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, April 30, 2013

Charles Zagonyi, Soldier on Two Continents

At the start of the Civil War, both sides were desperate for men with military experience. The last major U.S. conflict had been the Mexican-American War, long enough before that its veterans were beyond prime fighting age. Luckily for the North, it had a good supply of immigrants who were veterans of wars in Europe.

One of them was Charles Zagonyi, a Hungarian who had fought with distinction in his nation's revolution of 1848. Having been born in 1828 he, too, was beyond prime fighting age, but that didn't stop him.

Through connections in the Hungarian community, Zagonyi was invited to join the large personal bodyguard of General John C. Fremont in St. Louis. Fremont was entranced with the pomp and splendor of European armies and surrounded himself with foreigners in glittering costumes. Southerners sneered at all the foreign accents, and Northerners wondered if these strange fellows could actually fight.

Zagonyi got a chance to answer this question October 25, 1861, during the First Battle of Springfield, and the answer was both "yes" and "no". Confederate General Sterling Price's army had taken Lexington in the center of the state before retreating in the face of superior numbers. Now he was in southwest Missouri and only holding one major city in the region--Springfield.

Fremont led 38,000 men to make sure Price didn't come back. At its vanguard was Zagonyi. The Hungarian was given the task of retaking Springfield and decided to do it with a splendid cavalry charge. The charge was splendid all right, that is until it fell into a Confederate ambush.

Zagonyi's men numbered a little more than 300, while there were about 2,000 rebels in town. The Hungarian was in a tight spot, but he pressed forward and after some tough fighting the rebels wavered and ran. "Zagonyi's Charge" soon hit headlines across a North eager for some victories. He could rightly say that he'd seen off a far larger force and taken an important city. On the other hand, he really only defeated a poorly armed rearguard of an already retreating army.

When Fremont was relieved of duty for corruption and failure to adequately defend Missouri (a story I'll get to sometime) Zagonyi found himself out of a job. Fremont later managed to get a command in the Shenandoah Valley in West Virginia, and again hired his old bodyguard as a cavalry commander. Both made a poor showing of themselves and resigned under a cloud.

It's unclear what happened to Zagonyi after the war. While many officers wrote memoirs, for some reason Zagonyi never did.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Skirmish at Yellow Creek

Compared with the great Civil War campaigns back East, the struggle west of the Mississippi River had relatively few battles. Most of the fights were skirmishes that are all but forgotten today, yet they had a cumulative effect on the outcome of the war.

One such was the skirmish at Yellow Creek on August 13, 1862. Since August 9, Union forces under Col. Odon Guitar and Brig. Gen. Benjamin Loan had been pursuing pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard forces under Col. James Poindexter through Chariton and Livingston Counties in north-central Missouri.

The chase ran across 250 miles. The Union forces numbered 550 horsemen, while Poindexter's rebel force was much larger but suffering from supply problems. Col. Guitar estimated their number to be 1,500-2,000 but officers on both sides were not averse to exaggerating enemy numbers to inflate a victory or excuse a defeat.

Whatever the numbers involved, it was still a sound Union victory. The running fight cost the rebels horses and men, who were shot or fell by the wayside to be captured. The chase only ended when the rebels destroyed the bridge over the Muscle Fork river, stopping the Union pursuit cold.

Guitar boasted that by that point Poindexter only had about 400 men left, "with few arms and no ammunition. All of the latter I captured at Little Compton, with several hundred guns and horses, all his wagons, a large amount of clothing, and other plunder. In the round I have killed, wounded, and drowned 150 of his men and taken about 100 prisoners. Our loss has been 5 men wounded and some 10 horses shot."

He added, "I was unable to bring away a great part of the horses and plunder captured at Little Compton; besides, the condition of the greater part of them was such as to render them worthless. I have killed and worn down the greater part of my horses."

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Westernmost Battle of the Civil War

As I mentioned in my post on the Civil War in Arizona, the year 1862 saw the westernmost fighting of the war when a group of Texas Confederates made it all the way to the western New Mexico Territory (what's now Arizona) and were pushed out by the Union California Column.

The main "battle" happened on April 15 at Picacho Peak, 50 miles northwest of Tucson at 111° 24' 17'' W longitude, when the advance guard of the column clashed with Confederate pickets. This is often called the westernmost land battle of the Civil War.

Well, it wasn't really a battle but a skirmish with only 23 soldiers involved, and there was a skirmish even further west than that one. On March 30, while the California Column was still headed for Tucson, it came upon a group of ten Confederates at Stanwix Station led by 2nd Lt. Jack Swilling, pictured here in this Wikimedia Commons image. They were burning hay that had been left out on the column's route to supply the horses. Swilling's men were greatly outnumbered and after firing a few shots, one of which wounded Private William Frank Semmelrogge, they wisely withdrew. Semmelrogge later recovered.

