Continuing our virtual vacation of Newport, RI, this week we’re stopping at the home of Alva Vanderbilt herself, Marble House. So sit back on your (expensive) lawn chair, grab something cool to drink, and enjoy the history.
2. Marble House
Marble House was built by William K. Vanderbilt, another grandson of the famed Cornelius, and a brother to Cornelius Vanderbilt, II. You may remember Cornelius II as the owner of The Breakers, where we stopped last week. I seem to remember that there was some sister-in-law rivalry during the design of the two houses. Richard Morris Hunt was the architect of the Versailles-inspired Marble House. He did a fabulous job, as usual, but Alva Vanderbilt’s stamp is all over it. Mostly, that stamp takes the form of marble.
There is marble everywhere. Just take a look at the dining room, the foyer, random halls…
Anything you can put marble on, Alva tried it. Marble House was magnificent in the sense that you really got that feeling of European royalty. Which, I believe, was one of Alva’s aims, given that she ultimately arranged a marriage between her daughter and the Duke of Marlborough. This is the room where they most likely became engaged:
Called the Gothic Room, this one really stood out to me. It had the solemn feeling of a church and duplicated the old history of some castles in Europe particularly well. Even though the marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt and Sonny was doomed to failure, I couldn’t help thinking that this was a great place to get engaged!
Here are some other neat tidbits. Does anyone else love library stairs?
What about fancy servants’ stairs?
Resplendent sitting rooms?
Or bedrooms fit for a queen?
At most of the Newport houses, they also do a great job of interpreting the lives of the servants. You definitely get Downton Abbey vibes, for any lovers of Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes out there!
The thing I most remember about Marble House is Alva. She was a complicated, fascinating woman. She undoubtedly pushed her daughter into marriage for social gain—and then, in order for her daughter to divorce and be happy, she testified before a court that she compelled her daughter to marry. She was the victim of her husband’s adultery—and then divorced him, married his best friend, and moved across the street. She was a champion of women’s suffrage and of art. On the whole, she was a woman ahead of her time.
So whom do I think won the sister-in-law rivalry? Well, if you remember, Alice had those stunning verandas. Then again, Alva had 500,000 cubic feet of marble. Plus, she caught the Duke. So you tell me.
Below, this happened to be my favorite photo from Marble House. It reminds me of Alva and speaks to her strength—and to how she was (just a tad!) over-the top:
Since many of us couldn’t take a summer vacation this year, I thought it would be fun to take you on a tour of Newport Rhode Island by recounting my trip there in August of 2017. My sister and I, both history fans, bought tickets from The Preservation Society of Newport County, which allowed us to tour five different Newport “cottages.” There will be five posts, mostly dedicated to individual mansions, but I’ll give you details of some other stuff we got into, as well. Here we go! Buckle up; the ride starts in Atlanta, Georgia.
Cottage #1: The Breakers
As the plane touched down in Rhode Island, we could feel the cool air from the window. It had been ninety-eight degrees when we had left the South. We looked at each other, thinking, “This is going to be a very good trip.” And that premonition proved very true!
It had all started when my sister and I had, through various media (Downton Abbey, the book, To Marry an English Lord, numerous novels) become interested in seeing the “cottages” where these Robber Barons—ahem, American Royalty—had summered during the height of their wealth and prestige. For those unacquainted with Newport, it is a beautiful coastal town in Rhode Island. It has Revolutionary War history (there are lots of Colonial structures), and it had been a sort of resort town for Southern gentry before the Civil War. Flash forward twenty years after that, and an unprecedented level of American wealth had been created in a few families (the Vanderbilts, Morgans, Carnegies, Astors, etc.) by such industries as railroads, steel, oil, and finance. It was royal-level wealth—more than that, in some cases. And one place they decided to display that new money was in Newport.
An entire Newport season developed when the wealthy would retreat there during the summer. For more information on this brief but vibrant era, I would highly recommend To Marry an English Lord by Carol McD. Wallace and Gail MacColl. Newport is where the Duke of Marlborough courted Consuelo Vanderbilt, just to give you an idea of the match-making shenanigans you are in for!
For us, the journey started with one of those miserable bouts with TSA in the Atlanta airport. Pat-down completed for me, we boarded and settled in for the flight to Providence.
It was about sixty-five degrees when we touched down. In August. We got into our rental, a Ford Escape we dubbed “Penn” (on account of its Pennsylvania tags), and drove the short distance to Newport. We were staying on the third floor of a beautifully renovated Victorian home, which we loved immediately.
After checking the condo out, we drove toward Cliff Walk, which is a walking/running path directly on the coastline of cliffs. It spans pretty much the entire distance of the city, the mansions behind you, the bay in front of you. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life. We got out of our car near Salve Regina University (right there on the beautiful cliffs!) and just looked across the water. We got cold. And we were in sweaters or long sleeves. Maybe you would have to be from the South to understand how remarkable this was!
Here are a couple of pictures from this moment:
For the first tour, we decided to go for gold: The Breakers, which is the grandest of the Newport mansions. It was built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, and I think it is most known for its beautiful verandas which overlook the bay.
Here is a picture of the back of the house:
And the side of the house:
We really wanted to see the views. And that gate:
At all of the Newport Mansions, the tour is self-guided with a headset. Headsets are a germaphobe’s worse nightmare, but they carefully clean them as soon as you return them. I also remember only a couple of times that having the headset on was key to understanding anything. You can leave them off and just enjoy the general splendor and put them on at the points where something sparks your interest.
Here is a picture of my sister with the headset on, listening to the story:
I will post a few collages of pictures from The Breakers so that you can see the general splendor, the minute attention to detail, and the vast fortune spent on this house. Some of the highlights for me were the sweeping lawn overlooking the bay, the massive double staircase (with a fountain under it), and the molding and trim work everywhere you turn. The house is supposedly an Italian Renaissance style palazzo. I saw some of those touches. But make no mistake: the main architectural style of this house was splendor, in every aspect. The goal, I think, must have been to show the world that the Vanderbilts had arrived.
Enjoy the pictures below! Take in all of the exquisite details. And stop back next time as we continue our journey through Newport’s mansions!
History Behind the Story #4: Violence Against Women in the Civil War
*Please note: This article recounts history involving violence, which may be disturbing for some. It is a good idea for parents of children under 18 to read first and then decide whether to let your child read. As always, let me know if you have any questions. Thank you!
THE HISTORY: When I first decided to write The Torn Asunder Series, I made the decision not to sugarcoat the past. This was a tough decision because so much of history can be disturbing for readers. Slavery was a rough and violent institution. The freedmen after the war faced extreme hardships and violence. Women, black and white, slave and free, faced horrors from enemy invaders during the war. I decided that to gloss over any of these truths would be to dishonor those who suffered and tell a falsehood about history.
While I do talk mostly about violence by members of the Union Army directed toward Southern women, it is simply the nature of history that women in war zones are vulnerable to enemy combatants, and most of the Civil War was fought on Southern soil.
The Confederate Armies did stray into Union territory on a large scale twice: for the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg. General Robert E. Lee issued orders that there was to be no violence or looting against civilians as a PR measure: a sort of “show that we are morally superior” plan. This seems to have also been his personal preference. But the novel, Widow of Gettysburg, by Jocelyn Green, imagines what it must have felt like for women in those areas who had escaped slavery, knowing that Confederate Armies were coming through and could round them up and take them back to their former owners. This did happen to hundreds near Gettysburg, and I am sure there were other accounts of Northern women who felt threatened or were abused.
