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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The 150th Anniversary of the Civil War

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War.

In states where the war was fought, there has been a flurry of activity. Reenactments, rallies, balls, and special exhibits are scheduled to commemorate key events. Efforts to preserve battlefields and other historical markers are underway. Educational materials have been developed for school teachers to use in their classroom. History buffs can buy t-shirts, mugs, and messenger bags to show their enthusiasm for the subject.

But here in the former Oregon Territory, the event is passing largely unnoticed. Much as it probably did in 1861.

Those of us who live in the 'newer' states will have to wait for the Civil War movies to come out. Robert Redford's latest film, The Conspirator, is about the trial of Mary Surratt, the woman who ran the boarding house where the Lincoln assassination conspirators reportedly met. The film is scheduled for release on April 15th. Steven Spielberg also reportedly has a Civil War movie in the works, but I wasn't able to find a release date for it.

The one place where you won't find a lot of interest in the Civil War Sesquicentennial is in the realm of historical romance. When I searched for “Civil War romance” on Amazon.com, the result was a handful of self-published books, e-books, and small press editions. Traditional publishers seem to shy away from the setting.

Yet the Civil War period provides everything you need to a tell a great story. American soldiers are natural heroes, and a reader can’t help but sympathize with a heroine who's struggling on her own. The era is rife with conflict, the backbone of all good fiction. With all the research available, a writer is sure to find inspiration for a unique and interesting plot.

So why is the Civil War period taboo for romance writers? Is it possible that the topic is still too emotionally charged for leisurely reading? If so, then why were Gone with the Wind and Cold Mountain so successful?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. How is the sesquicentennial being covered where you live? Would you buy a novel set in the American Civil War? Why or why not?


  1. Clarissa, great post. Since I'm in New England, we tend to focus on an earlier war -- LOL -- and those re-enactments and celebrations are in mid-April. We even have an official holiday, Patriots Day, so they can re-enact the battles of Concord and Lexington (it's the same day as the Boston Marathon).

    I know that there were a lot of Civil War era romances years ago, so I'm not sure why they have been discontinued. The same with Western romances. I would like to see more of those again.

  2. I've always been drawn to the Civil War era, so I would definitely read a good romance set in this time period. It seems like it would be a challenge to write a romance set during the Civil War because your hero and heroine would be separated for large chunks of time like in Gone With the Wind and Cold Mountain. But I loved both of these stories.

    Just building on what Donna said about Westerns... It's interesting to me how hot Westerns seem to be in the movie industry (True Grit), but almost black balled in romance.

    I know we have re-enactment groups, but I haven't heard of any special events.

  3. I don't know why Civil War romances don't do well. One of my all time favorite books is Ashes in the Wind by Kathleen Woodiwiss and I would love to read more books set in that era. As for events in our area, I haven't heard of any.

  4. I am so with you, Clarissa! I used to be a Civil War reenactor on the civilian side, while my husband and sons did military. I also devoured any Civil War romance I could find--and they were few and seemed to be all alike, am embittered Southern woman and a Yankee officer.

    I wrote a few Civil War romances of my own, but as you said, the big publishers won't touch them. So, they're all published--along with a few Civil War set novellas--by The Wild Rose Press, primarily an e-publisher who also puts full-lengths out in print.

    I am so in love with the Civil War period and romances set there can be so varied. I have a few stories where the heroine is a soldier disguised as a man in order to serve.

    I really don't understand the disinterest from a romance standpoint. Wasn't Gone With the Wind one of the greatest romance novels of all time?

  5. Hi Donna, Amy, Samantha.Apparently, there are tons of activities planned in Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Illinois. This includes costume balls, ladies. I cannot believe you regency lovers do not want to go to a 19th century ball! Get your costumes ready. I will see if some of the folks over on the CW loop would be willing to guest blog for us. They know everything about the era and are very helpful too. I couldn't have written this blog without them :)

  6. Hi Susan, I am hopping over to TWP to look for your CW novels. TWP does seem to be one publisher that consistently publishes Civil War. Perhaps with the sesquicentennial, they will catch on.

    I think you may have a point that CW era novels have a reputation for all being alike. I don't think that's true nowadays though. The other thing I've wondered about is dialect. When dialect is overdone, it can be off-putting. But I don't think most authors write that way anymore.

  7. I'm a real southern belle and would love to pen the next "Gone With the Wind" style novel. It would be a dream come true for me.

    Do you think that they don't publish these stories because they are worried about potential controversial issues that the Civil War seems to stir in some folks?

    Or simply because they don't sell well?

    I'm not sure but I'd love to see more on the shelves and would be happy to write one if I thought I could get it sold!

    Wonderful post and thanks for writing on the sesquicentennial!

