McBride At Rest

McBride At Rest

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Stacks of Books

With Might & Main is for sale on Amazon!  With Might & Main is for sale on Amazon! Whew, I’m happy to say that. I’m hoping it’s my best book yet.

I’m a tree hugger and I love books, so this photo probably shows the best dead tree anywhere.
The tall stack of wooden books prompted me to pull off the bookcase the volumes I used to research With Might & Main. In comparison, my books about the Civil War in Louisiana in 1863 and 1864 are a short stack. 

It would be a much taller stack if I could have figured out how to include the many online websites I used. It bothers me a little that those sources exist only in my laptop, but boy, were they helpful in ‘digging deep’ after some bit of arcane information.

The cover image of With Might & Main is a remarkable small painting that is also a poignant primary source. The painting is a rendition of the Battle of Milliken’s Bend, a small engagement, almost lost to history. Milliken’s Bend was a landing on the west side of the Mississippi River, a few miles upriver of Vicksburg. There, on June 7, 1863, while the siege of Vicksburg was ongoing, an all-Texan force of Confederates assaulted a similar-sized garrison of Union soldiers who had fortified a section of flood control levees.

The painting is the work of a 19-year-old Texas soldier who was wounded in the hip during the Texans’ attack. After he fell, he sat and watched the hand-to-hand fighting on top of the levee. After the battle, he was taken to a field hospital where he created the painting while a patient in the hospital. The young soldier was named David Batey. He was a private in the 17th Texas Infantry and lived near Bastrop, Texas before the war. He died in the field hospital of his battle wound, probably from infection, which is a slow and painful way to go. Someone saved his painting and somehow it was returned to his family. A fold is visible, suggesting it was mailed. A relative of Private Batey still has it.

While Private Batey’s painting is primitive, it also is chock-full of clearly defined details. Batey portrays many of the Rebel soldiers wearing red shirts and suspenders rather than gray jackets. Muskets are upended being swung as clubs. There are ‘bombs bursting in air’ and billowing smoke from two steamboats behind the levee in the river. A Confederate soldier is waving a captured Union flag. The bloody dead and wounded litter the ground.

All in all, the image is a fairly spectacular painting of the small vicious battle at a location that has since been covered over by a course change of the Mississippi River. You can’t walk the ground or climb the levee where 1,400 white Texans and a like number of black freedmen from Louisiana went at each with ‘hammer and tongs’ in the first battle for all of them. But you can look at the battle in color from the viewpoint of gallant Private Batey and imagine being there.

And you can make my day by ordering With Might & Main to read during the interminable ads during football games on TV.  Here is a link to my author’s page on Amazon where any of my novels can be ordered.

Let me see, should I buy a Whataburger to eat during the game or McBride’s new book? Choices, choices.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Women and Children

We visited the Houston Museum of Fine Art last weekend. The temperature was about a thousand degrees and humid as only the Gulf Coast can get in August, and after walking just a few blocks, the air conditioning in the museum was wonderful. We saw a lot of art and artifacts from all over. But one artifact attached to a wall in a great big shadow box unsettled me. Look at the photos.

Look at the strips of linen that are interlaced over the child’s face, hinting at her facial features. Maybe creepy, maybe just poignant. The strips of cloth  also remind me of the lattice-work crust my mother would put on her apple pies. The painting on her chest represent her heart and her parents—grieving parents I would imagine. Parents who spent a lot of money to prepare and bury their daughter for eternity. I’m glad they don’t know she is now a wall exhibit half a world away. I have granddaughters who are not much older than this four-year-old mummified Egyptian girl who died 2,000 years ago, whose earthly remains now adorn a museum wall in Houston, Texas. I hope that 2,000 years from no earth girl’s carefully wrapped remains wind up adorning a museum wall on Mars or somewhere half a galaxy away.

Going back 155 years, not 2,000 years, look at another photo. This is Sarah Katherine Stone, a young woman who was raised on Brokenburn Plantation in Louisiana. 

