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Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas During the Civil War

I found this post from the Civil War Trust which does a much better job  than I ever could in describing what Christmas meant for those with loved ones serving in the Civil War armies.

Christmas in Camp, Illustration by Thomas Nast for Harper's Weekly

It can be difficult to relate to the men and women of the Civil War era. Despite the extraordinarily different circumstances in which they found themselves, however, we can connect with our forebears in traditions such as the celebration of Christmas.  By the mid-19th century, most of today’s familiar Christmas trappings – Christmas carols, gift-giving, and tree decoration – were already in place.  Charles Dickens had published “A Christmas Carol” in 1843 and indeed, the Civil War saw the first introductions to the modern image of a jolly and portly Santa Clause through the drawings of Thomas Nast, a German-speaking immigrant. 

Civil War soldiers in camp and their families at home drew comfort from the same sorts of traditions that characterize Christmas today.  Alfred Bellard of the 5th New Jersey noted, “In order to make it look much like Christmas as possible, a small tree was stuck up in front of our tent, decked off with hard tack and pork, in lieu of cakes and oranges, etc.”  John Haley, of the 17th Maine, wrote in his diary on Christmas Eve that, “It is rumored that there are sundry boxes and mysterious parcels over at Stoneman’s Station directed us.  We retire to sleep with feelings akin to those of children expecting Santa Claus.”

In one amusing anecdote, a Confederate prisoner relates how the realities of war intruded in his Christmas celebrations:  “A friend had sent me in a package a bottle of old brandy.  On Christmas morning, I quietly called several comrades up to my bunk to taste the precious fluid of . . . DISAPPOINTMENT!  The bottle had been opened outside, the brady taken and replaced with water . . . and sent in.  I hope the yankee who played that practical joke lived to repent it and was shot before the war ended.”

For many, the holiday was a reminder of the profound melancholy that had settled over the entire nation.  Southern parents warned their children that Santa might not make it through the blockade, and soldiers in bleak winter quarters were reminded, more accurately than ever, of the domestic bliss they had left behind.  Robert Gould Shaw, who would later earn glory as the commander of the 54th Massachusettes, recorded in his diary, “It is Christmas morning and I hope qa happy and merry one for you all, though it looks so stormy for our poor country, one can hardly be in a merry humor.”  On the Confederate home front, Sallie Brock Putnam of Richmond echoed Shaw’s sentiment: “Never before had so sad a Christmas dawned upon us . . . We had neither the heart nor inclination to make the week merry with joyousness when such a sad calamity hovered over us.”  For the people of Fredericksburg, Virginia, which has been battered only a matter of days before Christmas, or Savannah, Georgia, which General Sherman had presented to President Lincoln as a gift, the holiday season brought the war to their very doorsteps.
On the Home Front

Christmas during the Civil war served both as an escape from and a reminder of the awful conflict rending the country in two.  Soldiers looked forward to a day of rest and relative relaxation, but had their moods tempered by the thought of separateion from their loved ones.  At home, families did their best to celebrate the holiday, but wondered when the vacant chair would again be filled.

In spite of the 150 years which separates us from them, I can say from experience on both sides that these feelings seem to be universal for families separated by war, applicable as much now as they were then.

Sean Kevin Gabhann
Books by Sean Kevin Gabhann:

Tuesday, December 8, 2015


 "WHEN King Arthur heard of the coming of Guenever and the hundred knights with the Table Round, then King Arthur made great joy for her coming, and that rich present, and said openly, This fair lady is passing welcome unto me, for I have loved her long, and therefore there is nothing so lief to me. And these knights with the Round Table please me more than right great riches."

Le Morte D'Arthur
Sir Thomas Malory 1485

I have been fascinated by the tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table all my life. There are several versions of the tales, but the most complete is the collection that were drawn together in the fifteenth century by a fascinating fellow called Sir Thomas Malory, when he effectively wrote the first English novel  Le Morte D'Arthur. It has the distinction of being one of the first texts to roll off William Caxton's printing press in 1485.

There is a magic about the whole King Arthur saga. The sword in the stone, the great wizard Merlin, the ideal of Camelot, chivalry, the Order of the Round Table and the quest for the Holy Grail, then add the tale of forbidden love between Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot, sprinkle it with human frailties, betrayal, and countless battles, duels, a monster or two and you have the timeless work of genius that is the  legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. 

