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.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder