Interview: Tonia Smith, Author and Professional ACW Researcher

3 12 2010

Here’s an interview that’s a bit of a departure from the formula:  Tonia “Teej” Smith, while an established author in her own right, is probably most noted as a professional researcher (she’s even helped out Bull Runnings on occasion).  Her name may be familiar to you if you read the acknowledgements sections of a number of Civil War books published in the past 10 years or so.  Teej has also moderated a couple of Civil War email discussion groups and founded the Rufus Barringer Civil War Roundtable in Pinehust, NC, where I’ll be speaking for the second time this coming May.  Always a great friend, Ms. Smith graciously consented to answer a few questions for Bull Runnings and shed some light on a little known aspect of that there book-writin’ process.

BR:  Can you tell the millions of Bull Runnings readers a little about yourself?
 
TS:  I’m a native Tar Heel, born in Oxford, NC, but, my dad being a career soldier, I was an army brat for the first thirteen years of my life. We did a couple of tours in Germany and were stationed stateside in a number of posts such as Fort Riley, Kansas, Fort Carson, Colorado and my personal favorite, Fort Knox, Kentucky. We came back to North Carolina when I was in the 8th grade and, except for a two year sojourn in Fredericksburg, Virginia, I’ve been here ever since. I now live in the golf capitol of North Carolina, Pinehurst, but I have no interest in chasing the little white ball. In 2001, with the urging and support of some dear friends, I started the Rufus Barringer Civil War Roundtable in Pinehurst. We began with fourteen members meeting in my sunroom and finished last year with eighty-one paid members in our third meeting place. I still serve on the board of the RBCWRT and am its program director.  Over the years I began doing research for various Civil War authors and eventually began writing articles myself. I also got involved in presenting Civil War programs at local schools and doing roundtable programs based on the articles I’ve written. 
 
BR:  What was it that got you interested in history, and in the Civil War era in particular?
 
TS:  You might say my dad, who was himself a history buff, planted the seed when he took me to my first battlefield, Stones River, and lifted me up so that I could touch a minie ball buried in a witness tree. What I remember most about that trip was the cold and mist (it was January) and the intense silence across the field.  I then took about a thirty-five year hiatus from studying the war when I got involved in school, marriage and raising a family. What brought me back may surprise you. While channel-surfing one Sunday afternoon in the mid 1990s I came across an advertisement for THE MOVIE aka Ted Turner’s Gettysburg. After watching it, I bought the book The Killer Angels, on which the movie was based, and joined an online discussion group that was and still is dedicated to the study of the Gettysburg campaign. I then began building my own library. At first I was all over the place with my studies, trying to learn about individual battles, whole campaigns, and commanders all at the same time. Trying to make up for lost time, you might say, but it didn’t take me long to realize I was going to have to narrow my field of interest if I didn’t want to become overwhelmed. From the very beginning, I was drawn to J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry. The first biography I bought was Manley Wade Wellman’s Giant In Gray.  However, what attracts me most to the Civil War period are the characters that you might say were created by the war. I don’t mean the central players like R.E. Lee, U.S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson, etc but people such as Confederate nurse Abby House, or the Cape Fear Minutemen, or cousins Orton Williams and Walter Gipson Peter, both also cousins of Mrs. Robert E. Lee who were executed on June 9, 1863, for spying at Franklin, Tennessee. History has all but forgotten these people but, in my opinion, it’s their stories and stories like theirs, that add the richness and color, and in many cases, the humanity to that era. 
 
BR:  How did you get started as a researcher for other authors? 
 
TS:  As realtors like to say “Location, Location, Location…” Seriously, a writer friend of mine knew that I live just over an hour from the libraries at the University of North Carolina and Duke University. One day he asked me if I would be interested in taking a look-see at a couple of collections he knew to be at those two schools. Like so many researchers, I immediately fell in love with “the hunt,” but I also found out that I have a knack for digging out the arcane tidbit. More importantly, I’m pretty good at deciphering the flowery penmanship prevalent in Civil War era letters, diaries and journals. 
 
BR:  Can you mention some names, like who you’ve worked with and any specific books/articles?
 
TS:  Eric Wittenberg and I share a passion for all things cavalry so I’ve worked more with him than anyone else, most particularly, Glory Enough For All: Sheridan’s Second Raid And The Battle of Trevilian Station and The Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads and The Civil War’s Final Campaign. Monroe’s Crossroads is just thirty miles from my home so you can understand why I would be interested in it. I’ve also done some work for Dave Powell on his Chickamauga project and for Sheridan “Butch” Barringer whose biography of Brig.Gen. Rufus Barringer, commander of the North Carolina Cavalry Brigade is still in the works. Two years ago I assisted Stevan Meserve in researching his footnotes for an annotation of a journal that eventually became the book In The Shadow of the Enemy: The Civil War Journal of Ida Powell Dulany. If I had to choose a favorite it would be having contributed to A Little Short of Boats: The Fights at Ball’s Bluff and Edwards Ferry, October 21-22, 1861, by Jim Morgan, both his original edition and the newly revised edition due out next spring. Those last two projects were a bit of challenge for me since they were not cavalry specific. 
 
BR:  Can you describe your research process?
 
TS:  It varies. Sometimes an author will send me to a list of collections found at a specific repository/archive with the request that I look for a  letter or letters known to be in that collection. Most often though, authors send me a list and an overview of what they hope to find in those collections. In which case, it becomes my job to look for references in those collections that are specific to my author’s needs. That often requires that I read every letter in a collection. And sometimes I do come up empty, but that is not as disappointing as it sounds. Often it simply means that the letter writer wasn’t present at an event or he did not find it important enough to write about it. What does take the wind out one’s sails is coming across the letter that begins, “Brother John should be home by now and no doubt has told you all about the battle of __________ so I will not go into the details again…”   Sigh…

It’s an entirely different process when I’m doing research for myself since I have to start from scratch. Often I can get an idea of where to start to search by looking at bibliographies of other authors who have written on  similar topics but most often it comes down to running names, events and locations through the search engines of various universities and other archival sites. I generally start with the universities closest to home and branch out from there. Even when I find what I think I need in the collections at Duke or Chapel Hill, I will still check other facilities to make sure that all of my bases are covered. Whether I’m working for myself or another author, the process has been greatly simplified by the growing number of research institutions that allow the use of digital cameras. In the same amount of time it used to take me to copy a few letters in a file, I can photograph the entire file and then decide what is truly needed at a later time. Another lesson I’ve learned is if the research facility has a card catalog as well as an online finding aid, use both. Often things in the card catalogs fall through the cracks in the transcription process.  
 
BR:  What are some of the surprises you uncovered in your research?
 
TS:  WOW…that’s actually a tough question as I have seldom completed a research project without finding some surprising tidbit that either confirmed what I originally had thought or told me that I was going in the wrong direction. But one that comes to readily to mind was a letter written by J.E.B. Stuart to Custis Lee, April 9, 1864, that I found at Virginia Historical Society while researching material for an article on Flora Cooke Stuart [wife of J. E. B.]. It was marked “confidential” and with good reason. Most cavalry folks know there was no love lost between Stuart and Wade Hampton but until I saw this letter, I had no idea of the extent to which Stuart was prepared to go to rid himself of the troublesome South Carolinian. Stuart also made a reference to the need for him and Custis to do what they could to keep cavalry chieftain, Fitz Lee, from drinking for the duration of the war. Her husband was barely cold in his grave before Stuart’s chief of staff, H.B. McClellan, wrote to Flora to warn her of the destructive nature of this letter and to suggest that she get the letter from Custis Lee and destroy it. Lee, too, was all for destroying the letter but Mrs. Stuart refused to do so.  The Jonathan Olds’ Flora Cooke Stuart Papers at Virginia Historical Society – which I was fortunate to be allowed to access even before they were cataloged – turned out to be a virtual gold mine of little known facts concerning the Stuart family after Yellow Tavern. 
 
