Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Little History, a Little Mystery

Trousdale County, TN Courthouse

By Chester Campbell

I’ve always been a bit of a history buff, which I suppose contributed to my love of research. The problem, as any conscientious researcher knows, is that you invariably come across some interesting tidbit that has no relation to the subject. However, it seems too intriguing to pass by, so you’re off on a tangent.

When that happens, I try to find some way to work it into the story.

Take, for instance, when I went to the small town of Hartsville, about forty miles northeast of Nashville, looking for good places to commit a few murders. I always consult AAA maps and Mapquest and Google maps before making such ventures. I had found a likely spot along a bend in the Cumberland River and decided to check it out.

To get there, I had to go through downtown Hartsville. You’d miss it if you blinked twice, but I stopped to admire the century-old Trousdale County Courthouse, which looks more like a very large red brick residence. Although it stands more than a mile from the river, it was deluged with several feet of water during the disastrous 1927 flood season. What I found most interesting was a tall granite obelisk in front bearing a tarnished metal plate that read:

HERE, DEC. 7TH 1862,

Though not a Civil War buff, I had heard of the famous John Hunt Morgan and his cavalry raiders. But I put that aside as I took a major highway south from downtown (in this area that means a nice, paved two-lane road). Shortly before reaching the river, I spotted a sign pointing toward the Battle of Hartsville Park. I detoured over to take a look.

I learned that Morgan’s advance had worn Union blue uniforms to fool the enemy sentinels. In less than two hours of fighting, the Confederate party of 1,500 had surrounded the Federals and convinced them to surrender, taking 1,800 prisoners. Casualties, dead and wounded, included 1,855 Union soldiers and 149 Confederates. Checking the battlefield maps, I found Morgan had placed his artillery across the river at the exact spot I planned to leave a corpse.

This had to go in the book. I had my protag, Greg McKenzie, visit the park and comment on the Union soldiers suffering their own Pearl Harbor, seventy-nine years to the day before Dec. 7, 1941. When he visits the murder site, he muses:

“Realizing a party of tired, half-frozen Rebel soldiers had fired cannons in this area nearly a century and a half ago, I wondered if any Confederate ghosts had lingered about Monday night when someone fired three shots into (the victim). If so, they weren’t talking.”

It was an opportunity to provide a little local color and add to the realism of the story. The moral: research is hardly ever wasted. If we look around, we can probably find a use for it. If not, hey, chalk it up to education. We can all use more of that.


Unknown said...

Chester, I really got in trouble doing the same thing, searching for a spot to stage a few murders. I was planning a sequel to Alibi On Ice in Mount Rainier National Park, and I found a great spot via my GPS system. Trouble is, the road to it had washed out. Luckily I'd brought my mountain bike, so I biked over a make-shift bridge and up about six miles to where I could hear the river I was looking for. Figured, why not? So I dis-mounted and took off downhill. As I passed, areas I'm sure no human has ever seen, I was stepping in purple circles about a foot in diameter. Lots of these bushes. Well, I was about to the bottom of this mountainside, in view of the marvelous river where my crimes were to occur, when I saw a huckleberry bush and remembered someone telling me bears love huckleberries. I think I made it back uphill in record time.

That night at the bar, it was confirmed to me: What I'd been stepping through was bear poop. And bears get nasty when someone's in their hucklebarry patch. I consider myself very lucky. I also realized while I was out there that if something happened to me, nobody would ever know. Friends out there tell me this happens all the time. Someone goes for a walk in the Cascades and is never seen again.

Sure a beautiful spot for a grave though...

Sandra Parshall said...

You guys are so much braver than I am! I try hard to avoid actually going to dangerous places. I'm happy to imagine them or look at pictures -- the coward's mode of research.

Anonymous said...


I loved your story, and I love doing research. When I looked up "Greasy Creek" I found that Gen. John Hunt Morgan ramrodded The Battle of Greasy Creek during the Civil War. Also found the web page for Morgan's Men, active even today.

Interesting, how we can go through life oblivious of history until some small thing opens it up for us.

Pat Browning

Chester Campbell said...

Thanks, Pat. Morgan didn't get as much press as Nathan Bedford Forrest, but he made quite a name for himself. While writing this, I googled Forrest and found his final message to his troops after the surrender. He's been maligned over his connection to the KKK, but he did a great job of instructing his men on how to accept defeat. And the wandering researcher meanders on . . .