Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Midlist Writer blog, where he talks about writing, adventure travel, caving, and everything else he gets up to. He also reproduces all the posts from Civil War Horror, so drop on by!

Saturday, December 31, 2011

My writing year: a look back and a look forward

This year has been an important one for my writing career. I had two military history books published, Armies of the Adowa Campaign 1896: the Italian Disaster in Ethiopia and Ride around Missouri: Shelby's Great Raid 1863. Both have received positive reviews on Amazon and on various blogs and magazines. The Adowa book has been especially well received because it’s the only book in English that covers this campaign in detail. That’s one of the fun things about working for Osprey Publishing—you get to break new ground.

I have a book on the James-Younger gang’s Northfield raid coming out from them next year and I’m starting a book on Wyatt Earp. There may be more Osprey projects in the works for 2012 but those aren’t finalized yet.

I also continued to blog for Gadling and wrote a series on living in Harar, Ethiopia. I’ll be continuing my regular postings this coming year as well as writing a series on the Orkney Islands and hopefully another visit to Ethiopia.

My biggest advance in my career was publishing my Civil War novel A Fine Likeness via Kindle Direct Publishing. I’ve blogged about why a traditionally published author would choose self-publishing.  The novel came out less than two months ago so it’s too soon to see if this is a good career move, but it's already garnered some sales and positive reviews. A couple of weeks ago I followed up with a short story collection called The Night the Nazis Came to Dinner, and other dark tales.

So what’s in store for 2012? My focus will be fiction. Of course I’ll continue to blog for Gadling and write for Osprey because that’s where I earn 90% of my income. The big change now, however, is that my fiction career has finally started. After waiting for months or even years for rejections from publishers who kept telling me how much they liked my writing, I’ve taken my fiction career into my own hands. I have several old manuscripts I’ll be polishing and publishing, as well as works-in-progress that I’ll be finishing, editing, and publishing.

First order of business is getting a print edition of A Fine Likeness prepared. This will be followed in short order by four fantasy novels, a novella set in Viking Greenland, a historical fantasy novella set in an 18th century Germany where paganism never died, and the as-yet-unnamed sequel to A Fine Likeness. There may be a few other surprises in store. Writing has a tendency to surprise even the writer!

Of course I’ll also be keeping this blog up to date, so check in regularly or add an RSS feed.

See you in 2012!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Civil War Photo Friday: A Floating Battery

Over at the fine blog Seven Score and Ten, there's a reprint of a report by General Grant about moving a floating battery to New Madrid, Missouri. this would make sense as that town is on the Mississippi River, and a battery there would help reinforce Union control of the all-important waterway.

But what was a floating battery? Basically a floating platform for several cannon that could be towed to a strategic position where there wasn't any convenient land. They weren't warships per se, not being very navigable and often not having any locomotive power of their own.

Perhaps the most famous floating battery of the Civil War was the first, built by the rebels and used in the bombardment of fort Sumter. As you can see from these Wikipedia images, it was a barnlike structure with only three walls, yet it gave good service during the bombardment. made of thick wood sheathed in iron, it took several direct hits from the fort with the loss of only one man wounded.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Battle of Mount Zion Church

Brig. Gen. Benjamin Prentiss was making a sweep through Boone County looking for rebels. He found them just outside the town of Hallsville on December 27, where a company of his cavalry came across a much larger force of the enemy and had to beat a hasty retreat, leaving their captain and a private in the hands of the rebels.

Prentiss set out with his entire force of 440 men at 2am the next morning, 150 years ago today. He marched 16 miles in the predawn darkness and passed through Hallsville, heading west. At 8am his vanguard encountered a company of rebels guarding the road.

Prentiss tried to surround this force, but the move was spotted and the rebels withdrew. Some prisoners told him the main rebel body was at Mount Zion Church, one-and-a-half miles further on, and numbered about 900 under the command of Col. Caleb Dorsey. Prentiss immediately moved forward and a lively battle ensued. The rebels enjoyed good cover in some woods near the church and the Union troops had trouble dislodging them. After much firing the battle descended into a hand-to-hand fight for half an hour before the timely arrival of the rest of Prentiss’ troops, who seem to have been delayed in their maneuvers, made the rebels quit the field around 11am.

The Union troops captured 90 horses, 105 stand of arms. Prentiss reports his total loss over the two days of fighting as 3 killed, 17 severely wounded, and 46 slightly wounded. The rebel loss was 25 killed and 30 captured. No reports on rebel wounded.

Only the Union side gave a report of the battle, so the above is from that perspective. The History of Boone County, published in 1882, includes a report by an unnamed participant on the rebel side. The entire account can be read here.

This participant states that not all the rebels were armed, and that the rebels retreated only after their ammunition was exhausted. Considering the chronic rebel supply problems that’s probably true. He gave Dorsey’s loss as 5 killed, 35 wounded, and 10 prisoners. He estimated Prentiss lost 30 killed, 60 wounded, and 10 prisoners. Such precise figures twenty years after the fact (and probably several battles later) should be taken with a grain of salt. In general, though, his account agrees with the report Prentiss gave.

