What I will say this morning at Ozarks Technical Community College
Thursday, April 15
10:00 a.m.–11:15 a.m.
Lecture/Signing, Springfield, MO: Ozarks Technical Community College, 1001 E. Chestnut Expressway, Linclon Hall 211
I want to thank Kay Murnan, Social Science Chair, for inviting me, and thank my long time writing friend Michael Pulley for bringing us together, and my former boss and someone very responsible for my becoming a writer, Steve Koehler for shepherding folks here. Also I must compliment Ozarks Technical Community College on the beauty of this campus and the work that OTC is doing in Springfield. From friends and kin, I have good reports of the valuable learning going on here, the many opportunities for improvement and advancement that OTC is delivering. None of this was here when I left Springfield for graduate school in 1990, so I find it stunning and wonderful.
In the daylight, I work in book publishing and have done so since joining the University of Arkansas Press as publicist in 1994. I’m now the assistant director and marketing director for the University Press of Mississippi, a scholarly and regional publisher representing the eight state universities of Mississippi. Each year, we publish 70-75 new books, a corresponding number of new electronic books, and 60-65 older books returned to print through digital print-on-demand technology. So let’s do some quick math from those figures: every 365 days, the University Press of Mississippi brings at least 200 author creations to market in one form or another. We achieve sales between 2 and 2.3 million dollars each year.
In the night, in the pre-dawn, and at every lunch hour, I attempt to write fiction. So I lead what is now, with the publication of this book, a not-so secret second life.
Being a somewhat odd writer then, I would like to do something unorthodox today, at least something out of the norm for a fiction writer ostensibly here to promote a first book. Instead of talking solely about Morkan’s Quarry, this new novel of ours set in Springfield in which a father and son face the Civil War, I would like to encourage the writing of new books, three new books actually.
I am hopeful that somewhere along the trajectory of this novel’s going out in the world, its own provoking and my talking about it and provoking, that three new manuscripts will be sparked or goaded into being finished. Then further that a publisher for them may be found, and that these manuscripts can become books and keep the conversation going. Three new books not by me, but from someone out there, one of you, maybe a student, some historian you know, some mind you have taught. The three books I want see some day soon are these: I want historians to create two books for us: one all about the Civil War in Springfield, one to update and add to our understanding of the Civil War in the Ozarks. And the third book; well, I would like some other fiction writer to write about Springfield. We deserve good literary fiction about this place.
We have time this morning to talk only about the first of these three. It would be a book I would title, if I were marketing it, Civil War Springfield. As the study of the Civil War has progressed, focus has rightly found its way to our side, the Missouri side of the Mississippi river. The whole war in Missouri received masterful treatment in Michael Fellman’s Inside War in 1989. Battles such as Carthage, Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove have all been the subject of fine individual books by historians. And sometimes a region or a city’s experience of the Civil War has been the subject of a single volume. For example I find engrossing this book by Louis S. Gerteis, Civil War St. Louis.
It makes all the marketing sense in the world to publish a book about the Civil War in just St. Louis, as the University Press of Kansas did in 2001. The Federal census in 2000 tells us 348,189 people lived in the city of St. Louis proper and 1,016,315 lived in the surrounding county. To me, someone who markets books at a university press, that sounds like a solid market beyond just the students and scholars of Civil War history. We can assume a percentage of that 1.3 million can read and a smaller percentage of those literates would seek a book about their city’s history. And we must add in expats, those now living away from the St. Louis area. Then lump in the scholars, history buffs, and students, and you have a teensy slice of that large number that would promise a good return on an initial printing of 500 to 2,000 copies of this book.
Sound like a shockingly small number? Well, that is the bread and butter thinking of all university and small presses. Small publishers and university presses have learned to scale their businesses to make a reasonable profit in just this way. And by reasonable profit I mean pay for the lights, the people, and of course the printing bill. To put it in my own publishing context, the census bureau estimated the 2008 population of Mississippi at 2.9 million, and each year my employer, University Press of Mississippi publishes 10-12 new books that are largely just for that market alone. A shot at a slice of 1.3 million in one county would be a prospect for near breathless excitement.
So if St. Louis can have a history book focused on just its experience in the Civil War, why not Springfield? Right now within a 50-mile radius of Springfield, Missouri, 2009 population estimates show 662,587 inhabitants, many with economic if not longtime familial connections to Springfield. Granted St. Louis was a serious node of political intrigue and power during the Civil War, and the scene of the Camp Jackson Affair, and the home of the Myrtle Street and Gratiot Street prisons. But in my own biased and boosterish way, I do not think St. Louis’s Civil War history is anywhere near as complex, violent, sad, significant, and poignant as that of Springfield’s experience.
Some statistics: from July of 1861 through December of that same year five different armies occupied Springfield six times, and the city changed sides from Union to Confederate four times. I say different armies because if you read, and I highly recommend that you do, William Garrett Piston’s great book on the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, you will recognize something remarkable. As an empire right now we have the best army on the planet, and, too generously maybe, we tend to project and think of all armies as homogenous and uniform structures with codes of behavior, standards of conduct, rules of engagement, and so forth. Movies and the constant focus on the Civil War east of the River reinforce that notion for armies of the past as well.
But that is not actually the case for armies in the Civil War, especially on our side of the Mississippi. The army of Franz Sigel’s St. Louis Germans, my mother’s people by the way, were very different from the motley crew from Missouri and Iowa and Kansas and Illinois that made up Nathaniel Lyon’s Army of the West. John C. Fre-mont’s massive Federal army that descended on Springfield in November 1861 and then withdrew contained units considered downright foreign, such as Hungarian-born Charles Zagonyi’s bodyguard of 300. Elmo Ingenthron in Borderland Rebellion says this sparkling cavalry rivaled the elite corps of Europe’s monarchs it was so well decked and equipped. The army that Benjamin McCulloch brought up from the borderlands of Indian Territory, the Texas-Kansas border, and the Deep South included exotics such as the Third Louisiana and the Pelican Rifles. And the Missouri State Guard under Sterling Price was one of the most dynamic, kaleidoscopic, carnivalesque military structures in Civil War history.
Every time civilians in Springfield encountered these armies, they were witness to men whose loyalty and sense of duty and honor was, as Piston argues, primarily fastened upon and bolstered by communities far, far away. Some of these encounters and meetings went well; some became conflicts and resulted in crippling economic and personal losses; and some of these meetings, through no animosity or violent intent but just the terrible circumstance of warfare, became the most traumatic catastrophes the people of Springfield would ever witness in their lives. St. Louis, on the other hand, suffered no occupations but the one after Camp Jackson, and that word “occupation” there is a matter of perspective and of your positioning (genealogical or imagined) within the collective memory.
Now all that excitement and upheaval I just described came for Springfield in the first six months of the Civil War. After those six months, the Springfield that Samuel Sturgis’s Union army occupied was a devastated and shattered place. Horses and animals of the Missouri State Guard had been stabled in those houses not commandeered by wintering guardsmen. For miles around armies had taken fodder, animals, vegetables, and grain from the populace, burned fences and wrecked the structures of husbandry. Rubbish and waste service had ceased, and the city was a trash laden, stinking wreck. In the new courthouse and in the churches the wounded still convalescing from Wilson’s Creek and Zagonyi’s Charge suffered. Later acres of hospital tents spread in the fields, so many that a resident described seeing a meadow in Springfield this way: It was as if a flock of a thousand swans had landed in the fields, stretched their white wings, and bowed their necks to the ground.
Isn’t that lovely, and moving? One of our predecessors in this community witnessing what was a sad, suffering reality, could find in disaster such a clear and elegant metaphor.
Springfield became the largest Union camp in Southern Missouri, to Confederates a kind of stationary Death Star from which the campaign down into Arkansas could be prosecuted and supplied. But for the populace, who overwhelmingly before the war did not vote for Lincoln nor did they vote for secession, Springfield was no friendly place.
There is so much rich history waiting for someone to write a history book called Civil War Springfield. The market is here. The expats (like me) exist. Scholars and students of history remain despite all budget cuts to the contrary. The civilian toll of the war in Springfield has only been explored in depth that I know of by William Piston’s Wilson’s Creek, and that only in the immediate aftermath of the 1861 battle. And the plight of non-combatants and the perspectives of the majority in the Ozarks who were conditional unionists and did not want war are touched on in several books but not brought living to the page.
Lest the historians among you get too provoked, let me point out right now as a reader and a publisher and a writer, no work of fiction should be taken as substitute for the yeoman work of the professional historian. Too often now in the wake of Shelby Foote and the Shaaras, the Norman Mailers and Gore Vidals, the reading public does indeed mistake or substitute fiction for history. But that substitution denies the purpose of our book, of Morkan’s Quarry. I am deeply inspired by history and the work of the many historians I have met or whose work I have had the privilege of publishing and marketing at two university presses now. And I wished only to ply the trade I knew in writing this. I wished to invent stories ABOUT Springfield not write the history OF Springfield. That job, the telling of the history of Springfield is the charge of some historian, and I call on that scholar now. Civil War Springfield is a history book that is needed. An audience awaits. For a quality manuscript, a publisher can be found.
