When people find out I’ve written a novel, they usually ask me either, “What made you decide to write a novel?” or, “Why the Civil War?” The answer to the first question is easy: It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a teenager. The answer to the second question is: Because I’ve been a history buff and fascinated with the Civil War and everything 1860s for as long as I can remember. But, if I were to be specifically asked, “What inspired you to write Road to Antietam?” the answer would be much more complex.
It all started when I read Antietam: The Soldiers’ Battle, by John Michael Priest. There are hundreds of books written about the battle of Antietam. There are battlefield guides, analytical studies, novels, and even what-if speculation. Almost all of them have one thing in common: they approach the battle from a high level, strategic view. Even most novels focus on the big-picture, either by making generals and politicians the main characters, or putting the main characters in situations where they are privy to major decisions and events.
But, what Priest did was something unique. He gives a chronological accounting of the battle through a series of stories told from the perspective of the common soldier, taken from letters and memoirs. With all those individual stories Priest shows the horrors and insanity of battle experienced by the men who fought on the fields of Antietam. But, by keeping things in chronological order, and providing an outline of what is happening at the beginning of each chapter, he still provides some big-picture perspective.
Not long after reading Priest’s book, I visited Antietam for the first time. Walking those fields and thinking about all those stories I knew I wanted to write a novel about that day. I just had figure out what that would look like.
The seminal Civil War novel of our generation is probably Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. It seems to be the yardstick against which all other Civil War novels are measured (and usually found wanting) in Amazon reviews. The Killer Angels tells the story of the battle of Gettysburg from the viewpoint of the leaders on both sides. The cast of characters is comprised almost entirely of the actual leaders of both armies.
While I loved the book—and enjoyed Gettysburg, the movie it inspired—I knew that was not the kind of novel I wanted to write. It had already been done several times by Michael Shaara, his son, Jeff Shaara, Ralph Peters, and others.
Even novels not focused on the high command usually have officers as their main character. That way they can still provide the big-picture context through some believable interaction with the high command, or have the flexibility to pursue a secondary storyline, such as a romance.
No, I wanted to tell the story of the common soldier; to take the secondary character in all those other novels and make him the hero of my story. Line officers and regimental commanders would have their scenes where required, but I would relegate the high command to scenery—a distant figure on a horse or in a grand review.
The trouble was, if I took away all that big-picture information, the battle by itself would just be a jumbled mess with little context and no emotional investment to draw in the reader. He or she would need time to bond with the main characters and understand what they were going through. So, instead of a novel just on the battle of Antietam, I decided to tell the story of a single company in a single regiment, with the battle as the climax.
I live in Ohio, so I wanted the regiment to be from Ohio. I’d been re-enacting with the 6th Ohio Volunteer Infantry out of Cincinnati since moving here, but they fought in the western theater and were not at Antietam. But the 8th OVI, formed in the northern part of the state, fought at the Bloody Lane. The eighth’s commander was Franklyn Sawyer, from Norwalk, OH. Sawyer started out the captain of Company D. So, Road to Antietam is the story of Company D of the 8th OVI.
Sawyer is in the book, as are many others, such as Parker Bonnett, Charlie Locker, Ebenezer Bunce, John Reid, Alex Melville, and more. I wanted to include as many men of Company D as I could to give them their due, but I didn’t want to mis-characterize anyone, so I created fictional characters as the protagonists.
Next, I’ll talk about the main characters, Daniel and Christopher Galloway, and my primary source material for many of the events that occur in the book. Like the supporting characters, most of the scenes are based on (or at least inspired by) real events.