It’s interesting that this aging rebel showed no ill-will to his former adversaries and made a point to say “Gen. Prentiss in every respect acted the gentleman and the soldier, in regard to the Confederate wounded, affording all the assistance in his power, and detailing a guard from his own command to keep soldiers out of the church. [where the rebel wounded lay]


The Battle of Mt. Zion Church was typical of many smaller engagements early in the Missouri Civil War. A Union force of trained soldiers would disperse a larger force of rebels who suffered from lack of training, organization, and weapons. With most of the Missouri State Guard in southern Missouri with General Price, the raw recruits the Union army was mopping up in central Missouri weren’t ready for a serious fight.

That doesn’t mean they always broke and ran. At Mt. Zion Church they fought hard for three hours. The rebels retreated some distance and then after a rest of a couple of days Col. Dorsey ordered his force to “scatter”. Most probably went home, while others probably did some guerrilla fighting guerrilla or made their own way south to Price. The Boone County history reports that in February “the major portion of the command crossed the Missouri and made its way to Price’s army”.

Defeats like this didn’t stop the secessionist cause in the area. The rebels continued to gather, and another small battle would come within two weeks. You’ll just have to stay tuned for that one.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Union troops sweep through central Missouri looking for rebels

With General Price in southwest Missouri and not showing any inclination to move northwards, the Union army busied itself with sweeps through Missouri catching Confederate recruits. All across the state, especially in the "Little Dixie" region along the Missouri River, large bands of rebel volunteers rallied around Price's recruiters. While poorly armed and untrained, many of these bands numbered in the hundreds and required a sizable force to defeat.

Brig. Gen. Benjamin Prentiss, shown here in this Wikimedia Commons image, certainly felt the need to bring a large force along on his rebel hunt. He was patrolling Boone County with five companies of the Third Missouri Cavalry and two of Birge’s Western Sharpshooters, some 440 men in all. He was looking for secessionist recruits, plus he wanted to protect the North Missouri Railroad, which had already been the object of an attack.

He set out from Palmyra on Christmas Eve and arrived in Sturgeon on the 26th. There he heard of a Missouri State Guard force rallying recruits near Hallsville. The Missouri State Guard was the original state militia, most of whom had followed Price into rebellion.

On December 27th, 150 years ago today, Prentiss sent Captain Howland and one company of cavalry to check out the situation at Hallsville. About two miles outside of town Howland found them and a sharp skirmish ensued. Finding himself outnumbered, Howland ordered a retreat but he was wounded and lost his horse, probably being shot off it. He and one of his privates were captured.

The rest of Howland’s company retreated back to the Union camp around 9pm and reported. Prentiss made plans to move out the next morning.

To be continued tomorrow!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My short story collection is out!

My short story collection, The Night the Nazis came to Dinner, and other dark tales, is out now as an ebook.

A spectral dinner party goes horribly wrong. . .
An immortal warrior hopes a final battle will set him free. . .
A big-game hunter preys on endangered species to supply an illicit restaurant. . .
A new technology soothes First World guilt. . .

Here are four dark tales that straddle the boundary between reality and speculation. You better hope they don’t come true. 


These genre-bending tales mix fantasy, science fiction, horror, and a dose of satire. I've priced it at 99 cents in order to entire readers, and hopefully get them to move on and buy my Civil War novel. A special thanks goes to Dale Roberts, author of Irrefutable, for doing the excellent cover art.

The Night the Nazis came to Dinner is available at Amazon, Amazon UK, and all other Amazon outlets. Coming soon to Smashwords too!

Civil War bridge burner goes on trial

There's an interesting item from the Official Records about a trial held in Columbia, Missouri, on March 1, 1862.

"William F. Petty, a citizen of Boone County, Mo., did aid and assist and incite others to aid and assist in the destruction by fire or otherwise of certain rails, ties, bridges and timbers belonging to and necessary for the use of the North Missouri Railroad Company in the transaction of their ordinary business. All this at or near Sturgeon, Mo., on or about the 21st of December, 1861."

Petty pleaded not guilty to burning the Sturgeon railroad bridge or having any knowledge of plans to burn the bridge. Since the punishment for such an act was death, his plea was hardly surprising.

So what really happened 150 years ago today? A carpenter named Jacob Crosswhite testified, "I had been taken a prisoner in Sturgeon before the fire. Was at home in bed when some men came to my house, burst open the door, called me to strike a light. I did so. A man put his hand on my shoulder and told me I was his prisoner. I dressed myself and they carried me up in town; from there to Sturgeon bridge. The bridge was on fire and a good many there. Some were standing around; some piling up chunks on the fire; some tearing up railroad track.

