Honoring Civil War Ancestors in Fiction

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at CarrotRanch.com. She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

May 27, 2014

Cousin Against CousinWhen researching family history I dutifully record the facts, using documents such as vital records, census records and old wills. I can see how many generations lived in one place or trace how many places one generation lived.

Being an imaginative person, I can see wisps of stories that linger on the facts like attic dust. Gaps and connections intrigue me most. Therefore, family research evolves into potential stories of fiction for me. Among my ancestors, I have mountain clans from North Carolina who fought in the Civil War–the Greens, McCandlesses, Hatleys, Alexanders and Greens.

You might wonder why I include the Greens twice. Well, the McCandlesses and Hatleys married Greens twice as much as any other family. I’m related to the Greens through multiple branches which is not uncommon for remote areas or the times. It gets challenging to keep straight the Aunt Marys, though–there’s Aunt Mary McCandless Green and Aunt Mary Green McCandless.

Today is Memorial Day. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, the last Monday in May commemorates the men and women who died in military service. It began as a springtime tribute to those who died in the Civil War (1861-1865), or the War of Northern Aggression as it was known in North Carolina (and other Confederate states).

If you read much on the Civil War, especially histories and accounts written directly after 1865, you’ll understand that people then were as opinionated and controversial as people can be now. If Americans feel that politics are divisive today, try facing down the muzzle of your cousin and having to answer to both Aunt Marys as to why you shot him. Because you were wearing Blue and he was wearing Gray.

My ancestors left Scotland and Ireland in the mid-1700s. They followed the faint footsteps of Daniel Boone down the valley along the Smokey Mountains into a place they called Watauga. They leased land from the Cherokee tribes living in the area and they lived outside of the known and governed colonies. Eventually statehood caught up with them and they became a part of North Carolina. To most they were known as the mountain people.

When the Civil War broke out (and broke apart the United States), not all the families agreed which side to take. In fact, many didn’t want to take a side. According to historians, 1,000 men from Watauga County, NC joined the Confederacy and 100 joined the Union.

“Joined” is a curious word in regards to the Confederate forces. Conscription–a type of draft–often joined men against their will. However, to join the Union, one had to trek over the mountains into Tennessee and risk life (and family) to deliberately sign up for Union forces in a Confederate state.

My third great-grandfather, Riley B. Hatley, writes in his pension account how he had to scoot across the mountains to avoid conscription. His two brothers followed him and all three fought for the Blue although all three of their names are listed on the roster for the Gray.

Their cousin, Lafayette Hatley (my first cousin 5x removed), also shows up on the roster for Company D, North Carolina 58th Infantry Regiment. But he didn’t scoot. He stayed. To give you an idea of how bad the war was in the mountain region of North Carolina, families took up arms against families–and these were not soldiers. The soldiers of both uniforms often delivered retribution more than carrying out battle formations. What an awful time.

One historian wrote the cries of the Wataugans as, “Peace, Peace, When There Was No Peace.” As a fiction writer, how can I ignore these unwritten stories? They speak as much about us today as they did back then.

The same historian claims that after the war most men and women took heart and hope, beginning all over again. Yet others, like my kin, were completely discouraged. My family (four generations) left for Tennessee and founded new communities in Colorado, Washington and Idaho. Some only moved as far away as Tennessee.

As for the cousin on the opposite side of Papa Riley, he was the only son of Riley’s father’s only brother. Pvt. Lafayette Hatley never survived the war. He died in Dalton, GA from congestion of the brain on March 23, 1864.

No matter the side, no matter the reason, I seek to honor my Civil War ancestors in fiction, trying to understand their motives, their fears, their hopes, their disappointments. After all, they are stories I carry in my own blood.




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  1. TanGental

    Fascinating post. You’ve done an amazing job tracing your family lines back in such detail. It’s still on my bucket list. I wonder how far you feel comfortable going back before fictionalising the gaps? I’m transcribing my father’s wartime letters (see my blog!) and have an idea how to fictionalise the missing piece – my mother’s side. Even though they are both now dead it still feels obtrusive. What do you think?

    • Charli Mills

      That’s a really good question, Geoff. For the longest time I avoided my urges to fictionalize the family history, thinking that it felt obtrusive. But the more research I did (like reading regional histories) the more I connected to my ancestors, seeing my life in context to theirs. That can all be purely my imagination, but I felt the need to explore those gaps. Since I’ll never know more than bare-bone facts, fiction allows me to analyze what I imagine they experienced.

      Yes! I was very excited to discover your father’s wartime letters project on your blog. It reminds me of my grandfather’s notes (not letters) about his wartime experiences. I know that my grandfather wanted to write, but even if he hadn’t shared an interest in writing, I think I’d still be fictionalizing his and other family accounts. I didn’t come to this decision lightly so I understand your own trepidations. As Anne points out, consider your motives. At one time I thought veracity was my goal, but I’ll never fully know the truth without having those gaps filled. While it seems superficially enlightening to create fiction to fill those gaps, it does provide a release of sorts for my inner need to understand. So I don’t think we need a greater generational distance to feel comfortable, just an understanding of our own motives with the acknowledgement that readers will play a role, too. In fiction, readers can and do interpret differently than the writer. It can create a literary dynamic, but if truth is more important to the telling of your parents’ story, then perhaps fiction isn’t the best mode.

