eLit Book Awards: Scarred takes Silver in Historical Fiction

eLit_silver_outline_final copyI am delighted to share that SCARRED: A Civil War Novel of Redemption has been awarded a Silver medal for Historical Fiction in the eighth annual eLit Awards—”a global awards program committed to illuminating and honoring the very best of English language digital publishing.”

I’m honored to be among these outstanding writers!


Posted in Scarred, Writing Life

Reviewers Choice Award: Honorable Mention for Scarred

RV-Awards-2016SmithMichaelKenneth copy


Posted in Scarred, Writing Life

Shifting Gears: Writing from a Woman’s Point of View

a82ad1c76a7345eb3f4fe9f8c604b253I’m a guy. I write mostly about men. Men at war. Shooting guns. Riding horses. Doing brave deeds. Becoming heroes. From the male perspective, of course.

So, how does an author shift gears and write from a female perspective—and what would prompt him to do so? For me, the answer to this question can be found by exploring a scene from each perspective.

Here is a scene from my first book, HOME AGAIN, at the Battle of Shiloh:

Off to the right of their line and behind the Rebel line several hundred yards away was a slight rise, and a line of Confederate cannon was being brought up. As the horses pulled the cannons up, they were unhitched, and the cannoneers pushed them into a line aimed directly at the bow in the Northern line about where Zach was with his new company. The first fusillade of shot came from the big guns nearly simultaneously. All the shots appeared too high.

The sergeant, whose total energy was now focused on the battle at hand, said to Zach, “Take that contraption in your hand and see if you can discourage those Rebel cannon. They are about to blow us to smithereens.”

Zach looked around for something to prop his rifle up against as he always did. No rocks or trees were nearby. Dickson, who had heard the sergeant, knew what Zach was looking for. Not seeing anything he sat on the ground facing the target and said to Zach, “Try this.” Zach squatted behind him, placed the rifle on Dickson’s steady shoulder and sighted through the scope at the first cannoneer to the right of the line. The ground was soaking wet and he could feel water penetrate his still-damp clothing. The wind was negligible, and the range could not have been over three hundred and fifty yards. He would be shooting up, and experience always told him to aim a bit low when shooting up. John was breathing and with each breath, the crosshairs would move up and down.

“John, take a deep breath, let it half out and just hold it.”

Dickson did, and while it wasn’t perfect, Zach aimed at the first cannoneer’s chest, rubbing his finger on the stock…deep breath…exhale…half breath…squeeze…

“Another breath, John.”

Zach squeezed off another shot.


Another shot.

Three more times and all six cannons were silent. In less than sixty seconds, the entire battery had been decommissioned. The other soldiers on both sides were too involved to see or realize what had just happened, but the one who counted, the sergeant, did.

In this scene the character, Zach, finds himself in the middle of an offensive line of soldiers at Shiloh during the early stages of the Civil War. He is empowered by his ability to effectively use a rifle at long range. His mission is to eliminate a threat, as perceived by his sergeant.

In contrast, here is a scene from my short story, THE WALL, just before the Allies swarmed through Bonn on their way to Berlin in WWII:

“Helga? Are you here?” the captain called as he entered the front door. He went straight to the bedroom to check. “Ah, yes. There you are, Honig,” he said relieved. He came to the bed and kissed her. He drew the covers back and saw she was naked. “Ah, perfect. It’s been a long day,” he said sighing. “I’ve been thinking of you for some time.”

Helga watched him undress and she immediately started to build her wall. The wall that would enable her to isolate herself from him and the things she let him do. It was like separating her mind from her body. Her body would go through all the motions, but her mind would not follow. Rather it would dwell on the goal line while her body tried to get there.

She also knew he was a terrible lover and that was a good thing. When he had taken all his clothes off, he slowly pulled back the covers again a gazed at her. He was ready almost instantly. He lay on top of her. His forehead was beaded with sweat and his body smelled like dirty laundry. Helga closed her eyes. Her wall protected her and it was all over in a few minutes. He rolled over and she got up and started to dress.

“Stay for a drink?” He asked.

“No. I must go, but could I make you one?”

“Sure. Will I see you Thursday?” He asked. Then, he added, “I am being transferred back to Berlin. Soon, you will be free of us. Won’t that make you happy?”

She stopped in her tracks. “Berlin? Who will take your place?”

“What! You’re not worried about me?” He asked sarcastically. “I could easily capture the two Jews you are hiding, then ship you with them to Dachau.”

She watched him through the mirror as she brushed back her hair. “Yes, you could, but then I wouldn’t be here on Thursday,” she said.

He got up and went into the bathroom. As he passed her, she reached for his bottle of Scotch and poured some into a glass. She looked toward the bathroom as she took one of the ampules from her purse. He was just out of sight and she squeezed the ampule hard, breaking the glass and the yellowish fluid dripped into the Scotch.

From the bathroom he said again, “See you on Thursday?”

“Yes, captain,” she said, wiping the glass chards off on her skirt. Then she went down the stairs and out the back door.

