A-Z Theme

Well, I’m doing it again. I’m going to do the A-Z Challenge. Last time I wrote a blog post each day and didn’t even know until that day what I was going to write. This time I’m at least going to be a little more prepared.

So, here’s the theme and those of you who know me will not be surprised. Since The Rain Crow, my historical, is about a young woman who becomes a Confederate spy it’s about the Civil War. More than that, I’ve decided to blog about things that people might wonder about in the book. Women didn’t do that! That isn’t how you would do that! I didn’t know that! No, no, no, that never happened!

I hope you all will enjoy the little snippets this month and along the way as we explore fascinating little tidbits of history.

Mention the American Civil War and many people will immediately think of Scarlett and Rhett. Margaret Mitchell did a stellar job of bringing that era to life, but there was so much more and how could there not be?

The Rain Crow, my nearly completed historical is sitting at 149,000 words and it covers four months. I haven’t even written the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) yet or the heroine’s harrowing last adventure and escape. She, by the end, has become a courier and spy.

Ironclads made a name for themselves on the east coast in well known and historic battles. Cottonclads plied the Mississippi and Rio Grande rivers, running Union blockades and waging a war of their own for the west.

The Hunley was being tested in South Carolina, but a man named Cheney already had a submarine in operation out of Richmond that had successfully sunk a barge. These submersibles would have little bearing on the war, but naval warfare would never be the same.

Hunley Crew

The America, a sleek little racing yacht won the prestigious Royal Yacht Squadron’s “One Hundred Sovereign Cup” for which the America’s Cup is now named. She would change names to the Camilla and become a Confederate blockade runner. Captain Decie scuttled her rather than have her taken by the Union, but they raised her and used her for blockading.

The America Schooner Yacht…, PY8703

The blockade was so successful coffee and salt were at a premium. Flour was not to be had. Innovative southerners learned what they could use to substitute for coffee. Parched ground yams was a palatable substitute. They tore up the floors of smokehouses and leeched the boards for salt or threw a piece of wood in with a pot of soup or stew to get a little salt flavoring.

Medicine, as it always does in war, made great advances. Doctors who might never have seen an amputation, performed them by the dozens after battles, stacking discarded limbs taller than a man. Initially, most patients would not survive.

War was no place for a woman so the men thought. They soon changed their minds. Vivandiers on the battlefield and nurses alike proved to be invaluable. President Davis made one woman a captain in the Confederate army as there was a rule that all army hospitals must be ordered by at least a captain. Her hospital had such a success rate he refused to shut it down even when faced with complaints by doctors about a female operating a hospital.

I seldom open a diary, journal, memoir, or collection of letters without finding something that draws new amazement and I have over six hundred books on the Civil War.

So, come with me explore the unique, the little known, the human part of the Civil War. It’s more than the north and the south. It’s a journey of the soul.

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Opium Beds and Butterflies

In an interview with On The Road, Diana Gabaldon touches on “kernels” in writing. This is where you have some little bit of something that triggers and image or thought in your writing and you build a scene around it. Listen to the interview, it’s well worth it.

I’ve run into several of those while researching The Rain Crow. I knew Lorena was going to be summoned to Baltimore by her mother who is feigning a dread illness to get her there. Berta Dobbs (she has retaken her maiden name since divorcing Lorena’s father) is a master at manipulation and the dramatic. Why is she like this I wondered? She’s the youngest child and was ill a lot, so she got pampered and spoiled by parents and siblings who thought they were going to lose her. She’s learned to use illness as a crutch to get what she wants even though she’s as now healthy as the proverbial horse.

Mr. McKenzie, Lorena’s father, indulged her to a point, but recognized what she was doing and refused to allow his daughter to become the same kind of woman, telling Lorena when she was five and throwing a temper tantrum, “I have one spoiled child in this house, I’ll not have another,” and then tanning her hide for her tantrum. Berta flounced to her room and locked herself in for three days, which did little good as Mr. McKenzie simply ignored her.

So, I am getting a clearer picture of both Berta and Kevin McKenzie. Lorena, thankfully, has taken more after he independent father and will need that to survive the upcoming war. I knew I wanted to have a vivid scene when Lorena arrives at her mother’s house. Berta is all about the drama.

First off, Berta sends dramatic letters to Lorena, she’s in terrible health. She may be dying. Lorena must come soon. Lorena agrees because she’s consented to become a courier and smuggle contraband. Visiting her mother is the perfect excuse to secure a pass to Baltimore after the war starts. Though she doubts she can actually do any spying, she’ll keep her ears open for any information that might be of use to the south. I know there will be two trips north at least before the first battle of Manassass, otherwise known as Bull Run. The second will be after a “suicide” at the plantation and Lorena needs to meet with someone to get a translation done on a message that was left.

I know Berta is going to really lay it on thick when Lorena arrives. She has more than a visit in mind. She’s going to try and convince Lorena to sell the properties in Virginia and South Carolina and move to Baltimore where she thinks her daughter will be safe.  She’s also going to do everything she can to break Lorena and Captain Callahan up.

So, when Lorena arrives, Berta is laid out spectacularly ala Rosetti’s The Death of Beatrice.

I know Berta will be in the parlor so Lorena sees her immediately. What kind of bed? Something unusual. More than a daybed. What’s more dramatic than a Chinese opium bed?

