The first, jarring shot of the American Civil War ripped through the air 151 years ago. The last shot faded into the sky 147 years ago. But did it? In many ways, the South has risen again. Certain kinds of Confederate belt buckles can sell for as much as $3000. Sons of Union Veteran camps and Sons of Confederate Veteran camps prosper. Civil War round tables meet regularly around the world. And now we have hit a prime anniversary. The 150th, the Sesquicentennial.
It was the bloodiest conflict fought on this continent. At least 618,000 Americans died as a result of the war. The First Texas lost more than 82 percent of its strength at Antietam. The First Minnesota lost 82 percent at Gettysburg. It was a merciless war that saw as many lives lost to disease as to combat. Here in Savannah, Tennessee, where I live, typhoid fever killed so many before the Battle of Shiloh, that they ran out of wood to build coffins. And it really did pit brother against brother. In my own family, one great-great grandfather fought for the Union in Tennessee. His brother was a sergeant with the Confederate army in North Carolina. In point of fact, I had innumerable grandparents (of varying degree) and collateral ancestors that fought on both sides in that war. An old friend of mine tells the story of Bully Hysmith, who fought for the Confederacy on the first day of Shiloh, saw which way the wind was blowing and fought for the Union on the second day.
Inevitably, authors were bound to find the War of the Rebellion fertile ground for mystery series. Ann McMillan and Owen Parry burst onto the scene at about the same time. McMillan’s mysteries feature a young white woman named Narcissa Powers who forms an alliance with freedwoman Judah Daniel. As historical fiction expert Sarah Johnson puts it, “McMillan’s mysteries are socially aware without being politically correct.” Starting with Dead March, Narcissa and Judah fight disease and murderers against the backdrop of Civil War Virginia.
Owen Parry’s Abel Jones mysteries star a Union officer, veteran of the Indian war with the British Army, who is courted by General George McClellan as a spy. Along the way, Jones solves mysteries from Pennsylvania to Tennessee to England. The first volume in the series, Faded Coat of Blue, won the Herodotus Award for historical fiction.
Probably the most successful of the Civil War mysteries has been Michael Killian’s Harrison Raines series. Raines, most commonly known as a gambler, becomes a Union spy during the war. His adventures take him from Manassas (Murder at Manassas) to Ball’s Bluff (A Killing at Ball’s Bluff) all the way to Glorieta, New Mexico (A Grave at Glorieta), and Shiloh (The Shiloh Sisters).
Jack Martin introduces Alphonso Clay, a Union officer and troubleshooter for General Ulysses S. Grant. Clay begins with Grant in the Western Theater in John Brown’s Body, and is ultimately commissioned by William Henry Seward to thwart a conspiracy surrounding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (Battle Cry of Freedom).
Miriam Grace Monfredo, author of the Seneca Falls mysteries, set amidst the woman’s suffrage movement in Seneca Falls, New York, takes off into the Civil War with her Cain Trilogy, featuring Bronwen Llyr, a spy for the Treasury Department, and her sister, Katherine, a nurse for the Union Army. Brothers of Cain, the second in the trilogy, won the Herodotus Award.
Former Congressman Robert J. Mrazek introduces readers to Lt. John McKittredge, an investigator for the provost marshal in Washington. In his novel, Unholy Fire, McKittredge, an opium addict, chases conspirators aiming at the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. In Stonewall’s Gold, fifteen-year-old Jamie Lockhart risks death and danger as he chases Confederate gold behind enemy lines. Mrazek won the prestigious Michael Shaara Award with this fine effort.
Mysteries set against the broader canvas of a war are difficult to pull off. With so much death, chaos, and violence surrounding the characters, it takes a real gift to elevate a single killing above all the devastation. But these authors succeed, and in the process have illuminated little known episodes in the great war.
When Tony Hays isn’t traveling the world, teaching students, and adopting puppies, he takes time out to write the Arthurian Mystery series from Tor/Forge.
See all posts by Tony Hays for Criminal Element.