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!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Did Jack the Ripper help assassinate Abraham Lincoln?

Is this blogger using a provocative title to draw in readers?

It's not completely off-base. Bear with me.

When John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, police arrested a circle of his fellow conspirators. They didn't stop there, of course, and went on to arrest or question hundreds of people who knew the conspirators. When a president is killed, the police throw their net pretty wide.

One person caught in that net was Francis Tumblety of St. Louis, a quack doctor who may or may not have known conspirator David Herold. Tumblety was soon released after police found no evidence that he was involved in the assassination.

This wasn't Tumblety's first or last run-in with the law. The eccentric "doctor" made a good living selling bogus medicines such as "Tumblety's Pimple Destroyer" and "Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills", and dressed flamoyantly in military-style clothing. This got him into trouble during the Civil War because it was illegal for civilians to wear anything that looked like a uniform. He was also charged with manslaughter in Canada over the death of one of his patients.

Tumblety spent a fair amount of time in London, living in Whitechapel. He gained a reputation for his hatred of women, claiming he had fallen in love with and been jilted by a prostitute. He kept a collection of uteri in his home that he showed male guests in order to "prove" the inferiority of the female sex.

Tumblety was arrested in London for four counts of having homosexual encounters, something that was illegal until quite recently. He was also suspected in 1888 of being Jack the Ripper. He had an all-consuming hatred of women, some medical knowledge as the murderer was supposed to have had, and was in the neighborhood during the murders. When he fled the country under an assumed name, the murders stopped.

Of course he might have fled the country because of the crimes for which he was charged, but the London police were suspicious enough to have him followed once he got back to the United States. Modern Ripperologists consider him a top suspect, and while it seems unlikely that he had any part in Lincoln's killing, it's intriguing that the most famous assassination and the most famous serial killer of the nineteenth century could have been linked.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Civil War Photo Friday: Hanging out at the cooks galley

Napoleon said an army travels on its stomach, and the Union army was no exception. Here we see Company F, Third Division of the New Hampshire Volunteers at their galley at Hilton Head, South Carolina.

The cooks are on the sides of the photograph, and in the center we can see a black teenager who was probably a runaway slave who joined up. Many runaways attached themselves to Union regiments as laborers and officers' servants. If he wanted to fight, he would have to join one of the segregated black regiments.

So what's for lunch? Probably salt pork and dried vegetables. That was what was for lunch pretty much every day!

Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Caving in Spain

I've recently gotten back into caving. I did a bit of caving a couple of decades ago in New Mexico and Missouri and now that I'm living in Cantabria, one of the best regions in the world for caves, I've joined the local federation and am getting back underground. Here's me squeezing through a little hole that slopes down to a ledge over a cliff, hence the rope. Below is a shot from the same cave of some of the great formations you can see.

Being a travel blogger for Gadling, anytime I do anything even remotely interesting it gets turned into an article. You can read about my adventures in CaƱuela Cave and Coventosa Cave at these links.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Civil War Photo Friday: All Quiet on the Potomac

OK, so it's an engraving and not a photo. Sue me. I like the image, though. It's an illustration from a book of war lyrics, this one illustrating 'All Quiet along the Potomac'. Here we have a sleepy Union soldier nodding off in the moonlight. There hasn't been a peep from the Rebs for days.

But wait, what's that behind him? They say war is long stretches of boredom interrupted by moments of extreme terror. I think this guy is about to experience a sudden shift from one to the other.

Skirmishes probably killed more troops in the Civil War than the big battles. They were a constant fact of life for an army on campaign, and even when in winter quarters an army could expect probes and patrols at the edges of their protected territory that would lead to casualties. As this guy is about to learn, there's no such thing as an insignificant skirmish.

Check the original page of this old book for a grim little poem.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Book Review: Time is the Oven

Time Is the OvenTime Is the Oven by Richard G. Sharp
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a tale of a young Missourian coming into his own in the years following the Civil War. The book spans a couple of decades from his first wanderings as a callow youth, through various romantic relationships, his friendship with Frank James, and his ultimate success while working on the Panama Canal. Vast in scope, this is an ambitious novel told with wit and historical detail.

"Told," unfortunately, is the key word. Most of the book is narration, with little actual scene. While the narration is insightful and often funny--I even laughed out loud a couple of times, a rare thing for me to do with a book--it lends a certain distance between the reader and the plot.

