The Invasion of Virginia: 1781

Mike Cecere author photoRelevant History welcomes back Michael Cecere, who was raised in Maine but moved to Virginia in 1990 where he discovered a passion for American History. Mr. Cecere has taught U.S. History for nearly three decades and is an avid Revolutionary War reenactor and writer who lectures throughout the country on the American Revolution. He is the author of thirteen books on the American Revolution and nearly as many articles. His books focus primarily on the role that Virginians played in the Revolution.


Lexington and Concord, Trenton, Saratoga, and Yorktown—these are the Revolutionary War battles that are taught in every school district in America and that many Americans are familiar with. These key events, all of which happen to be American victories in our struggle of independence, spanned six years and contribute to the mistaken impression held by many that American success in the Revolutionary War was inevitable.

What is overlooked by many are the numerous American defeats and setbacks that occurred in between these important victories: the suffering and struggles and yes, numerous losses that Americans fighting for their rights and independence endured between 1775 and 1783. My latest book, Invasion of Virginia, 1781, sheds a long overdue light upon one crucial military campaign in Virginia that occurred prior to Yorktown and that significantly contributed to what became the decisive battle of the Revolutionary War, the siege of Yorktown. To put it bluntly, we do not get to Yorktown without experiencing the Virginia Campaign of 1781.

Defeat and treason
The situation looked quite bleak for supporters of American independence in late 1780. The British had successfully gained control of most of Georgia and South Carolina (destroying two American armies sent to resist them at Charlestown and Camden) and the British commander in the South, General Lord Charles Cornwallis, had turned his attention to North Carolina. To the north, General Washington and his army was stunned by the betrayal of General Benedict Arnold, the hero of Saratoga and one of Washington’s best generals. Disappointed by insufficient French support, which left Washington too weak to strike the British in New York, and fearful that others in his army might follow Benedict Arnold’s example, the American commander and likely most supporters of independence were anxious for what lay ahead.

The British commander in America, General Henry Clinton, was pleased by the success of his new southern strategy, and sent a force under General Alexander Leslie to Virginia in October to assist General Cornwallis in his subjugation of North Carolina. The surprising defeat of a large force of Tories at King’s Mountain undermined Cornwallis’s plans for North Carolina and caused him to order Leslie southward to South Carolina.

General Clinton was not pleased by this development; he believed that control of the Chesapeake Bay was crucial for gaining control of the south, so in December he sent a new British force of 1,600 men under Brigadier-General Benedict Arnold to Virginia with orders to establish a secure post in Portsmouth and destroy and disrupt whatever military supplies that he could that were destined for the American southern army in North Carolina.

British attention turns to Virginia
Arnold’s expedition to Virginia in early 1781 was enormously successful for the British. Arnold quickly secured Portsmouth and sailed up the James River against virtually no resistance from the largest of the thirteen American states. War fatigue and mismanagement suppressed Virginia’s ability to confront Arnold, and his troops plundered their way past Richmond, destroying vast amounts of military and civilian supplies.

Arnold returned to Portsmouth before January ended and for a time it looked like he had placed his force in extreme danger for Virginia’s militia forces gathered, and then a French naval force arrived, but they were soon chased away by the arrival in March of General William Phillips with 2,500 reinforcements. General Clinton was determined to sever Virginia’s lifeline to the Carolinas, and General Phillips was to see this done. He led a strong force back up the James River, where he confronted Virginia militia near Williamsburg and in Petersburg, but his effort to occupy Richmond was thwarted by the arrival of General LaFayette with nearly 1,000 American continentals, the cream of General Washington’s army (picked light infantry).

Unfortunately for General LaFayette, the arrival of General Cornwallis in Virginia in May (following his pyrrhic victory at Guilford Courthouse) and new British and German reinforcements from New York increased the number of British troops in Virginia at over 7,000, far more than LaFayette’s small force could handle. What ensued was several days of a cat and mouse chase; Cornwallis pursed LaFayette, but not very aggressively, while LaFayette grudgingly fled northward towards overdue reinforcements under General Anthony Wayne of Pennsylvania.

In early June Cornwallis broke off his pursuit and sent detachments to raid a supply depot at Point of Fork and the Virginia Legislature (which had fled to Charlottesville). The timely warning of Jack Jouett spared more of the assembly, as well as Governor Jefferson, from capture, but the raid demonstrated that British troops were capable of appearing almost anywhere in the Old Dominion.

By mid-June General Cornwallis was marching east, back towards Williamsburg. Along the way his rear guard skirmished a detachment of LaFayette’s troops who had raced all night to catch the British rear guard, near Spencer’s Ordinary. Two weeks later, it was Cornwallis’s turn to catch LaFayette off guard by luring him into a trap at Green Spring near Jamestown. Fortunately for the Americans, they were able to withdraw before they were completely trapped, but the fight was intense and costly.

Cornwallis’s return to Portsmouth in July and subsequent decision to occupy Yorktown (in compliance with General Clinton’s orders to establish a winter port for the British navy) provided an opportunity that General Washington seized upon in August when he learned that a large French naval force intended to sail to the Chesapeake Bay. General Washington’s concentration of forces outside of Yorktown was a tremendous logistical achievement and the allied victory over Cornwallis in mid-October the decisive battle of the Revolutionary War.

