Martin R. Ganzglass is the author of the new historical novel Spies and Deserters, the fourth in a series he's writing about the Revolutionary War. The other books in the series are Cannons for the Cause, Tories and Patriots, and Blood Upon the Snow. He is a former Peace Corps volunteer in Somalia and a retired attorney, and he lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
Q: In this new book, you focus in part on what life was like for people of color during the Revolutionary War period. Can you say more about your character Adam, and his role in the book?
A: Private Adam Cooper is the first in his family to be born a free man. His parents were slaves. He is a fisherman who enlisted in Colonel Glover’s Marblehead Mariners out of Marblehead, Massachusetts, just north of Boston.
The thought for his character came from the black man in the uniform of a Marblehead Mariner at General Washington’s right knee in the famous painting by Emmanuel Leutze of “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”
Through Adam I explore the contradictions of free blacks fighting for independence from Britain, when confronted with the continued existence of slave labor on the farms of Long Island and New Jersey, house slaves in the homes of rich merchants in New York and Philadelphia, and even slaves in the kitchen at Washington’s Headquarters at Valley Forge.
What is a person like Adam to think when the British offer freedom to any slave who joins their forces, while the Revolutionary Army reluctantly permits blacks to enlist in a few discrete regiments but bars black recruitment in large numbers.
Historically, there was an African-American slave, 53 year-old Hannah Mason, who was a servant in General Washington’s kitchen at Valley Forge. I have made her a much younger and more attractive woman in the character of Sarah Pence.
In writing about the romance that develops between Adam and Sarah, I explore what it means for a free black man to court a piece of property, one who can be sold at a moment’s notice, returned to her master, and whose time is not her own.
She can become free only if her freedom is bought, and her price is beyond the meager resources of Adam and Sarah, adding to Adam’s anger and frustration.
Q: This is your fourth book featuring some of the same characters. What is it like to write about these characters for several books?
A: I enjoy the opportunity to develop characters and have them mature or succumb to their worst weaknesses. For example, Will Stoner matures from a headstrong teen-ager to an impetuous young man in love and finally a husband and calm battle-hardened veteran.
His brother, John, propelled by unprincipled greed, overweening pride and a total lack of integrity, works the system of graft and corruption and by his constant toadying to the British, becomes more of a despicable character as time goes on.
These same characters are alive in my imagination and I derive some pleasure from deciding how they would react to the historical events unfolding around them.
I hope the reader can recognize in my characters some of the traits of people they know today - love and hate, forgiveness and revenge, greed and integrity, self-interest and patriotism - and thus better connect with my novels.
The main disadvantage to writing about the same characters for several books is that I have to avoid too much explanatory background so as not to bore the reader who has read the previous novels, but include just enough so that a person starting anywhere but with Cannons for the Cause, the first in the series, is not lost.
Q: How did you come up with the book’s title, and what does it signify for you?
A: The title seemed natural because one of the themes of Spies and Deserters is the espionage efforts of both the Americans and British, centering around the British occupation of Philadelphia. A prominent character also deserts for entirely understandable reasons. I don’t want to spoil the surprise by answering this question. You will have to read the book to find out.
Q: In your research for this book, what did you learn that surprised you?
A: I knew of the starvation and suffering during the winter at Valley Forge. We were all taught some version of the terrible sacrifices made by ordinary soldiers. But I did not know the toll – over 2,000 men, one-sixth of the entire army died that winter, primarily of disease.
In addition, 1,500 horses died and others were distributed in the Pennsylvania countryside where forage was more readily available. This meant that the soldiers, weakened by meager rations and disease, were forced to be beasts of burden, pulling sleds of firewood and other supplies.
I also did not know that as of August of 1778 one-fifth of the total army were African-American soldiers nor, that as bad as the winter of 1777-78 was at Valley Forge, the weather was actually more severe during the winter of 1779-1780 when the army was encamped near Morristown.
There was a planned major British operation to cross the ice-frozen waters between Staten Island and New Jersey and kidnap General Washington from Morristown. Obviously, it failed but due to snow and hail storms, not for lack of trying.
On the back cover is the actual wording of General Benedict Arnold’s oath of allegiance to the United States of America. When I wrote the first novel, Cannons for the Cause, and made Henry Knox a central figure, little did I know that as Brigadier General in 1778 he was the officer who actually witnessed Arnold’s sworn signature and attested to that in writing.
Finally, I was surprised that General Friedrich Wilhelm August von Steuben, the Prussian Baron who, by his physique and discipline, epitomized the manly warrior, was accused in writing of being homosexual and fled Europe to the United States.
Two sources I read confirm that Baron von Steuben was in fact a homosexual, not that it matters today. What does matter is how history is taught and whether historical figures are accurately portrayed or behavior, thought to be reprehensible at the time the history books were written, is obliterated from the record.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am writing the fifth novel in the series that will take familiar and new characters through Benedict Arnold’s treason at West Point and the American victory at Yorktown. After that, the sixth and final novel in the series will cover the last two years of our War for Independence.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I have some ideas for a series of inter-related short stories and have been jotting them down as they occur to me. If I cannot write an entire book about dogs, from the animal’s point of view, I at least think I can sustain the tale (no pun intended) for one short story.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Martin R. Ganzglass, please click here.