A funny thing happened when I was browsing through “The West, An Illustrated History,” a new book I recently purchased from Barnes and Noble’s bargain shelf (this department is very dangerous for me). I was looking for some unique slice of western history I could blog about when I wandered upon General Henry Sibley and Col. Edward Canby.
I stopped and read with avid interest. These two gentlemen, after all, are responsible for my writing career.
Yep. Single handedly they turned me from a public relations practioner into a writer.
I had built a small public relations company after years as a journalist. I specialized in real estate and politics. A strange combination, you might think, unless you realize that many developers and Realtors have zoning issues at stake, and there’s a symbiotic relationship between local and state politicians and real estate interests.
And then I read a copy of “Military History,” a monthly magazine. I love history. I majored in journalism and minored in American History in college, and my particular interest had been the American Revolution and the Civil War, interests that continued through the years. I’d read all the Bruce Catton books among many others on the “war of brothers.” One reason I picked up this particular issue of “Military History” was the featured article on the Battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico.
General Sibley, a Louisianan who was known to fight almost as hard as he drank – one soldier called him a walking keg of whiskey — was selected to fulfil the Confederate dream to stretch its new republic far beyond Texas, north to the Colorado goldfields and all the way west to California. He was tasked to lead 3,700 Texans to Santa Fe, take the Colorado gold fields (desperately needed by the cash-poor south) and then to California.
Ordered to stop him was Lt. Col. Edward Canby who had some 4,000 poorly trained Union volunteers. What interested me most, though, was not the battle but the relationship between the two men. The magazine article said they’d been roommates at West Point and that Sibley married Canby’s sister. But in “The West,” the author, Geoffrey Ward, said yes, they had been roommates, but that Canby had been Sibley’s “best man,” and had married Sibley’s wife’s first cousin. I’ve read other accounts that claimed similar but slightly different marital relationships.
Bells went off in my head. Loud bells. Persistent bells. I knew, of course, that many friends, roommates, even relatives had met on opposing sides of a battlefield. That sad fact was probably the source of my fascination with both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Friends fighting friends and brothers fighting brothers for the sake of principles. There is no stronger conflict, both internal and external.
This was a powerful example of those conflicts and suddenly my mind started building scenarios. I must add here that I’d never read a paperback romance. I had loved Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt and Frank Yerby and Frank Slaughter. I had particularly enjoyed Elswyth Thane’s Williamsburg series (particularly “Yankee Stranger”) but I had never been exposed to “romances.” I didn’t even know they existed.
All I knew is I had to write this story. Although people had previously suggested I write a book, I’d always scoffed at the idea. I was a journalist. I knew “who, what, when, where and why.” Adjectives and adverbs had been trained out of me. But still . . .the idea wouldn’t go away.
My tale was on a much smaller scale than a great battle of thousands. My hero – a Yankee major – was sent to take command of a Union force detailed to stop a Rebel band intent on capturing a Colorado gold field. The two – the Yankee and the Confederate – had been roommates and best friends at West Point. My heroine is the sister of the rebel commander. Having lost everyone else dear to her, she insisted on being with him and served as a nurse to his men. And so I had several conflicts. More than several. Between the two men, between the Yankee and my heroine, and her with her brother.
I wrote early in the morning and late at night, obsessed with the story and its conflicts.. I didn’t write for publication. I just wrote for me. I never even thought of sending it to a publisher. And like many new writers of fiction, I had great doubts about showing it to anyone. There was too much of me in that book. I would be revealing parts that I didn’t particularly want to share.
But then I read about a “How to get published” course at Emory University and on a whim I decided to go. Nothing to lose, right? One of the speakers was from Georgia Romance Writers, and all of a sudden I realized I was writing a romance. I joined the group, the manuscript won second place in a contest, and I started sending it out to publishers. I received really nice rejection letters, most of which said they were not buying civil war romances but would like to read something else. I immediately started writing a Revolutionary War book, completely unaware that it was as unwanted as the Civil War.
To make a long story short, the Revolutionary War book, “Swampfire,” sold, then the Civil War story, “Between the Thunder,” was pursued by two editors. I learned then never say never. Write what you have to write.
All those feelings came rushing back when I read again the story of Glorieta Pass: the feverish writing, the pain of rejection letters, the joy of a sale.
But back to the battle. The Union forces defeated the rebels, and General Sibley headed back to Texas with what was left of his forces. Col. Canby followed at a distance but did not attack again. He was later accused by some in the War Department of not attacking the remaining southern forces because of the relationship with Sibley.
My interest in the war continues in many of my westerns. The end of the Civil War sent hundreds of thousands former soldiers west. The rebels went because there was little left of their homes. The northerners went because they had been exposed to life outside of factories and small farms. Opportunity beckoned, especially with ever new discoveries of gold and silver. But they all took emotional as well as physical scars with them and that, of course, make for great heroes.
So thank you, General Sibley and Col. Canby. I owe you both much.