“Six Days in September”: Author Alexander Rossino Adds His Voice

I interviewed Ted Savas, publisher of Alexander Rossino’s fiction work Six Days in September. At that time Alex Rossino graciously offered the opportunity for an interview. Time is a slippery fish, and sometimes it gets away from me, but finally, I am able to introduce ECW readers to Alexander B. Rossino, award-winning WWII historian and the author of Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology, and Atrocity.

MG: Before we get to Six Days in September, tell us something about yourself, please.

ABR: Sure. I’m a bit of an odd bird in the Civil War field. I hold a doctorate in modern European history from Syracuse University and worked in the research institute at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC for about 9 years. In 2003 I published a monograph study titled Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology, and Atrocity (University Press of Kansas) that took a detailed look at ideologically motivated violence during the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939. It won a Choice Book Award for that year, but despite my success in the field, I walked away from it. Not wanting to teach leaves precious few options for historians so I wandered in the wilderness for a while, so to speak. I still wanted to write and publish, though, and given that my interest in the American Civil War dates back to childhood, it made sense to explore the possibilities. The ball really got rolling when I began visiting Western Maryland regularly in 2009. The landscape fired my imagination about Civil War history in general and the 1862 Maryland Campaign in particular. It made sense after a while to turn my keyboard in that direction.

MG: What was the inspiration for writing Six Days in September as a work of fiction rather than non-fiction?

ABR: Several factors took me in the direction of historical fiction.

First, I wanted to challenge myself. I’d already published a well-received academic history and several scholarly articles, so non-fiction history was familiar territory. Writing historical fiction, by contrast, wasn’t familiar in the least. Making the transition from historical writing to historical fiction was definitely daunting. Not only is the use of a different voice required—typically a first-person perspective versus the third person—there is also the question of dialogue. For those of us trained as historians, the thought of creating dialogue can be nauseating. Initially, there is the psychological/training barrier to overcome and I struggled mightily with that. It’s the little voice in your head saying, ‘who are you to put words into the mouth of Robert E. Lee?’ as you type. Then there is the task of writing in a way that captures the reader’s attention and holds it. The personalities need to come alive to the point that even after a reader puts down the book he/she will ruminate on what Lee, or Longstreet, or Jackson said. If you can accomplish that then you’ve won the biggest battle (other than finding a publisher)! I took accomplishing that as a personal challenge and wanted to see if I could master the process.

My second reason for writing a novel rather than a non-fiction history had to do with wanting to draw public attention to the Maryland Campaign. Lee’s 1862 campaign often gets overlooked because of the 1863 invasion of Pennsylvania. The three-day fight at Gettysburg in July 1863 was indeed important, but I’m in agreement with a lot of Civil War scholars who believe the war’s real turning point occurred at Antietam on September 17, 1862. Lee’s reverse there ended the possibility of European intervention in the war and it provided Lincoln with political cover to introduce the Emancipation Proclamation. Two-plus years of bloody conflict remained to be fought, but the Confederacy’s best chance to win the war came and went in September 1862. Most general readers don’t know that, so I wanted to raise the Maryland Campaign in the public’s consciousness. I thought doing so might bring more visitors to Sharpsburg and to the Antietam National Battlefield, and I hoped my work would boost the sale of Maryland Campaign and Antietam battle histories. Historical fiction is the gateway drug of interest in Civil War history so I thought I’d try to run with it. Gettysburg saw a huge uptick in visitation after Michael Shaara published The Killer Angels. I hoped I might be able to achieve a similar result for Antietam.

Lastly, I think there are already solid histories out there of the Maryland Campaign and the Battle of Antietam. In a crowded field like that one needs to find a new angle. Historical fiction seemed like a wide-open road.

MG: What specific primary sources did you use for Six Days?

ABR: Everything I could get my hands on. I used the Official Records, regimental histories, memoirs, etc. I also did some primary research at the Sharpsburg Historical Society, leveraged photographs and maps and walked the combat sites. Basically, I approached researching the book in the same way I approach researching a non-fiction history. The only differences are in writing up the evidence and in the perspective presented.

MG: How did you use primary source materials to create the relationship between “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee?

