Researching The Edge of Hell (Part 3)
This is my third and final article about my research travels back in the 1990s for The Edge of Hell. We started in Decherd, Tennessee, before the Chattanooga campaign, traveled to Chickamauga battlefield as well as Missionary Ridge and Resaca. Today we continue with Sherman's 1864 campaign to capture the strategic rail hub of Atlanta and the role of the 11th Michigan Infantry.
For the ten days following the battle of Resaca, the 11th Michigan--a part of King's brigade--saw little of the Rebels. Other Union forces, however, were engaged with the Confederates in the hilly, forested land northwest of Atlanta. The 11th's next confrontation with the enemy came on May 27 when Federal forces tried to turn the Confederates' right flank at an obscure, heavily-wooded place known as Pickett's Mill.
Pickett's Mill Historic Site was one of my favorite Civil War sites to visit. What I loved about the 765-acre site was that it remains virtually untouched since that late May day over 150 years ago. Unlike most battlefields, there are no monuments or other structures. Just a path through the landscape with numbered markers to match the self-guided tour, explaining what happened at particular locations.
King's brigade narrowly avoided the Union slaughter that was the battle of Pickett's Mill. They were held in reserve upon a wooded hill where the men dug protective trenches as best they could. The remnants of that trench could still be detected when I visited, as shown in the center of the picture below (you are looking down the length of the shallow trench).
The picture below was taken along the creek used for the mill. The 11th Michigan's position was on the top of the hill in the background. This location was where a pivotal moment takes place in The Edge of Hell.
This battle saw something very unusual happen when it comes to Civil War battles: there was a night attack. Most fighting usually ended for obvious reasons once the sun went down. But General Patrick Cleburne, arguably the Confederate army's best general, sent his men forward to further harass the reeling Union soldiers. Thanks to Cleburne, the Federal attempt to turn the Rebel flank failed.
From Pickett's Mill, the Atlanta campaign churned ever closer to Atlanta. Once at Atlanta, Sherman dug in and laid siege to the city. Anyone who's read Gone With the Wind or has seen the movie will be familiar with the siege. Our hero, Nate Calhoun, however, was not there for the siege, for he had become a prisoner of war and was sent southward to Andersonville Prison in Sumter County.
If you haven't heard or read about Andersonville, I urge you to do so. Modern-day readers are familiar with the horrors of the Holocaust and would probably say such a thing would never happen in America. Andersonville (on a different scale, of course) had some of the same elements of the Holocaust--wanton (some say calculated) neglect by Confederates in charge of the prison, horrible deprivation, sickness, death by the thousands, punishment of prisoners trying to escape.
I thought I was mentally prepared for my visit to the historic site, but once I arrived, I found it difficult to even leave my car. The depth of tragedy and sorrow there, the seemingly endless, tight rows of small, stark white headstones in the cemetery take one's breath away.
To stand on the ground where thousands of Union soldiers lived and died in cramped, filthy conditions brought a new perspective. There were no barracks; prisoners lived out in the open with shelters made from blankets and other scraps. The prison site initially covered approximately 16 1/2 acres of land, which was enclosed by a fifteen-foot high stockade wall. The prison was enlarged in June 1864 to 26 1/2 acres to compensate for overpopulation.
The picture below is what an arriving prisoner would have seen. It was taken while I was standing in the small stockade between an outer door and the facing inner door into the prison proper. This is one of several reconstructions on the site to help the visitor get an idea of the prison structure.
The photo below was taken from inside the stockade, showing one of the perches where a Confederate guard would have been stationed. The small fence in the foreground was known as the "deadline," which was built as a buffer to keep prisoners away from the stockade wall. To cross (or even, sometimes, to touch) the deadline usually meant a quick bullet for any prisoner.
The photo below I took while standing in a spot where Nate Calhoun lived in my novel. It'll give you an idea of how the interior was sloped downward in the middle toward what was known as Stockade Creek. This narrow waterway served as both latrine and drinking water for the prisoners. Many prisoners burrowed deep into the earth near their dwellings to reach more drinkable water. Some used those hidden shafts to then dig horizontally beneath the stockade wall and attempt escape.
Andersonville was my final stop on my research trip for Edge. There was one grave in particular that I wanted to visit in the cemetery. But I won't give away which character that headstone belongs to. You will just have to read the book to find out who lives and who dies. :)