BR:  Can you describe any instances where your research turned up anything that either conflicted with or confirmed your preconceived notions prior to starting a project?
 
TS:  One of the questions I’m most often asked when I do a program on Flora Stuart is whether there was ever reconciliation between the Stuarts and the Cookes. While I knew that Philip St. George Cooke reached out to his daughter when he heard about Jeb’s death, I hadn’t until recently been able to determine if she responded to him. Letters written by Cooke to his nephew, John Esten Cooke, which were recently posted on a website maintained by Cooke family descendants, indicated that she did. There is conclusive proof at Virginia Historical Society that Cooke also reconciled with his son, Brig. Gen. John Rogers Cooke, CSA.

The “smoking gun” that continues to elude me is proof positive that Orton Williams was not a glory hound so consumed with a desire to make a name for himself that he ended up getting himself and his cousin killed at Franklin, Tennessee. However, two years ago, I found a heretofore unpublished letter in the Mary Lee papers at Virginia Historical Society written April 7, 1863 by R.E. Lee to Orton Williams which totally debunked the often told story that Lee considered Williams a drunk and a failure. It also put to rest the notion that Orton’s immediate superiors, too, considered him a failure, and had removed him from command.  Add to that another unpublished letter I found at Duke’s Perkins Library which was written by J.E.B. Stuart at about the same time as the Lee letter to an unnamed colonel serving in the western theatre.  In his letter, Stuart stated he was he was pleased that the colonel was returning to serve in Virginia where “he should have been all along.” Lee, too, expressed a desire to have Williams back in Virginia. Not exactly resounding evidence that Williams and Peter had a legitimate reason to go to Fort Granger dressed in Union uniforms but if previous historians were wrong about the nature and character of Orton Williams which is the basis for their claim that Williams was unstable then in what other areas of the story might they have erred?

BR:  Can you tell us something about your own writing and speaking engagements?
 
TS:  My first article was titled Gentlemen, You Have Played This D____ed Well, published in the September 2005 issue of North and South Magazine. It was the story of the capture and execution of the aforementioned Confederate officers Colonel William Orton Williams and his first cousin, Lieutenant Walter Gibson Peter. Since then I’ve had an article on Confederate nurse Abby House published by America’s Civil War  and one in Civil War Times on the Stuart-Custis Lee letter. My article on Flora Cooke Stuart is still pending with ACW. I’ve done programs on Flora Stuart for the Loudoun County CWRT in Leesburg, Va., and the Eastern Loudoun County CWRT in Sterling Virginia, and for the Stuart-Mosby Historical Society in Richmond this past May. I’ve also spoken on Mrs. Stuart to various roundtables in my home state of North Carolina and will go to Huntsville, Alabama next June to tell her story of life without Jeb to the Tennessee Valley CWRT. In addition to the Stuart programs, I’ve also given presentations on Aunt Abby House, Confederate nurse; the capture and imprisonment of Brig. Gen. Rufus Barringer, the only Confederate general in uniform that Abraham Lincoln met; and the execution of Williams and Peter, most recently at the 2009 Longwood Seminar in Lynchburg, Virginia. 
 
BR:  What’s next for you?  

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 Gettysburg and I will be going to Perkins Library at Duke and Wilson Library at UNC for him. On May 10, 2011, I will debut a new program based on the capture of Forts Caswell and Johnson on the North Carolina coast in January 1861 by a group of men out of Wilmington, NC who called themselves the Cape Fear Minutemen. Like my other roundtable presentations, this one will be based on an article that I am in the process of writing.

There are quite a few folks who owe Teej a lot, including writers, readers – and bloggers.  I have a couple of tidbits she scrounged up that I’ll be adding to the Resources section here in the future.  If you’re an author with research needs of your own and would like to explore the possibility of working with Teej, she can be reached at teej@nc.rr.com.

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12 01 2013
Notes to Brig. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, On the Battle « Bull Runnings

[...] copy of this letter, from Richard S. Ewell to Mary Custis Lee, was provided to me by researcher Tonia Smith of Pinehurst, NC. I received permission from the Virginia Historical Society to post a [...]

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