But we're not done yet! You see, Stanwix Station was about six miles southwest of Agua Caliente, which is at 113° 19′ 28″ W. Almost a year later on May 20, 1863, there was a shooting at La Paz, Arizona, which is at 114° 25′ 35″ W. Confederate sympathizer William Edwards fired upon a crowd of Union soldiers, killing Privates Ferdinand Behn and Thomas Gainor and wounding a civilian bystander. Edwards fled into the desert, where he later died of thirst. There was no exchange of fire and Edwards wasn't in the Confederate army, so whether you want to call this a skirmish or not is up to you.

In California there was a band of robbers who called themselves Confederate Partisan Rangers. Holding up a stagecoach doesn't count as a skirmish, though. There was also a standoff between Union soldiers and Confederate sympathizers with no shots fired, so let's strike that one out too.

None of these are battles. If you want the westernmost BATTLE of the Civil War, you have to go all the was east to Valverde, New Mexico, where on February 20-21 at longitude 106° 54' 53" W, several thousand men in blue and gray had a real, proper, standup battle.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Vigilantes after the Civil War: The Baldknobbers of the Ozarks

The Civil War hit the Ozarks in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas especially hard. While the region was underpopulated, that made it a good home for guerrillas from both sides as well as simple bandits. Taney County in Missouri went from a prewar population of 3,500 to fewer than 1,000 by war's end.

Peace didn't come quickly to the Ozarks. When Confederate veterans returned home, many found their land occupied by Union men, confiscated for failure to pay taxes during the war. They couldn’t even vote thanks to a new state constitution that disenfranchised anyone who had supported the rebellion.

The local government became dominated by Union men, many of them newcomers who arrived to snap up cheap land. While some ex-Confederates did manage to get farms again, they had become an underclass. Some turned to lawlessness, usually targeting the wealthier Unionists.

The violence came to a head in the 1880s when a Union veteran named Nat Kinney formed the Baldknobbers, a vigilante group named after their practice of meeting on bald knobs, treeless hills where they could spot anyone coming to spy on their meetings. The Baldknobbers soon took to terrorizing the lawless element at night, wearing masks and whipping people. They soon graduated to lynching. In defense, the former rebels formed the Anti-Baldknobbers.

Soon the Civil War was being reenacted in the Ozarks. Many Baldknobbers were newcomers, Republicans, and ex-Union soldiers. Only a few kept farms, the main occupation of the general population, instead working in county government, law, or owning their own businesses. They looked on the native hill men as backward. The Anti-Baldknnobbers tended to be ex-Confederates and longtime residents, and most farmed for a living.

It's unclear how many died in the fighting. Estimates range from a dozen to more than thirty, with countless more beaten and driven from their land.

The lynchings, night riding, and shootouts were finally stamped out by Governor Marmaduke who, strangely enough, was a former Confederate general who came into power after the restrictions on ex-rebels holding public office was lifted. He didn't care who had fought for whom, he just wanted the killing to stop.

You can read more about the Baldknobbers in my book Outlaw Tales of Missouri.

This Wikimedia Commons photo is from the 1919 film, The Shepherd of the Hills and accurately depicts surviving Baldknobber masks.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Underground Exploration: why I'm hooked on caving

I've always liked to explore. That thrill of discovery has taken me to 33 countries, up to 34 next month when I go to Slovenia. But you don't have to go to some faraway land to see something new. One of my hobbies is caving. Anytime I've lived in a region where there were good caves I hurried to get underground. I've traveled beneath New Mexico, Missouri, and now Cantabria in northern Spain where I'm living now.
Caving is physically challenging and emotionally rewarding. The hidden natural beauty of the world beneath our feet is something only a tiny fraction of us ever get to see. Hit that link in the previous paragraph to see some of my caving articles. There are more on the way!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Tracking rebel guerrillas in the Civil War

In Missouri and Arkansas during the Civil War, the thick underbrush was the Confederate guerrillas' greatest ally. Anyone who has hiked in those states knows the foliage gets so thick you can't see ten feet. This meant the Union troops trying to hunt down the rebels had to get good at tracking, using the same techniques they'd used to hunt deer in peacetime.

In 1863, Captain William Kemper of the Ninth Cavalry Regiment, Missouri State Militia, was having trouble with guerrillas in Clay County in western Missouri, especially a band under the command of Fletch Taylor.