For now these gaps entice the fiction writer. Whenever a fiction writer, inspired by history, comes across a void in our knowledge, or a forgotten set of voices, that’s the door; that’s the entry. The best fiction begins with two questions What if? and Why? Historians, in their sworn duty to correct error in the collective memory of a people, often bristle at this. Because inevitably the fiction writer, if he or she doesn’t get it wrong, will purposefully make it wrong. Why? Well there are only four rules to writing literary fiction―Beginning, Middle, End, and Thrill Us. And literary fiction has only two purposes, entertainment and empathy. If I can thrill you a little and at the same time enable you to share the human experience of another somewhat as if it were your own, opening that other heart to you and to your heart, then we have fiction.
Aside from primary sources, the only extended account I’ve found of the Battle of Springfield in a history book is in Elmo Ingenthron’s Borderland Rebellion. That alone seems a shame, but there’s the void. And fiction, its own system of knowledge, separate from even if inspired by history, steps in. Let me read to you from Morkan’s Quarry.
On the first Wednesday in January 1863, Leighton Morkan was awakened to muster when the stars still burned blue in the winter sky. He rode at a lope toward the tent city of Federal hospitals and encampments where his Federal Home Guard unit awaited. With the sun not yet risen, the myriad dots of canvas appeared gray in the thin dawn light. The frosted ground crackled under his horse’s hooves. Leighton had spent a twenty-dollar piece from the strong box for the campaign coat he was wearing. Sewn inside the coat was a square embroidered with a girl’s name and city—Anna Marie Van Scyoc, Manhattan—and the message: “AVENGE OUR HOLY UNION.” Soon to turn sixteen, he felt like an imposter in it, a Yankee coat, and his father in Gratiot and lost to him.
As he entered the first lot of tents, a portly man in long johns rushed past banging two skillets together. Leighton reined his horse. Blinking faces appeared at the tent flaps. Cowbells and triangles, bugles, whistles, shouts, men rushed shirtless, pulling up suspenders. They hollered for rifles.
Leighton heard the thunk and concussion of artillery. On the heights just north of Galway, four cannon issued curling puffs of smoke. Thunder followed. Asters of flame and noise boiled and faded deep within the tents. Gray specters scurried around the artillery pieces.
Leighton turned his horse for home, but was met by a cavalcade of Enrolled Militia riding hard into the tents. A burly little Federal officer was running with his sword shining high above his head: “We’re the left! Left! Wheel, you bastards!” His face was crimson, legs pumping like pistons. But the horsemen continued their dash into the center of the tents, their faces pale, eyes wide and oblivious, horses lunging almost crushing the little man. The officer swiped his sword in a silver arc. Leighton jerked his leg aside, and the sword plunged between the ribs of his horse. A shudder, then the animal gasped and sunk. Leighton leapt free of the saddle, landed roughly, his knees and palms smarting in the cold. The little officer ran on swordless, screaming and waving his arms at his disappearing cavalry. Leighton stood and blinked. His horse lay grunting, pissing, steam rolling off the aortal spurts that shot from its girth.
The cannon wheeled and began firing across the tents at one of the forts and the roofless Men’s academy. Behind the cannon, in the growing light, Leighton saw horses circling, riders holding hats and rifles high. He saw no flag among them. They cut him off from home. He could chuck his coat and hat, but he still had the blue pantaloons with yellow stripes. Between cannon shots, he heard from the invaders a high trickle of sound. He shook his head, sure his ears were ringing.
Carefully he unhooked his rifle, worried the horse in the last fit of living might wale around and chomp at him. He paused a minute and the horse’s white eyes bulged and rolled. He loaded the rifle, cringing at shell concussions. Then he burrowed the rifle in the horse’s ear and finished him. Stooping, he tore his pantaloons at the cuff, cupped his hands in the horse’s pooled blood. He smeared blood all up and down his calf. It clung warmly to his yellow underleggings. He shouldered his bag and saddle and headed for the hospital, affecting a limp whenever Iowa troops or Guardsmen crossed his path.
At the hospital more than a hundred men in ragged bedclothes and partial uniforms stood outside the compound. Some faces were green, some gray. A tall officer pushed the wounded into line, grabbed Leighton’s arm and swung him to the end of the line. Two corporals issued cavalry pistols and Sharps rifles. The man next to Leighton faltered and grabbed Leighton. He stunk so strongly of quinine, Leighton gulped, his nose twitching. The Federals armed even the surgeons in their browned aprons. They marched the whole lot of them behind the log hexagon of one of the forts, formed them in a battle line, then rushed off shouting at each other and several of the wounded and ill.
Cloaked in ratty yellow, swaddled in bed sheets, blankets tied as capes about their necks, the patients manned what was called Fort Number 4 at the end of a long meadow on the southern edge of town. A dense stand of oak darkened the southernmost end of the meadow. The cannon blasted away. To the east boiled a great melee of gunfire and horsemen. Some of the patients eased themselves to sit cross-legged, or laid down on the frigid dirt and loaded their black revolvers, the muzzles of which wavered like divining rods. The rifles lay in the dirt beside them. One man wandered behind a tree in the enclosure, pulled his pants down and squatted.
Leighton tamped his rifle, and stared at the forest. The log wall sheltered his body to the neck. Hollowed divots allowed soldiers to shoot standing, sitting, or lying flat. Like spots of fog across the hills a trail of wraith-like patients scuttled from the other convalescent hospitals across town. A company of near fifty arrived with bed pans strapped to their heads, crutches stabbing the frozen road, revolvers roped about their necks, bouncing against their bellies, several in wheel chairs, cussing and pointing as the nurses bumped them through the gates, amputees, men with gashes shaved bald on their scalps, a drooling boy missing much of his lower jaw, tongue squirming like a slug in salt.
Two wagons pounded into the fort, and on each of these, revolvers and rifles were mounded along with box after box of cartridges.
The cannon fired and shells yowled like saw blades through the air. The patients ducked at this, but laughed and coughed, smiling when a shell landed far east of the fort.
“Blind Arkies,” someone shouted.
They fell quiet. Men dropped their crutches, leaned against the log wall and gaped at the forest. Cresting the stubble of oak, elm, and hickory, the sun’s pale light, found among the trees the chests and legs of horses facing the fort. He counted ten. They edged forward. He lost count, dozens, hundreds. Men around him adjusted their bedpans, wiped their mouths with the corners of blankets.
The cannon stopped. A shout sounded from the wood. One thousand cavalry stepped into the sunlight of the meadow. Black pits were the horsemen’s eyes, faces as shadowed and malleable as burlap. Cloaks spattered, mottled, bark rather than cloth. Soot streaked hands and foreheads, bare feet red and raw in the stirrups as if the cavalry had burned their way here instead of riding. Rifles, scythes, rakes, hoes, pitchforks, an agrarian nightmare of gigs and shotguns tilted at the ground. Belts bristled with knives, pistol butts. A yellow vapor purled from them and foam caked the chest of every mount.
Next to Leighton, a man in a cane-bottomed wheelchair set his revolver in his lap and commenced to pray in furious noddings.
The wounded grabbed their rifles, started peeling at the white cartridges, tamping their guns. Leighton felt a tap. The boy with a smashed lower jaw stood holding a cartridge out for him. Leighton took the cartridge, bit the top and handed him the opened package. The boy nodded, patted three revolvers he had loaded himself.
Across the meadow, the cavalry whirled and formed an even line while one rider rode before them. The rider waggled above his head a blackened sword. The rider’s lips moved, and he tossed his hair. The cavalry bellowed a raw vowel in answer.
Several of the wounded fired their pistols.
The patient next to Leighton shouted for them to stop. Shambling about, he called for a line of fire. As if healed, the men moved forward with a swift grace, placing the rifle muzzles against the wall, pressing their cheeks to the stocks.
The shouting patient borrowed a crutch and held it high. “Wait on them.” The wounded watched him, eyes blinking over the stocks.
In the meadow, the rider circled the sword above his head. The riders’ chests rose as if they took one great collective breath, and then from them came the high trickling sound, but now it was a shout, a bouncing horrendous note Leighton imagined only savages could make, the sound of men preparing to leap off a bridge above a valley spiked with pines, a sound as brutal and heedless as the edge of a hatchet.
Horses and riders nodded, surged, and the meadow exploded with hoof and mud, the high yowl lofting above the pounding. Leighton cringed. The patient still held the wavering crutch. The mass of cavalry grew until Leighton could almost discern individual faces, sodden and bewhiskered, eyes black, lips and cheeks blue, pounding, heaving, their steeds gaunt, skeletal miracles of hide and power.
Down came the crutch. Great spikes of flame, the staggered fire of one hundred fifty erupted, a blast as if the patients tore the very cloth of morning to leave nothing but smoke and concussion.
Leighton whooped. Nothing like it. Jesus.
