It was a long journey to Pennsylvania. Sarah was excited to be riding a train for the first time, but after hours of clinging to the narrow seat while the coach danced on the uneven track and breathing a heady mixture of soot and cinders, she fell asleep nestled against me.
To be truthful, I was as excited as she was. I had traveled by carriage from Waterside to Washington City several times, and from Washington to Baltimore by horse, but I had never gone toward the west. It was exciting just to know that I could travel by the train all the way to the Mississippi if I were free to do so. I remained alert on into the afternoon, watching the valley of the Potomac slip by at the astonishing rate of twenty miles an hour.
It was nearly nightfall when we reached the great bridge at Harper’s Ferry. On our left as we approached, one half of the bridge carried horses and wagons, while the right side carried the tracks of the railroad. As we passed beneath the roof of the bridge, the smoke from the engine boiling in through our open windows became almost unbearable.
I left Sarah asleep on the seat and stepped out onto the platform to look around. Just a year ago Harper’s Ferry had been the center of the nation’s attention as the crazed abolitionist John Brown raided the Federal arsenal there.
John Brown had not raised the slaves to revolt. He had only killed a few innocent people and they had hanged him three months later. Yet even in failure, he had succeeded. After John Brown’s raid, the South had looked northward with even greater distrust. It had made compromise even harder than before. Now the widening split between the two halves of America had led to the election of the one man the South could not tolerate.
Now, as I looked on the place where the nation’s fate had been sealed, I had no idea that I would return there in so few months. Nor, in my wildest dreams, could I ever have imagined the circumstances that would draw me there.
Historical novels require accuracy, but the bar is somewhat lower than historical non-fiction. Either type of literature is subject to error. Perfection is not possible, and historians are always correcting one another.
It comes down to a balancing act between a desire for accuracy and the needs of the story, refereed by the likelihood of reader catching your error.
In this case, I sent Matt and Sarah’s train through Harper’s Ferry because I wanted to bring it into the story early. The railroad is real; in fact the Harper’s Ferry train and wagon bridge is well known among enthusiasts of early railroads. When I later found an early railroad atlas which showed that the sensible route from Washington to Gettysburg left the B & O before Harper’s Ferry, I retained the error in order to get John Brown into the story early, along with a foreshadowing of coming events.
In point of fact, Matt may not pass through or near Harper’s Ferry in chapters yet unwritten. I know he is going to return to the South on a mission he can’t even imagine at this point of the story, but his route at that point is uncertain to me now. If he doesn’t pass through Harper’s Ferry, it will be a simple thing to come back and make a slight change in this part of the ms.