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!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The mystery of the Arizona Confederate currency

On this day 150 years ago, an expedition of sixty Confederate Texans captured Tucson, in the Arizona Territory. They met no resistance. The white population in Tucson was pro-South and came out to cheer. The Mexican majority had no strong opinions one way or the other; they just wanted protection from the Apaches.

I lived in Tucson for many years and have always had an interest in Arizona's colorful territorial days. Tucson was only slightly less wild than its neighbor, Tombstone, and Wyatt Earp got into gunfights in both cities. I'm researching a book on Earp for Osprey Publishing, so more on that in a later post.

The band of rebels was led by Captain Sherod Hunter and was the vanguard of an invasion force that was trying to take the Southwest for the Confederacy. Just a week before, the main rebel army had defeated a Union force at the Battle of Valverde, New Mexico. If they could secure the stagecoach route to California, the rebels could avoid the Union blockade that was putting the Southern economy in a stranglehold. There was also talk of establishing a Confederate trading post at the port of Guayamas, 300 miles south of Tucson.

A column of Union troops from California would soon be on its way and would clash with the rebels just outside Tucson on April 15 at the Battle of Picacho Pass, often called the "westernmost battle of the Civil War". The rebels retreated, and Tucson's Confederate days were over.

Once a local historian told me that during his brief stay, Captain Hunter ordered a local printer to issue some Confederate banknotes for the Territory of Arizona. This historian, whose name I can no longer recall, said they are the most valuable Confederate banknotes because they were printed in small numbers and barely got into circulation. I have never seen one and my (rather limited) searching hasn't found any reference to them.

Did these banknotes exist? Were they confiscated by the victorious California column, or is there some hidden cache out in the Sonora desert waiting to be found? There's a story in that. . .

Image of Confederate flag being raised over Tucson courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Civil War Horror gets more than 3000 hits so far this month

Well, my bid to reach 1000 followers on my Twitter feed by the end of the weekend didn't pan out. Despite getting a bunch of cool new followers I reached "only" 996. I'll reach 1000 today or tomorrow, I'm sure. I did reach one milestone over the weekend--this blog passed 3,000 hits for this month! The actual figure as I write this is 3,157 hits, and the month isn't over yet! Of course some of these hits are by bots or by yours truly as I check my blogroll, but still it's an enouraging sign. More people are reading and more people are commenting.

A word about comments. After being threatened by a Neo-Confederate who hated my book without having read it, and the ensuing fallout, I no longer accept anonymous comments. None of the haters had the guts to sign their names and as soon as I instituted this policy they shut up. If you comment, you can still use the anonymous option but you have to sign your name or give a link within the text of your comment.

Back to the Civil War with the next post!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Get me to 1000 Twitter followers!

I'm getting close to 1000 followers on my Twitter feed. When I checked on Friday afternoon (Spanish time) I had 978. Let's get that to 1000 by the end of the weekend! I tweet about travel, archaeology, history, the Civil War (of course), the Horn of Africa, and writing. Every now and then I retweet something off-topic if it strikes my fancy. There's a minimum of tooting my own horn, although of course I do a little. :-)

So drop on by and check it out. If you like it, please follow me. Also check out my Facebook page. I link to all my online writing there so you won't miss anything I do for Gadling, the Osprey blog, or my guest posts.

Thanks in advance!

Civil War Photo Friday: Union soldier of the VII Corps (Department of Arkansas)

This is an unidentified soldier from the Union VII Corps of the Department of Arkansas. The Corps was formed in January of 1864 and got most of its fighting during the Camden Campaign under General Steele.

The soldier carries a "Volcanic pistol" from the fearsomely named Volcanic Repeating Arms Company. This was a lever-action repeating pistol that saw some use during the war although it wasn't as popular as the Colt revolver.

Was this Union soldier from Arkansas, or just assigned there? Although Arkansas was a Confederate state, several Union regiments were raised there. In fact, every Confederate state contributed regiments to the Union army. Support for secession was by no means universal in the South. Desertion was rife and Unionist guerrilla bands operated in many areas. On the other hand, there were Southern sympathizers in northern states, although their activities were limited.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Book Review: The Many Faces of Jesse James

The Many Faces of Jesse JamesThe Many Faces of Jesse James by Phillip W. Steele

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There have been hundreds of books about Jesse James. As far as I know, this is the only one that focuses on what he looked like and attempts to separate legitimate photos of the famous outlaw from the piles of fakes.

