Interview: Lance J. Herdegen, “The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory”

25 10 2012

Lance Herdegen (see his blog here) has been researching and writing about the famed Iron Brigade – the one from the west, not to be confused with the one composed of New York regiments and U. S. Sharpshooters, which included prominent Bull Run veterans the 14th Brooklyn – for many years, and has recently published what might be considered his crowning achievement (so far) – The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory: The Black Hats from Bull Run to Appomattox and Thereafter. Lance was good enough to answer a few questions for Bull Runnings.

BR:  Can you give us the lowdown on Lance Herdegen?

LH: I spent most of my adult life in the news business as a reporter, editor and executive for United Press International news service, covering mainly civil rights and politics. After UPI, I went to Carroll University in Wisconsin where I served as Director for the Institute for Civil War Studies.  I presently am chair of the Wisconsin Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission and historical consultant for the Civil War Museum of the Upper Middle West. I am a past present of the Civil War Round Table of Milwaukee and served on the Wisconsin Humanities Council and the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. I’ve won a number of honors, but am especially proud of the Army Historical Foundation Distinguished Writing Award for Those Damned Black Hats! The Iron Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign.  On a personal note, I am married and live in the Town of Spring Prairie in Walworth County, Wisconsin. I enjoy shooting antique firearms, especially Civil War small arms, and sometimes play around with competing with a 24-pound coehorn mortar.

BR: Can you describe how you became interested in the Civil War?

LH: When I was about 12, my father came home with a Civil War rifle-musket and a cavalry saber found while helping a neighbor clean a shed. I was totally fascinated and began reading everything I could find on the Civil War. The musket led to an interest in shooting and I became active in the North-South Skirmish Association, which holds marksmanship competitions for 1861-65 small arms and artillery. I went to Marquette University for a journalism degree where I met Dr. Frank L. Klement, the author of four very good books on the Copperhead movement. He gave me the grounding in serious historical scholarship and insight to the fact much good source material can be found in the newspapers. He always proclaimed that news reporters get the first chance at writing history and with my Civil War interest I kind of liked that idea. Frank added with a smile, however, those reporters usually got it wrong. I don’t agree with that assessment.

BR: Why The Iron Brigade?

LH: I first really became aware of the Iron Brigade while in high school reading Bruce Catton’s Mr. Lincoln’s Army and Glory Road, and finding Rufus Dawes’ Service With the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers, perhaps the best memoir of the war.  With the realization that three of the brigade’s regiments were from Wisconsin, I discovered I could drive by some of their farms and homesteads, find their gravesites, and even meet many of their descendants. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the veterans provided copies of old photographs, journals, diaries and letter collections. The Black Hats are still pretty close to me in Wisconsin. I also found much of what the Iron Brigade men wrote of their war experiences was overlooked by historians even though Iron Brigade sources provide significant information about the war in the Eastern Theater. The Black Hats left a wide body of material that is still being found even today. For example, some 300 letters of an officer in the 6th Wisconsin recently surfaced in Texas.  I first met Alan Nolan while he working on his classic book on the brigade, which was published in 1961. We became good friends. I spent a lot of days tramping the battlefields with Alan as well as sharing research on the Black Hats.

BR: What does The Iron Brigade contribute to what we already know about the unit? How does it differ from Alan Nolan’s book?

LH: It is the first time the full story of the Iron Brigade—from Bull Run to Appomattox Court House and even beyond—is told in one book. Alan Nolan pretty much finished his book when the brigade lost its all-Western identity in 1863. He added only a few pages on the rest of the war.  In addition, a lot of primary material has been found since he published The Iron Brigade some 50-plus years ago. The new accounts significantly detail how the soldiers from faraway Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan dealt with the slavery question and the flood of runaways that always crowded the army camps. It also allowed me to turn those men in their Black Hats into flesh and blood sons, husbands, fathers, who went to war with a great innocence, and to write of their romances, losses, heroes, and yes, even of those who were found wanting in battle. Because of the heavy losses of Gettysburg, the Iron Brigade I write about at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg, is the not the same Iron Brigade of early 1863. It was a very different war in 1864 and 1865. I also get the opportunity to explain how the makeup of the brigade and even its soldiers changed during the war; how they were affected by what they experienced, and even how they dealt with the war in the remaining years of their lives. It changed them in many ways they never understood.