Cavalry tumbled, horses running askew, men thrown and trampled. But still coming. Leighton expected them all to fall, but the wood before him spattered. Bullets thumped into the logs. Something tugged at his coat. He turned expecting the jawless boy holding a cartridge. Nothing. Pistols fired along the length of the wall. One of the riders loomed up, leering, screaming, his face bulging into a fist of holy rage. He lurched over and stabbed a hickory pike into the neck of the man in the wheel chair. The patient gagged and bucked. Pistol fire peppered the rider, who fell. The shaft of the pike remained propped against the wall, its carved point securely sunk through the dead patient’s neck.
Blue and silver smoke covered the line of patients. They rose and lurched, black shadows around which smoke and sunlight quivered, the flare of pistols flashing like summer lightning deep in clouds. The shadows shuffled and loaded, bandages and blankets swishing. Metal clanking, men breathing, quick tears of paper, the spat of the powder, all performed without speaking, rote motions in the piles of smoke. Leighton had felt such a moment before when the drill teams on the cliff at the quarry hit exact stride, four teams grunting and shifting, the sledges ringing. The patients stood to the wall, arms drawing the ramrods into the air, sliding them down, steadying pistols, faces becoming gray ovals, indistinct. Their motions were a reverie of union, a purified human effort that vented bursts of fire.
The smoke thinned. The horsemen were gone. All across the meadow, dark lumps squirmed and smoked. Against the woods, the cavalry circled and formed. Through a divot in the wall, Leighton saw a man raise himself to crawl on his elbows, his hands and forearms shattered. His face was white and blue, eyes bulging. The patients watched the forming cavalry. One jerked the pike from the dead patient’s neck. He flung the pike over the wall. Another patient wheeled the chair with its corpse back behind the ammunition wagons. In the meadow the wounded horseman quit crawling and collapsed. He lay on his side staring at Leighton and the patients behind the wall.
Any of these men he fired at could be his friend Greevins. Or Charley, or Hoyt, or Ferguson.
The cavalry achieved their line. The horses shook their heads. Up went the black sword. Up went the crutch. The cavalry came, men rocking in the saddles, elbows flapping like wings. Leighton beaded. In the nub at the end of his muzzle he caught one single horseman. The circle of the horseman’s mouth, the whiskers, the mustache, all became distinct. The iron nubbin of the gunsight erased a portion of his chest then his head as he came riding. Leighton trembled. The rider’s shout, that heedless vowel, rose above the hooves. He rode alone, leapt over downed horses and men alone, broke from the thundering pack with just his sword lowered at the wall, and he was screaming. A sword against five weeks worth of powder and shot.
The crutch wavered an instant, but held. Exhaling slowly, he hooked his finger over the trigger. The man’s oval mouth bobbed in his sights, squalling, face red. Down came the crutch. Leighton fired. The man dropped from the horse, which swerved away from his tumbling.
Dismounted the enemy tried again, figures scrabbling like gray lice among the stubble of blackened hearths on the wintered scalp of what once had been his town. Rifles probing as they crept, cracking shots, nearer, nearer, until the patients gathered and discharged fire and smoke, and what had been an onrush of vermin faltered and dissipated.
Hours of it—cavalry reforming, invalids reloading. At the crest of one charge, Leighton’s head was banging, and the hooves and stinking hides of horses sailed above the patients, and suddenly horses and riders staggered inside the fort. Like hornets, the invalids swarmed them. Leighton gripped the gritty hem of a rider’s coat and pulled him down only to have the horse nip a chunk from beneath his shoulder blade.
“Damn you. God damn you,” the Arkansawyer hollered as the invalids finished him with the butts of their rifles.
When the fracas eased, the patient leaned his crutch on the wall and bound Leighton’s wound. Rolling an extra bandage the patient crammed the cloth in Leighton’s mouth. Then he helped him reload and heave his rifle back to the top of the shattered wall. Leighton howled and bit with fury on the bandage in his teeth.
“One more is all they got. I swear it,” the patient said.
Sunlight seared the meadow and forest with its winter white. When the smoke dissipated, the meadow, stilled with frost, the brambles, covered in blue crystal, became intensely serene.
They charged the fort again and again. The invalids killed them long into the evening until finally the horsemen shuddered and rode away.
So historians, you may find pleasure in that, or you may find a gauntlet on the ground, a poisonous virus filling the collective memory with error. Get to writing then, or find us the student or the colleague who will finish Civil War Springfield. And when they do I know several presses that will be glad to take a look at it. And if it’s good, well, the market’s there, and one of the presses I’m thinking of―Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, North Carolina, Moon City―one of them will publish it. And I will be first in line to purchase it and revel in the continuance of our exploration. That’s what publishers do, and there is little reason fiction cannot do some of the same: encourage, invite, package, and facilitate that mutual discussion of who we are and how we suffered and how we might go on. With that conversation in mind I’d like to thank you for listening and to open up for questions.