What does it look like? I can picture it in my mind. It’s ornately carved, with red lacquer and gilt. The posts are heavy and the end panels are also thick, solid with more ornate carving, painted scenes, and gilding. Do I want it canopied? No, not quite that large. Up about three feet so servants can gather around her. The back comes up about three feet tall to match the end panels. It’s like a very large, very gaudy coffin with the front gone and no top.

What time of day is it when Lorena arrives? Afternoon. She’s coming by carriage, so she would have had to be far enough away to take a few hours yet to get there when she stopped for the night. Why is time of day important? Lighting. The parlor is on the left side of the entry hall and has a large bay window with nearly floor to ceiling glass. There are maroon velvet drapes drawn back and hooked, with sheer lace panels over the windows allowing lots of light in. The light will shine on the bed and Berta.

There are a lot of pillows on the bed. Berta is in a nightgown and a brocade robe. What color? The nightgown is ivory the robe is dark; blue to contrast with the dark red pillows. The brocade robe reflects the light shining through the windows when Berta moves.

Why does the bed have such solid posts and end panels? I examine the bed. Ah, because it has hidden drawers and compartments. There’s a little desk that comes down from one end panel for a secretary to make notes while sitting on the floor. Interesting. I’m not certain how that comes into play, but it will make it into a scene later.

What’s in the drawers? One of the secret compartments in a post comes open while Lorena is having the bed taken apart to move upstairs and there’s something in it. She’s told her mother the bed probably came from an opium den and there are drugs hidden in it. No, no drugs. A piece of jewelry. What kind? Jade. A necklace? No, a pin. A dragon? What do dragons symbolize? Power, strength, and good luck. Well, that might work, but what would be more intriguing? A butterfly. Butterflies symbolize enduring love.

Aha, that works. Later in the book, (Keep in mind I’m chunk writing, so I write it as it comes to me.) Lorena goes to visit a friend who has lost her husband. She was committed to an asylum and has recently been released. Lorena sees her in the garden with a blue butterfly on her shoulder and laughingly tells her it looked like the butterfly was whispering secrets to her. Why would a butterfly be on her shoulder? Some people believe butterflies can be spirits of loved ones or even vampires. Who would the spirit be? Not her husband. Ah, she lost a little boy. He drowned in the pond she’s staring out at.

Her friend says in all seriousness, “Oh, he was.” She then tells Lorena the butterfly is the spirit of William and he has told her to tell Lorena she’s right, Mr. Stossel didn’t kill himself only no one knows about the suicide yet. dun dun dun.

The butterfly has made two more appearances, but I won’t go into that here. The butterfly was another example of “kernels” at work. It certainly wasn’t anything I planned. I just saw the scene in my head. Emily was sitting outside in a garden, dressed all in mourning black, with a brilliant blue butterfly on her shoulder. My mind starts asking questions about the butterfly and the garden and Emily’s story and the butterfly’s unfold.

So, here is a jade butterfly that symbolizes enduring love and the butterfly theme continues. Lorena gives it to her mother who declines it saying she had one Lorena’s father gave her when they were courting. He had sacrificed greatly to buy her an expensive butterfly brooch she had to have. She later destroys it in one of her fits. No, she doesn’t need it. She tells Lorena to keep it. This revelation about Bert and McKenzie is new, I hadn’t seen this before I started writing the scene. I’m learning a lot more about the couple.

We have a bed with secret compartments and a butterfly. What good is this? Lorena might need a place to hide secret messages later that she is carrying south. I now know there’s going to be a scene with Berta Dobb’s house being searched because Lorena is suspected of being a spy. My mind goes spinning off on that tangent, but I won’t go down that road here. Now we know why this gaudy bed was important.

What about the butterfly? An insignificant thing. Lorena decides to wear the pin to a military ball. A captain who has taken an interest in her comments on it and asks if someone special gave it to her. She says, yes, her mother. He then tells her they symbolize enduring love, she must be very special to her mother. He’s relieved she has no significant other, seemingly. This suits Bertie to a tee as he’s from a well-to-do and powerful family and exactly the kind of man she’s looking to hook Lorena up with. Wheels start turning.

In case you’re wondering, yes, when something pops up like this, I explore the “area”. It’s like I’ve been put in a new room. I walk around touching things and wondering why they are there. Details are revealed. Quite frequently another scene will trigger.

So, here is what came from pondering about an opium bed. There’s much more, of course, but this is where Lorena is threatening her mother if she catches her in her deathbed again.

With Dr. Frain on his way, and me somewhat recovered from my shock of discovering he was the Cardinal, my contact in Baltimore, I set about getting Mother out of her deathbed. She was still sprawled across the garish bed, one hand laid across her brow and the other dramatically at her breast. Three servants hovered about in case she might gasp her last.

“Dear Lord, Mother. This is not Rossetti’s Death of Beatrice. These people have things to do as do you. Get up out of that monstrosity of that bed now. Someone fetch Sam so he can get this thing out of the parlor.”

Bertie Dobbs sat up, frowning. “Lorena, it’s not like I can recover instantaneously. These things take time.”

“Of course you can. Now get up. You heard Dr. Frain. You need to be up and about. The next time I see you laid out in that thing, you had best be well and truly dead because I am going to have it put in the yard like a Chinese bier and set it alight.”

She waved a hand dismissively shooing servants and the very idea away. “Don’t be foolish. I’m quite sure lighting a funeral bier in the yard is against the law in Baltimore.”

“Then we’ll take you down to the bay at sunset and cast you adrift on your bed like Charon ferrying you across the Styx. It will be very dramatic.”

