Lecture given August 11, 2010 at History as Lunch lecture series, William Winter Archives Building, Jackson, MS
I want to thank Chrissy Wilson for inviting me to speak at History as Lunch. I’m not certain how many other novelists, fiction writers have spoken here, so I am humbled by this privilege and I am very glad of it. Thank you, Chrissy.
This being History Is Lunch, 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 set in Springfield, Missouri, in which a father and son face the Civil War, I would like to shake out all the novel’s sources and thereby share with you the history books that inspired me and informed my work, and maybe to talk about a book that I hope will one day be written. You see I enjoy finding authors and promoting books equally if not much more than I enjoy promoting my own book. Don’t believe me?
Well. In the daylight, I work in book publishing and have done so since 1994. I’m now the assistant director and marketing director for the University Press of Mississippi, a scholarly and regional publisher representing all eight state universities. Each year from offices right here in Jackson, we acquire, edit, and publish 70-75 new books, a corresponding number of new, electronic books sold on the Amazon Kindle, the Barnes & Noble Nook, The SONY ereader and many other devices, 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, your University Press, the University Press of Mississippi, brings at least 200 author creations to markets worldwide in one form or another. We achieve sales between 1.9 and 2.3 million dollars each year. And this is our 40th year of operation. How could I survive all that every year that and NOT love finding and promoting other books?
If you were at History is Lunch last week, you got to hear Timothy B. Smith talk about his new book from our press in allegiance with the Mississippi Historical Society and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Mississippi in the Civil War: The Home Front. In addition to a great overview of his book, he took some questions. And I want to key off one of them. We’re going to Missouri today, to talk about a very different Civil War, the war in the Ozarks, Springfield, Missouri, precisely. Remember Tim Smith did a pretty amazing thing to answer a patron’s question: he gave us Mississippi’s 1860 population off the top of his head. Wow! I thought some statistics about Missouri in 1860 might be a nice segue and bring perspective. Unlike Tim Smith, I had to look these up. You see, I’m not a historian; I write fiction. That means I have to either look it up, or make it up. Today in deference to the venue, I’ll endeavor to lie as little as possible.
Springfield, Missouri, is located two counties east of the Kansas border and a slim two counties north of the Arkansas line. In 1860 it was a town of 2000 people, 13% of those enslaved. For the Ozarks that number was a huge percentage, and it bespeaks Springfield being the wealthiest and largest town in the Ozarks, and the only town in that hilly, limestone rich region in which the majority of citizens listed their occupations as something other than farmer or farmhand. Most Ozark counties had 0-5% populations of enslaved people. In fact statewide in Missouri only one in eight families owned slaves. Admitted as a slave state in 1821, Missouri boasted an 1860 population of 1,182,012 (1,063,489 white, 3,572 free colored, 114,931 slave). 90% of Missourians lived on farms or in villages of less than 2000 inhabitants. So Springfield was verging on becoming large by Missouri standards of the day. In the 1860 election, rather than voting for Abraham Lincoln or Stephen Douglas for President, Missourians, and especially those in Springfield, voted strongly for John Bell of Tennessee from the Constitutional Union party. And yet Missourians elected a governor, Claiborne Fox Jackson from the slave-holding upper crust of the Boon’s Lick. Significantly, of the 25,000 votes Abraham Lincoln received from all the slave-holding states, 17,000+ came from Missourians and remarkably 9,900+ came from German Americans in St. Louis. From this the political scientists among you may sense some tensions arising, and a middle ambivalence caught between two rival ideologies. In the March 1861 voting on whether or not to hold a secession convention in Missouri, unionist candidates outpolled secessionist candidates 73% to 23%. Sources did not tell me how the missing 4% in that statistic voted, so I’ll say they were Ozarkers running on the “I’ve had it with all of you’ns” or the “Quiet’n down” ticket. Those two tickets may be in jest, but the joke gets at the heart of Missouri Ozark attitudes to the American Civil War at its outbreak. According to Michael Fellman in his great book Inside War: The Guerilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War, the average Ozarker was a hill farmer whose people migrated recently from Tennessee or Kentucky. Almost all these stats come from his mighty work. Fellman says the Ozarks hillbilly was as “bitterly negrophobic” as he was deeply resentful and suspicious of the elite Southern planter class and that caste’s “pretentious” Missouri counterparts in the Boon’s Lick. In Missouri Confederate: Claiborne Fox Jackson and the Creation of Southern Identity in the Border West, Christopher Phillips argues that Missourians of the day largely considered themselves vanguard Westerners, and not southerners or northerners.
