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Crafting History Stories

Story: “What Was Civil About That War”

As a crossword puzzle junkie, I know a lot of words it never even dawned on me to be curious about before I got hooked. I know Plato’s porch was a stoa, ziti is a type of pasta, “Marty” won an Oscar for best picture (1953?), Ada is both a town in Oklahoma and a Nabokov title, and the Muse of history is Clio.

I was surprised to find out that history had a Muse. I thought the Muses were strictly fine arts types--poetry, tragedy, comedy, music, dance--right brain stuff. Isn’t history the cut and dried record of who did what to whom, when, and how they did it? That’s how the coaches I had as high school history teachers taught it. That’s how our multiple choice and short-answer tests treated the subject. That’s how I thought of history until a few years after I moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia, which is proud to call itself “America’s most historic town.”

If you believe the tourist flyers (and why wouldn’t you--they’re written by historians), the Founding Fathers rough-drafted parts of the Constitution of the United States in the Rising Sun Tavern on Caroline Street. George Washington not only grew up in the area, he built his mom a house at the corner of Lewis and Charles Streets, four blocks from James Monroe’s law office on Prince Edward Street. The presidents of both the USA and the CSA (Lincoln and Davis) made public appearances on the front steps of what is now the National Bank of Fredericksburg. Clara Barton and Walt Whitman nursed wounded soldiers less than a mile away at a house called Chatham. And more people died here during the First and Second Battles of Fredericksburg than live today within the historic district.

That’s a lot of moving and shaking going on within one zip code. Until three years ago it meant as little to me as my high school history lessons. Deep sigh. Long blink. Yawn.

But three years ago, Clio, the Muse of history grabbed me by the throat.

Early one Saturday morning in December of 1999, when Civil War enthusiasts showed up for the annual re-enactment of the First Battle of Fredericksburg (December 13, 1863), I followed the drumbeats and the pops of reproduction muskets to their encampment. I wandered around the Fredericksburg battlefield park, I eavesdropped on re-enactors fielding questions from curious passersby, and I read the markers on the monuments and properties there in the park.

This was not my first visit to the park. I live just down the street and around the corner. It’s one of my favorite places to walk. But before this December day my focus had always zeroed in on a larger-than-life-sized bronze monument erected in honor of “The Angel of Marye’s Heights”--Sergeant Richard Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, who risked his life to take water to his dying enemies. That act of bravery bewilders and appalls me. First he did his job as an infantryman and tried to kill his enemies; then when they cried out in the agony of their mortal wounds, he risked his life to comfort them. Many times I’ve stood at that monument crying, shaking my head, wondering, Is this a “guy thing” or an “adolescent thing”? Sergeant Kirkland was, after all, only nineteen at the time. Either way, I’ll never fathom that deed.

But on this December day my focus shifted from the Kirkland memorial. Instead I studied a little white house that stands in the middle of the park and the low fence that describes the footprint of another house that had withstood the battle but was destroyed by fire in 1913.

Both houses were owned by a woman named Martha Stephens, who refused to flee to safety on the eve of the battle. Instead she stayed on the premises and nursed wounded soldiers. She turned the little white house over to Confederate snipers for the duration of the battle, while her own home (the one that burned in 1913) served as General Kershaw’s base of command. Over two thousand shells hit that house, some of them going clean through front and rear walls. General Thomas Cobb received his mortal wound in front of her house. Sergeant Richard Kirkland filled his canteens at her well.

Most of this information is there on the markers set up around the Stephens property. I had read it before. But as I wandered among the weekend soldiers that day, a lone curious woman among all those uniformed men, I started to appreciate Martha Stephens’s chutzpah. That one engagement produced carnage of Carthaginian proportions -- between 15,000 and 25,000 dead (depending on whose account you read). Thousands of those men fell in the field surrounding Martha Stephens’s house.