There is still a lot of silence around violence against women, North and South, during the Civil War. I think there are several reasons for that. One is that the women themselves had various reasons not to be vocal about it. This was the Victorian Era, which placed a premium on a woman’s chastity and gave women few legal rights or redresses. And, of course, there are always political reasons for violence to be hushed up by militaries or governments.
But I think the main reason for the silence is that the history of the Civil War as we know it is the history of men, whether they be of the political or military persuasion. You can read an entire one-thousand-page book without a single woman ever being mentioned. In those books which do mention women, a woman’s role is usually considered in connection to men: seeing men off to war, how useful they were to men as nurses, whether they were supportive of their powerful husbands, etc. Rarely does a historical work ever focus on the actual life of a woman as she lived it during the war. Crystal Feimster, who wrote Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching, has said that we need to see women as combatants during the war. They were combatants. They were not safe. They were actively engaged in the struggle. And yet, very rarely are women viewed as active players or victims during the Civil War.
That being said, there are hints on the topic of violence if you look for them. Most are scant references to military history. You’ll see something like: “Rape, looting, and murder occurred as the army came through.” And then, of course, the narrative will continue with the army itself and move on. You usually have to seek out the whole story on your own, but a few individuals’ stories have made it to light.
Violence and the threat of violence against women drove more of what happened in the war than has been adequately stated. Of course, a lot of the fear of violence was fear of the unknown. For example, if you hear an enemy army is coming through your town, you know only two things: 1) That they are the enemy; and 2) That they could hurt you if they wanted to. So much of how things would go in the Civil War came down to the personality of the officers. Some Northern officers were almost gallant in their treatment of enemy women. Some were kind, some were indifferent. But, as in any population, some were cruel, and some looked the other way while their subordinates were cruel.
Anne LeClercq details a story from one of her family members’ diaries in An Antebellum Plantation Household. The woman, then a child, remembered a Federal soldier going up to her mother and ripping the necklace from her neck. The mother eventually convinced him to give it back, and she wasn’t physically harmed, but such events could definitely cause the imagination to spiral out of control.
And, unfortunately, women didn’t have to rely on imagination. Feimster, a Professor of African American Studies at Yale, has said, “that sexualized violence was ‘common to the wartime experience of Southern women, white and black. Whether they lived on large plantations or small farms, in towns, cities or in contraband camps, white and black women all over the American South experienced the sexual trauma of war.’”
Federal records show that there were over four-hundred-fifty federal court martial trials for rape or attempted rape committed during the Civil War. It would be a mistake to think that this number represented anywhere close to an accurate reflection of how widespread the violence was. Kim Murphy, the author of I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War, said, “[When] I uncovered several hundred cases [of rape], I think that speaks loudly because very few women would have come forward. Very few women come forward during peacetime; it’s even fewer that come forward during wartime, so we know that this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s being reported.”
She goes on to make a point about how difficult it was to report even if a woman wanted to.
“Also, the thing that most people don’t recognize is that most of the records, like the court-martial records that we do have, were reported during times of occupation. That means that the troops were there, they weren’t in an active battle situation. That’s when women could find someone to go forward to. During times of battle, the chances of them even knowing who they could report to would be almost nil, and even if they did find someone, the chances that the officer in charge would be able to find enough officers to take on a court martial at that time would be next to impossible. In the book, I mention [a rape that occurred during] Sherman’s March, when the army was on the move. The victim did report it. But by the time the case made it to court martial, they were 100 miles away, so she could not testify. That’s what people don’t understand—it was totally against the women to even be able to report it.”
Beck, Julie, “Gender, Race, and Rape During the Civil War.”
A few studies have shown that Southern black women were particularly vulnerable to violence during the war. Already, a lot of states had legal systems that offered them no protection from violence. So to the extent wartime psychology makes people think they can get away with crimes, that would have been multiplied tenfold when applied to an enslaved or a free black woman. Rape and violence of all forms against black women were already extremely common to slavery, making wartime violence all the more tragic.
A lot of times, there were isolated events when certain troops or groups of them would happen upon a home, commit violence, and then just get away with it. Sometimes, violations occurred in the chaos of a place being overrun by enemy invaders or during times of battle. Violence also continued during occupations of towns or regions. Other times, violence against women was used as an officer-sanctioned military tactic of suppression.
As example of the latter, General Benjamin Butler gave General Order No. 28 during his occupation of New Orleans. The text is, “As the officers and soldiers of the United States have been subject to repeated insults from the women (calling themselves ladies) of New Orleans in return for the most scrupulous non-interference and courtesy on our part, it is ordered that hereafter when any female shall by word, gesture, or movement insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.”
A leap was made so quickly from insults to sexual violence. Logically speaking, there really isn’t a connection between the two things. But during the Civil War, a woman was most always defined in reference to her sexuality.
There was a huge outcry both in the United States and worldwide against Butler’s order. Even though the implication of sanctioned rape is plain, even some newspapers and commentators who condemned the order were unable to say so, pretending that being treated as a prostitute would mean that women would be imprisoned. However, if you look at rape trials from the time, to prove rape had occurred, a woman had to physically fight off a man even to the point of being killed or almost killed by him. And of course, during that time, a prostitute could never prove that by the very nature of her being a prostitute, so any “woman of the town plying her avocation” (read: asking for it) would be seen as open to sex and ineligible to claim rape. Butler himself said that he meant that the women should be ignored. If he had wanted them to be ignored, however, it seems more likely that he wouldn’t have issued the General Order at all. And a look at venereal disease rates (183,000 reported cases were treated) among the Union Army indicates that the automatic response to a prostitute wouldn’t always be ignoring her.
It is hard to know whether this Order led to heightened instances of violence. In keeping with Civil War history being mostly men’s history, most sources just state that the General Order solved the problem of women insulting the military and move on. But it seems likely that some violent episodes arose out of this. If it was happening when the government and officers had strictly forbidden it, violence seems much more likely when actively encouraged by authorities.
There are other examples of officer-sanctioned civilian suppression. General William Tecumseh Sherman’s promise to “make Georgia howl” was a promise of total warfare, a strategy to take the war to homes to finally bring the South to its knees. It may have been a sound military tactic, but it was women who ultimately suffered from it. A lot of individual stories of violence arise out of the March to the Sea. Sources debate whether the violence which ensued was sanctioned by General Sherman or simply committed by stragglers off the radar. I do think the plan to “make Georgia howl” certainly had undertones of civilian violence from its inception, and sometimes, that is all that is needed to set a mood.
President Lincoln did issue General Orders known as the “Lieber Code,” which laid down rules for dealing with enemy combatants and civilians. Basically, the gist was that “if you couldn’t do it at home, don’t think you can get away with it there.” The Lieber Code encouraged very strict punishment for violence against civilians, particularly women civilians. The part of The Code that got the most notice, though, was how to deal with prisoners of war.
Historians have suggested that Lincoln’s purpose in issuing the Orders was to send a message to the Confederate government. The Confederacy had made the decision to treat captured black Union troops not as prisoners of war but just as captives, which usually meant sending them back to slavery (if not killing them outright, as often happened). So while the Lieber Code addressed one huge problem well, the part that addressed civilian violence was a side-show. There is some evidence that many Union commanders never consulted the Lieber Code for rules on their actions toward civilians.