She was about 20 years old when the Civil War started. In 1853, she became a war refugee.  who fled to Tyler, Texas, where it was safer. Not an unfamiliar theme, continuing to the present day wherever war happens. Civilians where the fighting erupts, bug out. One difference is that the Stone family, led by Katherine’s widowed mother, left their home with a good number of their slaves, which constituted a huge portion of their wealth as Southern planters.

Miss Stone was a diarist and journal writer, who wrote about the terrible war being waged around her home and how it was affecting her one family. Her daily entries reveal feelings and intelligent reflections as multi-layered as the wrappings covering the little mummified Egyptian girl’s face.

They reveal a young plantation belle who had to ride through the night to escape an invading army. They reveal a person of wealth who bemoans the loss of the comforts and trappings of wealth. They reveal a girl scared of the violent behavior of freed slaves. But her words also reveal a level of grit and perseverance that are commendable.

I used Miss Stone’s journal as inspiration for one of the few women characters in With Might & Main. Several of her journal entries are included, as I’ve put a primary source quote at the beginning of each chapter.

In contrast to the character inspired by Miss Strawn, I’ve created Olive, a young woman born into plantation slavery who was designated as playmate, companion, and later the personal servant of her white mistress.  Their story and relationship are only sidebars to the military tale of With Might & Main, but the two women do open a gate for highlighting the civilian side of a complicated time in war-ravaged Louisiana.

I’ve finished the rough manuscript of With Might & Main, and hope the editing will be done in time for an end of September book release. Hope you will stay tuned.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Lizards, Rhinos, and Waffling

That’s me, but the critter on my shoulder is not Leine, the star of my last novel, A Different Dragon Entirely

Smaug is the critter’s name, and Smaug hales from Australia and belongs to my grand-nephew Archer.  Smaug is not a Texas horny toad as Leine is, he’s longer and has no horns at all on head or torso. He can scuttle with great exuberance across the carpet, and he does cling with authority to one’s shoulder with his spatula-type feet and claws. He has holes in the side of head, which I suppose are ears. But he doesn’t squirt blood from his eyes to deter predators like Texas horny toads do, and he certainly isn’t cabin-size and able to float and fly like Leine. And as much as I tried to commune with Smaug via telepathic Latin, I never got so much as a grunt from him/her.

For all those differences, I found Smaug to be a delightful faux-Leine during our weekend visit to Archer’s house. Archer is named Archer because his parents are both nuts for fantasy books, a genre in which a good archer is pretty much required for any company of main characters who take on all sorts of beasties. So, we have a teenage Archer in our McBride clan now, and Archer has his own mini-dragon named Smaug. I don’t know if Archer can handle a bow and launch an arrow that will take out the eye of a charging warg, but he beat me in a chess game when he was ten, and was on his school’s chess team.

Since this post started with a lizard named Smaug, Part 2 features a nameless two-headed rhino I found on the internet.

 I showed this one to four-year-old grandson Jackson who couldn’t wrap his head around it until I used two of his identical toy woolly mammoths to demonstrate the illusion of a big critter who doesn’t seem to know if he’s coming or going.

Not knowing if one is coming or going is one of the norms of modern life in which we all face too many demands, too many choices, and too many magical electronic gizmos we call ‘devices’ these days.

‘Which way to go’ was also a decision made every day for a few months for the three ranking Confederate generals in Louisiana in the spring of 1864. That’s where my company of main characters (who are archerless) find themselves in With Might & Main. They are marched hither and yon, all over much of Louisiana for weeks, as the Confederate brain trust grapples with how to stop an invading Union army that is three or four times its size and supported by a strong fleet of river-born ironclad gunships.

The climax of With Might & Main reflects the surprising historical outcome of those Rebel generals’ dilemma. Rather it will, as soon as I quit acting like a two-headed rhino and make my own final charge to get the climax written.

 I tend to waffle when it comes to letting my fingers on the keyboard finally decide which of my beloved characters needs to die in battle.

