I love history, perhaps more than I love what was written about it. One of my professors in graduate seminary always insisted that one of the most important understandings of the past is that what happened (history) and what was written about it (historiography) are most often two different things. This is understandable in that the winners get to write the history books, and the books are about the key figures, not the general population. The losers are either footnotes or written about with unshaded bias.
It is estimated that there have been over 15,000 books written about Abraham Lincoln. There have been none written about the farm boy private who lost his life in a charge on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. Such is the nature of historiography. Major battles are dissected and dissected again, each move, each counter, the performance of the Generals and Colonels and Captains all picked apart with a fine tooth comb. We know of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, but not the men who charged. The owners of the land upon which the battle was fought do not get a place in the books. History books are about if such and such had done such and such at such and such a time, the entire course of history might have been changed. They are not about the farmers or shopkeepers or blacksmiths.
What gets lost in the historiography is the life of the average person, the zeitgeist without which the story gets lost in a vacuum. We will probably not find your name or my name in a history book a hundred years from now, but we still lived. We still went about our way, working, playing, loving, raising our kids and dogs and horses. We interacted with each other, built each other’s homes, fixed each other’s cars, raised each other’s food. We created the schools and the newspapers and the churches. That is history. Who knows what will be written about it?
A good example is the sixties, (or whatever decade you grew up in.) There was Kennedy and Johnson, Vietnam and walking on the moon. Hippies and Woodstock. The Great Society. And there was also us. If you tell the story about the sixties without including us, you have not told the whole story.
It is the same with what I learned in school was called The Civil War. The north was right, the south was wrong. No debates, no questions. Had the south been victorious, it would have been another War of Independence, as just a battle against a tyrannical, overreaching government as we now view our fight against the British from three quarters of a century earlier. We would have called the battles by the name of the closest town (Sharpsburg) instead of by some geographical feature nearby (Antietam Creek.) Either way, the stories told by and large would still not be about us.
Us has been my work, my consuming passion. I try to tell the stories of the real people, their lives, their struggles, their hopes and at times their hopelessness. Historical fiction can, if done correctly, be engrossing, enlightening, a woven tapestry of fictional characters in historically accurate settings, or historical figures in fictional settings and conversations. If it is done wrong, if the balance is not correct, it can easily come off as neither believable nor entertaining.
For the most part in this book, the characters who drive the action of the war itself, the generals, senators, Presidents, etc., are real. The characters about whom the book revolves are fictional. All of the settings, from the terrain to the weather to the battles themselves, are as accurate as I could make them. But the story is not about them; it is about us.
My father, Arthur P. Brennan, was a preacher of the Good Book, and he always said that slavery is abominable, and the people who practice it are all going to hell unless they change their ways, even though we live in Virginia and there are slaves all around. In my memory, he has gone from “Arthur” to “Reverend” to “The Reverend,” and I believe he had his sights set on “Most Reverend.” He alone would decide when he was qualified to have that honor bestowed upon him, and would announce it to my mother and I at the dinner table some evening.
My mother Isabel was a timid sort, always deferring to what Father said regardless of what she thought or didn’t think. “Your Father knows what is right,” was her answer to nearly every question I asked her. She was born in Maryland, a short distance away, but had lived in Virginia since marrying my father.
They were also pacifists. They didn’t believe that violence and killing were the way to solve any problem, and that the people who did those things were also going to hell. We all could see, at least since Lincoln was elected President, that violence and killing were coming.
They named me Miriam, after the one in the Bible. I believe mostly because he liked the part about following her husband anywhere.
That about sums it up that everyone is going to hell, at least in this country. Everyone except the Negroes, who of course don’t believe in slavery but don’t have the means to gather their own freedom, and know that violence against a white person is death for sure. If they could, they would probably also end up going to hell for running away.
At least the three of us were safe from the fires.
My Mother’s sister, Mary Elizabeth McCarthy, lived in Washington. Her husband, the The Honorable Cathmore McCarthy, was a judge in Bangor, Maine, until being elected to the House of Representatives in 1856. He was a fragile man, but able to persuade lesser minds with his blubbery rhetoric. They believed that it was up to them and people like them to “free the slaves.” Of course, when they said it is “up to them,” they did not mean that they would actually get their hands dirty in the process. They only meant that they would determine what other people must do in order to make the world “right.”
