Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Midlist Writer blog, where he talks about writing, adventure travel, caving, and everything else he gets up to. He also reproduces all the posts from Civil War Horror, so drop on by!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Hunting Quantrill in Civil War Missouri

A hundred and fifty years ago this week, Union forces in Missouri were hunting someone who would become a legend. The Seventh Missouri Infantry had moved to Blue Springs in Jackson County, where infamous Confederate bushwhacker William Clarke Quantrill was operating.

A schoolteacher from Ohio, Quantrill made a name for himself during Bleeding Kansas by fighting on whichever side offered the most chance for booty. Once the war started in earnest, he threw in his lot with the South and rampaged across Missouri. Even at this early stage of the war he was robbing stagecoaches, wagon trains, mail carriers, and stealing horses. Many of these actions were hit-and-run attacks on Union forces; others were simple banditry. His followers rode the best horses, either stolen or given to them by Confederate sympathizers, while Union troops, indifferently mounted on government-issued steeds, had a hard time catching him.

From January 29-February 3, the Seventh Missouri tried their best. They managed to kill six of his men and capture much of his booty, including a fine stagecoach and team and seven wagons filled with pork and tobacco. Quantrill got away, however, and would only die in the last days of the war in 1865.

The Official Records include an interesting complaint from a Union officer stating that his men lacked boots and shoes and "the suffering men have filled the hospitals with frostbite." They also hadn't had any sugar for two weeks. The rebels weren't the only ones suffering from supply problems during the Civil War.

Quantrill appears briefly in my Civil War novel A Fine Likeness. Two men who rode with Quantrill for part of the war, Frank James and Bloody Bill Anderson, are supporting characters. One of the reasons I picked Civil War Missouri as a setting for my novel was because there were so many interesting real characters for my fictional ones to meet!

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Siamese twins in the Middle Ages

As I mentioned in my last post, I've been traveling in Greece writing a new series for Gadling called Our past in peril: Greek tourism faces the economic crisis. The first in the series is here.

I've always been more interested in Byzantium than Classical Greece and so I spent a lot of time exploring Byzantine sights, including Mistra, a Byzantine ghost town overlooking Sparta. On one of the signs there I came across this strange story. The image above is from a Byzantine manuscript owned by the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid and the caption reads:

"In the time of Romanos Lekapenos (10th cent.) a pair of Siamese twin boys were brought to Constantinople from Armenia and they 'stayed in the city for a long time and everybody went to see them as if they were some kind of curious monster; and then they were expelled from the city because they were thought to be an evil omen."

There's a story in the making. . .

Friday, January 27, 2012

Traveling in Greece

Hi everyone. I've been a bit silent this week and that's because I'm traveling in Greece! Gadling has sent me here to write a series about how the economic crisis is affecting tourism and heritage management. The first article will appear January 30.

I'm writing this to you from Sparta. The Classical ruins here aren't as impressive as those of Corinth or Delphi, and the real reason I came here was to see Mistra. This is a late Byzantine ghost town that is, hands down, the most impressive thing I've seen in this county. Acropolis included. I've always wanted to see this place since researching my book Byzantium: An Illustrated History. It's great to finally get here! I'll be doing a heavily illustrated article on Mistra as part of the series. Here are a couple of photos to give you a taste.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Guest blogging with Cynthia Hope Clark

Today I'm guest blogging over at Cynthia Hope Clark's blog on the subject of "Self and traditional publishing: why doing both can be good for your career". Pop on over at check it out!

Hope will have her first novel published next month and she'll be over here talking about it after it's released.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Civil War Photo Friday: Happy (early) Valentine's Day!!!

 Um. . .isn't Valentine's Day February 14? Yes it is, but I love my readers so much I've decided to celebrate early. From now until the day after Valentine's Day (Feb. 15) I'm discounting my Civil War novel A Fine Likeness to $2.99. The changes are already in place on Smashwords. I've made the changes on Amazon and their affiliates like Amazon UK. It may be a few more hours before the system makes them visible, though. Same goes for other websites like Barnes and Noble.

My novel has been out two months now and I've received some wonderful reviews and a modest number of sales. I'd like to increase both by offering this discount. I love getting new readers! I also love my existing readers, so if you've already purchased A Fine Likeness at full price, here's a deal for you: I'll send you a complimentary copy of my short story collection The Night the Nazis Came to Dinner and other dark tales. Just email me at seansontheweb (at) yahoo (dot) com and answer this question about the book: what Union officer was entrusted to guard Rocheport? (Hint: he did a really crappy job!).

I love my readers!

Valentine's Day card from 1861 courtesy Library of Congress.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Movie Review: The True Story of Jesse James (1957)

One of the nice things about my new home in Santander is that it's just five minute's walk away from the local Filmoteca. These are a national chain of government-subsidized cinemas showing local films, international indies, and classics.

Last week I saw The True Story of Jesse James, a 1957 remake of a 1939 film. It stars Robert Wagner as Jesse, Jeffrey Hunter as Frank, and Gilligan's Island skipper Alan Hale, Jr., as Cole Younger. I recently completed a book about the James gang so I was interested to see how much of the "true story" was in this picture.

OK, now that all of you've finished laughing, I can attest that while it doesn't come anywhere close to the true story, it's the most accurate film about the James gang other than Brad Pitt's The Assassination of Jesse James. That's not saying much. Read my post on Jesse James in Hollywood to see just how bad the Dream Factory screws up history.

The film opens with a presumptuous text saying how this is the real story, unvarnished by myth. That's a bit like Dan Brown saying at the beginning of The Da Vinci Code that his story is all true. What follows is about ten percent history, ninety percent myth. The basics of Jesse James' life are outlined fairly accurately: his beating at the hands of a Unionist militia, his subsequent enlistment in Quantrill's bushwhacker band, his inability to stop fighting after the end of the Civil War, etc. Much of the film is dedicated to the gang getting shot up during their failed heist at Northfield, Minnesota, and the ensuing chase.

Throughout this basically correct narrative are strewn historical errors and fables. Robert Ford is somehow along for the ride to Northfield despite his not being a member of the gang yet. The Northfield shootout is turned into a fairly even gunfight in which several armed citizens die, when in fact only two unarmed civilians were shot down in cold blood. There's also a completely made up subplot about a neighbor of the James family who wants their land and is conspiring with the local Union soldiers and law enforcement.

No such neighbor existed. The James brothers were no more persecuted for their wartime record than any other ex-Confederate. Yes, in post-war Missouri former secessionists had many of their rights curtailed, but the James family had a prosperous farm and were in fact better off than many of their Unionist neighbors. Greed drove Frank and Jesse to rob banks, not persecution. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder may have also played a part. They weren't the first, or the last, veterans who were unable to put a war behind them.

The overall point of this movie seems to be to put the James brothers on a pedestal, making them into American Robin Hoods when in fact they were nothing more than capable bandits with a flair for public relations. This was only one of the many films that helped create the Jesse James legend and as such, it's worth watching for those with an interest in the Old West and folklore. Plus it's got some cool gunfights.

At least it wasn't as bad as Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter. That made my list of the ten worst horror films ever.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Book Review: The Civil War on the Lower Kansas-Missouri Border

The Civil War on the Lower Kansas-Missouri BorderThe Civil War on the Lower Kansas-Missouri Border by Larry E. Wood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Larry Wood is a familiar name to those who study the Civil War in Missouri. He's written several books on lesser-known aspects of the war in the state.

This book covers the two Westernmost tiers of counties in Missouri, those that border Kansas. They were the hardest hit in the vicious border fighting of Bleeding Kansas and things would only get worse once the war started in earnest.

The Border Wars can boil blood even today, so it's refreshing that Wood covers the subject with an even hand, doling out praise and blame to those who deserve it regardless of what side they were on. The tit-for-tat burnings of Osceola and Humboldt are a perfect example of how both sides inflicted unnecessary suffering on civilians and his chapter on this is especially good.

Another interesting chapter covers the Skirmish at Island Mound, where the First Kansas Colored Volunteers became the first black unit of the American army to see combat. They fought off a much larger force of Confederate irregulars and went a long way to changing public attitudes about the ability of black soldiers.

There are also chapters on Shelby's 1863 raid, Price's retreat after his disastrous 1864 campaign, and the two battles of Newtonia. This last chapter has since been expanded by the author into a full book. It's high on my "to read" list. Additional chapters cover the small skirmishes and deadly personal rivalries that were rife in this part of Missouri.

While narrow in geographic scope, regional studies such as this one are valuable in giving readers a view of what in was really like to live in those days. Wood has been very productive and I hope he continues comes out with more books in the future.

This is a review for the second edition, published in 2003. Wood says it has been completely revised and has two new chapters. Make sure you get the second edition.