I hope August starts well for you, and I get down to business and finish WM&M before Labor Day.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Me & American Outlaws

Twenty years ago, or maybe it was nineteen, I worked one day as an extra on the movie set of American Outlaws. My ‘co-stars’ were Ali Larter (of a memorable scene in Varsity Blues), Scott Caan (son of James), Colin Farrell  (Alexander the Great himself), Timothy Dalton (a once-only James Bond), and the glorious Kathy Bates (who made us all cringe when she used a hammer on James Caan’s knees in Misery).

American Outlaws cost $34 million to produce--$125 went to me for my day’s work. I suspect my named co-stars worked at a higher pay grade--and brought in $13 million at the box office. Wasn’t exactly a slam-dunk movie, but I have the disk and it is fun to watch every now and then.

My appearance is visual only, and only for a few seconds, while the fellow in front of me made a much better daily wage speaking a few lines to Colin Farrell who was portraying Jesse James, telling him that General Lee had just surrendered in Virginia.

My son Ben was working at the local movie theater in Lockhart when the film came around in 2001, and the theater owner obligingly snipped a couple of frames from the reel and gave them to Ben to give to me, since I was a hometown guy and a star in the film. There I am, on celluloid and the silver screen with brushed-on grit and grime on my face and wearing my Confederate reenacting uniform.

There were thirty or more of us extras in the line of dirty Rebs marching along in that scene. I heard one fun comment from the staffer in the costume trailer who was handing out artfully ragged Confederate uniform costumes to the guys who answered the call for extras, but didn’t have their own outfit like we reenactors did. He said those uniforms had been hanging in a studio storeroom since they used in the fantastic wide-angle scene of the Confederate wounded lying on the ground in Atlanta in Gone With the Wind some sixty years earlier. Maybe that was BS or maybe he was telling it straight. I dunno, but it was a great line.

Anyway, I was near the front of the line of extras, with my mug visible, with directions to dare not look directly into the lens of the camera, and to look grim and weary. How I came to be in front of the line and behind the actor who spoke is a mystery. I confess I did figure out that those guys in the back would likely not be seen in the final movie version, but I didn’t fight to move up in the column, like the third monkey in line to get on the ark. Maybe I did growl once or twice and shove a little bit, though. After all, nobody was going to call me by name to go to the head of the line, so a man had to look out for his fame and glory.

 We did at least fifteen takes of the tiny scene, enough to make me wonder how a whole film is ever finished. We were on a remote location at Camp Swift near Bastrop, thirty miles east of Austin. There were innumerable vehicles, generators, shade awnings and comfortable chairs for the real actors. We Rebs waited in the shade of some trucks, sitting on the grass, likely getting chigger bit. There were numerous young pretty women darting around on important errands. We were fed well. I never laid eyes on Ali or Kathy or Tim since they weren’t in our scene.
I’m glad to have the two frames of film as a memento of a long, hot enjoyable day seeing how Hollywood works out in the backwoods, near Bastrop, Texas.

There is a geographic link in this memory, as my new novel in progress, With Might & Main, features a couple of historical characters who were from Bastrop. One was Colonel R.T.P. Allen, a West Pointer, who opened and ran a military academy in Bastrop before the Civil War. He served as the first commanding colonel of the 4th Texas Infantry regiment in Virginia, and then the 17th Texas Infantry regiment, which fought in Louisiana, the outfit the novel is about. Unfortunately, while Allen was acknowledged to be an exceptional drill master, he must have been a very difficult man, for he was removed from not one, but both of his  regimental commands during the war, including the 17th.  Allen finished the war commanding the POW camp in Tyler—Camp Ford.

The other fellow from Bastrop was an attorney before the war, Captain Elijah Petty. He wrote dozens of letters home to his wife that have been published, and provided me with wonderful ‘behind the scenes’ snapshots of life in a Confederate army regiment.  Reading his anecdotal, sometimes lengthy and detailed letters about his personal daily activities and what was going on around him, was similar to working that day as a movie extra—seeing how sausage is made, so to speak. Petty was a handsome guy and his historical fate is part of the climax of With Might & Main, so I’ll leave you guessing.  His letters reveal a devoted husband and father who was very concerned for his family back in Texas, as well as loyal Confederate officer.

