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Researching the Civil War

This post is originally from Oct 2015 while I was finishing up "Briley of Crooked Creek." All these years later, I am now writing the first Crooked Creek novel, Clara's full story, which, as it happens, will feature someone from Briley's past. Yes, it took this long to come up with the right story not only for Clara, but for the people of Crooked Creek. We had a lot of false starts until we all came together and clicked.

Here is "Researching the Civil War" with updates . . .

Set in post-Civil War Montana Territory, the Crooked Creek series is more complex than other series I've written. While they've each required a good deal of research, this series has stretched my love for researching to the brink . . . and I have enjoyed every minute.

I've always liked learning about the years leading up to, during, and after the Civil War. I have read novels, research books, watched plenty of movies, but none of them compare to what really happened. Of course, if we wrote all the gory, mundane, and unpleasant details of war into fiction, the reading would be a lot less relaxing. My books, after all, still fiction. The undertones of history are there to enhance, not overpower. However, that doesn't make the research any less important.

A few questions I asked myself as I wrote the short stories and prepared for the novel were:

1) What was the world's reaction to our Civil War? Did they pay attention or were they too involved in their own issues?

  • They cared a lot. England, France, and Germany were among those who sent observers to study and report back on the American Civil War. They did not understand the politics, worried over embargoes, and Britain even pressured both sides to negotiate an end sooner than later. The French waited for a way in to possibly regain their losses suffered during colonization of the Americas.

2) Did the men who fought and returned home suffer the same psychological problems many of our soldiers face today?

  • We know they did, only without access to resources that veterans have today, and even now, the challenges many of them face are lifelong. Some Civil War doctors often referred to it as "nostalgia," while other soldiers suffered from "acute mania" and "soldier's heart." What the soldiers suffered was extremely dark, their own version of Hell, and too many never recovered. The characters in Crooked Creek do not entirely escape these issues.

3) What did the men do when they weren't fighting? I've always been interested in reading personal accounts, though these aren't as easy to come by.

  • Since I first wrote this, I have come across letters and other personal accounts from Civil War soldiers, which for obvious reasons do not often detail their hardships. There was a lot of waiting. Lots and lots of waiting. A common theme among what I have read is extreme despair.

4) Did people in the Western Territories really pay attention to the war or were they too busy living their own lives?

  • The American Civil War touched lives across the continent. However, they were also busy with their own skirmishes, conquests, and simply trying to survive. Settlers still flocked west in hopes of finding gold and building a life on the frontier. In both the Crooked Creek and Whitcomb Springs series, we see how people continued to live, move forward, and hope for the return of their loved ones. Life at home didn't stop.

5) How many men and women in the Western Territories headed east to fight and help with the war efforts?

  • Oregon contributed more than 10,000 soldiers to the Union, and they were not alone. Both Union and Confederate armies fought throughout the territories during the length of the war, each one struggling to keep or claim territories for their side. The Western Territories are often forgotten when it comes to the Civil War, and while the Crooked Creek books take place after the war ended, the impact of those battles fought and allegiences won and lost rippled through the entire region for many years to come.

I could go on and one with my list of questions. Suffice to say, I haven't answered each one to my satisfaction yet. I find the research portion of historical writing to be one of the most fascinating. I believe that the more we know the time and the people, the better we'll know our own characters and their stories.

Is there a time period in history you read most about, or want to learn more about?


Book Recommendation

Eyewitness to the Civil War from National Geographic

Beautifully done and carefully written. It's not written like a standard textbook or historical tomb and therefore easier to absorb the information. Though not a scholar on the Civil War by any means, I do enjoy reading about it and this book does a wonderful job of telling the stories and the history. The photographs are beautiful, heart wrenching and captivating. I would recommend it for anyone's library and definitely for reading.


Top Image source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. "Preparation for Winter. Army of Cumberland going into Winter Quarters, Dec. 1863" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1863.


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