BR: How long did it take to produce The Iron Brigade? Was there anything your research turned up that especially struck you?

LH: The glib answer is probably most of my life. I had written a couple of books on narrow Iron Brigade topics using much of the new material found since 1961, but I really got serious about this book  three years ago under the persistent nagging of publisher Ted Savas at Savas Beatie. I have been collecting Iron Brigade material most of my life.  As I suspected when I really started to write, I found the amount of primary source material written by the soldiers dwindled sharply after Gettysburg. That made it harder to fill out pieces of the brigade’s story, but I quickly discovered other sources and even more came from the descendants of the veterans. When I went to give talks in Wisconsin, people would come up to me and provide their collection of family letters and photos. I also found much of the story in the old weekly newspapers and the various accounts written for them by the veterans or by reporters interviewing the veterans on the anniversaries of say Gettysburg or Appomattox. The newspapers, I found, are a great source of information and generally are overlooked—thank you to Dr. Klement and my UPI days for providing that insight. I was surprised at the level of political activity in the regiments early in the war and finding just how much the fighting of 1864 and 1865 turned the innocent volunteers into sometimes brutal battle-hard veterans who fought and died with a certain fatalism.  The days of grand charges over open fields in the sun light against a gallant foe were over by 1864 and 1865. Now it was a grinding war that went on day after day without seeming end.  After the war, it was decades later that the veterans found the need to see each other. “I looked in my shaving glass and saw an old man looking back at me,” one veteran wrote. “I then had a desire to seek out my old comrades and talk about the days long ago.”  By the end of 1864, much of the music had been beaten out of the army. I found just as interesting how the memory of the Iron Brigade persists even today. As usually, the book was finished when I looked around and found all those little final tasks of fact-checking and re-writing were completed.

BR: How do you go about the business of writing, and are there any particular archival or other sources you rely on most?

LH: My days at UPI did away with foolish notions of writers’ block. I try to write a few pages a day when I am in full swing, sometimes in the early morning and sometimes at night. I generally go into a chapter—say on Fredericksburg or the solder reaction to slavery—without any idea where I am going to come out. I tend to write in short bursts, getting the brigade from one point or situation to another, letting the material carry me. I am often surprised at the insights I get along the way.  I try to get a pretty complete first draft, then go back to add detail and re-write. I think the opening paragraphs of a section are the most important and spend a lot of time looking at and re-working them.  A lot of this is simply what I learned writing every day for UPI. I write very fast and sometimes my copy is almost skeletal, like wire service work, and I have to go back and put more flesh on it. I also tend to take a lot of material out of my first drafts because it gets in the way of advancing the story. I use the usual brick and mortar sources like libraries, museums and historical societies. I am blessed because the Wisconsin Historical Society has one of the best newspaper collections in the United States. I find a lot of new material there.

BR: Do you have any plans for a follow up book?

LH: I am still in that state of lassitude that comes when your book is just finished and published. Probably some sort of work on the common Union soldier of the Civil War. We will see.

I’m looking forward to reading this one. It’s a beautiful book, by the way – Lance is an engaging writer, and the book is nicely illustrated.

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2 responses

25 10 2012
savasbeatie

Thank you for doing this great interview with Lance Herdegen. If your readers would like more information about the book, including an excerpt, or its author, please check at http://tinyurl.com/6r5sega. You may also enjoy the new book trailer that was just released: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1NxoiCBfFvU
Savas Beatie LLC
Publisher of Historical Titles of Distinction
http://www.savasbeatie.com
http://www.facebook.com/savasbeatie

23 05 2013
Questions for Our Guides | HistoricaLese

[…] and newspaper writings are invaluable in their insight to the war and have been used extensively by modern historians. Watrous’ writings will be carried with us as we travel these […]

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