Writing an Old War Story for a New Generation

While I’m finishing the final edits for my Civil War novel, My Brother’s Battle, I wanted to share this essay I wrote many moons ago. Portions of this post appeared in The Paumanok Review and The Copperfield Review. My Brother’s Battle was originally published in 2000 through Xlibris, but I was never happy with the results and it will be rereleased through Copperfield Press.

                      It is well that war is so terrible, or

                                              we should grow too fond of it.

                                                                                                         ~Robert E. Lee

The new (and much improved) cover for My Brother’s Battle from LFD Designs.

In writing my novel, My Brother’s Battle, I attempted to bring the epic story of the American Civil War to readers in a way that is meaningful to present-day sensibilities. Gone With the Wind will always be a favorite Civil War novel, but its views on issues such as slavery are difficult for many readers today to swallow, and its lack of war scenes doesn’t endear it to Civil War enthusiasts who prefer novels like The Killer Angels, Shiloh, or Gods and Generals. My Brother’s Battle has a little of both—life in a stately southern manor house as well as the war-time battlefields. While it might seem an odd shift in setting, the contrast makes sense as we follow Benjamin Honeysuckle on his search for freedom, for himself and for those he loves.

I spent years researching the American Civil War, and in writing the novel I paid particular attention to the discrepancies between how people think things were and how things really happened. It’s not that easy to say the North was right and the South was wrong. There were mistakes on both sides, both on and off the battlefield.

My Brother’s Battle was born from a sentence in the Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary on PBS. Like millions of viewers, I was caught up in the all-too-true images of war while watching that brilliant series, and I was intrigued when the story turned to how the War Between the States became a battle between brothers. What could cause brothers, who grew up in the same family, with the same values, in the same society, to stand for opposing ideals? That was the germ from which this novel grew. It wasn’t long before the character Benjamin Honeysuckle appeared to me. Benjamin is the son of a Georgia planter who, for many reasons, leaves behind the genteel world he knows to fight for the Union Army. His story is the classic hero myth. He journeys into the world to fight his battles only to discover he always had the strength within.

Through my research, my question became larger than a curiosity about brothers. The holding of slaves in the United States was a national travesty, but the white slave holders wouldn’t let go of slave labor and its resulting higher profits without a bloody war. The life of a slave, I learned, was horrible, and suddenly Phoenix became more than a lady’s maid. She became a symbol of all that was good and courageous in the African-American slaves who managed to maintain their culture and a sense of self-worth despite the inhumane circumstances of their lives. Phoenix stands tall in the face of her own inhumane circumstances, and she commands our respect, not our pity.

Suddenly, the story began to breathe on its own, as fiction will do, and writing this novel became a life-changing experience for me. I had to confront my own fears of leaving behind a comfortable life and making my own particular way in the world. I had to realize that I, too, have always had the strength within. I had to face the reality of prejudice in American society, a prejudice still strong, still fueled by the fear from generations ago when slaves were bought and sold without regard for their humanity. Writing this novel was more than stringing words into sentences for me. It was my attempt to weave together truth and fiction in a way that gives voice to the most important truth of all—we are more like each other than we are different from each other.

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