Beyond reading some Louis L’Armour and watching Clint Eastwood I’ve never delved too deep into the Western genre. Recently, I wanted a change of pace and stumbled across Brings the Lightening. The story; of a paroled Confederate veteran named Walt and his quest to begin a new life out West sounded interesting, but the first scene, in which Walt avoids an ambush by equal measures of luck and a second sense developed by hard earned experience immediately drew me in.
What kept me reading Brings the Lightning was the attention to detail. I’m not a gun enthusiast but found the descriptions of the weaponry intriguing. For example, when asked why he wanted to buy Remington revolvers over the more popular Colt model, Walt answers that he also prefers the Colt but, “…. the Colt’s got three shortcomings. First, you’ve got to lower the hammer on an empty chamber to carry it safely – the pins between each chamber simply don’t hold it securely enough. That means it’s a five-shooter unless you have enough warning to load the sixth chamber, and that doesn’t often happen before danger strikes. With the Remington you can load all six chambers, then lower the hammer into a safety notch between them. Second, the Colt mechanism binds up particularly badly if a spent percussion cap falls into the action. I had the opportunity to try one of the Remingtons last year, and found it wasn’t affected as much by that problem. Finally, the Colt has an open frame. If you have to whomp someone over the head with the barrel, you might bend it. The Remington has a top strap, which makes it much stronger”.
That’s a longish example but a good one as there was something I didn’t know (Colt was effectively a five shooter), something I could relate to (misfire or jam when firing) and a tactic that Boris the Blade would recommend (head whomping). The author isn’t just throwing in historical facts in a bid for authenticity but incorporates them into his character’s choices and actions while describing the reasoning behind them. Besides weaponry you’ll find the same level of detail for many aspects of life and travel in that period are present; from provisions, monetary cost of items, the myriad hazards confronting the traveler and fighting tactics.
FIVE STARS for enjoyment and historical accuracy. There’s everything from scammers running crooked games on river boats, insight into the Texas cattle drives, to prevalent corruption throughout the post war Union Army. Highly recommended for those interested in equal measures of entertainment and information.
Q. How did you decide to base your first Western novel on Walt’s demobilization, journey home, and quest to find a new life in a changed world?
Peter Grant: A lot of this was personal experience. I’ve been in military service, and experienced demobilization, a journey home, and having to start all over again. I knew that hundreds of thousands have had to do the same thing after almost every war in history. I researched the stories of both Union and Confederate veterans, and found they shared similar experiences. Also, the corruption, attacks on returning Confederates by both official and ‘unofficial’ enemies such as bushwhackers, etc. are all documented in books and narratives of the period. It was a logical step to make this the beginning of my novel.
Q. Is Walt’s character based on historical figures or is he your Western alter-ego?
Walt is entirely based on historical figures. Some were Southern veterans who became first guerrillas, then outlaws, such as the James gang. Others are based on veterans from both the North and the South who wrote about their experiences of coming home after the war, then heading west to make a fresh start. I have no alter ego in the book at all.
Q. You mentioned on your blog that your love of the Western was from reading to fill in off duty hours while on active service. Were there local versions of the “Western” dealing with Dutch colonization or the Boer/Zulu and Boer/British wars?
Westerns were ubiquitous in many military bases in South Africa. I read Louis L’Amour, J. T. Edson, and other well-known authors in the genre, simply because there was nothing else to do during long hours of boredom. There were no local ‘Westerns’ in the fictional sense, but there were many factual accounts of South Africa’s “Wild East”, if I can use the term. Perhaps I should say more about that here.
South Africa saw a great interior migration from the mid-1820’s until the end of the century. It was sparked by the British Empire’s repudiation of slavery. Settlers of Dutch descent in South Africa (the so-called ‘Boers’, who became today’s Afrikaners and the founders of apartheid) packed up and left, trekking north and eastward into the interior. They set up three Boer republics; Natalia, founded in 1839 (annexed by Britain in 1843); Orange Free State; and the South African Republic. Where Americans had to fight Indian or Native American tribes, the Boers fought the Black tribes of the interior (greatly aided by the genocide practiced by the Zulu tribe, which had depopulated vast areas of the interior, so that many Boers truly believed they were entering an empty land ripe for settlement, and later rejected land claims by those who had lived there before being expelled (a few years before the Boers arrived) by Zulu armies).