“The bed would probably sink and I’d just be bobbing around the bay like an untethered buoy in my shroud with a raven pecking at my bones.”

“Oh, even better. You’d be legendary. Your tattered corpse would bob up against a ship, tap, tap, tapping like a portend of doom.

“The look out nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping
Berta Dobbs was gently rapping, floating ’bout from ship to shore.
“Tis  Bad News Berta,” he cried out, “tapping ‘pon our hull for sure.”
Death, disaster, and nothing more.
Floats the maven, ever more.”

“Maven. Is that the best you can do? I told your father not to let your read that horrible Poe. It’s positively warped your mind. I swan. You have no respect whatsoever.” She hauled herself out of the bed and threw the brocade robe about her like a great cloak.

I shrugged. “It’s the best I could do off the top of my head. Think about it. People will talk about the legend of Berta Dobbs for years. You’ll be famous. Either way, I do not want to see that monstrosity in the parlor again, nor you claiming it for a deathbed. Understood? Now someone go fetch Sam and get it upstairs out of sight.”

Blogging A-Z Z Is For Zouave

I appreciate more than you all know how you have supported me through this. I know the posts have been long and windy, taking up valuable time. Bless you for it.

Zouaves were originally certain French light infantry regiments, which served in French North Africa. Not only did they have distinctive uniforms, but they had unusual battle tactics. While many armies advanced side by side, firing and then dropping back for the next line to step forward to fire while the line behind them reloads and swapping positions. Rinse and repeat. Zouaves would fire, then drop down to the ground out of the line of fire and advance on their stomachs, reload, jump up and fire. This was pretty radical thinking when the firing was so heavy in some battles men were literally shredded due to the amount of bullets and Minie balls hitting them.

The Federals fielded about seventy Zouave units while the Confederates had twenty-five. The 5th New York or Duryee’s Zouaves, Col. Elmore’s 11th New York Volunteer Infantry the Fire Zouaves, and the 14th Brooklyns, Lew Wallace’s (Yes, Lew Wallace of Ben Hur fame.) Zouaves were some of the better known northern units.

Col Elmore’s uniform.

Elmore’s Zouaves were among the first into Alexandria, VA when Virginia seceded. There had been a large rebel flag flying from a property there and he was determined to tear it down. The owner said it would come down over his dead body. Elmore ripped the flag down and the owner shot him, whereupon Elmore’s men killed him. Officer’s usually wore kepis and frock coats as opposed to the waist jackets and fezzes or turbans of the regular uniforms.

The Brierwood Pipe by Homer Winslow 1864 depicting two Zouaves from the 5th NY.  (Yes, Brierwood is how the painting is titled.)

The 5th New York suffered the highest percentage of casualties in the least amount of time of any Civil War unit. They lost 120 killed and 300 wounded in less than ten minutes out of 525 men at Second Manassas.

Louisiana Tigers.

From Louisiana came White’s Company B Tiger Rifles. Georges Augustus Gaston De Coppens, who was originally from France and settled in New Orleans with his family, raised the Coppens Zouaves.

Since most of these units were raised individually, they could determine their own uniforms. As funds and supplies ran low later, they might be replaced with standard issue, but the men took great pride in their unusual garb. The 14th Brooklyn received the nickname “Red-Legged Devils” from Stonewall Jackson when they continued to attack his men and Jackson yelled, “Hold On Boys! Here come those red-legged devils again!”

In the final post of the Blogging A-Z Challenge, we return to Lorena and Imogene who are with the Zouaves being searched for contraband. Imogene has sprained her ankle and was tended to by the Zouave doctor a Frenchman and volunteer. I knew I would use Zouaves in Rain Crow. The trick was to figure out which unit would be where to search them when they returned with the contraband. I really need one of those big battle maps to move people around on.


The doctor stood and bowed. “Mademoiselle, enchante’. Mademoiselle Boudreaux has a badly sprained ankle. I have massaged some oil and will wrap it for her. She must not walk on it when you return home. Get her some crutches if she must move about. I have shown her some exercises to do when the ankle she is better. We must have her dancing again. She has promised me a dance. Many of them. Do not wrap the ankle too tightly. Rest with it up, like this.” He kicked his heel up chest high. “It drains the humors.” He wagged a finger at her. “Remember the exercises and the massage. And the letters.”

“Letters?” I asked.

“I promised to write him and let him know how I’m doing.”

“Well, I’m not sure how you’re going to do that since our ink is being confiscated.”

The doctor looked scandaled. “Who is confiscating your ink?”

“Your captain seems to think it’s contraband.”

“Nonsense. Come. I will see about this.” He set about wrapping her ankle and straightened the fez on her head. “To remember me by.”

“But what about you?” Imogene protested. “Won’t you get in trouble for being out of uniform?”

“I have another. It looks better on you anyway.”

From her pupils, I guessed he’d also gifted her with some laudanum. She was feeling little pain. I followed the doctor who marched through the camp carrying his patient to where Jacob was reloading the trunks. The captain stood waiting for me, chewing on the end of his unlit cigar, eyes narrowed, leaned against the carriage with one hand on his hip. He touched the brim of his kepi to Imogene. “Ma’am. I hope your feeling better.”

She giggled.

Lawsy. How much laudanum did the doctor give her?

“Much better. Thank you, sir. Paul has lovely hands.”

The captain raised an eyebrow. “Does he now?”