It is likely though, that none of it would have occurred had not events transpired in Virginia in 1781 the way they did.


Invasion of Virginia 1781 book coverA big thanks to Michael Cecere.


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The Domestic Life of a Young American Missionary Couple in Early 20th Century China

Judy Hogan author photoRelevant History welcomes Judy Hogan, who founded Carolina Wren Press and has been active in North Carolina over forty years as publisher, teacher, and writing consultant. In April 2017 Grace: A China Diary, 1910-16, which she edited and annotated, was released by Wipf and Stock, and Political Peaches came out 1 June 2017. Six other mystery novels, are in print. Two volumes of poetry came out in 2013 and 2014: Beaver Soul and This River: An Epic Love Poem. Her papers and diaries are in the Sallie Bingham Center, Duke University. She has taught creative writing since 1974. She lives and farms in Moncure, N.C. For more information about her and her books, visit her web site and blog, and follow her on Goodreads.


Until I read my grandmother Grace Roys’s diary kept in China, I thought missionaries were always serious and staid. In 2004 I decided to annotate and publish it. They were not staid. My grandfather Harvey, who went to China in 1910, sponsored by the YMCA to teach physics at Kiang Nan government college, got into pillow fights. Grace who was teaching at a Methodist School for Chinese girls, enjoyed riding horses and chasing wild pigs. He met her shortly after he arrived. They belonged to a close-knit community of American Protestant missionaries. The young people met often to play tennis, swim, sing around the piano, or play dominoes.

As the weather got hot—the climate being like South Carolina—the missionary families went to Kuling, a mountain resort for missionaries. There were lovely places to picnic, swim, and, in the evenings, read a book aloud. A Girl of the Limberlost was a favorite. The heroine had a difficult mother, but she became able to support herself by catching rare moths for a collector. Harvey caught a few moths himself. He went every morning to the swimming pool for a “dunk” and helped clean the pool.

Harvey and Grace fall in love
Harvey and Grace in 1912 at KulingIn the summer of 1910, they came to an “understanding” that they would marry. Unfortunately, Grace’s father thought Harvey wasn’t good enough. This made Grace very sad. She had a nervous breakdown and had to go to a mission hospital in Soochow. Then they let her marry Harvey in December 1910. The doctors and the parents were quite worried, but Harvey could never abandon his “little lady” and risked the marriage on 19 December 1910. He writes on 23 December, “Grace’s birthday. Grace is 21—of age but ‘not her own boss,’ as she says. I think she is boss of two.” A year later he writes on 23 December: “Grace is 22 and happy…No days like these.”

By December 1911, they had lived through the Sun Yat-sen Revolution, the first successful revolution in China, which caused the downfall of the Manchu emperors. The last big battle took place near Nanking. The American consul ordered all women and children to come to the consulate or evacuate on 8 November. Grace decided to go to Shanghai where her parents lived. On 14 November, Harvey went to Shanghai, too. My mother was conceived during this revolution. When Grace and Harvey returned, they learned that three hundred soldiers had camped in his college building, but his physics lab was safe. Grace, fluent in Chinese, helped him speak to those in charge, and Harvey went back to teaching.

My mother is born in Kuling
Margaret, age 3, on Kuling steps 1915On 17 July 1912, Grace gave birth to Margaret Elizabeth Roys. Her baby adventures are told. She was toilet trained early, and one year later went from Monday, 5 p.m. to Tuesday, 4 p.m. without wetting her diaper. Later she learned to request the pot, but Grace wanted her to say: “Hi, hi.” not “Want er sit on er pot.” Baby Richard (Dick) came 5 October 1913. On 14 November Harvey writes: “Bath tub with Richard in it fell off the board into the big tub. Richard was ducked in cold water but did not receive any apparent injuries.” Margaret had mixed feelings about baby brother. Grace found her pounding on Richard with her fist. saying, “Bore hole dere.”

Missionary mothers, Hillcrest, Grace holding Margaret 2nd from left, 1913I also inherited two yearbooks of the Hillcrest School the missionary mothers began, and which Margaret and Dick attended. The mothers with small children worked together to teach the primary grades. Eventually they taught high school, too. Hillcrest emphasized science and had a Watch Guard branch of the Agassiz Society organized in Nanking in October 1895. They encouraged their members to “watch and guard—thus studying mother nature.” Its motto, was “Little by little the bird builds its nest and the child learns.” They sponsored debates, e.g., in December 1903: “Resolved, that we learn more from observation than by books.” The founder of the society was Alexander Agassiz, 1835–1910, a U.S. zoologist. He emphasized careful observation. Grace’s maternal grandfather, James Woodrow, studied at Harvard with Agassiz.

In the 1920 yearbook, Hillcrest student Julia Wilson describes the trip to Kuling. They traveled first by boat up the Yangtze River, later by carriage, then by sedan chair up the mountain.