Needless to say, the technology of the frontier was almost identical in both the USA and Southern Africa. Many US weapons such as Winchester rifles, Colt revolvers, etc. made their way out to Africa, and some top US scouts such as Frederick Russell Burnham were very highly regarded in Africa. He was far from alone. I was therefore very familiar with the so-called ‘Wild West’ long before I immigrated to the USA in 1997.
Q. What were the similarities and differences of warfare in the American West and the African veldt during this period?
Both countries saw long-distance ox-wagon trains carrying settlers or supplies, which were drawn into circles (“laagers”) at night for security, and also to defend against attack. However, in the USA many Indian tribes were mounted, and fought as light cavalry. In southern Africa very few of the African tribes used horses except as beasts of burden; they fought almost exclusively as infantry. In that respect, the Zulus, for example, were very like the Apache; warriors of both tribes could (and did) cover up to fifty miles a day on foot, and could hide in a jackrabbit’s shadow, although the Zulus typically fought in much larger and more formal formations than the Apache. They were respected and feared opponents. (The Zulu remain the only African tribe to have defeated a major British Army – as opposed to colonial – force in the field, at the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879.)
Other similarities include mining (in South Africa, for diamonds, gold, etc.); the spread of railways across the country; and the gradual ‘taming’ of the frontier, until by the late 19th century there wasn’t really a ‘frontier’ any more, and the ‘wild’ had gone out of both the West (in the USA) and the East (in South Africa). However, in South Africa there were no ‘cattle drives’ as such. Cattle were a sign of wealth to both Boers and Zulus (and other native tribes too), with the number of cattle a man owned a very visible measure of his wealth. They weren’t driven across country en masse to markets, but rather traded and slaughtered in smaller numbers to nearby towns.
Q. You mentioned that you fired many of the weapons mentioned in the book. Were these updated versions of the original models or part of private collections that survived the years?
These were original weapons that had survived the wars in Southern Africa. I’ve fired original versions of Colt’s 1861 Army and 1873 revolvers, Winchester Model 1873 and 1886 rifles, and the Winchester Model 1887 lever-action shotgun. All were in private collections.
Q. Walt does a good job in explaining the advantages and disadvantages of various firearms in the book. Then again, he had a lot of them. If you had to choose only one pistol and one long rifle to equip yourself with in that time what would you choose and why? Would you make different choices if you were equipping yourself for the African bush?
Good question. If I were in Walt’s shoes, I’d have gone with the choices he made, for the same reasons: the Remington revolver and the Henry rifle. Both were suitable for the plains. I’d have liked a heavier rifle as well, to handle buffalo on the plains and bear, etc. in the mountains, but if I was limited to one rifle, the Henry would be it, because it would be so much more useful in combat to have its rapid rate of fire and large magazine capacity.
If I were to pick one of each for Africa, during the period when it was still wild and filled with very dangerous animals, the revolver would be the same, but the rifle would unquestionably have to be a much more powerful weapon. Don’t forget, African dangerous game is much larger and more powerful than those in North America. I’d pick a European big-caliber rifle, probably (in the days of blackpowder propellant) an eight-gauge or even a four-gauge muzzle-loading weapon. That would have obvious limitations in its speed of reloading, etc., but it would have the power to take down the largest African animals, unlike any American rifle of the period. If dangerous animals were less of a factor, I might consider a repeating rifle; but all of the cartridges during the period in which this novel is set (mid to late 1860’s) weren’t very efficient or powerful. If we were in the 1870’s, I’d take the Winchester 1876 rifle with its .45-75 cartridge, or, a bit later, the Winchester 1886 in .45-70. By the 1890’s I’d take a European bolt-action repeater with a smokeless round; the British Lee-Metford, the German Mauser, etc.
Q. Why were the cartridges so weak and inefficient in the mid to late 1860’s? Cost savings by manufacturers or just the technology at the time?
The cartridges were weak for two reasons.