This was frustrating because I could see the great book trying to break out of the constraints of the good one. The author overly explains everything, when in fact he has the skills to show us far more effectively. I hope in future volumes the author gains confidence to put us right in the scene instead of simply narrating everything.

View all my reviews

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Moroccan battles in miniature

Here's one for my wargamer readers. I've just done two guest blogs for Black Gate about a pair of fascinating dioramas I discovered in the American Legation museum in Tangier. Built by master modeller Edward Suren of London, these battle scenes are incredibly detailed. They include the Battle of the Three Kings (1578) and the Battle of Tondibi (1591). I've included lots of pictures and background about both battles.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Wild West Photo Friday: Four Forgotten Cowboys

Many of the historic photos that have come down to us lack information. Looking at these two images, I have to wonder--who were they? Where were they? And are they really cowboys?

The reason for this last question is that by the turn of the century, the West was already becoming a tourist attaction. People went to see the sights and as a memento would have their picture taken in Western gear. In some posed images they didn't even leave the big city, they just went to a photographic studio and picked out a costume!

The top photo looks real to me, but the bottom image rings a bit false. Maybe it's the contrast between the ties and the heavy weaponry. Maybe they don't look as hard-bitten as the guy in the top photo. Or maybe I'm reading too much into it. What do you think?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Ten things I learned from Lousy Book Covers

Welcome to this month's Indie Life post, where indie writers talk about life in the cold, harsh world of independent publishing.

I have no talent in the visual arts, so when it came time to publish A Fine Likeness and The Night the Nazis Came to Dinner I got someone who knew what they were doing to design my covers. It's important to know your limitations.

Not everyone does, however, and there's a site dedicated to them. Lousy Book Covers is a daily dose of the worst covers out there today. If you haven't seen this site before, go check it out. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you might even spit blood. Besides the comedic value, the site is an educational one. Here are ten things I've learned from it. I knew most of them before, but they bear repeating.

1. Just because you CAN design your own cover doesn't mean you SHOULD. This is the site's motto. Words to live by.

2. Be honest with yourself about your talent. See above.

3. Make your fonts readable. See here for an example of what not to do.

4. If you draw like a high schooler, don't design your cover. If you are a high schooler, get an adult to help you. See here for an example of what not to do.

5. Comic sans never makes a good cover font. See here for an example of what not to do.

6. The cover should actually be related to the content. See here for an example of what not to do.

7. Layering isn't always your friend. See here for an example of what not to do.

8. For the love of all that is holy, check your damn spelling. See here for an example of what not to do.

9. Know what an aspect ratio is. See here for an example of what not to do.

10. Don't make your cover too busy. See here for an example of what not to do

I'm not saying I can do any better. Quite to opposite. The important thing is I know I can't do any better. These folks obviously don't, and are cursed with overly supportive friends and family who don't tell them the truth. As indie authors, we should seek honest feedback, not back scratching. Otherwise we may end up with lousy book covers.

I thought of illustrating this post with examples, but the guy over at Lousy Book Covers has been threatened by angry authors, even though posting covers for the sake of criticism comes under fair use. I don't have time to deal with that sort of inanity.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Reader News for March 12, 2013

More of my writer friends are getting published! As you probably already know by now, M. Pax has come out with Book 3 of her Backworlds science fiction series. Boomtown Craze is available now in ebook and paperback.

Friend and fellow expat in Spain Andrew Leon Hudson has gotten two of his short stories published this past week. "Tear Drops" is out now in the Mythaxis science fiction webzine. "Easy as ABC", a short story about bullying, is out in the latest issue of Young Adult webzine. For the second one you have to register at the site.

Do you have any news to share? It doesn't have to be related to writing as long as it would be of interest to my readership. Drop me a line at the email on the lefthand column.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The black flag in the Civil War

During the Civil War, flying "under the black flag" meant that you would take no prisoners. Historians debate whether such flags existed. As I talked about in my post about the bushwhacker leader Quantrill's black flag, it's doubtful whether he ever had one. A few later accounts said he did, but two of his famous followers, Frank James and Cole Younger, both said he didn't.

There must be some truth to the legend of the black flag, however. In a report filed on March 16, 1863, by Colonel John McNeil of the Second Missouri State Militia Cavalry, he talks about how for the previous week he took 500 of his men and two cannons on a sweep through southeastern Missouri to clear it of rebels. He also administered the loyalty oath to more than a hundred civilians.

He notes that he, "could have done so to many times that number had they not been scared off by extravagant reports of our killing unarmed and innocent persons. The covers being on our guidons, for it rained most of the time, they were taken for black flags, and the story that we were marching under that peculiarly Southern emblem widely circulated.

"Rape and murder were charged on us, causing the men to flee to the swamps. The women alone stood their ground, either not believing the charge or not fearing the consequences. I have promised protection to the loyal and law-abiding, and forgiveness for the past to those sincerely tired of rebellion, and disposed to be at peace with their neighbors, and announced that the rule for the future is, that where a Union man cannot live in peace a secessionist shall not live at all. A better state of feeling is fast obtaining among this simple minded people, and the timely display of force is begetting confidence in the power of the Government."

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Book Review: Hothouse (aka The Long Afternoon of Earth)

HothouseHothouse by Brian W. Aldiss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brian Aldiss never disappoints. This novel, which first came out in the U.S. with the title THE LONG AFTERNOON OF EARTH, won the Hugo Award in 1962. Rich in style and evocative in its imagery, it follows a band of some of the last survivors of humanity in the far future. The Earth has stopped rotating and the sunlit side is now a thick jungle dominated by a continent-spanning banyan tree.

Plant life has almost entirely taken over, with many strange and improbably plants species imitating forms previously known as animals and insects. Most plants are extremely deadly, and Aldiss kills off characters with reckless abandon.

Aldiss was criticized at the time for the lack of scientific believability in this novel. Indeed, it's almost science fantasy. Suspend your disbelief, however, and it's an absorbing read.

View all my reviews

Friday, March 8, 2013

Civil War Photo Friday: Soldier in the Indian Home Guard

During the Civil War, the Indian Territory (modern Oklahoma) was as divided as the rest of the nation. Many Native American leaders hoped to get a better deal from the Confederacy than the years of lies and broken treaties the Federal government had given them, so at the beginning of the war much of the Indian Territory joined with the rebellion.

Some remained faithful to the Union, but after a series of defeats they had to flee to Kansas in the middle of the winter, on what the refugees called "the trail of blood on the ice." From these refugees the Federal government recruited men to create three Indian Home Guard units. This guy, whose name is now sadly lost, was one of them.

The Indian regiments faced prejudice from white civilians and soldiers. They were commanded by white officers and were required by law only to fight in the Indian Territory. That they did. Starting in the summer of 1862 the Indian Home Guard fought to retake their homes. The Confederate Indians never got many supplies from the resource-strapped Confederacy and support for the rebellion waned. By the end of 1863, most of the territory was back in Union hands.

Fighting continued until the very end, however, and the land was laid waste. An untold number of civilians died of exposure, disease, and starvation.

For a snapshot of the other side of the conflict, check out my post on the Cherokee Confederate reunion of 1903.

Photo courtesy National Park Service.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Guest blogging about my time in Iraq

Yesterday I was over at the Post Modern Pulp blog talking about my time with the various armed forces during my trip to Iraq. I also have a post on the Osprey Publishing blog today about some curious Ottoman artillery I saw in Baghdad. There are plenty of interesting photos in both of these posts.

So check them out, or my buddy here will level his machine gun at you. Also check out my Iraq travel series on Gadling.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

China has taken over my domain name!

A couple of months ago I let my subscription for the domain name seanmclachlan (dot) com lapse. I wasn't getting nearly as many hits on that website as I do on this one, plus I was dissatisfied with my hosting service, who could never get the graphics-light website to load at a decent speed.

Shortly after my domain name became available it returned, this time with different graphics and entirely in Chinese! Google Translate shows it to be a real estate website. It's not very well done and I think they're just squatting on the domain hoping to sell it later on.

Who's behind this? I'm thinking it's the People's Liberation Army, who have been accused of lots of cybercrimes lately. That's too bad, because I really like their propaganda posters, like this one from World War Two. Whoever is behind it, Chinese domain squatters are on the rise.

Luckily my old domain name has been going down in the Google Ranks. Search for "Sean McLachlan" and it used to come up first. It's now in the middle of the first page.

This blog, however, doesn't show up until page 5. I've added my name to the header and the metadata, something I should have done from the start, and I'm adding my name to the tags for each post.

I could still use some help. If you have the time, share this story on your own blog, using my name, Sean McLachlan, as the hyperlink back to this blog. Let's get my blog to be the first thing that shows up when you search for me, or at least on the first page!

