Thank goodness for Ken Burns!
65,000! That’s approximately how many books have been written about the Civil War. Not surprising, considering that it was, is and may always be the central defining event in American history. Made
inevitable by the dark compromises struck at the birth of our nation, the regional and racial ripples of that conflict still unsettle this country 150 years later, like a vortex from which we can never completely escape.
When I decided to set my new historical novel GALLOWAY’S GAMBLE during the decades before and after the Civil War, I knew the war’s tidal pull had to play a part in the story. I also knew my knowledge of the war was pretty meager.
Here’s where I faced a central risk of writing historical fiction: whatever period you write about, there are countless potential readers who consider themselves experts – and if you get the facts wrong, they’ll skewer you. So, I had to do research. How much? I had no idea.
65,000. That number again. Not only couldn’t I read more than a tiny fraction of those books; to choose a few from among so many was a task too daunting to even begin.
Thank goodness for filmmaker Ken Burns! When his monumental, 5-night, 11.5-hour series THE CIVIL WAR was first broadcast by PBS September 23-27, 1990, I taped it, fully intending to watch it, umm, soon. Alas, “soon” stretched into decades, and I just never found the time.
But I quickly realized that Burns, writers Geoffrey C. Ward and Ric Burns, and their team had already done far better research than I could ever do. So I stopped working on my outline, spent a week watching the entire series, and took notes like a fiend.
The hallmark of a Ken Burns documentary is the way he uses the “voices” of real people. By having well-chosen actors read from actual journals, speeches, and letters written by participants of the time, Burns builds an intimacy transcending the dry names, places and dates we’re force-fed in history classes.
Hearing those voices, I knew I should not write about politics or battles. To draw readers in, I needed to make the Civil War personal, the little corner of a cataclysm seen through the eyes of the brothers Galloway, and the men serving with them.
Among many people and moments Ken Burns featured was the heartbreaking story of a Union soldier, 32-year-old Major Sullivan Ballou (at left). A lawyer and member of the Rhode Island legislature, he wrote to his wife Sarah on July 14, 1861, with expressions of love for her and their sons, reasons why he’d give his life for the Union cause, and thoughts on his own mortality.
Ballou died a week later in the first Battle of Bull Run. His letter eventually reached his family; though the original may have been buried with Sarah (who never remarried), copies survived, to be included in the film. (Read text here; see video here)
Inspired by Ballou’s letter, I made such a letter written by one of Jamey and Jake’s Confederate comrades the centerpiece of the Civil War section of GALLOWAY’S GAMBLE. Far more than any battle account I could write, the weight of something as simple as a letter home gave the epic tragedy of the war a human scale. Without giving away any spoilers, I hope readers will find this part of my story surprising and touching.