I hope to have the manuscript of With Might & Main completed by the end of August. More later.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

With Might and Main

How about that guy. More than a bird, more than an eagle. He’s All-American, wide-eyed and laser-focused on his job. On this Memorial Day weekend, I think that photograph superbly exemplifies our military servicemen and women. Bless them all.
Now, moving back in time, since my 2019 novel-in-progress tells a tale about the 17th Texas Infantry during the Civil War, here are two photographs of Texas soldiers who served in that regiment. Both were similarly wounded in the Battle at Milliken’s Bend on the west bank of the Mississippi River in Louisiana on June 7, 1863. Both were shot in the shoulder during the Confederate assault.

You can see that the first image is of a young man. That’s Captain Elijah P. Petty of Bastrop, Texas, whose collection of dozens of letters he wrote home to his wife and daughter have been published in a book titled Journey to Pleasant Hill. Fascinating letters. They reveal a loving, honorable husband and father, and dedicated officer.  There’s no post-war photo of Captain Petty because he died leading his company in battle on April 8, 1864 at the Battle of Pleasant Hill. He was killed when a little iron ball—grapeshot—fired from a cannon smashed into his chest.
This second photo is of another officer in the 17th Texas Infantry, Captain Samuel McDowell of Lockhart, Texas, my hometown. McDowell led Company K, the company that I’m writing about.

 After being wounded in battle, McDowell became ill and couldn’t shake the debilitation, so he was sent back to Texas. He recovered and lived until 1920, and was 87 at the time of the photo.

At age 93, as Americans were fighting in Europe during WWI, he wrote a simplistic but charming poem about being a soldier for his eight-year-old great-grandson’s birthday.  Here’s one verse, one line of which I’ve lifted to be the title of my Civil War novel about the 17th Texas Infantry, the outfit in which Captains Petty and McDowell honorably served.

Oh, I wish I were a soldier, you bet.
I’d fight with might and main,
Maybe I’d strut around with epaulets
When home I’d come again.

I mentioned in a post earlier this year that I was still searching for a good title for my new novel about the 17th Texas. With Might and Main, it is, even if that’s not a phrase that’s still used today, it does the job for me and came from the pen of a real soldier who is central to my tale. Thank you, Captain McDowell.

On Memorial Day weekend, a day of remembering that began in 1866 in honor of those who gave their ‘last full measure’ during the Civil War, I hope you will hold still for a minute or two. Hold still while you cast a prayer of thanks for all the military service men and women who still protect us, and the memory of all those who for nearly 250 years have fought ‘with might and main’ for our country.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Library Museum Closet

I want a job where I can go to the closet and bring out a box of toys like these:
First, the Confederate uniform jacket and shirt, and one home-knitted blue sock of 15-yr-old Private Joe Weekes, who was captured at Ft. Gaines on Mobile Bay, Alabama.

Second, the privately-purchased Sharps carbine of a gentleman named Tucker who lived in Galveston and served the Confederacy.

Third, a preserved square of hardtack carried home by a Wisconsin soldier.

Fourth, a box of 6 Colt Army Pistol cartridges from the Laboratory of the Confederacy.

The word dumbfounded isn’t strong enough to describe my surprise yesterday when I saw all those items laying on a table.

Eleanor Barton, the archivist of the Galveston Rosenberg Library Museum, and hostess of the museum’s quarterly noon reading group, brought them out of storage to add ‘spice’ to my talk about Tangled Honor, one of my Civil War novels.

I was already honored for the invitation to talk to the group about the Galveston connection of the historical Capt. JJ McBride of the 5th Texas Infantry in Robert E. Lee’s army, and his slave Levi Miller, the two main ‘fictionalized’ characters in Tangled Honor.  

Yet, when I saw the Private Weekes’ uniform jacket, with a value of many thousands of dollars, my brain forgot my book characters. Instead I stood wide-eyed in front of the table, peering down like a spellbound school kid. I don’t think I drooled on any of the artifacts, but I can’t guarantee it.

It didn’t hurt that in 2004, as a Confederate reenactor-living historian, I spent a very wet weekend inside Fort Gaines where Private Weekes became a prisoner of war. It didn’t hurt that a historical character in my Texas Ranger novel, A Different Country Entirely, carried a Sharps carbine in his 1854 tour of Texas.