"From that place we marched about four miles to Long Branch bridge; found that afire; staid there two or three hours. There were a good many men there had gone down from Sturgeon bridge. After the bridge was pretty well burned down we went back to Sturgeon. I did not see prisoner at either bridge. First saw him next morning at Mr. Riggs', two and one-half miles southwest of Sturgeon, where the band camped. He was in the crowd of men who had burned down the bridge and tore up the railroad the night before. 'Twixt daylight and sun-up a crowd of cavalry attacked them. Some few men fought awhile; the rest ran. Don't recollect seeing him any more until we got three or four miles from place of fight. I was still prisoner of the bridge-burners. They stopped on White Oak Ridge. They there released Schooler, another prisoner they had, and carried me on with them. They next stopped for any length of time at prisoner's house. I was released on parole near prisoner's house. W. R. Schooler and Adam Gosling were prisoner with me."

Crosswhite added that the men called him "captain" and he seemed to be in charge. Two other former prisoners of the rebel band testified the same thing. None of the three said they saw Petty at the scene of the crime.

Some witnesses to the defense swore that he was elsewhere on the night of December 20/21, when the Sturgeon bridge was burned.

"The court was then closed and after mature deliberation on the evidence adduced finds the prisoner, W. F. Petty. . .guilty. And does therefore sentence the said W. F. Petty as follows: To be shot to death at such time and place as the commanding general of the department may direct."

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Reviewer calls A Fine Likeness "Historical Horror at its Finest"

Well this made my morning! My Civil War novel A Fine Likeness has received another four-star review. This time it's from Scott over at the Indie Book Blog., who is designated as a Top Reviewer at Amazon. He was kind enough to put his four-star review up on Amazon, Amazon UK, and Goodreads.

(by the way, I'm always happy to connect with readers on my Goodreads page)

He says, "Sean has written several books about the Civil War the history of Missouri, so he has a lot of knowledge to share. The book is very well done using actual people (Bloody Bill) who were involved with the War in the area to add a layer of realism to the story. He does such a wonderful job with the weapon descriptions and battle detail that the book really comes alive. I had some interest in this time period in high school so it appealed very much to me. This is the only book like this I have ever read so I don't have anything to compare it to, but if he writes any more like this I will read them"

You can read the entire review here.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Guest blogging over at Guerrilla Explorer

I'm a bit late in announcing this one, sorry! I recently guest blogged over at the super-cool Guerrilla Explorer on the enduring historical debate: Did Jesse James fake his own Death?

David Meyer does a fine job with his blog. Guerrilla Explorer explores mysteries of science and history, as well as conspiracy theories and other interesting subjects. His combination of an open mind and a critical eye make for interesting reading. Drop on by to my post and leave a comment, and don't forget to read his other postings!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Small unit action in the Civil War

As I mentioned in a previous post, the Official Records have some interesting details about all-but-forgotten skirmishes in Civil War Missouri. These small-unit actions are often overlooked by military historians in favor of larger battles, yet these skirmishes can tell us a lot.

The Union sweep through Saline County from 3-12 December 1861 netted numerous prisoners and armaments. Perhaps the most interesting engagement was on December 7.

On that day a detachment left the Union force. Major Marshall and 26 men "proceeded to Roper's Mill, opposite Glasgow, where he had learned a portion of Captain Robert W. Swynne's company were encamped. They took the four pickets he had out prisoners, after giving one of them a hard chase, thus enabling him to surprise all there. Lieutenant Elwell took the left, with 16 men; Sergeant Bradshaw the right, with 5 men; and the major the center, with 3 men. A portion of the enemy were caught playing cards and others getting breakfast. Another portion, which had just crossed the river with the captain, well armed and mounted, started to run, but were soon halted by a few prompt shots."

The report then goes on with a bit of back patting, "It was a finely-conducted surprise, completely bagging the whole of them, 28 in number, and getting their arms, ammunition, teams, cooking utensils, &c. The column then moved north through Cambridge and encamped on William T. Gilham's farm."

Assuming no exaggeration (always a major assumption with the OR) this shows the huge difference in ability and discipline between the two forces. Note that the forces were almost even in number, there were no reported casualties, yet the entire rebel force was captured. Most likely the rebels were new recruits, while the Union soldiers had had at least some training. Major Marshall appears to have had some field experience, perhaps earned in the Mexican-American War.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Deja-vu Blogfest: The Thunderbird photo and False Memory Syndrome

Today I'm participating in the Deja-vu blogfest, where bloggers are reposting their favorite old post. I first published this one back in 2009 on my blog Grizzled Old Traveler. It's a travel blog that I don't update anymore now that I blog professionally for Gadling. There are still some good posts on there, though. This is my favorite. My second favorite is Ten Reasons the Moon Landing Conspiracy theory is Stupid.

Yesterday I was chatting with a fellow writer about a book she's writing on legendary beasts. One of my favorites is the Thunderbird, a giant dinosaur-like winged creature that haunts the American Southwest, and the conversation turned to the strange role I've played in the story of this mysterious creature.