“I massaged her foot with oil before I wrapped it!”

The captain took the cigar out of his mouth and spit out a bit of tobacco. “Well, if I ever sprain my ankle, just wrap the damned thing. Don’t be rubbing on it.” He nodded to the carriage. “I think you can set her down now.”

The doctor rather reluctantly unloaded his patient and explained to her again how to care for the ankle. Then he drew himself up to all 5′ 7″ I judged and addressed the captain. “I understand you are taking their ink?”

“I am.”

“Then you will find a new doctor. Au revoir.”

The captain’s eyes widened. “The hell you say.”

“The hell I say. I am not enlisted. I serve at my pleasure. My pleasure is not to serve someone who would steal ink from innocent teachers.”

The captain stabbed his cigar in my direction. “That woman is about the farthest thing from innocent you may ever see, Doctor.”

“Captain! I must protest! I have done nothing to you.”

“Madam, you have done nothing but rankle me from the moment your size three hit the dirt and now you have my doctor in mutiny. Take your damned ink and be gone with you.”

“Jacob, will you load the ink, please?”


I gave the doctor a polite kiss on the cheek and thanked him in French for saving our ink and treating Imogene.

He beamed. “It was my pleasure to serve, mademoiselle.”

“Captain, I’m sure you inspected the box on the seat in the carriage?”

He struck a match against the wheel and lit his cigar. “I did. It appears to be about a thousand cookies.”

“Six hundred, actually. Jacob, when you’re done with the ink would you get out the cookies?”


He handed me the box of cookies, which I presented to the good doctor. “My mother always loads us down with cookies for the girls. I’d like you to have these as thanks for rescuing my ink and treating Imogene so tenderly. You may distribute them as you see fit.” I cut my eyes to the captain.

“Oh, I could not take these!”

“Of course you can. The girls can bake for themselves and you have well earned them.”

“Then I shall pass them out to the men. They shall sing your praises.”

I smiled at the captain. “And shall you sing my praises?”

“I’ll sing something about you, madam, trust me. Tell me, are you married?”

“That’s quite personal, Captain. Are you asking?”

He growled.

“It’s Miss McKenzie.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised. Might I make a suggestion? Should you find a man so inclined to propose matrimony. When the preacher asks, ‘do you take this man?’ the proper response is, ‘Yes’. I know you’ll want to say, ‘I must protest!’, but the answer is, ‘yes’.”

“Captain, I . . . of course. I shall heed your advice.”

And in case you’re interested in the song Lorena.

Blogging A-Z Y Is For Yell


With a Rebel Yell by Mort Künstler

I highly recommend this artist’s work for quality and authenticity. He’s excellent.

Y is for yell. I wavered between a scene with a Yankee captain at a soiree and the yell, but I decide to go with the yell since most people don’t realize what an important part of the battle and mystique of war it was. Letters and diaries from Union soldiers talk about it, comparing it to sounding like demons from hell had been unleashed. One soldier says it so terrified them they stopped in their tracks during a charge, frozen with fear. Their officers broke the spell and urged them forward with ice in their hearts. A prisoner said he was glad to have been captured so he might never have to listen to that unholy scream again.

You might well imagine the effect of the war whoops of thousands of men bearing down on you with bayonets flashing in the sunlight. Bonus tidbit. Few actually died in bayonet fighting. Following one battle Stuart’s men gathered around two dead men who had bayonetted each other to death and were still standing, perfectly balanced against each other. It was an unusual enough event to be mentioned in more than one memoir.

I’ve listened to various recordings of older Confederates in later years. One, however, said it’s impossible for anyone to faithfully give a rebel yell with a full belly and false teeth. Another soldier said it was born of the fox hunting yip call most southern boys grew up with. Rich or poor, in the south, this was mostly an agrarian society. They were hunters.

It was first a yip, then a deep bark, and finally a high long yelp again. The three yelps did not tire out the marching or charging soldiers as the yells people thought might have been used. A prolonged yell burned the air out of the lungs and tired the soldiers. This yelping had the opposite effect.

Daughters of the Confederacy CD excerpt of the Rebel yell.

So, for your entertainment, the Rebel yell.


Blogging A-Z X Is For Xanthic

I like sprinkling “gems” of description through my writing. I don’t go into great detail about every person and every item, though I do offer more than many writers do. Instead of describing a round, yellow green apple of medium size, sometimes it’s more efficient to just say, “He bit into the Granny Smith apple and watched with great interest as a horse and rider seemed to fly out of the top of a tree.”

Sometimes, in an out of the ordinary location, a person might use more unique descriptions. In fantasy and science fiction, we get to build our worlds from the ground up where there may be no Granny Smith apples. We create new fruit.

Here, Erokath the demon lord who is currently inhabiting the body of a missing general’s son is dining with the MC who is his unwilling guest.

Erokath lolled in the dining chair, sliding his knife into an exotic aubergine fruit. The fruit bled red down the blade. He extended a slice, honey-like and yet tart smelling. I shook my head.


In this scene, Lorena has just been gathering her favored magnolia blossoms and daydreaming wistfully about Baron, her absent fiancé. God knows we can’t let peace reign very long in Rain Crow.


I returned from the garden with a basket of xanthic magnolia blossoms to find George and Jackson dragging Papa’s steamer trunk down the stairway to the great hall. Thunk Thunk Thunk

In astonished silence I watched, wondering who or what was going to come tumbling down the steps first. It was the trunk. George lost his footing and plopped down, tearing Jackson’s grip loose. The trunk came careening down the marble stairs like a green leather sleigh hurtling down a steep snowy hill. It slid across the floor, until the crumpling Persian rug finally proved too much.

