The Lost Women of Mill Street | Dramatic American Civil War Historical Fiction by Kinley Bryan

The Lost Women of Mill Street
by Kinley Bryan

1864: As Sherman’s army marches toward Atlanta, a cotton mill commandeered by the Confederacy lies in its path. Inside the mill, Clara Douglas weaves cloth and watches over her sister Kitty, waiting for the day her fiancé returns from the West.
When Sherman’s troops destroy the mill, Clara’s plans to start a new life in Nebraska are threatened. Branded as traitors by the Federals, Clara, Kitty, and countless others are exiled to a desolate refugee prison hundreds of miles from home.
Cut off from all they’ve ever known, Clara clings to hope while grappling with doubts about her fiancé’s ambitions and the unsettling truths surrounding his absence. As the days pass, the sisters find themselves thrust onto the foreign streets of Cincinnati, a city teeming with uncertainty and hostility. She must summon reserves of courage, ingenuity, and strength she didn’t know she had if they are to survive in an unfamiliar, unwelcoming land.
Inspired by true events of the Civil War, The Lost Women of Mill Street is a vividly drawn novel about the bonds of sisterhood, the strength of women, and the repercussions of war on individual lives.
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Enjoy an Excerpt:
Never before had Clara witnessed a stillness in the town as complete as on that Sunday morning. The grand homes, with their wide verandas and bold columns and tall windows, stood eerily silent. It reminded her of the farm she and Kitty grew up on, in the minutes before a storm: the way everything went quiet, the squirrels and the birds and the livestock all finding places to hide.
The cotton and woolen factories were quiet, too, but only because it was Sunday. That the mills continued normal production as its landed gentry fled had surprised even the journalists covering the war. As Clara and Kitty walked to church that morning, Clara recalled one evening weeks earlier when the fighting was about seven miles outside of Marietta. She’d been approached by a paunchy gray-haired man as she sat on her front stoop. A reporter for the Atlanta Southern Confederacy, he’d wanted to ask her a few questions.
“Do you have any plans to leave in advance of the Federals?” was his first. When Clara said she did not, the reporter shook his head. “I’ve been to nearly every home in Roswell, the grand ones near the square,” he said. “Most are empty. Yet the factories are running like there’s no enemy for hundreds of miles.” The reporter squinted at her. “I’m curious, what do you and the other operatives plan to do?”
“Do?” she shrugged. “Keep working, same as always.”
“Even if the Federals come knocking on the factory door?”
“It’s not like we got wagons and horses to take us anywhere,” she’d replied, unable to hide the irritation in her voice. “Or a place to stay if we did.”
“You all must be frightened.”
Clara shrugged again, unwilling to admit fear to this stranger, this man who had the luxury of observing the war as if from a great distance, even as he walked right up to its edges. The reporter thanked her and continued along Mill Street.
At church that morning, Clara and Kitty sat in the same pew they always had near the back, despite the many empty rows further up. Though the reverend gave a sermon as usual, his voice was changed. It could have been the heat. Even with the doors and windows open, the church was stifling, and the reverend periodically wiped a cloth across his brow without slowing his rhythm. The box pews blocked any breeze that might have found its way through the church’s open doors.
Clara came to church less often than she used to, and when she did, it was for one reason: to feel closer to her mother. Some of her earliest memories were of going to church together. Leaning against her mother’s arm while Kitty, still a babe, slept in their mother’s lap, she’d close her eyes and let the rhythm of the reverend’s words lull her. At the time, she’d had no sense of the words’ meaning, but the way in which the reverend delivered them—the rise and fall of his voice, the conviction of his gestures—this, combined with her mother’s closeness, had brought forth in her a profound contentment.
Today’s sermon, however, brought Clara no sense of her childhood or her mother or contentment. It was the change in the reverend’s voice. It wasn’t the heat; this became clear as his sermon progressed. Though he spoke in generalities about courage and God’s providence in war, the underlying message was that they must gird themselves for the onslaught of the enemy.
His forehead shiny with perspiration, the reverend addressed the women, who that morning comprised most of the small congregation. “While you may not fight on the battlefield,” he said, “do not think you have no critical part to play! Cheer on your husbands, your brothers, your fathers. Brace them for the challenges to come. Bolster them with your love!”
Clara quietly cheered on her betrothed, though not for reasons the reverend would approve. Benjamin wasn’t about to lay down his life for the benefit of the rich men who’d plunged them into war. When the Confederacy started drafting men into its army, he’d left for the Nebraska territory to stake his claim on 160 acres, courtesy of the federal government. Clara only wished he’d write and let her know how he was faring. And when he would return for them.
The reporter who’d asked her those dire questions weeks earlier had offered a decidedly hopeful view of their situation in his article, which Clara had read in the company store a few days later:
This factory is of immense value to our government and is operating chiefly for its benefit, and the natural advantages surrounding will enable our forces to hold Roswell against overwhelming numbers should the enemy attempt a raid upon the place. We have sufficient artillery to command every approach and the heights are well fortified.
Clara fanned herself in the humid church. The truth of that reporter’s assessment could fit in a thimble, and they might all see for themselves soon enough how swiftly the town could fall.


Kinley Bryan‘s debut novel, Sisters of the Sweetwater Fury, inspired by the Great Lakes Storm of 1913 and her own family history, won the 2022 Publishers Weekly Selfies Award for adult fiction. An Ohio native, she lives in South Carolina with her husband and three children. The Lost Women of Mill Street is her second novel.
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