The Big Thrill Q&A: Red Sniper by David Healey

One war ends, and another begins …

RED SNIPER is the story of a rescue mission for American POWs held captive by the Russians at the end of World War II.

For these American POWs, the war is not over. Abandoned by their country, used as political pawns by Stalin, their last hope for getting home again is backwoods sniper Caje Cole and a team of combat veterans who undertake a daring rescue mission prompted by a U.S. Senator whose grandson is among the captives. After a lovely Russian-American spy helps plot an escape from a Gulag prison, they must face the ruthless Red Sniper, starving wolves, and the snowy Russian taiga in a race for freedom.

In a final encounter that tests Cole’s skills to the limit, he will discover that forces within the U.S. government want the very existence of these prisoners kept secret at any price.

David Healey sat down with The Big Thrill to discuss his latest novel, RED SNIPER:

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

In terms of the big picture takeaway, we always learned in school that the U.S. won WWII, but in some ways we lost out in the final days by pulling back and allowing the Russians to seize land and power in Europe. The smaller scale takeaway is whether an American hillbilly with a rifle can outsmart a Russian sniper.

How does this book make a contribution to the genre?

Red Sniper isn’t just another WWII novel, but encompasses the early days of the Cold War. While the U.S. government seemed willing to look the other way when it came to what the Soviet Union was up to in 1945, the characters in the novel find themselves in the thick of it.

Was there anything new you discovered, or surprised you, as you wrote this book?

When I was casting about for ideas, I was surprised to discover that truth was stranger than fiction in that there are some who believe American POWs were actually held by the Soviets as bargaining chips at the end of WWII. There is a theory that the whole business was covered up by the U.S. government because no one was interested in going to war with the Soviets after just defeating Nazi Germany.

No spoilers, but what can you tell us about your book that we won’t find in the jacket copy or the PR material?

Let’s just say that when a certain Russian-American woman carries a .22 pistol in her boot, she’s gonna use it at some point.

What authors or books have influenced your career as a writer, and why?

I’ve always been hugely influenced by the adventure novels I read when growing up. At the top of the list would be William O. Steele because he wrote about characters who managed to survive on the frontier using their wits and courage. Those stories still resonate with me. Steele won the Newberry Award, and deservedly so.

***** Thank you to The Big Thrill for featuring RED SNIPER in the May issue!


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Delmarva accents: Delmarvese is a language unto its own

by David Healey

As if anyone needed further proof that Delmarva is a place unto itself, the people speak a different tongue. This language of the land between the bays is known as Delmarvese. You’ve heard it, even if you haven’t put a name to it. It’s that unique pronunciation that signals you’re from here and everybody else isn’t.

Caught me some feesh. Gaoin downy oh-shun. Eat some cray-abs.

Delmarva accents (Eastern Shore accents) have twangy vowels, punctuated by a long “0” sound. It’s an accent that’s distinctly Southern in its own way. My first real introduction to this matter of local pronunciation occurred when I moved to Cecil County. I pronounced it See-cil. But old-timers insist on Sissal or even Sessal — much as the first English settlers would have said it.

Linguists will tell you that Delmarva’s unique way of speaking goes beyond mere accent. Delmarvese is a recognized dialect — a unique pattern of speech — that has its roots in the Elizabethan adventurers who arrived in Shakespeare’s era.

One of the ways dialect survives is through isolation, which is why it lasted so long on Delmarva.

“That is one of the factors. But it’s not that people don’t have access to other dialects through television and other media,” explained Tonia Bleam, lecturer in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Maryland. “There’s also a sense of identity. Speaking in a dialect might not be that conscious of a thing. But if you start to talk differently, your friends might think you are putting on airs. You might have different ways of speaking in different situations, such as when dealing with outsiders.”

Isolation certainly plays a role in places such as Smith Island and Tangier Island. These remote islands in Chesapeake Bay are recognized as having some of the truest Elizabethan dialects. But what does that mean?

Experts say centuries ago, the English language reached a fork in the road. Modern British — the kind we hear on BBC shows today — stayed at home but followed a path of change and evolution. The English spoken by the Elizabethan explorers, soldiers and settlers who came to early America stayed right here and did not evolve as much.