Among the many things which we saw on our way, the most common…was the many house boats. Some of them had families of beggars on them, others had people who were a good deal better off, some were larger, some smaller, some with sails on, some without them, all sailing up and down the river in a way that seemed aimless…All along the banks of the river and inland for miles around, we could see the rice fields with little villages dotted here and there, each with their groups of dogs and children…On the bank of the river so near you could almost say on the river were numerous little huts barely high enough for a man to stand in. These were often surrounded by miles of very tall reed grass which the Chinese burn instead of wood or coal…When we were nearing towns, large or small, we would meet a man in a sampan, with a long stick driving a very large group of ducks which seemed too many for one man to drive…This was the way in which he drives his pigs to market, only they…were ducks…As we drew near to Kiukiang we saw…several ranges of mountains in the distance looking more like mirage than a range of mountains and the ones that we were traveling to in order to get away from the heat of the plains.


Grace book coverA big thanks to Judy Hogan. She’ll give away a paperback copy of Grace: A China Diary, 1910-16 to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available in the U.S. only.


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Psilocybin in the Bronze Age

Rebecca Lochlann author photoRelevant History welcomes back historical fiction and fantasy author Rebecca Lochlann, who is busy completing her eight-book series, “The Child of the Erinyes,” several of which have won various awards. The series centers around a small corps of protagonists who begin their lives in the Bronze Age Mediterranean, draw the attention of the Immortals (mostly Athene), and end up traveling through time. Right now she’s deeply immersed in the early medieval world as she edits book #6, Falcon Blue. For more information about her and her books, visit her web site, subscribe to her newsletter, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


The people living on Crete in the first three books of “The Child of the Erinyes” were big believers in omens, prophecies, signs, and portents from the gods. My imagining of Bronze Age Crete had hundreds of priestesses and priests, all of whom devoted themselves to pleasing the Immortals and drawing good fortune down upon their societies. Animals were routinely sacrificed, for it was believed that the scent of blood and burned fat delighted the gods. Crete’s High Priestess, Themiste, who also held the impressive titles of “Most Holy Minos,” “Moon-Being,” “Keeper of the Prophecies,” and “oracle,” enjoyed a closer relationship to these deities than anyone else, and hence, more power. She used many methods of communing with them—serpent venom, poppy juice, poisonous laurel leaves, smoke emanating from fissures in the earth, and, perhaps most commonly, the sacred mushroom, known in the story as cara.

Psilocybin, Victorian style
Phrygian Cap[Image “Bust Attis CdM” by Jastrow, public domain.]Which brings me to the most recent segment of the series, The Sixth Labyrinth, set in the Highlands of Victorian Scotland—another place where folklore and belief in “things unseen” remained strong until recent times. I’ve merged several key elements from the earlier story into this tale—one of the most important is the use of the sacred mushroom to achieve vision and expand clarity. It wasn’t at all hard to do, as the genus called Psilocybe semilanceata grows in abundance throughout the United Kingdom, and has been used for its hallucinatory effects since prehistoric times. Psilocybe semilanceata, for those who don’t know, is a wild mushroom with psychedelic qualities. Happily for my purpose, this particular fungus, sometimes called Witch’s Cap or Liberty Cap, is one of the most potent of all the psilocybin mushrooms, and I’ve read that the title Liberty Cap comes from the Greek Phrygian hat, or cap, which I thought a nice, unexpected coincidence, as one of my ensemble originally hails from Phrygia.

Dreams and Bedlam
Psilocybe semilanceata[Image “Psilocybe semilanceata” by Alan Rockefeller, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0]Most of The Sixth Labyrinth protagonists retain no memories of their past lives other than brief images, echoes of voices, and snippets of dreams. These tantalizing, often disturbing impressions at times make them feel as though they’re going insane—a terrifying prospect in the era of Bedlam and other notorious asylums. Once they find each other, their piecemeal recollections grow more insistent, compelling several of them to set forth on a journey of enlightenment. Using the magical mushroom from ancient times, they release their fears, open their minds, and let in that which reality deems impossible. Each insight dredged from the subconscious changes the trajectory of their lives, and Earth’s history, just as it did in the Bronze Age.

In The Sixth Labyrinth, the oracle Themiste returns as midwife and healer, Eleanor Graeme. She knows much of plant lore and the healing arts; she even has knowledge of then-modern science, thanks to a brother who studied medicine and psychiatry. She’s familiar with the properties of Psilocybe semilanceata, and collects as much as she can find every autumn, when it ripens in the fields. She dries it, stores it in jars, and has been known to use it from time to time. Eleanor is instrumental in helping to heal the damaged, fragmented memories of this small band of reincarnated souls.

Another pivotal character readers of the series might recognize from the Bronze Age is the Phrygian warrior, Selene. Life in The Sixth Labyrinth does not treat Selene kindly, yet she still manages to find, protect, and aid those she has always loved. The daughter of a wise woman near Cape Wrath, she comes to the group already cognizant of what can be achieved through the mushroom’s use. In fact she walks a very long way to find her comrades from the past, having used the mushroom to help her in her search.

One character has no need of a hallucinatory mushroom, or any other device. Because of a curse placed on him in the Bronze Age, he is doomed to retain memories of each and every one of his past lives. While it might be tempting to assume having knowledge gives him an advantage, that isn’t necessarily the case.

Communing with higher powers
Different people have different reactions to psilocybin. Getting clear memories of our past lives might be asking a lot. But as stated at HowStuffWorks, “There can be a changed perception of one’s place in the universe and a feeling of communing with a higher power.” The supernatural link between my protagonists and Goddess Athene strengthens this ability.


The Sixth Labyrinth book coverA big thanks to Rebecca Lochlann. Book #1 of her series, The Year-God’s Daughter, is currently free in multiple ebook formats. She’ll give away an ebook copy (winner’s choice of format) of book #5, The Sixth Labyrinth, to two people who contribute a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winners from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET.


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Fascinated by WW2

Libby Hellman author photoRelevant History welcomes Libby Fischer Hellman, who left a career in broadcast news in Washington, DC and moved to Chicago thirty-five years ago, where she, naturally, began to write gritty crime fiction. Fifteen novels and twenty-five short stories later, she claims they’ll take her out of the Windy City feet first. She has been nominated for many awards in the mystery and crime writing community and has even won a few, including the Anthony, Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year, the Agatha, the Shamus, the Daphne. She has won the Ippy and the Readers Choice Award multiple times. For more information about her and her books, visit her web site, view her book trailer, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.


My trilogy of WW2 stories, War, Spies, and Bobby Sox, is set during the war. It includes two novellas and a short story, all set in Chicago and the surrounding area. Because my knowledge of battles and military strategy is quite limited, all three stories examine the effects of wartime on the people who stayed home while their loved ones went abroad to fight. Here’s a look at the motivations that drove me to write the stories.

The contemporary appeal of WW2
People frequently ask, why World War Two? I’ve always been an avid reader of fiction set in the period, mostly because it’s one of those rare times where the line between good and evil was crystal clear and unambiguous. That doesn’t often happen, especially now.

WW2 was a time where some people turned out heroic and others were cowards, a time rich in potential conflict and ripe for character development. At first I was intimidated at the thought of writing about it, because so much had already been written about it, and so beautifully. What could I bring to the party? But when a friend encouraged me to give it a go, I decided to choose just a small part of the vast canvas. The three stories that fell out make up War, Spies and Bobby Sox.

I wasn’t certain today’s readers were still interested in the period. But I was wrong. It still fascinates people. In today’s landscape of widespread government surveillance, 24-hour news, drone strikes, post-truth, expert-hating, and Trump, a clear-cut hero is rare. Our leaders have been known to lie to us, and we’ve lost faith in our institutions. We’ve entered what I call “The Age of Gray.” So the idea that there was once something worth believing in, something that united us despite our circumstances, has a powerful appeal.

Research, research and more research
Research is my favorite part of the writing process. I could read and take notes all day. I had already taken a long, hard look at espionage techniques and strategy. I’d visited Bletchley Park in the UK and DC’s Spy Museum. And, while I knew nothing about physics or atoms, I knew I wanted to write about the early years of the Manhattan Project (before it was called that) at the University of Chicago. That meant even more studying just so I could claim a rudimentary understanding of the nuclear fission process. The result was The Incidental Spy, the first novella in the collection. By the way, I’d also visited and had lunch in Berlin’s Tiergarten (their version of Central Park). I recall thinking that if I ever wrote anything set in Berlin, I’d have to set a scene in the park. Guess where the first scene of An Incidental Spy is set?

I’d originally planned to write a companion piece about the women who worked at Bletchley, but someone in my exercise class (See, there are reasons to work out) mentioned an ex-prison camp German POWs less than two miles away.

German POWs? Here in Chicago?

German POW camp in TexasIt didn’t take long to discover there were almost half a million German POWs in the US, held in more or less every state between 1943-1945. They worked on farms and in factories. It wasn’t a secret, but the US Army, which managed them, didn’t advertise the fact either. Consequently, a lot of the details and stories about their time here have melted away. But I was hooked, so the companion novella about two German POWs and their “love” triangle with a farm girl was born.

Discovering 1930s Lawndale
The third story is about an actress in the Yiddish theater in Chicago’s Lawndale, a thriving Jewish community in the ‘30s, and how she came to spy on the German-American Bund. This story is set in 1938, before the war officially began, but war fever was high, and at the time Fritz Kuhn, who was eventually deported, was the head of the fascist Nazi-inspired Bund. Incidents of anti-Semitic bullying, fist fights, and worse were on the rise. It was a dangerous time.

My research for that originated with my son, who was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. Someone had given him an amazing book called “The Jews of Chicago.” Idly flipping through it, I found a 1930s photo of immigrant butchers in Lawndale, standing behind the meat counter in a deli. I’m still not sure why it stopped me. It could have been the lighting, their blood-spattered aprons, the expression in their eyes—a mixture of pride, hope, and fatigue. But I instantly knew I had to write about people like them. So I toured Lawndale, interviewed people who had lived there at the time, and “The Day Miriam Hirsch Disappeared” was the result.

A growing trend
I’m not alone in my fascination with those dark times. All The Light You Cannot See, Sarah’s Key, Nightingale, Jody Picoult’s The Storyteller, Unbroken by Laura Hillebrand, The Women in the Castle, and more, have all come out recently. In fact, there’s a new sub-genre of literature developing around WW2. I’m thrilled to be part of it.


War, Spies, and Bobby Sox book coverA big thanks to Libby Hellman. She’ll give away an ebook copy (winner’s choice of format) of War, Spies, and Bobby Sox to two people who contribute a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winners from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET.


