Whitworth Cannon: British-made Whitworth cannon used by Confederate artillerymen, mark a battery position in Schultz Woods. National Park Service, Gettysburg.
Three of the stories in the Saint Maggie universe have to do with Gettysburg – or more correctly with Gettysburg and Middletown (located 7 miles to the north and now known as Biglerville). The trio of stories take up the entire year of 1863.
I have visited Gettysburg several times. It has never been too far from where I live on the East coast. I am drawn to it because of its tangible historical spirit. After all, it was the location of a significant battle of the Civil War. The conflict ended with a total of 51,112 casualties. The Union experienced 23049: 3,155 dead, 14, 529 wounded, and 5365 missing. The Confederates had 28,063 casualties: 3,903 dead, 18, 735 injured, and 5425 missing.
Amazingly, although the battle took place in the fields outside of the town, the people living there were subject to arms and artillery fire. Despite that, the only person killed in the town was Jennie Wade. The town itself was traumatized, with wounded soldiers housed in private homes and many public buildings. A once prosperous and bustling town was left struggling to recover mostly on its own.
Walk by Faith, the second full-length novel in the series, kicks off with a fire early in 1863 when the boarding house and Eli’s print shop burn down under suspicious circumstances. Most of the men are away at the time. Eli and Carson are in the field as war correspondents. Patrick McCoy (Frankie’s beau) and Edgar Lape (Lydia’s husband) have enlisted in the army and are away with the New Jersey Fifteenth Volunteer Regiment. Left behind are Maggie and young son Bob, Emily and baby Natey, Emily’s husband Nate, self-emancipator Matilda Strong and daughter Chloe, Lydia, Frankie, and Jim “Grandpa” O’Reilly.
When Maggie’s brother, Samuel Beatty, learns that the boarding house has suffered a fire, he takes them into his mansion, located several miles outside of Blaineton. Eli and Carson, meanwhile, hurry back to New Jersey. Once Maggie and Eli are together again, the tension between them becomes obvious: she wants him to be safe and stay with the family, while he wants to cover the war. Eli even goes so far as to decide to move everyone to his old family home in Gettysburg without Maggie’s input. Furthermore, he demands that Maggie comply, and this drives them further apart. Once the family has relocated, Eli and Carson return to the New Jersey Fifteenth.
What no one knows is that by mid-summer the town will be involved an iconic battle of the Civil War.
The story picks up pace as Maggie and family hear frightening rumors of the approach of the Confederate Army, while Eli and Carson are exposed to the dangers of the battlefield while covering the New Jersey Fifteenth. When the fight finally comes Gettysburg, the old Smith home is turned into a field hospital, as were many other homes and buildings in the town.
Walk by Faith essentially deals with the question, “Who is my neighbor?” But it also deals with the physical, emotional, and spiritual damage war brings to individuals and the community.
A Time to Heal continues the Gettysburg saga as Eli and Nate move their wives and young sons north to Middletown, something facilitated by Eli’s Quaker sister and brother-in-law who live nearby. Maggie is pregnant and needs a quiet environment after the rigors of her experience in Gettysburg. Emily needs the same thing: she suffered during her separation from little Natey (whom she had sent to stay with Eli’s family in Middletown) and is now exhausted from caring for the wounded at the Smith House.
Frankie, Lydia, Carson, Matilda, Chloe, and Grandpa graciously stay behind in Gettysburg to care for the wounded soldiers in their house. During that time, Frankie is moved by Caleb, a young Confederate soldier who is yearning to return to Virginia to find his wife and child. The result: Frankie and Lydia decide to help him go home, and this means they are aiding and abetting the enemy. Another law had already been broken when the family helped Gideon Opdyke. Gideon was someone they knew from Blaineton. He had been bullied into joining the Confederate Army by his brother Lemuel, who supported the CSA cause. But all Gideon wants now is to move west, start a farm, and live in peace. During the battle, the family had moved him into an unused room in the house and given him new clothing to replace his uniform. He eventually is moved up to Middletown and is sojourning there before he moves on.
Meanwhile, newly widowed Lydia makes the acquaintance of Capt. Philip Frost, a physician with the US Army, who is in town to relocate wounded soldiers from people’s homes and public buildings to Camp Letterman, an army hospital being built outside Gettysburg. Eventually, Capt. Frost notices that one of the soldiers from his original count (Caleb) seems to be missing. When Philip mistakenly identifies Gideon as the soldier and Eli as the person responsible for allowing him to move to Middletown, the two men are arrested. Now Maggie, Lydia, and Frankie must step up and prove Eli’s innocence and explain Gideon’s situation.
The Christmas Eve Visitor is a short-story that takes place – when else? – on Christmas Eve of 1863. The Johnson and Smith families are continuing to recover from their experiences with the war, but now are faced with a new issue: all the young children have taken ill, including Maggie and Eli’s new baby, Faith. The unexpected arrival of peddler Ira Strauss in the middle of a snowstorm takes them all by surprise. Although they cannot afford to purchase anything, Maggie invites him in from the cold and feeds him a bowl of soup. A thankful Ira then proceeds to give each member of the family gifts that somehow connect with what they are needing at that moment and in their lives. This, of course, leaves them with numerous questions. How does he know who they are and what they need? Who is Ira, anyway? What was he doing out in the cold in the middle of a snowstorm? And where did he disappear to the next morning? This old-fashioned Christmas miracle tale is warm and hopeful.
Next: Seeing the Elephant, a novel that returns the family to Blaineton; and The Great Central Fair, a novella in which Frankie and Lydia are reunited with Sgt. Patrick McCoy and Capt. Philip Frost. The quartet (with Chester Carson as their chaperone) take a trip to see Philadelphia’s big “Sanitary Fair,” one of many that were held around the United States at that time to raise money for the Sanitary Commission. I guess you could call this an historical romance as well as a tour of 1864 Philadelphia. Frankie and Patrick reconnect in the City of Brotherly Love, while Lydia and Phil voice their true feelings for each other.
Later, gators! Be good. Be kind. Be safe.
Janet R. Stafford
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder