Better angels of our nature

1-Mike Staton
Appropriate for a post about a Civil War novel, eh? This is me — Mike Staton.

Like to solve a good trivial question?

Here’s one. Of the four items mentioned below, which is most important for an author starting a new novel?

A. Having your mother proof-read it when you’re done.

B. Buying a manual typewriter from an antique store so you can feel like a real writer.

C. Writing the biggest action scene first so all the other scenes are easier to write.

D. Conducting in-depth research so your scenes are realistic.

If you answered D, you win the carnival lamp with the lady’s sexy legs.

Battle of Fredericksburg3
Black power smoke from musketry fire cloaks Confederate soldiers as they fire on advancing Union soldiers at Fredericksburg. I plan to do several chapters on this battle. My main character, Bill Bradley, get his baptism of fire here.

A couple of my fellow Writing Wranglers & Warriors – Doris McCraw and Nancy Jardine – have written posts about the research they conduct for their works-in-progress – topics like women doctors in the Western states of the U.S. West and Roman Era places in Scotland. When I decided to write a Civil War novel, I knew I would have to research the time period and the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, even though I’ve been a Civil war re-enactor and was a prolific reader of all things Civil War.


War’s Blessed Shadows begins in 1861 Southeastern North Carolina. Its main character, Bill Bradley, is a teenager from Kenansville. He falls in love with a girl from Duplin Cross Roads, just a few miles west of Kenansville. In any other time, he’d court her and they’d be married. But the bugles are blowing and musket fire will soon erupt north in Virginia. The tug of duty pulls Bill away from his sweet Becky. He enlists shortly after his eighteenth birthday in late September 1862 with the Eighteenth North Carolina and heads to Virginia to join the regiment’s companies needing to refill the ranks after losses at the Battle of Antietam.

Battle of Fredericksburg2
General Robert E. Lee observes the Fredericksburg battle of December 13, 1862.


I had him ride a train up to the environs of Fredericksburg, since I knew a battle would take place there in mid-December. I even worked on outlines for chapters detailing company, regimental and brigade maneuver training, then marching to Fredericksburg to head off the Army of the Potomac. Guess what? Wrong!

Something bothered me as I outlined scenes. Something just didn’t feel right. A whisper borne by the wind tickled my ear: Do more research. If you research it, the truth will come.

So I did. The Eighteenth N.C., a regiment in Colquitt’s Brigade, part of A.P. Hill’s light division, an elite unit in Stonewall Jackson’s Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, wasn’t bivouacked anywhere near Fredericksburg. Remember, the Army of North Virginia had just fought the Army of Potomac on September 17 near Sharpsburg, Maryland, a battle now called Antietam. Nearer to Harper’s Ferry than Sharpsburg, the Eighteenth N.C. now camped at Bunker Hill in the Shenandoah Valley, once in Virginia, now in West Virginia. I was off by one hundred and seventy five miles. I’m doing a lot more research now, not depending on deduction and faulty logic.

Captured Confederate
This fellow is an actual Army of Northern Virginia soldier captured at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. My main character, Bill Bradley, will look very much like him.

After Lincoln made Burnside commander of the Army of the Potomac, the Union general decided to make a dash past Lee’s lines and capture Richmond, the capital of the new Confederate States of America. He initiated his plans in mid-November. Yes, in mid-November when weather can be capricious. And in November 1862 it was ugly, horrible weather. When the Eighteenth got the orders to start marching out of the Shenandoah Valley toward Fredericksburg, the gray clouds were spitting out sleet. A.P. Hill’s men managed to make a 175-mile march in twelve days (including two days of rest), stopping at a plantation house a few miles from Fredericksburg. I’m now including a chapter detailing this march from hell. See how research helps?


