And I have always been equally fascinated by my family’s history. I spent many hours of my childhood perched on our family antiques, trying to imagine what life was like for those who had sat there before me. My father and grandfather had played on that furniture as children. What were they like back then?
It is impossible to be interested in one’s family history and not be keen on history in general. For example, finding out that your great-grandfather came through Ellis Island is only the beginning of the story. What happened on those perilous journeys across the oceans? How did he survive once he landed on foreign soil? What was happening all around him? How did he integrate into American society?
When my sister, Kathy, and I decided to write our newly released novel, Sisters of Shiloh, we knew we were undertaking a huge research process. Our heroines, Libby and Josephine, disguise themselves as men and fight in the Civil War (a plot based on the real stories of the hundreds of brave women who fought, as discussed in two previous Ancestry blog posts—see the links at the end of this article). But although they themselves are fictional characters, all of what they experienced had to be authentic. Every moment of their lives before they joined the army, as well as the movements of their regiment and their experiences in the military, had to be accurate.
In many ways, creating Josephine and Libby’s tale was much like unearthing the story of a family member. We knew what regiment and brigade they would join and what period of time we were researching. Now we had to fill in the missing details. Perhaps some of our techniques might help you when you’re trying to get to know a member of your family tree, particularly one who lived through the Civil War.
We began by researching at the Chatham Manor Archives in Fredericksburg, Virginia (headquarters for the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park). There we had access to amazing regimental histories, maps and military documents. These helped us decide which regiment our characters should join in order for them to participate in several of the major battles in the Eastern Theatre of the Civil War: Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Spotsylvania (although during the editing process the timeline was later shortened).
This led us to visit the battlefield parks, and consult the park rangers there. So often visitors go to the battlefield parks and monuments, walk around and leave without ever consulting the experts who work there. I made an appointment to talk with one of the rangers at the Spotsylvania Battlefield who was happy to take me on a personal tour. Even to someone intensely interested in the battles, after a while (and after 150 years) sometimes those battlefields can all start to look alike. But that’s where these experts come in. That park ranger (and his colleagues at every National Battlefield Park I went to) made that field come alive. He knew almost every inch of it and helped walk me through where exactly my characters and their regiment would have stood and what some of their experiences might have been. Standing on that ground and looking at it through the eyes of our characters was surreal. I could imagine the horror of the battle, hear the bullets whistle past and smell the acrid odor of gunpowder and terror. It made my heart pound. I never would have been able to do that on my own.
On our trip to the Antietam National Battlefield, Kathy and I were lucky enough to get to stay in General Longstreet’s bedroom at the historic Piper Farm, which was actually on the battlefield. Can you imagine a more perfect place to be immersed in research? There we met the lead archaeologist working on a previously undiscovered battle line for a Union regiment. He graciously allowed me to pester him for details about what he was finding and what it meant to the battle, and he provided a wealth of insight into the experiences of the soldiers on both sides.
Not only did we consult experts on the Civil War in general, we sought out local historians as well. Once we had identified Winchester, Virginia, as the hometown of our characters, we visited the town and walked its charming streets. There we began to construct the details of Libby and Josephine’s life before they joined the army.
Winchester itself has a fascinating history. It was the most hotly disputed town of the Civil War and changed hands more than 70 times. We visited the Handley Regional Library and talked with the librarians there. Besides providing access to a wealth of local archival data like newspapers, photos and letters, they gave us the name of a local historian. He was very knowledgeable about the surrounding area during the Civil War, and helped point us in the right direction to find other sources we would need.
We also visited some of the historic homes in the area to get an idea of how a family of the socio-economic status of our characters would have lived at that time. What kind of rugs were on the floor? What kind of cups did they use? What kind of clock might have been ticking on the wall? Just getting to witness a place like that can really add a rich level of detail to your understanding of daily life. Getting to see (and sometimes even touch) period artifacts like butter churns, corsets, muskets, wash basins and some of the less common ones helps paint a picture in your mind of the everyday life of someone during that time.
Of course, not everyone has the opportunity to travel to where their ancestors lived or walk through a battlefield where they fought. But here is the beauty of the age in which we live. When Kathy and I began our endeavor in the fall of 2002, there were very few reliable historical sources on the Internet, so we only used the Internet to identify and contact local experts. Today thousands and thousands of records and original sources have been digitized and are available to view over the Internet. There are videos that walk those same battlefields and interviews with historians and archaeologists that can help deepen your connection to your ancestors and paint the portrait of their life.
When we were not researching at different locations, we were scouring printed sources like books, newspapers and period magazines. Memoirs and original letters are also a fantastic source for period details and language usage. Reading the first-hand account of someone who fought with your ancestor (even if they never mention your ancestor) will help you get a better idea of what was happening all around them. I Rode with Stonewall, by Henry Kyd Douglas, was one particularly useful memoir we consulted when considering the very large persona of Stonewall Jackson, as well as the movements of his brigade.
We also poured through the fantastic book Who Wore What: Women’s Wear 1861-1865, by Juanita Liesch, to get details about ladies clothing of the era. The Life of Billy Yank and The Life of Johnny Reb, both by Bell Irvin Wiley, are excellent sources for general details about soldiers and camp life. Any period detail you can discover, whether online, in person or in a book, will help you feel that much closer to your ancestor and be able to imagine their daily life with a little more clarity.
Finally, I must mention a personal note about coincidence…or is it fate? When Kathy and I began our novel, we had never heard of the town of Winchester. I found the town quite by accident. Nearly 10 years later I was on Ancestry chasing down the paternal line of my mother’s mother on a whim. Imagine the electric thrill that ran through me when I discovered that one of my direct ancestors, John Havens, had first come to Winchester in the mid-1700s and was an early settler of the area. Several generations of his family had remained there before moving south.
Our research for Sisters of Shiloh eventually led us back to our own family, and, thanks to that research, we know more how about those Winchester ancestors might have lived. History and genealogy go wonderfully hand in hand that way. And, with a little serendipity thrown in, who knows what else you will discover on your journey to unearth the stories of your family’s past.