Historical Figures Great and Small

A great challenge and joy of writing historical fiction is learning about historical figures, both great and small, and working them into my novels. Sometimes I only know them as names on a centuries-old roster, but those names represent real people who once participated in monumental events.

Gideon Hawke is a fictional character. His name, description, and character traits are all products of my imagination. Ruth Munroe is a fictional character, but her surname has roots in Lexington, Massachusetts. By contrast, Andrew Johnston was a real person. I know absolutely nothing about the real Andrew Johnston…aside from the fact that he was one of the original members of Thompson’s Rifle Battalion/the 1st Continental Regiment, he was promoted to sergeant , and [SPOILER ALERT…READERS MAY WANT TO AVERT THEIR EYES] eventually he became an officer, reaching the rank of First Lieutenant on May 12th, 1779. Everything else about him, from the image in my mind to the description on my “character chart,” is fiction, roughly based on my limited knowledge of Johnston’s life and times. Fictional Andrew Johnston is one of my favorite characters; real Andrew Johnston was one of the “winter soldiers” who stayed with Washington during the bad times; through his stubbornness and determination he helped keep the dream alive.

I have recently enjoyed getting to know a few other real characters, all of whom appear in Gideon Hawke #4: A Constant Thunder.

  • Lieutenant Colonel Richard Butler. Butler grew up in his father’s Pennsylvania gunsmith business, and prior to the war was very active in trading with Native American tribes. He was held in high esteem by, and spoke the languages of, several nations, so in the early years of the war he played a key role in keeping some tribes from going over to the British side. He was later commissioned in the Continental Army. A physically strong, hot-tempered man, and pre-war friend of Colonel Daniel Morgan, he served as Morgan’s second-in-command in the Rifle Corps during the Saratoga Campaign. He will play an increasingly large role in Gideon’s life.
  • Captain James Parr. Parr was another original member of Thompson’s Rifle Battalion. When Morgan formed his rifle corps, Parr joined it, commanding the company drawn from the 1st Continental/1st Pennsylvania Regiment. I know very little about Parr aside from his service record. One thing I do know is the tantalizing fact that in the summer of 1777, in small-scale skirmishing, he was personally credited with killing four enemy soldiers in close combat, running at least one through with his sword. Clearly he led from the front! Parr and Gideon will get to know each other very well.
  • Lieutenant Ebenezer Foster. Ebenezer Foster hailed from southeast Massachusetts. He joined the militia in 1777 and served in the Siege of Boston, being involved in the fortification of the Dorchester Heights in March 1776. Commissioned as an officer in the summer of 1777, his service ultimately took him to the Hudson Valley, where he joined Dearborn’s Light Infantry Battalion. Dearborn’s unit worked under Morgan’s command in support of the Rifle Corps. Together, these two units made an incredibly effective team, whose impact at Saratoga was far out of proportion to its numbers. But the price these units paid, especially the Light Infantry, was very dear indeed. In A Constant Thunder, Ebenezer Foster and Gideon Hawke are boyhood friends who meet again in the shadow of great events.

It gives me pause when I realize that I am appropriating the names of people who fought in the great struggle for Independence. I pray that I do them justice. I cannot pretend to be delivering true-to-life portrayals, but I can say I do my best with the information I can find. Perhaps by shedding new light on their names I am at least helping to keep alive their memory I am certainly expressing my gratitude for their toils and sacrifices.

Robert Krenzel Author Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/RobertKrenzelAuthor

Gideon Hawke Novels Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/GideonHawkeNovels/

Resources Big and Small: The Internet

“The Internet is like a magic eight ball of the 21st century. You can always get an answer there. It may not be true, but you can always get an answer.”

-Stephen King (http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/stephen-king-on-trump-20160609)

Stephen King is absolutely right! The internet is a wonderful resource for writers…you’ve just got to be careful out there!

Much of what you find on the internet these days is garbage. Anyone and everyone can say anything they want about anything they want. Imagine my surprise last week when I was researching a topic and Google pointed me towards a blog post by ME! (talk about an unreliable source!) A fun game you can play is to try to figure out where various website get there information; I find it fascinating how so many pages are simply copy/paste jobs. One user writes something, or copies something from a book or online resource, and then website after website copies the same information verbatim. There is no comment, no assessment, no analysis…just copy/paste. The same questionable material can be reproduced over and over like a virus. (hmmmm…this sounds like the premise for a sci-fi horror novel) When it comes to internet research, it is definitely USER BEWARE!