“What on earth are you men doing?” I should have known better than to ask. The jade empress stood near her pile of luggage overseeing the operation.

“Miz Mac– er Dobbs, wanted us to pack up your daddy’s suits,” George said, hobbling down the stairs and rubbing his butt. Maisy and Liza followed him, loaded with more suits.

“Well, you can just pack them all right back up to his room. They’re not leaving this house.”

“Now you see here, Lorena,” Mother said in her best little-lady-you better-listen-up voice. She pointed to the girls who had started back up the stairs. “You bring those suits right back down here.”

I spun to face them. “You better not! I’m the mistress of Rosemount now.” It was bad enough Mother had divorced Papa, though he was probably grateful, but what irked me even more was her changing back to her maiden name. If she didn’t even want Papa’s name, she didn’t need his blamed suits.

“Stop being such an ungrateful, miserly whelp,” Mother snapped. “These suits can go to the Lady’s Aid there where they will help some poor, destitute man.”

There was the guilt, but I was mostly immune after twenty-two years of it. “No.”

“Oh, dear heavens. Someone help me to the parlor.” She whipped out her filigreed fan and waved it about as if directing an orchestra. Everyone looked at each other, unsure what to do, until George stepped forward to hold her arm.

Father in heaven, Mother. Please don’t faint on that frail old man. You’ll break something.

Not that I cared if she broke something in one of her scenes, but I did care about George. Once settled on the fainting couch, she drew in a heavy breath, as if it might be her last. I should be so lucky.

“Dear Lord,” she began dramatically, “forgive me for bringing this selfish child into the world. This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein. John 12:6.”

“Mother, you only want Papa’s suits so everyone will swoon over how generous you are to donate Beason and Switzers to the poor. He earned those suits in Virginia and here they shall stay.”

“He coveteth greedily all the day long: but the righteous giveth and spareth not. Proverbs 21:26.”

“And Baltimore, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Baltimorian’s excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. Isaiah 13:19.”

“That’s Babylon not Baltimore, Lorena. Stop being a heathen.”

“I’m sorry. I always get them confused.”

Blogging A-Z W Is For Wiretap

George Ellsworth


Gen. John Hunt Morgan

Mention wiretapping and everyone automatically thinks of FBI, NSA, smarmy illegal eavesdropping by unethical private investigators and various other modern scenarios, but it actually began long before. Some people elevated it to an art form during the Civil War. George Ellsworth was one of those men.

Ellsworth was Canadian by birth had enlisted for a second time with 2nd Kentucky Cavalry, Company A on June 1, 1862, so we assume he was in from the beginning of the war. He joined up with John Hunt Morgan’s cavalry in Mobile, Alabama. He was with Hunt on the raid that started in early July where they covered 1,000 miles in less than a month, captured and paroled 1,200 prisoners, and only lost 100 of his 800 men.

This success was largely due to Ellsworth’s wiretapping. He’d tap into telegraph wires or take over captured telegraph offices and send outlandish messages to various Union stations, keeping the Federals in complete confusion.

While stopped near Cave City, KY, Ellsworth cut into the lines so skillfully the operator didn’t realize it even though he was in the middle of transmitting. Ellsworth intercepted a message instructing Union Generals to pursue Rebel invaders. General Boyle imprudently mentioned force numbers and where the other generals were and where they were going in the message without the benefit of cipher.

Ellsworth responded to the operator so he thought the transmissions were going through when in fact nothing past Horse Cave, where he was camped got out. A thunderstorm broke out while he was passing and receiving messages. A suspicious operator who didn’t recognize his style asked who he was and if he was all right. He responded, “O.K. Lightning,” knowing that lightning, would cause differences in transmissions. He sat the rest of the night, water up to his knees with his machine on his little table, electricity flashing from his finger as he sent out all manner of messages to civilians and Federals alike as well as intercepting the military orders.

The name stuck. He was known as “Old Lightning” or “Captain Lightning” the rest of his days.

On July 21, they took over the Somerset, KY telegraph office. By this time, the entire Union army in that area was hunting Morgan’s men. Ellsworth meant to capture the operator to learn his style, but having been capture once by the Confederates, he scrambled like a rabbit out the back window and went over a fence.

The operator at Lexington suggested they sign their messages with a 7 to know for sure they were authentic and that damned Ellsworth wasn’t intercepting. Ellsworth agreed. He said he was going to take a nap, but was strictly forbidden while they were trying to locate Morgan they were sure was heading to the supply depot in Somerset. He was already there, of course, but now they were wondering since they had assumed he would have already arrived.

Finally, at 2:00 a.m. Lexington let Ellsworth take a nap and shut down the line.

Later that day, Morgan had Ellsworth send his last message to a Louisville newspaper editor who had been less than flattering to Morgan. “Destroyed $1,000,000 worth of Government Stores. Now off for Dixie.”

The Louisville operator asked what he meant. Ellsworth told him to wait for the end of the message and sent the signature John Hunt Morgan. The operator asked who he was. Ellsworth gave his real name and added the next time they came to let him off earlier and not keep him up until 2 o’clock looking for Morgan.

The operator responded, “ha ha ha.”

