Back in March, Innovative Editing began its “Author of the Month” program to highlight engaging writers who deserve to stand out for their skills and/or messages as presented in fiction or non-fiction, whether self- or traditionally published. If you'd like to be considered for an upcoming Author of the Month spot – or if you have a story idea burning a hole in your brain – I’d love to hear from you! Shoot me an email at email@example.com with details about you and your book.
To celebrate success in August, we’re turning to Christopher T. George, author of Terror on the Chesapeake, a detailed look at a usually ignored yet really dramatic comedy of errors in American and even world history. That's why we need more historians like Chris George around.
June’s Author of the Month: Christopher T. George Featured Title: Terror on the Chesapeake Genre: Historical Non-Fiction Age Appropriate: All
Bio: Born in Liverpool, U.K., in the same hospital as the Beatles’ John Lennon, Chris emigrated to the U.S. with Mum and Dad at age seven. After graduating from Loyola College in Baltimore, he landed a job as a newspaper reporter and later became a medical editor. In his spare time, he began writing and publishing freelance articles on local Maryland history.
His first published book was Baltimore Close Up, a book of historic images from the city. And his second title was Terror on the Chesapeake: The War of 1812 on the Bay.
Jeannette: Chris, thanks so much for joining Innovative Editing this month! Let’s get right to talking about Terror on the Chesapeake, which is about what Americans know as the War of 1812, and the British know as a slight extension of the Napoleonic Wars. To get readers up to speed, it focuses on British military actions against the Chesapeake Bay region in Virginia, Maryland and D.C., including the burning of the White House. And then there was the failed attempt to take Baltimore, which resulted in Francis Scott Key writing The Star-Spangled Banner. Pretty big deals!
What got you writing about these events to begin with?
Chris: I’d known for a long time about the British bombardment of Fort McHenry and how Key wrote the composition we know today as our national anthem. But it wasn’t until the early ‘90s that I learned a vital part of the story most folks don’t know: how the British landed an army near Baltimore while their navy attacked the fort.
Moreover, their general was killed when Baltimore citizen soldiers took the opportunity to strike an early blow against the invaders, who were intent on sacking the city just like they had done to D.C. three weeks earlier. I got fascinated with what I recognized as history Americans needed to know!
Jeannette: It really is fascinating history, which you did a great job of looking into. I agree with you too that more Americans need to know about it. Yet most of us don’t.
Back in school, I remember learning very, very little about the War of 1812. There was impressment and “Don’t give up the ship” and Old Ironsides and The Star-Spangled Banner. That was pretty much it though. So when I started researching it on my own for an upcoming novel – including your phenomenal collaborative work with John McCavitt, The Man Who Captured Washington – I learned a whole lot of fascinating and important information.
In your expert opinion, why has history largely ignored this conflict?
Chris: Well, the war is much overshadowed by the Civil War and the American Revolution over here. When I began my research, Ken Burns’ PBS series on the war between the states came out, making that conflict all the rage. In fact, that overwhelming popularity has remained a constant problem for us 1812 people. For example, when the bicentennial of our war came around in 2012, it also happened to be the 150th anniversary of the Civil War!
Jeannette: Talk about frustrating.
Chris: I’ll also admit that the 1812-1815 war between the U.S. and Britain is less easy to explain than either the Revolution or the Civil War. What was at stake is much less clear: no independence to be won, no down-and-dirty fight over slavery. Plus, no outstanding leaders such as Washington, Franklin and Jefferson; or Grant, Lincoln and Lee!
So it isn’t surprising that the war remains overlooked.
Jeannette: It’s a shame anyway. Because there are some riveting details that came out of it, not to mention how important it is to know one’s own history. Then again, too many people have a bad idea of history in general. To them, it’s automatically boring. So I particularly loved how, at the very end of p. 42, where you’re writing about Rear Admiral George Cockburn, you write:
When Warren arrived on June 19, Cockburn submitted the findings of his survey of the island. He also offered to coordinate the attack. Warren turned him down. This blow must have struck the haughty Scots admiral like a slap in the face with a wet flounder.
To me, that just went to show how you can have fun with historical subject matter.
Chris: I’m pleased you liked the line about Cockburn! I’ll confess, that’s my favorite line in the book.
I was writing about the failed attack against Norfolk, Virginia, in June 1813. Up until then, the admiral had enjoyed unrivaled success raiding and pillaging small communities round the Bay.
Those raids filled the Royal Navy’s coffers and lined the pockets of the admiral and his men. Meanwhile, the Americans, smarting from such abuses, complained that a British watchword for the raids was, “Beauty and booty!”
But suddenly, the arrogant Cockburn found himself overruled by a superior. The lowland Scots admiral was a mean and humorless man, and I felt that he deserved his comeuppance.
