Two Brothers by David H. Jones opens at the close of the Civil War. We follow poet Walt Whitman to the army hospital where he works as a volunteer nurse caring for the most seriously injured soldiers often tending them as they lay dying. Whitman is sent to care for a southern soldier who has only a short time to live. The soldier, William Prentiss, tells Whitman all he can about his life before and during the war. On an upper floor in the same hospital William Prentiss’s brother Major Clifton Prentiss is also a patient, but Clifton is a soldier in the Union army. This situation was not uncommon during the American Civil War, two brothers on fighting on opposite sides. Mr. Jones explores what caused each brother to take opposite stands and how their decisions affected their families in his historical novel Two Brothers. I asked him how he came to discover the story of the Prentiss brothers in our interview.
I discovered the story of the Prentiss brothers while researching the Civil War regiments of my ancestors; Clifton Prentiss served in the 6th Maryland Infantry with my great great grandfather, James Touchstone. When I learned that Clifton had a Confederate brother, I tracked down a professional historian who had conducted research on the brothers. He provided me with the specifics of the story, mentioned Walt Whitman’s involvement, and pointed me in the direction of a Prentiss family genealogical researcher. I was totally hooked. Thus began three years of research, collecting data and compiling voluminous notes, before I wrote the first line of the first paragraph.
So much of Two Brothers is clearly based on historical fact–much of what the characters say seems to come directly from historical record–what percentage of the book is fiction? What percent fact?
The characters and their experiences in “Two Brothers” are closely based on real people and events. The anecdotes are true, although sometimes stretched to include primary characters. The standard for creating these fictional aspects: 1) it could have happened that way and 2) there is no evidence that it didn’t happen that way. Based on that criterion, 98% of “Two Brothers” is true. An example: McHenry Howard wrote about going back into the woods after the Battle of First Manassas to pick up rifle muskets and finding a badly wounded Union soldier. I simply added William to the episode and created the necessary dialogue between the characters. In other instances, the dialogue is paraphrased from recitals of conversations written afterwards by participants and observers. I was careful not to indulge in too much “character development” beyond what was clearly suggested by historical record and genealogical evidence. These were real people, living in difficult times, whose memory should be honored and respected. In my opinion, many historical fiction authors take excessive liberties with the personality and character of historical figures to create sensational drama. As my intent was to write a novel “closely based on real people and events,” I restrained that impulse, trusting that the reader would become emotionally involved with the characters given their authenticity. These were real people and the events described really happened to them. That’s why I provided the brief appendix with quotations from period sources.
Were you ever tempted to write the book as a work of non-fiction? What made you decide to make it a novel?
I did consider both alternatives, as the research data could have supported either a non-fiction or fiction format. As the circumstance of “brother fighting brother” is the quintessential story of the American Civil War, my conclusion was that it would achieve greater readership as an historical fiction. In any case, it’s a story that had to be told.
Were there any characters or scenes that you had to create to make the book work as a novel?
Yes, a few characters and circumstances were created to benefit the telling of the story. Elijah and Alma Carter are fictitious characters. Laura Watson was created, but there is some evidence of a Prentiss stepsister. The biggest circumstantial stretch involves the intertwining of the Prentiss and Cary stories. I had no proof that William was a good friend of Hetty and Jenny Cary. However, both families were prominent in the field of education in Baltimore and certainly knew each other. For years before the war, Baltimore’s Southern sympathizers were socially active and conspicuously banded together.
The dialogue in the book sounds very authentic to me. Is it based on letters or journals written by the people portrayed? How close is it to what they actually said or wrote?
Yes, the dialogue is often based on the actual words and phrases of the participants that they later recorded in letters, memoirs, and journals about events that are described in the book. In a number of instances, the dialogue is close to the record of what was said in those moments. I wrote in nineteenth century style to harmoniously blend the dialogue and narration as much as possible.
It seems to me that so many of the stories we tell about the Civil War are really stories about the south. (Gone With The Wind, The Red Badge of Courage, even Buster Keaton’s movie The General.) I think Two Brothers is really William’s story. Why did you decide to focus on the brother who fought for the Confederacy instead of one who fought for the Union? You are from the north yourself, after all, yes.
Both of my Civil War ancestors chose to fight for the North, a decision made difficult as they lived in Border States. Nevertheless, my goal was to be even-handed in the treatment of the Prentiss brothers as I explored their reasons for choosing opposite sides and to provide an accurate representation of their experiences. My own sense of the Civil War is that soldiers of both sides were American patriots within the context of those times and should be recognized as such today. Whitman revealed a similar view in “The Wound Dresser” when he declared them all to be “unsurpass’d heroes” and “equally brave.” As research yielded more usable material on William and the 1st and 2nd Maryland Battalions than on Clifton and the 6th Maryland Infantry, there does appear to be a bias in favor of the South. However, my intent was to mitigate this factor by shifting the focus and momentum from South to North as the story progressed toward the climax at Petersburg.
The southern characters in Two Brothers do not address the issue of slavery often, but there is a scene (page 169-170) when Connie and William pass by a slave family that is being broken up. Connie makes an impassioned speech against slavery but does not seem to connect it to the cause she and William are fighting for as Confederate sympathizers. Is this an attitude you found common among Confederates in your research? So much of the art, books and movies, that are about the Civil War push the issue of slavery into the background. What is your response to this? Why wasn’t the issue addressed more often in Two Brothers?