We lived just outside of Centreville, Virginia, to the west a few miles, in a small place on the banks of Bull Run Creek. If we lived on the other side of the creek, we would say that we lived outside of Groveton, to the east a few miles.
Father didn’t actually have a church building, as he said that in the New Testament, people had church in their homes and around camp fires in the wilderness. The only thing that changed that was people’s unholy desire for the comfort of a larger, more stately building. People were hesitant to give offerings to a preacher who didn’t have a real church, especially since they could go to one up in Sudley a few miles to the north. The Methodists there seemed to have a grip on the populace, at least with the ones who have money to give.
Hence, the small place on the creek, where we could catch a few fish and grow a few vegetables and raise a few cows for meat and milk. It kept us fed most of the time, and when it didn’t, Father hired himself out to anyone who had work to do, saying that a man who doesn’t provide for his family is worse than an infidel.
And, of course, going to hell.
For whatever reason, Aunt Mary liked me. She arranged for a carriage to come and get me every few months, and take me to their castle in Washington. It is not really a castle, but is large enough to be one. There are three floors, and each one is significantly larger than our humble home on Bull Run Creek. From the top floor windows, I could see the Capitol Building, where a bunch of old white men would eventually determine the fates of young white men, and black men of all ages.
Aunt Mary was not so timid as Mother. She was never afraid to speak her mind to her husband or anyone else. I believed it is the act of speaking her mind which was of some value to her, and not whether or not she was right in her opinions. She never liked the question, “Why is that?” as it sometimes got her into trying to defend positions which were inherently indefensible.
Because of where we lived, and Father’s “high standards” of whom I could and could not be around, I had only two friends, both of which were boys. Long ago, Mother gave up having me wear a dress for play, (which according to Father is the only proper clothing for a female of any age, and must reach from neck to ankles), and let me wear britches when I was playing. Father said he personally did not approve, but would allow it as he cannot find anything that strictly prohibits it in The Good Book. It was only common sense, which the Lord had provided us if we would only listen.
My two friends were Eddie Bailey and Cyrus Mesch. Eddie was an infidel, and Cyrus was a Jew, so Father did not approve of either of them, but does not hold it against them as their parents are certainly the reason. Neither of them ever came to our house if he was around, as they were tired of being sent to hell for not letting him baptize them in the creek.
Cyrus was a bit slow. He isn’t touched, as some of his type are described, just slow. When he first came to the country here, from Germany, Eddie and I used to tell him to do things just to see if he would. We stopped when he actually ran into a barn head first and knocked himself unconscious. We thought he was dead, but when he woke up, he was just as he had been earlier, except for the knot on his head. We began treating him as one of us.
I believed that Eddie and I would probably get married in a few years. At least that’s what we were thinking at that time. He had tried to kiss me a few times when we were alone, but I resisted. If my Father ever found out, I would go to hell for it.
Not that I didn’t want to.
There was not a single square foot of ground within four or five miles upon which we had not set our feet. We had played English and Americans for hours upon hours, and were quite adept at setting traps and ambushing whoever was the Englishman.
We also could feed ourselves in the woods. Eddie’s father was about the best trapper in the county, and his mother, being Indian, knew more about what plants to eat and what plants to avoid than anyone. Cyrus had a knack for fishing, and was better than the other two of us combined. There was not a game trail that we did not know, and several of our own trails that no one else knew.
“When is the war going to start?” Cyrus asked one day out of the blue.
“Won’t be a war, Cyrus,” Eddie replied. “Once those Yankees come down here to fight, they’ll see they’ve bit off a bit more than they should have, and they’ll leave us alone. Don’t bother yourself with it Cyrus. There isn’t going to be a war.”
Cyrus turned to me. “What do you think, Mimyum?” When we first met, he could not pronounce my name correctly, and even though he now could, he continued to call be by that name.
“I think Eddie’s right,” I offered.
“Because I think there won’t be enough Northern boys willing to come down here and kill their own kind.”
“I think they will,” he said. “And if they do, I’m going to kill a bunch of them.”
That night, I could hardly sleep. I looked for some augury, but found none. I had never thought about the possibility that there would actually be a war over the whole thing. I had thought only that the people in Washington would eventually come to some kind of agreement that was sensical.
Cyrus had gotten me considering the worst, a place I had never been. What if they did send an army down here? Then what?
