When Research for Your Historical Novel Changes Your Understanding

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By Glynn Young

For more than a year, I’ve been researching / writing/ researching / writing a historical novel set during the American Civil War. It’s loosely based on the experiences of my great-grandfather, but the more I write and research, the looser it becomes.

I thought I knew the basic story of the war. What I soon learned is that, for a very long time, historians focused on the war in the East, which specifically meant Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, and Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. But in the last two of three decades, the war in the West – in particular, Tennessee and Mississippi – has come to be recognized as almost as significant as that in the East.

It was certainly significant for both sides of my family. My father’s family experienced the Battle of Shiloh and Grierson’s Raid (the basis for the 1959 movie The Horse Soldiers, starring John Wayne). My mother’s family experienced the Union occupation of New Orleans (starting in 1862), both the Creole French and German immigrant sides of the family.

Still, I thought, I knew the basic facts of the war. In terms of the major battles, that remains true. But my research took me to places entirely unexpected, and it had the effect of changing my understanding of the war profoundly.

Three recently published books are responsible.

Hearts Torn Asunder: Trauma in the Civil War’s Final Campaign in North Carolina by Ernest Dollar tells the story of the surrender of Confederate General William Johnston to Union General William T. Sherman in Greensboro, North Carolina. This is not the story of battlefield glory; this is the story of civilians run amok and soldiers on both sides looting, pillaging, and committing terrible acts against women, former slaves, and children. Their officers held them accountable, and some were even executed. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder existed long before the late 20th century.

In Ends of War: The Unfinished Fight of Lee’s Army after Appomattox, author Caroline Janney makes a solid argument for how the myths that became the “Lost Cause” were not born during Reconstruction but in the final days of the war itself. Some 18,000 members of Lee’s army did not surrender but melted away in the night. And there was a legitimate fear that these soldiers might become guerillas.

Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era by Frances Clarke and Rebecca Jo Plant use solid data to show that about 10 percent of both the Union and Confederate armies were comprised of children under the age of 16. That translates into 200,000 boys, 180,000 on the Union side and 20,000 on the Confederate. One of the youngest was a boy from Michigan who “joined up” at age 9 when the war started and became a full-fledged solider at 12. The military on both sides accepted this state of affairs, although the Confederates were more likely to heed the pleas of parents and return their young sons. Not so the Union authorities.

This last one was especially impactful on my understanding. My great-grandfather was one of those 200,000 young boys.

I thought I knew the basic facts and understood the Civil War. I thought I was doing research to add color and authentic detail to my historical novel-in-progress. Instead, my research turned my understanding on its head, and a very different kind of story has begun to emerge.

Glynn Young is a national award-winning speechwriter, communications practitioner, and novelist. He’s the author of four published novels, Dancing PriestA Light ShiningDancing King, Dancing Prophet,  and Dancing Prince; and the non-fiction book Poetry at Work.   Visit Glynn on FacebookTwitterLinkedInPinterest, his blog, the Dancing Priest book page, and his business website.



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