As she walked back to her flat, the impenetrable wall that she had constructed started to crumble as she thought about the Scotch. She forced the sense of violation away and by the time she arrived back to her flat, she felt human again. She also felt a sense of triumph. Thinking again about the Scotch, she smiled.

This scene takes place in Germany during WWII just before the Allies come through. Despite the distance of time between these two scenes, there is a common thread: Though empowered in very different ways, both Helga and Zach want to destroy the enemy. Helga is empowered by her own moral compass and uses the age-old weapon of her female sexuality to help save Jews from being exterminated. Zach, on the other hand, is instructed to kill by his commanding officer and he willingly does it in fine fashion. Helga is motivated by her own sense of right and wrong, which makes her far more compelling to me. She is driven primarily by internal forces—and Zach is more driven by external forces. Helga’s is a crime of expression. Zach’s is a crime of aggression.

This shift of gears from the male to female perspective involves knowing your characters, crawling inside their heads, and being open to seeing things in a new, sometimes counterintuitive, way. While it is much easier (for me) to crawl into a man’s perspective, the opposite takes a little more thought and a better understanding of exactly who the character is. The character is, after all, the author’s creation and by first defining his/her goals, aspirations and dreams, the author can more easily predict and write about how each character will act and react to various stimuli.

My hope is that in shifting gears and incorporating new perspectives, I will become a more effective author with an understanding and approach that will extend to my future characters male or female.

Posted in Writing Life

Women of the Civil War: Martha Kavandish

{Excerpted from SCARRED A Civil War Novel of Redemption wherein our protagonist, Zach, comes face-to-face with the wife and child of the man he shot.}

Near Milledgeville, Georgia, 1864

The farmhouse was nestled in a copse of cottonwoods midway between the road and the river. The river shimmered in the sunlight, flowing south. A light breeze rattled the leaves and smoke rose from the chimney into the cool, September morning air. The space between the two dusty wheel tracks that led to the barn had grown over with weeds. The barn was sturdy, but the paint was faded. Zach saw a semicircle scraped in the dirt in front of the barn and deduced the door hinge was loose. Standing just outside the large barn doors, he saw a black man driving out the cotter pin of a broken wagon wheel. His face and arms glistening with sweat. The wheel was nearly as big as he was. Some of the shingles on an adjacent shed were loose, breaking the neat, parallel lines of the roof. A garden next to the shed contained tomatoes, beans, and squash, all plump and ready for the table.

Two monarch butterflies hovered over bee balm flowers in a pot hanging from the front porch eave as Zach approached the house. Zach’s chest heaved with anticipation as he stepped up on the small porch.

A young woman opened the wooden door wide, but remained standing inside the screen door, her brown eyes quickly appraising the stranger in front of her. Her long brunette hair was swept back off her face with two silver barrettes just behind her ears. She wore a gingham dress, full on the bottom, covered by an apron tied at the waist. The bodice of her dress swept just low enough to hint at a lovely figure. Her rounded brows yielded to a high forehead, two tiny curls tickling her cheekbones, leading to her perfectly-rounded jaw and chin, and framing her pert nose. Her face was flushed from working in the kitchen. When she saw Zach, her hands went to her hair as if searching for something out of place.

After a slight pause, she said, “Yes?” Her voice was soft but firm. Her accent heavy.

“I was at Chancellorsville,” Zach said.

“Oh. Oh, my. Why, please come in,” she said, pushing the screen door open and inviting Zach into her parlor, where she motioned him to sit. As he sat, he looked self-consciously at his shoes, covered in red dust, and his britches, which hadn’t been washed in weeks. She sat on a small bench nearby facing him, and put her hands together and rested them on her knees. She waited for him to speak, knowing it was about her dead husband, Jack.

Zach ran his fingers over the upholstery tacks in the chair’s arms, searching for the right words. The small parlor looked infrequently used. A full sized grandfather clock ticked in the corner. The broad-planked floor was covered with rag rugs. On one end of the room was a roll-top desk. A framed picture of Jack in full uniform sat atop it. Jack with his rifle, a beautiful, scoped Whitworth. Zach had never seen him before he shot him, and the image of the man’s living face startled him.

Zack took the logbook from his pocket and handed it to her without saying a word. She opened it slowly. Her picture fell to the floor, and as she read the first few entries, tears welled and flowed down her cheeks. She flipped to the last entry, which read: March 3: …Two more days and I’m on two week leave. Seems like an eternity since I’ve seen her… She closed the book, put her hands over her face, and wept.

“Mommy? W-w-what’s wrong?” A little boy ran into the room and to his mother’s side. She put her arm around him, held him tight, and continued to sob. The boy looked over at Zach as if angry he had caused his mother to cry.

Composing herself, Martha said, “Tommy, this man knew your father. He brought us his diary. Introduce yourself.”

The little boy strode directly over to Zach, stuck out his hand, and said, “I-I-I’m Tom Kavandish. Were you in the w-w-war with my d-d-dad?”