This short (128p page) book starts with a potted history of his life and death. This has been done more in-depth in several other books, especially Yeatman's landmark biography. The facts are accurately laid out, though, which is more than I can say for some Jesse James books. There's also a sizable and amusing chapter on the many Jesse James imposters.

Authors Steele and Warfel then move on to the meat of the book--examining the many purported photos of Jesse James, and to a lesser extent his brother Frank, to figure out which are real and which are fake. This is generally well done. I'm not convinced by some of their "genuine" photos, but this just makes the chapter all the more engaging. They also debunk many of the widely circulated fake photographs.

The last section of the book is given over to Warfel's sketches of Jesse at various stages of his life. While these are well done, I don't see much point in them. Many are simply copies of existing photos, such as the famous bushwhacker shot taken in Platte City in 1864.

This book will be of some interest to those who want a deeper understanding of Jesse James and the legend surrounding him. For someone looking for the definitive biography, Yeatman's "Frank and Jesse James" remains the leader in the field.

View all my reviews

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Guest blogging over at Osprey Publishing

As my regular readers know, one of my many writing hats is as a military historian for Osprey Publishing. Regular readers will also know that I recently wrote a travel series about Greece. Well, I've put one hat atop the other and write a guest post for the Osprey blog about Oddities from the Athens War Museum. Head on over and check it out!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Civil War Photo Friday: Sterling Price

This week 150 years ago was an important one for the Civil War in Missouri.

General Sterling Price's Missouri Confederate army had enjoyed success the previous year, culminating in the Battle of Lexington, when his forces briefly held a portion of the Missouri River in the center of the state. Supply problems and a precarious position with Union armies to the east and west soon forced him to move south, and he eventually in and around Springfield in the southern part of the state. Now, in February 1862, a large Union army under General Samuel Curtis marched south to push him from the state entirely.

Price realized he was outnumbered and abandoned Springfield on February 12, leaving a rearguard to skirmish with the advancing bluecoats at several points. They held out at creeks, where the thick underbrush reduced the effectiveness of the Union artillery and the creek impeded any Yankee charge. None of these skirmishes lasted very long, however. Their purpose was to slow down the Union advance. Once Union troops and artillery appeared in large numbers, the rebel rearguard would retreat to the next creek and set up another defense.

This rearguard action bought Price some time to close up with a Confederate force marching out of Arkansas under General Van Dorn. All these maneuvers would culminate in the Battle of Pea Ridge on March 6-8. I'll post more on that when the time comes. A good online summary and driving tour of the Pea Ridge campaign can be found at The Civil War Muse.

Price is one of the many historical figures who get a walk-on role in my Civil War novel A Fine Likeness. Jimmy and his band of bushwhackers meet him as he's passing through Boonville during his doomed 1864 campaign to retake the state. There's an excellent biography of this interesting general titled General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West. You can read my review of it here.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Last day to get my Civil War novel at the discounted price

Today is the last day to get my Civil War novel A Fine Likeness at the discounted rpice of $2.99. After that it will go back to $4.99. You can get it from the following online dealers.

Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble

Amazon Germany
Amazon France
Amazon Spain
Amazon Italy

Paypal customers can buy directly from the author. Contact me at seansontheweb (at) yahoo (dot) com. Please do not send emails containing attachments as these will be deleted as spam.

Happy Belated Valentine's Day! I LOVE my readers!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Guest Post by Cynthia Hope Clark: History is the Foundation for Any Novel

Before I get to my very special guest blogger today, I want to make two quick announcements. First, welcome to all my new readers who dropped by for the Origins blogfest. I had a great time reading your blogs and I look forward to getting to know you. Second, the $2.99 sale of my Civil War novel A Fine Likeness ends on February 15. Get it now at Amazon, B&N, or Smashwords before it goes back up to $4.99!