Some linguists and Shakespearean scholars make a case that Elizabethan sounded a lot like a Scottish brogue. The verbal tics are easy to pick up on if you know what to listen for.

Vowels like “a” are short and drawn out a little (think haaave and haaat). The “u” comes out shortened and combined with an oo sound (bush becomes boosh, for example). The biggest difference can be heard in the dipthongs, or vowels placed side by side. Modern English blends the sounds together, but Elizabethans would have pronounced each vowel — why else would they be in the word, right? An Elizabethan would have pronounced house as huh-oose. If you listen closely, it all starts to sound rather Delmarvesque.

Beyond accent, sentence structure bears similarities to an older English. A New York Times writer described it this way: “Mainlanders say, logically enough, ‘Look how blue the sky is.’ Not the Shoreman. He says, ‘Look at the sky, how blue it is.’ ” Now that sounds like Shakespeare.

“When we talk about different dialects we are really looking at all levels of structure,” Bleam said. While the older forms of English (such as those heard on Delmarva) stay the same, “It’s often the standard English that’s quickly changing.”

You don’t have to visit the remote areas of Delmarva to hear this dialect. If you troll YouTube, you will come across videos of locals conversing in their very own lingo.

I experienced this very phenomenon myself back in the early 1990s, during a visit to the town of Church Creek in Dorchester County. Vast salt marshes surround the town and as you drive into Church Creek you’ll pass a huge sculpture of a mosquito, which says volumes about this community’s sense of humor.

I drove down to Church Creek with a friend who was originally from Harford County, but had taken up residence in a half-abandoned vacation home long enough to join the volunteer fire company and get to know some people in the community. He had since moved away, but took me along for a visit. We stopped by the firehouse and talked with a couple of guys he knew. Normal enough. Then a third guy stopped by, and the three of them seemed to forget we were there and started jabbering among themselves in a seemingly foreign dialect.

It was spooky, like getting caught up in a time warp. I’d heard about this legendary Elizabethan dialect, but I’d been skeptical. Now I was a believer.

Sadly, it’s likely that the unique Delmarva dialect is in danger of dying out. But for now, it always seems like there is still an old-timer somewhere who talks the talk. Last summer, we ran into one selling produce at a roadside stand: “You can go right home now and put that ear in’ the booling wooter!”

Taking the sack filled with ripe sweet corn, it became clear that some Delmarvese requires no translation.

This article originally appeared in the Delmarva Quarterly.

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Meet thriller author Dan Fesperman

Writer Dan Fesperman pictured in his home. Lloyd Fox Photo.

Award-winning author Dan Fesperman from Baltimore will discuss how he made the leap from newspaper reporter to suspense novelist when he addresses the Eastern Shore Writers Association on April 8.

The group’s Second Saturday luncheon will be held at Suicide Bridge Restaurant in Hurlock from 12 noon – 1:30 p.m. The meeting is free and open to the public as well as to members of ESWA. Attendees will be responsible for purchasing their own meals.

Several of Fesperman’s books will be available for purchase on site from Mystery Loves Company, the Oxford, Maryland independent bookstore.

Fesperman was a long-time reporter and foreign correspondent for The Sun, reporting from a number of countries in Europe and the Middle East including Germany, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. He will discuss how he made the transition from journalism to fiction, first finding an agent and then having his first book acquired by major publishing houses on both sides of the Atlantic. Continue reading

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Now this was a March snowstorm to remember

Photo courtesy Historical Society of Cecil County.

A mid-March snowstorm is unusual, but it is not unprecedented. Back when I was researching Great Storms of the Chesapeake, I came across accounts of the March 19, 1958 storm that buried much of the upper Chesapeake Bay region. Damage, and even deaths, resulted from the heavy, wet snow.

It was an incredible snowfall, with measurements of 42 inches coming in from residents near the Susquehanna River in Maryland. The town of Elkton at the very top of the Chesapeake Bay was buried under 37.1 inches of wet, crushing snow. That measurement was taken by H. Wirt Bouchelle, who had been a postal carrier since 1908 and an official National Weather Service observer since 1927. Bouchelle had recorded 76 inches of snow that winter—though half the total had come from that single March storm.

