Annie, Between The States

I grew up in Fairfax County, Virginia, just south of Washington, D.C., when the area was still rural and locals might discover Civil War bullets while digging a summer vegetable garden. There had been constant raids and encampments along the Potomac River, which divided north and south, as well as major battles in nearby Manassas. The war had been a very real and very constant reality for Virginians, leaving behind such artifacts. It left behind amazing stories as well.

When I was very young, elderly residents of my town still told vivid anecdotes about the Civil War, told to them by their grandparents who witnessed it—fascinating tales of bravery and intrigue for a young would-be writer to hear. I always wondered what I would have done, had I lived back then on the peaceful hills I enjoyed rolling down without a thought of trouble that then were sites of horrendous skirmishes. The character of Annie is inspired by several real-life Northern Virginia teenagers caught up in the struggle, who risked their lives to pass on critical information to their relatives or Confederate leaders. One, Antonia Ford, did in fact fall in love with the Union officer who arrested her for spying. Annie, Between the States, then, is about being caught in the middle—the middle of battles, the middle of divided and heartbreaking family loyalties, the middle of disturbing ethical questions.

Annie, Between the States opens with the Battle of Manassas sweeping through her aunt's home, leaving behind many wounded for the family to nurse. It continues to explore what the war was like for civilians living on its battlefields—the loyalty, choices, bittersweet friendships, and hardships forced on them. These are themes that dominated my first novel, Under a War-torn Sky, the tale of a downed American pilot and the French Resistance in Nazi-occupied Europe. Years as a magazine journalist taught me to look for extraordinary acts of courage from ordinary people, acts of kindness and conscience in the midst of hatred and turmoil.

Like Henry in Under a War-torn Sky, Annie must grow and learn about herself amidst the real-life battles and personalities of the war she is trying to survive. Her perspective on it changes from initially seeing it as a glorious adventure to then a noble obligation to finally a tragic waste. She comes to question long-held values driving Virginia's involvement in the war and finds the strength to choose her own course.

Annie, Between the States is one of the most ambitious book I've done in terms of research. Research told me that the dashing cavalry general Jeb Stuart and the elusive ranger John Mosby, known as the "Gray Ghost," clashed frequently with Union troops in the area and needed to be an integral part of Annie's story. But that meant I had to read about twenty books and create a four-year timeline of their whereabouts during the war before even deciding where Annie's house would be located. I wanted her interactions with the Confederate leaders to be absolutely correct in terms of place and time.

Every battle, troop movement, or date mentioned in Annie, Between the States is factual. As outlandish as they seem, Mosby and Stuart were as I present them. Jeb Stuart's blue eyes did charm multitudes. He wrote poetry, traveled with a banjo player, and wore golden spurs a lady admirer sent him. He did have many friends on the Union side, including his father-in-law, and he loved to bedevil them with teasing telegrams or bets. Once his favorite hat—won on a bet with an old West Point classmate he picnicked with following a battle between their forces—was picked up by Union troops. Soon thereafter Stuart "captured" a Federal general's best dress uniform when he raided a Northern camp. He sent a message to the Union general suggesting there be a "prisoner exchange" –the uniform for his hat.

Why was Mosby called "the Gray Ghost?" Here's a good example: One sleety night, he and his small band of rangers rode more than 20 miles, slipping undetected through numerous Federal picket lines. They rode right into a Union encampment, and walked straight into General Stoughton's bedroom. Mosby awoke the Union general—who was a little groggy from an evening of champagne. "Do you know Mosby?" he asked. Eagerly, the Federal responded, "Yes, have you captured the devil?" Mosby told Stoughton no, that the devil had caught him. He instructed the general to get up and dress. Out Mosby rode and disappeared again into the night, carrying off the captured general, two of his captains, 30 soldiers, a telegraph operator, and 58 horses—without firing a single shot!

Smaller, everyday details make the novel authentic, more revealing of what it would take to survive. For example, farm animals were dying because of the scarcity of salt for them to consume—such necessities went to the armies. A barrel of flour suddenly cost $40 rather than $6 and if the creeks didn't freeze over during the winter, there would be no chunks of ice in their underground ice-houses to preserve food the next summer. These are things we don't think about, but people trying to survive the Civil War certainly did. I also needed to know more mundane things, such as exactly how women wore their hair in those days, brushed their teeth, how people treated infections, what they read and sang, what was available in Fauquier and Loudoun counties to eat, what kind of trees grow there, how their pistols fired, to name only a few items. (By the way, girls, Annie had to wear seven layers of clothes every day, even in the summer —seven!)

It was a lot to learn. But the research really was like a treasure hunt. It yielded such gems of details. The novel's opening line, for instance, came from a list I made of catch-phrases of the time. Annie calls herself a "pea-wit" a wonderfully descriptive term for having a very tiny brain, don't you think? I was also very pleased to discover that favorite authors of the time were the British Romantic poets like John Keats. That gave me a wonderful way for Annie to connect with "an enemy," a way to see that Union officer not merely as a soldier in an army she feared but as an individual who could love verse that she did as well.

Items from 19th century journals kept during the war helped me build characters. For instance, a lady wrote about the wounded from a cavalry battle being dragged into the town of Middleburg. One of them was a very young Union soldier. A townswoman noticed that he was choking on blood coming from a bullet hole in his throat. Instinctively she plugged it with her fingers until the surgeon, frantically moving from man to man, could look at him. There was nothing the doctor could do given the medicine of the time. The boy asked the lady to repeat the Lord's Prayer with him before she let go. She did and then held his hand as he died. She then wrote his mother in his faraway Northern town to tell of his bravery. That sounded very like Miriam, Annie's mother, and so it becomes an event in Annie's story.

Research can also seep into the tone of a book, even if the specific details do not. Let me provide two instances that definitely affected my writing: If your computer played music as you opened up this page, you heard a poignant song called "All Quiet Along the Potomac," about a private walking sentry duty. While the army slumbers, he paces, longing to see his children at home. Suddenly a shot is fired from a thicket and he falls dead. Concludes the song: "All quiet along the Potomac tonight! No sound save the rush of the river; while soft falls the dew on the face of the dead, and the picket's off duty forever." One of the most heart-wrenching details I read was about how very young soldiers on picket duty were lonely and often would sing together – the Union sentry hiding in his bush harmonizing with a Confederate soldier crouching across the creek in his.

Add that to this incident—the farm of one Manassas family was used for a Union encampment. In thanks for their hospitality, the commanding Federal officer left behind a few men to guard the farmhouse against vandalism and looting by stragglers from his own army. Those soldiers said they'd love to get to know the Mosby rangers they were hunting, that they admired their daring. The family arranged a meeting. The enemies talked long into the night in the family's parlor, and then shook hands before departing. There seemed to be a sense of curiosity as well as pity between them.

The irony of such cordiality amidst such carnage became one of the overriding themes of Annie, Between the States. She comes to recognize that "there is good and bad on both sides, kind and evil on both sides, thieving, lechery, and mercy on both sides, according to the morals and personality of the individual." She can question the values that took Virginia into the war at the same time she fights to protect her brothers and her farmland by informing Confederate leaders of Union troop movements and traps. She can find herself intrigued by a Northern officer who loves poetry as she does. She can risk her life to save a freed slave at the same time she hides Southern riders in her home. In the end, the largest quandary for Annie becomes choosing her own course.