While I try to avoid clich├ęs, Cynthia Hope Clark needs no introduction. Famous for her blog and Funds for Writers site where she passes out writing wisdom like candy on Halloween, she is a cornerstone of the online writing community. Now she's published her first novel, Lowcountry Bribe – A Carolina Slade Mystery. I've known Hope for years and I can't think of a more appropriately named person. She keeps it positive while keeping her eyes wide open to the pitfalls of writing life. Her persistence has paid off and now the world is getting an exciting new mystery series. So without further ado, here's Hope!

When we contemplate history as writers, we think of historical romance, period novels, time travel sci-fi, nonfiction travel guides, textbooks, and magazine features. However, I propose that all authors must study history to create the best prose, no matter what genre they write.

I write contemporary mystery fiction. Like any novelist, I had to establish setting for my new release Lowcountry Bribe – A Carolina Slade Mystery. The location is the rural coastal area of South Carolina, known locally as the Lowcountry.  My protagonist grew up in the outskirts of Charleston County. A client offers her a bribe, and the story takes off through downtown Charleston and rural Edisto Island. History has no bearing on the bad guy’s motives or the heroine’s efforts to take him down, but the colorful past of the region certainly gives the reader a more 3-D image of where the murders and kidnappings take place.

For instance, while Slade hunted in the courthouse for deeds related to real estate fraud, a task that should seem mundane, I whisked the reader away with a quick mention of Sherman’s march through Charleston.

Heir property without clear chain of title was a common issue in a county so steeped in history. General Sherman’s march through the state at the end of the Civil War had devastated hundreds of title records.  Many longtime residents still wouldn’t mention his name, or spat when they did. I wasn’t too fond of the General myself. My great-great grandfather had fought in the Mississippi Cavalry, Company F, along with five of his brothers. One of them had deserted, something we didn’t discuss.

Not only do we better understand the degree of difficulty of the quest, but we become more engaged with the character. She might not be a battle flag-waving confederate, but she respects her heritage.

Slade then finds herself hunting for clues and ultimately seeking a deranged farmer in remote regions of a county most people only affiliate with Charleston, the beautiful city that serves as vacation destination for so many. While one could write about wide open fields and broken down barns and call it rural, a description that could fit in any county in most any American state, a dose of history keeps the reader captivated while Slade eats up road in her search.

People stepped back in time traveling outside of civilization where a historical past and the present blended together. Pockets of plantation slave descendants lived incognito between pieces of water, dirt roads and pine-oak thickets dripping with Spanish moss.

Knowledge is empowering. Before we write about fictional characters, we often jot notes, even pages, of traits, likes, desires, flaws and looks about them. Authors don’t use those lists for reference. On the contrary, they write that material to develop an inherent feel for the character. When the author opens a scene with the protagonist, she already knows how he’ll walk in the room and treat what he finds, all because she studied him top to bottom, inside and out, from his past to his present, even to what he hopes to gain in the future.

Understanding the history of your story’s setting empowers you precisely the same way. By understanding Civil War history, I could capitalize on it in my characters’ reactions, the landscape depiction, even decisions made by the players possibly because of their ancestors or who they once knew.

Let’s leave setting and talk more about character. As a writer, you use tags in dialogue, like he said or she said. Great dialogue, however, needs few, if any tags, because the dialect, manner of phrasing, and word selection can paint a clear enough picture to keep the reader oriented as to who is speaking. History plays a heavy role in that depiction.

All my books are set in rural South Carolina. In the Charleston area, one meets a variety of speech designs, from the downtown bluebloods to the Geechie dialect of some natives. In my second novel, however, the setting shifts to Beaufort, to islands known for the Gullah culture. That remarkable past dates to the 1600s, and helps the reader fall in love with the story. Between the voodoo and the impressive fact that those people were freed in 1861 by the Union Army, while the rest of South Carolina continued to fight the Civil War, the characters become more than cohorts in crime solving. Even the agriculture has a pertinent history, filtering into the plot. Also, immigrants in the story come from Haiti. After weeks of analysis, I pieced enough background together to weave a story how Haitians could be enticed to travel to America via other islands, and fall prey to human trafficking, because it’s happened before.