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, March 4, 2013

A rough winter for Union troops in Civil War Missouri

Life was tough for Union troops in wintertime Missouri. The winter of 1862/63 was an especially harsh one. Back in January, Union garrisons in the southern part of the state had to scramble after Confederate General Marmaduke's cavalry raiders coming up from Arkansas. They defeated them and sent them on a long freezing retreat back south, during which the rebels lost many horses to exhaustion and men to exposure.

After Marmaduke's raid, Missouri fell into a deceptive calm. Scattered skirmishes kept the Union garrisons on their toes and reminded them that not all rebels had fled. Recruiters still rode around rural areas trying to enlist men to join the Confederate army in Arkansas, and some guerrillas wintered in Missouri rather than Texas like the larger bands. These caused periodic trouble for the Yankees.

One such recruiter was Lieutenant J.D. Brazeau from St. Louis, who was with a small rebel group in Bloomfield, Missouri, recruiting and gathering supplies. On Feb. 28, Major Edward B. Eno led an advance guard of the Eighth Missouri State Militia Cavalry to capture them. They found the bridge across the Castor River destroyed and had to swim their horses across the icy water before dawn.

Arriving in town at the break of dawn, the Union troops completely surprised the rebels. Some fled while others surrendered. Brazeau leaped on his horse, fired at the advancing troops, and tried to gallop away. He was shot from his saddle and killed instantly. The Eighth Missouri captured a large number of horses and equipment.

Eno's report doesn't say what they did for the rest of the day. I suspect they found shelter, dried their clothes, and drank some moonshine beside a roaring fire. That's what I would have done if forced to swim across a freezing river and fight a battle before sunrise!

As the weather began to heat up in late March, the war heated up as well.

Photo courtesy flickr user lcm1863. It's actually of a historic farmhouse in Gettysburg, but Missouri can look like this some winters!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Reader News for February 3, 2013

Two interesting books are the subject of today's reader news. Sharon Bayliss has just published her first novel The Charge, an alternative history set in the Texas Empire. I'm curious as to how Texas became an empire. Did it never join the U.S.? Went its own way after the Civil War? I might have to check this one out.

Yesterday I finished doing a beta read on COMMANDO: Operation Bedlam, the sequel to COMMANDO: Operation Arrowhead, which I reviewed here. It's not coming out until later this year, so I won't steal any of Jack's thunder by going into detail. I'll just say that it was as much of a kickass action adventure as his last World War Two novel. British Commandos fighting Nazis? I'm there.

Do you have any news to share? Drop me a line at the email address on the left-hand column of this blog.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Civil War Photo Friday: Black Union soldiers kidnapped for the Neo-Confederate cause

This photo shows a unit of black soldiers and their white officer. It's obviously a Union unit because of the officer's uniform and a belt buckle saying "US" on one of the figures. I've zoomed in on him; he's the man in the center in the photo below. The uniforms on the soldiers look very light, but often Union troops wore a light shade of blue that appears gray in these old photos.
Nothing is otherwise known about this photograph or what unit it represents. That's what gave it new life.

In an article titled Retouching History, Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite, Jr., describe how a doctored version of this photo was put up for sale by a self-styled "Rebel" website as a photo of the First Louisiana Native Guard, a Confederate unit in New Orleans made up of free blacks that never saw action and was opposed by many Confederate officials. It isn't even clear if they were ever fully equipped. It seemed they were only kept around for the propaganda value. When New Orleans fell to the Union, some of these men joined the Union army.

This is retouched the photo:
As you can see, that pesky Union officer has been cropped out. A closer inspection of a larger-format version of this photo (which you can see in the original article) shows that the US belt buckle has been blurred over. Also, the font is a modern one called "Algerian", developed in 1988.

Neo-Confederates assert that thousands of blacks fought for the Confederacy. This is used to bolster their claim that the war wasn't about slavery, despite the fact that Confederate officials repeatedly said it was about slavery and that there is no evidence whatsoever for thousands of black soldiers fighting for the South. Did a few blacks (like maybe a dozen) fight for the South? Yeah, probably. Does that change what the war was about? Nope.

Since most of my readers are American, Canadian, or British, let's play an imagination game. Imagine you're surfing the net and see a photo of one of your relatives who fought in World War Two, but the photo has been doctored so he now wears a German uniform. The caption says, "An American volunteer in the Wehrmacht!" How would that make you feel?

Photos from the original article, used under the terms of "Fair Use", the justification being that they are being used for nonprofit, educational purposes and the original image is in the public domain. If the folks who doctored the photograph want to sue me for infringing on their creative copyright, feel free to expose yourselves in the comments section.