Interview: James Hessler, “Sickles at Gettysburg”

29 07 2010

Jim Hessler is the author of 2009’s award-winning Sickles at Gettysburg: The Controversial Civil War General Who Committed Murder, Abandoned Little Round Top, and Declared Himself the Hero of Gettysburg.   He recently was nice enough to take the time to answer a few questions for Bull Runnings.

BR:  Tell us about yourself. How did you become interested in the Civil War?

JH:  I was born and raised in Buffalo NY, a city with a fair amount of history but not exactly a Mecca for Civil War battlefields. Although there was always a general history interest in our family (we would annually take day trips to historic sites like Old Fort Niagara and watch movies like John Wayne’s The Alamo), unlike a lot of Civil War enthusiasts I didn’t have any great childhood interest in the Civil War. There was no epic family vacation to Gettysburg. The Civil War was interesting, and we played with our toy soldiers, but I liked things like hockey, video games, and baseball better. For some reason though, I remember always being interested in George Armstrong Custer’s “Last Stand” at the Battle of Little Bighorn, and I would read books on that subject when I could find them. Because so many of the officers who went out West to fight Indians got started in the Civil War, eventually an interest in the Civil War developed because I wanted to know the early careers of  these guys. One year, someone (I think it was my then future mother-in-law) bought me The Killer Angels for Christmas, and although to my initial disappointment there was no Custer in that book, I started to get hooked on the Gettysburg story. But Dan Sickles wasn’t even on my radar — I hadn’t really even heard of him at that point, although I imagine Custer had set the precedent for my being interested in controversial guys. The Gettysburg interest ultimately built up to my moving to Gettysburg in 2000, and in 2003 I became a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg.

BR:  When and why did Sickles become the focus of your studies?

JH:  Sickles eventually started to interest me on a number of different levels. As a Battlefield Guide, Sickles provides some of your best tour stories. You can cover him from a lot of different angles for different audiences—murder, adultery, politics, disobedience of orders, etc. So I simply had a lot of fun telling Sickles stories as do many Guides. But I also became impressed by the importance that this guy holds to Gettysburg – he has one of the most interesting pre-battle resumes, his battlefield maneuvers are massively influential, and he is a key individual in the early preservation of the battlefield. He’s the only major player who is here both on the battlefield and later. So it became interesting to me that so many people had never heard of him or knew very little about him. Why? Because a lot of Civil War historians hate him and either minimize his importance, try to avoid talking about him, or simply make his romantic escapades into the butt of jokes. Then there was what I felt was an increasing trend to almost cartoonishly lampoon him as the villain of Gettysburg. At the end of the day, he might indeed be a villain, but I started to wonder if there was a real guy underneath what I thought were almost laughable one-dimensional stereotypes. My personal favorite: he moved to the Peach Orchard hoping that he could fight his way to a draw and spin that into a White House presidential bid. Really? So I thought there might be an opportunity here to find out if there was more to the story (and if he REALLY wanted to be President I wanted to find that proof!) 

BR:  Hmmm…I think you could delete the word “Sickles” in a lot of the above and insert a couple of other folks’ names in its place.  But, tell us about the book.

JH:  I didn’t start out with the intent to write a book. I was simply reading and learning what I could about Sickles for my own benefit; and contrary to some pre-publication skepticism about putting out “another Sickles book” there really wasn’t a lot of substance out there. W. A. Swanberg’s Sickles the Incredible was the justifiable gold standard but it was decades old and had several chapters that simply did not meet my Gettysburg needs, and Richard Sauers had mastered The Meade-Sickles Controversy, but it was very slim after that. And none of the “Sickles books” covered what I decided that I wanted to see under one cover: an understanding of who he was; an explanation of why Sickles and Meade disliked each other, and why Sickles did what he did at Gettysburg; a detailed account of the Third Corps’ fighting; and Sickles’ role in relation to Gettysburg after the battle. In particular, I was surprised at how his role in the early development of Gettysburg National Military Park received so little coverage in other books; I made that the focus of the final 1/4 of my book because I thought there was a lot of interesting and fun stuff there. Ultimately, I had all this Sickles research and figured I might as well try to write the Sickles book that I had always wanted to read.  To be clear, “taking sides” in the Meade-Sickles controversy was NEVER on my radar. I think it’s irresponsible when historians do that when their personal dislike of their subject clearly jumps off the page. Part of my goal was to peel away decades of name-calling and try to lay out the facts, BOTH sides of the story, as objectively as possible so that I could at least understand to the best of my abilities “what happened.” People were skeptical about this— a sneering “whose side are you going to be on?” was a question that I heard from historians far too often before the book came out. But now that Sickles at Gettysburg has been out for nearly a year, I’m grateful for the positive support that it has received. Nothing makes me happier than when a reader thanks me for being objective. It may sound like a cliché but I really thought this was a story that needed to be told – because I do think that if you want to understand Gettysburg then you need to understand Dan Sickles. You don’t have to love him or like him but he is worth more than a passing mention.   

