visible from the sidewalk.

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The smokehouse is the small white building behind the fence.

Historical photographs provide a good sense of what Sharpsburg looked like during the Civil War years. It was a rural village, with rutted dirt roads; a place where many people kept cows and chickens in their back lots, and tended big gardens.

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If you want to learn more about what civilians experienced during the Battle of Antietam Creek—or The Battle of Sharpsburg, as the Confederates called it—try Too Afraid to Cry. And if you have the opportunity to visit the Antietam National Battlefield, be sure to stop in Sharpsburg, too. Take a walk down Main Street. Look for the still-visible signs of shell damage on some of the old homes. And try to imagine yourself back to the war years in this small border town.

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.