Kemper had his men lie beside a road for a while in ambush but the guerrillas never passed, so he turned to tracking. He scouted along the Fishing River and came to the farm of John Eaton, a known secessionist. Kemper reported: "I noticed at the yard fence a path made, both by horses and men. . .I took the  track at once, and followed it through a pasture adjoining the yard into a densely brushy pasture, where I came upon the party of bushwhackers."

The guerrillas were only surprised for a moment. They were used to hasty exits, whether from camp or from the house of some friendly rebel woman cooking them dinner. Covering their retreat with a hail of bullets from their six shooters, they soon disappeared into the brush. Kemper would have to hunt for Taylor's group again.

In that crowd of retreating bushwhackers was a certain Jesse James and his brother Frank James. They were known to authorities as rebel guerrillas. It wouldn't be many years before they were known to the whole world

Monday, April 22, 2013

Lieutenant Sardius Smith on his experiences in Civil War Missouri

As I've mentioned frequently on this blog, the Civil War in Missouri quickly shifted from one of standing battles to a Confederate guerrilla campaign in the Union-occupied state. Guerrilla wars are especially brutal, and Missouri was no exception. Rebel irregulars burnt homes and used various tortures on Unionist civilians such as foot burning.

The Union soldiers assigned to suppress the insurgency became hardened as well. In 1862 Lt. Sardius Smith wrote in his diary, "We are getting quite hardened by this kind of thing, and I can go into a house with a pistol in my hand, with a smile on my face, speak politely to the ladies, ask where their men are in order that I may shoot them or take them prisoner with as much grace as though I was making a call for friendship's sake."

Anna Slayback of St. Joseph had a civilian's view when she wrote on May 9, 1862, "We Union people are very low up here. The laws are becoming more stringent on the rebels in Mo. & they must be put down. They are impudent & rejoice over our defeat. This must not be."

In a later letter she wrote, "Were the rebels a foreign foe or a stronger people, then subduing them might be called victories. But this is a family quarrel, brother against brother, & we bite & devour one another that other nations may mock & laugh at our folly."

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Reader News for April 20, 2013

My friends in the blogosphere have been busy lately! For today's Reader News we have two exciting new books and a Kickstarter campaign.

Jack Badelaire over at the Post Modern Pulp blog has just released COMMANDO: Operation Bedlam. This is the second in his action series about a crack British Commando team in WWII. I loved the first book (read my review here) and was lucky enough to be a beta reader for the second. Both are fast-moving books with lots of action, a huge body count, and an eye for historical accuracy.

David Lee Summers and I go way back. For some two decades now he's written a steady output of quality stories and novels ranging from horror to science fiction to steampunk. His latest is Dragon's Fall: Rise Of The Scarlet Order, a vampire novel that came out last month and I somehow missed. (Sorry David!)

Last but not least, Eric over at the Civil War Daily Gazette is getting married and his honeymoon will be a drive along the entire length of Route 66! He and his bride-to-be have launched a Kickstarter campaign called the Route 66 Polaroid Project. They'll be taking Polaroid shots of the sights along The Mother Road. Supporters can get unique old-fashioned print photos sent to them, complete with description of the view. This is a project worth supporting!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Question for my readers: How can I help you?

Um. . .what the title said.

I get an average of 300 hits a day on this blog and broadcast the posts on my public Facebook page and Twitter account. If you just had a book published, won an award, are starting a Kickstarter campaign, or whatever, drop me a line and I'll include it in my Reader News posts to get you some extra attention. The next one will be tomorrow so if you have anything to share, email me today at the address shown on the left-hand column of this blog.

The news can be about writing, history, archaeology, adventure travel, etc. You know what I cover in this blog, so if it's at all related, send it along to the email on the sidebar to the left.

Also check out my offer of free photos for your book cover.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Pterodactyl sightings in America

Let's descend into a bit of silliness. This is, after all, a fiction blog as well as a history blog.

We all remember the pterodactyl from when we were kids, that weird birdlike creature with the funky head. It died out with the dinosaurs, right?

Wrong, say some true believers. Pterodactyls have been spotted all over the world, especially in Texas, which has had several waves of pterodactyl sightings. Pterodactyls have landed on mobile homes, buzzed schoolteachers on their way to work, and generally caused mayhem across the state.

Native Americans believed in the Thunderbird, a giant bird seen in the skies of the American Southwest. Cryptozoologists (people who study unexplained animal sightings) claim the Thunderbird legend may be evidence of pterodactyl sightings. Of course the legend recounts a big feathered bird and not a reptile, but whatever.

Creationists have also gotten into the game. Many of the "pterodactyls are alive" websites use the sightings as evidence that the Earth couldn't be millions of years old, otherwise these creatures would have died out.