BR:  Did you find anything during your research that changed or reinforced opinions you already held?

JH:  Honestly, other than the fact that I found him interesting and more important to Gettysburg than his critics give him credit for, I really didn’t come into this with many other opinions. What impressed me the most about him as I started to better understand him was that I liked his ability to overcome adversity. Several times during his life he appears down and out – after the murder trial, when his general officer nomination is delayed, when he loses a leg at Gettysburg, etc. But he has this ability to overcome, often by reinventing himself (from politician to “war hero”), and move forward. That’s an ability that I think possesses successful people, so given this skill, it became no surprise to me that Sickles was able to hang around for so long after the Civil War ended. The extent of his lifetime accomplishments is pretty impressive when you think about it – decades on the national stage in law and politics, tenures in Congress decades apart, a participant in some of the Civil War’s most memorable battles, and his involvement in veterans affairs and battlefield preservation. It fascinated me that someone must have thought fairly highly of his abilities during his lifetime, but a couple of generations later he is universally despised. And some may disagree with me on this point, but I do believe that his heart was in the Union cause, I think he loved being a soldier, and definitely had an interest in his veterans. This was not the villain that I had been conditioned to expect.

BR:  If as you say he had so many positive qualities, why, do you think, does he have so many strident detractors?

JH:  Well, like a lot of public figures he was a pretty complex guy, and he was capable of some very dirty tactics to protect his interests. Easily his worst character flaw. His womanizing is certainly of less historical value anyways.  The attacks on George Meade are the most notable examples of his post-battle tactics, and because a lot of Gettysburg enthusiasts feel that Meade did not get his due, perhaps because of Sickles, then he becomes an obvious target for Meade’s supporters. I don’t think that the venom directed at Sickles today has much to do with his battlefield performance. Lots of generals made costly mistakes on the battlefield.  Consider for example, the guys responsible for ordering and executing Pickett’s Charge.  And at the end of the day we forget that Sickles’ advance still caused Longstreet to suffer heavy casualties taking meaningless positions. I firmly believe that if Sickles had taken the “high road” after Gettysburg, or just faded into oblivion, we would not be here talking about him with such enthusiasm today. But he did not have that ability to quietly fade away. That was not him.

BR:  What has been the reaction to Sickles at Gettysburg?

JH:  I’m very grateful for the support that this book has received. I can’t thank enough those Battlefield Guides who have supported it. I was recently honored to win the Bachelder-Coddington Literary Award as the best Gettysburg release of 2009. There was a lot of skepticism about this book prior to release: Sickles was not a popular topic; people assumed the book would be on “his side”; the economy at the time of release was horrible; and frankly the Civil War community had no idea who I was. The book’s release at one very late stage was almost delayed indefinitely. But I really felt that this book would have an audience given the response that Sickles stories get on battlefield tours. That’s one advantage that the Gettysburg Battlefield Guides will always have – we’re out there talking to people about Gettysburg regularly and we know what parts of the story interest people, and Sickles will clearly “put butts in seats.” Sickles detractors are still his detractors after reading the book; some people tell me that they still hate him but understand him better. That’s OK with me – I never ask the reader to love Sickles. And other readers have told me that they have not changed their mind, again OK with me, but at least the issue was more complicated than they had previously believed. I love to hear that. We went into our paperback printing this spring and I’m still hearing from new readers so it has exceeded my expectations. The highlight of this experience has easily been that I have made many new friends because of the book and I’ll always remember those who overcame that early skepticism to support this. I thank forums like Bull Runnings for continuing to give me the opportunity to talk about it. There are still potential new readers out there.

BR:  What’s next for you?

JH:  As a first time author, I underestimated the amount of work that occurs after a book is released. Much of my “free” time is still spent on promotional work (signings, Round Table speaking, etc.) I also keep busy with my family, day job (non Civil War related), and giving Gettysburg tours. So I have a lot going on and that’s a good problem to have. I was also burned out on research and writing for months after Sickles at Gettysburg was released, but I’ve found in recent weeks that the urge is increasing to get started on another project. I have a couple of ideas in my head, but during the course of “Sickles” I amassed some information on Longstreet and I think a proper Longstreet book would be a good counter-balance to my Sickles book. Longstreet has his share of myths and stereotypes associated with him, “the defensive general whom Lee failed to listen to”, and I think my next full length project might be in Longstreet’s direction. Then I feel like I have to try my take on Custer at some point down the road, but I think something Longstreet-centric might be next. It is only a matter of finding time – the desire to do more is here.     

Jim, whatever topic you decide on, I’m sure there are plenty of new fans created by Sickles at Gettysburg who will be anxious to hear what you have to say.  Visit Jim’s website here.

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3 12 2010
Interview: Tonia Smith, Author and Professional ACW Researcher « Bull Runnings

[...]   TS:  I’m very excited about a new research project that I will be starting next week for James Hessler, author of Sickles At Gettysburg. Jim’s next book will concern Lt. Gen. James Longstreet at [...]

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