  8. yeah - I'm fascinated by the civil war. Drive around listening to the audio version of the Ken Burns classic documentary. It's still painful though. It's not a 'happy' war like WWII. And I also am not convinced that we understand everything that went on - still after all these years. The technology was changing so fast - faster than human psychology. And I'm not sure we (myself mostly) can get our hands around all the implications of the war tactics in the midst of all the human devestation.

    Because we associate romance with HEAs, for that reason a civil war romance almost seems like an anachronism.

  9. Hi Kerri, Good point about the controversies the ACW stirs up. I do believe publishers look first at the bottom line. Perhaps because the ACW novels didn't sell in the past, they're afraid to take a chance on them. But it would only take one blockbuster to turn the market around. I hope to read your novel someday :) Thanks for commenting on the Lady Scribes.

  10. I'm a New Englander, many of my father's family fought in the Civil War, one was with the 20th Maine at Gettysburg. I've always been fascinated by the era - I still remember reading Gone with the Wind one summer when my mother deemed I was old enough. One of my favorites was a book called Yankee Stranger - I spent many hours recreating stories and costumes. My first Civil War novel is in its second draft.

    I believe the War is still a raw issue for both sides, judging from the material presented on the BBC (I'm in Wales these days) - we've had documentaries about Lincoln recently and the whole of Shelby Foote's work. I can't answer the question of why the era is not popular in romance (it is fabulously popular in mainstream/male fiction) but I think it has to do with the fundamental trauma that hasn't yet healed and may never. Somehow romance doesn't lend itself to real human conflict.

    Timely and excellent post,Clarissa.

  11. Clarissa, my novella LONG WAY HOME appears in the same anthology as one of Susan's stories, NORTHERN ROSES AND SOUTHERN BELLES. This is a terrific anthology, but sales have been far less than stellar. I believe the main reason is the slavery issue hanging like a dark cloud over the era. That's why Regency romances are popular IMO, slavery had already been outlawed in England. There will always be class differences and downtrodden, but slavery was so heinous that it looms behind every story, even if the issue is not discussed in the plot. How can you champion someone--hero or heroine--who viewed humans as property, no matter how well treated they were? This is one of the reasons my favorite time period is post-reconstruction 19th century. No slaves, no carpetbaggers.
    Good post, Clarissa. Thanks for making us think.

  12. I agree that there are still implications of the Civil War in this country and maybe that is the reason it doesn't sell - or maybe it's because no one has really given it a chance. It would be great to progress along to other time periods and places, but nobody is willing to take the chance. I write stories in the west during the gold rush. They're not westerns as we know them, but because they are stories of romance west of the Mississippi River, they are considered westerns. It's a great time period with so many amazing women. Ashes in the Wind has always been a favorite of mine as well. True, gritty women are fun to write and read about.

  13. I'm revising my Civil War epic. On the fence whether to send it to my agent and wait, or self-publish it as a trilogy on 12 April. It basically goes from 1840 at West Point through the Mexican War to the battle of Shiloh. Then I'll pick up the story there with next book. Right now it's huge-- 180k, and I'm gutting it for agent. But if I self-pub will break that down. The key to the book is that in the 60 major battles of the Civil War, West Pointers commanded both sides in 55.

  14. Hi Rhobie, My great-grandfather fought in the ACW too. Massachusetts First Heavy Artillery at Petersburg, Virginia. I think that's one of the reasons so many people love the ACW. There's a personal connection there. I will have to keep an eye out for those documentaries. Thanks for the comments :)

  15. Hi Caroline, I will have to get that anthology:) Great idea on setting stories in the reconstruction. Thanks.

  16. Hi Paisley, I know just what you mean about "Westerns" that aren't really typical westerns. My GH finalist was in the same category. I love reading those stories. Thanks for commenting. It's always good to see you here :)

  17. Bob, Thanks so much for stopping by. You shared the outline for that book at the Boise Warrior Writer workshop and I just loved the premise. Please keep us updated. I can't wait to read it.

  18. Hi Claudia, I loved the Ken Burns' documentary too. I watched it over and over and over again when I was writing my YA novel. I think you're right about the real devastation being too overwhelming for an HEA. It's hard to suspend disbelief when you know the truth. Thanks for taking the time to stop by and comment.

  19. Wonderful to see so many comments. I am polishing my Civil War novel, to be titled Evermore, and I've had some experience querying already. It seems that the New York agents/editors see the Civil War setting and roll their eyes, assuming you have rewritten Gone With the Wind. Very frustrating. I'm not giving up; I know I have a good book. Gretchen Craig

  20. Hi Gretchen! Good luck with your novel. I know I used to get the same reaction. I finally started only querying agents who would let me send along pages :) Thank you for the comment.