That said the internet can connect people in new and exciting ways. My favorite recent example: I was doing research on Hudson River navigation in the 1700s, and trying to learn more about the bateau, the “eighteen wheeler / Pullman car” of Eighteenth Century North America. After running into a few brick walls, I stumbled upon a website called The Big Row (http://www.thebigrow.com/), which catalogues the adventures of reenactors who put bateaux through their paces every year. Not only did I learn a great deal, but I also established contact with the websites creator/bateau captain, Dave Manthey! Dave’s insights were invaluable to me in understanding the people and craft of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, thus adding authenticity to my work in progress, A Constant Thunder. Persistence and creativity in searching can pay off handsomely!

Then there is the little trick of knowing the resources available. A few days ago I was writing a scene in which Gideon Hawke is an officer of the guard; it is nighttime, and being a good officer he ventures out to check on his sentries. At his first stop he is challenged! The sentry tells him to halt, and challenges him with the “parole” word. “Wait,” I asked myself, “What would be a good parole word?” I considered making something up, but then I remembered that the National Archives, in cooperation with the University of Virginia Press, have digitized a tremendous number of primary source documents from the Founding Fathers. The Continental Army’s daily General Order contained the parole and countersign, so a simple Bing search (sorry, Google, you didn’t find the document I needed) for “General Orders April 18, 1777” brought me to General Washington’s General Orders for the 18th of April, 1777. Boom! When Private George Houseman directs Lieutenant Hawke to advance and be recognized, his challenge doesn’t just sound authentic, it REALLY IS AUTHENTIC! It is the actual challenge used in the American camp at Morristown in 1777. (https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-09-02-0180 ; and in case you are wondering, the parole was “Georgia” and the Countersign was “Samptown.”) How’s that for research?

Thirty years ago it would have required a prodigious effort for an author living in the Midwest to gather the kind of information I just discussed. Now it is a few keystrokes and clicks away. I am deeply indebted to folks like Dave Manthey, and the folks behind the keyboards at the University of Virginia Press—by doing valuable work and sharing it online, they are making the internet a useful tool, not just a “Wretched hive of scum and villainy.” I am still very wary of information I find out on the net, but it is definitely worth sorted through the garbage to find the gems.

A Nest of Hornets on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Nest-Hornets-Gideon-Hawke/dp/1539953599/

 

Robert Krenzel Author Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/RobertKrenzelAuthor

Gideon Hawke Novels Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/GideonHawkeNovels/

The Forage War: Spanktown

On February 23rd, 1777 the British and Americans fought one of the largest battles of the Forage War at Spanktown, near modern-day Rahway, NJ.

Increasingly frustrated by American attacks on their foraging parties, the British command unleashed Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mahwood, the aggressive British commander who very nearly won the day at Princeton. With four British infantry regiments, plus a battalion each of light infantry and grenadiers, Mahwood was well-equipped to challenge any American Continental or Militia units that stood in his way.

Happening upon a small American foraging party covered by a brigade of New Jersey Continentals on a nearby hilltop, Mahwood deployed his troops for battle. He launched a grenadier company on a wide flanking movement, preparatory to a massed bayonet assault. The British moved confidently, prepared to overcome American resistance with cold steel. Then the Americans sprang the trap.

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Possible deployments at Spanktown, from A Nest of Hornets

The New Jersey units were bait. Hiding in ambush was a Pennsylvania Brigade including Colonel Edward Hand’s 1st Pennsylvania (formerly called both Thompson’s Rifle Battalion and the First Continental Regiment). The grenadier company unwittingly marched across the front of the hidden Pennsylvanians, who sprang from concealment and fired a volley which annihilated the flanking force. Both the New Jersey and Pennsylvania brigades now maneuvered aggressively against Mahwood’s remaining troops who, outnumbered and outflanked, fell back. The light infantry and grenadier battalions fought a brief rearguard action as the infantry regiments withdrew. Lieutenant Colonel Mahwood must be credited with escaping with most of his force intact, but the retreat soon turned into a route.

 

The British were not only driven from the field with significant losses, but the Americans pursued them all the way to the British stronghold in the Amboys. It must have been an agonizing defeat for the British hero of Princeton. More importantly, it foretold the successes of a Continental Army that, in eight months’ time, would bring General John Burgoyne to heel at Saratoga.

You can experience the Battle of Spanktown from a participant’s point of view in the novel A Nest of Hornets.

Robert Krenzel Author Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/RobertKrenzelAuthor

Gideon Hawke Novels Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/GideonHawkeNovels/

The Forage War

The British plan for the winter of 1777 had been to disperse their brigades across New Jersey, where the units could live off the land to augment the tenuous cross-Atlantic supply line. George Washington’s recently proven proficiency at destroying isolated brigades made this plan untenable, so the British and their German allies retreated to a few massed positions in New York and New Jersey. This gave them security, but left the countryside in the hands of the Jersey Militia, who had been freshly galvanized by the American victories in the Ten Glorious Days. Now the British and Germans would have to send out fighting patrols in ever increasing numbers to forage for food and fodder. These foraging parties made attractive targets for increasingly large swarms of militia, soon reinforced by Continental troops.