The massive storm left communities in the upper Chesapeake Bay region without power for twelve hours. Power companies from neighboring states sent men to help, so that a crew of 186 linemen was working around the clock to restore electricity. It was noted that not even Hurricane Hazel four years before had caused so much damage. At Losten’s Dairy in Chesapeake City, the power was out for a week, and the dairy relied on a generator.

The deep snow proved dangerous and, in some cases, deadly. There was a close call at the Chesapeake Boat Co., where the marina owners had just been inspecting a boat shed that measured 95 feet by 136 feet, under which thirty boats were sheltered on the Elk River. Other than some creaking and groaning, there was no sign of any cause for concern. Ten minutes later, the two men were inside their office having coffee when a tremendous crash caused them both to leap to their feet. The entire shed under which they had just been walking had collapsed. Loss of the yachts and shed was estimated at nearly $300,000.

Others weren’t so fortunate. A farmer near the town of Rising Sun who ventured out to check on his barn, flattened by the great snow, died when he stepped back onto his front porch and the roof collapsed.

At Conowingo Dam, a young U.S. Navy WAVE was killed and three other military women were injured when their car careened out of control on the icy road and went through a guardrail. Their car fell ninety feet before landing at the base of the dam. The women had been returning to the Bainbridge Naval Training Center the night of the storm.

Finally, I wanted to share this photo of a sheriff’s patrol car, dwarfed by the plowed snow.

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Enter the Red Sniper giveaway!

Contest time! For the launch of Red Sniper, several copies of the novel are being given away. You can enter to win a copy by clicking on the book cover, which will take you to the Facebook page entry form. There is a quick question to answer (only because the giveaway site, Rafflecopter, requires that … probably to prove you are not some sort of spam robot). The question asks you to share who your WWII relative was or what your interest is in WWII, so who knows, maybe we can share some of those great answers here!

Again, please click on the book cover to enter. Good luck and thank you!




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Delmarva chroniclers share stories behind the stories

Ed Okonowicz and Ann Foley.

Ed Okonowicz and Ann Foley.

by David Healey

Three of Delmarva’s finest chroniclers and storytellers gathered in Easton to share their knowledge from decades spent documenting the people who make the region so unique.

The authors’ panel, sponsored by the Eastern Shore Writer’s Association, was held on Saturday, January 29, 2017, at the Easton Library.

Sharing their experiences were Ed Okonowicz, perhaps best known for his ghost tales and his book Disappearing Delmarva; Gary Crawford, columnist for the Tidewater Times; and Ann Foley, author of Having My Say: Conversations with a Chesapeake Bay Waterman.

Crave of the Day: Cool old globes.

Moderated by outgoing ESWA president Mindie Burgoyne, the authors’ discussion was at times poignant, but mostly humorous, as they shared everything from an encounter with world famous decoy carvers to muskrat trappers to old-time watermen.

While they might be “Come Heres” in the Delmarva sense, all three have spent decades writing about the uniquely Delmarva way of life.

“I used to like to sit and listen to the stories people had to tell, even before I was a writer,” Foley said.

Ann Foley and Gary Crawford.

Ann Foley and Gary Crawford.

Some of their advice to writers when interviewing others included get a couple people together so that that start having a conversation and build off each other. All three also make a point of meeting their interview subjects in their homes, or workshops, or boats, where people will be comfortable talking. That interview approach sometimes takes early mornings, long drives, making friends with dogs, and hours of listening.

While these writers check their information carefully with exhaustive research, Crawford said that ultimately writers have to be willing to take that final leap and get their work into print.

“I would recommend that you not be too shy about putting yourself out there to ridicule,” Crawford said.

He said that the hardest writing assignment he gave himself was to write an account of the sinking of the Hay Russ IV in 1979, in which five Tilghman Island men, all of the same family, were lost.

Okonowicz had this bit of tongue in cheek advice for writers: “I avoid young people at all costs. You have to go to people who have lived and experienced good stories to get good stories.”

Listening to the inside scoop from three of Delmarva's best storytellers.

Listening to the inside scoop from three of Delmarva’s best storytellers.

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Red Sniper release date set!

red-sniper-3d-bookcover-transparent_backgroundRED SNIPER is the story of a rescue mission for American POWs held captive by the Russians at the end of World War II.

Micajah “Caje” Cole returns to do battle with a Russian sniper behind enemy lines.