View all my reviews

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Hazards of the Civil War battlefield (besides the enemy)

In a recent post I pondered the origin of the many so-called "slight" wounds of the Civil War. How could so many soldiers only receive reportedly minor wounds when a direct hit by a musket ball or rifle bullet so often meant death or dismemberment?

My main theory was that the widespread use of buck and ball--a musket ball and three shotgun pellets--meant soldiers were being hit more often by pellets than actual bullets. Some researchers over at the Missouri in the Civil War Message Board pointed out that buck and ball was only used in smoothbores, and these fell out of favor later in the war.

After a holiday lull, the thread has picked up again. Now one very well-read individual has examined ordnance reports listing buck and ball rounds well into 1864 and said many units in fact preferred smoothbores because they had a greater chance to hit. Also, rifles have an arced trajectory and require a great deal of target practice most units on both sides never got. Smoothbores fired at a higher muzzle velocity than contemporary rifles and this gave them a flatter trajectory, further increasing their accuracy over rifles. We'll take up the subject of smoothbore vs. musket again once I've done some more research.

Of course, getting "slightly wounded" doesn't have to come from enemy action. General Lyon got kicked in the stomach by a horse when he was breaking up the rebel Missouri State Guard camp outside St. Louis in 1861. A reenactor in Missouri recently got his groin stepped on by his horse. Not sure how he managed that. Horses aren't always the gentle beasts we like to think they are, especially when shells are bursting nearby and they're getting hit by bullets.

Also, when large groups of men are charging over rough ground, it's quite easy for one or more of them to sprain an ankle and be put hors de combat for some time. I used to be on the cross country team and I remember this risk all too well. When you have an enemy formation shooting volleys at you, chances are you aren't looking where you're stepping! Add to this powder burns in the face or eyes, accidentally jabbing someone or yourself with your bayonet, cavalrymen getting hit by low branches, and any number of other embarrassing pratfalls, and one wonders why the number of "slightly wounded" wasn't higher

Of course, these are rarely reflected in the historical record. What commander wants to put in his official report, "I charged the enemy up a steep slope under heavy fire. We lost three men dead and five seriously wounded by enemy action. Ten more were slightly wounded: three sprained their ankles on the uneven slope, one was knocked out when a panicked horse ran him over, three suffered painful power burns to the face, two of my cavalrymen were thrown by their horses and injured their backs, and one man put out his shoulder due to the recoil of his weapon."

Not very glamorous. War rarely is.

Charge of Weaver's brigade across the Salkehatchie, South Carolina, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Can you imagine several thousand guys running across this swamp and nobody spraining an ankle?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Civil War Battle of Roan's Tan Yard, Missouri

One hundred and fifty years ago today the Civil War in Missouri had not taken a break for the winter. Confederate General Sterling Price still occupied Springfield in the southern part of the state, and rebels in north and central Missouri gathered to join him.

One such group consisted of about 800 men under Col. John A. Poindexter, camped at Silver Creek in Randolph County about 14 miles northwest of Fayette. His men were a mixed bag of Missouri State Guard and raw recruits, indifferently armed or not armed at all. When Union Maj. W.M.G. Torrence heard of the camp, he gathered 450 cavalry and sharpshooters to go break it up. His force included units from Ohio and Iowa. Units from many northern states were in Missouri at that time.

Torrence led his men on a 15 mile march to within 4 miles of the camp and then planned his attack. The main body of his troops would fire into the camp and keep the rebels occupied while a strong detachment would charge into the camp.

The advance guard drove in the rebel pickets. They were soon joined by the main Union column. The rebels were in a strong position behind ravines, thick underbrush, and trees. As both sides traded heavy volleys, three companies of the First Iowa and a part of a company of Merrill's Horse charged the camp and threw the rebels into confusion. The Confederates fled, leaving behind a large amount of their gear. Two companies from the Union rearguard tried to cut off their retreat, but darkness, heavy fog, and thick underbrush helped the rebels escape.

Union reports list 6 killed and 19 wounded on the Union side, with the rebels suffering 40 killed and 60 wounded. Maj. Torrence also "captured 160 horses, 60 wagons, 105 tents, 80 kegs [of] powder, about 200 rifles and shot-guns, and a large quantity of clothing, blankets, and bed-quilts" along with 28 prisoners. As is usual with the Official Records, these numbers must be taken with a grain of salt. Officers on both sides tended to exaggerate enemy numbers and casualties.