      I’d love to continue this discussion as we explore…I just started (with the flash fiction) to write snippets of ancestral fiction. It’s not even a “project” for me yet. But I know other fiction writers (Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, for one) who have used family histories to write novels. As Diane Mott would say on her blog, I’m toe-dipping!

      As for your bucket list entry, start with what you know–names, vitals, places. If you live close enough to visit, look up records in person otherwise Ancesrty.com has a comprehensive global collection. My bucket list item is to discover and visit the actual places in Great Britain from where my ancestors came.

      • TanGental

        Thank you Charli (and Anne) for your suggestions. Motivation? Both of my parents would have been embarrassed, I think, that anyone would consider their lives worthy of such treatment but you are right that the only way to give some depth is to imagine it, to invent dialogue and mood and place while leaving the story arc to look after itself. In many ways the fascinating piece, for me is yet to come, namely Dad’s time in Palestine as part of the British forces that found themselves between the indigenous Arab population and the displaced and desperate Jewish refugees form war torn Europe. It is a badly document piece of history anyway and I think might be a compelling story.

      • Charli Mills

        Geoff, that would be a compelling read. Just thinking about the combined perspectives is fascinating. And sometimes when we start down a road in fiction we end up writing a different story, but it was based on the seed planted in what we know–such as your Dad’s service. Sometimes I think my Papa Riley might even dislike that I call him “Papa”! We simply don’t know…so we write. 🙂

      • TanGental

        For some reason (your references to the Civil War, talking about creating a story around some known facts) reminded me of a great book The Surgeon of Crowthorne (http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/The_Surgeon_of_Crowthorne.html?id=CwG2-zsp4EUC&redir_esc=y) which I found fascinating. Have you come across it? They made the story into a short play at the Edinburgh fringe Festival a couple of years ago which was excellent too. There are so many reason for you to come to the UK!!

      • Charli Mills

        This looks like a good read! Yes, so many reasons for me to come to the UK! I was all set to go in 1998, but plans fell through. I hope you all have guest rooms! I have one here in Idaho if you get the hankering to see tall trees, moose and grizzly bears!

      • TanGental

        Now wouldn’t that be something. I’d love that. We have some tall trees, the mousse is chocolate and the British are Olympic standard grizzlers so we’d have a lot in common. Be great to show you London and or Suffolk if you could make it over. I’m sure you could work your way around the spare rooms of England easily…

      • Charli Mills

        Oh, hey, CHOCOLATE mousse sounds way better than the beasties that plow through the fences here. No wonder our bears are called grizzlies, they are the grizzlers of the mountains but I hope Brits don’t bite. I think you just invented my next holiday–Spare Rooms Around England!

  2. Annecdotist

    You’ve shaken off the dust to create a great insight into your personal and national history, Charli. Actually, the lines drawn between families on different sides reminds me of the 1984 miners strike in Britain: a much lesser war, of course, but still strongly felt in these communities.
    And Geoff, of course you’d feel uncomfortable recreating your mother’s history but I suppose it depends how much you want to hand over your story to your readers – is it entertainment/enlightenment or veracity you’re after?

    • Charli Mills

      That’s a bit of history I’ll look into, Anne. In some ways, it’s almost eerie the way these scenarios are echos of one another. That area my family left has become the coal mining hot bed with many of those lesser wars–and I think lesser only because the geography is smaller and more contained. But the strife and struggles are almost repeated with minor changes to details.

  3. Wednesday-Elf

    Fascinating story, Charli. Your descriptions are so vivid I can actually see the mountains of NC and Tennessee, both of which I’ve been in. As I read your words, I heard the music of the folk song “Two Brothers” (by Tom Jones) “Two brothers on their way, one wore blue and one wore grey.”

    May we never again face a time when brothers & cousins are pitted against each other.

    • Charli Mills

      Oh, Elf–what I’d give to see those mountains! I feel like I’ve been there, but have never stepped foot upon that ancestral ground. There’s a writers retreat in Tennessee. One day, perhaps, I’ll get there. I was not familiar with Two Brothers–just listened to it and have chills!

  4. lorilschafer

    Great history, Charli – you really get a sense of all those ancestors and the contributions they made. It must make you feel connected to the past in very neat ways.

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks, Lori. I have a passion for knowing the past. Somehow it helps me put into context the present, but it does make me feel connected to places and people I’ll never know. Maybe that’s why I want to write about them.

  5. Gina Stoneheart

    What a lovely and inspiring post, Charli. I think this idea is fascinating and will make a lot of people who have had family members fight in honor of our country quite moved.
    I loved this entire post and what of my favorite thoughts of yours was, “Being an imaginative person, I can see wisps of stories that linger on the facts like attic dust.” Such well thought out and beautiful imagery, my friend.

    • Charli Mills

      Thank you! Here I was thinking most people wouldn’t be interested in this!

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