An Interview With Author Sandra Merville Hart
Updated: a day ago
Award-winning author Sandra Merville Hart loves to uncover fascinating historical facts for her stories. A Musket in My Hands where two sisters join the Confederate army with the men they love, is the 2019 Serious Writer Medal Fiction Winner and a Selah Award Finalist. A Rebel in My House, set during the historic Battle of Gettysburg, won the Silver Illumination Award. A Stranger on My Land was IRCA Finalist. Surprised by Love in "From the Lake to the River" is set during the 1913 flood in Troy, Ohio. Trail’s End, in “Smitten Novella Collection: The Cowboys” is set in the 1870 cattle town of Abilene, Kansas. Not This Year is her story in the "Christmas Fiction Off the Beaten Path." Find her on her blog.
1. What inspired you to write historical fiction novels?
I love reading books set during historic eras. My high school history teacher instilled a love of history in me. Learning about the people who came before us, the choices they made, and thinking about how those choices affect us down through the ages is fun for me. I’m always looking to learn more. I’m the mom who took her family to museums, historic homes, and battlefields on vacation—sandwiched between fun, modern activities, of course. 😊
Our American history fascinates me and I want to highlight it in my stories. I also do a lot of research to discover what was happening at the time to add a layer of authenticity to my novels. Information from nonfiction books, articles, maps, and visits to story settings are amazing resources. Local museums are often the greatest sources of information.
I never know what will inspire a story so I take copious notes and try to soak up the history of a place like a sponge. Then I’m ready to take my readers back in time within the pages of a novel.
2. Your novel, A Musket in My Hands, is about two female soldiers. In your research on female Civil War soldiers, was there any information you found that surprised you?
I learned a lot of surprising information about women disguising themselves as Civil War soldiers. It’s far too much to share on this interview so I’ll give some highlights.
Neither the Union nor the Confederate armies allowed women to fight as soldiers, leading some women to disguise themselves as men to muster into the army.
There are about 400 known cases of women serving as Civil War soldiers on either side. In 1888, Mary Livermore of the U.S. Sanitary Commission wrote that she believed some weren’t discovered. Since most were revealed after serving at least 2 years, the true number is likely much higher.
Some reasons women joined the army: to keep an eye on husbands and beaus; to escape unbearable family situations; the pay; to experience adventure; and bonuses for new recruits. A myriad of reasons—as individual as the women themselves—drove them to don soldier’s garb and march into danger.
Reporters and editors praised the patriotism of women soldiers throughout the war. Soldiers wrote home when discovering female soldiers in their regiments. Citizens were aware that women served in the army on both sides.
My Civil War romance, A Musket in My Hands follows two sisters from Tennessee as they disguise themselves as soldiers in the fall of 1864. They join the men they love in the Confederate army—just in time for the war to grow progressively difficult for Southern soldiers. Tough marches lead them to the Battle of Franklin. How can anyone survive?
3. One of your novels is set at the Battle of Franklin. What did you learn about this battle, and why is the battle significant?
Yes, the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, is very important in my Civil War romance, A Musket in My Hands, so I spent a lot of time researching the battle. The Southerners lost this fierce battle and never recovered from it.
The Battle of Franklin was fought on November 30, 1864, yet the Battle of Spring Hill the day before was significant. The fighting there was small due, in part, to poor communication. To make matters worse, the Confederate army camped beside a road leading to Franklin that night. They were in front of the Federal army when they went to sleep. Unfortunately for the Southerners, the Federal army passed them on the road during the night. Confederate General Hood was informed of their passing about midnight and sent a division to extend the line and stop them. The Division lost their way in the dark so the Union army was able to reach Franklin ahead of the Confederates.
General Hood was not happy the next morning—and neither were his generals after a meeting with him. They trailed the Federal army to Franklin, which they reached that afternoon.
Confederate soldiers looked across the valley to the Union soldiers guarding the city from fortified positions and began writing letters of goodbye to loved ones back home. Chaplains received watches, rings, and other prized possessions for safekeeping when orders were received to attack.
This battle took place late in the war. Many veteran soldiers who had been fighting over three years recalled this as the fiercest fighting they encountered.
Federal soldiers had repeating rifles, fired from fortified positions. General Patrick Cleburne was killed. There were 50% casualties among his troops. General Brown’s Division lost its commander, all 4 brigade commanders, 5 regimental commanders, and suffered 31% losses. The fierce fighting ending around 9 pm, 4 hours after sundown. It was a cold night where the screams and prayers of the wounded tormented all within hearing.
Major General Benjamin Franklin Cheatham, commander of a corps, held a torch after the battle and walked along the road among the fallen soldiers with tears on his cheeks. The Union army retreated from Franklin during the night and marched to Nashville, where another battle would be fought in December … another loss for the Confederates.
4. Why do you think the Western Theater of the Civil War is important?
A lot of important battles were fought in the Western Theater but most folks know more about what happened in the East and the South. Strong feelings about legislation like the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act led to disagreements and violence long before the war started. Neither side wanted to compromise.
It seems that there was more division among families and neighbors caused by the war in states like Missouri and Kansas than in the East—though there was plenty of division in those states as well. “Bleeding Kansas” had been settled by Northerners and Southerners who clashed over whether the new territory should be free or not. Violence there began before the war started and ended when the war did.
5. Are there any more historical novels you’re currently working on?
Thanks for asking! Yes, I am writing a new Civil War series that highlights the spying that occurred during the war. Folks might be surprised to learn how many Confederate spies and sympathizers lived in Washington City (as Washington DC was then called) during the war. From the city where President Abraham Lincoln resided, spies passed on military orders and Union fortification plans. They reported troop strength and movements to Southern generals. Though my main characters are fictitious, historical figures sometimes grace the page—including one of the historical Confederate spies who eventually was arrested.
The next book will deal with some of the activities taking place in Richmond, Virginia, the capital city of the Confederacy. I’m enjoying digging into the history of both cities.
6. If you could go back in time, what historical figure would you like to meet and why?
What a fun question! There are so many that I would choose if given the opportunity. I’m fascinated by the Civil War so it seems fitting to choose that era of our history.
President Abraham Lincoln is someone I’d like to meet. He was hated by half the country and loved by the other half. It’s tough to excel with so much opposition yet he pushed through it.
I wrote a novel set during the Battle of Gettysburg and the days that followed called A Rebel in My House. That battle has long fascinated me and I knew I had to write about it. I traveled there to discover the story that the history showed me … then I wrote the novel.
Perhaps because of that, if I could travel back in time, I’d attend the Dedication Ceremony for the National Cemetery in Gettysburg on Thursday, November 19, 1863, to witness Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address spoken by the president. (If I may be greedy, I’d arrive the day before and join the celebratory spirit that seized the town with bands playing, singing, and speeches that lasted well into the night.) I’d clap and cheer with crowd when the speech was interrupted several times to show the audiences’ approval. I’d be among the crowd who shook his hand in the home of Gettysburg attorney David Wills later that day. I’d say an encouraging word to comfort the grieving father and president. Then I’d join the crowd who waved handkerchiefs as his train chugged away from the depot.
Thanks for inviting me to share a few thoughts with you today. I’ve had a wonderful time.