The technology to produce metal cartridges was brand-new and in its infancy. Extruded brass was unknown; cartridges had to be formed from a sheet of the metal, with consequent weaknesses at the seams. This meant that if a powerful propellant load was used, it risked rupturing the case; so all early cartridges were relatively lightly loaded. For example, the Henry rifle (and its immediate successor, the Winchester Model of 1866) used a powder charge of only 25 to 28 grains, less than many handguns of the day. The Winchester 1873 used 40 grains – an improvement, but not greatly. It took until the 1870’s for more powerful cartridges such as the .50-70 and the later, more efficient .45-70 (and their larger, longer cousins) to be developed.
During the 1860’s, the centerfire primer had not yet been invented; all early cartridges were rimfire, like modern .22LR, or pinfire. This meant that ignition was less reliable. It also meant that the bases of the cartridges were less strong, as their rims had to be hollow to accommodate the priming compound and/or the pin. It took until the 1870’s for central primers to be developed (most notably the Berdan and Boxer priming systems). That, in turn, allowed for solid rims that were stronger.
Q. I never knew that there was a universal sign language used by the Plains Indians to communicate with each other. Could you recommend some books for those interested in general knowledge of the various tribes such as the Kiowa and Cheyenne tribes?
For sign language, Wikipedia has a good introductory article. There are so many books and resources out there about the various tribes that it’s very hard to know where to start! There are useful primers here, here and here.
I think we should be honest: the reason the USA did not have as severe a race problem with Native Americans as it did with the descendants of freed slaves was that it killed off most of the Native American population! That’s the sad, but literal truth. The old canard “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” was a very literal expression of how most white people on the frontier felt about the matter – and they behaved accordingly. Colonel Chivington was far from an isolated example, albeit one of the worst.
There are a vast number of books out there, and it’s almost impossible to single out just one or two. As a starter reading list, try the following. The first two are probably the best overall introduction to the period, and the last two focus more specifically on individual tribes and conflicts:
Hampton Sides, ‘Blood and Thunder’ – about Kit Carson and the American South-West.
Stephen Longstreet, ‘War Cries on Horseback’ – an excellent overview of the Indian Wars.
Drury & Clavin, ‘The Heart of Everything That Is’ – Red Cloud and the Sioux Wars.
Gwynne, ‘Empire of the Summer Moon’ – Quanah Parker and the Comanches.
Q. Do you find any popular Western movies as historically accurate or enjoyable?
The Outlaw Josey Wales; Open Range; and, if you enjoy a good (albeit dated) politically-incorrect laugh, The Hallelujah Trail
Q. I enjoyed the bit where Walt was teaching Elijah and Samson how to aim at a mounted target. He instructed them to concentrate on the head because while the rest of the rider’s body is in motion the rider will instinctively try to keep his head steady. From there one should aim a little lower. Did you get this from research or from experience? I haven’t heard of too many mounted warriors on the South African veldt! Maybe the Boers learned that when fighting the British.
Yes, it was a known factor in Boer marksmanship that they could take down charging British cavalry by using that aiming point. I learned it when I had some dealings with a mounted South African border patrol unit, who used horses to patrol the Angolan border with Namibia. It was something they knew, and told me about. I expressed surprise, and one of them demonstrated it to me in the same way I had Walt demonstrate it to the soldiers he was teaching. It’s interesting to watch. For more on South African horse-mounted operations during the Border War, see this paper.
Q. I was surprised when reading the description of the filthy Army kitchen at the Pond Creek Stage Station. That sounds like you came across a mention of that particular post’s kitchen during your research. Was this widespread throughout the armies of the period or an example of a demoralized post with poor leadership?
This was a surprisingly common problem – the US Army lost more men to disease during the Indian Wars (both in sick days and by death) than they did through actual combat. For the Pond Creek Stage Station, later to become Fort Wallace, see this historical summary, including an outbreak of cholera in 1867, and also this more detailed description. See also this note on cholera in the West. As you can see, that incident is firmly based in historical reality (as I tried to do with all my historical vignettes).