It is the blueprint for all of those great fantasies that have followed it. The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, even the Harry Potter saga. And Camelot, of course, was associated with the late President JF Kennedy. Shortly after his state funeral, his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy gave an interview to Theodore White, a journalist, for an article to be featured in Life magazine. She compared her husband's presidency with the Camelot of King Arthur. It was a time of hope, when men were gallant, great deeds were done and when the White House was a place graced by writers, poets and artists. Her husband was a heroic figure, like a knight of old. 

I have always been fascinated by the writer of that great book Le Morte D'Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory. But actually, surprisingly little is known about him. We have no contemporary portrait, no personal effects, no artefacts. His memory is enshrined in his great work of 300,000 words. 

There were six men of that name in the fifteenth century who are all contenders, but opinion favours Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel, a manor near Coventry in Warwickshire. I personally like to think that is him, for it is not far from the home of that other giant of literature, William Shakespeare. 

Sir Thomas was not  a knight errant as he loved to depict his knights of the Round Table. He had a darker side and was imprisoned for a series of crimes ranging from attempted murder to theft and possibly even abduction. 

On the other hand we know that he had been a Member of Parliament, a soldier and an adventurer. It was during his spells of imprisonment that he showed himself to be the literary genius that gave us King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. 

It is recorded that he was  a man of singular martial prowess, for he broke out of prison on two occasions. Once, on July 27, 1451 he escaped and swam across the moat at Coleshill prison. On another occasion he broke out of Colchester by using great skill with a variety of weapons, including dagger, sword and langurs-de-boeuf, a type of halberd so named because it had a spiked head the shape of an ox-tongue. 

Mystery and romance surround Sir Thomas Malory and he has intruded into my unconscious writer's mind several times and in several books. In my first western Raw Deal at Pasco Springs he incarnated as Tom Mallory, a gambler, one time lawman and adventurer. He again knocked on  the door of my imagination and came in as the protagonist of The Apothecary's Quest, a medieval single due out on December 8 as an ebook.  

The Apothecary’s Quest: 

An Adventure of the Order of the Black Rose


Apothecary Thomas Smythe has been betrayed by a fellow knight in the Order of the Hospitallers in a foreign war. Home in England once more, Thomas lives out his life as a simple apothecary. When he is summoned to attend Sir Percival Fitzroy, who has been taken ill, Thomas realizes that Lord Fitzroy has been poisoned. 

A trap, set in motion by a craven knight from Thomas’s past, threatens to see him murdered, as well. But can he reach Sir Richard de Vere, a man he suspects may hold the key to the mysterious death of Lord Fitzroy—and will Sir Richard help him? For Lord Fitzroy has entrusted Thomas with a quest for the Order of the Black Rose, a secret society that could accept him as one of their own…or have him slain. 

Thomas is still a knight, at heart—and there is only one honorable thing to do, no matter the cost to himself…




