Interview: Patrick Schroeder, “Vortex of Hell”

28 03 2013

Patrick Schroeder is the editor of the posthumously published Vortex of Hell: History of the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry, by Brian C. Pohanka. Patrick, who recently completed an interview for Bull Runnings on his publishing company Schroeder Publications, also took time to answer a few questions about the Vortex project.

[To order any of the Schroeder Publications titles listed below, go to their website and click on the “Schroeder Books” tab. You’ll find the covers of all the books, and can click on the covers for descriptions of the books.]

vortex-of-hell-book-coverBR: Vortex of Hell is not your typical project. Can you describe for our readers Brian’s interest in the 5th New York and the extent and nature of what he collected over the years on the regiment?

PS: Brian’s interest in the 5th New York took off when he met re-enactors of the 5th New York in the summer of 1975 at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.  After returning from a year of college in Italy, he joined the unit in 1978.  Brian quickly became the de facto unit historian.  He was an advocate for the original unit, as he believed—supported by period accounts—that the 5th New York was one of the best units in the Army of the Potomac.  He also wanted to educate the public about the unit and illustrate the fact that Zouaves did not disappear after the first months of the war, which is incorrectly represented in many books and articles.  One of Brian’s favorite sources was meeting descendants of the original soldiers when they would shows up as spectators at a living history event or he searched them out through a name connection via the internet.  He was able to build the soldiers bios by this means, get family stories, photos and diaries or letters.  The largest source of material was the National Archives where he scoured the unit’s regimental books and papers, as well as going through every one of their service records and pension files with some assistance over the years from Rob Hodge and myself.  Brian created a file on each man in which went service and pension record info as well as anything else he discovered about that soldier.  There were printed sources such as Alfred Davenport’s 1879 regimental history of the unit that needed to be studied and analyzed.  There are diary, journal, and letter collections in various institutions and in private hands.  He incorporated accounts from 28 period newspapers and an equal number of Historical Societies, Universities, and Archives—including the Archives Nationales in Paris, France.  Brian also purchased photos, letters and original items that belonged to members of the 5th, and built a considerable collection pertaining to Duyree’s Zouaves.

BR: What was the nature of your realtionship?

PS: At age 13, I joined the 5th New York re-enactment unit and initially I thought Brian who was about 26 at the time, did not like me.  At my first event I was given the National Colors to carry and at one point they struck some tree branches and Brian gave me a scowl.  But I started submitting articles to the unit newsletter and he took me under his wings, giving me encouragement and direction, telling me of better ways to do things, giving me research assignments, and coaching my writing style.  Brian gave me my first real research project in high school when he had me go to the University of Virginia and visit their Special Collections to see the Leavitt Family Letterbooks—where the family had copied the letters from their sons into a journal; their son George serving in the 5th New York.  In 1986, Brian took me to the National Archives and I have researched at that institution more than anywhere else.  Brian was my mentor and I, his protégé.  During my high school and college years, I used to visit his home which was like a museum—more in interesting pieces such as paintings rather than artifacts, and hear stories about these items.  I loved to go through his album of Civil War CDVs.  Sometimes I would house sit for him and feed his cats when he travelled for extend periods of time.  I helped him move to Leesburg in the late 1980s. Typically we saw each other at reenactments/living history events, both of us being in the 5th New York.  Brian and I and other members of the unit made some long distance trips together such as to the filming of the mini-series “North and South” in Mississippi, the movie “Glory” in Georgia, the 125th Shiloh event, and even to Paris and Hirson, France.  You really get to know people on trips such as those.  Sometimes Brian would ask me to come by to help him with some yard work.  Mostly we’d talk history on the phone a couple times a week about our latest discoveries, especially with the 5th New York, 5th New York Veteran Volunteers and 146th New York Zouaves.  These units were so connected that our information overlapped and we wanted to share it with each other.  Brian also came to me with several book projects, the first being the reprinting of Thomas Southwick’s narrative A Duryee Zouave that originally had only been printed for his family.  It is a very entertaining read.  Another was Summer on the Plains:  The 1870 Diary of Annie Gibson Roberts.  This he obtained from descendants of Roberts.  Annie was part of the Custer inner-circle and married Captain Yates who was killed beside Custer at the Little Big Horn.  I visited Brian weekly during the last stages of his illness. We didn’t talk much, if at all, about the book.  He was comfortable that it would be taken care of.  With his illness, he knew the end was coming, and he got most everything in order before he was too bad off.  We’d talk about light-hearted stuff, recollect funny incidents, he’d share his perspective on things or do his personification of someone that we were discussing, and we ended up watching episodes of the Little Rascals that I brought with me which he greatly enjoyed.  During my last visit, Brian was not doing well at all and was confined to bed. After visiting for perhaps an hour, I told him that I’d see him next week, and he said “Okay,” but I knew I would not, as did he.  As I reached the doorway to leave the room, I paused and looked back, Brian’s eyes were closed, but he had his right hand raised across his body for a handshake, which I rushed back and shook. A final parting handshake—a stoic and manly gesture of a true friend.  The next day, when his wife called, I already knew he was gone. I have since finished a book project on Arthur Alcock and the 11th New York Fire Zouaves that Brian and I had started on back in the late 1980s, and need to finish the full regimental history on the Fire Zouaves begun about the same time, but at this time, I can not say if that will be before or after Volume II of the Vortex of Hell is finished.