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The Napoleonic Embezzlement Scandal That Never Was

Jacqueline Reiter author photoRelevant History welcomes Jacqueline Reiter, who has a PhD in late 18th-century political history from the University of Cambridge. A professional librarian, she lives in Cambridge with her husband and two children. Her first book, The Late Lord: the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, was published by Pen & Sword Books in January 2017. For more information about her and her books, visit her blog, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


A concern for efficiency
During the Napoleonic Wars, concern that British government departments were riddled with corruption gave rise to a series of political commissions investigating the way those departments were run. The British Army was growing rapidly in size, and anxiety over the rise in military expenditure led to the establishment of the Commissioners of Military Inquiry in 1805. In February 1810, they published their Twelfth Report.

Twelfth ReportAt first, the report did not cause much excitement. The government, headed by prime minister Spencer Perceval, was distracted by more pressing things. The House of Commons was inquiring into the failure of the previous year’s Walcheren expedition. The expedition had not even come close to achieving its objectives, and more than a quarter of the 40,000 participating troops had come down with ‘Walcheren fever’ (mostly malaria, combined with typhoid and dysentery). The expedition’s commander, Lord Chatham, was a member of the cabinet as Master-General of the Ordnance. The day the 12th Report of the Commissioners of Military Inquiry was released (27 February), Chatham appeared before the Walcheren inquiry a second time to be grilled on his role in the disaster.

It took some weeks, therefore, for anyone to notice that the 12th Report contained political dynamite.

‘An omission of duty’
The report drew attention to some serious irregularities in the behaviour of the Treasurer of the Ordnance, Joseph Hunt. The position of Treasurer was one of great trust, since the Ordnance had enormous public funds at its disposal, funds which were meant to be devoted to the department’s vital task of keeping the army and navy stocked with muskets, cannons and gunpowder.

Ordnance crest(Image: Ordnance shield, Wikimedia Commons) The Commissioners discovered that Hunt had been making money from the interest on the Ordnance funds in the Bank of England. Worse, he had been withdrawing drafts of money made out to recognised Ordnance suppliers and stealing the cash.[1] As a result, Hunt had managed to cream off a total of £93,296.

It appeared to be an open-shut case. Hunt resigned and promptly disappeared, popping up a few weeks later in Lisbon, where he had apparently been forced to make an unexpected journey for the benefit of his health.[2] Less than a fortnight after the end of the Walcheren inquiry, oppositionist John Calcraft moved a direct censure on Chatham and the Board under his command.

The censure was nevertheless thrown out by 54 votes to 36. Hunt was expelled from the Commons, in which he had a seat as an MP, and the £100,000 deficiency was made good from a surplus elsewhere.

A damp squib…
Surprisingly, nothing more was done. The opposition had apparently missed a sterling chance to strike a blow against government corruption. Yet nobody questioned whether or not the Master-General of the Ordnance was personally implicated in Hunt’s embezzlement. Calcraft specifically ruled it out: ‘He did not mean to impute the slightest blame to Lord Chatham, who, he believed, knew nothing whatever of the transaction.’[3]

Partly this may have been because there was no value in flogging a dead horse. Chatham, by April 1810, had been out of office a month: the Walcheren inquiry destroyed his public career and forced his resignation from the Ordnance. Attacking him directly could do little damage.

Partly, also, the opposition had probably been distracted by the Walcheren inquiry since the beginning of the year, and had little energy left for an Ordnance assault. Opposition member George Tierney, for example, thought the Walcheren inquiry had made the Commons reluctant to launch potentially involving inquiries into other things.[4]

…and a historical mystery
How far was Chatham involved in Hunt’s activities? He and Hunt were old connections, and Chatham had made Hunt his private secretary when he had been First Lord of the Admiralty in the 1790s, elevated him to the post of Commissioner of Victualling, and made him a Director of Greenwich Hospital.[5] On the other hand, the structure of the Board of Ordnance (the duties of the Board and the Master-General’s activities did not always overlap) might have protected Chatham from knowing what his Treasurer was doing.

Chatham painted by Hoppner(Image: John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, studio of John Hoppner, 1799, courtesy of the Commando Forces Officers’ Mess, Royal Marines Barracks, Plymouth) Chatham, of course, denied involvement. ‘I am extremely shocked at ye Report about Hunt,’ he wrote when the report first became public, ‘but I am not yet apprized to what extent it [the defalcation] goes.’[6] Perceval took Chatham’s protestations of innocence at face value, but others were unconvinced. ‘Mr Hunt declared…that not a shilling had ever been taken by him on his own acc[oun]t – from whence it is imagined that L[or]d Chatham is not free from the matter,’ one political commentator gossiped.[7] To many, it seemed impossible that the Master-General of the Ordnance should be ignorant of the activities of his own Treasurer.

The truth will never be known, and there is no evidence to link Chatham to Hunt’s activities. The opposition’s reluctance to involve him in the investigation suggests they had no evidence either. It is highly unlikely that Chatham was implicated in Hunt’s activities, but even if he was innocent, it was probably lucky for him in the long run that Walcheren focused so much away from the Board of Ordnance.