When I considered the possibility, and then approximated a map of the country in my mind, I came to a simple but inescapable conclusion: if there was a war, most of it would be fought right here in Virginia. It would never get to Maine, and it would never get to Florida. It will be fought in the middle, and Virginia is in the middle.
I tried to imagine what it would be like to have soldiers running back and forth across our land, spilling their blood upon our soil. I tried to imagine the sights and sounds and smells. I decided it was too awful a scenario to ever happen. Who has ever heard a hundred guns going off at the same time?
No one would either cause it or allow it.
My favorite person in all of Washington was Mrs. Rose Greenhow. She lived but a few blocks from Aunt Mary and Uncle Cathmore. I happened to meet her three years earlier, when I first came to Washington. Aunt Mary had a large spring ball for the rich and powerful people. Even though I was only twelve, Mrs. Greenhow took the time to talk to me. When she found out that I could read, but that the only book I had ever read was The Bible, she invited me over to her house to peruse her library.
Mrs. Greenhow was a widow, having lost her husband in an unfortunate accident in San Francisco years earlier. She said they went west to take advantage of all the opportunities out there, and then he had the accident. She returned to Washington with her daughters, as here is where she was raised, and here is where she had friends and acquaintances.
She introduced me to everyone from Plutarch to John Locke to Thoreau. Since the first visit I have had with her, she forced me to learn a new word every time I saw her. She started with words like “casuistry,” (which she used to describe Aunt Mary’s positions), to “mendacious” and “pestiferous.” She said that being able to use the exact word you want is a powerful tool, and one that far too many people neglect.
Mrs. Greenhow was also a staunch Confederate. She apologized to no one, nor made any secret where her sympathies were. She liked to say proudly that not a drop of Yankee blood had ever flowed through her veins, and that none ever will.
In spite of her sympathies, she was one of the most well known and well respected women in all of Washington. Men of both sides sought her out to converse with her about any subject. Nary a social gathering in the entire city was considered genuine unless Mrs. Greenhow was there. She said that if you ask the right questions and listen with the right ears, you can find out anything from anybody, and many times they are not aware of the depth of what they have told you.
“Like what?” I asked.
She paused for a moment, and then replied, “You ask a man how things are going. In his response, he says it’s just a bit slower than they wanted. You know from someone else that he is responsible for building the defensive fortifications on the south side of the city, and that they were expected to be done in September. ‘Just a bit slow’ really means that they are far behind, as men have their own code for being behind schedule. ‘A bit slower’ means by at least two to three months behind. In a single phrase in a single conversation, you know that there is a problem somewhere along the supply chain, as it is more complicated getting materials to a spot than constructing something. That means that the Union Army is still inefficiently managed as far as logistics. They can get men to a place, but supplies for them is still a problem. That would be good information if it happened that there was a war.”
I nodded my head as if I understood. “I would much like to learn how to do that,” I replied.
I also especially liked Little Rose, who was but a few years younger than me. She was a charming young girl, more so than I could have ever hoped to be, and had inherited her mother’s need for knowledge. I tried many times to get her to partake of some small mischief, but she would not under any circumstances. We would spend hours reading both to ourselves and out loud to each other. Mrs. Greenhow insists that reading out loud has great benefits in teaching a person how to phrase and inflect their conversations. If you can do it with someone else’s words, you can do it more naturally with your own.
“People oftentimes say more with their inflections, facial expressions, and gestures than they say with their words,” Mrs. Greenhow told me. “You must learn how to read these signs and how to control your own. People are reading you just as you are reading them.”
“Nobody cares what I’m thinking,” I note.
“Perhaps not now, Miriam, but someday they will.”
That was two years earlier. Then, on July 16, 1861, for the first time, I saw her slightly tense. Had I not known her so well, or been taught to read actions so well, I never would have noticed.
My first indication was that she was sharp with Little Rose about something very minimal. Little Rose had put a bow in her hair that did not exactly match her dress. I tried not to display that I knew something was amiss with Mrs. Greenhow.
For the rest of the morning, she appeared quite normal, except that she looked out through the curtains an excessive number of times. At about noon, there was a knock at the door, and being the closest to it, I answered it.
The lady standing outside was a woman I had seen before but had never met. She seemed quite surprised that someone besides Mrs. Greenhow or Little Rose should open the door.