BR: When & how did the project change for Brian once he realized his time was limited? Was your intended role clear at that point?

PS: Brian had been adding pieces to the book since he first started writing/compiling it in the early 1980s.  Whenever he found something new, he would plug it into the roster or narrative where appropriate.  Even before he had ocular cancer, he gave me discs with his manuscript and roster to keep should his house ever burn or computer suffer some irretrievable damage.  He would give me updated discs every few years, so I would have the latest version as he was constantly adding to it.  In these earlier versions, it did not have much of a narrative flow, just the information he found inserted at the date that the events being described happened.  Those closest to him thought the book would never be completed, as Brian didn’t want there to be any stone left unturned.  And that is impossible as new stuff will always turn up.  So we used to joke that it is the greatest book never written, since he had been working on it for some twenty years.  Brian first learned of his cancer and had his right eye removed in 1999. The reoccurance of that cancer in the summer of 2003 caused Brian to work in earnest on finishing the book—completing it and making it into a readable narrative, and he continued to work on it until he could not do it anymore.  Yes, I knew my role and what Brian expected of me.  I would visit Brian a couple times a month after he became too ill to go out in public and on a weekly basis the last month or two before he passed.  He went over where everything for the book was—photos, files, etc.  He also wrote me a letter that was given to me after his passing of things he would like me to do for him, including seeing the book into print.

BR: Can you describe the status of the book when Brian finally put down his pen?

PS: Brian had to stop working on the book months before he passed away.  One of the last things to get incorporated into the book were excerpts from the Baltimore American newspaper that he had me track down on microfilm and print for him.  He was very excited to learn that the copies of the newspaper existed on microfilm as this was a major untapped source as the 5th New York was posted in Baltimore from July 1861 to March 1862.  Once Brian incorporated that information, he was done—this would have been in early March 2005.

BR: How did you view your task at that point?

PS: Though the narrative was finished the completion of the book for final publication was still a daunting task, but I never doubted it would be completed eventually.  Brian let me know that I would have to select the photos and write their captions and create the maps for the book, that he was not going to be able to get to those things.  I picked out the photos that I thought were most appropriate to incorporate with the topic being discussed, but even so, we used less than half (145 of perhaps 300) of the photos Brian had assembled.  The rest will be included in the Second Volume that will feature those photos, a complete and detailed biographical roster, and transcriptions of additional letters that have been discovered or acquired since Brian’s passing.  For the captions, I incorporated what I knew, plus information from the book and roster.  So Brian had his hand in writing them too.  The maps were created through consulting historical maps or by revising maps that Steve Stanley had already done.  Steve produced the maps for the book and we, in many cases, were able to refine some base maps already done for the battles in which the 5th New York participated. And, overall, I think they turned out pretty good.  Brian’s widow indexed the book

BR: What were the major stumbling blocks to converting the manuscript to a book?

PS: The biggest problem was not having Brian there to ask him questions, to clarify something, or review the final product.  The book also needed some editing as well as some consistency work. The maps and photo captions just took time.  That was a big issue in getting the book done, time.  My first child was born before work on the book began in earnest.  That, along with other book projects that we were working on, as well as my regular job, left little time to commit to the project.  Brian’s widow also remarried during this time.  Plus, we’re not talking about a small book, this book is over 600 pages, and a book that large takes much longer than say a 200 page book.  Many people think books can be turned out quickly and were anxious to get the book in their hands, but it is not as easy as people tend to believe.  Indexing a 600 page book is also time consuming, and Brian’s widow did that.

BR: How would you describe the finished product? Do you think it’s what Brian intended? How does it differ from other regimental histories?

PS: I’m gratified to have the finished project available for the people interested in the 5th New York and for the friends and admirers of Brian.  I think it is what Brian expected, and he would be well pleased with the final product.  It differs from many other regimental histories in its thoroughness—over 600 pages; the number of photos and maps incorporated and its readability—Brian’s writing style is enjoyable.  Plus Brian’s book does not end with the unit’s muster out in May 1863, he follows the three-year men that were transferred to the 146th New York, and the second creation of the unit, the 5th New York Veteran Volunteer Infantry, 1863-65; and he continues with the history into the veterans’ post-war organization and doings, such as raising the General G. K. Warren monument on Little Round Top.  Typically, most regimental histories do not even cover this time period.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

PS: The book has been highly anticipated, and thus far been well received.  It is still early and we are awaiting reviews.  The book has been acclaimed to have raised the bar for any regimental history in the future.  It will be hard to match or surpass, especially with more than twenty years of work going into it.  The book is available at http://www.civilwar-books.com/ where there is also a link to a memorial page about Brian with photos and  the remarks I gave at his memorial service at Manassas Battlefield.








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