Newbold Revel, Warwickshire, England
 June 1320

“Bless you, Master Smythe! Bless you, sir,” said the woman as she dropped three pennies into his hand before she picked up the small flask of medicine and pot of balsam that he had prepared for her while she waited.
            “You are welcome, Mistress Burke,” Thomas Smythe replied with a smile as he deposited the money in the leather purse that hung from his waist. “That balsam has the finest herbs plucked from the hedgerows around Newbold Revel by myself under the full moon last Sunday. They are infused with its healing power and will soothe the scrofulous rash that your mother suffers from.”
            “That it has already, sir. That first pot almost cleared those horrid blisters on her face and I am sure that this pot will take care of the rest.”
            She stood and pursed her lips as she turned her attention to the small flask of liquid in her hand. “But it is this wonderful medicine that I am most pleased with, Master Smythe.” She suddenly looked over her shoulder to make sure that no one else had sneaked into the shop behind her. She shoved back in place a stray lock of hair that had escaped from her cotton cap and leaned slightly forward to talk in hushed tones.
            “It is a marvel, sir. It has given my husband his manhood back and made him most frolicsome. I have great hopes that before too long we may be blessed with a child of our very own after these five years of marriage, when everyone was thinking that I was barren. And it will be all thanks to your medicine, sir.”
            Without warning, she shot an arm out and hooked it round his neck, pulling him down towards her so that she could plant a kiss on his bearded cheek.
            Thomas immediately straightened and took a pace backwards. Mistress Blake sighed and shrugged her shoulders demurely.
            “I am sorry if I embarrassed you, but I just had to thank you, sir. You are the best apothecary we ever had, you see. Far better than that old faker who almost drowned when they gave him a ducking in the River Avon last summer.”
Thomas winced at the thought.  He had, of course, heard about his unfortunate predecessor’s fate when he first arrived in Newbold Revel, but from all he had heard he thought it most likely that the old man actually had indeed been a charlatan, a rogue who merely professed to having a knowledge of physic when in actuality he had none.
Thomas, on the other hand, knew that his treatment would have been of some help in calming her husband’s fears, and that nature and her own womanly wiles would have done the rest. The truth was that Mistress Mary Burke was a comely young woman, whom many a man would have been proud to share a home and a bed with, yet for some reason her husband had been unable to perform his husbandly duties. As a result, her family and neighbors had thought her barren and unable to produce a child; she had thought herself undesirable and became racked with guilt; and her husband had spent too much time in the taverns of Newbold Revel, supping ale and making the problem tenfold worse. 
            Hence she had come to Thomas Smythe the local apothecary for what she thought was a love potion. It was in fact an extract of pine together with dried and pulverized bullock’s testicles, an extremely useful remedy for making a man’s nether regions congest with blood.
He stroked his thick black beard as he took another backward step from her, for he was ever conscious that many years previously he had taken a vow.
“I fear my profession is almost as dangerous as that of a soldier’s,” he said with a rueful smile. “I would not welcome a turn in the town ducking stool.”
“You’ll never be in any danger, Master Smythe. Anyone can tell that you have a kindness and a goodness about you that marks you out as a healer. We need you to make medicines for us. Let others more suited to warfare be soldiers.”
            When she had gone Thomas stood for a moment rubbing his cheek, which felt as if it was glowing after the touch of her lips. It was a feeling that he remembered from his youth, when he had enjoyed the lifestyle of his rank and reveled in the company of the fairer sex. Yet all that had been before he had gained his spurs and taken his vows.
              Half memories threatened to burst forth from where he had long ago suppressed them and he shrugged them away as he usually did by beating his fist against his left shoulder, where he bore an old sword wound........

Keith Souter is a part time doctor, medical journalist and novelist. He writes westerns as Clay More and crime as Keith Moray. He is the current vice-president of Western Fictioneers. His latest book The Doctor's Bag has just been published by Sundown Press.


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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

#NewRelease -- Memories From Maple Street U.S.A: The Best Christmas Ever -- #Giveaway

What is Christmas all about? Wonderful memories! This collection of stories celebrates the very best and most poignant memories of the past, and is sure to have you laughing and crying right along with the authors who shared their stories in MEMORIES FROM MAPLE STREET, U.S.A.—THE BEST CHRISTMAS EVER! 

Who can forget those special Santa gifts that brought such joy to us in our childhood? Those toys we fervently hoped ol’ Santa would bring for us if we were good? Livia J. Washburn, Cheryl Pierson, and Tanya Hanson write about some of those hopes and dreams for that certain gift with a special, personal twist to each story. 

But Christmas memories also sometimes hold a special place in our hearts because of a person that was somehow important in our lives. Authors Sharon Cunningham, Beverly Wells, Carol Huff and Gigi Meyer weave that aspect of Christmas into their beautiful holiday tales, with remembrances of some very special people in their lives—and why Christmas means so much because of them. 

Kathleen Rice Adams pens a sentimental story of a wonderful gift to her mother from her father. And Charlie Steel’s story of hunting for the perfect Christmas tree with his father is sure to make you smile. Jim Landwehr, Tina Holt, and Randy Lee Eickhoff all give us a backward glance at the love and traditions from the past that make Christmas what it is, while Christine Waldman tells a poignant tale of Santa looking for his lost reindeer in the snow. 

This is one wonderful collection of heartfelt stories that you will not want to pass up—and it also makes a great gift for all ages—if you still believe in Santa!

Tell us about your favorite Christmas memory.  We'll be giving away a free ecopy to one lucky person who comments.

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