Zach shook his hand and told him his name then reached over and mussed up his black hair. “You must be the man of the house,” he said. The boy went back to his mother, put his arm around her, looked back at Zach, and nodded.

“I don’t recall Jack ever mentioning your name, Mister Harkin. Were you in his unit?” she asked.

“Not exactly, ma’am, but I was the first to see him after he was… I cannot tell you how sorry I am.” Having no idea what to say or do next, Zach stood and said, “I’d best be going, ma’am.”

“Please, call me Martha,” she said. “How on earth did you find us?”

“Wasn’t easy,” he said, and he told her about the crowded trains out of Atlanta and his visit with Susan McGowan and how she had given him directions to the farm. He told her the news about Hood vacating the city, and the expectation that Sherman would burn the entire area. She watched him closely, absorbing every word. He found himself repeating some of the things he had already told her, but in more detail.

Zach had sat back down when the hissing sound of a pot boiling over came from the kitchen. “Oh, my. The stew!” Martha ran into the kitchen, leaving Tommy and Zach alone.

Zach looked around the room. “Looks like you’re doing a good job seeing after things, Tommy,” he said.

“M-my daddy h-had to go t-to the war,” he said. His matter of fact expression showed no sadness, but rather a sense of pride. He had his mother’s large brown eyes and her skin, but his father’s black hair. He seemed frustrated when he could not pronounce words clearly, so he tried to force them, compounding the problem.

On a table beside his chair was a toy wagon and a building block set. The wagon was mounted on four wheels and had a pull string. Zach took the wagon and sat on the floor, “Bet you can build a barn like yours.”

Tommie squatted down in front of Zach and started to build. He laid the foundation, and left an open section for the large door, but was puzzled as to how to construct the hip roof. Zach pointed at a piece that might help and the boy quickly grabbed it and continued.

Martha came in from the kitchen and hesitated, seeing the two on the floor, “Mister Harkin, you’ve come all this way, would you have some stew with us before you go?”

The kitchen was the biggest room in the house. Just inside the backdoor was a bench with jackets and hats hanging above it. Boots covered with red dust were lined up under the bench. One large pair sat alone. A square, cast iron stove sat against the outside wall with a kettle on top. A nearly empty wood box sat next to a copper boiler full of water. The smell of the rich stew mixed with wood smoke made Zach realize how hungry he was. A table in the middle of the kitchen had three chairs around it and three place settings. Martha indicated to Zach to sit in the middle and she ladled stew into each bowl.

Martha talked about the farm.

Heavy spring rains had caused the river to flood, covering the fields between the river and the farmhouse. Rains continued, and the river did not recede for ten days, ruining her corn crop. The peanut crop in front of the house, however, had thrived, and was near harvest. Her team of horses had been confiscated by the government, and all she had left was her mule, Jake. Most slaves in her area had been impressed into service, but, her slave, Levon, was considered too small, and they let her keep him.

“Levon and Jake are all I have to run this place,” Martha said. “And of course, Tommy. Tommy is a big help.” She smiled at her son. “He keeps the wood box full, the stove fire goin’, and all sorts of things. Don’t you, Tommy?”

“I saw Levon on the way in. Looks like a hard worker,” Zach said.

“Gracious, me. I’ve been talking about me all this time. What about you, Mister Harkin?”

Zach avoided the question, and instead talked about the probable fall of Atlanta and the subsequent fall of the Confederacy. Tommie got up to put a piece of wood in the stove. The fire crackled, sending a hollow noise up the flue. The sun sank below the level of the cottonwoods and shone through the back door onto the wood-planked floor. The screen door had a typical wad of cotton attached at the center. Zach had always wondered why.

“Mister Harkin, I can see you don’t like to talk about yourself much. Could I show you around our place?”

Zach ducked through the back door as they went outside into the cool evening. They walked toward the river, their feet sinking into the rich, loamy bottomland in the rear of the farm. The field toward the river, where Martha’s corn crop had stood, was fallow and weedy. The field on the other side of the farmhouse was higher, and had a healthy crop of corn with large, succulent ears nearly ready for harvest. Zach had little actual experience farming, but he knew a farmer’s work was difficult, and carried many risks.

They walked a loop through the backfield and headed toward the barn. Martha explained the various operations of the farm, and Zach realized her knowledge was limited. She had an optimistic outlook, but seemed not to grasp that she needed a lot more help than just Levon. With the 1864 Confederate call for any able-bodied male to conscript into the army, even old men weren’t available to help with the hard work. Of course, most able-bodied slaves had been impressed by the government, so Martha could not even pay a neighbor for a borrowed slave’s labor. Her farm had almost no chance of providing for the two of them, and Zach felt that burden resting squarely on his shoulders….

Read more here.

Posted in Excerpts, Scarred

The Doug Dahlgren Show Features Michael Kenneth Smith

What a terrific way to spend my Friday morning! I thoroughly enjoyed discussing HOME AGAIN, SCARRED, and the Civil War with Doug Dahlgren of The Doug Dahlgren Show. Listen in. . .

