What follows is a series of photos — just some of the photos I took — from my trip to southwest Louisiana to research the final details of my Civil War novel, Hagridden. While my book isn’t strictly, solely historical, it is set in a certain historical and regional reality, and what details echo history or geography or biology I wanted to know I’d gotten right. A lot of those details — battles, historical figures, mapped terrain — I could find in books or online (about which I’ll post next), but a lot of the important human details I needed to see or smell or hear firsthand. That’s what this trip was mostly about: to live for ten days in the world I’d written and know that what I’d written could be true.
The women waited, their weapons never far from hand, but for days on end the only sound in the marsh was the wind in the rushes.
This is in the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, in Southwest Louisiana. The Wetland Walkway trail is actually a bit farther north and east of where I imagine the women living, but the terrain and the wildlife is all the same. In the book, I refer to their home territory as, alternately, the bayou, the marsh, or the saltmarsh. This is not a mistake. In fact, much of the area that now makes up the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge is a mixture of all three: freshwater marshes farther north, saltwater marshes farther south, and the deeper pools and ponds and waterways that make up the bayous, like the water below:
[A] spectral figure emerged hat and shoulders from the rippled surface of the backwaters. He carried a long walking stick with which he plumbed the path before him, and tied to the top of the stick hung a heavy black sack. He pushed his way through the weedy murk and emerged onto the damp ground of the reed beds dripping and naked save the wide black hat on his head.
Those who knew how to discern them might have made out other sounds, the soft splash of a gator slipping from the prairie grass into the muck and water, the rustle of ducks breaking for the sky or the dip of a heron beak as it fished the shallows.
These three photos are from various spots around Cameron Parish: the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge (the gator), a small pond and bit of marsh out behind a cemetery in Cameron (the birds) and the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge (the heron).
He took the ax and the empty sack and hiked out toward the lake to foray the steamy rim, climbing over cypress knees and mucking through the mud up his calves, until he found a felled cypress trunk draped with heavy ferns and Spanish moss. He collected the moss and packed it into the sack, then he hacked away a section of the trunk and heaved and rolled it until he’d got it onto the nearest patch of dry land he could find. [. . .] With the ax he hacked several pillars a foot square and about two feet long, each tapered at one end. [. . .] At home he paced off his longest timbers and arranged a rough frame of cypress pillars every few paces. He laid the rails across the pillars and began to construct a new foundation. [. . .] By the end of the week he had the true walls framed and raised. That weekend he mixed his moss with mud from the marsh and constituted a new batch of bousillage, which he packed between the studs before he skinned the walls in tongue-and-groove siding.
One of my favorite passages in the novel is when Buford rebuilds his house. And I was careful to have him construct as near to a traditional Cajun home as he could manage on his own. Historically, Cajuns would help their neighbors raise their homes, but Buford’s a bit of a loner, a doggedly self-reliant man, and he’s building the house in part to prove something to the girl he’s trying to seduce. So he winds up cutting some corners, skipping the traditional high-pitched roof and the attic “garçonniere” (the attic room where a family’s boys slept) and roughing together a smaller one-room version of the house in the photo above. Still, this house, in the excellent historical Cajun village of Vermillionville outside Lafayette, is a solid example of the house Buford is working on.
[T]hey reached a low-roofed hut thatched and camouflaged in the marsh reeds, the door barely tall enough to crouch through. Inside they tossed their collection onto a small but similar pile near the door, which the girl arranged hastily while the old woman stepped out the back and dipped a tin cup into a barrel of water and drank deeply, the water running in streaks down her dusty neck. The girl joined her and did the same, then they each drank again. The old woman left a splash in the bottom of her cup and tipped her head to pour the last down the back of her neck, while the girl returned indoors and braced the hut’s small door ajar then lifted a hatch in the roof with a pole and propped it open. They both collapsed panting on a rickety pallet bed with a thin lumpy mattress stuffed with grasses, the pillows toward the rear and their feet aimed at the door, the open hatch directly overhead for the meager breeze it offered.
This was the biggest and best surprise of my whole research trip. In my novel, I have the women living in a small reed hut they built themselves after they lost their regular house. I made that up — I wanted to show how resourceful and independent they were, but also how simply and desperately they had to live (and the hut practically disappears into the marsh, making them hard to find). Lo and behold, huts like that are a real thing in the bayou! They’re called palmetto houses, and they’re typical of Native tribes in the region. So, just like that, I’ve decided that the old woman is part Native and built the hut because it’s the only kind of house she knew how to build herself. (Also, the tribe I’ve decided she descends from, the Chitimacha, are known not only for these houses but also for their strong women and gender equality, which explains my character’s fierce will and refusal to cow to men.)
They took almost half an hour to drag the men to the forgotten well in the marsh, near a long-abandoned homestead where now remained only the well and a packed foundation they alone would recognize.
Conversely, this was probably the most frustrating — but important — discovery during my trip. In my novel, this well is essential to the story. Except this isn’t a well — it’s a cistern. It’s behind a mid-19th century house in Vermillionville, the historical village outside Lafayette. When I found it, I asked one of the village’s history experts about it, and he explained that most Cajuns and other settlers of the era pulled their water from the nearby bayou or built these brick cisterns to collect rainwater (much like the rain barrel the women keep behind their hut). But they never sank wells.
I’d also talked with locals in Cameron, who said all their water was city — no wells. I talked to the city water authorities — no wells.
This was a serious problem for me for a long while. But then, up in Lake Charles, I visited the central branch of the Calcasieu Parish Public Library, and I found the book The Battle in the Bayou Country, by Morris Raphael, in which I discovered this passage:
Still nestled among ancient oaks and magnolias is Dulcito, the stately mansion, located about five miles west of New Iberia, which played an important role in the Teche campaign. The big beautiful home, which overlooks ‘Lake Tasse’ (now known as Spanish Lake), was mustered into service by the Confederates as a temporary field hospital for wounded soldiers. The unique water well, said to be the deepest in the area, evidentally accommodated the soldiers from nearby Camp Pratt which was spread out over a wide area.
Aha! So wells not only are possible but existed during the Civil War!
Of course, Dulcito was a “stately mansion,” not some homestead out in the bayou. Still, the well is possible — and in my novel, the old homestead has long been abandoned, the useless well the only sign it ever existed. So here’s the story: some relatively well-off sugarcane planter built a somewhat sizeable home out in the marsh and foolishly sank a well. The well was useless, the house too remote, and eventually the planter abandoned the place, leaving behind this hole in the ground.
So there. Problem solved.
When day rose in a fog over the marsh they were awake already, resetting their crawfish traps and bringing in the wash they’d abandoned the day before.
This is behind the Cameron Motel, where I stayed while touring the area and conducting my research. It was a happy accident of nature, actually, to have this fog, not only for the photo but also because this was the second of the two days I planned to spend all day reading in the Cameron Parish Public Library. Later, it rained in successive thunderstorms. But after this, I had perfect weather the whole trip.
A sharp gust rocked them on their small ridge and they were awash in the dueling crash of the rustling trees back on the chenier and the crashing Gulf before them. The girl reeled in another crab and dropped it clacking in the bucket. Out on the horizon, a bank of clouds arose in shades of indigo and steel, a feathery brush drifting down from the lip to the edge of the Gulf.
This is out on the Gulf just west of Holly Beach. The actual spot I pictured the women fishing and crabbing is a bit farther west of this, where the grassy ridges are south of the road and closer to the beach. I drove down the beach that direction, but my rental car wasn’t meant for bouncing over the rougher bits of the shore, so I didn’t get quite as far as I wanted. Still, the weather was, by accident, perfect for the scene I’d written.
Around midday they turned north and entered Leesburg by the rope ferry over the Calcasieu, passing three black boys fishing from the bank with bent cane poles, and they followed the main road along the bend in the river, passing from building to building, peddling goods wherever they could: in the two shops they could find, at the livery, in the boarding house parlor. Sometimes on folks’ own doorsteps.
This is Acadian Village, also outside Lafayette and similar to Vermillionville but with rougher houses and no re-enactors. I snapped a photo because it serves as a convenient stand-in for Leesburg, the town the women visit about halfway through my novel. Leesburg was wiped out in a terrible hurricane toward the end of the 19th century, and when it got rebuilt, it was renamed Cameron — the town I stayed in during my research trip. Cameron, of course, has since been wiped out by Hurricane Audrey in 1957 and by Hurricane Rita in 2005, and was heavily damaged by Hurricane Ike in 2008. They’re still rebuilding, but, like the characters in my novel, they refuse to give up in the face of any devastation, manmade or natural.
There is an interesting detail in the passage from my book, though: the earlier drafts, all the way up until this trip, had the women crossing the Calcasieu by bridge. Today, the Calcasieu is a shipping channel, dredged deeper and wider during WWII, and can only be crossed by the Cameron Ferry. But even when it was a shallower, narrower river, it never had a bridge. I spoke about it with a researcher volunteering up at the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, the excellent Gay Gomez. She explained about the dredging of the channel and then told me the “old-timers” would tell stories about swimming their cattle across the river. So, no bridge.
At both Acadian Village and Vermillionville, the layout of the houses mimics the bayou with narrow channels and streams. Acadian Village offers bridges over these waterways, but at Vermillionville, they added a small rope-drawn ferry, so I added one to the novel.
They both knelt in the grass and scanned the prairie about, looking for a place to hide themselves as well as the likeliest spot to find the scattered troops. The girl spied a ditch running low through the grass off to the south, and near it a stand of scrubbrush. They whispered in broken code and devised their plan, then the girl handed her cane spear to the woman and they separated. The woman slipped off toward the ditch where she lay prone with her chin in the dirt, hidden by the shadow of the tree, while the girl ran into the open prairie, loosening her skirts to fall about her legs as she scanned the flat horizon.
Late in the book, the women discover reports of a nearby battle and rush out of the marsh into the prairie to find it, hoping to cash in on the goods from whatever fleeing troops they could kill. This is very near where that encounter takes place.
The air was damp and heavy, and their hair hung flat in their eyes but they did not need to see, so often had they come this way in the last three years. They took their time and trusted their feet, and at length they found a rotting wooden plank that led from a knee of root to a shabby boardwalk. They alit on the walk and followed its zigzagging path to the shack they sought.
The photo on the left is a covered platform in the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge. The photo on the right is an historical mercantile (and functioning gift shop) in the historical Acadian Village, outside Lafayette. Taken together, they’re a kind of reference point for the rickety lakeside shop of Clovis, the corrupt old blackmarketeer the women sell their ill-gotten goods to.
This isn’t from the book at all. But all through my trip, I visited cemeteries looking for Civil War-era graves. I was looking for anyone who was alive at the time, including people who were 19th-century “baby boomers” born during or just after the war. I found plenty, but this is the one I felt compelled to share: James D. Standfield, born March 8, 1854, died September 5, 1919 and buried in Niblett’s Bluff Cemetery, west of Vinton, Louisiana, near the old Civil War fort overlooking the Sabine.
At the foot of his grave, there is a small stone with a US flag and the initial UCV:
“UCV” stands for United Confederate Veteran. Stones like this mark the graves of Civil War veterans who fought for the South. James Standfield was a Civil War veteran. When the war began, he was 7 years old; when the war ended, he was 11.
The characters in my novel never encounter a soldier as young as James Standfield. And I don’t regret omitting that detail one bit. There were too many child veterans of the Civil War in real life; I don’t need to add any fictional ones.