True Bits

True Bits: Lemonade

Recently a reader asked me whether the lemonade that shows up twice in I Shall Be Near To You was historically accurate. The short answer is yes! The longer answer is a little more complicated.

The account of the soldiers being offered lemonade by citizens of Maryland as they marched toward Antietam comes straight out of Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears, the main source I relied on for my information about Antietam. In it, Major John M. Gould of the 10th Maine is quoted as having written in his diary, “The women and young ladies opened their doors and windows to give us bread and butter, meat, apples, peaches, and preserves!” Sears adds that, “There were washtubs of cold water and lemonade at front gates along the roadside…” That little tidbit became the inspiration for the scene in the novel. Interestingly, while working on the answer to this question, I did more research (better late than never!) and came across the Civil War diary of Private Charles C. Perkins, a bugler in the 1st Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, written while he was on the Peninsula Campaign in June 1862. He recounts several purchases of lemons (at a price of two for 25 cents on one occasion and three for 17 cents on another) and sugar to make lemonade.

Now, the accuracy of the lemonade that Rosetta’s mama makes during haying is a bit more slippery. The honest answer is that I made it up. That said, according to The Land Where Lemons Grow: The story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit by Helena Atlee, by 1862 there were regular steamships transporting lemons from Italy to New York. Now, would any of those lemons actually made it out to Flat Creek? Well, with the canal nearby in Utica, it’s possible, and the nice thing about historical fiction is I can deal in possibilities. Would Rosetta’s family have spent the money to buy lemons? That seems less likely. I prefer to imagine that they might have had a lemon tree planted in a protected spot in the kitchen garden. It’s possible, right?

Who would ever have thought there was so much research behind such a simple detail like lemonade! It’s a perfect example of how, when writing historical fiction, you never know what you don’t know until you’re in the middle of a scene.

Witness Trees

(**I’ve tried to minimize any Spoilers here, but if you haven’t finished reading I Shall Be Near To You yet, SPOILER ALERT**)

In honor of Arbor Day, I thought I’d write a little bit about trees…

In November of 2008, I came across Bob Hicok’s poem “What I Know For Sure” in that month’s edition of Oprah magazine and was introduced to the idea of the witness trees at Antietam and Appomattox. I had not yet written the battle scenes in I Shall Be Near To You, but I knew they were coming, and I knew some of what would happen– had already written much of *that* scene at Antietam, in fact– although I didn’t yet know it would happen at Antietam. But the idea of witness trees stuck with me. Reading Hicok’s poem was the first I’d heard that phrase, in fact, and I tore the poem out and posted it to the bulletin board that was above my desk at the time. When I finally got to *that* scene at Antietam, the idea of a witness tree had taken root, and I have Bob Hicok’s poem to thank for the idea of Jeremiah’s tree.

In my search for a link to the poem, I also came across photographer Nate Larson’s poignant series of portraits of the remaining Witness Trees— the only survivors of the Civil War still living. Aren’t they beautiful?

Rosetta-isms: For my part

One of Rosetta’s little linguistic tics is the phrase “for my part”. Here’s a sampling:

From a letter dated August 19, 1863
“…I don’t believe this war will be over as long as there is a man left, and for my part I don’t Care how long it does last. I hope that our regiment will have to go into the field before it is over. Then I shall be satisfied and not until we have to go.”

(Of course I love this for how brave and brazen Rosetta is here.)

From a letter dated September 20, 1863
“…I don’t think that it would be my luck to get a furlough to come home this fall. For my part I shan’t try for it. If I did the officers Would say, ‘No, you must let the married men go home first.'”

(It makes me smile how she doesn’t even acknowledge that she could come home any time she wanted, if she revealed her true identity!)

From a letter dated October 13, 1863
For my part, I hope we Shall go to South Carolina, for there is nothing so lovely as the Southern Sun. WHen it rises over the virginia hills and Shines into the vales of South Carolina, I then like to be a Soldier. The hotter the Sun Shines, the better I like it in the army.”

(I just love her description of the Southern sun!)

From a letter dated January 20, 1864
For my part, I see the principle of the men in this regiment and I have chosen the better part.” And “…for my part, I haven’t been punished Since I have been in the service.”

When I was writing the novel, I had no idea just how many times it appeared in Rosetta’s letters, but it must’ve lodged itself in my subconscious because when Rosetta’s voice came to me, this little phrase came too. I love the personality and flavor it adds.

Rosetta-isms: I’ll dress as I have a mind to

One of my all time favorite Rosetta-isms is from a letter dated June 5, 1863:

“I will Dress as I am a mind to for all anyone else [cares], and if they don’t let me Alone they will be sorry for it.”

I just love her! If Rosetta (the real one or the character) were to have a manifesto, I like to think this would be the first line.

I think this, more than anything, captures Rosetta’s feisty spirit, and the way she consistently asserts her independence while at the same time acknowledging the pressure she feels to conform to society’s expectations. She’s a pistol, that’s for sure.

I wanted to use the same sentiment, but while the real Rosetta wrote that line home to her family early in her service, perhaps as a bit of a justification for what she was doing, or in response to some comment in one of her family’s letters, I chose to use the line at the end of the book, when Rosetta makes her decision about what is next for her. It seemed to me an assertion of her independence at the same time that it acknowledged the difficult decision she was making and the pressures she would feel.

And as a side note, I have to say I got a kick out of thinking about what Rosetta’s response would have been if she knew that her story had been featured in both Glamour and ELLE magazines!