Let me say at the outset that I don't think the Thunderbird is real. With all the aviation, birdwatchers, and development in the United States in the past century, no giant flying monster could have remained undetected. My skepticism, however, makes this story all the more interesting.

The Thunderbird is part of Native American religious belief, but that creature is like a giant bird with feathers. The more modern Thunderbird is always described as reptilian, which makes some cryptozoologoists (people who study unknown animals) think it's a pterosaur. Supposedly there was an article in the 26 April 1890 edition of the Tombstone, Arizona, Epitaph, about two cowboys shooting a creature with leathery wings like a bat and a head like an alligator. They dragged it back to town and nailed it up to a barn, its wingspan covering the barn's entire length. I haven't seen this article myself, but I know that frontier journalism often played with the truth. Mark Twain got started on fiction while working on his brother's newspaper in the Nevada Territory!

Some photos have turned up over the years. The most famous one shows a giant Thunderbird nailed to a barn with some cowboys standing nearby. I can't show it to you because it doesn't seem to exist, at least not anymore. Many investigators claim to have seen it or even owned a copy, but nobody has one now


This is where it gets weird. I remember seeing that photo. My memory is of a fairly clear black and white image of a Thunderbird nailed to the roof of a barn, its wingspan almost equal to the barn's length. Men in old western costume are lined up on the roof and in front of the barn. I remember it looked like a rather poor cut-and-paste job. It was common for frontier people to pose next to and on a barn after a barn raising, so perhaps someone added the Thunderbird to a real photo. I even remember where I saw it, in a paranormal magazine at Bookman's, a used bookstore I used to work at in Tucson, Arizona. For some reason I didn't buy the magazine.

This must be a false memory. If the picture existed in a paranormal magazine, it would have been located by dedicated cryptozoologists by now. My experience is just like other people's, in that I have a very clear memory of the event and I no longer have the photo. Some people claim to have seen it in the possession of someone else. Others had a copy and lost it. In my case, I saw it in a magazine I didn't buy. I have unwittingly become part of an urban legend.

Weird, huh? What's going on here? Paranormal investigator Jerome Clark theorizes that the idea of the image is evocative enough to implant a false memory. Perhaps I read about the photo and created the memory? I wonder if ten years from now my writer friend will be writing another book on monsters and will be pulling her hair out trying to find that image of the Thunderbird she remembers seeing.

Oh, and not all memories of this photo are alike. This article includes the memory of a different image of the Thunderbird, and other reports say the creature was nailed to the wall of the barn, not the roof.
While I'm careful to use only public domain photos in this blog, I'm not sure these are. If they are really as old as they appear to be, then they are in the public domain. They could simply be old fakes. If they are modern fakes, then I'm in breach of copyright, but the only way the creator could sue me is if they admitted faking the photo! I'll take that chance. :-)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Mud mortars of the Civil War

By mid-December of 1861, things had calmed down somewhat in Missouri. The Union command still worried that General Price would return from the southwestern portion of the state with his Confederate army, but there was no real sign he would do so. So while they waited, Union troops busied themselves with sweeps through northern and central Missouri to capture bands of secessionists harassing the area or heading down to join Price.

One of these sweeps is detailed in the Official Records. Major George C. Marshall's command, composed of 300 men of the regiment Merrill's Horse and three companies of regular cavalry, moved through Saline County on December 3-12. They fought several skirmishes and took prisoners almost daily. Some were rebels who had skirmished with them, others were not so designated and were probably civilians suspected of supporting the South. Searching houses as they went, the Union cavalry found several caches of gunpowder and other items of war.

On December 5 they proudly encamped on the farm of the secessionist Missouri governor Claiborn Fox Jackson (who had long since fled with Price), "and raised the Stars and Stripes over the traitor's house."

December 9 found them near Waverly, home to J.O. Shelby, who had not yet made a name for himself as one of the Confederacy's greatest cavalry raiders. As the Union troops camped that night, "Shelby brought his company down that night to try to annoy us by firing at our pickets and to try to scare us by bombarding us with a 10-inch mortar loaded with mud. Lieutenants Kelly's and Gordon's companies were called out, and soon scattered them and silenced their formidable battery."

I've never heard of a mortar being packed with mud. I would assume Shelby was a victim of the nagging ammunition shortage of the Confederacy, and simply used whatever he had at hand. One would think rocks or gravel would prove more effective! In my book on Shelby, I describe how the raider used many tactics to fool his enemies. Once he held up shipping on the Missouri River with a sinister-looking log. Not a hollowed-out log converted into a cannon like at the Battle of Athens, Missouri, just a log.

The next day the Union troops proceeded on into Waverly and "found 9 kegs of powder concealed under a platform in Shelby's store. The celebrated mortar was found and taken."

And thus ends the saga of the Civil War mud mortar.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How to load and shoot a Colt 1851 Navy Revolver


I've talked a lot on this blog about the Missouri bushwhackers and their use of the Colt Navy revolver. They often carried several of these and would close with the enemy as quickly as possible, absorbing the one volley of the Union troops single-shot rifles and then opening up a murderous fire at close range. This tactic worked time and again. In my Civil War novel, Union militia captain Richard Addison begs his general for pistols to fight back against the bushwhackers. When they aren't forthcoming, he decides to raise the money in other ways. . .

The revolvers weren't perfect, however. They were extremely slow to reload, as this annotated video shows. This is why the guerrillas carried more than one, and often had preloaded cylinders in the deep pockets of their guerrilla shirt. Also note how much smoke these things create. I've talked about the fog of war before. Now imagine fifty bushwhackers blazing away as quickly as they could. Things would get pretty hazy.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Laying poor Jesse in his grave

I just finished my latest book for Osprey Publishing. The Last Ride of the James-Younger Gang—Jesse James and the Northfield Raid 1876 examines the gang's disastrous robbery attempt of a bank in Northfield. The gang swaggered into this Minnesota town thinking they'd get some easy money, and instead got the mother of all shootouts, followed by a grueling chase across the state.

All of this is covered in detail, along with biographical information about each of the gang members (some of whom were quite obscure) and will be richly illustrated in Osprey's trademark style. The book will come out in 2012.

As usual, I had a lot of fun writing this book. I learned about odd customs such as anvil artillery, and got some more insights into Jesse James, who is a minor character in my Civil War novel. The only problem is that I sent it off on a Monday. Anytime I finish a major project I get a post-book slump and I'm useless for the rest of the week!

Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs division.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Getting a hundred hits a day!

After the first ten days of December I had a total of 1,010 hits for this month. I'm now getting a hundred hits a day, my Technorati ranking is steadily rising, and I only started this blog in July. Thanks to all of you for the retweets, follows, etc! Of course I'm not in the big leagues yet (I can't even imagine how many daily hits Alex Cavanaugh gets) but I'm slowly building this blog up.

I'm slowly building up sales and visibility of my Civil War novel too. Thanks a million to those who have been buying it!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Getting "slightly" wounded in the Civil War

"Buck" from a "buck and ball", Wikipedia
I’ve been thinking about the term “slightly wounded” that's so often seen in battle reports. I doubt if the large lead balls of the era were capable of giving a light wound unless they barely grazed a man. From what I’ve heard, a body or head shot was always grievous and often fatal, and a shot to the limb often shattered the bone and led to the loss of that limb. So how did these "slight" wounds come about?

If my personal library can't help me, my first stop with Civil War questions is the Missouri in the Civil War Message Board. I asked if these wounds could come from the common use of “buck and ball”, in which three (or sometimes more) pellets of buckshot were wrapped in the cartridge paper along with the ball.

Consider for a moment that your position takes a volley from a hundred of the enemy. One hundred bullets are now singing through the air at you. Not a pleasant thought. Also there are 300 buckshot pellets coming at you, so you are three times as likely to get hit by a bit of buckshot as you are by a ball.

Assuming you only get hit by one pellet, you'll probably only be wounded, and probably only “slightly” wounded. Now add to this that many soldiers, especially Confederates and some Union militia, only had shotguns or squirrel rifles and were firing at an unsuitably long range for those weapons, and you can see why there were so many “slight” wounds.

You can even be slightly wounded by a cannonball. I read of one incident of a shell bursting right next to a soldier. The force threw him into the air and his trajectory was stopped by the trunk of a nearby tree. He was knocked out cold, but when he came to he was unscathed except for some nasty bruises.

Someone pointed out that buck and ball was only used in smoothbores, not the Enfield or Springfield rifled muskets with their deadly MiniĆ© balls. Smoothbores were only used early in the war. That had slipped my mind. I’m sure some smoothbores still saw action in later years with the Union militia and Confederate forces. Even as late as Price’s invasion in 1864 there were many unarmed rebels in the ranks. I would think they’d grab anything available. But in essence the poster was right. The answer must lie elsewhere.

Civil War author Bruce Nichols replied, "I read in Connelley's 1910 Quantrill and the Border Wars, pages 318-9 and in Castel's 1962 William Clarke Quantrill: His Life and Times, page 113 that the west-central Missouri guerrillas developed the wartime practice of reducing the amount of gunpowder in their revolver loads both to save precious powder and to reduce pistol recoil to improve accuracy, especially from horseback. I think this was especially helpful with repeated or continued shots. Guerrillas from this region were influential in passing along such techniques and tactics to other Missouri guerrillas they encountered, so this practice may have spread."

I'm thinking this may have been common practice with regulars in the Confederate army too, since they were often short of powder.

Another researcher pointed out that slight wounds may have been caused by "spray" from whatever those bullets hit. If soldiers were hiding behind rocks or fences, and bullets hit those barriers, all sorts of stuff would be flying around. There might also be "shavings", bits of the bullets sheared off while coming out of the barrel, creating an unintended "buck" along with the "ball".

Ask a question on this forum, and you always get a wealth of answers! I'm thinking that all of these explanations contributed to the high number of slight wounds in the Civil War. Not that these wounds always stayed slight. One poster mentioned his great-great uncle received a "slight" wound in the side at Hartville in January 1864. He was listed as dead the next month.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Civil War Photo Friday: The Last of Shelby's Men

I first saw this gravestone more than ten years ago at the Confederate retirement home in Higginsville, Missouri, and it has always stuck in my mind. Many old warriors came here to live out their days, and the last one to die was John T. Graves. He joined J.O. Shelby's famous Iron Brigade of Missouri cavalry raiders, survived the war, and lived through half of the twentieth century.

Remarkably, he wasn't the "last of Shelby's men". Joseph Hayden Whitsett was still alive in Texas and made it to 1951.

Of course I put this image in my book Ride Around Missouri: Shelby's Great Raid 1863. Shelby's Iron Brigade made numerous grueling raids into Union-occupied Missouri. His "ride around Missouri" was the most ambitious, and led the Union troops on a merry chase through the entire state.

It's amazing to look at these old gravestones and realize that some Civil War veterans lived so long. Albert Woolson, a Union drummer boy and the last surviving Civil War veteran whose story is confirmed, lived until August 2, 1956! There must be old folks around today who remember some of these guys. The Civil War wasn't so long ago after all. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Fine Likeness gets its first review: four stars!

Less than three weeks after my Civil War horror novel A Fine Likeness was released, I just got my first review! It's on Amazon UK and it's four stars. The review is short but sweet.

"Intriguing and chilling"
"An assured debut novel which clearly shows the author's grasp of the period, without ever getting bogged down in period detail. The characters are well drawn and morally murky, and the sense of unease builds throughout the story. A good read."

I don't know E.L. Woodcock but she recently became a fan of my Facebook page. I really need to buy her a beer sometime.

Hopefully more reviews will be coming soon. Two bloggers have already promised to review my book. Stay tuned. . .

Anvil artillery

You learn the weirdest things writing for Osprey Publishing.

While researching my latest project, The Last Ride of the James-Younger Gang—Jesse James and the Northfield Raid 1876, I came across an account of the citizens of Northfield celebrating after they fought off the James-Younger gang. The gang had tried to rob the bank and local shopkeepers grabbed their guns, killed two of the robbers on the spot, wounded the rest, and sent them galloping out of town.

To mark this special occasion, Northfielders set off some "anvil artillery". This consisted of putting a load of gunpowder under an anvil, lighting a fuse, running away, and watching the anvil fly into the sky.

I wonder if anyone used anvil artillery in the Civil War? It would have been more useful than the hollowed out log used at the Battle of Athens, Missouri

Kids, don't try this at home!



Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

In other news. . .

 The ebook edition of my Civil War novel A Fine Likeness has been out a little less than three weeks. I’m busy finishing up a print edition before Christmas. This is important because a print magazine requested a review copy. They want print instead of an ebook so they can photograph it “in context”. Not sure what this means. Are they going to have some reenactors duking it out in the background?

In other news, we just moved into our new place in Santander, on the north coast of Spain. The top view is from my new home office, where I get a sweeping view of the bay. This should provide some inspiration! The photo below is taken from my son’s room, which looks out over the port. Hopefully this will instill the travel bug in him. National Geographic maps did it for me. He has a light-up globe, and that combined with this view should get him itching to travel. He already wants to join me the next time I visit Harar, Ethiopia. My wife likes the new place because it's within walking distance of her astronomy institute. No more long commutes!

We’ve been settling into Santander pretty quickly. I’ve been doing some hiking in the mountains and exploring the town’s nightlife. Also, my wife and I are preparing a photo exhibition of shots taken during last year’s road trip in Ethiopia and my shots of Somaliland.

I’m also on deadline to finish The Last Ride of the James-Younger Gang—Jesse James and the Northfield Raid 1876, my next book for Osprey Publishing. I should be done by the end of the week. Tomorrow I’ll post some interesting tidbits from that research.

Another Osprey book, Armies of the Adowa Campaign 1896—The Italian Disaster in Ethiopia, has received its third five-star review. I’ve posted it below.

Excellent addition to the Osprey library

Armies of the Adowa Campaign, an account of Italian colonial defeat in Ethiopia in 1896, is an excellent addition to the Osprey library.

Any English-speaker with an interest in military history (or modeling, or miniatures) knows the Osprey canon. And knows that the quality of the various titles varies extensively. While (almost) never actually bad, there are many titles that are "just okay" while there are others that are outstanding. This is one of the latter.

The illustrations by Raffaele Ruggeri are very good (for the modelers and miniaturists), but what really sets this volume apart is the excellent account of the Adowa campaign itself. Sean McLachlan does a fine job of describing the historical background and then providing a vivid and detailed account of the fateful battle at Adowa itself. Similar to a prior reviewer's comment, this is one of the instances where Osprey has packed a good, though brief, campaign account into one of its slimmer Men-At-Arms series titles (viz Alexei Ivanov's volume on the Russo-Japanese War). The account clearly benefits from McLachlan's personal research at the remote battle site (a factor often missing from Osprey's weaker titles), enhanced with photographs of the terrain by the author which are included in the text.

