Interview: Charles R. Knight, “Valley Thunder”

24 08 2010

Charles R. “Charlie” Knight is the author of Valley Thunder: The Battle of New Market and the Opening of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, May 1864.  Publisher Savas Beatie provided a copy of the book, which has received rave reviews: no less an authority than William C. “Jack” Davis, author of what has for many years been the “definitive” study of New Market, described Valley Thunder as one of the dozen finest and most complete accounts of any Civil War action.  He recently responded to a few questions from Bull Runnings.

BR: Charlie, you’re a first time author so most of the readers may not be familiar with you.  Tell us about yourself.

CK: I grew up in Richmond, so was exposed to Civil War history from very early on. In fact, my Dad grew up on a small farm outside Mechanicsville that had a small section of the Outer Defenses of Richmond on the property. In high school I volunteered at the Museum of the Confederacy, which in turn got me into CW reenacting, which in turn got me into WWII reenacting. I graduated from Bridgewater College near Harrisonburg in the Shenandoah Valley with a degree in history. My junior year there I began an internship at New Market Battlefield State Historical Park (NMBSHP), where my first assignment was going to the Shenandoah County courthouse in Woodstock to go through all the land and marriage records to find anything pertaining to the Bushong family, whose farm was at the center of the Battle of New Market and is today preserved as part of the battlefield park. Later I was hired as a historical interpreter there, and actually got to live in the ‘original’ Bushong house (ca. 1819) there on the park grounds for a summer. For the last nine years I’ve been at the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, VA – museum, archives & final resting place of General Douglas MacArthur – where I am now Curator. I’m currently working on my MA in CW studies from American Military University. Valley Thunder is my first book, but I’ve had articles published in Blue & Gray, Classic Trains and the National Railway Historical Society Bulletin.

BR: What made you decide to write a book on New Market?  Davis’ book has been the standard for years.  Why a new one?  What makes your book different?

CK: Edward Turner’s The New Market Campaign was the first book-length study of the battle by a non-participant, published in 1912. Turner worked very closely with several key players on the Confederate side in his research, but almost ignored the Federal side. One contemporary review of Turner (who was a European history professor, and thus really out of his element in writing about New Market), complained that he did more to create the fog of war which clouds the battle than he did to lift it. Until William C. Davis’s Battle of New Market appeared in 1975, Turner’s was the ‘go-to’ book about New Market. Davis’s excellent work then assumed that role for more than 30 years. Davis uncovered some excellent sources which clarified a lot of what Turner could not, and was a much more balanced version than Turner. Yet there were still some aspects of the battle that could not be settled, as sources for some of the units involved simply were not known at the time. In some instances, that is still the case today. Jack Davis’s book was the last book-length account of the battle, although some works appeared which discussed the 1864 Valley Campaign and thus touched on New Market, and in that 35-year interim, new sources came to light that were unknown at the time of Davis’s writing. These sources change significantly what had been accepted as “fact” for years, such as the role of the 23rd Virginia Cavalry in the battle (which was thought to have fought dismounted in line with the infantry, but in fact stayed with the rest of the Confederate cavalry and was little more than observer to most of the battle); the notion that the VMI Cadets were the only ‘under-age’ young men engaged at New Market; and exactly how much Union department commander Franz Sigel and his proposed field army commander Edward O.C. Ord despised one another and the impact that had on the planning stages of the campaign are likely the biggest. I also included in the appendices the battle reports from both Sigel and Confederate commander John C. Breckinridge verbatim, which somehow did not find their way into either the Official Records or the more recent Supplement to the ORs. Also in the appendices are detailed looks at the Bushong family and the history of the battlefield park, as well as an examination of the shell-struck post – a local landmark in New Market which according to legend is evidence of Breckinridge’s brush with death during the battle.

BR: How about a thumbnail sketch of Valley Thunder?

CK: The Battle of New Market is one of those unique small engagements of the Civil War – so small in numbers involved that it really should be little more than a footnote in the overall picture of things, but a number of factors give it historical interest beyond its military significance. In this case, the main factor would be the participation of the Corps of Cadets from Virginia Military Institute.  New Market was the opening engagement in the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, pitting Franz Sigel’s small Federal ‘army’ against a small Confederate force pulled together shortly before the battle led by former U.S. Vice President John C. Breckinridge, whose ‘army’ included the VMI cadets. Although the cadets accounted for only about 250 of Breckinridge’s 4,500-man force, they received the lion’s share of the attention then and now. I’ve taken a lot of ‘new’ sources and worked them into telling the story of the New Market Campaign.

BR: How long did it take to finish Valley Thunder?

CK: From start to finish, 10 years, but that is misleading as I was working in little spurts here, a little there. Usual story – having to fit in this project around work, family, etc.

BR: Can you describe your research and writing processes.