During the Civil War, the problem waxed and waned according to what rations were available. Sometimes, on long marches, the armies had to forage for what food was available in the neighborhood. This might be very little, or a great deal – for an excellent example of the latter, witness Sherman’s “March to the Sea” from Atlanta in 1864, when his soldiers fed like kings (and ravaged thousands of square miles of countryside in the process). At other times, the quartermaster would issue what food was available. Sutlers offered additional food and luxury items – for a price, of course – and this was one reason for their unpopularity among the soldiers. Often, the only place to get fruit, green vegetables, tobacco, liquor, etc. was from the sutler – or by trading with the enemy. Illegal trading across the front line of Union Army coffee and food for Southern tobacco and moonshine were so common in Virginia in 1862-63 that threats were made by senior officers to shoot soldiers caught in such activities, but it didn’t stop them.
The problem of a poor, unbalanced diet and unsanitary food preparation was very common during the Indian Wars. Apart from the references I provided, there are many others from forts all across the West. The US army issue rations were very unsatisfactory, giving a far from balanced diet, to the point that scurvy was a serious – sometimes fatal – problem in various forts and places right up until the 1880’s. At many forts and posts, the soldiers grew their own vegetable gardens in an attempt to make up for this lack. There are many references to it in contemporary literature and soldiers’ memoirs, of which I have several in my library.
One more point on poor hygiene, sanitation, and disease on the Western frontier: don’t forget that the germ theory of disease was not widely believed at the time. It only became dominant at the end of the 19th century. Antiseptic surgery was popularized by Lister, but only came into widespread use after 1867; and household disinfectants were not commonly used until the late 19th century. (For example, Lysol was only introduced in 1889.) Injuries often became infected and septic, with lethal results.
Another point: life expectancy. It was relatively unusual to find a man or woman in their ’50’s and ’60’s in the West. Even in 1900, the average life expectancy for men in the USA was only 46.8 years! That factors into the poor health situation in the West.
Q. Once the party reaches eastern Colorado they are faced with many dangers to include Indians, tornadoes and flash floods. While reading your description of torrential rain and violent storms I was wondering about those heavily laden wagons bogging down. Was there was a preferred season to transit this area? For wagon bound travelers was there an American West equivalent of the Russian Rasputitsa?
Travel usually took place during periods when the animals pulling the wagons could be sure of having grass available for food, and water to drink. That meant late spring, summer, and early autumn. Winter was usually not a suitable period, because blizzards could wipe out traveling parties, and the cold would greatly affect animals that were exposed to it for weeks or months without shelter or adequate food. Stagecoaches stopping at stage stations (where feed was stored and teams exchanged) kept running, of course, and convoys carrying their own food (such as Army wagon trains, where every second wagon might carry fodder to keep the animals alive) were still used on occasion.
There are many more.
Q. A local scout asks Walt about the brim of his hat and if it would hold up when soaked. He tells him to replace it as soon as possible as a drooping brim will cut down his line of sight. Personal experience or research?
Personal experience in Africa, where this was a perennial problem with floppy ‘bush hats’ like this one: also the records of many travelers in the West, who complained about the tendency of many hats up to and including the Civil War period (including cavalry hats) to do just that. (Consider, for example, the ‘Woolsey Hat’, mentioned in this article.) That’s what gave Stetson his start, in 1865, with his famous “Boss of the Plains” model, which was guaranteed to hold its shape. It cost a small fortune for the time (up to and sometimes more than a month’s wages for a cowhand), but it held up to its promise, and came to dominate cowboy wear (as it and its imitators do to this day).
Q. Was there a Stetson equivalent you could use in the African bush or did you have to stick with the floppy bush hats due to regulations?
As far as I know, there was no South African ‘Stetson’ or equivalent. One could buy better hats from vendors in towns, and I suppose they were similar to the Stetson in quality of construction, but there are few records to substantiate that. The British typically wore pith helmets rather than hats. A lot of Boers made their hats from well-tanned leather, similar to this one from Australia. They can still be seen in Africa today, and I’ve worn one – but not in military service. (“I’ll take ‘How to give a Sergeant-Major apoplexy’ for $1,000, Alex!”) I don’t know whether similar leather hats were common in the American West; I haven’t found any references to them.
Q. During a heavy rain storm the same scout advises that Indians would probably not attack as they wouldn’t be able to discharge their flintlock rifles; caplock rifles would be untrustworthy and bowstrings would be immediately soaked when uncovered. Against opponents that mostly fought with firearms wouldn’t the Indians relish the chance to get in close and even the odds using tomahawks and lances? Were they leery of hand to hand combat?
