How the United States were divided at the time of the Civil War.
Image from http://www.wtv-zone.com/civilwar/map.html
The American Civil War functions as another character in the Saint Maggie series. Or, perhaps more correctly, as a nightmare that snaps at the characters’ heels or is lurking darkly in the background.
Maggie and the others live in New Jersey, a Northern state and part of the United States of America. The vast majority of the battles during the Civil War took place in the Confederate States of America (see map above). The exceptions to this were Union states along the border between the two nations: Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland. Pennsylvania, which was not on a border state, was close enough to Maryland to be a conduit to the northern states for CSA forces. And that was part of the rationale for the Battle of Gettysburg. The CSA army was trying to drive a wedge into the Union to separate its capital of Washington, D.C. from the rest of the North.
Maggie and her family live in New Jersey, a state to Pennsylvania’s east. Those who know the history of the Civil War know that New Jersey never suffered an attack or a battle during that era, although its people got very nervous when they learned about the Battle of Gettysburg.
Since my characters live in the midst of the Civil War era, 1860-1865, they have no idea what will happen next. It is part of the environment in the series’ books as well as in the novellas and short stories of the Maggiverse. (Hey, if fantasy and science fiction authors can adapt the term “universe” to describe their stories’ environment, then I can apply the term to historical fiction.)
Saint Maggie is set primarily during the pre-war period of 1860 – early 1861. Although the story’s plot line deals with another issue, the threat of war is always lurking in the background. The characters go about their daily lives, but try as they might, the real possibility that their nation might be divided, and that war might be declared is always there. This plays out both in Maggie’s journal entries, conversations among the characters, and articles in The Gazette, Eli’s penny-weekly newspaper. An early example is Maggie’s note in her journal entry of 13 April 1860:
“Talk of secession and war is steadily increasing. The men throw the idea about with a strange and serious eagerness that is most unsettling. It is as if they cannot wait to get a rifle in their hands and commence killing one another.” (Saint Maggie, p. 8.)
In the last chapter of the book, war is declared, and its undeniable threat now sits side by side with a trial involving an unimaginable act. That parallel was not a conscious creation of mine. It actually emerged as I tried to fit Maggie’s life into the larger context of her world.
Time passes and the war becomes an increasing threat to Maggie and her family. In Walk by Faith, Eli and Carson are away and covering the war by following the New Jersey 15th Volunteer Regiment. Edgar Lape (Lydia’s husband) and Patrick McCoy (Frankie’s beau) have enlisted and are part of the NJ 15th. That leaves Maggie, Lydia, Frankie, Emily, Grandpa O’Reilly, Nate, and newcomers Matilda and Chloe Strong in the boarding house. Rumors about the boarding house’s involvement in the Underground Railroad have always swirled through Blaineton. But by 1863, these tensions come to a head when arsonists burn both the rooming house and Eli’s print shop. Although Maggie’s brother takes the family in, the troublemakers follow them and continue their threat.
Eli has returned to New Jersey, and desperate to keep everyone safe, he makes the decision to move them to his old family home in Gettysburg. Of course, he has no way of knowing that the war will find his loved ones there and put them smack dab in the middle of a major battle. As for Eli, he returns to his work as a war correspondent and sees plenty of action, too – including a retreat in Virginia in which he nearly is blown up.
Throughout Walk by Faith, the war now becomes a destructive force, a beast that consumes people, property, and the landscape. This is woven into the story, as well as into Maggie’s journal entries and Eli’s reports, in which he increasingly focuses on the people involved in the battles rather than on the battles themselves. No one escapes the touch of the war in this book. And these experiences leave the family with emotional scars that haunt them throughout the succeeding novels.
In the excerpt below, Eli struggles with a lack of faith brought on by his experiences in the war.
On Monday, I’ll look at the war’s presence in A Time to Heal and Seeing the Elephant.
CC0 image from Pxhere.com.
I am maintaining a balancing act this week – the project with Stephanie M. Hopkins, editing Dan Bush’s script/novel, finishing the first draft of my own work-in-progress, and – oh, yeah – the church! I have my usual duties as educator and communications director. And there’s also a room that we no longer use as a classroom that needs to get tidied up. So I’m a little short on time.
So today I’m giving you a peek at the The Good Community, the fifth novel in the Saint Maggie series. Remember, this is only a first draft so it is not exactly polished yet!
This scene takes place after Maggie and Emily have started a school for the children of color who live on Water Street. There is no school for them, the school board has proclaimed that it is not economical to provide a teacher and supplies for the small number of black children, and the town will not integrate its common school. In New Jersey at that time, some schools were integrated, and some were not.
Naturally, the Greybeal School of Practical Studies, the private school founded by Maggie, Emily and friends causes a bit of controversy. Hey, it’s a Saint Maggie story, controversy happens.
The scene revolves around a group of older boys who think it’s a good idea to harass the Water Street children on their way to school. What they don’t anticipate is the reaction of the man who is driving their wagon: Grandpa O’Reilly.
I usually use Scribd to put up long pieces of text from my work - but it is not working correctly at the moment - so I'm just cutting and pasting. Not as "professional" looking, but there you are. Technology is great. When it works.
On Tuesday morning, Grandpa took the wagon down to Water Street as usual to pick up the children. He no longer needed to shout to get them to come out of their houses. Rather, they ran willingly to the wagon and clambered aboard. The old man grinned at his passengers.
“And how are you this fine morning?”
A chorus of “We’re well, thank you,” greeted him.
Pleased, Grandpa O’Reilly shook the reins and Romeo began to the journey to Greybeal House.
They were traveling down Bell Avenue when a group of older boys leapt out of the woods at the side of the road and began to throw rotten eggs at the wagon. Romeo started and Grandpa struggled to control the horse as the children behind him shrieked.
“Go back to where you belong!” one boy shouted.
Another began calling the children names.
Yet another started beating on the wagon with a large branch he obviously had found in the woods.
“Dammit!” Grandpa shouted at the horse. “Whoa, Romeo! Whoa!”
The horse complied, if only for a moment, giving the old man the opportunity to reach under the seat. An egg splatted against his arm. “Dammit!”
“Go home! Go back to Ireland!”
“I am home, ya little git!” His fingers finally grasped the item he was seeking
One of the boys shook a badly made noose at them. “How about a taste of this?”
The students screamed.
Grandpa stood up, shouting, “Scare little children, will you? It’s time you had a scare of your own!” He brandished the thing he was holding in the air. It was a pistol.
“He’s got a gun! Run! He’s gonna kill us!”
Grandpa discharged the weapon into the air.
Screaming in panic, the boys raced back into the woods.
Flopping back onto the driver’s seat, Grandpa shook the reins. “Giddyap, Romeo! Giddyap!”
The horse took off with the children holding on to the wagon and each other for dear life.
When they arrived at Greybeal house, they were making such a racket that Maggie and the other women dashed into the yard. The noise of crying and screaming also brought Nate running from his workshop.
“Good heavens!” Maggie lifted a sobbing Magnolia Baldwin from the wagon. Then she got a good whiff of the child’s clothing. She wrinkled her nose. “Oh, my! What is that? Rotten eggs?”
Grandpa climbed gingerly down from the wagon. “Aye. A group of four young toughs attacked us on Bell Avenue near just before it meets Oak Street. Came outta the woods, they did. Throwing all manner of nasty things. I had to fire me pistol to chase ‘em off.”
“Grandpa! You didn’t hurt anyone…”
“No, daughter. I’d never do such a thing unless one of ‘em grabbed a child. I just wanted to scare ‘em. Nothing more.”
Nate was helping the women get the children off the wagon. “They have no right to attack children.”
“None whatsoever,” the old man agreed. “And you should have heard the language they used. Poor little things. Scared the life out of them.”
“We’ll clean them up,” Rosa said.
As she, Emily, Beth Benny, and Abigail began ushering them inside, Maggie heaved a weary sigh. “This was the last thing I wanted.”
“But it should have been the first thing you expected.” Nate took Romeo’s reins and turned to Grandpa. “Go on inside and wash up, O’Reilly. I’ll take care of all this.”
The old man nodded his thanks and disappeared inside.
Maggie followed Nate as he led the horse and wagon to the barn.
“What should we do?”
“I don’t know.” Nate began to unhitch Romeo from the wagon. “This poor fella’s still scared. Look at his eyes.”
“It terrified everyone.” She patted the horse’s neck. “I’ll bring you a nice lump of sugar later, Romeo.”
Nate led the animal into the barn to remove his harness and bridle and wipe him down. “We need to let Eli know trouble’s coming.”
It was so quiet and peaceful in the barn. Maggie leaned wearily against the stall. “Oh, Nate… Why does trouble always come to us?”
Nate suddenly began to chuckle. “Are you serious, Maggie? Time and again you, I, and the rest of this family walk around thinking we’re just like everybody else when we all know dang well that we’re not.”
She cast her eyes down at the barn’s dirt floor. “I realize we fly in the face of convention.” She lifted her head to meet her friend’s eyes. “But I never cease to be bruised by the hate. Why are people like that?”
“I don’t know. I think deep inside we’re all alike. Men and women can be as loving as Christ one moment and mean as the devil the next. Maybe people just don’t like to be shaken out of the things they always thought were true.”
“Does that apply to us, too?” Hands on hips, Maggie began to pace back and forth in front of Romeo’s stall. “Maybe we’re wrong, Nate. Maybe people are supposed to be divided and embattled forever. Maybe I should expect everyone to be ensnared in anger, resentment, and hate.”
Nate left Romeo and walked to her side. “Now, Maggie, you know what’s right and what’s wrong.”
“Yes, I do.” She looked up. “Love is right. Jesus taught it. Jesus lived it.”
“And you know what he said about the Kingdom of God.”
She smiled faintly. “It’s among us when we love. It’s as close as our next breath.”
“That’s right. Give me your hand.”
She held it out and Nate grasped it and put his other hand over hers. “We’re doing this together, as sister and brother. But, Maggie, this is what it’s like for my people. We take a step or two forward and get pushed back eight. A day doesn’t go by that we don’t walk into pain, disappointment, or fear.” He smiled. “But at the end of our walk… at the end of that walk we know we’ll find the hope and warm grace of God… and with it, equality and freedom.”
Maggie called up a smile. “Thank you.”
Hope you enjoyed it the sneak preview.
Philip H. Smith and his wife, Mary A, Miller. Their children (left to right): Wesley (boys and girls wore dresses as young children in those days), Luther, Mary (Maidie), Ada, and Minnie. From my ancestry.com account. I have some personal photos of Mary as a great-grandmother, but need to dig them out.
Friend Stephanie M. Hopkins and I are working on a new project. I’m usually a solo writer, except when co-working with my partner, Dan Bush. This time around, though, I’m creating with a female friend. I can’t go into many details at the moment, but I can tell you that the story is set in Civil War America (Stephanie and I both have an interest in the period) and will involve two girls who are cousins. My job is to create a character to interact with her character.
That means first item on the table for us is to create central characters. In the past, I have done this in multiple ways. Sometimes I imagine that the character looks like an actor or even like a person I know. Seeing and hearing the character in my mind helps with development and interaction with the other characters. Other times, though, I might have an idea of how I want the character to be. I ask myself, “What qualities, foibles, lifestyle, and relationships do I want this character have?”
For this story, however, I recalled that I have an ancestor who fought in the Civil War. So, off I went to ancestry.com, where I discovered that his daughter was one of my great-grandmothers on my father’s side. And that I knew her!
Her name was Mary E. Smith Lape Frost. I knew her as “Nana.” Nana lived with my family for a short while when I was no older than 6 or 7 years of age. My memory of Nana is that she was a small, skinny old lady with white hair and wire-rimmed glasses. My clearest memory of her was sitting on her lap at her desk in her bedroom and writing a letter to Captain Kangaroo. (Look it up if you haven’t experienced children’s TV in the 1950s.) I scribbled on the piece of paper before me and then sat back against her and said, “What did I just write, Nana?” Nana very wisely did not say, “I load of gibberish, dear. You don’t know how to write yet.” Instead, she said, “What do you think it says?” I remember being completely flummoxed that she couldn’t understand my scrawls. The truth is that all writing looked like nonsense to me at that age. I always needed an adult to interpret everything in print or handwriting for me. And so I wondered, what was Nana’s problem that she couldn’t interpret my letter of appreciation to Captain Kangaroo?
When my great-grandmother died in 1961, my mother took me to see her body at the funeral parlor. Mom very gently explained to me that because I was nine years old, I was old enough to see what someone looked like when they were dead. So I went, I saw, and I thought that she really didn’t look much like the Nana I knew. (P.S. there was no traumatic scene in which I was forced to kiss a dead relative goodbye. My mom knew way better than to do that with her skittish first-born child.)
That was part of the inspiration. The other part involves my great-grandmother Mary’s father, Philip Henry Smith, who enlisted in the Union army as a volunteer on 3 February 1863. The records say was a private in the New York 6th Cavalry, Company F. For a while I thought that perhaps he was one of those dashing fellows riding along with a sword in one hand and slashing the heck out of the enemy (erghh… gross). But I was wrong and here is why: before the war he was a blacksmith. Most likely he forged the shoes for the horses and replaced broken equipment on the wagons and other equipment. He also could have been a farrier, or someone who specializes in shoeing and carrying for the horses’ hooves.
Given that information, questions began to arise. What would have happened in a town when the blacksmith left to enlist in the army? In real life, there appears to have been two blacksmiths in the town where my family lived. But what if there had only been one blacksmith? Who would have stepped up during his absence? And who would have provided for his family?
And just like that I had a setting and questions to develop my fictional character and her family. I have decided that the character will have my Nana’s first name, Mary, and will be called by what may have been Nana’s nickname, Maidie. However, my great-grandmother was born in 1869 and I need my character to be eighteen at the start of the story, so I have given the fictional Mary an earlier birth date of 1842. I don’t have a last name for her yet, but that is coming.
But all that brings up something central to writing fiction: it is all about asking “what if?” Or at least that is the starting point for an author. In my case with this project, the question has taken me to my own family for inspiration.
Have a good Monday (if you can)! I’ll be back on Wednesday.
Also, I encourage you to visit Stephanie M. Hopkins over at her blog, Layered Pages: https://layeredpages.com/
Back in 2011, when I had just published Saint Maggie, Dan and I paid a visit to Belvidere, the town where the Rev. Jacob Harden's trial occurred and the prototype for the fictional town of Blaineton. We took some photos of some of the old houses and buildings there. This one reminds me a bit of Maggie's boarding house in that it has a "new wing" behind it. Since I don't have Photoshop, the phone wires and tops of the cars parked in front remain!
The Underground Railroad does not figure as a central part of the plot in the first three books, and yet it is very much part of the story of Maggie Blaine Smith and her diverse family.
As mentioned in earlier blogs, my characters have a station on the UGRR in the (fictional) town of Blaineton, New Jersey. Nate & Emily Johnson, who belong to Blaineton’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, are conductors or station agents. They live and work with Maggie Blaine, who owns a boarding house on the town square. Before the first novel SAINT MAGGIE begins, the Johnsons have already invited Maggie and Eli Smith (the abolitionist, lapsed Quaker editor of the penny weekly Gazette – and later Maggie’s husband) to join them in their efforts. The hiding place is a small tunnel between Maggie’s cellar and the Gazette cellar.
I need to say that actual tunnels were not common at all in the historical Underground Railroad. Most hiding places were not that extreme. They were haylofts, closets, spring houses, or “hidey-holes” in attics and behind closets. I was ignorant of this reality when I started SAINT MAGGIE, but since the tunnel has to do with other aspects of the plot, it still remains. However, I might edit the explanation of its existence to describe it as a winter-time passage and storage area between the outbuilding (where Eli lives) and the main house.
And yet, the Underground Railroad station on Maggie’s property brings in two characters, Matilda Strong and her daughter Chloe, at the very end of the story. And they become part of the ensemble in the two novels that follow.
The second book, WALK BY FAITH, starts with Maggie’s house and the Gazette burning down in early 1863, thanks to anti-abolitionists. After sojourning at Samuel’s house (Sam is Maggie’s brother), the family eventually moves to Gettysburg. We learn that Eli comes from Gettysburg and his old family home now is a UGRR station co-managed by the Quaker meeting attended by Eli’s sisters and the town’s African Methodist Episcopal congregation.
Although the Civil War is now at midpoint, I postulate that self-emancipators and other refugees are trying to escape the violence and coming up through Maryland and into Pennsylvania.
I have no idea if this really was going on. However, at this point in the war, while escaped slaves and fugitives might very well have come north, another dynamic was at work. The Confederate army was in the vicinity, taking both self-emancipators and free blacks into custody, and planning to send them south into slavery. At this point, Underground Railroad stations seemed to have been used to move numbers of people away from this danger and/or to keep them hidden.
Historically, as the Union Army continued to press into the South, self-emancipators gravitated toward Union troops. In response to the flow of refugees, “contraband camps” were set up for them. The truth is that neither the army nor the Union itself had any idea what to do with newly-freed people of color. There really was no plan.
The third book, A TIME TO HEAL, focuses on the period after the Battle of Gettysburg. The old Smith House in Gettysburg has become a hospital where the wounded of both sides are cared for by Maggie’s family. Only one former slave, a man called Moses Galloway, comes to their station on his way north. The book also sees the departure of Matilda and Chloe Strong, which is handled by the Quaker communities. The mother and daughter are accompanied by white conductors on their rail trip to Canada, where they are going to be reunited with the rest of their family.
The procedure of having white people travel with black people still might have been followed in 1863. The problem was that African-Americans journeying on a rail line were viewed by white travelers as objects of suspicion. It was safer therefore for them to be in the company of a white person and to be viewed as a servant. Even though people of color in the Union technically were considered to be free, life still was not easy for them. Whites feared that a flood of freed slaves would tumble into their towns, take their jobs, and look for housing. They were considered to be a threat. They also were considered to be “lesser beings” and socially inferior.
The Underground Railroad does not play a role in the other novels in the Saint Maggie series, mainly because historical circumstances are changing. Instead, the people of color in Maggie’s fictive family face new challenges, primarily being perceived of and treated as equals.
With this in mind, racism and the struggle for equality shows its face in my latest work-in-progress, a full-length novel tentatively called THE GOOD COMMUNITY. In this story, Emily and Maggie learn that the Blaineton School not only won’t accept black students, but the small number of black children who do live in town do not have a school of their own. I think you can guess where Emily and Maggie are going to go with this and the sort of trouble that follows.
With that, I hope you all had an enjoyable Valentine’s Day. Regardless of whether or not you have a love interest or a partner, I hope you celebrated with good friends or family or simply treated yourself with kindness. I had one friend who used to buy herself roses on Valentine’s Day! Remember, you are worthy of love – and, even if you don’t believe it, you are loved by Something/Someone greater than yourself.
I wish I could tell you what next week’s blogs will be about – but I have no idea. So, I just will have to surprise you and myself!
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder