Emerson and I

I never met Colonel Samuel Emerson Opdycke, but I’d like to say he’s a friend of mine. Earlier this month I wrote a piece for Georgia based Historical-Fiction.com about a writer’s dilemma when it comes to representing history within fiction. It prompted me to think a little deeper about the particular ‘relationship’ I form with historical figures. To be frank, it’s all a little one-sided.

I don’t mean to be flippant. I feel slightly uncomfortable spending so much time with someone who died over a hundred and thirty years ago, and to whom I was never formally introduced. It’s as if I’m some sort of time-slip stalker. I know Emerson from his letters which are published in ‘To Battle for God and the Right,’ by Glenn Longacre and John Haas. They were originally preserved by Emerson’s wife, Lucy, to whom they were mostly addressed. They have the feel of letters that might have been intended for posterity. He wrote a great deal about his experiences post-war. If he didn’t want me to know him, then I guess he wouldn’t have let his wife transcribe his letters.

I also understand him from the writing of his men and his fellow officers in the 125th Ohio; the Tigers. I know him because I’ve been to where he fought: on the battlefield of Chickamauga, atop Missionary Ridge, at Kennesaw and Franklin; all places where his decisions, actions and personal bravery made a difference to the war. I know his horse, Barney, of whom he was so fond. I’ve read the gentle lines to Lucy that bracket his opinionated view of the Union generals. Emerson always knew better; he thought a lot of himself. He thought a lot of his cause too, fighting for the Union but also for freedom. His part of north eastern Ohio was strong in abolitionist sentiment. I took a long detour via Kentucky to visit his burial site in Warren, Trumbull County. I found him in the Victorian centre of Oakwood Cemetery in the middle of the rundown Rust Belt town, though most of its industry arrived long after Emerson’s day. I know of his tragic and accidental death. I know more than he ever did in life in that I’ve read of his only child’s suicide in 1914. I didn’t mention it at the tomb. Sometimes it’s best to keep secrets from your friends.

Knowing all of this is fine, it’s really just admiring him. But when I come to write, to put words into his mouth, thoughts into his head, feelings into his body, it’s like a gentle form of possession. I wonder if he ever felt the cold shiver of me walking beside his tomb. Mr Longacre and Mr Haas studied him too, but they simply published his letters, they didn’t take liberties as a fiction writer does. And now that my book is being sold, more people are coming to know him. Bizarrely, there’s now a whole clutch of people where I live in West Sussex, England, that know of this Colonel from Ohio. What would he make of that? He wasn’t overly fond of England.

I always think of Emerson as older and wiser than me, even though he was just thirty-one when the war started. I guess it’s history that is older and wiser. I’d like to think he’d be content with my efforts. Glory was more in vogue back then and, while I try to be as accurate as I can, I think my added imagination reflects well on Emerson and the 125th, on Opdycke’s Tigers.

You can read more on a fiction writer’s relationship with history at


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A Time and a Place

A tutor of mine at Chichester University, where I was studying for a mid-life M.A. in Creative Writing, used to bang on about time: how even the past has a past and we need to feel that depth; how memory isn’t linear in our inner world; how places themselves have different qualities of time, different relationships with time. She encouraged us to think of settings where time has special meaning, such as museums, a library perhaps. We had studied Helen Dunmore’s The Greatcoat, a short novel set on an abandoned World War II air force base, a place that had a now and a very definite then. I’m often slow on the uptake but eventually my tutor’s earnestness began to rub off even on me, and the penny dropped that I had already made a point of going to just such places – for years, in fact. I have held an interest in the American Civil War since my mid-twenties, and began making trips to battlefields when in America on business. Eventually I started to make Civil War trips for their own sake, and when I started to write seriously, it made sense to follow my interest.

Civil war battlefields are various. They can be little more than a grown over old trench with a raised front that you have to track down off to the side of some Virginia backroad. Or they can be glorious outdoor museums with square miles of monuments and statues, with names that resonate from the past like Gettysburg, Sharpsburg or Shiloh. What all these places have is the same duality as Helen Dunmore’s airfield: they have a now and a then. They are liminal, a place of transition or threshold. The time between then and now is foreshortened. I can almost touch the past; I can try to understand. These are hallowed places to most Americans, markers of an ordeal in their past that echoes all the way to today.

I didn’t realise it for a long time, but in my short stories I’ve been looking to trace the echoes, trying to see how they might have played out over time: just after the war, when the veterans started to die out; in the civil rights era; today.

As a new writer you spend a lot of time doubting what you are producing and if it’s of any relevance. The self-doubt can be useful in a way. It leaves you in a cocoon where you are able to write freely because, hey, no one’s going to read it anyway. Such was the case when I wandered alone around a Kentucky battlefield and town and wondered if the place had even now, a hundred and fifty years on, ever gotten over that single butchering day. I played with time, imagined a town that had post-traumatic stress, that couldn’t move on from the past, but had to keep trying to honour and understand its trauma. I just let the story come out and sent it away, no more hopeful than normal. When it won the 2015 Exeter Story Prize it was a great breakthrough for me, and I had to take a step back from the story, and look at it again, as if it were a painting that I’d never paid enough attention to. It was all in there, what my tutor had taught me, now and then collapsed into a single story. I love to find those connections, real or imagined, they can connect us to many possible pasts.