In Civil War author C. Kay Larson´s new work of fiction, South Under a Prairie Sky: The Journal of Nell Churchill, U.S. Army Nurse & Scout, our teenaged heroine grows up in Monmouth, Illinois in the antebellum era. Nell begins her journal entries in 1856, as unrest breaks out in Kansas over the slavery issue. Her relatives flee the state and take refuge at the Churchill farm home, finally settling in Monmouth.
In real life, Nell Churchill was Larson’s great-great grandmother’s niece who was born in nearby Biggsville, ca. 1896. In this work she is moved back in time to the Civil War era and transformed into a composite fictional character. Monmouth was taken as Nell’s hometown as Larson’s aunt’s family, the Winebrights, resided there until the 1990s. George A. Winebright enlisted in the 83rd Illinois Infantry Regiment as a young German immigrant.
As an independent scholar and a Civil War buff since childhood, for the last twenty years, Larson has been researching and writing on women’s military history. Her previous publications have included articles on the women Civil War soldiers and Great Necessities: The Life, Times, and Writings of Anna Ella Carroll, 1815-1894, on Lincoln’s political/legal advisor. Her Civil War website is titled: “Springing to the Call: A Documenatary View of Women in the American Civil War.” The idea for Nell’s journal resulted from the posting of the website. Larson realized that if she made a composite character of the women described, she would have a very good storyline for a fictional work.
After graduating from high school, Nell attends Knox College in Galesburg, one of the first open to women. She becomes involved in the political questions of the day and follows the 1858 senate and the 1860 presidential campaigns in which Abraham Lincoln is a candidate. Her family also aids in the running of underground railroad stations for fugitive slaves. Family tradition has it that the Winebright farm was part of the network of stations in the area. Nell’s brother and cousins attend Monmouth College. Uncle Sylvester Churchill is the town doctor. He is taken after Larson’s ancestor who was a doctor in nearby Kirkwood in the 1870s.
Shortly after the Civil War breaks out in 1861, Nell’s brother and cousin enlist, as later do their brothers-in-law. Nell and Sylvester join medical teams in Tennessee after the battle of Shiloh. She becomes the protege of the legendary Sanitary Commission agent, Mary "Mother" Bickerdyke of Galesburg, Illinois, who is presented as herself in the book. In the fall of 1862, Nell is enrolled as an army scout by Gen. William S. Rosecrans, commander, Army of the Cumberland. She completes two important undercover missions into Confederate lines. Nell also finds romance, falling in love with a dashing Swedish-American cavalry officer from Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Although a fictional account, virtually every incident in the book is fact-based. Featured town, county, college, and political events have been taken from private papers, local documents, histories, and newspapers. Nurse memoirs were culled for facts and poignant stories. Scout accounts are largely based on the exploits of Pauline Cushman, U.S. scout for the Army of the Cumberland, and Pinkerton Detective Hattie Lawton, as well as accounts of female scouts noted in the official war records. Larson affords a wide view of the Midwest, also incorporating scenes from her home state of Wisconsin, as well as Chicago and St. Louis. All sources are referenced in the Underbook that adds facts and commentary. The facts of the military deaths of two Larson relatives, David Salter and John Shook, are featured in the work. Wyatt Earp and John Wayne’s ancestors, all of whom lived in Monmouth, add color.
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SOUTH UNDER A PRAIRIE SKY
South Under a Prairie Sky is a captivating blend of fiction and historical fact. Sixteen-year-old Nell Churchill begins her adventures in 1856 in Illinois and from there is propelled through many true life events as a farm girl, college student, and Civil War nurse and scout for the Union army. Readers will feel as if they are traveling right beside Nell in an intricate storyline that takes her from her hometown of Monmouth to Tennessee to Mississippi and Washington, D. C. This inspiring, informative read is a book for all the young at heart.
– Mary Salter McAllister, genealogist, Salter family
Nell Churchill’s delightful journal has everything a reader wants: a ripping good story, rich wartime settings, romance, adventure, and action. Yet this page-turner also features strong, determined, compassionate family members, nurses, and soldiers who struggle to survive the “morass of death” the Civil War became. Larson integrates language, thought, facts, customs, and geographic descriptions so well, the novel almost seems like a true memoir.
– Marisa Dolkart, Class of ’02, Ithaca College
South Under a Prairie Sky is a cracker jack tale of the Civil War that gives a real flavor of the times–from the politics of the slavery debates, to the ambitious boosterism of the Northwest, to the romance of the Old South. Nell becomes a female Forrest Gump, present at many of the most famous events of the era. Yet Kay Larson also provides poignant stories of small town life in turbulent times, the earnest patriotism of Northern soldiers and officers, the quests of runaway slaves and freedmen, fractured Southern loyalties, Union soldier dogs and horses, as well as personal triumph and tragedy. And besides all that, the Underbook informs what is fact and what is fiction and more. This book´s novel format may force writers of historical fiction to plot new courses.
– Rudy Jacobson, Ph.D., grandson of Peter Alfred Jacobson (featured in book)
C. KAY LARSON, an independent scholar and Midwest native, has been a Civil War buff since childhood. During the past fifteen years, she has written on political, maritime, and military history with an emphasis on the Civil War and World War II. "Springing to the Call: A Documentary View of Women in the American Civil War," (2004) resides on the home page of the NY Military Affairs Symposium (www.nymas.org) on the board of which Larson serves. Her pioneering, "Bonny Yank and Ginny Reb" articles on women in non-traditional roles in the Civil War were published in MINERVA: Quarterly Report on Women and the Military (Spring 1990/Summer 1992). In 1995 Minerva Press published her first book, ‘Til I Come Marchng Home: A Brief History of American Women in World War II, the only military history of women in the war. An expanded edition will soon be in production.
For many years, Larson served in executive management positions in New York City and State governments. Recently she has been active in foreign policy circles. Larson holds an MBA in management from Baruch College (CUNY) and received a BA degree, cum laude, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in political science. For twenty years she was also involved in political campaigns as a manager and coordinator, including during four presidential elections.