So in Missouri there developed a vast ambivalent number of conditional unionists who favored compromise and the status quo over what they saw coming. It was these conditional unionists, these status quo Ozarkers caught between two screaming belligerencies that I wanted to write about in Morkan’s Quarry. The Morkan family owns a limestone quarry and lime kiln in Springfield, and recognizes, as many did in Missouri, that war is not materially good for anything and especially not for what’s important to Michael Morkan and his son, and that is commerce. The Morkans needed only to focus two counties west to see the results of a collapse in civic order and the rule of the gun barrel and torch. Popular Sovereignty had unleashed internecine and unsettling violence since 1854 in Bleeding Kansas, where the nation’s slavery question was being debated in open savagery. There the screaming belligerencies Ozarkers suffered and endured were putting their words into grisly, concrete action.
This is the proper day for me to talk at History is Lunch. It’s an anniversary you may not know about, and an anniversary that many in my hometown of Springfield, Missouri, may never consider. 151 years ago today, August 11, 1861, was one of the most traumatic and destructive days of upheaval in my hometown’s entire history.
On August 10, just outside of town, from about 5 a.m. until late that afternoon, more than 17,400 men fought in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, 12,000 Confederate and 5,400 Union soldiers. That evening of the 10th and late into the night, the defeated, exhausted Federal forces poured into town. And on August 11, confused, shattered, infuriated, desperate, and lacking firm leadership that Federal army sloughed its many wounded and dying into our courthouse and our churches and our homes, removed all it could carry of local goods and foods, and took all the currency from the banks in town. Many families with Union sympathies began hastily packing their households and were soon clogging the streets. Civic authority largely collapsed, and a chaotic military and civilian exodus for the safety St. Louis began. Bedlam. For the first time citizens with little experience of bloodshed and killing, of mortally wounded men, were nearly outnumbered by the wounded and dead of both sides. August 11 was the start of Springfield’s terrible ordeal.
When I began this novel in 1993, actual descriptions of the aftermath of the battle in Springfield were few and far between. So I relied largely on what park rangers at Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield told me and what I could glean from diaries. I also relied on the blue little book circulating now, Robert Neumann’s An Illustrated History of the Civil War in Springfield, MO 1861-1865. Let’s stop for a moment and sing the praises of local historians. Robert Neumann was director of the Greene County Archives. In the absence of a book about the history of the Civil War in Springfield, he just up and wrote one. Without this much-read and cherished pamphlet, a sixth grader born five years after Neumann graduated high school would have had no place to start, no tinder for the spark. Hooray for the local historian who takes the challenge and, however anachronistically, creates a place for seekers to begin.
So I wrote the scenes in which, on today’s date, Federal troops dismantled our town and a three mile long wagon train formed which transported what Neumann claims was two million dollars in money and stores out of my hometown and off to St. Louis. I did what fiction writers have to do. I took what little I had and I made the rest up. This was in 1994 or so, and I was delighted when The Missouri Review published a big chunk of this writing, an excerpt from my as yet unpublished novel.
Now we are very fortunate that much of William Garrett Piston’s and Richard W. Hatcher’s book Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It covers Springfield in addition to the battle. Unlike previous books written under the focus of the big men of history, the generals and prominent politicians, Piston and Hatcher are more interested in the foot soldier and the civilian. Their book appeared in 2000, long after I had written those early parts of Morkan’s Quarry, and long after I had published the part about the Morkans’ witnessing Federal evacuation in The Missouri Review. So reading Piston and Hatcher was at first terrifying and then a relief. It turns out most of what I imagined most of what I just made up was what Piston and Hatcher claimed went on, in fact eerily so. For those of you who write fiction do not underestimate that old rule: If it is not in a book anywhere and you have no guidance to what an event or scene might have been like, JUST MAKE IT UP. That’s your job as a fiction writer.
Now, 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, that two new manuscripts will be sparked or goaded into being finished. Furthermore I hope that a publisher for them may be found, and that these manuscripts can become books and keep this conversation going. Two new books, not by me, but by professional historians, someone out there, one of you, some historian you know. I want historians to create one book all about the Civil War in Springfield, and one book to update and add to our understanding of the Civil War in the Ozarks.
We have time this morning to talk only about the first of these. 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 both sides of the river, and especially the Missouri side of the Mississippi river. 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—and for my novel I found hugely helpful—the book by Louis S. Gerteis, Civil War St. Louis. It affirmed what I wanted to make up and what I wanted to make accurate in all the scenes involving Michael Morkan’s time in Gratiot Street prison.
Let’s look at Civil War St. Louis and think about some market factors. 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 that 348,189 people lived in the city of St. Louis proper back then 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 might exist there 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, or those with familial ties to St. Louis, such as my mother who grew up there. 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.
Does that 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 12-15 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 in our offices.
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.
Let me throw down some proof. 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, Piston and Hatcher’s great book, you will recognize something remarkable. As an empire right now the United States has 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 the western side of the Mississippi. The army of Franz Sigel’s St. Louis Germans, my mother’s people by the way, was 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. Fremont’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 (a very exciting and helpful book to me) 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 Confederate 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 and Hatcher argue, 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 the 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, a saving grace? One of my hillbilly predecessors 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 remaining populace, Springfield was no friendly place. Those who stayed were joined by hundreds of desperate refugees from surrounding counties. Many in Springfield, regardless of ideology, joined Federal Home Guard units, there being little work but that of policing occupied territory and maintaining martial law.
There is so much material 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 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 rarely brought living to the page.
One superb book I want to recommend that reveals the civilian toll of the war in the Ozarks is The White River Chronicles of S. C. Turnbo. Silas Turnbo is one of those amazing homespun geniuses of the Ozarks. He was born in 1844. Around 1890 he began interviewing what he considered to be old-time Ozarkers—his parents’ generation and his own contemporaries—and collecting their stories with the idea that these might be published in a book and he could make a living off such. Unschooled and finding everything of interest that present day writers would have found commonplace, Turnbo gathered 900 pages of stories, each about ten typed pages long. A folklorist’s dream it was his family’s nightmare. In 1902 his 162 acre farm was lost to foreclosure and he never owned a home again. Thank goodness someone preserved the manuscript that wrecked him and his loved ones.
The titles of the chapters give you an idea of the Civil War in the Ozarks, which Piston and Hatcher describe as “a savagery unparalleled in American history.” Here are some of the chapter headings from Turnbo: Brutal Treatment of a Woman and Her Son by Bandits, Saving Her House Through Tears and Prayer, A Novel Way to Hide Money, and Reading the Bible by the Reflection of Light from a Burning Town. I leave it to your imaginations what the ten pages so titled might be like.
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 the Shaaras, the Norman Mailers and Gore Vidals, the reading public does indeed mistake or substitute fiction for history. Pressed for time and due to the purging of book critics from most media outlets, the public has no time to discern and so what should be understood as a good story made up becomes mistaken for history. That’s not what I was after in writing 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 please notice among the books passed out today, almost all of them are from university presses. In writing Morkan’s Quarry, I wished only to ply the trade I knew. 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 whether that be University Press of Kansas, University of Missouri Press, University of North Carolina Press, University of Arkansas Press, or Moon City Press, which published my book and publishes history as well as fiction.
For now these gaps in the historical record 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.
Do you have any questions?
Books handed out to the audience, praised to high heaven, and used in this lecture
Elmo Ingenthron’s Borderland Rebellion: A History of the Civil War on the Missouri-Arkansas Border (The Ozarks Mountaineer)
Louis S. Gerteis’s Civil War St. Louis (University Press of Kansas)
Michael Fellman’s Inside War: The Guerilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War (Oxford University Press)
Robert Neumann’s An Illustrated History of the Civil War in Springfield, MO. 1861-1865 (Robert Neumann)
Christopher Phillips’s Missouri’s Confederate: Claiborne Fox Jackson and the Creation of Southern Identity in the Border West (University of Missouri Press)
W. H. Tunnard’s A Southern Record: The History of the Third Regiment Louisiana Infantry (University of Arkansas Press)
James F. Keefe and Lynn Morrow’s The White River Chronicles of S. C. Turnbo: Man and Wildlife on the Ozarks Frontier (University of Arkansas Press)
William Garrett Piston and Richard W. Hatcher III’s Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It (University of North Carolina Press)
Stephen D. Engle’s Yankee Dutchman: The Life of Franz Sigel (University of Arkansas Press)