Ken Burns’s The Civil War – a Great Source of Writing Inspiration

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Real history is often the best source of inspiration for writers, especially science fiction and fantasy writers. It provides the sorts of fascinating details that can bring stories, characters and settings to life. This week I’ve been re-watching my favourite historical documentary, Ken Burns’s The Civil War, and as I again watched the horrors of the American Civil War unfold, I noted down a whole bunch of fascinating facts, and ideas spinning off from them. Here, in no particular order, are some of the top ones…

Grant’s Hundred Gun Salutes

Union General Ulysses S. Grant, as well as having an amazing name and a knack for warfare, clearly had a grim sense of humour. During the Siege of Petersburg, he celebrated other Union victories by firing hundred gun salutes. But whereas such salutes are normally fired blank or into the air, he fired them at the Confederate siege works.

It’s an incident that could easily be stolen and used in a military fantasy or sci-fi story, with a celebratory salute fired at enemies. But that combination of celebration with attacking enemies could also be developed into something far darker – a leader who uses executions in celebrations; a torturer who saves victims for saints days; a general who fires such a salute to mark his opponent’s birthday.

A Prison City

By late in the war, the fifth largest city in the Confederacy was a prisoner of war camp. I don’t mean that they filled a city with prisoners, I mean that only four cities in the rebel nation had populations larger than that camp. It was filthy, squalid, and the prisoners weren’t even allowed to build shelters for themselves.

It’s an idea that’s easy to scale up for dramatic effect. A prison planet where a galactic empire dumps the unwanted. A nation that uses an actual city as a prison. That sort of thing.

Incidentally, one of the reasons the prison camp was so large was the involvement, once again, of General Grant. In protest at the Confederacy’s massacres of black prisoners of war, Grant ceased all exchanges of POWs until the Confederacy would recognise the equality of black soldiers. Given that inequality between blacks and whites was pretty much the defining cause of the war, that wasn’t going to happen, and so the prisoners piled up.

Sherman on Grant

Union General William Tecumseh Sherman had more in common with General Ulysses S Grant than having great names – the two were also friends. Following some of the more difficult periods in both their lives, Sherman said this of Grant:

“He stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk; and now, sir, we stand by each other always.”

If that’s not the basis of a great relationship between a pair of lead characters, then I don’t know what is.

The Gettysburg Address

Aside from being one of the most eloquent and moving speeches of all time, President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is also, mercifully, one of the shortest. In a century when quantity of rhetoric was regarded as a mark of quality, Lincoln swam against the tide.

Except that he didn’t do it as a deliberate act of nonconformity. He wasn’t the lead speaker that day, so didn’t want to talk for long, and afterwards he thought the speech had been a failure. Even great men can misjudge their own successes, and trends aren’t always broken on purpose – two valuable lessons for character and world building.


The military cemetery at Arlington is now world famous, having featured in so many films, TV shows and news broadcasts that it’s known around the world. But until late 1863, the United States used two other large military cemeteries. It is an indication of the tragedy of the war that both those cemeteries became full, forcing the Union to create a new one following further heavy casualties in 1864. The man put in charge of picking the sight was Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs.

Meigs was a southerner, but sided with the Union on principle, and became Quartermaster General when the previous office holder joined the Confederate forces at the start of the war. He despised the Confederacy, and given the task of selecting the site for the new national cemetery, he took the opportunity to symbolically stick it to the leading Confederate general, Robert E Lee. He chose Lee’s Arlington Estate in Virginia, then occupied by the Union, as the new burial ground, filling the beautiful landscape of Lee’s former home with the bodies of the war dead.

There’s so much to take from the story of Arlington. If you’re writing military sci-fi or fantasy, have you thought about where the dead are buried, and how that can be made interesting? What acts of spite arise from divided loyalties? How do people respond to the shocking casualties of war? Why might one of your characters find their home turned into a graveyard?

Share Your Historical Inspiration

What historical incidents have given you great inspiration? And what sources would you recommend for ideas? Share your thoughts in the comments. And if you haven’t already seen it, I heartily recommend Burns’s The Civil War, which is currently available on UK Netflix.