[1] Gareth Cole, Arming the Royal Navy, 1793-1815 (Routledge, 2012), p. 28.
[2] Parliamentary Debates XVI, pp. 733-4.
[3] Parliamentary Debates XVI, pp. 637-8.
[4] Lord Boringdon to Lady Morley, 7 February 1810, British Library Add MSS 48227 f. 200.
[5] Morning Chronicle, 30 January 1810; St James’s Chronicle, 3 April 1790.
[6] Chatham to Spencer Perceval, 23 January 1810, Cambridge University Add.8713/VII/B/9.
[7] Lord Boringdon to Lady Morley, 27 January [1810], British Library Add MSS 48227 f. 175.


The Late Lord book coverA big thanks to Jacqueline Reiter.


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What the Heck was Teapot Dome, Anyway?

Anne Louise Bannon author photoRelevant History welcomes back Anne Louise Bannon, a historical mystery author and journalist whose journalistic work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Wines and Vines, and in newspapers across the country. She created the Oddball Grape wine blog with her husband, Michael Holland. She also writes the romantic fiction serial White House Rhapsody, book one of which is out now. Her novels include the Freddie and Kathy mystery series, set in the 1920s, the Operation Quickline series, and Tyger, Tyger. She and her husband live in Southern California with an assortment of critters. The Last Witnesses officially launches on 28 April, with pre-orders available now. For more information about her and her books, visit her web site, subscribe to her newsletter, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Goodreads.


One of the fun things about writing a mystery set in the 1920s is that there was so much going on, including a raft of scandalous behavior within the administration of President Warren G. Harding. But while we may have heard of Teapot Dome, how many of us actually remember what it was?

Yet, in my most recent novel, The Last Witnesses, which is set in October 1925, much of this was headline news. And since some of the action is tangentially connected to the scandal, my characters do spend some time talking about it. The story still makes sense even if you don’t know about Teapot Dome, but just to bring folks up to date, here it is.

Harding’s administration was possibly the most corrupt of any in American history. His pick to head the Veteran’s Bureau got caught selling medical supplies intended for the military to outside vendors. Harding’s attorney general spent most of the ‘20s under investigation. And that was far from all.

However, the big one, the one everyone associates the most with Harding and the 1920s was Teapot Dome, an oil field in eastern Wyoming, almost directly north of Casper. Back in the early part of the Twentieth Century, the U.S. Navy got the bright idea that it might be a good thing to not drill on certain oil fields on federal land and keep that oil in reserve in case of an emergency. The problem was a whole bunch of oil magnates at the time were salivating all over the place to go drill on the Naval Reserves.

Even then, you couldn’t just go drilling without paying the owners for the oil. So, the oil magnates would pay for leases that would allow them the mineral rights on a given land and then drill. In the case of Teapot Dome, the U.S. Government owned the land, with the Navy in control, and the Navy was not going to let it happen.

But in 1921, Warren Harding gets sworn in as president and appoints his poker buddy Albert Fall as Secretary of the Interior. Shortly after that, Fall talks the Navy into giving the Department of the Interior control over the Reserves at Teapot Dome and by spring of 1922, neighbors are noticing that drilling is going on where it’s not supposed to be. The local senator, John B. Kendrick, initiates an investigation, and over the course of several years, it comes out that oilmen Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny had bribed Fall with massive amounts of money, including a $100,000 “loan” from Doheny, well over $1 million in today’s dollars.

Fall might have gotten away with his little scheme—after all, he did have the legal right to lease the land to Doheny and Sinclair, even if he wasn’t supposed to. What did him in was that folks noticed he was living more than a little above his pay grade. He was eventually convicted of taking bribes, but Doheny got off pretty much scot-free and Sinclair served six months for jury tampering.

Harding had the good luck to die in August, 1923, just as this was all starting to go public, and may not have known what Fall was up to, or some of the other nefarious goings on in his administration. Some of those ended up in the book. Like I noted, it’s one of the reasons I find the 1920s such a fun one for murder mysteries.


The Last Witnesses book coverA big thanks to Anne Louise Bannon. She’ll give away a paperback or ebook copy (winner’s choice) of The Last Witnesses to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery for the paperback is available after 28 April and in the U.S. only.


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The Winner of In the Shadow of the Storm

Kevin R. Tipple has won a copy of In the Shadow of the Storm by Anna Belfrage. Congrats to Kevin!

Thanks to Anna Belfrage for a look at the desperation for holy relics (real and otherwise) during the Middle Ages. Thanks, also, to everyone who visited and commented on Relevant History this week. Watch for another Relevant History post, coming soon.


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Holy Bits and Pieces

Anna Belfrage author photoRelevant History welcomes back Anna Belfrage, who, had she been allowed to choose, would have become a time traveler. Instead, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests: history and writing. Anna has authored the acclaimed time-slip series “The Graham Saga,” winner of multiple awards, including the HNS Indie Award 2015. Her new series, “The King’s Greatest Enemy,” is set in the 1320s and features Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures during Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The third book, Under the Approaching Dark, will be released April 2017—and yes, Lincoln and its cathedral play a relevant role. To learn more about her and her books, visit her web site and blog, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


A bone by any other name is still a bone
No sooner do I enter a museum, but I make for the medieval exhibitions and the myriad of objects that stand testament to how present faith was in the everyday lives of our long-gone ancestors. I am especially fascinated by the reliquaries, beautifully adorned little caskets which were used to house precious relics, usually the odd bit and piece of a long-dead saint.