It’s a question of relative numbers. If a group of Indians outnumbered a potential enemy, sure, I guess they’d rush in and take their chances. However, it was rare for Indian raiding parties to outnumber a big wagon train. Furthermore, cartridge weapons (then coming into more widespread service, such as the Spencer and Henry rifles) were not subject to the same disadvantage in the rain. That might put an Indian raiding party at a severe disadvantage. They weren’t dumb. They fought when the odds were with them, and disengaged or avoided combat when they weren’t.
Q. Please tell me a little about your travels while researching the book. Did you start in Virginia or did you pick up Walt’s trail later?
I’ve traveled widely through most States in the USA (over 40 of them so far). As far as Walt’s travels are concerned, I’ve traversed the Shenandoah Valley, from Winchester where he began, down to its exit, as well as neighboring areas such as West Virginia and Kentucky. I lived in Tennessee for several years, so I know the places I mentioned in that state from personal experience. I’ve followed Walt’s route to St. Louis, then through Missouri and across Kansas to Colorado, traveling it by road on more than one occasion, and stopping in some places to spend longer there (for example, I spent a week in Columbia, MO doing a course there). I took the opportunity while crossing Kansas to explore parts of the old Smoky Hill Trail, and visit some of the old fort sites.
Q. During your travels was there any method you used to find material and inspiration or did you enjoy the journey and let inspiration come to you?
In my early travels, I just went from place to place as the fancy took me. Later, doing research, I typically had a good idea of what I wanted to write, and researched places accordingly. For example, I’ve covered a large part of the Smoky Hill Trail through Kansas and Colorado. Initially, I just paid attention to the scenery and long range vistas to use for descriptions of the area the characters travelled through but the more I travelled the more I incorporated specific sites and terrain features directly into the story, especially for the fighting scenes.
Q. Finally, what would you most like to get across to the reader to look out for when they read Brings the Lightning? Anything the reader should keep in the back of his mind while reading?
I’ve tried to make “Brings the Lightning” as historically authentic as I possibly could. So many Westerns today are thinly disguised romance or erotica novels – a complete departure from the historical norm for the genre. Others focus on immensely high body counts, ridiculously so, seeking to shock and titillate through violence rather than portray the era accurately. I tried to avoid all those traps. Unfortunately, political correctness has made it impossible to use much of the language of the period, including terms related to race, tribe, etc., without giving serious offense to many. This hampered my work for a long time, until I decided that I had no choice but to accept a certain lack of authenticity in my language. On the other hand, many have been surprised that my characters are relatively well-spoken. This is actually historically authentic. Many Westerners spoke very well, even cowboys and relatively uneducated persons (not surprising when you think that their reading matter, such as it was, was often the Bible, Shakespeare, and other weighty tomes). It wasn’t unusual to find educated people, even with multiple degrees, serving as cowhands, Army privates, and so on. There are many historical accounts of this. Finally, I have to strike a balance between historical or technical accuracy and flow of the narrative. There is a scene in which Walt takes a long range shot. I could have had him adjust his aim to allow for wind, but I felt there was already more than enough going on in that scene, and I didn’t want to be overly burdensome in my details. Let’s just say it was a calm day with no wind!
As for something to keep in the back of one’s mind, I tried to write this book from a human perspective as much as an historical one. Westerners were human beings first and foremost, with normal hopes, dreams, fears, etc. It was many years later that the stereotypes of the cowboy, the Indian, the miner, the outlaw, etc. came to dominate in popular culture. Hollywood has a lot to answer for! That may be, of course, why Westerns such as “The Outlaw Josey Wales” had such an impact – they set the record straight, and discarded the stereotypes. Note how even the saloon girl, Rose, spoke in that movie. That level of what I might call “faded elegance” was not unusual. Many people in the Old West were very like us, and not nearly so “rough-and-ready” as they’ve been painted in popular culture.
Q. Thank you Peter for taking the time to respond to all these questions. I’m looking forward to the next title in the series. When can we expect it?
You’re welcome. I still have to conduct some research and plan on another trip soon. A rough estimate is publication in mid- to late 2017. I hope it’ll be earlier rather than later, but part of that includes editing and preparation by my publisher, over which I have no control.