Every setting, every story, every genre has tremendous potential to grow into a deeper, higher quality read with the incorporation of history in the telling. I can’t imagine not doing historical research for my fiction, because with each tidbit I learn springs opportunity for my characters, my setting and even the direction of my story.

C. Hope Clark writes mystery by the banks of Lake Murray, South Carolina. Lowcountry Bribe, the first of The Carolina Slade series, can be found at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bell Bridge Books, and your neighborhood bookstore. Hope is also editor of FundsforWriters.com , a well-known resource for working writers, recognized by Writer’s Digest Magazine in its 101 Best Websites for Writers from 2001 through 2011, over a decade of excellence.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Origins blogfest: How I started writing

Today I'm participating in the Origins blogfest, where we all discuss how we started writing.

I actually don't remember when I started. The first short story I remember writing was when I lost my first baby tooth. To honor the occasion I wrote a story called The Ghost with One Tooth, complete with illustration! That story is at the bottom of a Toronto landfill now. Oh well.

As a kid I was more of a cartoonist than a short story writer. I did cartoons about time travel, a car race around the world, and a revolution where kids overthrow the adults and take over the world. Ah, every child's dream! My drawings were never very good and the cartoons got more and more text driven, with the words gradually edging out the illustrations. The same thing happened to the famous comic book writer Harvey Pekar of American Splendor fame. I never met him, but I'm in a writers group with Lance Tooks, one of his illustrators.

From about age 12 until my late twenties I stopped writing. I was briefly involved in the zine boom of the late Nineties, writing and publishing a zine called Ichthyoelectroanalgesia about archaeology and travel. I also had stuff published in other zines.

I didn't consider writing as a career until after I got my Masters in archaeology and had worked for a while in the field. It was then I realized that academia wasn't for me and got a second Masters at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. After a brief stint at the New Delhi bureau of Reuters and a couple of small newspapers, I went freelance. Two guidebooks, seven history books, a novel, and a short story collection later, I'm still loving it!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Civil War Photo Friday: Civil War blockhouses used a medieval design

In a previous Civil War Photo Friday I wrote about Union blockhouses, simple fortifications that proved effective against bushwhackers and cavalry raiders. My Civil War novel A Fine Likeness includes a fictionalized account of Bloody Bill Anderson's attack on a blockhouse at Fayette, Missouri. Above is a photo of a typical Civil War blockhouse. Note that the top floor is bigger than the ground floor.

In his Medieval Mondays series, fantasy/mystery author A.J. Walker wrote about Motte-and-Bailey castles, those cheap and quick wooden forts made famous by William the Conqueror. A photo of a reconstruction of one of these castles at Saint Sylvain d'Anjou dans le Maine et Loire, France, stuck me immediately.
Same construction! A little research found that this to have been common with these 10th-12th century castles. Not all of them had this feature, and not all Civil War blockhouses did either, but it's interesting to see the similarity in design.

For the castles, this feature was called a bretasche, and apparently added structural stability, one flat wall being weaker than a staggered wall with cross supports between the floors. It would also increase the number of defenders who could use their bows (or Springfield rifled muskets) from the firing platform.

Blockhouse photo courtesy Library of Congress. Castle photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Northern Arkansas in chaos during the Civil War

In my last post about foot burning in the Civil War, I talked about how northern Arkansas was a No Man's Land during the late Civil War.

For the first two years of the war, most of Arkansas was firmly in Confederate hands. The Ozarks in the northern part of the state, however, went their own way as they always have. Some people were for the south, others for the north, and many simply wanted to stay out of it. When Little Rock fell on 10 September 1863, central Arkansas came under the control of the Union. The rebel armies retreated to southern Arkansas and were too weak to challenge the Union troops in the center of the state.

The Union troops in Arkansas were undermanned, and could do little more than hold the line. Large swaths of the Arkansas Ozarks were left unguarded and soon became prey to roving bands who robbed civilians. Some of these groups claimed to be on one side or the other, but many were simply bandits.

