When I wrote The Mississippi Boys, I did a lot of research. I hung out at the library in Travelers Rest, South Carolina, searching for the southern viewpoint of the War of Northern Aggression. I didn’t look on the internet. I wanted to hold those so-called historical perspectives in my hand. I was incensed at the disparity as I read line upon line. I searched until I uncovered a strong measure of truth, but before I did, I found for the most part, what had been written about the War didn’t align with the letters my great-great grandfather, T.G. Clark, and his sons wrote home. Theirs was not some journalist’s biased opinion. They were first-hand experiences. Those men were living it. Day after endless day. They lived it from the roaring campfires of Grenada, Mississippi, to the cold and lonely hills of Kentucky where they took their infantry training in the winter of 1861. They lived it as they slogged through mud and snow to the tops of their boots across the snow-covered Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains, through the Shenandoah Valley. Across the Susquehanna. They lived it through hunger and thirst, sore feet and aching backs. They lived it in the light of an evening campfire as they shook their lice-ridden, ragged grey uniforms over the flame to the crackle, not only of the firewood, but of the pesky parasites. And they lived it all the way to the scorching hills of Gettysburg before the end came.
I did a lot of that research before I discovered their letters! Letters from The Mississippi Boys! They were writing home, to Great-great grandmother Marjorie Brown Rodgers Clark (Rachel in my stories). It might interest you to know they never once mentioned slavery. They didn’t mention it, because they had no slaves. No one in Northeast Mississippi owned slaves. There were probably far more slaves owners in New Hampshire and the other New England states than there were in Northeast Mississippi. Natchez and New Orleans and Charleston were not the only ports of entry.
I believe with all my heart T.G. Clark (Payne in my stories) and the boys viewed the war through the eyes of patriots who were fighting for what belonged to them. I had no intention of getting into it the way I did (which was mild against other novels that were written about the Civil War), but I found it hard to keep my mouth shut. Never again do I want to keep my mouth shut.
One of the hardest parts of researching was reading documentaries and looking at pictures of Sherman chewing on a cigar and cursing the South as he looks over his shoulder watching Atlanta burn, singing John Brown’s Body Lies A-smouldering in the Grave. And he marches on to the Port of Savannah; takes it; and hands the city over on a silver platter to Lincoln for Christmas or birthday or some personal gift. As though Savannah, Georgia, were his to hand over. Talk about politics!
I think something that was more liberating than anything to me came from a great friend of mine, a Presbyterian, a Bible scholar though not a preacher. He got my first book and he stood by as I wrote The Mississippi Boys. He tragically died of a brain aneurism before I finished the book. He had loaned me a book of his. I returned it before he died. I went to his funeral and felt something unexplainable. He was such a grace-filled man. A few days after his funeral, his family gave me that book that I so loved and didn’t want to part with. The inscription was this: “May Bill’s love for writing and for history of Christian faith inspire you in the writing of your next book.” (Joshua 1:9). It did.
The book is entitled Life Work and Sermons of John L. Girardeau. Sounds boring, but it is not by any means. If you will go to the epilogue of The Mississippi Boys, you will see some excerpts from this book. Girardeau was there, in the heat of battle. He was a Confederate chaplain to the 23rd Regiment of the South Carolina Volunteers. You can see from those words how he felt about his beloved South. He was a most ardent advocate of Southern rights, never reconstructed. And at the end of the war, the Union gathered up all the South’s preachers and missionaries and put them in prison. John Girardeau was no exception.
But, in this book, the writer tells how Girardeau is seen behind the earthworks of Secessionville on James Island, down in the excavation behind the magazine on his knees praying over wounded Union soldiers who had been placed there, no doubt, to die while the South fought a war around their enemies. The writer called it a “triumph of Christian virtue over human nature, this absolute forgiveness accorded to dying and no longer active enemies, emphasized his God-like soul and brings out in radiant light the benediction of this true disciple of the Master.”
Those Union soldiers were his enemy, yet they were his responsibility as they lay dying.
It is hard to get to that place.
That taught me more than any other reading about a country at war with itself. Was there “cause” and not motive? Was there “purpose” and not intention? I wanted to be careful to state the cause and purpose without watering it down. I wanted to know beyond a shadow of a doubt the truth about Lincoln; that he had motive, not purpose. Ft. Sumter belonged to South Carolina. Lincoln took the war to the South when he called out the first 75,000 men to fight “a foreign country,” for eleven sovereign states had properly seceded from the Union to form a country of its own … the Confederate States of America.
I had to let the subject matter take on a life of its own. I had to speak it as I saw it; as I read it; as I felt it; as I knew it to be true. This was my responsibility as a writer. If the shoe fit, someone was going to have to wear it. It was my right and privilege to speak what I found to be the truth. It was then that the war became up close and personal to me.
I can tell you this—I knew my story must have purpose and not motive. My readers would know the difference. That has been my gauge while writing this trilogy. I had to say it as I saw it. And then I edited it to the glory of God. And it was then that I knew—I definitely knew as I kept writing—each story of the trilogy would be purified in the crucible before I released it.
I made the political statements along the way and I edited them out. But I got my story told without compromising my convictions about my heritage. There is no mistaking my love for the South, my appreciation for a godly heritage, my undying love for my forebears who fought on my behalf.
Some twenty years after the war, Dr. John L. Girardeau, in his address at the Magnolia Cemetery where the graves of Confederate heroes were being repaired, called them "... champions of constitutional rights! Martyrs for regulated liberty! Once again, farewell! Descend to your final sleep with a people's benediction upon your names! Rest ye here, soldiers of a defeated—God grant it may not be a wholly lost—Cause! We may not fire a soldier's salute over your dust, but the pulses of our hearts beat like muffled drums, and every deep-drawn sigh breathes a low and passionate requiem.
Memory will keep her guard of honor over your graves;
Love will bedew them with her tears;
Faith will draw from them her inspiration for future sacrifice; and
Hope, kindling her torch at the fires which glow in your ashes,
will in its light, look forward to a day when a people
once more redeemed and enfranchised will confess
that your death was not in vain."
The Life Work of John L. Girardeau, D.D., LL.D.
by George A. Blackburn, D.D.
The State Company, Columbia, SC, 1916.
Jane Bennett Gaddy