This Republic of Suffering: Reflections on Memorial Day

Happy Memorial Day, friends!  I wrote this piece some time ago for a blog tour, but I think it’s kind of appropriate for today.  And, if you want more of my normal sarcasm twinged hilarity, check out last year’s post on how Army Guys get me hot by clicking here.

I’m a history girl with a writing problem.  Or, maybe a writing girl with a history problem; regardless, I have an out of control passion for the American Civil War.  I am a Civil War reenactor.  I like Civil War trivia.  I like running around Civil War battlefields.  My blog, The Rambling Jour, is actually named after an obscure firsthand account of the clerk of the provost marshal’s office in Harpers Ferry during the war.

And I like writing about the Civil War.

Don’t get me wrong, there are things about the Civil War I don’t like.  I’ve never read Gone with the Wind.  Tactics and strategies put me to sleep.  I thrive in the effect the war had on civilians and medical procedures.  I’d rather read about the role of women and how that role changed as the war changed.

artilleryMy recently completed novel, Anything You Ask of Me, is about all three of those key elements.  In 1862, a society girl turned spy must decide which is more important: the married general who asks her to risk everything for him, or the man tasked to stop her at any cost.

There is a monument in Gettysburg, near the copse of trees on the third day’s portion of the battlefield, inscribed with a few simple words: Double canister at twenty yards.

Canister shot.  Canister shot is basically a tin can full of golf ball sized steel balls; it turns an artillery piece into a giant shot-gun.  Double canister is two rounds of canister shot jammed into the barrel of the piece.

The effect of the human body is devastating.  These are the men listed in the ominous “missing” column in the ranks of casualties.  These are the men who simply disappear in a pink mist.

We have a nasty habit of referring to the Civil War as “the last gentleman’s war” or the last war before the initiation of modern warfare.  But this is so far from the truth.  Soft lead bullets, like the Minié ball, enter the body the size of a quarter but come out the size of a pancake.  If a soldier survives his wound, it is more than likely he will die of infection.  In the 1860s, we could see bacteria under microscopes—we knew it was there—but we didn’t understand how it impacted the human body.  This was the cusp of medical breakthroughs.  The war forced us to understand.

This is why I write historical fiction.

I’m a twenty-first century girl.  I drive an SUV to work.  I sit in front of a computer all day long.  I listen to Swedish Death Metal (I know, this actually surprised me too) on my iPhone while I edit my novel on my laptop.  I talk on a cell phone and wear jeans and eyeliner and take for granted all of our modern conveniences.

But I’ve also been cinched into a corset.  I’ve ridden in the back of a temperance wagon and marched in a temperance parade.  I’ve sat in a dry goods store and hand sewn a quilt by kerosene lamp and sewn on a period treadle sewing machine.  I’ve felt the rumble in my chest when a 12 pound light gun howitzer artillery piece was fired near me.  I’ve done archaeology of an antebellum house and held shattered pottery in my hand, textiles not handled by a human since, in one moment one hundred and fifty years ago, it broke and was discarded.  I’ve been touched by the past and it haunts me.  I refuse to forget the sacrifices of those who came before us and stared death in the face—and chose to march forward anyway.

This is why I write historical fiction.  Because those who are remembered, never die.

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7 thoughts on “This Republic of Suffering: Reflections on Memorial Day

    1. Thank you so much! The novel is slowly getting there. I’ll be sending out my first “official” set of submissions this week. It’s nerve wracking. And in the meantime, I started something new! I’m easily distracted, so I’m hoping that does the trick!

  1. Very well written post. It is always refreshing to hear someone be so honest about who they are and what they like. A friend of mine mentioned your writing and this blog, They were right. Honest, articulate and mixed with a little inspiration. Keep on writing, it looks like you have a gift and some fans.

  2. I have loved this post since it hit my inbox Memorial Day. And I’m a super duper procrastinator, which is why I’m only commenting on it now, a lot of days afterwards… But whose counting, really?

    Great job, Heather. Your passion for the Civil War is sure to make your novel so much better, and I’m not-so-patiently awaiting it…

    Also, I tried reading Gone With the Wind in highschool. Couldn’t get past the fourth page. I picked it up again a couple weeks ago and let me tell you… It is the first book that has actually made me rude. I would ignore people in favor of reading. (I pretend to do that anyway, but this time it was for real..) Didn’t study, didn’t write, didn’t really sleep… It was a damn good book. Better than the movie – which if you haven’t watched, you should 🙂

    1. Aw, thank you so much!! It really means a lot to me!

      I’m thinking I do need to give Gone With the Wind a try. I’ve seen the first half of the movie. Does that count lol? I think my disappointment has always been that, as a child, I thought it was written during the war and that’s why people held it in such esteem. And when I found out it wasn’t, I was bummed. Obviously, that’s no reason to dislike a book. But I’ll have to give it a shot. I also think I need to give my most hated book from high school, Wuthering Heights, another shot. I have a feeling being old will not change my opinion of it, though, lol!

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