Author Harriet Cannon and I connect during an author talk I gave last October. Harriet’s latest novel EXILED SOUTH released January 3rd, 2022. Exiled South is a dual time-line story of a twenty first century woman’s reckoning with Civil War era events that split her family for generations. The story features nursing during the late American Civil war and in particular during the Siege of Charleston South Carolina.
The seeds of Exiled South, a dual time-line contemporary-nineteenth century novel, germinated for years. I grew up in a history loving, storytelling family. My mother inherited a bundle of family Civil War era letters. My father’s mother told and re-told her grandmother’s story of sacrificing wedding pearls and a ring in 1864 to save her fourteen- year-old son from the draft and certain death. Her son departed Charleston harbor on a ship headed for the Bahama Islands and was never heard from again. Years later, while living in South America, I learned the obscure story of the Confederados; Former blockade runners, skilled Black tradesmen, and others with reasons to flee the South immigrated to Brazil after the Civil War. I was hooked. I decided to write a novel about far-reaching consequences for civilians reeled into in a war they may not have agreed with.
It was a challenge to write a mid-nineteenth century character like my protagonist Laurette, keeping her true to the mind-set of the era while concurrently creating a forward-thinking woman with gumption. I read a plethora of fascinating nineteenth century diaries and collections of letters written by well-educated Southern White women; tutored at home or allowed to attend the new academies for girls. While some women had strong social reform or political opinions, the freedom to speak out or act independently was heavily restricted by the rigid Victorian rules of gender comportment. Rare exceptions such as the famous, Grimke Sisters, overt suffragettes, and abolitionists, with wealth and social status behind them could step outside the boundary of homemaking and childrearing.
An additional challenge creating Laurette’s character was the fact, in the South, in the 1860’s, female ‘nurses’ were widows or older married women who had experienced death and dying in the family and knew The Ladies Indispensable Assistant inside out. Younger single women visited hospitals to write letters and read to patients but it could ruin a unmarried woman’s reputation to physically minister to unrelated men.
When the siege of Charleston began, people of means fled the city in the ‘grand skedaddle’ of July 1863. The remaining women, children, old or disabled White and Black men lived through Federal bombardment from Morris Island for 567 days. Food insecurity became the norm. Life threatening random rockets exploding on the peninsula kept farmers from supplying Charleston with fresh food with any regularity. Making matters worse, as the South was desperate for military supplies from Great Britain, fewer blockade runners could justify adding civilian necessities like muslin for clothing, thread, medicines, and kerosine for lamps to their cargo.
However, the Siege relaxed social rules giving my protagonist Laurette the opportunity to work at the hospital nursing male patients. I created a backstory that would make sense when she knew to use snapdragon for skin rashes, tea of slippery elm for whopping cough and the inner bark of the dogwood tree as a replacement for quinine when it became unavailable. Laurette acquired knowledge of herbs and plants because her father had been a no nonsense practical Scottish immigrant with a chronically ill wife. When Laurette showed interest in the healing arts, he gave her permission to study ‘Hoodoo Medicine’ from a free Black woman and local midwife.
Although racism was exceptionally cruel in the nineteenth century, it was not unusual for Black and White women to assist each other in childbirth, caretaking of sick children and to share herbal remedies. In her book, Hoodoo Medicine: Gullah Herbal Remedies, Faith Mitchell discusses not only the medicinal knowledge enslaved women brought to North America, but she also compares the similarity between European, Native American, and African plants and trees used for healing various ailments.
Serendipitously, in the mid nineteenth century, native flora and fauna had become popular additions to the fashionable home garden. The naturalist, Dr. Francis Porcher, published Resources of Southern Fields and Forests in 1863. His book became a go to medical guide in the late Civil War when opium for pain, quinine for fevers and chloroform for surgery were impossible to come by.
But finding the plants and herbs needed wasn’t easy during the siege of Charleston. Laurette’s diary entries tell how she and another herbalist, risked rape by deserters hiding in bombed out buildings as they sought out plants they needed in abandoned gardens.
Dr. Porcher’s book became a bonding vehicle for Laurette and her brother-in-law, John, who considered himself a modern scientific physician. In his mind, Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, written by a doctor, justified using herbs and elevated his unmarried sister-in-law to the position of a colleague making her plant-based recipes legitimate treatments not old fashion folk medicine. Although Laurette’s skill as a nurse herbalist brought her respect, the consequences for the choices she made on behalf of her patients forced her to join the diaspora of Southerners who immigrate to Brazil at the war’s end.
Read more about Exiled South at www.harrietcannon.com
A few interesting books on the practice of medicine during the Civil War Era:
- Hoodoo Medicine: Gullah Herbal Remedies, Faith Mitchell
- Kate: The Journal of a Confederate Nurse, Kate Cummins edited by Richard Harwell
- The Ladies Indispensable Assistant, E. Hutchinson (1851)
- Motherhood in the Old South: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Infant Rearing, by Sally G. McMillen
- Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Dr. Francis Porcher (1863)
- Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex and the Civil War, Thomas P. Lowry
- Unvanquished: How Confederate Women Survived the Civil War, Pippa Pralen
It’s fascinating that there are so many untold stories out there waiting to be discovered. Many thanks for sharing the backstory for Exiled South, Harriet. I know your audience will enjoy the way you’ve brought authenticity and inspiration to the novel.
Exiled South by Harriet Cannon ~~ Lizbeth Gordon, a school counselor and master at facilitating conflict resolution in everyone’s life but her own, returns home to South Carolina after her husband’s sudden death. An elderly aunt has troubling stories of ancestors who disappeared during Civil War Reconstruction. Curiosity drives Lizbeth into roots research that dead ends.
But tentacles of family history reach across the continents when Lizbeth takes a job at an international school in Rio de Janeiro. She meets multiethnic descendants of Confederate exiles with her surname and nineteenth-century documents. Robert Gordon’s letters describe bold escapes from Federal blockaders and Civil War intrigue in Scotland. His sister, Laurette Gordon, left a diary that shares a heart-wrenching story of sacrifice that insured her daughter’s life would be free of shame. Will the keys to family secrets help Lizbeth open a door to family reconciliation?
A story of family identity and second chances.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon US, Amazon Canada, Kobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.