There’s Facts, Or Maybe Not



I recently read an article about saving the Civil War Battlefield at Glorietta Pass in New Mexico. It rang a very familiar bell.

It was that battle that started my career as a romance writer. And nearly everything that sparked that first “what if” in me turned out to be untrue, but I didn’t  realize that until years later.

And what is Glorietta Pass, you might ask.

I learned about it more than twenty years ago when I was reading one of the many military history magazines. I can’t name which one now, but I usually found little tidbits that illuminated history in some way. I had majored in journalism and minored in American history, and had I not gone into newspapering, I would have taught history. My interest in history, especially American history, has never dimmed.

One reason is my favorite history professor at the University of Alabama. His name was Dr. Pancake (how can you not love a professor named Pancake?) and he used real and compelling personal stories to get across his points. Novels can never really compete with historical fact. Few novelists can write more compelling people – good and bad – than those who actually made our history.

When I read the magazine article on Glorietta Pass, I found a story that churned my imagination and inspired me to write my first novel, based very, very loosely on that particular page of the Civil War.

The basic facts: General Henry Sibley, a graduate of West Point, resigned his commission at the onset of the Civil war and was commissioned as a Confederate officer. He was sent to Texas to put together a brigade (approximately 2,500 men) to go into New Mexico. The immediate objective was to take Fort Craig, the territory’s capital at Santa Fe. The greater objective was to capture Union rifles and supplies, march to Colorado and take the gold fields, then move on to California.

The opposing forces were commanded by a Colonel Edward Canby. In February of 1862, Sibley neared Fort Craig which was commanded by Canby. The colonel, unsure how many men the Confederates force included, employed several ruses, including the use of wooden “Quaker guns,” to make the fort look stronger. 

To make a long story short, the ruse worked and the Confederates didn’t try to take the fort. Instead they forced the Union forces to attack by cutting off the Union communications. The battle took place at Valverde and Glorietta Pass. Although the Union forces lost the battle and retreated, Canby was able to destroy the Confederate supply lines which had been inadequate from the beginning of the venture. Although Sibley won one battle, he lost the greater one. Short on supplies, he had to withdraw back to Texas with the Union forces nipping at his tail.

Even some of these details are open to debate, depending on the perspective. What was important, however, the battle ended any hope of the Confederacy to move farther west..

Okay, those are some of the mostly accepted facts.

What caught my interest, however, was the relationship between Sibley and Canby. According to the article, they were West Pointers together. The article said Canby was one year behind Sibley and had married Sibley’s sister. The article further said that Canby had been reprimanded and charged by some to have let Sibley escape because of the close relationship.

Those latter details are what inspired my first book. “Between the Thunder.”

In the book, my hero is a Union officer sent to stop Confederate forces from taking Colorado’s gold fields. The Confederate leader was his West Point roommate, and the heroine the Confederate officer’s younger sister who was riding with him. (Yes, there was a good reason).  I particularly liked it because it offered a three way conflict rather than only that between the hero and heroine.

But then several years after writing the book, I found another account of the relationship or non-relationship between Sibley and Canby. This time they were roommates, and Canby had married Sibley’s distant cousin. A third account said yes, they were at West Point together, but there was no sister or cousin or any other formal relationship. By then, my head was spinning. Despite exhaustive attempts, I couldn’t find any more definitive information on the supposed relationship. I finally, reluctantly, sadly decided it never existed.

“Between the Thunder” will always be one of my favorite books. I loved my characters, and I’ve just gotta thank the writer of that first article who apparently got a lot of things wrong but who is responsible for one writer’s career. I probably wouldn’t started writing if the story hadn’t haunted me.

I didn’t use any of the actual facts of the battle, only the inspiration, the “what if” writers talk about, so I didn’t have to worry about misleading anyone. But I did have an author’s note about it. It definitely taught me to try to get at least three sources for anything I use as fact in my novels, and even then I often find accounts contradictory. How many versions are there of the gunfight at the OK Corral? Or the Jesse James legend?

So what is a writer to do? Have any of my fellow writers encountered the same problem with facts which turn out, after all, not to be facts?

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5 thoughts on “There’s Facts, Or Maybe Not”

  1. Fascinating story, Patricia. The name Sibley rings a bell somehow. Did he have anything to do with later Indian wars (maybe not, my brain has a lot of loose ends).
    “Between the Thunder” (great title) sounds like a wonderful story. And of course it doesn’t matter to your novel if the initial facts weren’t true. I don’t recall having the kind of experience you describe but a couple of times I’ve made up things for the background of a novel and found out later they were actually real. Go figure.

  2. Pat, what a cool story about the serendipitousness of the inspiration! Regardless of the ‘truth’, that bit of historical detail set you on the road to a truly wonderful writing career for which your fans will be forever grateful.

  3. Hello Pat, wonderful blog. As I see it, there is always poetic license in fiction LOL. that’s why it’s called fiction, and in most cases, like yours and your long storied career, facts have inspired it.

  4. After the battle, Sibley was blamed for the failure of the expedition. After the war ended, he fought in India. He became an alcoholic and died penniless. Canby, however, did go on to make a name while fighting Indians. I’ve always been fascinated with the western theater of the war.

  5. Take inspiration where you can get it. The “what ifs” work whether triggered by facts or a misrepresentation of the facts. Who cares, as long as a good story comes of it. I want accuracy in the historical fiction I read, so don’t want major events, facts, and dates messed up, However, you are writing fiction not history books so you have a lot of leeway.

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