Lee managed to put his Army of Northern Virginia on the Fredericksburg side of the Rappahannock River opposite Burnside’s federal forces. That’s because the dreadful weather and a mix-up between the Washington, D.C. command and Burnside prevented pontoon bridges from reaching the Army of Virginia. Instead of bridging the Rappahannock without opposition, the Yankees would face artillery and musketry fire. Burnside decided to duke it out with Lee at Fredericksburg, a decision that nearly destroyed the Army of the Potomac. Lee’s men slaughtered the Yankees as they tried to assault entrenched Confederates atop hills and ridges overlooking Fredericksburg. Hill placed his light division, including Colquitt’s Brigade, on level ground at Longstreet’s right flank. The chapter containing this battle scene has a working title: Baptism of Fire. I’ve done a ton of research on it… page after page after page. And I also plan to buy a book on the Eighteenth North Carolina that will give me an up-close-and-personal view of the battle. I should be able to make the battle vivid for readers, showing the fighting through the eyes of Bill and his friends, Charlie, Kenny and Daniel.

Battle of Fredericksburg4
The photo shows one of the pontoon bridges built by Federal engineers at Fredericksburg. There were six altogether that were used Union soldiers to cross over the Rappahannock and assault entrenched Confederate positions. They were slaughtered.

The issues impacting the North and South during the Civil War are alive and well in the USA today – slavery then, race relations now; states’ rights then, states’ rights now. With armed Rappahannock militias holding an Oregon bird sanctuary hostage, Black Lives Matter protests in the streets, a massacre of black worshipers in a Charleston, S.C., church, folks today are debating many of the same issues their ancestors worried about back then.


But I don’t want to forget the human element – men facing death and maiming on battlefields and love stories on hold until “Johnny comes marching home.” The tale should be fun to write once the chapter-by-chapter outline is complete. One final thought… as I do the outline, I often listen to a song by Storyhill for inspiration – Better Angels.

# # #

I have a published fantasy trilogy, Larenia’s Shadow. The three books – The Emperor’s Mistress, Thief’s Coin, and Assassins’ Lair – can be purchased on the websites of Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords.


24 thoughts on “Better angels of our nature

  1. It’s surprising how often research is needed with even non-historical writing. My main character is displaying symptoms of PTSD in my latest WIP and I feel like it’s important to portray that in an accurate and respectful way, so I have done research on that. I also have a police officer I’m constantly asking questions so that the procedures and attitudes I describe are accurate.

    But I can see where research for your topic would be vital. Your readers are undoubtedly going to be fellow enthusiasts who know the history and will spot an error a mile away.

    Good luck Mike! I’m sure you’ll get it just right.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. A very interesting blog. And it shows the importance of research from varying sources. My great grandfather went into the civil war as a young teen, lying about his age. When he mustered out he went back in under another man’s name, which forever became the family name. My sister did research for geneology and has some hand written records by a doctor who saw my G. Grandfather who was injured. I have a possible yen to write his story some day too. The Civil War is good for so many tales. Sounds like your book will be a great story. Perhaps it will become a movie some day. You won’t need luck wished for you as I see you are putting the hard work and talent into it. Let us know when it’s ready!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You can be sure I will keep everyone up to date on developments. I’m working on the chapter outline for chapter 9 right now. That’s the main Battle of Fredericksburg chapter. And I’ll be ordering that book on the !8th NC Regiment in the middle of this week, probably Wednesday. It’ll be my guide to make sure the details Lane’s Brigade and the 18th NC are accurate.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. MIke, research can be such a wonderful thing, but a harsh taskmaster, especially when you wnat to get it right. I will tell you, that’s important to me. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read that Ihave a hard time finishing because they just don’t have the history right. I can handle minor changes, but out and out untruths, yuk.

    I know this story is in good hands. Here’s to the joy and sweat of research. Doris

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Joy and sweat of research. Great way of putting it. I haven’t had such fun since my college years when I decided to look much more deeply into Civil War history. Bought color pencils and did battle maps of the major battles. Read not just the usual histories, but histories from the late 19th century by the generals who led the corps of the major armies. And of course, I had to see the national battlefield parks. Some of my best memories are of the times I went to see the battlefields, not just because of my ‘hobby,’ but because of many of the people who went with me — my mom, my dad and my grandparents, all in Heaven now.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I admire your dedication and tenacity. Getting the facts straight is so important. Before I saw “Lincoln,” I’d never considered that in the Civil War, and earlier ones, soldiers fought not just with guns and other long-range weapons, but hand-to-hand, face-to-face. That one detail changed the way I think about war.

