Annie, Between The States

The character of Annie Sinclair is inspired by several real-life Northern Virginia teenagers caught up in the constant upheaval and bloodletting of The Civil War, in an area where one town changed hands 67 times, and another nearby town 81 times during the four-year conflict. It’s a study in character and survival. One of the young women, Antonia Ford, did in fact fall in love with the Union officer who arrested her for spying in an effort to protect her brothers. Annie, Between the States, then, is about being caught in the middle—in the middle of battles, in the middle of divided and heartbreaking family loyalties, and in the middle of disturbing ethical and humanitarian questions.

The novel 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 female civilians living on its battlefields—the choices, bittersweet friendships, the epiphanies, and hardships forced on them. Years as a magazine journalist taught me to look for extraordinary grit and resolve in ordinary people and acts of kindness and conscience in the midst of hatred, turmoil, ignorance, and long-practiced injustices. Sometimes, these stories would come from unexpected places, even “the enemy.”

Annie must grow and learn about herself, what she believes is right and wrong, amidst the real-life battles and personalities of the war she is trying to survive. Her perspective on it changes drastically from initially seeing it as romanticized adventure to a tragic waste of lives caused by the South’s inability to end the inhumanity and brutality of slavery on its own. Ultimately, she finds the strength to choose her own and different course.

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. As such he was incredibly dangerous—a charismatic leader whose captivating persona and glamor could blind people to the wrong he was perpetuating, even in the North. In the pervasive irony of The Civil War, Stuart had many friends on the Union side, including his father-in-law, and he loved to bedevil them with teasing, almost affectionate telegrams or wagers. Once his favorite hat—won on a bet with an old West Point classmate with whom he picnicked following a battle between their forces—was found and 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 a "prisoner exchange"—the uniform for his hat. Stuart had been convinced that a few rousing cavalry charges between the two sides would end the war quickly and in a handshake and chivalrous tip of the hat. He had no idea what he was getting into or what he had helped wrought.

Mosby was called "the Gray Ghost” by Union and Confederates alike because of escapades like this: one sleety night, he and his small band of rangers traversed 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 Union general, two of his captains, 30 soldiers, a telegraph operator, and 58 horses—without firing a single shot.

He, too, was a dangerous mix of contradictions. Arguing against secession, Mosby nonetheless felt that state of Virginia was his country and joined its forces, becoming its most legendary and notorious ranger. After the war, Mosby became friends and worked in the administration of President Grant, the one-time Union commander general and adversary who had put a price on Mosby’s head. Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick and then a war correspondent, asked to go on a raid looking for Mosby during the war. He wrote a sentimentalized poem about the nerve-wracking experience and Mosby: “as glides the sea the shark, rides Mosby through green dark.”

The novel opens with Annie standing over a wounded Union soldier, as the Battle of Manassas rages around her. Calling herself a "pea-wit"—a wonderfully descriptive term from the time for being an idiot—she is trying to find the courage to unbutton the man’s uniform (against all ladylike propriety) in order to stuff the lint she has scrapped from her petticoat into the man’s wound to staunch his bleeding. Such researched tidbits, such “revealing details,” painted an immediate picture of the harsh realities of the 19th century. Research also told me that British Romantic poets like John Keats were popular, and that often the small books or bibles solders carried in their breast pockets might save them from gunfire, deflecting or absorbing bullets. That gave me a wonderful way for Annie to connect with "an enemy" lying helpless at her feet, a way to see that Union officer not merely as a soldier in an army she feared but as an individual who could love the same verse she did. She and her mother save the Union soldier and he becomes a recurring presence and philosophic/ethical challenge that will change Annie’s life forever.

Journals and letters the ranger-historians at Manassas Battlefield graciously shared helped me build characters. For instance, a Virginian wrote about the wounded from a cavalry battle being dragged into her town of Middleburg. Among them was a very young Union soldier. Another townswoman noticed that the boy 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. Plaintively, the Union boy asked the Confederate mother to repeat the Lord's Prayer with him before she let go. She did and then held his hand as he bled to death. She then wrote his mother in his faraway Northern hometown to tell of her son’s bravery in the face of death. Moved by that heart-wrenching account, I decided that woman should be Miriam, Annie's mother, and the historical fact became an event in Annie's story.

Music of an era often inspires my historical novels' tone, like the poignant song "All Quiet Along the Potomac." In its lyrics, a private walks 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." Evidently, young soldiers on picket duty grew lonely and often would sing together—the Union sentry hiding in his bush harmonizing with a Confederate soldier crouching across the creek in his.

There were many such oxymorons in The Civil War. Another example—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 meet—off the battlefield—the Mosby rangers they were hunting, that they admired their daring. The family—knowing a great many of Mosby’s rangers since they were babies—arranged a meeting. The enemies talked long into the night in the family's parlor, and then shook hands before departing—bent on capturing or killing one another when next they met.

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 protects 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 much as she does. She can risk her life to save a freed slave from kidnapping at the same time she hides Southern riders in her home. In the end, the largest quandary for Annie becomes choosing her own course.

Annie’s narrative reflects the many arguments that contributed to The Civil War’s beginning—regionalism, urban versus rural life, the balance of power between federal government and states. But ultimately, The Civil War was about slavery and emancipation. It finally put a stop to a sickening, incomprehensible cruelty and crime that American leaders seemed unable to end through a civilized vote. Three million soldiers fought, 620,000 died, 420,000 were crippled or wounded. But the most important statistic to remember is that 3 million human beings were freed from bondage.