The release date is Tuesday, February 7, 2017.

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From The Big Thrill: An interview with Shipwreck author William Nikkel

Shipwreck by William Nikkel

shipwreckBy David Healey

Thriller author William “Willie” Nikkel was out fishing one day when he caught a good idea. He just happened to wonder, what if that didn’t turn out to be a big fish on his line, but a body?

Thriller writers love a good “what if” to get a story going. Nikkel was hooked, so to speak, and that idea evolved into the first chapter of his newest novel, SHIPWRECK.

This is his sixth novel to feature Jack Ferrell. Nikkel is now at work on his seventh novel about the Hawaii-based hero. The former SWAT officer and veteran thriller author took some time out recently to talk about the writing life.

Considering that he divides his time between Maui and northern California, with plenty of fishing, gold panning, and the occasional casino visit thrown in, at first glance it might seem like there wasn’t much time left to write. However, Nikkel keeps a fairly strict schedule, thanks in part to the hot weather in Hawaii.

“If you don’t fish or lay on the beach, there’s not a lot to do in Maui,” he said, a comment that may disqualify him from being a spokesman for the tourism board.

It is, however, a great place to get down to business as a writer.

“I get up early in the morning,” he said, noting that he’s at his desk by 5 am. “It’s nice and cool.”

He breaks for breakfast with his wife, Karen, around nine. Then it’s back to work. “I write all day. When I’m writing that first draft, I put in six to eight hours, seven days a week.”

There are a few perks, of course, to being based in Hawaii.

“At sunset, I’m up on the lanai, watching the sun go down. I rarely miss a sunset.”

For part of the year, he lives at his brother’s home in northern California. There, brother Ray helps him bounce ideas around for plots when the two of them aren’t out shooting, panning for gold, or enjoying a boys’ night out at the casino in Lake Tahoe. With those ideas piled up, Nikkel returns home to Hawaii to get some serious drafting done.

Considering all that these two locales have to offer, it’s no surprise that a sense of place is apparent in his novels. His first three Jack Ferrell thrillers, starting with Glimmer of Gold, were infused, interestingly enough, with Hawaiian mythology. Another thriller, Murrieta Gold, featured legends from that California Gold Rush country he calls home for part of the year.

Recently, he also launched a series of steampunk zombie westerns, including Devil Wind.

When it comes to developing a novel, it’s that first scene, or even the first line, that hooks him. “I’ll begin a story based on a first line. It’s kind of a ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ thing,” he said.

He likes to start with a good idea of where the story is going, but outlining only takes him about halfway through the book.

“I love crafting the story. I sort of outline until I scrap the outline and write the story. Your mind starts rolling with the story and takes it where you didn’t know you were going to go. Then I just run with it.”

CURIOSITY OF THE DAY: Put some real silver in your pocket!

Nikkel said he “got serious” as a writer back in 2002, when he started attending the Maui Writers’ Conference. Writers such as James Rollins, Tess Gerritsen, and Bob Mayer were strong influences there. He has also been to every Thrillerfest, learning all he can. And he credits best-selling authors such as Steve Berry and fellow Californian Allison Brennan as being inspirational and supportive.

A recent Berry blurb states, “The tension ratchets up degree by degree in this smart and cleverly told adventure. William Nikkel definitely knows how to kick butt and take names. He’s a gifted storyteller.”

Brennan says of Nikkel’s new novel, “SHIPWRECK is the perfect blend of mystery and adventure. An engaging, fast-paced thriller with a fascinating and fun hero.”
It’s clear that Nikkel’s character follows the tradition of a long line of smart tough guys such as Dirk Pitt and Travis McGee. Nikkel’s character has a boat called Fast Times and his supporting cast of characters, just as McGee has the Busted Flush and his loyal sidekick Meyer from the John D. MacDonald thrillers.

“What thriller writer hasn’t been influenced by those?” he asked rhetorically.

Like those well-known protagonists, Ferrell is one of the good guys, but he’s also willing to step over the line—just a hair—in search of justice.

In SHIPWRECK, it’s quickly evident that Jack Ferrell navigates his fishing boat—and his conscience—according to a strong moral code. He stands up for what’s right and doesn’t back down. Instead of fancy weapons or tricky martial arts, he tends to wield a Mossberg 12-gauge and throws a mean punch. He gives would-be assassins fair warning, then lets them have it.

He’s a tough guy, but not invincible.  At the same time, you can be pretty sure that anyone who goes up against him is going to come out the loser.

“I like to believe that Jack Ferrell is the embodiment of what most men would like to be,” Nikkel said.

And it sure doesn’t hurt that Jack Ferrell tends to have his adventures in paradise, whether it’s the Hawaiian Islands or California’s Gold Rush country. Just like the idea that caught Nikkel during that fishing trip, readers will be hooked on SHIPWRECK.


williamWilliam Nikkel is the author of six Jack Ferrell novels, a Jack Ferrell novella, and a steampunk/zombie western series featuring his latest hero, Max Traver. A former homicide detective and S.W.A.T. team member for the Kern County Sheriff’s Department in Bakersfield, California, William is an amateur scuba enthusiast, gold prospector and artist, who can be found just about anywhere. He and his wife Karen divide their time between California and Maui, Hawaii.

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Fathers, sons, and survival from The Big Thrill …

Patriarch Run by Benjamin Dancer

patriarchrun_front_final_rgbBy David Healey

In our connected age, it’s usually easy to reach an author for an interview, unless that author happens to be leading a group of teens on a backpacking trip in the wilderness. When Benjamin Dancer returned to the things we take for granted—such as electricity, running water, and the internet—he answered a few questions about his new thriller, PATRIARCH RUN. Dancer’s book just happens to envision what could occur in a world where we might all be on a kind of extended backpacking trip if civilization’s infrastructure falters.

Thrillers such as yours require a fair amount of research to make them plausible. What fact did you discover in your research that stood out for you?

That’s a great question. PATRIARCH RUN won high praise from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, the author of On Killing, for getting the psychology of combat right. The story also won praise from national security experts for its realistic depiction of an underreported, existential threat to America. That threat is what stands out most to me.

One of the things I learned in writing this story is that our civilization has unwittingly evolved to become absolutely dependent on a vulnerable critical infrastructure. What I mean by that is that if the power grid were to go down today and not come back up again most of us would die.

To contextualize a statement as bold as that it might be helpful to go back a hundred years to when there were only 76 million Americans. At that time, you didn’t need electricity to meet the basic needs of the population. Food was grown outside the urban centers, and just about everybody ate locally.

Fast forward to today. There are 325 million Americans and that number is growing. Many of our urban centers have outstripped the carrying capacities of their surrounding landscapes. As a consequence, food and basic goods are shipped over long supply lines, all of which are powered by refined fuels which, of course, are manufactured with electricity.

So how is it we’ve managed to expand, in the last 100 years, the carrying capacity of the planet from about 2 billion to about 7.5 billion people? Ironically, the answer is electricity. The advent of reliable, widely-available electrical power has made possible several key technologies that have allowed us to expand Earth’s carrying capacity. Those technologies include fertilizers, pesticides, mechanical irrigation, refined fuels for farm machinery and transportation, infrastructures for clean drinking water, infrastructures for sanitation, advanced medical care, etc. Everything in that list is made available through electrical power.

So imagine a large urban center devoid of electricity. No food. No safe drinking water. No sanitation. No transportation. What we’re talking about is an apocalypse.

What’s really scary is that there are several mechanisms of destruction that have a realistic potential of bringing about that apocalypse, including a sophisticated cyber-attack, which is what the bad guy is up to in PATRIARCH RUN.

Apocalyptic themes seem to have a continuing popularity. Why do you think we are so fascinated with the idea of how humanity might carry on? 

I think most people understand at a very deep level that we could easily bring about our own demise. The collective power of 7.5 billion people trying to make a living and creating security for themselves is profound. The amount of resources required to sustain so many people is almost unfathomable. So we have made ourselves vulnerable. You could look at the vulnerability through the lens of sustainability, with issues like climate change. Or you could look at that vulnerability through the lens of national security, with issues like the threat to the grid or a nuclear holocaust. National security and sustainability are two sides of the same coin. We have unwittingly made our civilization quite vulnerable. People sense that. So perhaps they are attracted to themes that play out the apocalypse.

By the way, I do think it would be easy to avoid such an ill fate. If we pay close attention and are intentional about our collective behavior as a people, we could enjoy a long prosperity.

You said that you set out to write a story about fathers. Why is that important to you? 

I wanted to tell a story about two types of fathers, one who sacrifices his family for his mission and another who sacrifices himself for his son. I think that’s the spectrum on which all of us, as parents, have to decide who it is we want to be.

In addition to writing, you work as a school advisor. Are there any sly ways that you encourage teens to expand their horizons through books?

I’m always looking for ways to get kids to read. They all love learning, even if they don’t all know it yet. I’ve taught The Hunger Games in a bow making class, where we crafted our own bows and arrows. I’ve also taught classes based on food and cooking with Michael Pollan’s books. I also use a good thriller to get kids engaged.

Do you plot extensively or are you more of an organic writer?

I plot the entire outline before I begin. I want to be able to visualize the whole world and all the characters before I write the first chapter.

Tell us something about your writing schedule and workspace. Do you write in the mornings or evenings? Do you have to work at a desk, on the sofa, or at the local coffee shop?

I write alone in my office and in silence. I wake up at 4 am, when the house is quiet, and write until 7. Those three hours feel like three minutes every morning. Then I get the kids ready for school, and we all head off together. All three of them attend the school at which I work. We serve preschool through 12th grade at my school.


benjamindancerBenjamin is the author of the literary thriller Patriarch Run, the first book in a series that will include Fidelity and The Story of the Boy. He also writes about parenting, education, sustainability and national security.

Benjamin works as an Advisor at a Colorado high school where he has made a career out of mentoring young people as they come of age. His work with adolescents has informed his stories, which are typically themed around fatherhood and coming-of-age.

To learn more about Benjamin, please visit his website.


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Exploring Civil War Lore from Maryland and Delaware

The moat at Fort Delaware, on Pea Patch Island, source of more than a few Civil War legends.

The moat at Fort Delaware, on Pea Patch Island, source of more than a few Civil War legends.

Most of us know the “greater story” of the Civil War—the battles, the politics, the leaders. We’ve heard of Grant and Lee, Gettysburg and Antietam, Abe Lincoln and Jeff Davis.

But it’s the “little stories”—the quirky ones about people and events–that make this time period so fascinating even today. Some of these tales of Civil War legend and lore are funny, some sad, but they all bring a very human side to the war 150 years later.

These stories will be the focus of “Civil War Legends and Lore” at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 27, at the North East Branch Library. We’ll classify these stories as “legends and lore” because local tradition and folklore have filled in the blanks between the known facts.

Our region has no shortage of Civil War legends and lore, much of it spiced up by the fact that Cecil County residents had divided loyalties. Maryland itself was a border state, even though it is located south of the Mason-Dixon Line. In Cecil County and the rest of Maryland some were fiercely pro-Union; others were pro-Confederate to the point that they fled South to take up arms against the United States. Once war was declared, Cecil Countians for the most part supported the Union and its new president, even if they hadn’t necessarily voted for him.

Some of the other legends and lore we’ll touch upon that evening:

  • How “mule skinners” took over the mansion and grounds at Perry Point, where the owners were pro-southern. The owners complained that Yankee officers banged up the elegant staircase with their swords.
  • The C&D Canal played a huge role in the early days of the war, enabling Lincoln to bring loyal troops from “up north” to occupy Maryland after Federal troops traveling by train were attacked in Baltimore. The nervous canal superintendent in Chesapeake City constantly feared attacks by Confederate raiders.
  • George Alfred Townsend spent his summers as a boy in Cecil County. The war made him famous as an Anderson Cooper-type newsman of his day who went on to be friends with Mark Twain. We’ll take a look at a story he wrote with a touch of dark humor about the topic of undertakers making their fortune after the battle of Antietam.
  • A newspaper editor whose pro-Southern editorial got him marched out of town at bayonet point by Union troops and locked up in Fort McHenry.
  • A Civil War romance that started when a Chesapeake City girl met a captured Confederate officer on his way to the prisoner of war camp at Fort Delaware.

As divided and cantankerous as the two sides could be here in Cecil County, one of the impressions that stands out is how people seemed to have put aside their differences after the war. It’s a lesson that shouldn’t be lost on us today as we struggle through difficult, sometimes divisive times of our own.


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