History into Fiction:  Writing Civil War Novels

By Max R. Terman

 

My great-uncle Hiram Terman (82nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry) fought in the Valley Campaign against Stonewall Jackson, then at Cedar Mountain, Second Bull Run, Chancellorsville, and later at Gettysburg where he was captured late on July 1, 1863.  Marched south with Lee’s defeated army, he was imprisoned at Belle Island, Andersonville, and other prisons in the South.  He hung on to life for 17 months. A living skeleton, he appeared before his shocked parents in north central Ohio in early January 1865. But he recovered; after the war he married, raised a family, and as a suffering, struggling veteran, farmed until he died in 1926.

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In order to tell his story, I wrote not a history book but a novel, Hiram’s Honor (2009). I used military records, Civil War pension files, and the regimental history of the 82nd Ohio in order to depict Hiram’s experiences during the war, and to describe the numbing terror of the battlefield and the grinding misery of the filthy Civil War prisons. I also consulted regimental letters, firsthand accounts, diaries, interviews, and period newspaper articles to add emotional richness to this human drama.

Visiting each battle location and prison camp, using maps and the advice and knowledge of local experts, helped me to determine what likely happened to my ancestor. Many of these experts later became valuable reviewers, checking my details and accuracy. This “in the field” research powered my imagination for creating story scenes, dialogue, and characters.

The discovery of Captain Alfred Lee’s extensive firsthand written account of the experiences of the 82nd Ohio from its formation in Kenton, Ohio to Gettysburg provided valuable details as did the books Buckeye Blood: Ohio at Gettysburg by Richard Baumgartner and Kent Masterson Brown’s Retreat From Gettysburg. For example, Gettysburg and Lee’s retreat occurred just at the time when prisoner exchanges ended. Hiram and his friends were understandably frustrated about this coincidence, and their comments allowed me to paint a particularly poignant scene of their lives as prisoners.

The many prisoner accounts about Belle Island and Andersonville, especially Death Before Dishonor: The Andersonville Diary of Eugene Forbes edited by William B. Styple, helped me to write about the horror of the Southern prisons. I found that a diary like this one written at the time was much more accurate than memoirs published later, after many years had dulled prisoners’ memories.

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Hiram’s Hope (2014) is a sequel to Hiram’s Honor and focuses on the last days of Andersonville, returning veterans, the Lincoln Funeral Train as it goes by Hiram’s home of Shiloh, Ohio, and the tragedy of the Sultana (April 27, 1865) on the Mississippi River above Memphis. Written in the third person, Hiram’s Hope incorporates Hiram’s pension files along with accounts of Andersonville survivors, particularly those of Sultana survivor Chester Berry. His 1896 book, Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors helped me shape the story line for this novel, as did Eric Dean’s book about post-traumatic stress in Civil War veterans, Shook over Hell. Dean’s book along with others on this topic helped me understand the experiences of traumatized veterans like Hiram as they returned returned home from the war.

A final volume in the trilogy, Hiram’s Heart, is in preparation. Inspired by recent books on Civil War veterans such as Remembering the Civil War by Caroline Janney, Hiram’s Heart will focus on my ancestor and his comrade’s memories and post-war struggles.

Primary and secondary source research makes a work of fiction believable – but it also allows the author to authentically recreate the human drama and relationships of the past. This satisfies both the mind and the emotions – both of which are essential to the writing and reading of good historical novels.

 

Max Terman is Professor emeritus of Biology (Tabor College) in Hillsboro, Kansas. For more information on the author and his Civil War novels see http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B001HPJGH0