I curtsied and introduced myself. “Hello. I’m Miriam. Mrs. Greenhow will be with you shortly.”
“Nice to meet you, Miriam,” she replied. She offered her hand for the soft and gentle touch that women of class call shaking hands. “My name is Elizabeth Duvall. Please call me Bettie.”
When Mrs. Greenhow came into the room, she greeted the visitor, turned to Little Rose and me, and said pleasantly, “If you girls would please excuse us, I would be grateful.”
Rose and I went to the next room, where Rose of course picked up a book and began to read. I grabbed Robinson Crusoe and sat in the chair closest to the door. I immediately noticed that I could see their blurry reflection in the glass door on the china cabinet and watch their animated gestures.
Mrs. Greenhow and Miss Duvall were talking much more quietly than would be considered normal. I could hear only parts of the conversation— knowing that I would probably go to hell for such an indiscretion— but could not force myself not to listen.
I picked up enough to know that the conversation had something to do with a Senator named Wilson, and General Beauregard. Mrs. Greenhow handed her something, which it appeared she put into the hem of her dress. I heard Mrs. Greenhow wish her Godspeed, and they hugged. Mrs. Greenhow lightly and lovingly patted Miss Duvall’s cheek. She turned and left.
When Mrs. Greenhow came back into the library, she was so preoccupied with whatever was going on that she did not notice that where I was sitting was the perfect spot for information gathering. That was not like her.
She offered that we have a bit of tea on the back porch, which both Rose and I accepted.
Ten minutes later, in what was really a break from normal, she asked Rose to excuse us. Rose is so used to her mother asking her to excuse herself that she does not show even the slightest curiosity about why she is asked to remove herself. She left immediately and retreated back to the library.
Mrs. Greenhow moved her chair to directly in front of mine. She grabbed my hands and looked me directly in the eyes.
“Miriam, you must listen to me and do exactly as I say. I cannot tell you why at this time, but you must do both. Is that clear?”
I nodded my head, knowing better than to ask why.
“You need to go home immediately. It would be best if you and your family left for a brief time. If you don’t, please do not wander far from your home for the near future. Stay close to home, and stay close to your parents. Do you understand?”
I could no longer go without questioning the request, in spite of the questioning being so improper.
“What’s going on, Mrs. Greenhow?” I asked as innocently as possible.
“You know exactly what is going to happen. You heard enough of my conversation with Miss Duvall to figure out the rest.”
“How do I explain this to Aunt Mary?”
“I will discuss your travels with Mrs. McCarthy. I have a friend who is coming in just a few minutes, and he is to take you home. You were to go home on the twenty first anyway, and he shall tell them that he was going that way, and it seemed prudent for you to travel with him and not bother Mrs. McCarthy with having to hire another coach for you.”
“But I can go to hell for lying,” I objected.
“Miriam, please do as I say,” she replied sternly.
Misty Lake is about Miriam Brennan, a fifteen year old girl living a not so idyllic life on the banks of Manassas Creek with her friends Eddie Bailey and Cyrus Mesch. Then, on July 21, 1861, everything changed for everybody. Two fledgling armies met. Shots were fired, men were wounded and killed. Us, with no say in the matter, and not a really clear understanding of why, was involved.
On the day of the first battle, war hits Miriam hard, taking the life of one of her two friends. It was no longer theory or talk, but real. She vows to avenge the death, but as a young girl, “joining up to go kill Yankees” is not a viable option. She, by virtue of a relationship with Rose O’Neal Greenhow, becomes a spy for the Confederacy.
Over the next four years, and over 600,000 casualties, the real story was not about what Lee was thinking or what Lincoln was thinking, but what was happening to those half a million men and boys, to the formerly peaceful landscapes and communities, to the farms and homesteads which were inhabited by us. It is about the camp fires, the marches, the thoughts of home, the mothers and fathers who watched as their sons marched off to die.
For four years, Miriam shirks no opportunity to gather and pass information, whether that is serving tea to a Union commander or loading rifles at Sharpsburg, passing as a homeless waif in search of food or a boy in a Yankee camp or riding hard all night to pass an urgent message to General Lee. She is there at the beginning, when no one on either side could believe the war would last over a few weeks, and there at the end when Grant and Lee meet at Appomattox.
She is history. She is us.