Don’t Know Much About History*

Belle Boyd Home I’ve been reading about the American Civil War recently because…well, let’s see. Why AM I reading about it?

Oh, I know. Because it was the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg on July 4th this year and I subscribe to Smithsonian Magazine, and there has been an ongoing series of Civil War articles.

In spite of having lived in Pennsylvania for 17 years (you know, down the road from Gettysburg) I have managed to learn surprisingly little about the Civil War in my time here. So, with all the anniversaries rolling around I decided to read. And of course, when I’m reading about historical events I keep getting caught up in the fascinating characters who get a passing mention in the big texts.

Like, Robert Gould Shaw, who was eventually celebrated in the movie Glory . Turns out that for a long time he was nothing but a footnote in the history books. I have an old, second-hand book that bemoans the fact that no-one knows about Shaw, even though he wrote tons of letters that were preserved and published and promptly forgotten about. 1 The thing that really caught me about Shaw though, was the throwaway line that he spent a couple of days on honeymoon before going off to assume his command of the free African American troops. And that the couple’s families had not approved of the marriage. Wha-huh?

That was pretty much all I could find.

So the cogs started turning. And I wrote this story.

But there is a ton of other stuff to learn, quite apart from names of Generals and dates of campaigns.

For example, did you know there were a whole slew of women spies — for both sides — some of whom went on to become famous and give speaking tours, some of whom died in penury and some — I’m looking at you, Harriet Tubman — were the first women in the nation’s history to lead actual military operations (albeit without a commission. The woman blew stuff up and led raids, and all before she was being pictured in demure dresses and being celebrated as a suffragist). Also: the government finally paid out upwards of $200,000 in back-pension benefits that they had promised her for her war work but never given her, in 2011.

So I’ve spend a happy day or so reading the memoirs of Belle Boyd, La Belle Rebelle, to get the lowdown on how a spirited lady of adventure would tell her own story. It was published in 1865 while she was living in London and trying to get her husband out of jail back in America. She was a piece of work. And I’m currently writing a short story that is going to be a great rollicking ride through Viriginia with a spirited lady spy who may owe a debt or two to Mrs Boyd-Hardinge.

I also pulled up an episode of the Ken Burns documentary on the civil war that I remember coming out when I was still living with my parents or going to university. I remember my older brother being absolutely addicted to it and finding myself drifting into the room and ending up sitting there with him for hours as this strange, bewitching mishmash of still photos and voice-overs unrolled history for us. This week I accidentally landed on the episode that covers the horrors of the Andersonville prison, complete with pictures of starved survivors that should have warned us about the horrors that 20th century warfare would bring — apparently we weren’t listening.

There are stories to be written there too, but I’m probably not the one to write them. I don’t think I could sink myself into that much sadness and still have the willpower to sit down and write every day.

So it’s back to my spunky heroine Rose and her quest to [REDACTED] in order to save her [REDACTED] in the face of [REDACTED]. It’s going to be fun and exciting and, I hope, spur you to find out more about this fascinating period of history.

[*. Actually I do know quite a lot about history. Oodles, in fact. I have a certificate that says so. I just don’t know much about certain areas of it. Like, as it turns out, the history of the Civil War]

  1. Until Matthew Broderick came along, obviously.