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Posted in Guest Appearances, Home Again, Scarred, Writing Life

A Civil War Valentine’s Day: Of Hearts and Vinegar


One of the most famous valentine image from the period. Sent February 14, 1863.

The first valentines were sent in the early 1400s and by the time the Civil War rolled around, Valentine’s Day was a well-established holiday with the sending of homemade cards, love tokens, and poetry commonplace. For those with access to stores and a little extra cash, cards made by the New England Valentine Company could be easily purchased. Made by Ester A. Howland and her all-female assembly line and featuring bits of lace, ribbon, cutouts, pop ups, and shadow-boxes, each card could be customized with one of 131 verses.

Lacking easy access to nearby shops, Civil War soldiers were more inclined to make their own cards using supplies on hand. Some even went to far as to create origami-like puzzle purses which carried small tokens of affection or a lock of hair for their loved ones. Want to try your hand at a puzzle purse? This easy video DIY video tutorial is a great place to begin!

And for those not interested in professing their undying love on this most romantic of holidays? Enter the “vinegar valentine”. Viewed as socially acceptable opportunities to bash one’s enemies, vinegar valentines were often sent without signature, enabling the sender to speak without fear of recrimination. According to Slate.com’s The Vault, “Some historians argue that comic valentines—of which vinegar valentines were one type—made up half of all U.S. valentine sales in the middle of the 19th century.” Interestingly, some of the most vicious vinegar valentines were produced during the Civil War and expressed anger toward those serving in the Union Army.

Screen Shot 2017-02-13 at 1.55.57 PMSpecial thanks to Slate.com,  Collectors Weekly, American Civil War Voice and Victoriana.

Happy Valentine’s Day to you and yours!


Posted in Guest Appearances, Holidays

A Civil War Super Bowl: The Fixins


[Camp Johnson, near Winchester, Virginia—The First Maryland Regiment playing football before Evening Parade.]

The first Super Bowl was played January 15, 1967 between the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs. Who would have guessed, 50 Super Bowls later, more than 190 million Americans would be planning to watch Super Bowl LI this Sunday when the New England Patriots play the Atlanta Falcons in Houston. (Sidebar: While the New England Patriots have the most Super Bowl appearances, it is the Pittsburgh Steelers who hold the title for the most Super Bowl victories.)

For many, Super Bowl Sunday is considered a national holiday right up there with, July 4th, Thanksgiving and Christmas. In fact, we eat more food on Super Bowl Sunday than any other day of the year except Thanksgiving! So how much food do we eat? How about 1 billion chicken wings, 28 million pounds of potato chips, 12 million slices of pizza, and 8 million pounds of popcorn. And we wash it all down with 325 million gallons of beer. 

In light of all this, I started to wonder what Game Day might have looked like back in 1864—had there been such a match-up. No pizza. No BBQ wings. And a very different kind of “potato chip”, to be sure. 

And so, with apologies to Civil War historians everywhere, I submit the following “Civil War Super Bowl” menu for your consideration.

Hi quality old parchment

Have a go at making your own Civil War style chips:

Civil War Potato Chips 

Recipe courtesy of  The Civil War Zone




Wash and peel some potatoes, then pare them, ribbon-like into long lengths. Put them in cold water to remove the strong potato flavor; drain them, and throw them into a pan with a little butter, and fry them light brown. Take them out of the pan, and place them close to the fire on a sieve lined with clean writing paper to dry, before they are served up. A little salt may be sprinkled over them. 

In case you’re wondering: 

1. Cracklin: The skins and residue left from the rendering of pork fat. You might say, “passing the pigskin” looked a whole lot different back then. 

2. Goober Peas: Peanuts

3. Switchels: Drinks made from cool water, juice, vinegar, and a sweetener like loaf sugar or treacle. 

Super Bowl consumption statistics from Pursuitist

Photo courtesy of Mitchel Archives, Harpers Weekly August 31, 1861

Posted in Guest Appearances, Holidays Tagged with: , , ,

The Wall

446000884-police-car-hurrying-policeman-end-of-warFrom the bomb-shattered second floor window, Helga could see the gray sedan slowly creeping nearer, its slitted headlights piercing the rain and darkness as it weaved between the debris of fallen buildings. Trembling with fear, she turned to the old couple with her finger to her lips and motioned toward the icebox in the corner of the room. Glancing back toward the street, she saw the car stop in front of her building. The rear doors opened and two Gestapo agents stood staring at the front door of her building with their hands resting on their holstered weapons. One threw a cigarette onto the street. The other appeared to be checking the address. They nodded to each other, approached the door and rapped loudly. The sound was amplified as it came up the narrow hallway steps to the second floor.

Helga went to the icebox and gave it a firm pull, revealing a small door in the wall behind. The icebox had been empty since she moved in as food was extremely scarce and ice was unavailable. She motioned for them to hurry and the agents rapped louder and yelled something she did not hear well enough to understand.