Ellsworth wasn’t the only wiretapper with great skill, although he may have been the best known and most widely hated in the north. Tappers abounded on both sides and Ellsworth even captured a few Union operators tapped into his lines.

Blogging A-Z V Is For Vivandiere

cw vivandierre questionable


Vivandiere’s were first used by the French. They were women who followed the armies, as sutlers or canteen keepers. In the American Civil War, they assumed nursing duties mainly, often tending wounded on the battlegrounds even during the battles. Sometimes, just taking water to wounded was enough to save a life.

Several of these women followed their units throughout the war and were wounded as well as their soldiers. They adopted uniforms similar to their units. These were remarkably courageous women who undoubtedly helped to save the lives of a great many men.

The following scene follows the first battle of Manassas or Bull Run.

If spirits had been high before, they should have soared now, but Stuart’s men were too numb to feel much. They had chased the Federals until dark and exhaustion overtook them. Death was hot, dirty, thirsty business. They pushed their staggering mounts back to Bull Run Creek to water. Wounded Federals and Confederates had the same idea. They had walked and crawled to the creek. Some collapsed along the way, too weak to go on and cried out for help. Friend or foe, there was nothing they could do to help the poor devils.

Dark mounds inched along in the moonlight, still making their way. They were close. Maybe they’d make it.

Water. Thank you, Lord Jesus.

Baron rode closer. London sat on his horse, several yards from the creek, still as a statue. Baron understood why when he neared him. They couldn’t even acknowledge each other in the horror of the scene. Bodies lined the banks. Wounded men had dragged themselves with their last bit of fortitude to the water and then were too exhausted to lift their heads. They lay there, heads submerged in the water they thought would save them. Dozens drowned for lack of a few more ounces of strength.

Bodies floated in the creek. Even in the moonlight, Baron could see the water ran red with blood. Baron forced Byron forward to water him, but the horse refused to drink. Baron slid down heavily, like a sack of potatoes, with no grace left in his bones, and scooped water in his hands, wetting the horse’s muzzle. He cupped the bloody water in his hand again and brought it back to Byron. The horse tried to turn his head, but Baron pressed his hand up. Byron licked at the dripping water. After three attempts, Byron reluctantly drank from the sanguine creek.

It was Baron’s turn. His tongue was so dry there was nothing to moisten his cracked lips. He knelt to drink, but refused to foul his canteen with the polluted water. At last he remounted and rocked to settle the saddle. Byron turned, anxious to be away from the creek. Baron was also. He noticed shadows moving amongst the wounded and hoped it was soldiers removing them to nearby hospitals and not ghouls robbing the helpless. Or worse. What could be worse? The goddess Hela reigned this day, but perhaps Lord Byron’s creatures also walked the night. He dragged his sleeve across his mouth, trying to get rid of the taste of blood, then whispered an almost forgotten verse.

“There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life,
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corse.”

Baron shuddered and touched heels to the horse who managed to lurch into a trot. Some distance down the road a hooded rider approached. The cloak fluttered about it wraith-like, for he couldn’t tell if it were male or female or even human. The horse was dark, black by all appearances, with great feathered legs and trotted steadily toward him. Baron sucked in the night air and breathed out a quick prayer.

The rider stopped.

“Excuse me.” The voice was high, Bostonian, exhausted, and female. “I need water for the wounded. A stream is nearby?”

“You’re a long way from home, ma’am. Yes, it’s ahead, but you should go upstream. It’s . . . tainted.”

She drew herself up straighter. “I’m a vivandiere. I became separated from my unit in the confusion and decided to stay to help the wounded.”

Baron pulled out a cigar and lit it, studying her face briefly in the golden glow. She was too young to be out here alone. Hell, no woman, not even a nurse, had any business being here. “You’ve got more starch than most of your Federals.”

“I go where I’m needed.”

“Well, you’re needed here. Let me lead you up the creek.”

Blogging From A-Z U Is For Uncle


It will come as a surprise to many that older blacks, slave or free, were referred to as “Auntie” or “Uncle” by many people whether they knew them or not. I had read this before, but wasn’t really sure about the truth of the matter until I started reading diaries and letters. In Sarah Morgan’s diary, she mentions several times how they had seen and elderly black man somewhere and would call out, “Uncle!”

It goes beyond that, however. Even today a person might hear someone in the south refer to someone as “Aunt” or “Uncle” who isn’t related to them. The theory is children were taught to address someone close to the family by the term who is close enough they might not call them “Mrs.” or “Mr.”

So, the word of the day is “uncle”.

Forgive me for going so long here, but I thought it needed a bit of setting up. On the plus side, we’re nearing the end and y’all are about done with these rambling posts. As always, Rain Crow is rough draft, so bear with me.

Baron and his men waited and watched off the road in a copse of trees. Stuart would be along shortly if all went well and his guardian angel had flown fast enough to keep up with him. Shorthorn cows across the road grazed peacefully. On a small hummock a lone cow stood watch over a nursery of napping babies while the other mamas ranged away eagerly nipping at the tender growth. It was a scene suitable for a bucolic Constable painting.

“I’d like to have a coat out of that big roan cow,” Billings said, sizing up the herd.

London’s saddle squeaked when he leaned forward. “You take the coat, I’d settle for a nice beefsteak.”

“Maybe the owner will sell us a fat yearling when we’re done,” Baron replied. “I could use something hot in my belly for a change.”