The sightings have been happening for some time now and even the Tombstone Epitaph got into the game back in 1890, claiming that some cowboys bagged one. Many photos of the supposed creature have arisen. This is just one of them.

While I have a hard time believing in the Thunderbird/living pterodactyl, I do find the idea charming. Perhaps I'll write a story about it one day!

I took this photo from the Texas Cryptid Hunter blog, which has a refreshingly skeptical take on the phenomenon. The image is not original to them. While I'm careful to use only public domain photos in this blog, I'm not sure this one is. If it's really as old as it appears, then it's public domain. It could simply be an old fake. If it's modern, 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. :-)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Battle at Old River Lake

By the summer of 1864 the Confederacy west of the Mississippi was in serious trouble. The Union occupied Missouri and northern Arkansas, rebel presence in the Indian Territory was all but gone, and the campaign to take New Mexico and open a corridor to California was a forgotten dream.

The rebels still had some fight in them, however. While the Union controlled the river after taking Vicksburg the year before, rebel soldiers and guerrillas regularly harassed shipping.

In May of 1864, Col. Colton Greene led 800 Confederate soldiers to Chicot County in the extreme southeast of Arkansas. Here the Mississippi was narrow and took several hairpin turns. Riverboats chugging upstream could only go a maximum of 13 mph and made fine targets. Greene set up his six cannon and pounded away at them.

He proudly reported: “I engaged 21 boats of all descriptions, of which five gunboats and marine-boats were disabled, five transports badly damaged, one sunk, two burned, and two captured. My loss was one subaltern and five privates slightly wounded. No guns or horses were hit. The river is blockaded.”

The Union command quickly sent 6,000 men under the command of General Andrew Jackson Smith. On June 5 they landed and 3,000 troops disembarked. There was a bit of skirmishing that evening but it was too late to start a battle.

The next day under heavy rain, the Union troops advanced. Facing them were only 600 rebels, the rest being sent to guard the line of retreat and another potential target to the north. They were positioned behind Ditch Bayou, now swollen with rain yet not visible to the Union men advancing over what they thought was an open field. The rain turned the field to mud and slowed the soldiers' progress and made it impossible to advance their own artillery.

The bluecoats advanced through a withering fire. Soon they discovered the bayou and realized they were trapped. They hunkered down in the mud, unable to advance because of the bayou and unable to retreat for fear of being cut down.

They were saved by some Union cavalry, who were able to cross the bayou to the south and flank the rebels. Greene ordered a retreat. That night the Union soldiers camped in nearby Lake Village, where they plundered homes for food and broke up furniture and fences to build fires. The next day they returned to their boats, only to have Greene's men snipe at them every step of the way.

Union casualties numbered about 180, while the Confederates lost about 100. Green's men withdrew from the area for fear of another attack but the harassment of steamboats continued until the end of the war. The Battle at Old River Lake was the last significant engagement in Arkansas, yet it's almost forgotten today.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Ned Kelly meets Tupac Shakur

You're getting a double dose of my A to Z Challenge contributions today. Yesterday I was too busy with an article about English castles that's now live on Gadling. Researching it took up way more time and energy than expected!

I did play hookey for part of yesterday, however, in order to watch The Story of the Kelly Gang on Archive.org. Ned Kelly was an outlaw in late-nineteenth-century Australia and was most famous for his gunfight against the police while wearing homemade armor. The law saw him as a brutal killer and thief, while many regular folk saw him as a hero who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. He became the Australian equivalent of Jesse James, larger than life.

This film was made in 1906 in Australia and at 60 minutes, was the longest film yet made. It proved hugely successful in Australia and played in theaters for 20 years. Sadly, most of the film has been lost. Back then people thought of films as disposable and most films from the first three decades of motion pictures are gone. It's only by luck that 20 minutes of the film have survived.

The guy who posted the film on Archive.org did a good job splicing the various surviving bits together. He didn't add a soundtrack, though, and not liking my silent films to be totally silent I decided to put on some music. Hmmm. . .what would go with a bandit movie? Tupac Shakur, of course! His music is about gangsters defying the police, after all.

As strange as it sounds, the music fit perfectly. Just goes to show that once art is in the public space, it can take on some strange and unanticipated forms. I bet Tupac never dreamed his music would be used to accompany a hundred-year-old movie, and I'm sure Ned Kelly never anticipated someone like Tupac!

Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Tom Mix: An Early Western Superstar

Last week I blogged about William S. Hart, the first Western movie star. Hart got the ball rolling and soon Westerns were a favorite genre among moviegoers in the days of silent film.