    A writer whose workshop I attended warned against researching too much early on, said if you research before and while you’re writing, you’ll never finish the writing. In understand that, but my (unsaid) response was, What if I write and then find out I got something really big all wrong? Maybe the secret is to do the appropriate amount of research, and then be sensitive to “whispers borne by the wind.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you, Mike, into the inner workings of your writing and the research you’re doing — I admire you for seeking out even small details in order to accurately portray your novel. I too look forward to your finished product — American history has always been an interest of mine, esp. the 1800s. Your character, and his story, sound fascinating! Maybe a sequel could be Bill and Becky on the Oregon Trail coming through Wyoming — or him being sent to Fort Laramie! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I love the research but have the devil’s own job in stopping it getting in the way of a plot 😀 I love that photo you plan to base your protagonist on

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, Mike. Glad to see a comment from you. That photo is rather famous. It’s been cropped. In the original. there are actually three Confederate prisoners. They sure looked like a hard bunch.


  7. Mike- Your photos are fabulous. and …I so agree with the research processes. if there’s a niggle of doubt, I check. I even check just because I have a ridiculously unreliable memory for the ‘little bits’ that can really matter. Your story sound like it’s going to be winner. To date I’ve read (US) Civil War romances but not much of the ‘real’ history. I look forward to hearing more about ‘Wars Blessed Shadows’ and wonder if the title will change as you write, or if it really is a fixed title. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not a fixed title, Nancy. I’m even thinking it might be better as just: Blessed Shadows. The idea for the title comes from the Battle of Chancellorsville when Stonewall Jackson and his staff rode out away from Second Corps lines to reconnoiter Yankee positions. The Confederates were nervous in the darkness of night… they and the Yanks were still sniping at each other. When Jackson and his staff rode back toward his lines, men in the Eighteenth NC Regiment opened fire, thinking they were Yankees in the shadows. Jackson was hit and died a week later.


    1. Thanks, Cherley. For just pure memory, I retained much more about the Civil War back in the 1970s and 1980s. That’s why I am having to do so much research… got to bring those old memories back to life and get them down in the outline, which is progressing very well. Chapter 10 now. I am really, really happy with the tale so far.


  8. It sounds like your book will be in very capable hands thanks to your meticulous research and strong work ethic. I too love the photograph that is inspiration for your character. It’s even more interesting to read that he was a Confederate prisoner. Keep up the good work and enthusiasm!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Sarah. I can’t believe just how meticulous I have become in detailing the chapter outlines. I’ve started chapter 11, a look at my main character during winter camp. I do want to explore ‘states’ rights, since it has come back to be an important concept in Republican and conservatives’ politics.


  9. I can’t wait to read this, Mike. I haven’t done much on mine yet, but there have been a few long phone calls back and forth between my brother and me, and I’m actually outlining a little. Good luck on the whole process. If you need an extra pair of eyes, keep me in mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Will do, Linda. I’ve been outlining the romance aspects of the novel taking into account that Victorians rules will not be strictly enforced during wartime. Hard to listen to Papa’s warnings when your sweetheart could soon be dead — at age 19. Have taken some liberties with historical accuracy. I plan to have a New Year’s Party at the Forest Hill manor house just outside Fredericksburg 18 days after the battle that saw 12,000 Union killed or wounded and 5,000 Confederates (Forest Hill actually existed, although the house itself is long gone; family cemetery remains, though). Citizens of Fredericksburg thanking the officers of the Army of Northern Virginia for saving them. That didn’t actually happen — at least until later in the winter and at another manor house. But I want to get my main male character into a passionate love affair with a Fredericksburg belle before I point him and the army toward a May showdown with Yankees at Chancellorsville.


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