A 2013 book research trip to Richmond, Virginia led me and my trusty co-travelers to the Museum of the Confederacy (which has since come under the umbrella organization The American Civil War Museum). The Museum is located beside the Confederate White House where Jefferson Davis served as President of the Confederate States of America from 1861 to 1865.
Among the many interesting artifacts housed in the museum, one particularly caught my eye. It was a soldier’s well-worn copy of Volume One of Victor Hugo‘s novel “Les Miserables,” which was published in 1862.
It occurred to me, as I was writing my great-great-grandmother’s story, that because her family was known to own the largest private library in the community, they likely read books by then-contemporary authors like Hugo, Dickens and Melville. And it also made sense to me that they may have lent books to the Union soldiers who fought in early western Virginia Civil War battles, especially those who comprised the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, many of whom were college students from Oberlin who signed up to fight for the Union after the attack on Fort Sumter.
Fact vs. Fiction
Writing historical fiction is tricky because on the one hand, one may take liberties with the facts and pad plot lines in spots where actual events are unrecorded and therefore unknown. However, I believe it’s important to get cultural references right. I can’t have the folks on Panther Mountain reading a book before it was actually published.
And so, as I was writing certain chapters that took place as early as 1850, I could not in good conscience place a copy of “Les Mis” in their house 12 years before it was released. My research then led me to Hugo’s poetry, some of which had been published before the novel was released. And so, in Chapter Five, I slipped in “an ocean story” for Caroline to read to her nephew Andy. It is Hugo’s “The Ocean’s Song.”
We walked amongst the ruins famed in story
And saw the boundless waters stretch in glory
And heave in power
The lush imagery in “The Ocean’s Song” was perfect for the plot I was building because of its references to slavery, one of the book’s central themes.
The world’s enslaved and hunted down by beagles,
To despots sold
Souls of deep thinkers, soar like mighty eagles!
The Right uphold.
The name on the book’s cover
An aside about that museum copy of “Les Miserables”: the name, R.B. Haxall, is written on the cover. Online research led me to find out that he was a member of a prominent, wealthy Richmond-area family who received a pardon from President Andrew Johnson after swearing an oath of loyalty to the U.S. Constitution after his service in the Confederate military.
Haxall is also, interestingly enough, listed as a bondsman who signed the bail bond for imprisoned CSA President Jefferson Davis on May 13, 1867. Among the others who signed the the bond were shipping and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, New York Tribune Editor Horace Greeley, and Gerrit Smith, the radical abolitionist who helped to fund John Brown in 1859. Davis was released and his indictments for treason were dismissed.