I decided to find out more about this gutsy broad. I looked in the indexes of every book in the “Battles of Fredericksburg” section of the park’s bookstore, but I didn’t find much written in the books that wasn’t already etched in bronze outside on the park’s markers. Back at home, I went online and found a few brief references to her, many of them prefaced with the disclaimer, “According to local legend...” Others carry a decidedly condescending tone, especially when the writers recount her life after the war when she refused to have her house repaired. Instead she’d regale sightseers with her account of the battle, show off the property damage, and shake them down for a donation in the name of “reparations.” Many local historians dismiss Martha Stephens as a crackpot--a “legend in her own mind.”

I could only get sketchy glimpses of this woman until I found a book written by one of the park historians named Noel Harrison. The book is Fredericksburg Civil War Sites, Volume II, and several pages are devoted to Martha Stephens, her property, and her reputation in the community. Those seven pages told me one reason why her memory hovers in obscurity. Her contemporaries called her “a woman of abandoned character and an outcast of society ... uneducated, too free and too outspoken in what she said and how she said it.” There were men in her life, but no marriage licenses on record; children, but no baptismal certificates. Notwithstanding her ignorance and lack of breeding, she owned seven parcels of land in town and managed to purchase a 92-acre farm during a very bleak time in Virginia’s economy when few women of any station in life held deeds in their own names. She was a loose woman, a loudmouth, and an opportunist. I’ve been called all those things. She was a woman aft!
er my own heart.

By this time, Clio, Muse of history, was working on my imagination. If “local legend” and her own accounts were to be believed, Martha Stephens experienced this battle firsthand, right on the front line in the exact spot where the fighting was deadliest. Here was someone whose story was begging to be told, except that after she died, most of her story was quickly forgotten. She was born in 1824 somewhere between Fredericksburg and Culpeper and the name she was born with was Martha Farrow, but there’s nothing written or remembered concerning the circumstances that brought her to Fredericksburg, no indication of how she came by the business sense to make real estate investments. The story we have is composed of court records--business transactions, civil lawsuits, and arrests--and brief mentions of her wartime role in the post-war memoirs of a few townspeople.

For my purposes Martha Stephens was too sketchy a subject to carry her own story. In spite of ample indications that she was a colorful personality, I couldn’t find enough “bones” of fact and information to hang her character onto. So what should I do? Take what I knew about her and fabricate the rest? Make up a Hallmark Special about a crusty but benign misfit who overcomes the hardships of poverty, ignorance, and war, and through patriotic acts of heroism wins the approbation of the town that heretofore had treated her as a pariah? Doubtless there are creative, talented people out there who could do just that and do it capably. But I’m not one of them. Besides, knowing what little I do know about Martha Stephens’s character, I don’t think she’d have appreciated that wholesome treatment.

If Clio had just let me rest, I could have forgotten Martha Stephens and gone on to write and tell other stories. But it was as if I had this woman lodged in my craw. I couldn’t choke her down and I couldn’t spit her out.

On a January night about 10:30, I was haunting the battlefield park, looking for inspiration. I couldn’t seem to stay away. The Kirkland monument was still festooned with wilted wreaths left over from the December re-enactment. I stood beside a reconstruction of Martha Stephens’s well house and tried to imagine how the place looked and felt on the eve of battle. I wondered what possessed that woman to stay put and not run for safety. Did she think it would be a grand adventure weathering the battle with a bunch of Confederate gentleman soldiers? No. She worked as a nurse and a midwife and had to have been acquainted enough with death to know that it was going to be fetid and horrifying. Was her patriotic fervor so strong that she felt a divine call to nurse the wounded? If that was the case, she could have taken her skills up the road a couple of miles to a military hospital. Why did she stand up to Confederate officers who told her to seek safety and tell them she wasn’t go!
ing anywhere?