Surprisingly little remembered today (outside of Ethiopia and Eritrea, one suspects), this battle was, as McLachlan points out, the third great contender (with Isandlwana in 1879, and Anual in 1921) for the title "greatest colonial defeat ever". Perhaps easiest thought of as the Italian version of the Little Big Horn.

Highly recommended, and an absolute must for anyone with a special interest in 19th Century European colonial warfare.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Guest post: Getting the facts straight with my historical novel

Today we have a guest post from someone I met on the Missouri Civil War forums. John J. Gschwend Jr. has written a novel about the Civil War and part of the action takes place in Arkansas, which of course was intimately tied to the Civil War in Missouri. Take it away, John!

Pigeons began landing everywhere: on the ground, on stumps, in the trees. Soon there was little room for another bird, but they kept coming, reminded Joe of ants. Large limbs moaned, cracked, then fell under their weight. A big one from the sycamore crashed to the ground killing scores of pigeons, yet they kept coming.

This didn’t really happen, only in my novel, Chase The Wild Pigeons: A Novel of the Civil War. It could have happened, though. During the time of the Civil War there were estimates of 4 to 5 billion passenger pigeons in America. Yes, I said “billions.” Now there are none.

I spent almost as much time researching facts for my novel as I did writing it. I traveled from Helena, Arkansas, to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. I prowled the battlefield at Brice’s Crossroads, Mississippi. I went to New Albany, Mississippi just to see the topography. I wanted to tell the truth when I spun my story.

I love reading history, and first-person narratives are the cream. With these, you are going straight to the horse’s mouth.  You can get lost in time with these. They should use this stuff in school—kids would like it better than remembering stupid dates.

The internet is a treasure. You can find letters, diaries, and all sorts of records. I found Iowa soldiers longing for home and away from the disease in Helen,a Arkansas—“Hell in Arkansas” they called it. Slaves  describing the beatings, or tell how good “Marse” was to them. A found a letter from a woman telling of hiding between the bed and fireplace as the Battle of Helena raged. It goes on and on.

My story is of two boys traveling from Helena Arkansas to the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War. I placed them in battles and situations that were real. They lived in Yankee-occupied Helena and lived through the battle there. They visited a large plantation in Mississippi. They were witness to a Yankee raid. They lived the hardships of a deprived South. They saw the institution of slavery from many angles.  They were at the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads where they met General Forrest. There is much more, and all of it could have happened, because I researched extensively. I wanted to tell the truth.

If you are interested in historical narratives, here are two sites you must visit: Library of Congress and Documenting the Old South.

Chase The Wild Pigeons: A novel of the Civil War can be found at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. My website is http://civilwarnovel.com

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Fine Likeness now available on Smashwords!

My Civil War horror novel A Fine Likeness is now available as an ebook on Smashwords! This is a big plus for shoppers who like to use Paypal because Smashwords accepts Paypal and Amazon doesn't.

Speaking of Amazon, they just opened up websites for Spain and Italy. Both carry my book at the links provided. I haven't gotten any sales at either site yet, because my book is only available in English, but hey, it can't hurt to be up there, right?

I can also sell this ebook in all electronic formats directly to you by Paypal. Drop me a line at my public email address seansontheweb (at) yahoo (dot) com and I'll get in touch. This would be a big favor for me because then I don't have to split royalties with a distributor. Please don't send emails with attachments as those will get deleted as spam.

Many of you have asked about the print edition. I'm setting that up right now and it will be available in time for Christmas.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Book Review: Jesse James, My Father

Jesse James, My Father; The First and Only True Story of His Adventures Ever WrittenJesse James, My Father; The First and Only True Story of His Adventures Ever Written by Jesse James

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


What an odd book.



The son of the famous outlaw, Jesse James Jr., spends the first half of this book trying to exonerate his father, and the second half trying to exonerate himself for an 1898 train robbery. After much media hype, Jesse James Jr. was found innocent.

In between the mythologizing of his father and himself we get interesting tidbits, like Jr.'s earliest memory being of a shooting at their home. There are also some rollicking good tales (wildly exaggerated) of his father's time fighting in the Civil War.

I've always been interested in Jesse James Jr. He lived in his father's shadow, and even played his famous father in two silent films that were later reworked with sound added and released as Jesse James Under the Black Flag, which is still available.


This is a fun read and a great insight into the mind of someone who barely knew his father (he was a kid when Jesse was killed) yet always lived with him. Just don't read it as history! for that see Yeatman's excellent biography Frank and jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend.


View all my reviews

Friday, December 2, 2011

Guest blogging about Jesse James in the movies

Jesse James is a minor character in my Civil War novel A Fine Likeness, and he's the theme of my guest post today over at Alex Cavanaugh's blog. Check out my post on How not to screw up the Jesse James legend.