These relics were venerated throughout the Christian world. Some attributed healing powers to the relics, others believed the crumbling remains of an arm or a skull served to connect the penitent kneeling before it with the glory of Heaven. Initially, dismembering a saint’s remains was frowned upon, but ever-growing demand led to a more pragmatic approach. Fingers, arms, legs, were broken off from the saintly remains and carried off to a new home—in a purpose-built reliquary. The general idea was that the precious relic should be encased in gold and jewels so as to proclaim the glory of eternal life awaiting the original owner of the bones rattling round inside the casket.

In medieval times, any religious institution worth its name had to have a collection of relics. Some went quite wild and crazy in their search, bringing back everything from (yet another) purported head belonging to John the Baptist to splinters from the True Cross to phials of the Holy Blood. Trade in these items was brisk, putting it mildly, and at some point there were several heads belonging to John the Baptist doing the rounds. As to the splinters of the True Cross, should they all have been brought together, they’d have sufficed to build a new ark rather than the more modest contraption on which our Lord suffered and died.

The intrepid relic-trader soon discovered that the hunger for saintly remains was particularly strong in Carolingian Europe and England. The bones of saints were simply not enough to go around, but fortunately the catacombs of Ancient Rome were littered with old skeletons, and soon enough these old pagan bones were making their way due north, complete with whatever provenance was required to sell them as relics.

The Holy Church was irritated and embarrassed by the trade in false relics; they detracted from the value of the real thing. But in a world where people put a lot of store in owning a saintly hair or knuckle, it was difficult to shut the business down. Plus, of course, churches with relics made a lot of money from pilgrims and were therefore not all that interested in discussing the origins of the mummified hand, foot, jawbone—take your pick—they might be displaying.

No relic, no money
For a church not to have a relic was something of a minor disaster. For a medieval cathedral to lack one was unacceptable—which brings me to a little anecdote featuring Lincoln Cathedral and its lack of relics.

Lincoln CathedralIn 2016, I was fortunate enough to visit Lincoln Cathedral, and I can’t quite recall when last I was so overawed by a building as I was by this glorious, glorious church in golden stone, sitting so proudly atop its hill. The western façade is particularly eye-catching, and on one of the pinnacles that decorate it stands St Hugh of Lincoln.

Long before Hugh was St Hugh, he was just plain Hugh, a bishop determined to administer his bishopric as it best served its people. He improved education, was generous to those in need, thorough in going about his duties and careful in his appointments, ensuring his diocese was as well-run as it could be—and always doing God’s work, even if it caused conflict between him and the king. By far the biggest challenge he undertook was to rebuild his minster. Lincoln Cathedral had been severely damaged by an earthquake in 1185.

Now, to rebuild a church, especially one on such a large and magnificent scale as Lincoln Cathedral, required money. One way to bring in money was to have a top-name relic to bring in pilgrims. Lincoln had none. Christ’s crown of thorns would have been a nice-to-have, but the French already had it (or one of the various crowns of thorns). Christ’s shroud would have been just as big a draw, but Turin was not about to let it go any time soon. Anything belonging to the Virgin would also have fit the bill, but alas, such relics were few and dear.

St Hugh of LincolnOur Hugh was probably beginning to feel a tad despondent when, in 1190, he visited France. More specifically, he was at the abbey of Fécamp in Normandy. This abbey had a fabulous treasure, an arm supposed to have belonged to no less than Mary Magdalen. A fantastic relic, one that would draw huge crowds—but the monks at Fécamp weren’t about to part with their treasure. As a consolation, Hugh was allowed to see the relic up close. It was lifted out of its reliquary, and the cloth covering the remains was folded back. Behold, the remains of a hand and arm that had once touched Christ, held him even!

So overcome was Hugh (or so the story goes) that he tried to break off a piece to take home with him. The horrified monks tried to stop him, but they were no match for the determined Hugh. The arm, however, was, and no matter how he tried, Hugh could not snap off a piece. Which was when he resorted to gnawing on the relic instead, and before he had been pulled away, he had managed to dislodge two precious splinters. At last, Lincoln had a relic, however unorthodoxly acquired!


In the Shadow of the Storm book coverA big thanks to Anna Belfrage. She’ll give away an ebook copy of In the Shadow of the Storm, first book in her “The King’s Greatest Enemy” series, to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available worldwide.


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The Winner of Maria Ines

Doris Eraldi has won a copy of Maria Ines by Anne Schroeder. Congrats to Doris!

Thanks to Anne Schroeder for a look at the problems people encountered during Old California’s transition from Spanish to Mexican control. Thanks, also, to everyone who visited and commented on Relevant History this week. Watch for another Relevant History post, coming soon.


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How Archival Research Added Texture to My Novel

Mystery Thriller Week 2017 logoThe week of 12–18 February, I’m participating with dozens of crime fiction authors in Mystery Thriller Week (MTW). Click on the logo to the left to check out a full schedule of author interviews, guest posts, and Facebook events during this week. Here’s how the week looks for me:

Monday 13 Feb: I host author Linda Kane for Relevant History.
Tuesday 14 Feb: Catherine Dilts interviews me on her blog.
Tuesday 14 Feb: MTW hosts my guest post about child soldiers.
Thursday 16 Feb: I host a great chat on Facebook with Relevant History veterans Jeri Westerson and I.J. Parker, “Women Historical Mystery Authors Who Write Men Detectives.”
Friday 17 Feb: I host author Jennifer S. Alderson for Relevant History (below).
Saturday 18 Feb: Stephen Bentley interviews me on his blog.

Jennifer Alderson author photoRelevant History welcomes Jennifer S. Alderson, who was born in San Francisco, raised in Seattle, and currently lives in Amsterdam. Her love of travel, art and culture inspired her ongoing series of novels following the adventures of Zelda Richardson around the globe. In Down and Out in Kathmandu, Zelda volunteers in Kathmandu, where she gets entangled with a gang of diamond smugglers. The Lover’s Portrait follows Zelda to Amsterdam, where she discovers a cache of masterpieces missing since World War Two. Her third novel—a mystery centered around Papua New Guinean ‘bis poles’, missionaries and anthropologists—will be released in the summer of 2017. To learn more about her and her books, visit her web site and blog, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.


Let me make this clear from the start: I love the smell and feel of archival documents, those yellowing bits of paper and crumbling photographs that rustle ever so slightly when extracted from their manila envelopes. There’s something magical about scouring through meters of racks, drawers and file folders until you find an interesting or odd snippet of information recorded long ago which helps a character or story truly come to life.

While working out the storyline for my second novel, The Lover’s Portrait, I realized early on that the restitution of looted artwork and the treatment of Jewish citizens in the 1930s and 1940s, were going to be central to the plot.

To ensure that any potentially controversial aspects of my art mystery were honestly and accurately described, extensive archival research would be essential. What I didn’t expect is that this same research would add much needed texture and depth to my story, infuse it with universal themes and—according to all the reviewers so far—be what sets it apart.

Diving into the unknown to find the unique
I knew one of the main characters was going to be an art dealer being blackmailed by a Nazi general during the Second World War. I just didn’t know exactly why he would be forced to give up his collection. Restitution of art was a topic already very familiar to me, one I’d learned much about during art history and museum studies lectures at the University of Amsterdam. However the details surrounding important events in Dutch history, and the attitudes held in Europe during that period, were not.

It was crucial for the plot that this art dealer character not be Jewish but did need to be considered a ‘dissident’ or threat to the Nazi regime for another reason. I went to the Amsterdam City Archives with an open mind and list of questions.

I’d thought up all sorts of plot twists which involved other groups targeted by Hitler’s troops—Romas, communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political dissidents and homosexuals—and decided to see what my adopted hometown’s archives could tell me about how they were affected by the war. The documents I found relating to the treatment of homosexuals were the least known, and therefore most interesting, to me.

Before visiting the archives, I’d read several non-fiction books to better understand this turbulent time in European and Dutch history, and seen no mention of how Dutch men could be arrested, castrated and sent off to work camps in Germany based on the mere suspicion that they were homosexual. Or that lesbians were classified as ‘political dissidents’ in work camps.

That’s when I realized I’d found a ‘winner’ qua topic, one which hadn’t already been exhaustively explored in mainstream literature.

The sensitive nature of the themes discussed in this novel warranted that it be historically accurate, yet it was never my intention to write a historical fiction novel, but an art-infused mystery. When my ‘final draft’ clocked in at 110,000 words, I was afraid it was too long or would only appeal to historical fiction buffs, so I slashed many of the chapters which relied heavily on the obscure details I’d worked so hard to find.

The end result was shorter and less historical, but without all those enticing tidbits of information to fill in the characters’ backgrounds or help explain plot developments, the whole story fell flat. It was as if I’d ripped the soul out of my novel.

Little details make the difference
Despite my misgivings about the length, I added everything back in and even wrote three new chapters taking place in wartime Amsterdam to provide more depth and richness to the story, choosing to edit down the present day sections of the book to compensate. Man, am I glad I did! It’s the research that grabs reviewers’ attention, enhances their enjoyment of the story and characters, and seems to be what distinguishes this novel from others in the ‘amateur sleuth’ category.

My research has also paid off in other ways. I recently found out the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam is adding The Lover’s Portrait to their library’s permanent collection because they are thrilled with their prominent role in the book. The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam has already added it to their library based on the merits of my research into the complexities surrounding the restitution of looted artwork. And a prominent local LGBT organization, Pink Point, is helping me promote the book here in the city because they believe the storyline to be unique.

Yes, I spent many long hours browsing through often useless documents, pamphlets, flyers and photographs in far-flung physical and digital archives. I didn’t have to. But without all of the little details adding texture, depth and layers of meaning, my book wouldn’t have been the same. And frankly, I enjoyed every second of it!

Fellow authors, do you conduct archival research in order to add texture to your fiction? Readers, do you expect fiction to be well-researched, or are you just as happy to step into a completely fictitious world?


A big thanks to Jennifer Alderson. Check out her “Name the Character” contest for the opportunity to win an electronic copy of one of her books. Offer ends 21 February 2017.


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