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Here are just a few of the 50-60 “skirmishes,” with the forces involved:

  • January 6th: Springfield, NJ. A force of 50 Waldeck (a German principality) infantry and a few British light dragoons ambushed and captured. This action precipitated the British abandonment of Elizabethtown (modern Elizabeth, NJ).
  • January 20th: Van Nest’s Mills (Millstone), NJ. 500 British, reinforced with with artillery, were attacked by Brigadier General Philemon Dickenson and about 400 militia, reinforced by a company of Continental riflemen. The British were driven off with heavy loss, to include a wagon train and several dozen head of cattle.
  • February 1st: Drake’s Farm. A force of about a thousand British and Hessian troops, to include elite battalions of light infantry, grenadiers, and highlanders, attempt to set a trap for an American force. When the 5th Virginia Regiment tries to capture a small party of British foragers, they are surprised by the entire British force.  The Americans launch a bayonet charge which breaks the grenadier battalion and buys them time to make good their escape.
  • February 23rd: Spanktown (Rahway) NJ. Nearly 2000 British regulars under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mahwood, the British commander who nearly won the day at Princeton, attack a small American foraging party. As they launch what they expect to be a final assault they are ambushed by nearly 2000 previously hidden Continental troops. The British are driven from the field and pursued back to their fortifications in Amboy.

The Continental troops gained experience and confidence from these encounters. They would later put their new-found expertise to good use at Brandywine, Germantown, and Saratoga.

The British and Germans realized that this was going to be a long, hard war. Perhaps a few of them began to develop a new-found respect for their ragtag opponents. If nothing else, it seemed in the words of one British officer that an outing into the New Jersey countryside was like walking into “a Nest of Hornets.”

You can experience the Forage War from a participant’s perspective in Gideon Hawke #3: A Nest of Hornets!

A Nest of Hornets on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01NBI511Q/

The Plot Thickens: Rowing Upstream

As I waited to receive the proof copy of A Nest of Hornets I found myself inevitably drawn to working on Gideon Hawke #4, A Constant Thunder. I have already written several scenes, or at least the shells of those scenes, but I still have a lot of work to do on sketching out the flow of the novel. I had identified the chapters and was trying to flesh one of those chapters out when inspiration struck with a glance at a map.

It is no secret that Gideon Hawke will find himself in Daniel Morgan’s Provisional Rifle Corps, and thus will move north to confront Burgoyne’s “Canadian Army” in late summer of 1777. I had intended to focus one chapter on the movement north. I had a sketchy idea that there were boats involved at some point in that undertaking, but I had not yet tried to envision how that journey looked. So, last week I sat down to try to sort out how Morgan’s Rifle Corps got to the Albany area.

Hudson emplacementI knew the destination, so the next step was to identify the starting point. In poking around I discovered that Morgan’s headquarters was in the Hackensack, New Jersey area around the time Washington ordered Morgan to join the Northern Department. Having start and end points, I looked at the map and was hit with a blinding flash of the obvious: Hackensack and Albany both lay along the Hudson River. Given the primitive condition of the American road network in the 1770s, the fastest, cheapest, and easiest was to get five hundred men and assorted family members the roughly 130+ miles between these two points would have been to move straight up the Hudson.

The watercraft of choice in late Eighteenth Century America was the bateau: a flat-bottomed, shallow-draft vessel ranging in length from under twenty to over eighty feet in length. These craft carried both passengers and cargo, could maneuver in shallow water, and were relatively easy to transport overland. They could be propelled by sail, pole, or oar, and were critical to commerce and transportation in Colonial and Revolutionary America.

Before this I had never paid much attention to the lowly bateau, even though it features prominently in any discussion of the Saratoga Campaign. But now I find myself rearranging A Constant Thunder to include several chapters describing a bateau journey upstream. Not only will this be a great way to highlight a little understood aspect of life in Revolutionary America, but it will also serve as a metaphor on several levels. Without giving too much away, I am thinking about questions like: Who is in that boat with Gideon? What challenges does such a journey present? What other challenges might Gideon and his fellow characters face? What other life journeys might Gideon be on? What awaits at the end of the journey? What goes through a young man’s mind as he sails (or rows) day after day? Is this journey a trial, a quest, or both?

Writing historical fiction can be full of surprises. Occasionally a seemingly inconsequential bit of research can turn your story on its head. In this case, a glance at a map opened up an entirely new adventure.

Robert Krenzel Author Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/RobertKrenzelAuthor

Gideon Hawke Novels Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/GideonHawkeNovels/

Historical Research: Books, Maps, Notebook, Sunscreen, and Bug Spray

What do you think of when you hear the term “historical research”? Many people would likely visualize a quiet library, or a stack of books, or even a computer monitor. I certainly use all of those, but when writing historical fiction I feel there is no substitute for visiting the scene of the action.

I have been fortunate in that at one point or another I have been able to travel to most of the sites I have written about, but my recent visit to the Saratoga Battlefield was by far the most satisfying visit for two reasons. First of all, the battlefield is well-preserved. The man-made structures have disappeared, and the vegetation has changed somewhat, but the topography is generally as it was 239 years ago. Secondly, I was able to thoroughly prepare for this visit as I had not prepared for visits to Trenton, Princeton, Washington’s Crossing, New Brunswick, and so on. That preparation was priceless.

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Tools of the trade

I had already read up on the Battles of Saratoga; there were many engagements in the Saratoga Campaign, but the “Battle” generally includes the actions on September 19th, 1777 (a.k.a. The Battle of Freeman’s Farm) and October 7th, 1777 (a.k.a. The Battle of Bemis Heights). Once I realized I would be able to make a trip to visit the site, I procured a topographic map of the area from My Topo. The My Topo site produced a map in a scale and format very familiar to me; through many years in the Army I used similar topographical maps to plan and navigate on several continents, so my “Saratoga Special” spoke to me in a very familiar language.

 

I read more, and used the nuggets of information in several books to better understand the timing and sequencing of events. By comparing my notes and the maps in the various books with my topographical map, I was able to narrow down the spacing: precisely WHERE various events occurred. The contour information and precise scale on the topographical map was critical here, as it helps make sense of lines of sight, ranges, and difficulties of the ground. When I thought I had it sorted out, I went so far as to sketch out the sequence of events on transparent overlays over the map, enabling me to visualize the ebb and flow of the fighting.

Then came the big day! Map, notebook, and camera in hand–and with generous applications of sunscreen and bug spray–I set out early to arrive at the Visitor’s Center as it opened. The center is small, and houses a limited but very nice collection of artifacts and dioramas, but I found the 20-minute LED Map presentation to be invaluable. Based on extensive studies of the battlefield and historical record, it corrected a few misperceptions and definitely enhanced my understanding of unit locations and the sequence of events.

Finally it was time to hit the road. I was able to follow trails and paths to find key locations

Author 6

Balcarres Redoubt

where the battle unfolded. It was truly humbling to stand on the very ground where men like Daniel Morgan, Simon Fraser, Enoch Poor, at thousands of others fought gallantly for their respective causes, and where so many gave the last full measure of devotion. I am especially indebted to park Ranger Douglas Bicket, who clarified several points and helped me understand how the field had changed, and had not, since 1777.

 

Being particularly interested in the actions of Daniel Morgan’s Rifle Corps, I focused on retracing their steps as best I could. The vegetation around what was Freeman’s Farm made it a bit difficult to fully envision what Morgan and his men saw on September 19th, but that was a revelation in itself. In that broken, wooded, ground I could see how Morgan’s men were able to fire the first shots of the battle and then run headlong into the might of the British Center Column. To my even greater delight I was fully able to reconstruct the events of October 7th, especially the approach to and assault upon the

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Looking up the slope toward the Hessian positions

Breymann Redoubt. The books may not all agree with my interpretation, but knowing what the Rifle Corps accomplished that day, and having studied and used terrain as a professional soldier, I found myself sliding around the northern flank of the redoubt, into a shallow draw, with a steep slope leading up to the location of the Jäger Outpost and Hessian Light Infantry positions. Standing at the base of that slope, with one of the National Park Service’s white markers just peeping over the top, I was absolutely certain this was the way a tactician as astute as Morgan would have led his men. After I scaled the slope and stood inside what had been the Jäger Outpost, I was even more certain this was the spot where Morgan’s men actually swarmed over the Hessian defenses, precipitating the collapse of the British and German line and sealing the fate of Burgoyne’s Army. Of course I can’t be sure I got it 100% right, but if anyone disagrees with my interpretation I’d happily meet them on the field and have a friendly discussion about it; I think the facts on the ground would speak for themselves.

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One of His Majesty’s cannon

 

Happily, the only hazards I faced during my visit to Saratoga were dehydration, sunburn, thorns, and bug bites, all of which I am happy to report I overcame. 239 years ago, for a few hours, that hallowed ground was a much more dangerous place. I will dedicate the fourth Gideon Hawke novel to memory of those, on both sides, who braved shot, shell, and cold steel on the fields of Saratoga.

My Topo: http://www.mytopo.com/

Saratoga National Park: https://www.nps.gov/sara/index.htm

Gideon Hawke Novels Facebook page: https://m.facebook.com/GideonHawkeNovels/