Jeannette: Oh, I completely agree with you there. Plus, your research and presentation made me feel better for having such a negative opinion of Cockburn myself. I don’t think I’ve ever been so frustrated with a historical character before I learned about him. His repeatedly recorded arrogance was rather ridiculous.
But let me stop myself right there before I go off on a real rant about him. Switching topics, do you have any suggestions for how novice historians can get to know their own fascinating local history?
Chris: First, try to identify an incident in history and research it fully – using both secondary and primary sources. In other words, don’t just rely on other people’s research. Look into documents that were actually written in the period too. The best are the ones that were composed when the events occurred, not years later.
You might be surprised at what you discover. The truth is often not what you think it’s going to be.
Jeannette: Yes, indeed!
Chris: What I relish most is learning about human foolishness and heroism. There are plenty of examples of both in the War of 1812. History “learning” doesn’t have to be dry as dust. So I encourage anyone interested to find out what made people tick back then. And good luck!
Jeannette: Very well said. Though I think there might have been more foolishness in this particular conflict – on all sides. Fascinating, fascinating foolishness.
Let’s talk about the publishing process though, since you’re traditionally published, including through White Mane Publishing Co. How were you able to get a publishing contract with them? Did you submit to them directly or did you have a literary agent?
Chris: After I graduated from Loyola College in Baltimore and began my career as a medical editor, I took a stab at writing mystery novels.
Jeannette: That’s awesome!
Chris: Yeah, I was in contact with several agents who showed interest in my writing. However, my attempts to get a novel to print unfortunately failed. One published writer advised me that it’s an achievement to finish the manuscript of a book, even if it remains unpublished. So despite some disappointments, I’ve never stopped writing poetry, fiction, plays and historical non-fiction.
In the early ‘90s then, I began a novel about the war in the Chesapeake. Around that time, I met the late Dr. Martin Gordon, a historian with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who also happened to be a partner with White Mane. So I asked if his press would be interested in publishing my novel, despite how the company is largely focused on the Civil War. Martin had a personal interest in the War of 1812, however. And he ended up persuading me to write a factual take on the story instead. The rest, as they say, is history. Literally!
Jeannette: While I’m partial to reading historical non-fiction, not writing it, I’m really happy you got published in that category since I’ve learned so much from your efforts. Which reminds me, how did you go about finding the historical resources to write Terror on the Chesapeake? And were there any especially significant finds you came across?
Chris: I was lucky early on to meet Scott S. Sheads, a long-time ranger and historian at Fort McHenry. Scott provided tips about research and told me about people I needed to meet. Researching and writing history is a collaborative process, where one thing leads to another. So, following leads I’d received, I ended up researching the book in the U.S., Britain and Ireland.
Jeannette: World travel: One more reason to be a historian. But continue…
Chris: Well, one particularly great find I made was of a letter that wasn’t really related to the aspect of the war I was researching at the time. Looking it over, I realized that the writer had to be Colonel Philip Reed, the resident militia commander in Kent County, which is located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
A Revolutionary War veteran, Reed described how the Brits entered the Chesapeake Bay in the spring of 1813, completely cutting off the Eastern Shore from its western counterpart. There was no Bay Bridge back then, so the only way from one side to the other was by water. And that was a major problem.
Reed’s letter brought the resident’s desperation home to me. These people were left to the mercy of the enemy. And the poorly trained Maryland militia, who were essentially citizen soldiers, were not equipped to deal with the battle-hardened invaders.
Even so, 18 months later, Reed led his militia in a small but important action at Caulk’s Field near Chestertown, which resulted in the death of a promising young British naval officer, Captain Sir Peter Parker. That unexpected success gave the Americans new courage and provided the necessary heart for the upcoming battle to save Baltimore.
Jeannette: A very good thing for America’s future. And I agree that his letter was an amazing find. What other discoveries would you like to highlight here?
Chris: I also learned that thousands of African-American slaves fled Bay-area plantations and went to the British. The Royal Navy took those refugees to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they started a new life as free people! And while blacks proved their mettle fighting for both sides, around 200 runaway slaves specifically fought for the British. Those “Colonial Marines” were trained on Tangier Island, Virginia, and rewarded with land in Trinidad for their efforts.
I got to startle a young man at Fort McHenry some years ago by telling him that the British went so far as to build a fort on that island. Before that, he wasn’t aware how weak our nation was in the early 19th century – hardly the global force the U.S. would prove to be a hundred years later.
These are the types of things you learn when you delve deeply into a topic!
Jeannette: Well, thank you so much for doing so much of the groundwork for the rest of us. It’s much appreciated. And thanks so much for taking the time to share all this with Innovative Editing!
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