“Offne die Tür! Zu dem Zeitpunkt. Snell!” Open the door. Now!

“Ich komme gleich runter,” she hollered. I’ll be right down.

After the old couple had passed through the door, she pushed the icebox back and ran down the stairs to open the door.

“Zur Seite gehen, fraulein,” step aside, the first one said, and he pushed her aside and climbed the steps two at a time.

“We will find them, fraulein,” the second said with a smirk. “We know they’re here.” Water dripped off the bill of the agent’s cap and his glasses were slightly fogged, but Helga knew those cold, steel eyes. She had seen them before.

Helga heard the floorboards creak as the agent upstairs slowly moved from room to room looking for the hidden Jewish couple. After a few moments, he walked down the steps and shrugged his shoulders to his partner.

“Nobody,” he said tersely and motioned toward the door as if to leave. As he passed Helga, he glanced at her and raised his eyebrows slightly, then the two agents disappeared into the night. Helga listened as their footsteps faded. She heard the car doors slam and the sedan slowly motored away.

Helga went back up the stairs and pulled the icebox away from the wall, telling the couple it was safe to come out. Then she sat on a kitchen chair, took several deep breaths, and tried to calm her nerves. She picked up a cup that had once held hot tea, but even using two hands, she could not hold it steady enough to drink.

Helga Stigler had lived in Bonn all her life. Both she and her husband Fritz were of Prussian descent and while they both believed in a strong Germany, they took exception to Nazi tactics and the oppression of the Jews. Fritz was a tank commander under General Hienz Guderian and was a leader in the blitz of Poland and France. However, when Guderian’s Panzers were transferred to spearhead the new Eastern Front, Fritz was demoted and in the fall of 1942, he was put in charge of a single tank crew, albeit a new Tiger II, which he affectionately referred to as his “konigstiger”. He had been sure his demotion was because of his soft attitude toward the oppression of the Jews and what was termed as the ‘final solution.’ Helga had not heard from Franz for several months and in her heart of hearts, she knew he was dead, or worse yet, imprisoned by the Russians.

When Franz was transferred, Helga realized she could not and would not stand by and ignore what was happening inside the Jewish ghettos of Bonn.  She learned of a secret organization that helped sneak Jews out of Germany and back to unoccupied territory. Helga soon left her comfortable home and moved into a second floor, three-room flat inside the old walled section of Bonn where many Jews had been forced to live. She planned to use this apartment as a safe house where Jews could secretly stay. Helga contracted with an old Jewish carpenter who built a false wall that enclosed a very small space where several people could hide undetected. She knew that if she or any of Jews she assisted were ever caught, they would face certain torture and/or a firing squad.

Never planning to be taken alive, Helga obtained a bottle of zyankali pills which contained potassium cyanide in a glass ampule. She also gave an ampule to each of the Jews she hid. But none of this was enough for Helga. The allies were fast approaching and by the stream of men, materiel, and wounded heading back toward Berlin, she knew the war would be over very soon.

Near 4:00 in the afternoon, Helga went to her bedroom, changed into a simple skirt and blouse, powdered her nose and left the flat. It would take her exactly thirty minutes to arrive at her destination, and she knew the route well. Once there, she used her own key, unlocked the back door and went upstairs to the bedroom. She looked out the front window at the River Rhein flowing muddy brown, swollen by the heavy rains. Two major bridges lay in the water destroyed by allied bombing. She took off her clothes and, after neatly folding them, laid them on his dresser. She crawled into bed and waited.

After Helga had moved into her flat in the ghetto, she started to frequent several popular bars in the downtown area of Bonn, where soldiers and officers were often seen. She was forty-two years old, trim and still very attractive which meant she never paid for a drink, and her offers were numerous. But she was particular. She wanted something. Something that only a Gestapo officer could offer.

She finally met Hauptsturmfuhrer Metzler, a single, wealthy, Gestapo captain, who thought the war was just another adventure. He was several years younger than Helga, overweight, and always wet from perspiration. He liked to control anyone who would let him, and even though she hated his kind to her core, Helga made sure he thought he controlled her.

After several dates with the captain, Helga knew that he was perfect for what she had in mind. He wanted regular sex and she wanted somebody with the power to look the other way. Twice a week, she would come to his flat and in return, he would use his authority to allow her activities with the Jews to go unnoticed.

“Helga? Are you here?” the captain called as he entered the front door. He went straight to the bedroom to check. “Ah, yes. There you are, Honig,” he said relieved. He came to the bed and kissed her. He drew the covers back and saw she was naked. “Ah, perfect. Its been a long day,” he said sighing. “I’ve been thinking of you for some time.”

Helga watched him undress—and she began to build her wall. The wall that would enable her to isolate herself from him and the things she let him do. She had to separate her mind from her body. She would go through the motions, but her mind would not follow. Rather it would dwell on the goal line while her body pushed forward.