“If the colonel doesn’t have some wild plan up his sleeve again.” London dismounted and walked over to a birch to relieve himself. “How long we supposed to wait here?”

Baron swept the horizon with his looking glass. There was no trace of dust in the air betraying a large group of riders coming. There was, however, a solitary figure topping the hill down the road. He watched with interest as it drew closer, then turned Byron deeper into the shelter of trees. “Until we see something or he catches up with us. Someone coming, back up.”

They sat under the cover of trees, watching the figure plodding steadily toward them. It was an old negro man ambling along as if he had not a care in the world or was too tired to care. A hush fell over the men who held their breath, hoping he wouldn’t notice them. Aged as he was, judging from his nearly white hair, his eyes didn’t suffer and he turned off the road to approach them.  His spindly legs made him look like a daddy long legs spider in a ragged frock coat. On he came.

“Kill him,” London whispered. “He’ll betray us.”

There was mumbled agreement. Baron knew they were right. There was a chance he’d tell any Yankees in the area about them if they let him go and they couldn’t afford any mistakes. “No, let’s see what he wants. I’m not killing an old man for no reason.”

“Saving our necks seems like a good enough reason to me, Cap’n.” London was firm in his distrust.

Baron rode out into the sunshine to meet him. His men would melt away while he distracted the intruder. “Hello, Uncle,” Baron dismounted so the old fellow didn’t have to look up at him.

“Mornin’, Marse. Don’t suppose you one of Jeb Stuart’s boys?”

“Just out riding.”

“Yassuh. Mule colicked and we got the boy slogging him through the mud trying to save the beast. Baby colicked, and I got the piles. Been on the road a bit goin’ to fetch the Andersons. Not that they care about my piles, but we need help with the colic.” He reached around to scratch at his backside as if reminded of his discomfort. “Used to be a little crick runnin’ through these trees. Thought I’d get a drink, but didn’t bring no food and gettin’ kind of hungry. Don’t suppose you have any to spare. I got a couple of coppers on me.”

Baron ran his fingers through Byron’s mane. “No need to pay. Don’t have much on me I’m afraid, but I can share some stale cornbread and dried beef. I think I might have a few dried apples left.”

“I’d appreciate it, suh.” He looked over his shoulder. “Might take care going over yonder hill if you don’t want a bunch of lead in your britches. Yankees got a dry camp ‘tother side waitin’ for Jeb.”

Baron stopped tracing his fingers through the mane. “Really? That’s good to know. Thank you, Uncle.” Baron divvied up what he had from his saddle bags and handed it to the old man who stuffed part in his pockets and bit off a strip of beef. Baron handed him his canteen and watched him drink greedily. “Try some cider vinegar on those piles when you get home. Take care of yourself.”

The old man handed back the canteen and touched the brim of his hat, then winked a yellowed eye at him. “You, too, suh. Send them bluebirds packing back north where they belong.” With that he strolled back toward the road, waving a farewell.

Blogging A-Z T Is For Toads and Frogs

We’re almost through the month. That’s good and bad. We’ve almost burned through another month of our lives! What do we have to show for it? Something good I hope.



The schoolhouse was packed. I feared there wouldn’t be enough seating even though we’d hauled out all the desks and crammed every chair and bench we could fit and still leave space along the wall and down the aisle. Children lined the walls like dark, fidgeting pickets. Mrs. Sullivan’s crew stood in succeeding shades of black where the dye had diluted the further she got into the wardrobes down to little Emma in a sweet charcoal gray dress.

I was still irked Pastor Jessop refused to allow us to use the church seeing as Mr. Stossel had committed suicide and he was still irked at me for quoting the scripture about fools to him.

Mr. Stossel would have liked the send off here better anyway, I think. Even with all the windows open, it was stifling hot with all the bodies, though. The girls at the boarding school arranged several bright and fragrant bouquets over the casket, which helped cover the mounting odor of sweating bodies and one deceased schoolmaster who was bound to be getting a bit ripe.

Mr. Walker, a lay preacher and the father of two of Mr. Stossel’s students, agreed to do the service. I felt no shame in not buying a casket from town as the one resting on the desk was as nice as anything in any storefront. The woodwork was beautiful and he’d even carved an eagle into the side, saying Mr. Stossel was passing fond of the birds. The brass handles set off the black lacquer paint admirably.

To my relief he did not dwell of fire and brimstone and the evils of self murder, but rather told stories about Mr. Stossel and the children and how Jesus had called the children to him also.  We found ourselves laughing through our tears at some of the stories. And not for the first time I realized how very remarkable the man had been and how much he would be missed. Where would I ever find another like him?

Though we knew nothing of him before, Mr. Walker made it sound like he had lived a very full life and we celebrated as well as mourned him. He drew his remarks to an end with a short prayer and we sang Just As I Am and Amazing Grace.

I was thankful for such a lovely service, but it would be good to get a breath of fresh air also. Men mopped their foreheads with handkerchiefs and women fanned and panted in the heat and their stays.

Abigail leaned over and whispered, “Might I look upon his fair face one more time and get a lock of his hair?”

I was inclined to decline her request for various reasons, but she was insistent. I had placed a volume of Shakespeare Mr. Stossel particularly enjoyed with him and invited the children to also add some small treasure. To my dismay, most of them treasured books and his casket soon filled with arithmetic and spelling primers. I tried to convince them maybe a favorite rock or flower, but enough books remained I worried we wouldn’t be able to close the lid. We would be hearing about missing books soon, but I was loathe to steal from the dead.

