Image from: The Historical Marker Database: Flemington Fairgrounds. Long story short: The Flemington Fairgrounds hosted Camp Fair Oaks during the Civil War era and is featured in my novella, The Enlistment. Today, neither the camp nor the Fairgrounds exist. In their place is a shopping center.
In the previous blog, I wrote about two short stories set in the 1850s. Today, we’re moving into the 1860s with the first novel I ever published, Saint Maggie, and The Enlistment, a novella that features Maggie’s daughter, Frankie.
Saint Maggie takes place over the years 1860-1861. It was based on a story I came upon while writing a research paper for a graduate school tutorial. The real story involved a young, charismatic Methodist preacher by the name of Jacob S. Harden. He preached powerful sermons and was good-looking to boot, all of which meant that he was Ground Zero for young women with romance in their eyes and designing mothers who hoped to land a pastor as a son-in-law. Harden fell prey to one of those mothers, and, thanks to a shotgun marriage, soon found himself and Louisa Dorland at the altar. The marriage, predictably, was unhappy. Frustrated and stressed out, Harden decided to resolve the situation. Unfortunately, the resolution was not something a pastor (or anyone) should do and led to a trial and a conviction. Curious? Read the research paper here.
When I began writing Saint Maggie, I decided to change a few things up. Rather than renting a room from a couple, the Rev. Jeremiah Madison was placed in Maggie’s boarding house because the Methodist church’s parsonage had burned down. (This was not unusual in the 1800s, fire was an ever-present danger for homes and towns.) I did not want Jeremiah to have a liaison with Maggie, and so I paired her up with Eli within the first chapter. Instead, Jeremiah becomes involved with Leah Beatty (Maggie’s niece and daughter of wealthy Samuel Beatty, from whom Maggie is estranged). When Leah becomes pregnant, the couple are forced into a marriage. Neither party is happy. Leah is put out because they must live in the boarding house rather than in a house that her father could provide. Jeremiah is frustrated because he has a loveless marriage and a complaining wife.
Unexpectedly, both Maggie and Leah become ill with what is diagnosed as “gastric fever.” But it proves to be something else – something malicious. Eventually, Jeremiah becomes the primary suspect, but Maggie and Eli keep feeling that there’s more to the story and began a search of the truth.
The book also touches on the characters’ activity in the Underground Railroad and the ever-present threat of being discovered and facing charges as set out by the Fugitive Slave Act. In addition, the clouds of war are gathering overhead. By the conclusion of Saint Maggie, war has broken out between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America.
Saint Maggie is historical fiction with a mystery within it, as well as a bit of romance.
I wrote the novella, The Enlistment, six years after Saint Maggie was published. I realized that there was a chunk of time between March of 1861, when Saint Maggie ends, and early 1863, when the follow-up novel, Walk by Faith, begins. I had done some reading about women in Civil War armies and, being interested in women’s history, wondered what would happen if Frankie tried to follow her beau Patrick into the army. (This was hinted at in a letter Patrick writes to Frankie in one of the other novels.) When I learned that a military camp (Camp Fair Oaks) was in Flemington, New Jersey and actively recruiting in August of 1862, and that it was possible for Frankie to get from Blaineton (in Warren County) to Flemington (in Hunterdon County) rather quickly by train, the story became possible. So, I went for it.
The plot begins when Patrick and Lydia’s husband Edgar doing their patriotic duty and leaving for Camp Fair Oaks to enlist in the New Jersey 15th Volunteers. Frankie resents the fact that women are supposed to stay home and tend the hearth, and impulsively decides to join Patrick to fight the Johnnies (aka, Confederate soldiers). So, she cuts her hair, puts on male clothing, runs away, and tries to enlist. The only one who knows what Frankie has done is Chloe Strong, young daughter of self-emancipated slave Matilda Strong, who now make their home at Maggie’s boarding house. When Frankie’s absence is noticed, Chloe spills the beans – and a panicked Maggie, accompanied by husband Eli, goes in search of her errant daughter.
At Camp Fair Oaks, Frankie learns that a) she looks too much like a young teenage boy and cannot join the army, and 2) the regiment has all the drummer boys they can use. Depressed, she wanders the camp in search of Patrick. What she finds is a separate camp for the regiment’s laundresses. After making friends with three of the women, she asks to join them. They accept her and it looks as if Frankie will be able to stay near Patrick.
But will Maggie and Eli be able to locate Frankie? And how will Frankie acclimate to life in the camp?
Part of the story’s fun for me was mapping out the ways that women served in the military during the Civil War. They were laundresses, cooks, and various “camp followers.” It also seems that around 400 women passed as men and fought on both sides of the conflict. I even wrote a woman soldier into the novella. Since clothing in that era was an indicator of gender, a woman wearing men’s clothing (even if the soldiers knew she was a woman) might very well be accepted as a man – especially if she could shoot and fight as well as a man.
The Enlistment is a “pre-spin off,” if that makes any sense. For many years I have planned to write a series of Frankie’s own. It’s taken a while, but at the end of A Balm in Gilead (to be published in 2021) our feisty, petite redhead will be moving away from Blaineton and go off to have adventures with Patrick… and it looks as if they’ll be out west. Change of venue! Whee! I’ve been to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and loved it. So, my love of the area and – God willing – another visit there will help me get the story rolling.
Next time let’s look at the two Civil War era full-length novels, Walk by Faith and A Time to Heal.
And don’t forget to be kind. Things are stressful enough without adding to it, right?
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder