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February 28 , 2011

South Under a Prairie Sky: The Journal of Nell Churchill, US Army Nurse & Scout


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.
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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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