Go to Homepage   Ann McMillan: Civil War Voices


Warning: don't start Dead March, Ann McMillan's Civil War era mystery, at bedtime. You won't want to put this book down. In fact, I couldn't put it down, despite the fact that I was reading it during a power blackout, huddled in a blanket by a feeble fire in a room that didn't feel much warmer than the 20-degree temperature outside.  

I held the book in one hand and my flashlight in the other. Whenever I had to turn the page, I'd stick the flashlight in my mouth temporarily, so I wouldn't have to stop reading, even for a few seconds. And if that image hasn't convinced you to run right out and find a copy, check out what McMillan has to say about it. 

Crescent Blues: How did you become interested in writing about the Civil War era? 

McMillan: Family responsibilities and personal limitations make it difficult for me to do research that involves rappelling in ravines, trolling in bars, etc. Library research, I can live with. And I love historicals, particularly those that involve friction between social classes: Anne Perry's, Kate Ross's, Sharan Newman's, etc. 

It made sense for me to write about Richmond, since I live there. And Richmond was never more the focus of the world's eyes than when it was the capital of the Confederacy. And talk about friction between social classes.... But this was daunting. The subject of slavery is still so deeply painful that to fictionalize it at all carries a risk. Of course, I was writing for myself -- no one would ever read it, right? So I went ahead and put my whole heart into it. 

Crescent Blues: Were any of the characters in Dead March based on or inspired by real people of the era? 

McMillan: What got me over my rebellious stage in relation to the Civil War was the work of historians like Catherine Clinton, Drew Gilpin Faust, Sharla Fett and Suzanne Lebsock, who focus on the women, slaves and free blacks.  

The character of Narcissa Powers came from women like those Faust writes about in Mothers of Invention, plus a bit of Confederate nurse Phoebe Pember. Judah Daniel is based on the doctoress Jinsie Snow -- who changed her name when she gained her freedom -- from Lebsock's Free Women of Petersburg, with "value added" from Fett's research into slave doctoresses. Brit Wallace is a younger, more susceptible version of journalist William Howard Russell, whose steps he follows to Manassas. Mirrie Powers came from the women whose letters and diaries are quoted in Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore.

Crescent Blues: One fascinating aspect of Dead March was the graphic way it illustrated the very separate worlds in which your characters lived, and the odd ways in which those worlds overlapped. The mystery could not have been solved without Narcissa's access to the world of academia, polite society and the Medical College of Virginia; Judah Daniel's position in Richmond's free black community; and Britt Wallace's entrée into parts of the city where women could not venture, at least not without male accompaniment. Was this a deliberate theme? 

McMillan: I started the book in the first person, in Narcissa's point of view but quickly realized it was too limiting. So, yes, I had to develop a range of characters whose points of view could give a whole picture. 

Crescent Blues: Was there a particular reason why you chose to make so many of your characters -- Narcissa, Judah, Britt, Mirrie Powers and Nat Cohen -- outsiders? 

McMillan: My characters stand outside the most powerful and privileged circles of the F.F.V. ("First Families of Virginia," a term that was current in the 1860s) and of the Confederate government. One major reason is that I wanted to avoid giving fictional roles to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and the other "major players" (a phrase that I believe was not current in the 1860s!) Not only are their lives obsessively well documented -- people in Richmond know these people, are descended from them, and feel them as very real presences in their lives -- I have to live here, so I don't mess with that. 

Crescent Blues: I understand that for the character of Judah Daniel, you did a great deal of research about African American herbal medicine and the position of a freedwoman in 1861 Richmond. How did you go about researching Judah's background, and how much harder was it than the research you did for other characters? 

McMillan: I wish I could say I did a great deal of research; in fact, I got a great deal of help, especially from historian Sharla Fett, who sent me her own article "'It's a Spirit in Me': Spiritual Power and the Healing Work of African American Women in Slavery" (from A Mighty Baptism: Race, Gender, and the Creation of American Protestantism) and from others working in the field. I also read collections of slave narratives such as Weevils in the Wheat. This research was actually easier for me than, say, researching the military history, both because there's more room to maneuver, and because it is more intrinsically interesting to me. 

Crescent Blues: How difficult was it to research the medical system of the era?  

McMillan: Medical history is a long-standing interest of mine. I've carried around a book on the development of obstetrics and gynecology, called The Horrors of the Half-Known Life, for about 25 years! The (true) stories in it would make Stephen King queasy.  