Good question. The focus of the war in most people’s minds, both North and South, was not on slavery at the beginning of hostilities, however it evolved in that direction over the next four years. The average Northern soldier was fighting to preserve the Union and his Southern counterpart was fighting a second war for Independence from what was perceived to be the political and economic tyranny of the North. In fact, racial attitudes, except for abolitionist communities located mainly in New England, were essentially the same throughout the United States. The Southern characters in “Two Brothers” were well-educated people of the upper class and had strong religious beliefs. It’s clear from their writings that they recognized the evil inherent in the institution of slavery and thought that slavery would be eliminated over time. They even worried about the difficulty of transition for former slaves when freedom was achieved. The belief of the Episcopal Church in Virginia was that white people had an obligation to take care of black people as blacks were considered to be culturally inferior and not able to take care of themselves. They also thought that the treatment of poor Irish laborers in Northern manufacturing cities was worse than the plight of black slaves in the South. The Southern characters in “Two Brothers” were mainly involved with slaves who were household servants and generally well-treated. These slaves, in my opinion, were simply making the best of what they knew to be a bad situation. They maintained personal loyalties to white people who treated them kindly, but yearned for freedom if given the opportunity. It should also be acknowledged that the plight of field slaves on large plantations was often much worse, but that sad circumstance does not fall directly within the storyline of “Two Brothers.”
Is the character of Elijah based on the historical record? It seemed ironic that William’s former family slave ended up dying as a member of the Union army.
Elijah Carter is a fictional character, one of several in the book. However, his portrayal is necessary to present the full dimensions of the American Civil War. The 7th United States Colored Troops was an actual regiment raised in Baltimore in late 1863 and its exploits are accurately recorded in “Two Brothers.” Its assault on Fort Gilmer rivals the courage displayed by the 54th Massachusetts (of “Glory” fame) at Fort Wagner in South Carolina. I don’t think that it’s ironic that Elijah was killed in action. Many Northerners thought that blacks should earn their freedom as soldiers, while others thought them to be not worthy of that honor. Frederick Douglas, the great black abolitionist, orator, and author, actively recruited black soldiers for the Union as he believed that their participation was essential in the fight to abolish slavery. One of his sons served in the 54th Massachusetts during the assault on Fort Wagner.
It’s remarkable that the brothers are reunited through a meeting with Walt Whitman. It also seems like this probably happened often since he spent so much time working with wounded soldiers. Were you a fan of his work before writing Two Brothers? What is you opinion of him now?
I wasn’t really of fan of Walt Whitman’s work before I became involved with the story of the Prentiss brothers. However, I developed a profound respect for the empathy and compassion that he gave so unselfishly to the wounded and dying soldiers that he visited. This wasn’t a pleasant task as the soldiers were suffering from ghastly wounds and illness, yet he spent countless hours, day in and day out, at their bedsides, succoring their pain, sorrow, and loneliness. He sat by their besides, holding their hands, while they departed this life. How many of us would do the same? Walt Whitman was a remarkable man and deserves our deepest admiration for his devotion to this heart-rending, self-imposed duty.
I imagine you get this question quite often, but since there are four brothers in the novel, it’s inevitable that I ask why the title is Two Brothers?
After considering many titles, I finally decided to slightly re-arrange Whitman’s caption for his account of William Prentiss published in “Memoranda During The War” in 1876. Clifton and William were much younger than the two elder brothers, fought on opposite sides, fell mortally wounded yards and moments apart, and are buried side by side at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. In my view, only the two youngest brothers constitute the essence of the story; John and Melville are secondary characters.
It’s clear that you have done a great deal of research prior to writing Two Brothers. Have you come across any non-fiction that you’d recommend for a general audience?
I’m presently reading “Now The Drum of War: Walt Whitman and his Brothers in the Civil War” by Robert Roper, which was just released in the past month. It’s excellent and provides a great deal of insight into the Whitman family and their Civil War experiences.
Any historical fiction about the Civil War you’d recommend?
Any of several novels by Howard Bahr.
I feature regular posts on my blog about my dog, Dakota, a Basset Hound who loves to eat books, so I always ask authors if they have any pets. Have any of yours ever gone after your books?
We have two Long-Haired Dachshunds, Teddy and Perkin, who have many vices, but chewing books is not yet one of them. I have no doubt that they are open to suggestion, so I hope that Dakota doesn’t pass that idea on to them at the dog park.
This interview ran as part of the very first virtual book tour I ever did, back in late 2008 for my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. I was excited to bet my first ever ARC. Looking back on it now, I think it’s basically a good interview. I tried to make my questions stand out from the more typical list of ten questions I was seeing on so many book blogs. But I’ve always had two regrets about this project. The first is that I didn’t really like the book. However, at the time I felt pressured to say something nice or not say anything at all. So, I decided to run an interview instead of a review. I should have run the review. This is the only time I backed away from running a negative review of an ARC. My second regret is that I downplayed the issue of slavery so much. It’s my opinion that Mr. Jones is flat out wrong on the issue of slavery, I should have said so. I would have in a more proper review. while bad things certainly were done to them, sometimes fatally bad things, Irish workers in the north were free to marry, to have and to raise their own children, and none of their bossess were ever legally allowed to beat or rape them or steal and sell their babies. This cannot be said for field slaves or house slaves. You can go on-line to chroniclingamerica.loc,gov, the Library of Congress’s archive of American newspapers, and read the editorials that ran in southern newspapers after Lincoln’s election and see for yourself. For the south, it was always about maintaining slavery. I should have said so, but I didn’t want to offend the author or the tour organizers. I would have do it differently today.