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Walking Battlefields

I had a wonderful time last week in North Carolina. I talked at the Literary Symposium in honor of New Bern’s 300th anniversary—the city was covered in decorated bears (Bears being a symbol of Switzerland, and New Bern being named after…well, old Berne, which is _in_ Switzerland. [g])—and to the New Bern Scottish Heritage Society.

Yes, I hear you all muttering, “Why is she running around talking to symposia instead of staying home and writing BOOKS?” (My husband keeps saying this out loud, adding, “And what’s a symposium, anyway?”) Well, in all honesty, lovely as New Bern is and nice as all the kindly folk I met in North Carolina are, I probably _wouldn’t_ have gone to do this, save that it _was_ in North Carolina. And so is a part of Book Eight.

Everybody knows about Valley Forge and Washington Crossing the Delaware (you do know, I hope, that artists of the period took considerable license, and were not, in fact, present at most of the stirring scenes they painted—including the one of General Washington standing up like a ninnyhammer in a boat making its way through a surging river full of ice-floes), and the Continental Congress in Philadelphia—1776 and all that.

Not so many people know about the Battle of Alamance—the first tax revolt in the American Colonies—or the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge—the first battle of the Revolution. Or at least they probably didn’t until they read THE FIERY CROSS and A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES. Bet a lot of you have heard of the Battle of Saratoga—maybe not so many,of Guilford Courthouse, Waxhaws, and Cowpens. (Unless you live in the Carolinas, of course.)

The battle of Guilford Courthouse, which was—oddly enough—fought in the general vicinity of the Guilford County Courthouse in Guilford County, North Carolina—was the high point of British achievement in what was called “the Southern Campaign,” this being what the British tried next, following the shattering defeat at Saratoga. In other words, they decided to try to cut the Colonies in two, occupy and subdue the southern colonies, and thus be able eventually to attack the northern colonies from two sides, as well as to more effectively throttle trade by controlling all the southern ports.

It might have worked. In fact, the British won the battle at Guilford Courthouse. But it cost them dearly. In the words of General Cornwallis (whom you met earlier, when William Ransom joined his staff in New York—and who you’ll meet again in the course of the war): “I never saw such fighting since God made me. The Americans fought like demons.” And General Lord Charles Cornwallis was a gentleman who’d seen his share of fighting at this point.

The British army won the ground, but sacrificed a great many men to do so—what we call a Pyrrhic victory—and the war began to go downhill for them from this point.

Right. So much, I could get from books. That, and a lot more—biographies of the major people involved (Major Banastre Tarleton, for one. You met him briefly at the Mischianza in Philadelphia, though many of you will likely know him better as the blueprint for the sadistic villain in Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot”), order of battle, names of regiments involved, the regimental books with muster rolls, sutlers’ and victuallers’ lists, the commanders’ despatches, etc., etc. But I’m not a historian—I’m a novelist. I want to know all the things you can find in books—but I still want to see where it happened. So, if you’re a historical novelist, exactly what are you looking for, when you walk a battlefield?

Well, you’re looking for the soul of that particular battle. Battles are different, one from another, and not only because of the arrangement of troops, the movement of cavalry, and the array of artillery.

The personalities of the officers—and often, of individual soldiers—affect a battle, as does the condition of the two armies when it takes place. More important than any other factor, though, is the mood of the men when they come together—and the mood of the place where they meet.

Places do have moods. Sometimes, the mood that strikes you is a function of the place itself; something in the rock, in the air and water. Sometimes, it’s a mood that’s sunk into the place as the result of something that happened there.

I’ve walked a number of battlefields, and while all of them are extremely interesting, they aren’t all haunted, by any means. I’ve been in places where I knew something terrible had happened, and yet there was no psychic trace of it left in the fabric of the place. In others, there _is_.

The battlefield at Gettysburg is huge; many separate engagements took place there that day, many of them bitterly fought, and much blood shed. The whole of the battlefield is quiet, dotted with monuments and explanatory plaques. But only one place there is haunted—the long field where Pickett’s charge took place. It’s haunted in the same way that the field at Culloden is haunted—and for the same reason. Someone who had no idea what had happened there would still know that _something_ happened.

What happened is that hundreds of men stood still on a field for a long time, knowing they were going to die.

You walk the ground. You don’t want to know that it was a hundred yards from the first American line to the second, which was on a rise of ground; you want to walk uphill and feel the pull of your thigh muscles and the sweat running down the crease of your backbone and look over your shoulder down the slope to see the thicket that the enemy came out of—running, were they? Or slower, cautious? No, running for sure, because at the top of the slope are two of the cannon that were there that day and nobody walks toward manned artillery. So, running, jostling, zig-zagging, bayonets fixed—because they would have fired from the shelter of the wood, not to much effect because the distance is too far, but there’d be smoke from the firing hanging over that slope and drifting through the trees, and if I had to charge a cannon-crew, I’d sure as heck do it coming out of the smoke if I could…

You look at what’s growing now, and you think about what might have been growing then. Landscape changes; some battlefields are conserved, so that the ground is maintained in an approximation of the vegetation at the time of the battle—Saratoga is, for one—but others are not (Alamance, for instance), some are in the process of being revised (Culloden has been substantially revised over the last 10-15 years, with the assistance of a small herd of Highland sheep, who eat the birch saplings on the moor), and you have to meld the accounts you’ve read of the battle with your impressions of what’s now there. And you make mental adjustments for the time of year.

The battle of Cowpens was fought in January of 1781; Guilford Courthouse in March of that year. I was walking those fields in mid-May, surrounded by soft green leaves and the smell of blooming grass (yes, grass blooms [g]; the blooms just don’t _look_ like what you think of as flowers], so was automatically thinking of what the meadow at Cowpens (and it _was_ a meadown then, too; it was called “cowpens,” because that’s what it was—the place where cattle-drovers gathered their beasts and fed them on the abundant grass before driving them to market in Charleston) would be like in winter: trampled brown grass, the gravel of the Green River Road (its trace is still there, edging the field) glinting with ice crystals in the still early morning (I know it was still, because several of the eyewitness accounts of the battle mention the unusual stillness).

Two wild turkeys tiptoed out of the forest at different points in my walk and peered at me suspiciously before going about their business. They wouldn’t have been obvious or plentiful in winter, but good to know they live in that neck of the woods—and one of them left me an iridescent breast feather for inspiration (most writers I know have feathers somewhere in their offices. I don’t know why this is, but it’s true).

And by the road was a small tree, completely covered with blue-green lichens. Now, lichens would have been there, no matter what the time of year. And that’s the sort of image that you use, as a novelist, to invoke a specific sense of place. So I paused for a minute to rest my hand on the trunk and look up, to see the lichens growing all the way to the upper branches, ten feet above my head. I don’t take pictures when I go looking—if I’m constantly worrying about composing a picture or snapping something, then I’m not actually _looking_ at it. And if I _am_ looking…I won’t forget.

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