CK: I mentioned above that my first ‘assignment’ at NMBSHP was doing primary document research on the Bushong family. I suppose that could be considered the beginning, as I never really had an epiphany where I just woke up one day and said “I will write a ‘new’ New Market book.”   The late John Heatwole, noted Shenandoah Valley historian and folklore expert, is the one who really convinced me to undertake the project. Davis’s book of course was the main ‘go-to’ source for all the interpreters.  But whenever I found a new source I would always weave it into the tour narrative, and it just sort of snowballed. Suddenly I had a bunch of other sources, and leads on others – some in public repositories, some still in private collections. And with most repositories having lists of their holdings and/or finding aids on-line, it makes tracking down sources a lot easier.

Also I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the wonderful assistance and support I’ve gotten from Jack Davis.  I wasn’t sure how he’d react to some new-comer requesting assistance on a topic he had so exhaustively covered many years before. Not only did he point me toward his sources, he was of great help when a few of those sources could not be found, telling everything he remembered about what they said and reading and making recommendations on the manuscript.  He also wrote the foreword – more than I ever hoped for.

BR: Were there any aspects of publishing your first book that you found particularly nerve-wracking?

CK: I had read horror stories of first-time authors having stacks of rejection letters – thankfully that didn’t happen once in my case. After completing the manuscript I was somewhat at a loss as to what to do next. So I turned to the internet trying to track down authors for advice, and Eric Wittenberg graciously agreed to help out – reading the manuscript for me and helping find a publisher. Then having to whittle down the photos I’d gathered to a usable number. And mentally coming to terms with the fact that there are still sources out there – sources that will fill in a lot of the gaps, and sources that will contradict what is now ‘fact.’ But not writing and continuing to collect sources would be awfully Frederick Jackson Turner-like…have to draw the line somewhere and say ‘This is what I have to work from’ and just go with it.

BR: What in Valley Thunder will surprise readers?  Did anyone come off better than they have in the past, or worse?

CK: Franz Sigel has this stigma attached to him of being completely incompetent, and although not entirely unjustified, not entirely warranted either. Sigel did make some very poor tactical decisions, in fact, quite a few of them. But in his defense, he was never intended to be commanding a field army in the Shenandoah. He was much better suited to the administrative role originally intended for him there. Not unlike George McClellan, Sigel had excellent organizational skills. However, he also seems to have been given to playing favorites, so who knows how things could have turned out had he remained behind a desk instead of in the field, given that he didn’t particularly care much for his two principal field commanders – Ord and George Crook.

As to what may surprise readers, I think my analysis of the 23rd Virginia Cavalry will be a different view of their role than what anyone familiar with Davis’ book and other 1864 Valley Campaign literature has to say about them. That is one of those questions that Edward Turner could have laid to rest with his book (maybe by his silence on them, he did), since he was working with a number of veterans of the battle.

Confederate cavalry commander John Imboden performed admirably in the weeks leading up to the battle, yet on the day of the battle he takes his command almost entirely off the playing field to become mere observers and thus they are not there when needed most. Another instance of wishing there were more sources to know what he was thinking/doing.

BR: What are your thoughts on how readers have reacted to the book?

CK: I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the popularity and the reviews Valley Thunder has gotten to date. As this is my first book, I wasn’t sure at all what to expect, but I’m lucky enough to have found a supportive publishing staff and editor in Ted Savas and everyone at Savas Beatie. Both the Military and History Book Clubs have chosen to include it in their offerings, and the Civil War Preservation Trust ran a huge feature on New Market in their summer 2010 issue, in which Valley Thunder figures prominently. And speaking of the two book clubs, Jack Davis again stepped in, providing an excellent review for their catalogs/websites.

BR: Have you decided how to follow the success of Valley Thunder?

CK: I’d like to stay with Shenandoah Valley history, and I keep coming back to the idea of the Battle of McDowell. Although much has been written about McDowell in the context of the 1862 Valley Campaign, there has been little written solely about just that engagement. Or shifting gears to WWII and MacArthur, I’ve gotten to know quite a few guys who served in the General’s Honor Guard 1945-1951 and almost nothing has been written about his Honor Guard, which is a shame considering the stories they have to tell not just about MacArthur but about the end of WWII, the Occupation of Korea and the first year of the Korean War.

It sounds like Charlie isn’t going to rest long on his laurels.  Visit his blog for Valley Thunder here.

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Interview: Donald Stoker, “The Grand Design”

10 08 2010

Donald Stoker is the author of The Grand Design: Strategy an the U. S. Civil War.  Publisher Oxford University Press sent me a copy of the book, and Professor Stoker agreed to answer a few questions for Bull Runnings.

BR: Professor Stoker, please tell us a little about yourself.

DS: I’m Professor of Strategy and Policy with the U.S. Naval War College program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. I’ve taught for the Naval War College for 11 years. The Grand Design is my sixth book.

BR: What made you decide to write a book about strategy in the Civil War?

DS: We were teaching the Civil War as a case study in our Strategy and Policy: The American Experience course. But I wasn’t happy with the texts we were using. One was an exceptional book, but it didn’t deal with the subject in a manner that made it as useful for teaching as we would like, in other words, it didn’t really deal with strategy and operations. I began casting around for something else and the more I looked the more I realized that what we needed didn’t exist. There are a lot of Civil War books that deal partially with some elements of strategy, and a lot that say “strategy” in the title that are really about battles and/or operations, but none that examined the strategic sweep of the entire contest.