That isn’t to say that the effects were not good for women’s history: the Lieber Code was used as a template for international law moving forward, and with WWI and WWII not too far down the line, that was a very good thing. It also provided grounds for any court martials that did occur during the Civil War or after, and some did occur. Particularly, this was the first time many black women had any protection under the law at all, and some were able to prosecute their attackers successfully. However, whether the Code actually prevented violence during the war is more questionable.
In Northern Fire, I chose various ways to represent what women lived through during the war. [The following contains a few spoilers for Northern Fire. Skip the next five paragraphs if you would haven’t read the book yet and hate spoilers!]
Shannon and Phoebe met with Confederate troops who assumed they were prostitutes on their way back to South Carolina. Prostitution was so widespread during the Civil War that one soldier called his camp “a perfect Sodom,” and it is known as one of the few professions to cross enemy lines. And Shannon and Phoebe were crossing enemy lines where there were numerous camp followers who were prostitutes, as well as brothels nearby. Therefore, there was a real danger that women travelling alone and unkempt from travel could be deemed prostitutes and taken into camps as such or sent back across to the lines to the enemy camp.
Another depiction of this history is that Phoebe is tragically killed during the chaos of the takeover of Santarella by Union troops. After all of my research indicated the depth of violence black women faced during the war, I knew I had to convey that truth. Even though I cried, along with readers, I think Phoebe’s story translates the extent to which the law was no protection for women in her situation. Which, sadly, was nothing new, since slavery had perpetuated violence and nonchalance for it under the law for decades.
The other instance is that Shannon and her sister-in-law, Elizabeth, have their heads shaved by Union officers during the confiscation of Santarella. You may have only heard of this form of wartime violence in relation to French women in WWII. But this was a common practice perpetrated against women who were considered traitors dating far back in history. I first learned that this was the case when I read Grant, by Ron Chernow. Ulysses Grant witnessed Mexican women’s heads being shaved during the Mexican American War. I knew immediately that I wanted to use this little-remembered piece of history in Northern Fire, so I set out to find if there were specific instances of head-shaving during the Civil War. But as I said, much of the violence against women has been covered in silence. It is hard to track down specific instances because they were muted so thoroughly. So I found no recorded instances of head-shaving during the Civil War in my research.
I think it is possible, and even likely, that this did happen, however, given the widespread violence that was occurring. For one, many officers and soldiers of the Civil War had been in the Mexican American War. They, too, had seen this happen to Mexican women for giving aid to the Americans. There are many instances of officers drawing on their Mexican wartime experience during the Civil War.
This particular type of violence is a little different from outright revenge violence or lustful violence. It is driven by a desire to humiliate and subjugate the victim and the populace, so the psychology is a bit more nuanced. In fact, it is psychological warfare. Even though I wanted to use head-shaving as a plot device, I decided I wouldn’t do so unless I could find specific instances of that kind of subjugation psychology during the war. I found plenty. There are numerous reports of Union troops forcing white women to watch while they raped black enslaved women. Feimster says, “Just as the rape of white women implied that Southern men were unable to protect their mothers, wives and daughters, the rape of slave women told whites they could no longer protect their property.” This was violence for a purpose: to get into the enemy’s head. A message of subjugation was sent. I think that is very similar to the message sent by head-shaving, except that head-shaving has an added ingredient of woman-shaming—sort of this idea that you have stepped out of your role as a lady, and you’re going to be punished for that. We see a lot of that in the Civil War, too.
I want to reiterate that I do not mean to degrade whole armies on account of the acts of some men who were in those armies. There are always two dangers to any researcher of the Civil War. There is the Lost Cause Theory, which was a body of history that developed after the war to make the Southern cause appear noble and heroic in every aspect, while conversely degrading Northern causes and actions. Conversely, on the other side of the coin, Feimster, writes that “there are people who work on the Civil War and Reconstruction who have been committed to writing the narrative as one of progress, of liberty, and of freeing the slaves.” Particularly, as it relates to violence, she adds, “and to suggest that the soldiers would have raped black women goes against this narrative. It’s hard for historians to grapple with this because it changes the way people see the war, and most people don’t want to see the war as one of occupation.” Please know that I am always cognizant of both theories and vet every story I come across for the taint of each.
I think the greatest danger on this particular topic is that women’s stories have been covered up, whatever the reason for doing so. The more we can uncover, the more we will know about women’s experiences and about the war itself.
PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: Minerva Cook lived at Hardtimes Plantation near Vicksburg, Mississippi during the Union occupation. The situation during occupation was volatile between the civilians and the military. General Grant gave the Cooks a paper guaranteeing safety from harassment. However, orders do not always translate to individual soldiers’ behavior. Union soldiers came to the house at night to loot, tossing the Cooks’ young sons out of bed to look in their mattresses. Minerva and her husband, Jared, were dragged out of bed, and arguments escalated to the point that Jared Cook was shot in the shoulder, a wound from which he survived, and Minerva was shot fatally. The perpetrators were dealt with swiftly: they were court-martialed and executed. While this story is little-known today, it must have loomed large during the war. One report calls it the largest mass-execution of Union troops during the war, so I have a feeling the story would have been widely circulated.
Reports say that there were as many as twenty-five men who went to the plantation that night. Most say that they were all USCT (United States Colored Troops), although I think that would be hard to say at this distance. Ultimately, nine USCT soldiers were executed. Race was instantly a factor in the discussions. There is no evidence that USCT troops were more violent than regular army troops. But I imagine this incident was used by people already inclined to prejudice to promote the idea that the populace was especially endangered by the USCT. I speculate that the perpetrators were dealt with so swiftly and comprehensively to soothe the populace. Possibly, the swift reaction was even to protect other USCT who would have been more at risk for something like Fort Pillow (where USCT troops were killed after they surrendered) happening if the populace didn’t feel that the Union had fully punished the perpetrators.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: There seems to be a deep political connection to violence against women and how prisoners of war would be treated. One historian has suggested that the killing of the men who should have been treated as prisoners of war at Fort Pillow was motivated in part by violence against local women. We already discussed how the Lieber Code addressed both prisoners of war and women civilians together. Another connection was that Jefferson Davis issued a statement that General Butler and his officers would be executed if captured following the General Order about treating women as prostitutes. Again, there is the same link between violence against women and treatment of male prisoners of war. This is a perfect example of women being combatants, or active participants, in the Civil War.
What do you think? Were women being used as political pawns, or was the link made to prisoners of war an honest effort to police violence against women? Perhaps it was considered to be the only way to protect civilians in that era?
In Benjamin Butler’s Orders, he shamed women for not acting like ladies (he sneers: “calling themselves ladies”). There was overwhelming societal pressure for women to be docile, and this political cartoon from Harper’s Weekly illustrates that well.This is a depiction of New Orleans before the Women’s Order and New Orleans after the Women’s Order. The women in the first, one of whom is turning her back to the Union soldier and the other of whom is spitting in his face, were drawn to look ugly, and, of course, the whole thing is unflattering. In the picture on the right, after women are acting submissively, they are drawn in a flattering light—pretty and meek. The implication was: if you make noise, you are ugly and socially unacceptable; if you are submissive, you are pretty and accepted. What a tough world it was!
 There are also many incidents of recorded violence against civilian men, which I do not seek to ignore. Those incidents are merely beyond the scope of his paper.
 Paterson, Kerry K., “Q&A: A Fresh Look at Rape During the U.S. Civil War,” WMC: Women Under Seige, May 9, 2013.
 Paterson, Kerry K., “Q&A: A Fresh Look at Rape During the U.S. Civil War.”
 Beck, Julie, “Gender, Race, and Rape During the Civil War.”
 Feimster, “Rape and Justice in the Civil War.”
 Historically speaking, a woman’s hair was regarded as caught up in her womanhood. So when her head is shaved, she is “unwomaned” in a way, or defeminized, which would have been a penance to a Victorian woman. She had to wear her shame for all to see.
 Mitcham, Jr. Samuel W., “Bust Hell Wide Open.” This may or may not be true. The book does not go into great detail or explore the charges of violence. Still, the connection was made.
I recently read Ryan Reynolds’s statement about his deep remorse for holding his wedding at Boone Hall Plantation in South Carolina. The actor related that he saw a pretty venue on Pinterest but that, in reality, it was a place with a tragic past. He felt that he had really made a huge misstep that perpetuated division. I’ve read a few articles on the subject that seem to agree with him: that getting married on a plantation is a horrible thing to do. One author called it “promot[ing] a whitewashing of history atop crimes against humanity.” The commentary on the subject shows that this is a really hot-button issue.
As always, I do not wish to delve into political topics, and my desire is for this to be a respectful forum for all. I can definitely see Reynold’s point: that having a happy-go-lucky wedding on top of soil that was once the sight of enslavement feels incongruous. In addition, I have this weird (frustrating, to those around me!) ability to see both sides to almost every issue which arises. So I’m not writing this article from any desire to join this argument—just from a desire to be useful on a topic about which I can see that there is some confusion.
I have visited countless historic homes, in the North and South. Like my modern heroine, Adeline, my real love is for old things and for architectural history. Therefore, I’m looking mostly at weird antiques and interesting windows or cupolas while I’m touring (nerd alert!). But I do think that I have learned a few things from these many tours that might be helpful to people who haven’t been on them, so I thought I would share.
First of all, I will kind of explain the field that house museums fall into: Public History. It’s an old field that relatively recently has begun to be treated as a discipline or wing of academic history. Public History encompasses archival documentation, museums, historic preservation, curatorial work, educational tours, and a few other fields. It’s a really important field for all of us. If these people didn’t exist, we would literally only know oral and archeological history. Historians would have no documents to research, no buildings to visit, and no antiques to examine.
In addition, Public Historians are the people with boots on the ground, so to speak, who make it their business to educate the public. They give cemetery tours at Halloween. They are the docents when we see the dinosaurs in the museums. They are the ladies dressed up in Victorian garb who help schoolchildren learn to make candles. They translate handwritten recipes for us to buy in cookbook format. They are the men who sit in tights literally all day long in Williamsburg to show us how an eighteenth-century blacksmith wielded his hammer. Academic Historians do their work for other historians and for the field. Public Historians work so that all people will know the importance of history. (Shout out to my sister!)
So what does that have to do with this controversy? A lot. You see, unless a museum, house museum, or plantation is very underfunded, it is generally run by Public Historians. One person, when speaking about the Reynolds wedding, commented on an article with a view that plantation house museums are built around a business model that perpetuates a rosy view of the past. This may have been that person’s experience, and I’m sure that at one time in history, that was true. However, that has not been my experience.
The people who work at these historic sites, generally speaking, are not the fan club of or apologists for the families who owned them or for horrific things that may have happened there. They are highly-trained academics who know that the history they are interpreting is problematic, and they are trained to address those topics.
So far from brushing things under the rug, I have known docents to take a sort of macabre pride in laying out the nitty gritty details of the past for visitors. I remember one instance in Savannah, Georgia, where the docent got so frank about the violence of slavery that I was glancing nervously at the children in our group, afraid they would have nightmares (luckily, the kids spoke only French!). At Carnton Plantation in Franklin, Tennessee, they shove back the furniture to show you huge blood spots on the wooden floors where men died during the Civil War (so much for romanticizing battles!). At most plantations, you are shown just how small slave cabins were and how many families were forced to live in them. There’s nothing like stepping into one of them for yourself to evoke poignant and painful knowledge of just how things really were for those who lived there.
I have learned a lot about slavery by touring Southern plantations and house museums—more, I think than I have learned in all of my academic studies. It was at McLeod Plantation in South Carolina that I learned from the docent that saying “enslaved people” instead of “slaves” was an effort on the part of Public History to remind us that the people who were held in bondage were just that: people. They had lives and stories, and not all of them are lost to history if we look for them in the right places. Almost all of the tour at McLeod is devoted to individual enslaved people whose lives the historians there have meticulously researched. We learned who they were and what a typical day would look like for them. I had always thought that enslaved people’s individual stories had been tragically lost. For me, this excellent piece of Public History showed me that this was not true.
Again, if those I saw responding to the articles about the Reynolds wedding have had a bad experience at a house museum, that is truly a shame. My guess is that, when it does happen that history is whitewashed in museums, it would likely be from a lack of training and funding, although, of course, there may be certain people who have, or had in the past, specific goals in mind when doing so.
You may be wondering what touring a house museum has to do with hosting a wedding there. The argument could be made that the first is merely history, which is good for people to learn, and the second is a celebration of a personal event at a place of troubled history. Some may feel they chose a plantation venue for the wrong reasons.
But I have known of people to get married at plantations for a variety of reasons which include no cause for judgment or blame. One was a girl who couldn’t find another venue in a rural area to take the burden of hosting off her family. One was an African American woman whose decision to marry at a plantation could only have held profound meaning for her family that I can’t even begin to understand.
And I could have taken this wrong, but I think Reynolds and the commentators weren’t just talking about the wedding: they were implicitly extending their feelings to house museums and plantations operating for business in any capacity. That is to say, I think they felt they should all be closed for business.
And I think that belief misunderstands the nature and purpose of house museums as they operate today. Yes, we are dealing with humans who sometimes tell the wrong story or have the wrong beliefs, just like in any aspect of life. But we are also dealing with a field that provides one of the few forums communicating directly to the public about the lives of people who were enslaved.
And to lose this forum would be a loss to all of us.
THE HISTORY: If you have read Northern Fire, you know that my historical male lead, John Thomas, makes the decision to quarantine his ship when Typhoid breaks out. When I first wrote Northern Fire, I never imagined a quarantine in modern times. Then when I did the first read-through edit, the quarantine scene felt eerily familiar to me. I realized that this is an instance in which history could be very useful to us. Our ancestors have experienced something that we never have. I encourage you to look at historical pandemics to see what it was like for those in the past.
Naval quarantines have a long history. Do any of you watch Outlander? Claire and Jamie are forced to contend with a quarantine on their way from Scotland to America, if you would like to see an example in film. Of course, there were diseases in the Civil War which led to this necessity, too.
Even though we’re fond of saying that the Germ Theory had not been accepted during the war, we too often leave it at that and imagine that people were without any sense that there was a possibility that diseases were transmittable from person to person. This simply is not true. There would have been no historical quarantines if it were. People had witnessed too many epidemic diseases and the toll they took to be completely unaware that there were forces that they could not see at play. You can find examples very far back in history of people being afraid they would “catch” something from someone else. They just didn’t always know how.
A lot of diseases were thought to be caused by inflammation (this was why bloodletting was popular, although it was going out of fashion by the Civil War). There was also a Miasmas Theory which hypothesized that “bad air” caused illness. Not always untrue, but wrong, of course, in relation to what we now know about viruses and bacteria. But if you think about it, the Miasmas Theory, while primitive, may actually have been useful for preventing the spread of disease during the Civil War. A lot of illnesses are airborne, so not breathing air near a sick person was not a bad idea anyway.
Unfortunately, a lot of times, being cautious of the air didn’t hit at the actual cause of disease. For instance, in Northern Fire, the illnesses at play are Typhoid and Yellow Fever. The first was caused by bacteria in drinking water, the second, by mosquitos. For Typhoid, there was actually an American scientist during the Civil War which put forward the “unclean food and water” theory, but it hadn’t gained much traction, as you can see during John Thomas’s conversation with the doctor, who writes it off as a bunch of nonsense.
Okay, so let’s move on to actual Civil War quarantines themselves. There’s not a lot out there on this subject. I think Civil War quarantines have slipped through the cracks for a lot of historians. I have found few to no mentions even in my books solely devoted to Naval history, so this is a subject where you have to piece together scraps from letters and use a little imagination.
A lot of sources seem to indicate that Civil War Naval quarantines were used most commonly and effectively for Yellow Fever. Robert F. Reilly says, rather boldly, that quarantines “virtually eliminated” Yellow Fever during the war. So let’s dig into why that might be.
First of all, Yellow Fever really hit Union soldiers in the Mississippi Delta hard since they were newcomers who hadn’t built up an immunity to the disease. As an example of contrast, Jefferson Davis had Yellow Fever as a young man, which would have given him lifelong immunity. Therefore, the Union had a real problem on its hands and dealt with it swiftly. The following is an extract from the Baylor University Medical Journal which explains what happened.
Outbreaks would often occur after a ship arrived from a Caribbean port. It could be prevented by quarantining newly arrived ships in most cases. Attempts at its prevention by Benjamin Butler in New Orleans may have been the first example of a medical incentive plan. Butler, with urging from his superior officer Rear Admiral David Farragut, told Dr. Jonathan M. Foltz: “In this matter your orders shall be absolute. Order off all you may think proper [ships to quarantine], and so long as you keep yellow fever away from New Orleans your salary shall be one thousand dollars per month. When yellow fever appears in this city your pay shall cease.” Dr. Foltz quarantined all ships for 40 days 70 miles below the city, and this virtually eliminated yellow fever in New Orleans.
Reilly, Robert F., “Medical and Surgical Care during the American Civil War, 1861-1865.”
Yellow Fever is not transmissible from human to human except to the extent that mosquitos transmit it between them. Mosquitos become infected by biting humans or monkeys which are infected and then pass it to other humans, and so the cycle goes. That would be why this method of keeping people out of New Orleans was effective, even though mosquitos, and not humans, technically spread the disease. New Orleans mosquitos didn’t have the chance to become infected as long as infected ships stayed quarantined.
A specific example of a quarantine was the USS Albatross (featured in the cover photo), which had a Yellow Fever outbreak while in service in the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. It was ordered to Pensacola, Florida, where it went into quarantine until the crew was healthy again. The same thing happened the next year, and it was back to Pensacola for another quarantine.
What did a quarantine look like onboard a ship? Total shutdown, out at sea, trapped in a ship. During the Black Death in the fourteenth century, Venice established formal quarantines that lasted for forty days. Forty days seems to have been pretty standard until more modern times when we were able to tailor quarantines to incubation periods for specific illnesses.
So for the Mississippi River, which is where John Thomas was, the situation was a little different. You had huge Naval vessels in a river, not on the open sea. They were closer to land and closer to other people. The information is scant on how quarantines were carried out on the river. There was a pre-war quarantine station south of New Orleans where river ships and boats would be stopped and kept in quarantine if there were disease on board. The station was recaptured by the Union. However, at the point Typhoid and Yellow Fever break out in Northern Fire, the Union Army and Navy are still driving south toward Vicksburg by way of the Mississippi River. There would have been no way to get the ship south of New Orleans.
Therefore, I used a little imagination and a little history of Army quarantines and had John Thomas actually order his men to be removed from the ship and taken high up on a hill to quarantine tents.
PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: Speaking of Army quarantines, there was a botched attempt at smallpox inoculation which led to an outbreak among the 20th Maine, of the Army of the Potomac. A surgeon named Nahum P. Monroe grew really concerned at the possibility of an outbreak among the whole army, especially since they were on the eve of the Chancellorsville Campaign in the spring of 1863. He said there was no telling where it would end if it ever got started. He had to use persuasion to get anyone to listen. He pointed out that all a smallpox outbreak would accomplish would be to give aid and comfort to the Confederate Army. He was effective: the regiment, sick and healthy, were quarantined away from the rest of the army on a hill. Signs were posted around camp warning of danger if you got too close. The 20th Maine, therefore, did not fight in the Chancellorsville campaign.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: If you do a search for “Civil War quarantines,” you can find all sorts of primary source references to many different types of quarantines (just not Naval!). Some involve armies, while others involve civilian refugees. There were outbreaks in certain cities. Sometimes people would flee for that cause, while sometimes they would be displaced by the war. In any event, there are reports of hotels quarantining against people coming from infected cities. Quarantine seems to have been a common word, a common experience and way of life, then. Do you find that thought comforting regarding our current pandemic? Does it make you grateful most infectious diseases in America have become more manageable?
ANALYSIS OF PHOTOGRAPH: This is a portrait (not a photograph, sorry!) of Quarantine Station near Port St. Phillip below New Orleans. Any Louisianans out there? Tell us what you know! This is a very interesting piece of American history that seems to have been lost. It was built some time before the war, presumably to prevent the spread of disease as vessels entered from the Gulf and could potentially spread diseases all the way up the Mississippi River into Canada. There were several buildings on site, including a hospital, a storehouse, and a house where the Union high command once had headquarters. Some sources report that vessels were pulled into quarantine here during the war.
History Behind the Story #2: The Roper Hospital in Charleston
THE HISTORY: It all started with a bequest. Colonel Thomas Roper, a former mayor of Charleston, left the Medical Society of South Carolina $30,000, which, along with other donations and city funds, was ultimately used in 1852 to build the Roper Hospital. The building was located on the corner of Queen and Logan Streets. It proclaimed the following mission: “to treat all sick and injured people ‘without regard to complexion, religion, or nation.’” I probably don’t have to tell you that this mission was pretty progressive for its time. The Roper Hospital was intended to be charitable from its foundation. In fact, it was specifically intended to benefit “paupers,” the word in that day for financially disadvantaged people.
Hospitals were a little different from today. In the Victorian Era, those who could afford it were traditionally treated at home. Therefore, any hospital was first and foremost a chartable institution, whatever else they might also do. And the Roper Hospital did a lot!
There was a Medical College in Charleston, and Roper served as the teaching hospital for the new doctors/trainees. The hospital was adjacent to the College, so that made it easy for students to go back and forth. This is quite a modern system, kind of like the university hospitals we see today.
The hospital didn’t start out soft—its beginning constituted more of a baptism by fire. Roper was forced to contend fairly quickly with various epidemics, including Smallpox, Cholera, Yellow Fever, and Typhoid. There was also the Great Charleston Fire of 1861, which was covered in the last History Behind the Story article. The Charleston fire doesn’t seem to have touched the hospital building, but it seems almost certain that the injured and burned were brought to the hospital.
And of course, there was the Civil War. Trustees are required to try to carry out the purposes for which the organization they serve (in this case, the hospital) was founded. Therefore, when he Civil War started, the Roper Hospital trustees were concerned about there not being enough room for its mentally ill and poor patients if thousands of Confederate wounded were allowed to be treated at the hospital.