A semi-True Bit: Walt Whitman’s “The Wound Dresser”

This isn’t exactly a True Bit, because I didn’t read Walt Whitman’s poem “The Wound Dresser” about his work as a nurse in the Civil War hospitals in Washington DC until after I’d already written the scene where Jennie takes Rosetta to the Armory Square Hospital. (And I guess, technically, a poem isn’t “true”?) When I did finally read it, I was shocked at the ways in which the novel and the poem overlapped, especially starting in the middle of the second stanza.

The Wound-Dresser

An old man bending I come among new faces,
Years looking backward resuming in answer to children,
Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me,
(Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;)
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these chances,
Of unsurpass’d heroes, (was one side so brave? the other was equally brave;)
Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth,
Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?
What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?


O maidens and young men I love and that love me,
What you ask of my days those the strangest and sudden your talking recalls,
Soldier alert I arrive after a long march cover’d with sweat and dust,
In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly shout in the rush of successful charge,
Enter the captur’d works—yet lo, like a swift running river they fade,
Pass and are gone they fade—I dwell not on soldiers’ perils or soldiers’ joys,
(Both I remember well—many of the hardships, few the joys, yet I was content.)

But in silence, in dreams’ projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,
With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.

I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.


On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
The crush’d head I dress, (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage away,)
The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through I examine,
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard,
(Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly.)

From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood,
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv’d neck and side falling head,
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump,
And has not yet look’d on it.

I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep,
But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking,
And the yellow-blue countenance see.

I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,
Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and pail.

I am faithful, I do not give out,
The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.)


Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)

True Bits: Rebel spies

Several events from the real Rosetta’s letters really intrigued me when I first read about them. One of the most fascinating was her brief account of the female soldier and rebel spies she guarded while on prison duty:

“Over to Carroll Prison they have got three women that is confined to their Rooms. One of them was a Major in the union army and she went into battle with her men. When the Rebels bullets was acoming like a hail storm, she rode her horse and gave orders to the men. Now She is in Prison for not doing aCcordingly to the regulation of war. The other two is rebel Spies and they have Catch them and Put them in Prison. They are Smart looking women and [have] good education.”

Who were those women? Did they realize they were being guarded by a woman? How did Rosetta feel guarding a soldier who was imprisoned for doing exactly what she was doing? How did Rosetta get these details about the female Major? This little paragraph is all we know! I wish Rosetta had said more, but because she didn’t, I was free to imagine the scene where the character Rosetta guards and meets Mrs. Greenhow, also known as Rebel Rose.

Rosetta-isms/True Bits: that spotted calf

When I wrote the first draft of I Shall Be Near To You, it had been ten years since I’d read the real Rosetta’s letters. I didn’t return to the actual letters until I had completed the draft because I was afraid that if I re-read the letters I would lose the voice I heard in my head, even though my intention was to make the character Rosetta’s voice as true to the feisty and tender voice that shone through in the real Rosetta’s letters. I was actually a bit surprised when I reread the letters to find how many phrases (what I like to call Rosetta-isms) or ideas made their way from the original letters into the novel, though not always in exactly the same context. Here’s an example:

Originals, from Rosetta Wakeman’s letters:
Nov. 24, 1862
…If you want to save anything to remember me by, keep that spotted calf and if i ever return I want you to let me have her again.”

“June the 19, A.D. 1863
Father I want you to Write, too, and let me know all about your Farming and how long do you intend to keep Fony?”

From the novel (one of Rosetta’s letters home): I want to know how that Spotted Calf does and if the Fields are planted and what in (Wheat or Potatoes or maybe Corn) and have you had Help to do it?

True Bits: The Crushed Violet

(Spoiler alert! You might not want to keep reading if you haven’t finished the book–each “true bit” gives the background on something real that inspired part of the novel: some big, some small)

This True Bit is a tiny one…

There’s a moment at Bull Run when the soldiers are running toward the embankment and their first real battle and Rosetta sees Jeremiah step on a violet and crush it underfoot.

That came from a young soldier’s remembrance of marching through a field full of wildflowers, and several of the soldiers picking some and sticking them in their hats. It struck me as such an innocent gesture– a gesture of sweetness in the midst of war. I wanted to use that idea of soldiers coming across something beautiful and natural and delicate right at the moment they were entering battle. And I wanted that crushed violet to be trying to raise itself back up after having been stepped on because that seemed to me the perfect metaphor for what the soldiers had to do after experiencing battle, especially for the first time.

True Bits: Hiram’s Ring

(Spoiler alert! You might not want to keep reading if you haven’t finished the book–each “true bit” gives the background on something real that inspired part of the novel: some big, some small)

This first True Bit is a smaller one…

So, you know that ring Hiram carves?

The one made out of a vertebrae he found on the battlefield?

Yeah, that’s something I just couldn’t make it up. It’s a little tidbit that came out of a soldier’s letter that I read in the collection The Soldier’s Pen: Firsthand Impressions of the Civil War. I thought it was the kind of detail that would really show the effects of battle on a soldier, how the horror of war would change a person’s sense of morality.

Here’s the original, in a letter written by Confederate soldier J.M. Tate:

“Dear Sister Mary,
…I rote to darcus last week and inclosed a bone ring in the letter and I will inclose one in this for Ma made by my own hands with an old knife. those sets are pure silver. the bone was found on the Battle field of Seven Pines and all so Darcases was of the same. I have one for you that was found on Mine Town that I will forward in my next letter. Tell the old lady to except this ring in remembrance of her only son and when his sweet harts come to see hir, she can show what hir son did in the army of Northern Virginia.”