The next actor to make it big in the Cinematic Wild West was Tom Mix. Unlike Hart, he wasn't a professional actor drawn to a new medium. Instead, he was a real-life cowboy. He worked various jobs in Oklahoma including a stint in 1904 as a bartender and sheriff/marshal in Dewey, Oklahoma. He later worked at Miller's 101 Ranch and earned a reputation as a crack shot and fine rider, winning prizes at rodeos all around the West.

He later got a gig at Will A. Dickey's Circle D Ranch, a Wild West show that provided cowboys and horses to the early motion picture studios. In the first decade of the Twentieth century, small ranchers were being bought out and centralization was the name of the game. Many cowboys found themselves out of work and ended up living in Hollywood. There they lived like they always had, in bunkhouses and taking care of steers and horses, but this time their employers were the studios.

The Selig Polyscope Company put Mix was in his first film in 1909 and he went on to make a hundred shorts for them before signing with the Fox Film Corporation. His films always highlighted his skill with the rope and as a rider. Mix did some amazing stunts such as leaping off cliffs and riding on top of trains. These were the days before trick photography and when you see Mix doing something crazy on film, he really was doing it.

Unlike many silent stars, Mix managed to make the switch over to sound films and continued working until 1935, thrilling a whole new generation of fans.

Photo courtesy the Beinecke Library.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Last Casualty of the Civil War

An estimated 700,000 men died in the Civil War. Historians have often asked the question: who was the last?

Generally the answer has been this unfortunate fellow, Private John J. Williams of the 34th Indiana Infantry, who was killed at the Battle of Palmito Ranch in Texas on May 13, 1865.

It was Williams' first battle and a completely unnecessary one. Both sides had heard the news of Lee's surrender and Johnston discussing terms with Sherman. Already there were mass desertions in the Texas units.

Maj.-General Kirby Smith, commander of all Confederate forces in the Trans-Mississippi theater, wanted to fight on. Rebel troops were still active in southeastern Texas, where they headed across the Mexican border to trade for much-needed supplies. There was a Union garrison just off the coast on Brazos Island and the commander sent some troops to take Brownsville, the border town through which the rebel supplies came.

The resulting battle saw the Union pushing back the rebels in the morning until rebel reinforcements arrived. Then the tables were turned and it was the bluecoats' turn to retreat. Casualties were low and only one man was reported killed, Private Williams on the Union side. So Williams got the unfortunate distinction of being the last man killed in the Civil War.

Other historians disagree, and point to the Skirmish at Hobdy's Bridge six days later.  On May 19, a group of men from the First Florida Cavalry (Union) rendezvoused at the bridge just over the border in Alabama to rejoin their unit after being on furlough. Unknown to them, their comrades had already set out after some Confederate bushwhackers.

The bushwhackers, however, were actually hiding near the bridge and opened fire on the latecomers. Three men from the First Florida were wounded and a fourth, Corporal John W. Skinner, was killed. After the war, the three men applied for an extra pension for being wounded in action, but army red tape told them since they were on furlough, they weren't qualified. It took three decades of wrangling before the army ruled they had returned to active duty when they arrived at the bridge as ordered, and therefore got an extra pension. Since the court ruled they were on active duty, Corporal Skinner was the last man to be killed in the Civil War.

Or maybe not. Further research of skirmishes in the waning days of the Civil War would probably uncover more such "last casualties." Dying in war is always tragic, but to die when the war was pretty much over must have been a doubly hard blow for these men's families.

Photo of Private Williams courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The USS Keokuk: An Ill-Fated Civil War Ironclad

The Civil War saw the first use of ironclad ships. Since the technology was in its early days, engineers experimented with different designs. One failed design was the USS Keokuk.

Launched in December 1862 from New York City, this 677-ton ship was almost 160 ft. long. She had two stationary, cylindrical gun towers, each pierced with three gun ports. Each turret only had one gun, however, that rotated within the turret. Her armor was also unusual, being made up of horizontal iron bars alternating with planks of oak wood and sheathed with a boiler iron sheet. The total thickness of this composite armor was only 5.75 in.

The USS Keokuk saw her first and last battle 150 years ago this week, when on April 7 she was part of a fleet attacking Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. This was the famous fort that the rebels took at the start of the war. Recapturing it would be a major propaganda victory for the North as well as allowing them to dominate the harbor.

The Confederates weren't about to let that happen. They opened up a brutal fusillade against the ships. The Keokuk was struck by about ninety projectiles, many of which hit at or below her waterline. Her experimental armor proved completely inadequate. One observer said she was "completely riddled". Though the Keokuk was able to withdraw, she sank on the next morning.

You can read a more detailed account of the battle at the Civil War Daily Gazette.