“Of course, Abigail.”

Mr. Walker unlocked the casket with a small brass key, then lifted the upper half. The Pennsylvania hex sign Mr. Stossel kept on his door was still wedged inside the casket lid where I had placed it. Abigail’s breath sucked in sharply behind me.

“Are you all right, Abigail?”

“Yes, I’m just overcome with emotion.”

Something green, about the size of a man’s fist slowly rose up above the edge of the casket. Then two great, golden, unblinking eyes peered at me from the casket. Mixed astonishment and horror swept over me, rendering me immobile. I couldn’t have moved if I’d been set on fire.  Then, the eyes blinked, breaking the spell. It was the biggest bullfrog around these parts, Billy Tidwell’s prize jumping frog, General Lee.

Without thinking, I blurted out, “General Lee! What are you doing in that casket?”

The frog croaked and jumped, knocking the hex sign loose and sending it rolling toward Abigail who screamed and fled like a wraith in her cloud of black crepe.

“Oh, dear God! General Lee is dead?” Mrs. Beckham jumped to her feet and raised her arm heavenward. “No, Lord. Not the General. Take me! Take me!” She then collapsed in a puddle of black silk and I wondered if indeed the Lord had taken her.


As you all may have guessed by now, I’m kind of meticulous about research. In one scene, I have a butterfly everyone is convinced is the spirit of a boy who drowned. Maybe it is. I decided to make sure what kind of butterflies would be around the Shenandoah Valley in April. That gave me some ideas of description and what I might use for the boy’s mother later. Long story.

Later I have Lorena traveling by carriage, but some heavy rains washed out three bridges over a river she would have crossed. Obviously, that’s going to affect her travel plans and the days she’s traveling due to the floods.

In this scene, the beloved school master was found hanging in the stables in an apparent suicide. The minister refused to allow the service in the church since it was self murder, so Lorena holds the funeral in the schoolhouse and the plantation carpenter, who is also a lay minister, conducts the service. Involved in the service is either a jumping toad or frog, but it had to be about the size of a man’s fist. As always, this is rough draft as Rain Crow is barely being birthed.

So, that sent me off on another round of research and I found two specimens who would fit the bill. I would have preferred a toad, but none were big enough, so I had to go with the bullfrog.

Blogging A-Z S Is For Stringfellow


Frank Stringfellow



Stringfellow headstone, which has a pointed top as many Confederate stones do so Union sympathizers can’t sit on it.

The television show Mercy Street has introduced a character Frank Stringfellow. I had high hopes for the show and in a lot of ways I enjoy it because they get a lot of things right. The amputation scene for instance, was probably about right. Until the war, doctors  would have little chance to perform an amputation and almost none in medical school.

Frank Stringfellow, however, they have messed up and more’s the pity because this is a fascinating man. Barely five feet tall, 94 pounds soaking wet, with curly dark blond hair and an almost feminine appearance, he looked like anything but a soldier let alone a master spy. Yet, by the end of the war he was the one of the most wanted men in the North with a $10,000 price tag on his head and a shoot on sight order.

He was turned down by the Little Fork Rangers, Madison County Troop, Goochland County Dragoons, and the Prince William County Troop. That’s when he decided to take matters into his own hands and scouted out a Confederate camp bristling with guards and pickets. He captured three of the pickets and marched them at gunpoint to the Colonel and asked if he now thought he was good enough to join the army. The colonel thought he might be and put him to work as a scout.

Shortly thereafter, Col. Jeb Stuart told Lee he needed another scout and Lee reassigned Stringfellow to Stuart. It was a match made in heaven. Almost literally. Stuart had a penchant for acquiring spies who either were preachers or would become preachers as Stringfellow did later in life. One of Stuart’s bloody parsons said he didn’t know how many souls he saved during the war, but he did send a fair few on their way. He refused to stay in camp and always rode at Stuart’s side.

Stringfellow was a master of disguise and, with his diminutive size, could easily pass for a woman. He had an extremely light beard and with hair pieces his lady friends helped him with, he could dazzle the Union officers at the balls, and did. In one episode they captured a young captain who was on his way with a pass for a young lady to attend a soiree. Stringfellow used the pass to pose as the young lady to go to the dance. Unfortunately, a friend of the missing captain sounded the alarm, but Stringfellow escaped with usual daring and was back to camp with information.

Mercy Street shows him working in collusion with his fiancé Emma Green, but in fact when he was in Alexandria, he never contacted for her safety and his. Once when he was undercover working as a dental assistant, she brought her grandfather in and blurted out his name. He had to disavow her and say she was mistaken. She was quick enough to realize he was undercover and agreed she was mistaken. He had been slipping into Alexandria for two years at the time.

Unlike Stuarts other parsons, Stringfellow hated hurting people and avoided killing anyone if at all possible. He remarked in later letters he even regretted having to knock out pickets to sneak into camps.

During the Wilderness Campaign, Stringfellow wormed his way into Grant’s camp. He was close enough to Grant to hear his talking to his staff officers and could see his silhouette through the tent. The war might have taken a very different turn right there, but he couldn’t bring himself to shoot a man in the back.

Stringfellow survived the war and eventually married Emma, though he had to flee to Canada for some time before he could safely do so. Years later one of his men met Stringfellow’s beautiful eighteen-year-old daughter and said, “It was like looking into the face of my young captain all those years ago.”

It just goes to show, sometimes good things do come in small packages.