At that juncture in my thoughts, Martha Stephens herself accosted me. She said--and I’m not saying I “heard” with my ears, but she told me--“Woman, do you know how hard I worked for these houses? No. You don’t. You don’t have any idea what this place cost me. I never had a thing I didn’t have to scratch and claw for. This place was mine. And it was home. If I had walked away, do you honestly think there’d have been anything to come home to after the smoke cleared? Look here, lady, my affairs aren’t any of your damn business. You don’t need to know how much of what was said about me was true and how much was the work of spiteful tongues. I won’t be the subject of further gossip, not when I’m dead and can’t defend myself or put the record straight. What I can do . . . what I will do, if you’ll get still and pay attention, is tell you what I saw here in those December days--on the field and on the Heights up behind you and inside my house. I saw the dead picked clean. I heard t!
he wounded scream in pain and moan for water. I saw Richard Kirkland’s heroic act. I can tell you how it was.”

And that’s how I found the toehold that gave me a start on “What Was Civil About that War . . . ”
The facts of the First Battle of Fredericksburg are available to anybody who knows how to use a library and the index at the back of a history book. So my job, as defined to me by Ms. Stephens herself, was to take those facts and experience them through her eyes as she looked out at the slaughter on the field around her house, and to feel her heart pounding as she ran back and forth under fire to the well house. The din of the cannons, the cries of the wounded, the stench of dying, the horror, the misery, and the compassion--all were documented many times over. I read the primary sources I could find and several secondary sources, and I sifted out facts and events specific to the part of the battle that she would have seen. She would have heard the Irish Brigade’s piper playing “The Garryowen” as those ill-fated regiments trotted in formation up the hill; she might have taken note that each man wore a sprig of boxwood in his cap; she would have seen the huge green flag that !
was their battle standard. I wrote my facts on note cards as if I were writing a high school term paper, sorted them chronologically, and sat down at the keyboard to see how Martha Stephens would respond.

As I wrote, I received another visitation. A young Union re-enactor showed up and wanted to be heard as the voice for Irish immigration to America in the wake of the Big Hunger. I told him, “But that’s another story. I’ll get to you next.” “No,” he told me. “It’s this story. It’s this very battle.” I’ve been writing long enough to know that when someone entirely unexpected shows up, you let him say his piece, knowing full well you’ll probably have to cut it as you rewrite, but also knowing that the essence of what he has to say solidifies the finished story with a heft it wouldn’t otherwise have. So I welcomed the re-enactor and let him tag along until the end of the first draft, all the while wondering what he was doing traipsing across the pages of Martha Stephens’ story.

After several hundred words, Martha finally was out of breath and told me she had said all she had to say. Without ceremony, she left, and there I was, alone on the page with an Irish Union re-enactor and more confusion than ever about what makes people behave as heroes. And then, to my astonishment, the young re-enactor proved himself correct: His story was this story--this very battle. And his story made perfect sense.

That’s how I went about discovering, researching, listening for, and writing the first draft of “What Was Civil About That War . . . ” The rewrites, revisions, and edits were accomplished in the usual manner--one word, one phrase, one idea, one historical fact, one punctuation mark at a time, and then the piece reconsidered as a whole. It took weeks and weeks--followed by more weeks of learning the story aloud, practicing, rehearsing, and dress rehearsing it. I’ve been performing it for three years now, and I learn something new about the piece or about Martha Stephens or about human nature every time I tell the story.

Whether or not you believe Martha Stephens really did what she said she did is immaterial to me. I very deliberately worked a ghost story into the piece, just so there’d be no confusion that it is a piece of historical fiction. Fiction notwithstanding, it’s still “true.” I’m proud to lay it a Clio’s feet and tell her, “Thank you.”

\"What Was Civil About That War,\" released September 2004, was named a finalist for The Audies™ and was awarded a Parents’ Choice Silver Honor for 2005.
Published in its entirety in Storytelling World, May/June 2004, parts of this article first appeared in the December 2000 issue of Front Porch Fredericksburg (

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