Photos courtesy U.S. Naval Center. Click on the link for more!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Django Unchained: How Historically Accurate is Tarantino's Latest Historical Action Flick?

The A to Z blogfest continues, and today is the letter J, so I'll be talking about the movie everyone's been talking about--Django Unchanged! Hey, the D is silent.

Many people have asked me how historically accurate this film is. Then short answer is not at all. The long answer follows.

Django's opening title states that the year is "1858, two years before the Civil War." The war, of course, started in 1861, which was 3 years later. From then on there's a host of factual errors. The characters use repeating rifles that didn't exist at the time, they use metal cartridges that didn't exist at the time, they even visit cities that didn't exist at the time, etc., etc. The Internet Movie Database has a long list of historical errors in Django Unchained so I won't go into them all here.

I live in Spain, and many Spaniards I know were shocked with how slaves were treated in the film. The common reaction was, "I knew slavery was bad, but I didn't know it was that bad!" Here Tarantino is on firmer ground. Slaves really were beaten and mutilated for trying to escape. Sometimes they really were torn apart by dogs. Slave women really were used as sexual playthings. Tarantino, being Tarantino, amps this up a bit but all of it is true.

The only place where he really exaggerated is with the "Mandingo fighting". He portrays a group of wealthy slave owners training slaves to fight to the death. According to slavery historians interviewed by Slate, this never happened. Slaves were trained to fight as bare knuckle boxers, but they were too valuable as property to be used in death matches.

Hopefully the fans of this film will be inspired to read about the era and learn the reality behind the fiction. One can only hope. I did enjoy the film as a kickass action Western with some fine acting. I just didn't see much history.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Indie Life: How I use social media in my writing career

Today I'm participating in the Indelibles Indie Life blog hop. On the second Wednesday of every month we talk about various aspects of being an indie author, and luckily the A to Z blogfest is dedicated to the letter I today.

Social media is part of my life as a writer. I blog, both here and for Gadling, the leading travel blog on the web. I also have a Twitter feed and a public Facebook page.

I do set up certain limits to my social media presence, however, because I recognize that it can only do so much for my career and can easily become a waste of time. If you look at my feeds you'll notice that I don't use them as often as some people, and have fewer followers than most.

The main reason for this is that I don't play the "follow me and I'll follow you" game. I don't see a point to that. I want followers who are actually interested in my writing, and I only follow feeds that I'm genuinely interested in. Even then I don't read them on a daily basis. I simply don't have the time. And even when I do read them I only comment when I have something to add to the conversation.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I'm trying to get beyond the indie author's echo chamber. While I love my fellow indies, our community runs the danger of being a closed one. That's one of the reasons I'm also getting more into Goodreads. I like the conversations on there and I think it offers a great way to connect with readers.

You might also want to look at my post on Twitter for writers.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

William S. Hart: the first Western film star

I've always been a fan of silent films. Like most people, I loved the old Chaplin and Keaton slapstick shorts as a kid. Unlike most people, I soon became entranced with the silent dramas and adventures. Back in the 80s when I was growing up, you could still see these pictures on late night TV and in New York City revival houses. Now I watch them on the Internet or at rare showings at arthouse cinemas.

I've recently been getting into silent Westerns. The first silent Western star was William S. Hart. He starred in more than 70 Westerns from 1914 to 1925 and helped establish many of the tropes still used in Westerns to this day.

Hart had a stony face and dominating manner that was perfect to play heavies. In fact, he often portrayed villains. Sometimes he'd be saved by a good woman, sometimes not. Every Hart film contained a gunfight, sometimes several, and they were always quick, brutal affairs that looked very realistic.

In The Return of Draw Egan (1916) Hart favors a slight grimace and a cigarillo that looks like it inspired Clint Eastwood's The Man With No Name. I wouldn't be surprised. Hart inspired many Western actors and helped establish the genre. He was hugely successful in his day but sadly all but forgotten now. His films are full of Victorian moralizing that come off as dated. For me at least, they retain a primal power that makes them worth watching.

In preparation for this post, last night I watched what's considered one of Hart's best films: Hell's Hinges (1916). That link will take you to Youtube where you can watch this public domain film. The rest of this post contains spoilers.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Globsters! Mysterious giant lumps of flesh washed up on beaches

The A to Z blogfest continues, and the letter G can only mean one thing--the globster!

What's a globster, you ask? It's an unidentified blob of flesh washed up on the beach. It's smelly, decaying, and generally nasty. People used to think they were some type of sea monster or unidentified species of giant squid or octopus.

I've always had a soft spot in my heart for globsters. Perhaps it's the name, or their irresistible cuteness. Perhaps it's because I always root for the underdog, and you can't get much lower than being a rotting hunk of unidentifiable meat on the beach being gawked at by local yokels.

The above photo is of the St. Augustine Monster, which washed ashore near St. Augustine, Florida, in 1896. Needless to say it caused quite a stir. A scientist who saw it thought it was an octopus because of the arm-like appendages you can see here. Journalists, of course, immediately labeled it a sea monster.

Maybe the journalists were right for once. Maybe in the unexplored depths of the ocean there are colonies of globsters, perhaps with a highly evolved civilization to hide themselves from our advancing technology. They're only spotted when one dies and floats to the surface!

Alas, I've never seen a globster. My closest brush with the unknown was "seeing" the infamous Thunderbird photo. I have to be content reading about them at Globhome.

This photo is of the Chilean Blob. It washed up on the shore of Chile back in 2003. At first it couldn't be identified, but then some party poopers at a biological laboratory checked the DNA and found it came from a sperm whale. Part of the blubber layer separated from the rest of the decaying animal and eventually made it to the beach and into the newspapers. The researchers theorize that most or all globsters may also be whale blubber.

But hey, DNA samples can be wrong, just ask anyone on death row! There's still a chance that the Lost Civilization of the Globsters will rise from the deep to reclaim their dead. . .

[Photos of the St. Augustine Monster and Chilean Blob courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Flintlocks in the American Civil War

This is a sketch of a flintlock musket, the height of weapons technology in the late 18th century. When the trigger was pulled, the lock snapped down, bringing a piece of flint against a plate of steel. This made sparks fly into a pan filled with gunpowder. A hole between the pan and the inside of the barrel set off a larger charge of powder that shot the bullet out the barrel.

By 1861, the flintlock was old tech. All modern armies used the percussion cap, an explosive cap struck by a hammer that replaced the unwieldy and often unreliable flint and pan. The problem was, many people hadn't caught up. Underfunded local militias, who hadn't heard a shot fired in anger in a generation, often still carried flintlocks. Many rural farmers also had flintlocks as family heirlooms. Modern guns were pricey and the flintlock was still good enough for hunting.

But not good enough for the modern battlefield. Armies on both sides scrambled to supply enough percussion lock rifles for their troops. The industrial North soon had this sorted out, and government contractors got rich selling modern weapons or refitting flintlocks into percussion locks.

The South, however, lagged behind. Many regiments required individuals to bring their own guns and were thus a motley collection of flintlocks, shotguns, and percussion rifles scrounged from dead Yankees.

An account of the 1861 Battle of Lexington, Missouri tells how one old farmer approached the Union fortification every morning with a flintlock and a lunch his wife had packed him. He'd sit behind a tree and take potshots at the Union troops all morning, take a break for lunch, then fire at them all afternoon before going home to his wife. He doesn't appear to have hit anyone!

Even more primitive weapons appeared on the battlefield. Check out my post on Medieval weapons in the Civil War.

Images courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Ectoplasm! or, "I sneeze dead people"

This unfortunate woman is Mary Marshall, who had the poor manners to let spirits of the dead dribble out of her nostrils like mucous during flu season. She was part of a family of Canadian spiritualists who during the early 1900s held seances in their home.

That gunky stuff was known as ectoplasm, a paranormal Goo From Beyond. Ectoplasm appeared in seances and spiritualist photographs around the turn of the century. This Goo From Beyond is, of course, a parlor trick. This photo seems to show tissue paper with photos cut from magazines.

Ectoplasm would issue from the bodily orifices of the medium during the seance. It normally came from the nose or mouth, but could also come out the ears, eyes, nipples, and, as the photo below suggests, regions further to the South.

Ectoplasm has an aversion to light and thus only appears in the darkened rooms of the seance. This is convenient in that it keeps observers from getting to close a look, although these flash photos must have turned at least a few people into skeptics.

Spiritualism really kicked off in the United States due to the appalling loss of life during the Civil War. For more on that, check out my article Spiritualism during the American Civil War. It still exists as a movement today, although ectoplasm has fallen out of favor. A pity. I really like to see people sneeze up spirits.

Top photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Bottom photo from the fun Fortean blog Who Forted?, which has a lengthy quote from a Spiritualist "explaining" ectoplasm.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Dime Novels in the Wild West

Before Saturday morning cartoons. . .before matinees. . .before pulp magazines. . .there were dime novels! These cheaply produced paperbacks thrilled little boys and grown men with stories of adventure and derring-do from their advent in the 1860s to their demise in favor of pulp magazines in the 1920s.

