When writing fantasy or pure fiction, authors are free to let their imaginations run wild. Not so … when writing historically based novels. A mistake will turn off a Civil War buff instantly. In 2004, during a tour of the Five Forks Battlefield, the Pickett Society stated that Confederate General Rooney Lee attended General Rosser’s infamous Shad Bake. However, Shelby Foote’s Book Civil War claimed it was General Fitz Hugh Lee who had attended.
Why is attendance at a meal, particularly shad, a member of the herring family, such a big deal? I enjoy shad as well as the next fellow.The name disparity of the two Lee’s, however, left my research with a dilemma. My latest book, The Civil War’s Valiant Irish, was almost ready for release. Initially, I felt certain the tour folks had to have it right. After all, they visited the site of the battle. But then I had second thoughts, applying the old carpenter’s rule “measure twice and cut once,” I emailed my concern to the Society who admitted they were incorrect. WOW! Once again Will Rogers’ sage advice came to mind. “It’s not what we don’t know that gets us in trouble. It’s what we do know that ain’t so.”
Next came to mind that childhood rhyme, “For the want of a nail?”
For the want of a nail, the horse was lost
For the want of a horse, the battle was lost
All for the want of a horseshoe nail.
During wartime, little mistakes often determine the winner. If the French had brought horseshoe nails and spiked the captured English guns at Waterloo, Napoleon likely would have defeated Wellington.
But for now, back to how the shad bake effects my book. As the Civil War drew to a close, Lee’s only available railroad ran past Five Forks, if he lost that location, he would lose Richmond. General Pickett was ordered to hold that intersection at all hazards.
But where was Pickett when the tenacious County Cavan-born, Irishman, Phil Sheridan, attacked? He was miles away devouring shad with Generals Fitz Hugh Lee and Rosser.
How badly did Pickett lose? Consider this! On that day alone, over 10% of Lee’s army fell captive to Sheridan. Would the presence of Pickett and the other generals have made a difference? Not likely in the final outcome, but perhaps thousands of Confederates might have survived to fight another day.
“All for the want of baked shad.”