You see, the Confederacy had a hospital problem. While the Union was able to form a very cohesive medical system with hospitals specifically designated as military hospitals, the Confederacy had nothing really of the sort. It had a system cobbled together from private donors and hospitals that were willing to open their doors. I won’t say there was no effort to create a medical system that functioned cohesively, but there were never enough funds.
Therefore, it was really up to the Roper Hospital as to whether they would open their doors to wounded and sick soldiers. But Roper did become an unofficial military treating hospital. I can find no documentation as to why this happened over the objection of the trustees, but if I was guessing, I would say it was probably the pressure of public opinion.
Let me place the Roper Hospital in its place in history at the outbreak of the Civil War. I tend to think of the leaders in the American medical field being located in Philadelphia or New York during the Victorian Era. But Charleston was the largest and wealthiest city south of Philadelphia, so it was able to compete in the profession.
Roper Hospital was a teaching hospital, which means it was on the cusp of the latest innovations in medicine. It also was only five years old at the outbreak of the Civil War, which means it was well-equipped and state-of-the art. One source says, “Very modern for its day, it contained a library, a large amphitheater for clinical lectures, and living quarters for physicians.” So this was a pretty large operation.
There is not a lot in the way of comprehensive online records for Roper Hospital, so I had to be a bit of a sleuth, scrapping together mentions here and there of the hospital’s war years. For Northern Fire, I had to base Shannon’s experience as a nurse largely off of the experience of other Civil War nurses, both Union and Confederate because I could find nothing on the actual experience of nurses for Roper specifically.
But here were a few things I was able to find about the war years. One article says that “the hospital…served as a Confederate Hospital and prison for Union soldiers during the Civil War.”  I did a double take when I saw the word “prison.” But I’m assuming that what is meant is that is, if there were wounded Union soldiers who fell into Confederate hands, they were treated at the hospital under a technical status of prisoner. After they recovered, they would have been dealt with as would any other prisoner, which means they would have been paroled or sent to a Confederate prison.
We do know that women were instrumental in keeping the hospitals supplied. The Soldiers’ Relief Association distributed supplies to the various hospitals in Charleston, including Roper. There seem to have been at least nine hospitals in Charleston during the Civil War, and the Association provided supplies to them all. Supplies would have included food, wine, clothing, bedding, and the all-important mosquito nets. The number of hospitals would have caused, I imagine, competition for supplies as the blockade tightened over the war years.
Since my main character, Shannon, would have been of high social standing, let’s focus on the history of women in her position. It has long been known that ladies provided help to hospitals in the form of letter writing and bringing baskets of food and the like to the soldiers. However, necessity meant that their work was actually a little grittier than that. They often became full-fledged nurses, which meant they had to contend with gangrene, lice, body lice, various contagious diseases, gruesome surgeries, and any other issue a patient might be facing. In other words, they got their hands dirty, too.
It was fairly common for a female relative of an injured soldier to go and act as nurse to their family member, so I think it is likely that the Roper Hospital had family members in and out all the time, likely even staying on its premises wherever they could fit.
I won’t go into detail about all that women did as nurses and hospital staff during the war because that could take up several books. But I will add that often it was enslaved or Free Black women who kept the hospitals running by cooking, cleaning, and providing support staff. I can find no evidence in the Roper Hospital records available of who provided such services, but I think it is likely that Roper was no different from the norm.
When Charleston fell, Roper Hospital was taken over by Union forces. Later, it was able to continue its operations. The original Roper Hospital was damaged in a tornado in 1885 and destroyed in an earthquake in 1886 (geez, so many disasters in Charleston!). But the hospital was rebuilt and is still in operation today.
PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: Since records were a little difficult to find on Roper Hospital, I thought we would do the Personal Spotlight on my fictional character, Phoebe. If you’ve read the Series so far, you know that Phoebe was enslaved by the Ravenel family at one time. However, Shannon’s husband insisted that she be freed if she went to the North with them as Shannon’s servant. Therefore, Shannon’s father freed Phoebe around the time of Shannon’s marriage.
As a condition of allowing Shannon to work at the hospital as a nurse, Shannon’s father insists that Phoebe accompany her. Phoebe does so, where she works and encounters several instances of discrimination. Phoebe was in a bit of an interesting role as a “Free Black” in Charleston during the war. However, there had always been a fairly significant Free Black population in Charleston, and I don’t think it is stretching reality at all to think that women like Phoebe would have played a significant role in hospitals in the Confederacy during the war.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Have you ever imagined yourself as a nurse during the Civil War? What must it have been like for elegant ladies to have to make that transition? We tend to think favorably of those who acted as nurses and scoff at those who hesitated. But have you pictured yourself, if you are like me and are not trained in medicine, leaving your parlor, assisting in multiple amputations per day, tending gangrenous wounds, and dealing with the lice and smells? It had to have been a difficult adjustment!
ANALYSIS OF PHOTOGRAPH: Look at this beauty!
Photo Credit: University of Notre Dame Archives
Italianate architecture was very much in vogue in the 1850’s. You see it all over the South. Notice how piazzas grace all three of its stories. There are also six towers, one at every corner and two at the main entrance. I could definitely see Shannon (if forced to work) gracing such an establishment.
Stop by next time for some neat history on Naval Quarantines – something to which we can all, unfortunately, now relate!
Welcome back to the History Behind the Story Series! This is a series of articles in which I give you the background on the events that happened in my books or the historical choices I made when writing the book. There were ten articles in total for Southern Rain, and the following is the first of the five articles that dig into the history of Northern Fire. There are some fun new features to the series, including different sections called “The History,” “Personal Spotlight,” “Food for Thought,” and “Analysis of Photograph.” Ready? Here we go!
History Behind the Story #1: The Charleston Fire of 1861
THE HISTORY: One thing that has always been difficult to remember when I am writing about the Civil War is the fact that other life carried on at the same time that the Civil War was in progress. I know that the war was all-consuming and that its progress was probably one of the only topics in the conversation of the entire country for four years. I once read a happy-go-lucky romance set in Tennessee during the Civil War that felt a bit off-base. There was no real normalcy during the Civil War.
But there was a certain business-as-usual aspect to certain facets of life that doesn’t initially occur to you. Seasons changed, there were weddings, mothers still died in childbirth, ordinary people still came down with tuberculosis and typhoid, mental institutions still had to function, city governments still operated unless it was impossible, and, apparently, there were still accidental fires which wiped out huge portions of cities.
I was surprised when I learned about the fire. There was already a blockade, the constant threat of bombardments and battle, and just add a destructive fire into the mix! It must have felt like the Apocalypse! Or maybe not. I once read a first-hand account of a woman reflecting on the feelings of her enslaved butler as things got really bad in Charleston. She said he sat by the door as serenely as though nothing had happened. Maybe from his perspective it felt like deliverance!
In any event, things got pretty rough in Charleston before they got better. The city was in a unique situation where it was protected by forts, and it didn’t fall until the last days of the war. All of this will be covered in a later post dealing with the fall of Charleston. But for now, just to set the stage for the fire, Charleston was carrying on in as business-as-usual fashion as possible. There were no Union troops occupying the city. Certain islands had fallen near the city, Union troops were on South Carolina soil, and naval vessels were angling toward its outlying forts, but there was no extremely substantial threat of Union troops getting truly near the city yet since it was so heavily protected.
This was early in the war, so there was hardship but not the extreme poverty the later war years would see. There was still something of a social season in the winter because there were many forts nearby, and people wanted to entertain all of the officers. So we’re right in the middle of all of that on December 11 when a cold front moves in during the night.
I should note that the origins of the fire are unknown. However, there are some theories. One is that there were enslaved people who were refugees who started a fire for warmth or to cook, and the fire got out of bounds. I am a little skeptical of this theory because we know that the fire started at the corner of East Bay and Hassell Streets, which seems to have been a business district. I think it’s more likely that one of the other theories is true: that the fire began in one of the businesses in the area—either Russel & Co.’s Sash and Blind Factory or Cameron & Co.’s Immense Machine Shops.
Apparently, it was one of those quick fires that starts to spread rapidly almost before you even know it has ignited. The weather conditions were perfect to give the fire speed. Confederate troops as far as 14 miles away could see the flames—whoa! Union troops 6 miles out to sea could see the flames, too.
Picture the historical moment…
The wind is especially high. The fire is just eating these massive mansions, and the city officials get concerned about the fact that the fire is heading toward the Marine and Roper Hospitals, the Medical College, and the Roman Catholic Orphanage House. They realize the fire isn’t going to stop spreading without some drastic measures, so they blow up 14 houses on Queen Anne Street to create a fire block in order to save those vulnerable buildings. I haven’t heard that the owners of those 14 houses kicked up much of a dust about their houses being blown up. I think we would say the same thing today: save the kids, save the hospitals, we’ll deal with the rest later. (And it probably helped that the houses were in the fire’s path anyway!)
There are firefighters on the scene, many of whom were enslaved men. There is a 19th century equivalent of a fire engine. But it is dead low tide, and the workers are unable to pull enough water from the bay to handle this out-of-control situation.
People are saving what they can from the houses and businesses. Locals bust into St. Andrews Hall to save the full-length portrait of Queen Victoria (which just goes to show Americans have long been Royal Addicts; I would probably have saved Victoria, too!).
It isn’t until noon the next day that the fire clears the peninsula and dies out. The casualty tolls were as follows: hundreds of acres burned, 575 homes burned, 5 churches burned, and numerous businesses destroyed. There are no recorded lives lost, but it has been speculated that there must have been some deaths, possibly including enslaved people.
Some interesting building casualties: The Circular Congregational Church. (I say interesting because there wasn’t a huge Congregational presence in the South, but my historical New Englander John Thomas is a Congregationalist.) The church was rebuilt and claims with pride to be one of the oldest continuously worshipping congregations in the South. It was founded in 1688. You can see its ruins here in a period photograph. The graveyard in the foreground is rather eerie.
Photo Credit: CircularChurch.org
Another notable building which burned was Institute Hall, where matters had really started to break down between the Democratic Party in 1860 and where South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession had been ratified.
Some of the buildings which had been lost were colonial structures, a real loss for lovers of architectural history. The Charleston Mercury ran a series of obituaries to the mansions lost. As someone who loves old buildings, I feel that!
Soup houses were set up to feed the homeless. There were relief committees and lots of donors, and the Georgia Legislature generously voted to send $100,000 in relief aid to Charleston. But even still, it was hard to dig out and rebuild with a war in progression, so a lot of the city just lay in ruins for the rest of the war and the years beyond.
Charleston, when it finally did fall, was not necessarily a good place to be. Many in the North saw The Holy City as the main perpetrator of the beginning of the Civil War and wanted, ultimately, to make the city pay for the incredible expenditure of human blood. And yet, “The vast majority of damage and destruction to Charleston during the Civil War was caused by The Great Fire of 1861, the worst in its history.” One source says, “…nature did what the Yankees only dreamed of doing.”
PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: Robert E. Lee was in Charleston on the night of the fire. He had not yet attained his ultimate fame or the position as the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Instead, he had been sent to organize coastal defenses in the Carolinas and Georgia. He was staying at the Mills House Hotel, where he and some of his staff went up either onto the balcony or the roof to watch the progress of the fire. It started to get too close to the hotel (see the picture below which shows just how close), and they were evacuated to Edmonston-Alston House (which is the house my fictional Ravenel House is based on) on East Battery Street. These facts were what gave me the clue that Shannon and her family would certainly be coughing from the smoke nearby but that they would be thought to be in a fairly safe area of town.
The Mills House Hotel was reported to have been saved only by staff placing wet blankets on the walls and roof.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: It sounds like there were slave refugees in Charleston in December of 1861 if their presence was well-enough known that their actions became a principle/folk theory as to the source of the fire. My question is: where had the refugees come from? Some of the surrounding islands that had been invaded by the Union or abandoned by their owners? From other abandoned towns of South Carolina? And if the refugees had left abandoned or occupied properties, why do you think they would flee those places into the middle of a city that was still functioning as part of the Confederate government? Wouldn’t they be afraid they would be captured and returned to their owners or sold at one of Charleston’s famous slave markets?
What do you think motivated the slave refugees? Do you think they were left alone by the authorities in Charleston? If so, why? I have some thoughts, but I’d love to hear yours!
ANALYSIS OF PHOTOGRAPH: Take a look at this photo showing the still-intact Mills House Hotel.
Photo Credit: LowCountryWalkingTours.com
Several things strike me about this picture. One is how close the Confederate officers were to the flames. Do you see buildings that nearly touch it are totally destroyed? You can see that the east side of the building is charred. Another thing that strikes me is the man who is standing. He appears to be an African American man. He is carrying a number of items. Can you identify any of them? I’m not sure what some of them are. What do you think his situation is? Is he cleaning up the debris? Just passing through? I also notice the man who is sitting. I believe he is in a Confederate uniform, but I’m not certain. It might be a cadet’s uniform. I think he has a gun in his right hand. Does he strike you as rather forlorn? Do you think he has some sort of connection to the building he is sitting on?
Stop by next time for a look at the Roper Hospital’s use as a military hospital in Charleston during the Civil War!
Ferrara, Marie, Moses Henry Nathan and the Great Charleston Fire of 1861, The South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 104, No. 4, (Oct., 2003).
Photo Credit for Feature Photo: LowCountryWalkingTours.com
Southern newspapers report that the efforts of the firefighters were really valiant, while at least one Northern newspaper reports that the enslaved men disabled two of the fire engines. You can see in this split the ongoing debate about slavery during the war. The Southern newspapers had an interest in showing that the slaves were happy enough with their lot to try to save the city, while the Northern newspapers had an interest in showing that slaves were deeply unhappy. As a side-note, the Northern newspapers tend to tie what happened to slavery or to a retribution from Providence for secession.
Do you think the portrait was special to the citizens of Charleston for a particular reason, or do you think this had something do to with the hopes that Great Britain would join the South as an ally?
I wonder if there wasn’t a huge death toll because of the adequacy of the warning system within the city. We hear that “the alarm rang out, calling the citizens to quell the fire.” (Schreadly.) This is pure speculation, but I imagine that means that the bells from the steeples of Charleston’s many churches were pealed.
This article references that the fire was started as part of a planned slave insurrection. An interesting theory. You hear rumors of that in several sources, but I could never determine whether they were fact or only speculation.
Naming characters is one of my favorite things to do when I’m starting a new book. It can also be a really difficult process, though, and I have author friends who get stuck in this phase and throw their hands up in frustration. I’ve been working on honing my naming skills over the past eleven years and thought I’d share some of my techniques!
The most important thing is that the name works for you. It has to wash with the character in your head, or it just doesn’t click. A closely related tip is that the name has to work for the character. Sometimes the name makes the character, and sometimes the character makes the name. Usually, I try to choose names that really suit the person, kind of like you would do if you were naming a pet. An example of this is Shannon’s cousin, Marie, from the Torn Asunder Series. The name just always suited her, so that was easy. An example of the character making the name would be if you had a really bold girl but decided to give her a soft, feminine name, just for the contrast. I’ve seen this work really well.
Using an obviously unsuited name can also work if you want to try out an unusual moniker. I’ve had characters in the past that I’ve done this for, and I think, “Wow, you really pulled that off!” On the flip side, not every name is made for every character. For instance, my historical male lead, John Thomas, was originally Cameron. This is a bit of a modern name, but I knew I could get away with it because it is a surname, and a lot of people gave their sons family surnames back in the day. However, the name didn’t fit him. It was as though the name tried to make him something he wasn’t. His character even started to change a little from the way I had imagined it in my head. This is the power of naming.
You can also see by my experience with the John Thomas/Cameron debacle that naming can help you get to know your characters when their personalities are still fresh and undeveloped in your head. Through that process, I was able to learn that John Thomas was a little quieter and kinder than I had begun to draw him. The character begins to revolt against the wrong name, and it’s a really helpful tool to keep in your back pocket.
So how did I arrive at John Thomas? It’s hard to remember precisely after so many character names, but I’m pretty sure that John Thomas’s name was inspired by Stonewall Jackson’s. A lot of people don’t know that the famous General was actually Thomas Jonathan Jackson. I always thought the name had a rather nice ring to it. So I kind of flipped it and brushed it up for my character. Why the use of two names? People did this during the Civil War Era. Also, I could never think of one name that fully encapsulated his character.
A name is also a good opportunity to show that you’ve done your historical homework. You probably don’t want a Kayla in 1860. But it’s not always easy to think of good historical names or to know what names were common to your particular era. The best place to start is to pull up census records for the era you want to use. A lot of census records list ages, so you need to look for someone who would have been born in the same decade as your character. There is also a great website that compiles censuses by birth year and lists the most popular names of each decade. It can be found here:
I use that site all the time. Remember, if you’re writing a twenty-year-old character in 1850, you need to go back to 1830. Only think how much naming trends change in twenty years in the modern world! They didn’t change as much, historically speaking, but you can definitely see certain fashion trends as you scroll through censuses. Another tip is to study real people from your era and look at what their children, their sisters, their uncles, etc. were named.
My books also include enslaved characters. For their names, the process is a little different. The censuses also included and counted the enslaved since slave states got a boost in representation in Congress based off the number of slaves held. Obviously, then, you can find historically accurate names for the enslaved from censuses. But you have to find a census from a slave state, and I have often found that historical records from Southern states are a little spottier and more difficult to locate for various reasons. Another good option is to get onto the websites of house museums where there was once an enslaved population. Museums will often do highlights on particular enslaved people or families. The one tough thing about that is that house museums tend to focus on a particular era. For instance, Virginia plantations most all tend to spotlight the Revolutionary Era. So, another thing you can do is read biographies or diaries of slaveowners. Typically, the names of the enslaved will come up. If you have a really hard time tracking down slave records, you can just fall back on the names from the general census from the appropriate era. The names didn’t tend to be too different. For instance, Thomas Jefferson’s rolls list an enslaved woman named Patsy at Monticello, and his daughter was also Patsy.
Okay, so let’s wrap up the conversation on first names with some of my choices from the Torn Asunder Series. Shannon was originally Mary until it struck me that “Shannon” really suited her. Therefore, she became Mary Shannon and is called “Shannon.” Historically, a lot of people gave even their girls family surnames as middle names, so I thought I could get away with that. Frederick’s name just always suited him. “Adeline” (my modern female lead) fit her. It was kind of sweet, kind of quirky, kind of old. Adrian (my modern male lead) kept trying to be “Aidan,” which would have worked for him, but I kept forcing him to be “Adrian” for reasons I can’t now remember!
Now, let’s talk surnames.
I think the most important thing in surnames is remembering that you’re dealing with people who have a family history. I recently read a book that featured a historical character from Tennessee, and he had a last name that was distinctly of Germanic origin. My initial reaction was, “No, he’s not from Tennessee.” As I sat and wondered why that had thought popped in my head, it hit me that there just weren’t a lot of people of Germanic origins in Tennessee in the era the author had chosen. There were a few, though, and people can obviously move from their original state. I kept waiting for the book to explain the character’s family history, but it never did, and that was when it hit me. I googled the author’s state, and most of the people there are of Germanic origins. Bingo. It was just an oversight or an assumption, which could happen to any of us. There’s just so much to get right when you’re writing, and it’s impossible to cover it all.
The best thing to do is look at immigration patterns. For historical fiction, unless you’re doing it to make a certain point, it’s best not to stray too much from the area’s human ecology because you run the risk of straying from accuracy in naming. For instance, if you’re writing a book set in New Orleans, it’s best to use mostly French surnames, toss in a few Spanish, and add a dash of English. In Tennessee, immigration patterns show the bulk of the population was from England, Scotland, and Ireland. Always, there will be surnames that stray from the norm, and by all means, it’s great to show those. But do it with intention.
I would just like to make a note here that research should also be done if you have characters who were formerly or currently enslaved. You have a lot of options, including the following: having no surname while enslaved, having a family surname even while enslaved (if permitted), keeping an original African name, taking on an African surname after freedom, taking on a name that meant something special to the individual like “Freeman” or “Ransom,” and taking on the former owner’s surname. You can see the potential for so many wonderful stories and choices. To explore those stories through naming is a particularly profound opportunity.
Also, if your historical story includes a Native American character, similarly there needs to be some research on various naming methods. Sometimes Native Americans would choose to take on a European name either because they were fathered by a European American or as a measure of assimilation. Sometimes Native Americans would choose to keep traditional names.
Obviously, for modern storylines, some of this goes out the window because we live in a much more mobile and diverse society. But I still think it can’t hurt to do a little research. Even your modern characters have a family story, and I think their backgrounds ring truest when you take a little time to research what that story might have been.
As for my surname choices? Charleston has a strong French Huguenot history, and Ravenel is a French Huguenot name I heard again and again on a nerdy historian’s tour of Charleston. So I plucked it right from history. My historical male lead is from New England. Obviously, there were a lot of people of English descent in Massachusetts in the nineteenth century, so I pulled a list of English surnames. “Haley” appealed to me because of Alex Haley’s powerful connection with the history of slavery in light of John Thomas’s abolitionist roots. So names can also be symbolic or literary while still being historically accurate! My modern male lead is also a Ravenel due to his family connection back to the historical portion of the series. My modern female lead is a Miller. A girl-next-door name, no?
How do you choose your character names? Any good tips? If you’re not a writer, how did you name your kids or pets?
Happy Release Day to Northern Fire! This is Book 2 of the Torn Asunder Series. The new release’s journey will take us all the way through the Civil War for the historical portion and through the next few months of our protagonists’ lives in the modern portion. Order Northern Fire now exclusively from Amazon.com!
Click the link below to order, or scroll on down for the synopsis!
To celebrate the release of Northern Fire (Book 2 of the Torn Asunder Series) I am launching a new series on the history behind the story for Northern Fire. For Southern Rain,I ran a similar series that was really fun. Readers got to learn all about the history upon which I built my storylines. The topics I chose this time will give you the first glimpse into some of the events and subjects covered in Northern Fire! If, after reading the book, you have any questions for me about the events in the book or the historical choices I made, let me know, and I am always happy to add an article!