During their height in the 1880s-1900, there were countless series released by dozens of publishers and written by a small army of hacks. There were Westerns, mysteries, espionage, historicals, and more. The vast majority were marketed towards juvenile boys and often featured young heroes.

I've read about a dozen dime novels and have several in my book collection. Most are atrociously written with formulaic plots yet show an energy and innocence lacking in much of today's popular writing. The most interesting ones for me are the Westerns, especially the many titles starring a heroic Jesse James. Some of these were published even while Frank and Jesse were still out robbing banks and helped add to their mythic character.

In many ways, the legend of the Wild West was born in dime novels. While researching my book on Wyatt Earp, I came across an interesting anecdote. Wyatt was chasing some stagecoach robbers outside of Tombstone, Arizona, and found their recently vacated camp. Among the items he found there was half of a dime novel. It was common back then to tear off the pages you had already read in order to lighten your load. As Earp followed the trail of the outlaws, he found another camp, with the missing pages. So real-life Western outlaws were reading dime novels!

Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Civil War in Arizona

While the main focus of Civil War history is on the big battles east of the Mississippi, the war raged in the west too. It even reached as far west as Arizona.

Back then Arizona didn't exist; it was part of the New Mexico Territory. Early in the war the Confederacy suffered from a Union naval blockade and decided to send an expedition to take the territory to gain access to its mines and as a route to ports in Mexico and California. In the spring of 1862 an army of Texans under General Sibley marched into New Mexico.

At first all went well, but the army suffered a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Glorieta pass on March 26-28. The rebels were soon fleeing back to Texas. But not all of them. A detachment of 54 Texans had ridden further west, all the way to Tucson, and had claimed it for the Confederacy. As part of the reorganization of Confederate territories they renamed it the Territory of Arizona. They may even have issued an Arizona Confederate currency, a mystery that I'm still trying to clear up with the help of some other researchers.

The Confederate occupation of Arizona was to be short-lived. A column of 2,350 Union cavalry from California headed into the territory and clashed with the Texans at Pichacho Pass about 50 miles northwest of town. After a short firefight that left several men dead on both sides, the rebels retreated. The Battle of Picacho Pass is often called the westernmost battle of the Civil War. I'll be takinng up the question of whether this is true or not later this month.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

B is for Bloody Bill Anderson

It's the second day of the A to Z blogfest, and how could I not dedicate this to Bloody Bill Anderson? I have a longtime interest in the Civil War west of the Mississippi River, where the name Bloody Bill was spoken with dread.

Bloody Bill was one of the many nobodies who was projected to fame by the war. He was a Confederate bushwhacker, a guerrilla fighter who attacked isolated Union outposts and patrols and caused havoc in rural Missouri. There were many such groups, and his was the toughest and most feared. Among his many followers rode a young Frank and Jesse James.

The Union army had a hard time stamping out the bushwhackers. Drained of men to fight the bigger battles in the east, the Union forces were spread thin across the state. In desperation the Union command ordered the imprisonment of the bushwhackers' families in the hope that this would make them give up. Bloody Bill's sister was put into prison in Kansas City.

In 1863 the prison collapsed and she was killed. It seems this tragedy unhinged Bloody Bill's mind. He took his revenge by sacking Lawrence, Kansas, killing some 200 civilians. The next year he went on a rampage through central Missouri, killing, scalping, and destroying everything in his path. Nominally this was in support of Confederate General Sterling Price's invasion, but in reality it was to quench Bloody Bill's thirst for revenge.

Anderson was killed by a lucky Union militia in October of that year. He's appeared in many movies and books since then, including The Outlaw Josey Wales and my Civil War novel A Fine Likeness. He's an irresistable character straight out of central casting!

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, April 1, 2013

A is for Adventure Travel

Welcome to the A to Z blogfest, where I and more than a thousand other bloggers run through the alphabet this month. I'll be focusing on the regular subjects of this blog: the Civil War, Wild West, and travel.

A is, of course, for adventure travel. I've been a dedicated traveler for more than 20 years and one of my jobs is as a writer for the Gadling travel blog. I've written several series, including a road trip around Ethiopia, visiting Somaliland, and most recently visiting Iraq. Here you can see me hanging out with some Iraqi cops. I'm the younger guy with no firepower. My travel companion is an accomplished sailor from Norway whose hobby is sailing in small boats far north of the Arctic Circle. Not really my thing, but certainly cool!

Check out the map at the bottom of this blog to see where else I've been. Later this year I'll be doing a solo writer's retreat in Tangier and hopefully a long trip to the Sudan. When I'm not traveling I split my time between Santander, Spain (great caving) and Oxford, England (awesome pubs and libraries).

Where do you like to travel? Tell me about it in the comments section!