  21. Great post! RAFE'S REDEMPTION is kind of both -- western and yet, Rafe was a Union Captain, so Civil War romance. (RAFE'S REDEMPTION takes place in 1866)But the war still plays a role in Rafe's story.
    And I agree that it seems like westerns might be making a come back at the movies with the help of such greats as True Grit, but I still don't see it in romance writing. Here's hoping we see that change;)
    I'm a Civil War re-enactor. My husband portrays a Union Artillery man (cannons) and I portray a Union Army Laundress traveling with her husband. (Yes, they did that) I have one picture in particular that shows a woman along with her 3 young children traveling with her army husband (she's doing laundry in the photo). Anyway, I based my portrayal on that picture and some research I did on the subject.
    Thanks for a great post! Right up my ally :)

  22. Ugh you know where my thoughts on this subject are, Clarissa. I am so frustrated by the lack of attention this era and westerns are getting to the point of screaming my head off. One of my all time favorite movies is The North And the South which is really a tv series back in the eighties with Patrick Swayze as it's star. Wonderful story, along with Gone with the Wind which I still read/ watch over and over again. Margret Mitchell was my inspiration for wanting to be an author in the first place. It's nice to see so many coming out of the wood work in support of the genre. Let's hope someday the stigma that comes with it finally wears off.

  23. Another beaut of a post, Clarissa. Can count on you for thought-provoking.

    One of the latest editions of "Gone With The Wind" is introduced by Pat Conroy, who acknowledges its literary magnitude. I'm willing to bet Rhett and Scarlett inspired dozens of romance writers.

    I read a really stimulating essay / review of GWTW, in which the male reviewer felt it was the first real feminist novel, and that the male characters of the book were far more shattered than the women (by the whole shift of southern antebellum culture).

    Also... in the Civil War era, people were incredibly literate, almost lyrical, in their writings, men quite dashing, women feminine yet strong.

    Ken Burns's magnificent PBS series is now 20+ years old, (I confess to having a crush on Shelby Foote) -- and a true masterwork. We've traveled extensively to the Civil War battlefields and antebellum homes... and I'm amazed at how publishers won't 'touch' this era for romance. Our tour of Antietam came alive, as our guide described key turning points of the battle. At Gettysburg, I practically sprinted for Little Round Top.

    Saw "Pharaoh's Army" on PBS in 1995, believe it's loosely based on a true story on a Confederate woman whose child's grave was dug up by an angry horde suspicious of her political loyalties. She had to sleep on her child's grave, I think, to keep it intact. "Army" is quietly powerful, and has a romantic element to it, a Union captain (Chris Cooper) who simply wants to return to his Ohio farm, and a widow (Patricia Clarkson) who is nearly starving on her Kentucky farm.

    Certainly, a novel setting in the Civil War could be fraught with controversy, but I see controversial subjects everywhere today -- in fact, proliferating.

    For me, the Civil War had heroes on both sides, e.g., Abraham Lincoln, Joshua Chamberlain, but the evil of slavery had to be toppled. I'm from Illinois, so naturally we "claim" Abe as our own. Springfield is a great historical trip and visiting his tomb filled me with awe.

    It's interesting, though, that feelings still run deep, some 150 years later. Joan Baez's song, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" taps into those sentiments... a "lamentation of defeat."

    "Rolling Stone" critic Ralph Gleason said this about the original version of the song (by The Band). "Nothing I have read … has brought home the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does. The only thing I can relate it to at all is The Red Badge of Courage."

  24. Well, who didn't love Gone With the Wind!

  25. Clarissa,

    I'm with you on hopping over to TWP to look up Susan and Caroline's books.

    I'm working on my first romance which is a contemp but eventually I want to branch out and try historicals set in the US.

    The CW is my favorite historical setting and that would be the setting of my first story - thinking ghost-ish story. My great-great grandfather fought from NY as a Yankee. Born in Upstate NY the American Revolution happend in my backyard, literally so I also intend to do one during that setting as well.

    But I took an entire class in college on the CW and went to a bunch of the CW battle sites. I love the CW and would definitely read a book about it.

    BTW I agree that Ken Burns did a great commentary on it - I have the commentary as well as the book he wrote that goes along with his commentary.

    If you write them, I'll read them. And eventually I'm going to write on!!!!

    Happy historical writing,

  26. I would definitely buy a novel set in the American Civil War. In fact it would probably be top of my to-be-purchased list.

    I'm with Amy concerning Kathleen Woodiwiss' "Ashes in the Wind." It was one of the first romance novels I read. Loved that book and twenty-five years later I can still distinctly remember its plot and characters.

    I'm also agree with Melissa - I loved "The North and South" and Patrick Swayze.

    Sigh. Please let Civil War (and Westerns) novels be popular again soon.

  27. As the author of a Civil War novel (Shades of Gray: A Novel of the Civil War in Virginia), it's wonderful to see all these comments! To have widespread appeal, I think it's really important for a Civil War novel to be historically accurate enough to appeal to men, but have a deep love story that appeals to women. I'm from Gettysbug, Pa. so I'm VERY excited about the 150th. I'm even doing book signings in Charleston, S.C. in April -- I just have to be where it all began!