Harrison ("Harry") Self
Harrison Self is an historical figure, mostly unknown today outside of Eastern Tennessee. Family records give his birthdate as July 15, 1813. Thus, he was forty-eight at the time the story begins. A year before his birth, the British burned the US capital; in the year of his death, 1907, Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon. From the War of 1812 to the beginnings of cubism, that was his lifespan. Up to the day of his scheduled execution, I was faithful to the known events and facts of his life, but I was free to imagine his thoughts and feelings. Viewing him through the lens of his own time and place, I found a rough-hewn individual with a steady hand, a practical intelligence, strong local ties, and a heart torn apart by the Civil War on his doorstep.
Elizabeth ("Lizzie") Self
Harry had several children, but as Elizabeth Self was twenty-five in 1861, I’v assumed that all her siblings except her sixteen-year-old brother were no longer living at home. Some things, we do know. Her name and age are confirmed by the federal census of 1860. Her visit to her father in prison, and its consequences, are documented in William Gannaway Brownlow’s diary. For the most part, however, I have imagined Lizzie into life, often inspired by diaries written by women in this part of the country during the Civil War. I found no record of any marriage even later in life, and so I’ve given her the independence of mind, the devotion to her father, the courage under pressure, and the difficult love story of a woman fighting her own battles in the War Between the States.
William Gannaway Brownlow
An American original, W. G. Brownlow was known as the “Fighting Parson.” After an early life as an itinerant Methodist minister, he owned and edited a newspaper which became the longest-surviving Union-sympathizing newspaper in the South. His vitriolic editorials were legendary. As Tennessee’s first governor after the war, he cracked down on former Confederates and personal enemies alike. Afterwards, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. He was charismatic and controversial—easily moved to anger or compassion, self-promoting yet generous. You loved him or you hated him, but you couldn’t be indifferent. He was briefly imprisoned with some of the bridge burners, and his diary of those days was an invaluable resource.
W. G. Brownlow’s daughter, Susan, was a real person, too, though I have invented her a personality and actions within the story. She did capture the public imagination at the time. Supposedly, on an occasion when her father was out of town, she was left in charge of the family home, which sported a Yankee flag in the front yard. When a contingent of abusive Rebels ordered her to remove it, she defied them. Perhaps she had a rifle, or perhaps her only weapon was her courage. In any case, the tale inspired a dime novel, and when she accompanied her father on a book tour throughout the North, she was sometimes feted in her own right. Socially prominent and city-bred, she was an unexpected yet natural ally for the countrified but equally strong-willed Lizzie Self. Together, they stood their ground.
In Eastern Tennessee, a land of mountains and valleys, there were no large plantations, and therefore no large concentrations of slave labor. However, one of the main characters, Col. Danville Leadbetter, was a Confederate officer who—although born in Maine—married into Louisiana society and enthusiastically adopted the culture of the Deep South. On a mission to East Tennessee after the bridge burnings, he may well have brought with him a “boot boy,” as many officers of his rank and class did. Joshua is an invented character, a Black child of about twelve thrust into an entirely new world for the first time. What would this experience have meant to a naïve, curious, intelligent, and sensitive child born into slavery? Joshua is a minor character with a major role in the story.
Andy is an invented character, the closest thing to a romantic hero in the dangerous world of this story. He’s a composite of the rugged men who owned small freeholds in the mountains or lived by hunting and fishing in the wilderness. Somewhat anachronistically, he is a literary relative of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking, but he also shares characteristics with the real-life Daniel Ellis, who, during the period of this story, piloted escapees through the difficult mountain passages into Kentucky. Like Ellis, Andy has been a guide for many “stampeders” (men evading conscription into the Confederate Army and hoping to enlist in the Federal Army) and many bridge burners trying to escape capture. He and Lizzie have their moment, and if it were not for the war . . . .