Alex Rossino

ABR: This was a tricky task that required looking beyond the primary sources because I didn’t find much out there that described interactions between the two men. I read back into everything available on their interaction from Lee’s assignment as head of the Army of Northern Virginia to the invasion of Maryland and beyond. We need to remember that as of September 1862, Lee and Jackson hadn’t known each another very long. Lee had only been in command of the ANV since the beginning of June that year. Before then he had exchanged some correspondence with Jackson concerning Harper’s Ferry and operations in the lower Shenandoah Valley, but that was about the extent of things. The best I could do was put myself in the shoes of each man when they were conversing – Lee, formal and aloof, in most cases. Jackson, quirky, snappish, and taciturn. If an occasion did exist where there was recorded dialogue between the two men I did my best to weave it into the text. Even then, however, I made slight changes in phrasing because of the questionable nature of memory. As Ted Savas, Managing Director of my publisher Savas Beatie, likes to say from his experience as an attorney, people’s memories can’t be relied upon. Even direct witnesses will come away from events with different opinions on what others said. Add a few days or weeks and those memories become increasingly suspect. As an historian I’ve learned not to take any quote as sacrosanct unless multiple sources record it exactly the same way and that almost never happens.

MG: Most of us–including me–do not know much about Henry Kyd Douglas as a person. How did you use primary sources to create his unique personality?

ABR: Well, the best primary source is Douglas’s own writing. The trick is to read what he wrote for an understanding of the man, not necessarily for a recounting of events. I Rode With Stonewall was written by a man with a clear desire to be remembered. Douglas’s ego is on full display, so I used his own voice in the book flesh out his historical personality. Where direct information about Douglas was lacking I resorted to context. Accounts of what it was like to be a staff officer with Stonewall Jackson can provide an understanding of what Douglas may have experienced. Weaving the together the context with what I took from Douglas’s writing itself resulted in the character you meet in Six Days. I wanted to be as faithful to Douglas, and all the other historical personalities for that matter, as possible.

MG: Why Antietam, of all the available battles other than Gettysburg?

ABR: Because Antietam deserves more attention than it gets and because Gettysburg has been done to death in both fiction and non-fiction. Antietam, and South Mountain, for that matter, were critically important fights with lasting repercussions. I thought the Maryland Campaign deserved its own iconic novel, which I humbly hope I’ve managed to write. Then, too, there’s the fact that I live in the shadow of South Mountain. The Maryland Campaign is all around me. It just made sense to write about what I experience on a daily basis.

MG: Although Six Days is certainly its own book and stands on its own, how much of a factor was Killer Angels as the book developed?

ABR: It lurked in the background, but I wouldn’t say it was a major factor most of the time. The selection of the Sixth Alabama as the one unit I’d follow was a hat-tip to Shaara’s work, for example. The Sixth fought on the extreme left of the Confederate line on South Mountain, just like the Twentieth Maine fought on the extreme left of the Federal line at Gettysburg. Beyond this, the similarities disappear. Whereas The Killer Angels takes some liberties with the facts of what happened, I tried to make Six Days as meticulously accurate as I could. I may have fallen short here and there but the mistakes are honest and can be corrected in future editions. Shaara also blends the Union and Confederate stories together while I chose to write them up separately. I wanted to detail the Confederate experience in isolation from the experience of Union troops because that is how the participants lived things. Writing from one side of the field provides a certain continuity that is lost when a reader jumps back and forth from side to side. I wanted to achieve a fog of war effect and make the reader feel like even though he/she might know the history, he/she wouldn’t necessarily know what was coming next. I wanted the immediacy of the moment to come through so that one could think with Lee as he worked out what was occurring. In this way, one shares in the decision process and comes away with a better understanding of why Lee took the steps he did.

MG:  Now to the really important question! Who plays whom in the movie? And I am glad there is at least one role for a woman . . .

ABR: Yes, the important question! I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said they’d like to see Six Days on film. Of course, I’d like to see it, too. Movies about the Civil War almost always end up disappointing those of us who know a lot about the history. We need a film that focuses on the story without trying to bring in all of the events; a film that captures the desperation of the moment without being maudlin or melodramatic.

Can you imagine Barry Pepper as Gilbert Farney sweating under his coonskin cap during the fight at the Sunken Road? Pepper played Private Daniel Jackson, the sniper, in Saving Private Ryan. I’ve also thought Adrian Brody would make a good Franklin Turner, the captain from Maryland who volunteers to serve on Jackson’s staff. Either Zac Efron or Jamie Bell would fit the part of Billy Dennis, Gilbert Farney’s best friend in the Sixth Alabama. Bell starred in Turn: Washington’s Spies, which I really enjoyed. We can’t forget about Reverend John Alexander Adams either. Clint Eastwood would be perfect for him at his current age, but it might be too modest a part for an A-lister like him. Bryan Cranston would be a good choice, too.

