Or rather, how to write a historically accurate Civil War battle scene as a retired teacher in the 21st century. One of the most difficult sections to write about in my book was how to get my central character, Truman Haden, in and out of one of the most horrific battles in the Civil War. I wanted to ensure that the scene was realistic and engaging, but also true to the character’s abilities and the story. Truman was an older conscript, a lawyer, not used to strenuous physical activity. A solitary man, he had spent his lifetime relying on no one. He had little understanding of weaponry, tactics and combat. How was he going to survive a battle? What was he going to feel like as he watched the enemy move towards him, his feet pressed against the earthworks with an impenetrable wilderness behind him?
How in the world was I going to make him feel and act in an authentic manner? Even more, how was I going to allow the battle experience to change him?
It was not going to be easy. I love history and I’ve read many books about battles, studied each of their tactics and tactical maneuvers, studied terrain on maps, talked with historians and people who have actually experienced wartime events. I’ve visited many battlefields. It helps to envision the moment of battle by standing in the same space where it occurred, your eyes absorbing everything around you. Four weeks ago I stood on Omaha beach in Normandy and wondered how anyone could survive breaching those cliffs under intense fire of Nazi machine guns? How does anyone survive any battle?
Did any of my background knowledge help me to write about my character in the Battle of the Wilderness? Some of it did, of course, but much of it was vicarious, meager substitutes to understand what really happened near that dark, dank thicket. I will never fully understand the experience of what it feels like to fight for my own life and to kill an enemy if necessary. Battles are people with emotions, incommensurable emotions.
I had to write the scene with his personality in mind. I just know he would be terrified and exhausted. He would not let down the people fighting near him. He would try to survive under all brutal conditions. He would learn to trust younger, seasoned veterans. He would decide he wanted to live. The experience would change him after all.