Oh, and leave a comment. Alex loves comments. He's a blogger extraordinaire with a bazillion followers, plus the author of a cool science fiction novel.

WARNING!!! GRAPHIC!!! Civil War Photo Friday: Scalping Victim

Today’s Civil War Photo is at the bottom of the post instead of the top to give squeamish readers a chance not to see it. I’m not squeamish and even I find this photo hard to look at.

This is Robert McGee, c.1890, in a photo courtesy the Library of Congress. When he was a young boy in 1864, he was scalped by Sioux chief Little Turtle. The Sioux and many other tribes in the Far West rose up during the Civil War to take some of their land back and avenge many broken treaties. Perhaps Little Turtle was thinking of all the Indian children who had been killed by the white man. None of that, of course, justifies maiming a child.

Both North and South sapped the frontier of regular troops and young men, leaving it open for attack. Local militia and small detachments of Union and Confederate troops had their hands full fighting Indian war parties. In nearly all of these fights, the white’s superior weaponry led to victory, and the victors weren’t loathe to take scalps themselves. In one notorious incident called the Sand Creek Massacre, troops and townsmen slaughtered about 150 men, women, and children who had made peace with the Federal government and had been promised protection. A good introduction to the war in the Far West is Colton's Civil War in the Western Territories, which I reviewed here.

Scalping took place in other theaters of the war too, especially Missouri. In a scene from my Civil War novel A Fine Likeness, teenaged Confederate bushwhacker Jimmy Rawlins and his friends have joined the guerrilla band of Bloody Bill Anderson. They’re appalled when they see Anderson scalp a Union soldier. The next day Anderson shows them something calculated to change their minds.

“Mount up!” Anderson ordered. “We got some riding to do.”

“Where we off to this time, sir?” Jimmy asked.

“Another fight, what you figure? Bring your boys over here. I want you to see something.”

Jimmy gathered his group and Anderson led them through the woods about a hundred yards to where some bushwhackers were digging graves. Five bodies lay beside them. Jimmy gagged when he saw they’d all been scalped.

“These were my men,” Anderson said. “Serving as rearguard as we made our escape yesterday. Some Yanks caught up with them and look what they did.”

“My God,” the Kid muttered.

“Take a good look,” Anderson said. “The Yanks won’t show us no mercy, so I don’t want no more bellyaching about the way I do things. This is war to the knife, and the knife to the hilt. If you want to win it, you do things my way.”

The Rawlins Rangers walked back to their horses in silence. As they mounted up Albert whispered, “What with what Jesse told us about Anderson’s sister, and what we just saw, I wouldn’t give a plug nickel for that Union prisoner’s life.”

“Worth more than that,” Elijah grinned, patting his saddlebag. “Two more to go.”

He trotted off as the others stared at him. Morgan paced his horse up to Jimmy’s side.

“Yankee soldier or no,” Morgan muttered, “this ain’t no way to do things. I swear to God one day I’m gonna put a bullet in that son of a bitch.”

Guest blogging about writing historical fiction

Fellow Missouri author Dianna Graveman is hosting me for a guest post on Writing a Historical Novel in my own Back Yard. I talk about the advantages of writing historical fiction in familiar settings. I also give some tidbits from the book as well as some Missouri Civil War trivia. Well, not so trivial for those who had to live through it!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Comment moderation enabled, no anonymous cowards allowed

Due to the recent spate of personal attacks against me by people who haven't read my novel and are too cowardly to even identify themselves, I have now enabled comment moderation. From now on, I will filter comments and any anonymous comments will be deleted unread. You need to use a real name and/or a link to your site. My regular readers already do this, so I don't think it will be such a big deal for them.

The Neo-Confederates and other crazies can continue to show their bias and ignorance, but they must have the guts to identify themselves. Thanks to fellow ebook author A.J. Walker for reminding me that my time is better spent with the good people in my life and doing what I do best--writing.

Gadling named one of the top ten adventure blogs by Outside Magazine

Ethiopian monk with medieval manuscript, Lake Tana.
In the midst of hateful spew coming at me from Neo-Confederates on this blog, the Missouri Civil War Forum, the Kindle Forum, and even anonymous messages to my public email account (didn't know you could do that until now) I got some good news.

Outside Magazine has named the travel blog I work for, Gadling, one of the top ten adventure blogs! While we cover all aspects of travel, it's the adventure travel that most interests me. Our bloggers go all around the world, doing everything from riding camels in the Middle East to eating bugs in Asia. It's a fun team to work with. I've done a few adventure travel series myself, including a road trip in Ethiopia, visiting Somaliland, and living for two months living in Harar, Ethiopia.

I'm making plans for 2012 but there's nothing solid yet except a visit with my family to the Orkney Islands. In the meantime you can follow my feed where I give you updates about archaeology, art, and short trips I'm doing. Don't forget to go to Gadling's main page to see what my ultra-cool coworkers are writing about too.