And it didn’t hurt that last week I’d baked a dozen hardtack crackers to show to a bunch of school kids during my Civil War soldier program. That’s me in the uniform (reproduction uniform, not an artifact) of a Union lieutenant at Kelly Lane Middle School.

After the shock of sharing the spotlight with the treasures from the library museum, I had a great time yacking with the two men and fifteen women about Tangled Honor and Galveston. I admitted that the main woman character is not a typical Victorian-era wife, but Charles Dickens has that genre well covered. My character, Faith Samuelson was created for ‘spice,’ just like the artifacts set out on the table for my talk.

They professed to like my accurate portrayal of the military history and daily lives of the soldiers, and they were intrigued, as I’d hoped, about the evolving relationship between the master-and-slave main characters, which is one of the core themes in the novel.

I tried not to pitch the two follow-up Honor novels that complete the story begun in Tangled Honor. I likely failed at that since I’ve become an unabashed self-promoter of my novels, but no one seemed to mind.

Monday, February 25, 2019

A Palm Tree, A Wall, and a Battlefield

South Padre Island is where Texas college kids go to party on the beach during spring break. Do I look like a college kid? I didn't think so.

So our group of four retired couples went on a cold, windy week in February. (The pool was heated the pink margarita was not.) I think this palm tree outside our rented condo balcony sums up the weather we enjoyed. I’m not sure if ‘Mr. Palm’ was guarding us or waiting to eat us.

One day we visited the Battle of Palo Alto National Military Park located just north of the Rio Grande River. Palo Alto was the first battle of the little war fought from 1846 to 1848 between the United States and Mexico. The two-year war was the concluding act of fifty years of fighting over land that now constitutes Texas, and much, much more soil that is now part of the United States. Like almost half the United States. In that part of Texas, the conflict stemmed over Mexico’s claim that Texas ended at the Nueces River, about a hundred miles north of the Rio Grande, versus Texas’ claim to all land north of the Rio Grande River, not the Nueces River. That includes the fertile strip of farm land we Texans now call ‘The Valley.’

The battlefield at Palo Alto for the first hundred and fifty years after the war remained as privately-owned ranch land where cattle grazed and local folks picnicked and hunted for cannon balls. It wasn’t until the presidency of George Bush I that the Department of the Interior acquired the land. It was not until the presidency of George W Bush that the visitor center, complete with a fine short explanatory film, museum and book store, and the interpretive battlefield walks were built. I’m sure it’s just coincidence that the father and son presidents haled from Texas when the land was bought and the site developed.

The landscape reminded me very much of the grassy, marshy landscape at Culloden battlefield in Scotland, where English soldiers, musketry and cannons destroyed the Highlander warrior clans. 

At Palo Alto, eighty years after Culloden, I suspect many of the U.S. Army soldiers were recent immigrants from England. And the same combination of superior firepower and training sent the Mexican army reeling at Palo Alto.

Finally, because we were just north of the U.S.-Mexican border—the Rio Grande River—we were all curious to see ‘The Wall’ which is so dominating the news these days. From a state highway we were close enough to take this photo in a tiny crossroads hamlet.

Yes, the wall already goes this close to houses where people live. By the way, we also saw a few big tethered blimps floating above the river, I suppose providing airborne video border surveillance where the wall is not built.  We also saw an endless number of white and green Border Patrol vehicles and black ‘Task Force’ SUV’s everywhere we went. Our nation’s ongoing efforts to guard the border we won (some would say took, others would say saved) by force of arms back in 1846 at Palo Alto, right in the same neighborhood, is highly evident.

I am a Texan who views building more miles of wall along the Rio Grande as an expensive waste of money that would be better spent on services to detox and provide job training to those Americans whose lives are being shattered by Mexican drugs. Nonetheless, I have now seen a bit of the Great American Border Wall, and have shared a photo with you.

I promise that my next blog post will focus on the serendipitous outcomes of my research efforts for my new novel.