He was a terrible lover and that was a good thing. When he had taken off his clothes, he slowly pulled back the covers again and gazed at her. He was ready almost instantly. He lay on top of her. His forehead was beaded with sweat and his body smelled like dirty laundry. Helga closed her eyes. Her wall protected her and it was all over in a few minutes. He rolled over and she got up and started to dress.

“Stay for a drink?” He asked.

“No. I must go, but could I make you one?”

“Sure. Will I see you Thursday?” He asked. Then, he added, “I am being transferred back to Berlin. Soon, you will be free of us. Won’t that make you happy?”

She stopped in her tracks. “Berlin? Who will take your place?”

“What! You’re not worried about me?” He asked sarcastically. “I could easily capture the two Jews you are hiding, then ship you with them to Dachau.”

She watched him through the mirror as she brushed back her hair. “Yes, you could, but then I wouldn’t be here on Thursday,” she said.

He got up and went into the bathroom. As he passed her, she reached for his bottle of Scotch and poured some into a glass. She looked toward the bathroom as she took one of the ampules from her purse. He was just out of sight…she squeezed the ampule hard, breaking the glass, and the yellowish fluid dripped into the Scotch.

From the bathroom he said again, “See you on Thursday?”

“Yes, captain,” she said, wiping the glass chards off on her skirt. Then she went down the stairs and out the back door.

Walking back to her flat, the impenetrable wall she had constructed started to crumble as she thought about the Scotch. She forced the sense of violation away and by the time she arrived at her apartment, she felt human again. She also felt a sense of triumph. Thinking again about the Scotch, she smiled.

That night, her contact with the escape group visited. He left a Jewess and two young children and took the two elderly Jews away to the next safe house. She wished them good luck and they thanked her. She watched as the contact escorted them across the street and down an alley. The hope that they would survive was all the thanks she needed.

The two children cowered behind their mother as Helga explained where they would hide when the Gestapo arrived.

That night the allied bombing lasted for more than four hours, though none came close to Helga’s flat. She could hear the clatter of tanks moving and men shouting. The smell of diesel invaded her nostrils. Her heart beat fast as she dared to hope.

The next morning at daybreak, small arms fire could be heard. She looked out her window but there was nobody. Several hours later she heard the diesels again, and the distinctive sound of more tanks. Then she saw something she had dared not even dream of: It was the first American tank she had ever seen, and then she knew. She knew it was over.

She grabbed the two children and, with their mother, they walked out into the street, waving and joining others in welcoming the U.S. forces. All the while, Helga hoped against hope she would never have to build another wall.

Posted in Short Stories, Writing Life

The Civil War Monitor Reviews Scarred: A Civil War Novel of Redemption

The following review for SCARRED A Civil War Novel of Redemption appeared in The Civil War Monitor.

3d_scarred-copyScarred is Michael Kenneth Smith’s emotional, fast-paced sequel to his debut Civil War novel Home Again. At the end of his first book, one of the protagonists, Federal sharpshooter Zach Harkin, is sent home following the Battle of Gettysburg suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With Zach’s Confederate counterpart (Luke Pettigrew) from the first book dead, Scarred follows Zach’s struggle to find redemption for his wartime actions as well as his struggle to share his story fifty years later.

The novel opens with reporter Chris Martin traveling to Knoxville, Tennessee, to interview the famous Zach Harkin—the sharpshooter who killed Albert Sidney Johnston at Shiloh. Writing for The New York World, Chris is eager to publish a career-changing article, especially one that highlights the men who courageously fought in the Civil War (5). Writing from the premise that one of the most effective treatments for PTSD is for the patient to discuss their traumatic experiences, Scarred traces Chris’s attempts to get Zach to talk about his time as a Civil War sharpshooter and where he disappeared to after his medical discharge in 1863. Little did Chris know that Zach’s story was less a story of courage and more one of suffering.

Knowing that the process would be painful, but determined to set the story straight, Zach decides to share his story with the young reporter. Returning to 1863, Zach tells of finding a photograph of his last victim’s family and his struggle to come to grips with his actions as a sharpshooter. Exhibiting symptoms of PTSD, Zach is mustered out and sent home. Back in Tennessee, Zach pledges to find his victim’s family and make amends. But unfortunately for the troubled ex-soldier, Confederate cavalry capture Zach and send him to Richmond as a prisoner of war. But rather than being sent to the hell that was Belle Isle, as were many enlisted men, Zach ends up in the infamous Libby Prison. Things get worse for Zach when he and his fellow prisoners are moved by train to a new prison—the dreaded Andersonville.

In his description of the Richmond prisons and Andersonville, the author demonstrates that he is quite knowledgeable about Civil War prison camps. History buffs and scholars alike will appreciate Smith’s dedication to historical accuracy. Echoing Civil War prisoners’ personal writings, the protagonist tells of how he and his fellow prisoners were tightly packed into railcars without adequate food and water during their transfer from Virginia to Georgia. Suffering from overcrowding, Zach ordered his comrades to gather toward the door when more prisoners were loaded to give the impression that the car was full, thus resulting in less men in the car (32). In their postwar memoirs, ex-prisoners frequently claimed to have used this technique to trick their guards.

Readers will especially enjoy Smith’s inclusion of well-known officers into the narrative, as this heightens the reading experience and helps anchor the story firmly into Civil War history. After escaping Andersonville and making it to Union lines, for example, Zach meets with General William Tecumseh Sherman and gets permission to continue his quest for redemption. After traversing through enemy territory and pretending to be a wounded Confederate soldier, Zach finally makes it Milledgeville, Georgia, to meet the family in the dead Confederate’s photo—Martha Kavandish and her son Tommy. But the war is hell and it eventually comes to Milledgeville. Once again Zach is forced to fight, this time for love.

Although less a battle-filled war novel than its prequel, Scarred illustrates how the violence of war is not just limited to the battlefront (and how it continued to affect those involved long after the guns fell silent). Smith’s almost cinematic novel could easily be the true story of a Civil War prisoner of war. Historians have recently demonstrated that both Union and Confederate veterans, especially ex-prisoners, struggled to reintegrate into civilian society after the war; while not all were as hesitant as Zach, many did not share their stories until the turn of the century. As a result, the story of Zach’s quest for redemption and closure will interest and surely entertain all those fascinated by the Civil War, from professional historians to history buffs.

While Smith has clearly done his research, the book contains some issues that historians may find distracting. The most significant is Zach’s sympathy for Captain Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville. Unlike the sources written by Andersonville survivors, Smith’s protagonist does not blame Wirz for the horrific conditions of the camp. Rather, Zach sympathizes with Wirz—a feeling that causes the fictional editor of The New York World to question Chris’s publication, fearing that his subject is trying to rewrite history (91). While historians continue to debate over who was to blame for the deaths of nearly 13,000 men in Andersonville, Smith’s apologetic tone is distracting and incongruous with real prisoners’ writings. But as the work is a historical fiction, the reader can overlook this incongruity and enjoy the book for its other offerings. Overall, Smith provides an intense reading experience that leaves the reader wanting more.


Angela Riotto, an historian of the Civil War prisoner of war experience, is finishing her Ph.D. at the University of Akron. 

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A Civil War Christmas

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-2-03-37-pmDecember 22, 1864

A thin layer of clouds glowed silver and the nearly full moon provided enough light to see the opposing earthworks to the west. Goma vigorously rubbed the scars on his wrists trying to increase circulation. The light wind was from the west and he could smell the last burning embers from dozens of fires. The cool Virginia soil tried to steal what little body heat he had left.

Goma looked back toward his own lines and hoped the replacement pickets would arrive soon. This was Goma‘s first time on picket duty and he didn’t like being alone.

Almost three hundred yards separated the Union and Confederate main lines just outside of Petersburg and because the distance was quite large, both sides had additional sparely manned buffer picket lines that were inside their regular pickets and only about fifty yards apart. No large scale fighting normally occurred during the winter months and both sides dealt with shortages and boredom. The South, with their supply lines under constant siege, suffered from food shortage much more than the North.

“Hey, Yankee, can you hear me?” Goma turned abruptly toward the Rebel line. “Hey, Yankee,” the voice repeated in a heavy southern draw, “You ‘bout ready to give up and go home?”

Goma hesitated. Then he said, “Neva’ happin, Johnny.”

A brief silence. “You a darkie?”

Just then Goma’s replacement crawled into the trench and Goma crawled back to his lines. When he got to his tent, he thought about the voice. Something was very familiar.

Only a few short months ago, Goma was a groom at a plantation near Jonesboro, Georgia. His father’s father had been brought across the ocean and was sold to a farmer near Savanah where Goma was born. When Goma was twenty, he was sold to John McCord, the master of Stately Oaks Plantation near Jonesboro, Georgia. While John McCord was a kind slave master, his son, Elijah, in trying to impress his father, treated Goma and others harshly. Whenever Elijah found the least little fault with Goma’s work, he would frequently yield a whip or lock Goma away.

In early September, 1864, when Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee drove out all the belligerent Confederates, all the slaves were freed. Not knowing what to do, Goma followed Sherman’s army and was shortly inducted into the United States Colored Troops and became part of XXV Corps of the Army of the Potomac under General Edward Hines. The U.S.C.T. troops were extensively deployed in the Siege of Petersburg.

The next morning, Goma sat around the breakfast fire with several of his new friends, all ex-slaves. He suspected the Rebel voice he had heard in the night might be Elijah, his old nemesis.

They asked him how badly he was treated and Goma showed the scars on his back. The discussion became heated.

“We got ourselves the big equalizer,” one said in a heavy accent picking up his rifle, “only one way to settle this.”

“How would we do it?” Another asked. “We can’t just walk over there and shoot him.”

“We could crawl over the next cloudy night. Shit. Nobody would miss the dirty bastard,” the first one said. “What do you think, Goma? You’re the one he treated so bad.”

