What is the premise for your new book, Seeing the Elephant: One Man’s Return to the Horrors of the Civil War?
Based on 180 letters sent home from 1861 through 1865 about his experiences in the American Civil War, a young teacher, from south central Ohio, must make a decision about serving his country as the American Civil War escalates in mid-1862. Thomas Armstrong had enlisted in the 78th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in November 1861, with his brother, Wilbur, and four of their friends, answering the call of President Abraham Lincoln to put down the rebellion of the southern states that had seceded from the Union in the winter of 1860 – 1861. None of them really knew what war entails, only having heard stories about the Mexican War that occurred in the 1840s, but they, like thousands of other young men, felt the call of duty and honor to fight to preserve the Union.
And, fight they did, first in reserve at the Battle of Fort Donelson in February, 1862, near the Kentucky-Tennessee border and then at the bloodiest battle of the war, the Battle of Shiloh, in southwestern Tennessee, in early April of that year. The problem was, for Corporal Armstrong, he was too sick with tuberculosis to actually pick up his rifle and engage the enemy with the rest of the 78th, and subsequently, he was sent home to die by his friends. But, now, he had seen the elephant, that is, he had experienced what battle was like with thousands of men killed, wounded, or captured. As he watched the fighting, he could hardly comprehend the horror the men on both sides must have felt walking to within several yards of each other and then opening up with fire from their guns and then screaming for help from a surgeon or deliverance from God.
Corporal Armstrong did make it home to Zanesville, Ohio, and, under the care of his family, returned to good health but that presented another problem. Another regiment was being formed there in Muskingum County, the 122nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, the officers of which suggested that he join them, understanding that they would go east into Virginia to protect the northern portion of the Shenandoah Valley. The question became, would he go back into the army to see the elephant once again, knowing full well he could be killed, wounded, imprisoned, or die of disease.
Honor and duty won out again, this time strengthened by his complete faith and trust in God regardless of the outcome.
The letters that we have from him then describe his experiences in the 122nd as the Civil War continues until the Confederate surrender on April 9, 1865 and form the basis for the story I tell in Seeing the Elephant: One Man’s Return to the Horrors of the Civil War.
Describe the writing process and how you manage thoughts/ideas.
All fictional writing projects start with an idea or a story with non-fiction based on a goal to be achieved. That is not to say, however, that the audience cannot learn from fiction which is one of the reasons for publication of Corporal Armstrong’s story in Seeing the Elephant. In this case, the idea was easy to formulate since a friend who knows a great deal about the Civil War simply said one day, “We all know about the battles, we all know about the great generals on both sides, but we don’t know much about the experiences of the ordinary soldier, the common man on both sides who enlisted to fight for his country quite willingly while knowing that there was a good chance that he would die.
Now, adding to this was Corporal Armstrong’s capture after the 2nd Battle of Winchester and his imprisonment for almost two (2) years. Nothing had been written about that which made the story I was to tell easier to conceptualize.
Again, the letters that he wrote to his family provided the basis for the story, but a great deal of research had to be done in order to tell it accurately. But since I knew the chronological sequence of events, finding primary and secondary research in various libraries and historical societies was likewise made easier than starting with a blank piece of paper.
The most difficult thing a writer faces, at least for me, is that blank piece of paper or computer screen. Then, again, I was fortunate to have contacted Jeff Shaara, the author of four brilliant books about battles in the Western theater. In email correspondence, he said, “Most people who contact me don’t have a story. You do, so write it.”
So, with over 1,000 pages of research and the letters, I knew, generally, what the story was, and that’s when the creativity took over.
The first decision was to make the book fiction or non-fiction. I could have just transcribed the letters and put them in chronological order and let that be it. But, since I hadn’t done fiction, I chose to write an historical novel which allowed me to create conversations between the characters, to present their thoughts about the events at hand, and to fill in between the dates of the letters which was a great deal of fun to do.
When I wrote the two non-fiction books, while I conducted research in the morning, the best time for me was writing in the afternoon, after my daily exercise and lunch. So, in this book, I generally wrote from about 2:00PM to 5:30PM or so, always making sure that I had written the first line of the first paragraph I would start with the next day. This allowed me to get to know the characters very well and to think about the events that would transpire when I opened the file the following afternoon. It was amazing, and somewhat unexplainable, as to where some of the thoughts originated since many times I would have an idea that fit the circumstance about which I was writing and really had no definitive research to support it.
The most important thing was to get the story on paper, that is into the storage disk. I found that when I read it, I would make changes, additions, subtractions, and other revisions when each chapter was complete. Then, when I was satisfied, I would give a printed copy to my copy editor who would generally return it within one day. Then, I would make the proper corrections, save it the chapter, and then send it to the three people I had asked to review each one for its historical accuracy. Upon receiving their thoughts and comments, I would make the changes that I thought were appropriate, save it once again, and send it out for their comments. Only when they agreed that it was acceptable would I put a printed copy in my notebook and move on to the next chapter.
Who is your favorite author? And, why?
Through a circuitous series of events, I became an English major in college and was introduced to the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway who, up to the time I started Seeing the Elephant, were my favorite authors in American literature. In class, I was taught to think critically about the message that was being sent, who the characters represented, and what the events really meant in Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s words. I was also taught about their private lives as well as their professional ones in the 1920s and 30s in the case of Fitzgerald and into the 1950s for Hemingway.
As I think about it, perhaps it was the faculty’s enthusiasm about the two of them that was contagious and encouraged me to read everything they had written and then to write my senior thesis on Fitzgerald’s and John Updike’s work on the theme of escape, made popular by T.S. Eliot.
Some years later, after we had discovered the letters of Corporal Armstrong, I attended a showing of the movie, Gettysburg, which I came to understand was based on the book, The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara. I picked up a copy, read it, and realized the depth and the quality of the writing, deciding that if Armstrong’s letters told a story like the one Mr. Shaara had told, I would try to write that story.
And, then, as I was starting to think that could become something I really could do, I came across A Blaze of Glory, The Fateful Lightning, A Chain of Thunder, and The Smoke at Dawn, written by Mr. Shaara’s son, Jeff. Needless to say, after reading them, I came to admire Jeff Shaara’s work which became a model for me.
What are you currently writing?
In addition to the letters Thomas Armstrong wrote to his family about his experiences in the Civil War, his best friend, George Porter, wrote letters to his family as well about his experiences which were quite different than Armstrong’s. In fact, after the war, Armstrong married Porter’s sister, Francis.
Porter’s story centers on the experiences of the 78th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and the battles in the Western theater from Fort Donelson, to Shiloh, Vicksburg, the Atlanta campaign, through South Carolina, and ends at the surrender of Major General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. He served as the Aide-de-Camp to General James McPherson, and then, after McPherson was killed at the Battle of Atlanta, served in the same capacity to General Mortimer Leggett. As such, throughout the march from Vicksburg to Appomattox, Porter would be in meetings with Generals McPherson and Leggett, their commanding officer, General Oliver Howard, and also General William Tecumseh Sherman and General Ulysses S. Grant.
Thus, the title of the next book is tentatively Riding with Sherman which will be completed by early 2020.
Do you have any advice for novice writers?
List ten items about yourself that may be of interest to your readers.
Tom Harvey researching and writing on the Civil War