In the fall of 1864, Confederate General Sterling Price decided to launch an ambitious plan to march north from southern Arkansas and invade Missouri. This is the setting for my Missouri Civil War novel A Fine Likeness. In preparation for the invasion, Price sent Confederate cavalry raider J.O. Shelby and his Iron Brigade to slip across the Arkansas River into northern Arkansas to round up deserters and conscript locals. Shelby reported “the entire country overrun with able-bodied men; recruiting officers quarreling or sunk in total apathy; predatory bands of thieves roaming over the country at will, killing some, burning the feet of others, and all hungering with the lust of robbery; one officer refusing to report to another, no organizations, no discipline, no arms, no leader, no desire to fight, no anything.”

Currently I'm writing another book in the House Divided series that is loosely tired to A Fine Likeness. One of the protagonists is a member of Shelby's Iron Brigade who deserts after Price is defeated and retreats south. He finds himself hiding out in this chaotic region. It's a great setting for a historical novel because anything can happen there, and everything does.

For more on Shelby and his Iron Brigade, check out my book Ride Around Missouri: Shelby's Great Raid 1863.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Foot burning in the Civil War

As I've noted before in my post about scalping (Warning: graphic image) the Civil War was anything but civil in some parts. One common method of torture in the Trans-Mississippi theater was foot burning.

An example from Turnbo's Tales of the Ozarks: War and Guerrilla Stories is typical. Silas Claborn Turnbo was born in Taney County, Missouri in 1844 and fought with the 27th Arkansas Confederate Infantry. After the war he collected many tales from the Ozarks about the chaotic times that region experienced. In one story, he relates how a man named John Sights or Sykes living in Madison County, Arkansas, lived alone in a sparsely populated region. Two of his sons were in the Federal army and two in the Confederate army. He himself was for the South. Sights/Sykes sent his daughter and slaves to Texas for the duration of the war and sent all his valuables with her.

Turnbo relates: "One night in the fall of 1864, a set of cut-throats rode up to Sight's house and told Mr. Sights in a threatening way to give up his money. His answer was, 'I won't do it, you devils.' They told him they would make him do it.

"'Well,' said he, 'go to work if you think you can make me do it, you heathenish set of scoundrels.'"

The gang then strung him up as if to hang him, then let him drop. They did this twice but he refused to tell them anything. Interestingly, this is the same method of interrogation used on Reuben Samuel, the father-in-law of Jesse James in an attempt to learn the whereabouts of Frank James and his guerrilla buddies.

When hanging didn't work on poor Sights, they "tied his feet fast together and his hands behind his back and took his shoes and socks off his feet, and when this was accomplished, the wretches picked him up and poked him feet foremost into the fire and pulled him back, then jabbed them into the fire again." They continued this torture until "the flesh on his feet was burned to a crisp and the flesh on his legs was cooked half way to the knees."

Eventually they left him for dead. Later one of his few neighbors happened by and summoned a doctor from the Federal army, who had no choice but to amputate both legs. Sights survived the war for four years and all his children survived too, but they must have all been forever traumatized by what had happened.

Note that Turnbo doesn't state which side the ruthless gang was on. Chances are they weren't on either side. Northern Arkansas was sort of a No Man's Land at that time, filled with deserters from both sides, bushwhackers who claimed to fight for the South, Jayhawkers who claimed to fight for the North, and simple bandits. More on that next time.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

New travel series on Greece

As I mentioned last week, I've started a new travel series on Greece. It's called. . .well you can see what's it's called from the pinbox above. I spent a week in Greece interviewing museum curators, archaeologists, and regular Greeks about the problems facing our collective past. How are the strikes inhibiting access to museums and sights? How much are staff cuts reducing opening hours and the nation's ability to conserve and restore our heritage?

Five posts are already up, three of them illustrated with galleries of photos. Several more posts are on the way over the next two weeks. So hop on over and check it out!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Civil War Photo Friday: Quantrill's black flag

Here's yours truly with a reproduction of Quantrill's famous black flag the rebel guerrilla supposedly flew as a sign that he'd take no prisoners. It's in the Clay County Savings Association bank museum. This bank, of course, was the first target of the James gang. This photo was taken by Rex Dickson, who shows no patience whatsoever with my obsession with Missouri's Civil War, but has seen a lot of the sights anyway. I wrote about the Liberty bank as part of my Gadling series on our Jesse James road trip.