Goma was quiet for a moment, then said, “You know? The first few times he beat me, I had this rage inside. It kept me going. I hated that man more than I could hate anything.” He waited a moment as if to choose the right words. “But then, after a while, I just started to feel sorry for him.”

“How could you feel sorry for a man who is beating you? That just sounds impossible, Goma. You gotta be crazy,” the first said.

“Yeah, I know it sounds crazy and maybe it is,” Goma said, “but I feel like if we shoot him, we might be worse than him.”

“You can’t get worse than him, Goma, that man is the worst there is. He’s the bottom of the barrel. He’s the devil himself.”

Slowly, the conversation died down, and the men all started talking about Christmas and how they wished they were away from all the killing, the war. They wanted to get on with their lives even though nobody had any idea what the future would bring after the war.

The next day, Goma was told he would again be on picket duty that night. He had hoped to celebrate Christmas eve with his friends, but he was used to being disappointed, and he accepted it without comment. Most soldiers only thought about three things: Food, shelter and home. Goma had no home except where he slept each night.

The entrenched Union line extended nearly thirteen miles from end to end with well over one hundred thousand soldiers living in ramshackle shelters. Some were tents with the sides built up with dirt to keep the wind out. Others were wooden structures made of logs. Some had stoves inside. The soldiers were given total freedom to build whatever they wished to keep them dry and warm.

Since early morning, wagons loaded with special Christmas food were arriving from the north. Turkeys, chickens, cakes and pies, all ready to eat. Goma and his friends were able to get a whole turkey and a couple pies. After dinner, different groups broke into song, however, as evening approached, Goma reported to the duty officer and prepared to crawl out to the first line of pickets. He carried his Springfield musket, ammunition pouch and a knapsack containing a small apple pie.

At the appointed time, just after dark, he started to crawl to the main picket line. The early night sky was heavy with dark clouds and he could have walked because of the low visibility, but Goma felt safer crawling. The area between the battle siege lines was grassless and he could feel the hard dirt clods through his foraging jacket. By the time he got to the line of picket trenches, the other replacements had already arrived. He was informed he was assigned the outer picket line from around 12:00 midnight to 2:00 am.

The area between the two outer pickets was called ‘no man’s land’, and as the moon peeked through the breaks in the clouds, it looked like the gates of hell. Filled with shell holes, old trench emplacements and scattered battle debris, Goma wound his way to the ditch where he would spend the first hours of Christmas day. After relieving the prior sentry, he settled in, sitting on part of a cannon caisson that had been destroyed earlier. Every few minutes he would peer above the ground toward the enemy lines to verify what he suspected: nothing would happen on Christmas. He started to think about the pie and his mouth watered.

“Hey, Yankee, are you there?” The voice was clear as a bell. The same voice as before. “Its Christmas, are you Northerners going back north where you belong?”

“No chance of that, Johnnie,” Goma said.

“I remember your voice, you’re a god damned darkie, aren’t ya.”

Goma now knew who the man was. He was Elijah. For some reason, he always used the word ‘darkie’. Like it was his invention or something. Made him feel like he had some control over the English language.

“You bet your sweet ass I’m a darkie, and this darkie knows what a cruel slave master you really are. I’ve got the scars to prove it.”

Elijah said nothing for a few moments. “Goma? Goma?—You’re Goma! What the hell are you doing out here. My God—Goma.” Elijah was silent for a few minutes. In a more measured voice he said, “You still belong to me. You are my property, although you were the laziest god damned slave I ever owned.”

“I’m a free man,” Goma said in a firm voice.

“Free, my ass. I can see that I didn’t whip you near enough. I loved seeing my whip rip open your skin. The blood oozing out. Hearing your sorry ass whimpering. Yep, I should have done more of it. Would’ve made a man out of you.”

Goma just smiled. He always knew that when Elijah bragged about something, it was his way of trying to convince himself he was important. “I hear you Johnnies aren’t getting much to eat. That true? I hear you are near starving.”

“We get plenty to eat,” Elijah said, “I get so full, sometimes I have trouble walking.”

“Good to hear, Johnnie, guess that means you don’t want any of my apple pie.”

“You got apple pie?—apple pie?” Elijah said in disbelief.

“Apples covered with brown sugar and pecans. Yep.”

“I don’t believe it. Not for one minute.”

Goma didn’t answer. He waited.

“Apple pie?” Elijah asked again.

Ten minutes later, Goma had made up his mind. He crawled up over the top of his ditch and inched his way toward Elijah’s position. The moon light was obscured by passing clouds. When he got to the hole Elijah was in, Elijah put the barrel end of his musket to Goma’s forehead. “You’re dumber than I ever imagined,” Elijah said, “now you’re gonna die.”

Goma reached into his knapsack and pulled out the pie and handed it to Elijah. Elijah first stared at the pie, then at Goma, his mouth open in wonderment.

“Merry Christmas,” Goma said and he crawled back to his own trench.

 [Photo courtesy of New York State Library]

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