For the major Confederate characters—Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson—I think the actors need to be entirely new to an American audience. I don’t mean they need to be foreign, just that they need to be new faces. I’ve watched Robert Duvall and Martin Sheen each play Robert E. Lee and throughout their performances, I kept saying to myself, “Hey, its Robert Duvall!” I love the guy’s work, but we need to see Lee on the big screen without the distraction of him being played by a major star, in my opinion. The portrayal needs to be gritty and above all human. Lee showed plenty of emotion on the field, especially at Sharpsburg. That should come through.

As for female leads, you are right, there are a couple of roles, which I’m grateful I was able to write in. There’s a lot of testosterone in Six Days that needed some balance. We’d need to cast a Savilla Miller, the woman I found to be one of the bravest people I came across in my research. She stood under fire on her front porch all day during the fight at Antietam providing water to Confederate troops. Evan Rachel Wood could probably play her well. More important would be casting Reverend Adams’s wife, Mary Anna. Jessica Lange could probably capture the required bitterness and pathos of the character.

MG:  What are you currently working on, and what is next?

ABR: Good question. Back in January, I submitted an article to Civil War Monitor that I’m waiting to hear about. It’s honest to goodness history about George McClellan in Frederick on September 13, 1862. The date is key, of course, because that was the day when McClellan received the misplaced copy of Lee’s Special Orders No. 191. I co-wrote the article with Gene Thorp, who had done an amazing amount of primary research but didn’t have the time to write it up. We compared notes when I was doing research for my next book and found we had a lot of interpretive points in common so we collaborated on it. The gist of our argument is that McClellan moved with alacrity on September 13 after reading Lee’s orders. We believe the whole “McClellan had the slows” argument is incorrect and in need of re-evaluation.

Concerning the next book, I’m about 50% finished writing the Yankee companion volume to Six Days. The book covers exactly the same period of time but examines events from the Union point of view. I’m writing it to square the circle and tell the other side of the story. The Northern perspective is fascinating. Political intrigue in the command staff of the Army of the Potomac has proven challenging to navigate, and McClellan is generally not a sympathetic character. I’m also focusing on a handful of enlisted guys with the Twenty-Third Ohio, especially an Irishman named Thomas James Kelly. He’s the Gilbert Farney of the book. A new perspective I’m adding is that of a regimental commander—Colonel Jacob Higgins of the One Hundred Twenty Fifth Pennsylvania Volunteers. I realized after finishing Six Days that I hadn’t written much to represent the experiences of commanders in the middle ranks. This is something that Shaara covered in The Killer Angels, but it’s new turf for me. Finally, there is also a big role for George Armstrong Custer, who served on McClellan’s staff in Maryland. He plays the aide-de-camp who witnesses events role represented by Franklin Turner in Six Days.

As for women, I’ve been able to fit in a character who nurses Tom Kelly after he ends up wounded at the Battle of South Mountain. She’s a suffragette and so radical in her beliefs (a real Susan B. Anthony type) that she throws Kelly for a loop!

MG: Is there anything I did not ask about that you would like ECW readers to know?

ABR: There is. Folks might want to visit my website every so often. The address is www.alexanderrossino.com. I post tidbits there about the writing process that might answer some questions people have after reading Six Days. For example, I composed an entire introduction for the book which didn’t make it into the published edition so I’ve posted it there.

The last thing I’d like to mention is that although I conceived Six Days as an historical novel, I’ve never thought of it entirely as fiction. Telling the story in the form of a novel required that I create dialogue and a few situations to fill holes, but most of the material is as honest to the history as I could make it. I even used the dialogue to develop my own interpretation of the events. In short, I tried to write a book I thought historians would enjoy and they are a tough crowd. If you can please them you can please anyone. All I hope is that I managed to achieve some success.

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I have read Six Days and enjoyed it immensely. I am looking forward to the Yankee version, of course. Movies and good fiction are two excellent hooks to get people interested in history. People love a good story, and those told by the past are among the best. I am sure that Six Days is inspiring imaginations even as I write. Thanks, Alex.