Quantrill was the baddest of a bad crew. His gang slaughtered civilians, scalped soldiers, and raised hell generally. Frank James rode with him during the Civil War, as did famous outlaw Cole Younger. Jesse James may have ridden with Quantrill too before joining Bloody Bill Anderson in his own group.

This is an interesting flag for several reasons. You'll notice that Quantrill's name is misspelled. During the war his name was generally spelled with an "e", and the bushwhacker leader didn't exactly have a strong motive for correcting people. It's debatable whether he actually had a flag like this, though. There are several references to Quantrill's black flag, but both Frank James and Cole Younger said there never was one. At the time, "raising the black flag" meant that you'd show no mercy, so Quantrill's flag was probably metaphorical. In my Civil War novel A Fine Likeness none of the bushwhackers carry a black flag.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Woohoo! My short story collection got a one-star review!

My short story collection The Night the Nazis Came to Dinner, and other dark tales has received a one-star review on Amazon UK! Under the title "Can't believe I paid for this" the reviewer said:

"The four stories are not badly written. However, I reached the same conclusion on each -"So what". I didn't find any of them interesting; one I found difficult to understand.The first story about the Nazis, the reason I bought the book, offered all sorts of ideas in my mind but the story was flat and too short. The title was the best bit of the story. The other stories also promise more than they deliver.

"The stories are not badly written.

"I cannot think of one reason why I would recommend anyone to read these stories. They must have some redeeming features so let's hope somebody else reviews them and finds something I missed completely"

So, um, why am I celebrating a bad review? Because I totally don't care. After twelve years as a professional writer and the same number of books published, I finally looked at a bad review, shrugged, and got back to work. It's one guy's opinion and he has a right to it, even if he doesn't express very clearly what he didn't like about the stories. So he felt cheated out of 77 pence. So what? It won't kill my career, it doesn't mean I'm a bad writer, and it probably won't even hurt my sales.

As writers we need to stop worrying about what other people think. Oh yes, easier said than done, and some people can still get under my skin, but if we're to survive in this literary jungle we have to learn to slough off rejection and negativity and keep on writing. So thanks, anonymous reviewer, you just marked a milestone in my writing career!

In other news my Civil War novel A Fine Likeness is still on sale for $2.99 and will remain so until the day after Valentine's Day, because I love my readers.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Book Review With Fire and Sword, Arkansas 1861-1874

With Fire and Sword: Arkansas, 1861-1874 (Histories of Arkansas)With Fire and Sword: Arkansas, 1861-1874 by Thomas A. Deblack

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I was researching my book Ride Around Missouri, Shelbys Great Raid 1863, this title served as background reading.

With Fire and Sword: Arkansas 1861-1874 by Thomas A. DeBlack is a detailed account of the period from just before the war to the end of Reconstruction as is second in a four-part series covering the history of Arkansas.

It's nice to see a volume that covers both the war and Reconstruction. DeBlack convincingly argues that they're essentially two phases of the same event. The focus is more on political and social history than a detailed discussion of military strategy (which has been done at length elsewhere) and DeBlack skillfully interweaves primary sources and academic studies to give a clear picture of how Arkansas and Arkansans changed during this tumultuous period. A long annotated bibliography rounds out the work, adding a valuable resource.

I do have a couple of reservations. The book could have used a stricter editorial hand to clear away some overly academic writing, one howler (Missourians will be interested to know that Lexington is west of Kansas City), and a glossing over of some important details. The reduction of Sterling Price's army after the Battle of Lexington, for example, was not so much due to desertion as it was Price ordering many units to go home for lack of provisions.

Also, the book could do with a general map of the state and region. Many history books lack proper maps and I've never understood why some publishers feel the small amount of extra expense and work isn't necessary. I doubt most readers, including Arkansans, will know the locations of all the towns, villages, and rivers DeBlack mentions.

But these are minor quibbles. With Fire and Sword is an excellent overview of an important period in Arkansas history that affected the region as a whole. Highly recommended to students of the region and period.

View all my reviews