This is my second post about my novel Son of Perdition, a coming-of-age story about the son of Captain Ahab of Moby Dick infamy. In my May 3 post, I mentioned a book I used for research about the U. S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Charles Todorich’s The Spirited Years: A History of the Antebellum Naval Academy (Naval Institute Press, 1984).
While conducting his research, Charles uncovered first person letters and narratives that revealed the agony many of the academy’s young midshipmen experienced in deciding what to do once war was imminent. During their arduous training, these midshipmen had forged friendships they never expected to dissolve, much less that they’d ever be required to shoot at one other with intent to kill. But after the election of Abraham Lincoln, war was unavoidable, and each young man had to obey the calls of his home state, his parents, and his own deeply held convictions regarding slavery. The letters written during this traumatic time make it clear the midshipmen knew the war was over slavery, though some preferred…and still prefer…to couch it in the benign term “states’ rights.”
By April 1861, several southern students had resigned their commissions and gone home. “Their lives about to be forever altered by forces beyond their control, the midshipmen of the North and South bid each other farewell…the great events unfolding around them transformed the midshipmen into men, but this did not hold back the tears. Though soon to be their enemies in war, the seceders were treated as ‘erring brethren,’ not traitors, and the closing days of the antebellum Naval Academy saw many poignant scenes” (Todorich 195). ( At left is a line of antebellum midshipmen on the academy parade ground.)
I incorporated this account and others from Charles’s book in my story. Here is my rendering of one such scene. My fictional characters are Timothy and Hart from the north, and southern boys Beau and Wils. Midshipmen William T. Sampson and Charles W. Flusser and commandant Lieutenant Christopher R. P. Rodgers were real men who spoke the words repeated at the end of this segment.
Timothy looked at Hart and then studied his two southern friends. “What about you? Are you going to leave?”
Beau shrugged. “I wrote to my father. I guess I’ll do whatever he tells me. I have no doubt Louisiana will follow South Carolina in secession.”
Wils bent his head. “I expect Maryland will secede, as well. If we do, I’m bound to my home state.”
Timothy thumped his fist on the table. “Come on, fellas. What happened to ‘My country, right or wrong’?”
“‘Navy first, last, and always’?” Hart added.
Beau and Wils traded a look, and both shrugged. They all sat in silence for several minutes.
Beau put his head in his hands. “I can’t think of it. I just can’t think of ever firing on the Stars and Stripes. Why did that fool Lincoln have to get elected anyway? He received less than forty percent of the popular votes and not one southern electoral vote. You’d think our opinions didn’t even matter to the rest of the country.”
How Timothy burned to tell Beau whose fault it really was—the slaveowners. But he had no heart for a fight. Until coming to the academy, he had considered all slaveowners as nameless, faceless monsters. But Beau possessed a golden character. Loyal, fearless, strong, kind, generous … and completely blind to the evils on which his family fortune was founded.
“You think there’ll be war?” said Hart.
“Only if that Lincoln fellow causes it,” said Wils. “He just needs to let us go. We’ll establish our own country, and pretty soon we’ll have a treaty with the United States. Everything will be fine and neighborly. If he’s got a lick of sense, he’ll just let us go.”
Timothy stared at Wils. Did he really believe it was that simple? Lincoln had promised in his campaign to keep the country together. Yet looking at Wils and Beau, he could not think of fighting them. In gunnery practice, they had always imagined real-life enemies and gleefully demolished them. But to stare down the sight of a gun at one of these men … no, he could never do it.
As if reading his thoughts, Beau gazed at him, his eyes filling with tears. He shook his head and brushed them away. “It shouldn’t be this way. It just shouldn’t.”
Timothy, Hart, and Wils hummed their agreement, unable to say anything more.
The following week, Beau returned to Timothy’s room clutching a letter. It could mean only one thing. Timothy held his breath.
“I have to go,” Beau choked out. “My father said to come home right away.”
Timothy hung on his friend, trying unsuccessfully to hold back his own tears. He skipped class and helped Beau pack.
Once the job was done, the stewards carried the baggage downstairs to the waiting carriage. Wils and Hart, along with classmates Sampson and Flusser, joined Timothy to bid André Beauchamp farewell. They hung on each other and formed a procession on their way out of the barracks, singing discordant friendship songs in an attempt to bolster their spirits.
As they reached the ground floor and headed toward the Main Gate, the commandant, Lieutenant Rodgers rushed from his quarters, his eyes blazing. “What’s the meaning of this rioting? Why aren’t you men in class?”
Timothy could not speak, but Sampson said, “No riot, sir. We’re only bidding our classmate goodbye.”
Rodgers regarded them for a moment, then sighed, and gave them a sympathetic nod. “Ah, yes. Carry on, men.”
Sent to Annapolis to serve their country, bonded in friendship closer than brothers, these four young friends are wrenched apart by issues over which they have no control. If I have succeeded in drawing my readers into my story, by this point they will be grieving for all of them.
Historical fiction takes us away from our daily lives to another time and place, “the good old days,” when life was simpler, religion, morality, and manners were the mainstays of social order, and everyone knew his or her place, whether academy midshipman, plantation owner, or slave. Set against the backdrop of 19th Century America shortly before and during the Civil War, Son of Perdition examines the way in which our concept of God can affect how we live. The power of a story such as this is the reader’s ability to live the experiences of the characters.
At right is a picture of the U. S. Naval Academy Superintendent’s home.
Unlike today, in the mid-1800s American society as a whole had a high consciousness of God’s movement in the affairs of mankind. When the Civil War pitted brother against brother, friend against friend, and Christian against Christian, each side believed its cause was God’s will. Is it possible for true Christians in all integrity to find themselves on opposite sides of major issues? What are the issues today that divide true believers in Christ as seriously as slavery did in the 1800s? Is there anything we…I…can do to help bridge the gap?
This is the end of our journey through the life Captain Ahab’s family. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. If you missed any segments, you can find them HERE. And of course, I’d be thrilled if you would purchase these books for your reading pleasure.