This skirmish/battle was only the latest in a series of engagements between Union regulars and camps of rebel recruits. In December 1861, Union troops had swept through Saline County, fighting numerous small engagements and bagging a small camp of rebels at Roper's Mill. A larger engagement at Mount Zion Church broke up a rebel force of 900 men (according to the Union report, 350 according to an interview with a Confederate officer 20 years after the fact).

This series of small Union victories added up to a major headache for Confederate recruiters. The hope of a rebel takeover of the state was fading.

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Fine Likeness now available at Barnes and Noble!

My Civil War horror novel, A Fine Likeness, is now available at Barnes and Noble. This is the Nook edition and is priced at $4.99.

I'm still tinkering with the print edition, which should be out by the end of the month. Yeah I know I said that last month, but there were a few formatting gliches. The downside to doing stuff yourself!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Civil War in Missouri at the start of 1862

A hundred and fifty years ago today, Missourians had finished their subdued Christmas and New Year’s celebrations and were looking ahead with trepidation to a new year of war. Everyone was asking the same questions—how long would the war last, and who would win?

Secessionists hoped for a quick rebel victory. Back East, the Confederacy had won a string of battles, the most spectacular being the First Bull Run. The new government hoped to gain international recognition and maybe even military aid from the British Empire and other European powers.

In Missouri, the situation looked bleaker for the South. While there had been major victories at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek and the Battle of Lexington, the Union held key positions such as the Missouri River, which flows from west to east and cuts the state neatly in half. The main rebel force, under General Sterling Price, was currently in the south of the state at Springfield. Potential recruits were having a hard time making their way from counties north of the Missouri River south to join Price. He couldn’t move north to help him because he had chronic supply problems and was outnumbered by Union forces.

In the central part of the state, rebel guerrillas were cutting telegraph wire, burning bridges, and generally causing mayhem. Union detachments had been successful at defeating and dispersing large groups of rebels, but these smaller bands were proving to be an even greater problem. They would continue to be until the end of the war.

In these early months of the war, few thought it would last another three-and-a-half years. If everyone knew what they were in for, perhaps they would have lobbied their leaders, North and South, to sit down at the negotiating table.

The war would end all too soon for these two Union recruits. Daniel and Joseph Budd both died in 1862. Daniel died of smallpox at the age of 16. Joseph, 18, was killed at the Battle of Vassar Hill on July 18, near Memphis, Missouri. This photo is courtesy Frank Furillo, who is the great-great nephew of both men.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Three good reviews for my military history books

This week I've discovered three more reviews of my military history books. My Armies of the Adowa Campaign got its fourth five-star review on Amazon:

"A very good introduction to this forgotten battle. This is the only english language book that I know of devoted to the battle of Adowa.
"Twenty years after Little Bighorn which ended in the massacre of nearly 300, the Italians suffered nearly 6,000 killed in a huge catastrophe that resulted in the collapse of an Italian government. The two battles had many similarities--mis-judged indiginous enemy's strength; allowing an already outnumbered force to be split in the face of the enemy; over-estimated ability of a modern European/American army to overcome indigenous numbers; indigenous forces armed with modern weapons (in some cases more modern than that of the European/Americans).
"However, the scale of the battle, and the Italian disaster was exponentially greater with concomitant strategic effects. Despite this, Adowa gets hardly a notice in English language military histories where the writing and study of Little Big Horn is prolific. This Osprey volume is a good start to remedy this knowledge gap of a very dramatic and horrific battle."

My Civil War book, Ride Around Missouri: Shelby's Great Raid 1863, also got a five-star review on Amazon. The reviewer gives his review the unfortunate title "a moderate success", which is actually my assessment of the raid, not his assessment of my book!

"There are a good selection of supporting illustrations, both contemporary photographs and line illustrations, along with several colour paintings. There are also some modern photographs of memorabilia, such as cannon. Unfortunately there are also a number of photographs of modern re-enactors. Unfortunately, these do nothing for me, but they probably make up a good proportion of the audience for these books. That aside, this is an entertaining and well-researched volume."

The Civil war wargaming blog Charge! also reviewed my Shelby book:

"McLachlan gives a thorough overview of the strategic situation, the troops involved in the raid, some insight into Jo Shelby’s personality and previous experience, and the Northern (and Southern) reaction to the daring incursion. Lavishly illustrated, like all Osprey books, Ride Around Missouri includes an array of vintage period photographs, original maps commissioned for the book, bird’s-eye views, first-person accounts drawn from primary sources, and the usual excellent color illustrations of men, uniforms, equipment, and events. The book is 80 pages, including the index and bibliography. It’s a useful addition to your wargaming or Civil War library."