Bonnet - Bartos Collection-222x302px
Are you sure you’d like to live back then?

One Reason They Didn’t Smile

“…  [Husbands] may use any reasonable amount of force …. “

“The rights of the husband over the wife, as defined by our laws, are of the most absolute character known to civilization. Held to be one flesh in the religious rite, the being of the wife, or her legal existence, is merged in that of her husband. Except where the Womans (sic) Rights movement has affected recent legislation, the wife has

  • No property
  • Can make no contract or will
  • Collect no wages
  • Nor support herself in any legal way, independent of her husband.”

So begins T.C. Leland in his Illustrated Manners Book, published by Leland, Clay & Co. in 1855.

And why would this presumed authority include this information in a book on etiquette? Because if a woman were going to behave properly, she had to understand her status. In the case of married women in the United States in the 1850s — and earlier, of course — that status was little better than a slave.

As diarist Mary Chesnut famously has said, “There is no slave, after all, like a wife.” … More

Short hair
This beautifully dressed young woman is elegant in her short hair.

Yes, They Sometimes Wore Their Hair Short

Spoiler warning: you’ll never look at a historical films the same way again.

Living historians look for obvious markers that authenticity matters in film productions. For women, the most obvious marker is the actresses’ hair. One film in particular comes to mind. All the actresses have appropriate hairstyles, except the main character, who is a grown young woman wearing her hair down to her shoulders and continually falling in her face. There are inaccuracies of behavior aplenty, but it’s the hair that makes me cringe. Think of this post as a primer for Hollywood, if you will. …More


Not historical
Authentic? No. But some “historical” writing is a similar mix of it-might-be and facts, and just about as authentic.


History by Any Other Facts Is Fiction

File this blog post in the Complaint section. I can’t help it. This is something that needs to be said.

I have a philosophy of writing that is simple: if it’s fiction, call it fiction; if it really happened, call it history. Don’t confuse the two.

I research, research, research to arrive at the most accurate representation of my fictional characters and their times as I can. I’ve said before and will say again that I find it impossible to call a work of fiction “historical” just because it is set in an earlier time period. … More



Bullet Hole - Charleston Museum
The War was a failure by good men on both sides to do their best to solve their problems.

What to Call The War that Killed 750,000 Americans

I read the comments on blogs about The War. Some of them are insulting, combative, and offensive.

I’m talking about The War that happened in the United States when Americans fought each other between 1861 and 1865. There even are volatile feelings triggered by which name is used for The War, never mind the particulars, such as what caused it. … More




Senator and Mrs. James Chesnut Jr.
General and Mrs. James Chesnut Jr.

“I was made to do an awfully rude thing”

It was a sad confession by prominent South Carolina socialite Mary Chesnut. The person who “made” her be rude was her husband, General James Chesnut Jr., confidant of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and a powerful influence in Southern circles. He was highly respected by men and women alike, the son of a wealthy South Carolina planter.

Yet, the famous diarist wrote of her humiliation at his hands:

“I was made to do an awfully rude thing. (William Henry) Trescot wanted to see Mr. C (Chesnut) on particular business. I left him on the stairs, telling him to wait for me there, I would be back in an instant. … More

John Pelham in the Crucible at West Point

Cadet John Pelham
Cadet John Pelham at the U.S. Military Academy

Cadet John Pelham was probably holding his breath when Colonel Alvan Gilham saw him at the United States Military Academy in the spring of 1861. South Carolina had left the Union on 20 December 1860, followed by Mississippi, Florida and finally John’s home state of Alabama on 11 January 1861.

Now, the young cadet knew it was just a matter of time before he would have to resign and return to Alabama. … More

Major John Pelham’s Character Saves the Life of His Brother Peter

Brother's closeup
Private Peter Pelham

The strident notes of “Boots and Saddles” roused young Private Peter Pelham out of his blankets on the frosty ground at Lavergne, Tennessee, on 7 October 1862. Scrambling to his feet, he gathered his sword, its wooden scabbard made in his home state of Alabama, and his muzzle-loading shotgun, and raced for his horse.

Pete had defied his father’s direct order not to enlist in Confederate service. He was in delicate health, and Dr. Atkinson Pelham tried pleading with him, citing the hardships  that accompanied camp life and campaigning. Then he tried ordering him. But Dr. Pelham couldn’t keep 21-year-old Pete home. … More

General Gillen
Was Union Brigadier General Alvan Cullom Gillem the man who saved Confederate Private Peter Pelham’s life?

The Mystery Man Who Saved His Adversary’s Life

The Union colonel looked at the young Confederate private dressed in citizen’s clothes. The private was facing a death sentence for being a bushwhacker. He had fired on Union soldiers, was by himself, wore no uniform, had nothing that identified him as a Confederate cavalryman. Everything indicated he was a bushwhacker.

The only thing the earnest young man had in his defense was his word that he was indeed in Confederate service and had become separated from his unit while looking for his wounded brother.

The colonel held the young man’s life in his hands. He asked some questions: did he know John Pelham and details about John’s life.

Then, the colonel turned to the court and said,  “‘I believe this boy is telling the truth. I know John Pelham; we were together at West Point last year, and I know John Pelham would not tell a lie under any circumstances; this boy describes him perfectly and looks like him.’”

The court declared the young Confederate innocent of bushwhacking.

Imagine your life being saved because of the honorable character of your brother! I wanted to know more. …  More

Privations Began Early for Captain John Pelham and Stuart’s Horse Artillery

John Pelham
This portrait of the brilliant Confederate artillerist John Pelham was taken in New York after Pelham resigned from the U.S. Military Academy. He was on his way South.

Tucked away in an unlikely corner of the National Archives is a file containing the records of two transactions documenting the beginning and end of the heroic career of Confederate Lt. Col. John Pelham. Ironically, they are filed under “citizen,” meaning “civilian.” Although Col. Pelham was most certainly a citizen, the South’s celebrated artillerist was definitely not a civilian.

I came across the records while looking for color to enhance the authenticity of my historical fiction series Before the Civil War. The “citizen” folder made me doubt this was the John Pelham who held the flank of the Union army at bay with only one gun at Fredericksburg.

But I looked at it anyway and there was The Gallant Pelham, going about his everyday business with no thought that 155 or so years later a writer would find his record keeping of interest. These records are of interest because it is possible to add details to our understanding of the young hero’s life by gleaning clues from those scraps of paper. … More