Researching The Edge of Hell (Part 1)
When I wrote The Edge of Hell, I was much younger than I am today. It was the 1990's. The internet was in its infancy, so its convenience never really came into play as I was researching my Civil War novel. No, my tools were libraries and archives with their books as secondary sources and soldiers' letters, newspaper clippings, and pension records as primary sources. Today, thanks to the internet, so many sources are available with just a click of your computer's mouse.
But, as I said, technology offered little value to me back in the 90's when it came to writing Edge. The most advanced tech tool I had was a CD-ROM of the voluminous publication The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. And even that didn't come along until about the middle of my research; up until then, I was forced to thumb through the thick volumes to find what I was looking for.
Yet even if the internet had been further along in its development, there was one thing neither books nor cyberspace could give me: the visceral, tactile experience of seeing the historical locations where Edge takes place, so my research travels took me to Burr Oak, Michigan (our heroes' hometown), to Tennessee and to Georgia. (See my previous blog post about Burr Oak.)
My first destination on my research journey in the spring of 1994 was Decherd, Tennessee. This is the town where my two main characters, James and Nate, join the 11th Michigan Infantry, just before the Federal campaign to take Chattanooga from Rebel hands. While in Decherd, I took this snapshot of the train station, obviously not used now. I have no idea how old that building is, but I have a feeling it didn't look much different in the summer of 1863.
From Decherd, I did my best to follow the 11th Michigan's march into Alabama where they crossed the broad Tennessee River below Bridgeport and entered Georgia. My next significant destination was rather out in the middle of nowhere, east of Lookout Mountain and west of Pigeon Mountain, just south of the contemporary town of Kensington, Georgia. The rural landscape of 1863 hasn't been altered too much by civilization over the decades. Back then, the place I sought was known as Davis's Crossroads.
Near Davis's Crossroads, Chickamauga Creek flows, the same creek from which the battle of Chickamauga derived its name. Some thought the name meant "River of Death" in Cherokee, but historians say otherwise. While the moniker may not have been historically correct, it certainly fit the butcher's bill, considering the casualties suffered by both armies during the battle in September 1863. The battle of Davis's Crossroads on September 11 was a precursor to the battle of Chickamauga. Though not a large battle, it serves as a baptism by fire for my two main characters.
Looking east, the picture above shows Pigeon Mountain in the distance. Confederate forces marched westward through Dug Gap to engage elements of General George Thomas's Fourteenth Corps, including the 11th Michigan.
Although there were no historical markers during the time I visited this site, I believe the ridge on the right in this photo to be where Stanley's brigade, which included the 11th Michigan, repelled the Rebel attack before falling back to the safety of Stephen's Gap on Lookout Mountain to await reinforcements.
My trip next progressed to one of the Civil War's major battlefields--Chickamauga, where Union and Confederate forces clashed on September 18, 19, and 20, 1863. The 11th Michigan didn't arrive on the battlefield until toward evening on September 19 (my birthday). Their arrival came at a critical point in the fighting on the Union's right flank. Federal forces were driven westward from the Brotherton Farm, and the Union flank may well have collapsed altogether if not for brigades from General James Negley's division. When they reached this position, they formed in line of battle and drove the battle-weary Confederate forces back through the Brotherton woods, across a cornfield, and back over the Lafayette Road into the thick forests that dominated the landscape.
The marker in the photo above tells the tale of the 11th Michigan's brigade's pivotal role in saving the right flank. During the time of the battle, this stand of woods would have been much thicker with lots of undergrowth, and the Brotherton field beyond the woods had been a harvested cornfield.
The above marker for the 11th Michigan sits atop the small ridgeline in the Brotherton field, facing east toward the woods beyond the Lafayette Road where they drove the Confederate forces.
The plaque above marks the location of Negley's division the night of September 19/morning of September 20, a particularly frigid night during which the troops were forced to listen to the wails and cries of hundreds of wounded between the lines.
The next morning, Stanley's brigade was called on again to protect this same ground. After they received orders to march to the left flank of the Union line, it was discovered that the units that were supposed to relieve their place in line had not appeared when they were supposed to. So the Confederates advanced once again over the Brotherton field, and Stanley's brigade had to race back into the woods they had just vacated to stem the Rebel tide once again.
Once the brigade was allowed to leave the line and march northward, the battle raged furiously to the east, and the Union left flank was being threatened. Stanley's brigade was deployed on the flank once they arrived. The photo below will give you a little idea of the thickness of the forest, making it difficult for friend to see foe, especially when you think of the thick clouds of gunsmoke from muskets and artillery.
After routing attacking Rebel forces and capturing a brigadier general, the 11th and other cobbled-together Federal units were eventually driven back. Meanwhile, on the Union right flank, Confederates had broken through Federal forces. Stanley's brigade and other surviving Federal forces eventually reformed on Snodgrass Hill, west of what was once the main Federal line. As the bulk of the Federal army, including its commander, General William Rosecrans and the 11th Michigan's division commander, General Negley, fled the field, heading to Chattanooga to the north, the remaining Union forces gathered on Snodgrass Hill under the command of General George "Pap" Thomas, the commander of the 11th Michigan's Fourteenth Corps. That day, Thomas would earn the moniker of "The Rock of Chickamauga."
Pictured above is the humble Snodgrass farmhouse, which was turned into a field hospital. One of my novel's scenes takes place there, where the 11th Michigan's brigade commander, Colonel Timothy Stanley, lay wounded.
For the remainder of September 20, General Thomas and a mixture of Federal brigades from various divisions held off multiple attacks, allowing the bulk of the Army of the Cumberland to safely reach Chattanooga. The 11th Michigan was on the front line, hotly engaged for hours.
The photo above shows the location of Stanley's brigade, facing eastward down the hill, which was heavily wooded, like much of the battlefield. The statue in the background is of the 11th Michigan's regimental commander, Colonel William L. Stoughton, who took over command of the brigade at the start of the fighting on Snodgrass Hill after Colonel Stanley had been wounded.
This close-up of Stoughton's statue shows the evil work of vandals, who destroyed his hands. Perhaps some descendants of the men Stoughton fought that day felt the need for revenge. Hard telling, but it's a shame. Stoughton was a man of great valor and leadership, loved by the men of the 11th Michigan.
Union forces held the hill until nightfall, and only then did they withdraw to Chattanooga.
(In Part 2 of this article, we will travel to Chattanooga and onward through Georgia during the Atlanta campaign, finishing the research trip at Andersonville prison.)