Also, I used to work at the Medical College of Virginia (MCV) and do archival research for grant proposals. MCV was founded in 1838 and has an extensive collection of books, manuscripts, and medical instruments. They also have an outstanding archivist. There are some good medical re-enactments, too. I saw one in Gordonsville, Va., in which they "actually" sawed off the patient's leg! People turned green. 

Crescent Blues: I've heard it said that one of the greatest tragedies of the Civil War is that it took place at a time when the technology of warfare had advanced at a far more rapid rate than medical skill and knowledge. Did your research bear this out? 

McMillan: What diarists of the period referred to as "the wailing of the Dead March" was heard ad nauseum in the camps before a battle was ever fought, because so many men were dying of disease. Perhaps the toll of disease and infection -- which was far greater than deaths in battle -- were a wake-up call, because some practices, such as vaccination and antisepsis, did get a boost as a result. 

Crescent Blues: How have your fellow Richmonders reacted to the book? 

McMillan: In person, people are very nice. I've had two critical reactions about my "tone" in dealing with the period. One, in a letter to the editor of the Richmond paper, accused me of portraying the nineteenth century in much too negative a light. The other, a reader review via Internet, accused me of painting far too rosy a picture of the slavery era. 

Crescent Blues: As someone who grew up in this culture, did Dead March surprise you? Did you plan to write "this book, this way?" 

McMillan: My ancestors fought, died, or gave their loved ones for the Confederacy, and I honor their memory. However, growing up in Columbus, Ga., and coming of age in the Sixties, I had to rebel against the nostalgic view of the Civil War as the South's glory days. (An example from those days: the local pop radio station was WDAK, "Big Johnny Reb -- EEE-YIII!")  

Now, in what I suppose is my "synthesis" stage, I find I want to pay my respects to all those who came before us, by giving each of them a voice. It's a challenge to have a heroine who defends slavery, but I think her redeeming virtue -- the virtue I hope will redeem us all -- is empathy. 

Crescent Blues: What do you think is the appeal of historical mysteries? 

McMillan: I think most people like to learn while they are being entertained. In fact, learning and entertainment are almost -- not quite -- inseparable. What fun would it be to watch a baseball game without the stats? In different mystery genres, readers learn different things, maybe a whole lot about munitions or competitive bass fishing or forensic science. In historical mysteries, they learn about the past. 

Crescent Blues: Your book has an authenticity that shows how much research you've done on the era, yet without coming across as dry or overwhelming the reader with undigested historical details. How did you achieve this balance? Was it natural for you or something you had to struggle for? 

McMillan: I'm glad you think the period details are incorporated gracefully. I have to thank my agent and my editors, who forced me to take out many of the fascinating facts I had come across in my research. Dead March was rigorously and repeatedly edited, and a good thing, too! 

Crescent Blues: If your readers went to Richmond, would they find many of the places mentioned in the book still standing? 

McMillan: Hollywood Cemetery got a big boost from the Civil War. Quite a lot of soldiers are buried there, as are Jefferson Davis and his family members. There is an Archer family burial ground, not as old as the one I described, overlooking the river. This crept into my book as a subliminal memory -- I thought I had picked the name at random!  

The angel monument, though, is in Shockoe Cemetery. Most importantly, the Egyptian Building is still there. So is the pit where the body parts were thrown. It was uncovered when they were doing some construction a few years ago, and covered up again shortly thereafter. The Hanover County sites, Springfield and Denton's Tavern (now a private house) are still there, as are the bluebirds and the buzzards. 

Crescent Blues: I understand that one of the photos used on the cover of Dead March has a family significance -- can you tell us something about that? 

McMillan: The "boys" are probably the Richmond Greys before they actually fought a battle. (The photo is flopped.) The woman is my great-grandmother, Euphemia Ann Rives, from a daguerreotype taken around 1857. 

Crescent Blues: Your next book is going to be a sequel to Dead March -- can you give us a hint of what's in store for Narcissa, Judah and your other characters? 

McMillian: Narcissa, Judah Daniel and the others will become involved with deadly goings-on at two plantations, involving a ghost and a vengeful angel. 

Crescent Blues: Do you plan to stick strictly to mystery for now, or branch out into any other genres? 

McMillan: At a talk I gave at a local library, someone asked me if I planned to set any new challenges for myself in the second book. It was a good question, and I couldn't figure out why I just stood there with my mouth open. Days later I realized what my answer should have been: I'm just trying to write another one, in one year instead of three! To date, I have thoroughly explored the lit crit, grant proposal, and news release genres, so I hope to settle in with mysteries for a long time to come.

Donna Andrews

Donna Andrews is the author of Murder with Peacocks, which won the 1998 St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic New Writer Award.