BR: Can you summarize The Grand Design in a nutshell?

DS: The Grand Design is the only comprehensive study of the evolution of strategy in the Civil War. It looks at both sides of the struggle, on the land and at sea, and charts (while analyzing), how each combatant used its military power in pursuit of their respective political objectives. It’s most important task is showing “Why” both sides waged the war as they did, as well as “How.” It does this by looking at the strategic and operational (campaign) plans of the presidents and military leaders. And takes as its foundation the pursuit of the political objectives sought and examines how the strategic and operational actions of each side contributed (or not) to the achievement of their political desires.

BR: How long was the book writing process in this case?

DS: This is a difficult question to answer. The full process was around seven years, but its not accurate to say that it took seven years to write the book because I published three other edited books in this time as well as a number of articles on various subjects. The last two years or so before publication were consumed in finishing The Grand Design.

BR: Can you describe your research and writing processes?

DS: I began by trying to write the book from secondary sources. I envisaged it taking a year or so and being about 60,000 words. But the more I read the secondary material, the more I found problems. So I decided to write it from primary sources, which are wonderfully abundant and easily acquired. I just spent an enormous amount of time reading, especially the primary documents. So many of the Civil War leaders were superb writers. Most, in fact. Lee, in particular. And reading Sherman’s letters is ceaselessly entertaining. I highly recommend the Simpson & Berlin version of these.

BR: What challenges did the project present?

DS: The enormity of the project and the volume of material. Covering the war in a single volume, in a coherent manner, while still getting the sweep of the war, is an interesting task. And it is literally impossible to read all of the books on the subject.

BR: Did you find out anything while researching The Grand Design that changed – or reinforced – any opinions you had before you started the process?  What will surprise readers?

DS: I found much to change my mind. The first “big” thing I found was that the offensive-defensive strategy supposedly authored by Jefferson Davis never existed. It’s all based upon a misreading of the primary sources by historians taking a tactical event and concept and trying to apply it to the broad sweep of the war. My opinions of Bragg and McClellan improved; there is more there strategically than is generally credited. I think this will surprise readers.

BR: How has the book been received?

DS: Generally very well. The History Book Club chose it as a Main Selection and most of the reviews have been very good. There are some who hate it, but that’s to be expected. I think some expect a “battle book,” so to speak, and then don’t get it. I’m not against “battle books”. I love them. And the Civil War field has some great ones. But I wanted to do something different.

BR: What’s next for you?

DS: A biography of Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian general and military theorist.

If any of you have read The Grand Design, I’d love to hear what you think.  Perhaps we can entice Prof. Stoker to participate in a discussion here.

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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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Interview: Larry Tagg, “The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln”

18 07 2010

Larry Tagg is the author of 2009′s The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln: The Story of America’s Most Reviled President.  Recently he took time to respond to some questions for Bull Runnings.

BR:  Larry, your background has been a topic of discussion due to its unique character.

LT:  I was born in Lincoln, Illinois. After living in the Land of Lincoln for eight years, my family moved to Dallas, Texas, where my father was Minister of Music at the Highland Park Presbyterian Church. As a high school senior, I won the city-wide high school extemporaneous writing contest. (I was lucky. The prompt was “Describe a concert,” and just the week before I had seen Jimi Hendrix for the first time, just after the release of Are You Experienced? Security was lax at the State Fair Music Hall in those days, and after the show I jumped onstage and walked backstage to Jimi’s dressing room, where I talked to his drummer, Mitch Mitchell. Jimi was across the room talking to someone else.)

I attended the University of North Texas, graduating cum laude in Philosophy in two years, and I was awarded a teaching assistantship at the University of Texas. After one semester of graduate school I knew academia was not for me. I was more a musician—a bass player, singer, and songwriter.

I moved to California in 1978 with an excellent band, Uncle Rainbow, to record under the aegis of Michael Hossack, one of the Doobie Brothers. In 1985, my band Bourgeois Tagg—with Brent Bourgeois, Michael Urbano, Lyle Workman, and Scott Moon—was signed to Island Records. We recorded two albums and had two hits, Mutual Surrender and I Don’t Mind at All.  We toured Europe and America with Robert Palmer, Heart, Belinda Carlisle, and others.

After Bourgeois Tagg broke up in 1989 during the making of our third album, I toured as a bass player and singer with Todd Rundgren and Hall and Oates. (My audition gig with Hall and Oates was in front of a million people at the Great Meadow in Central Park on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day.) During the 1990s I was signed as a staff songwriter by Warner Chappell Music. My songs were recorded by Eddie Money, Kim Carnes, Cliff Richard, and others. I released two solo albums—With a Skeleton Crew and Rover—in Europe and America.

By the mid-90s I had a family, and the road had lost much of its allure. I became in English and drama teacher and Lead Teacher of the Arts Academy at Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento, California. While I taught I began writing in my spare time. My first book, The Generals of Gettysburg, was published in 1998 by Savas Publishing, and the paperback edition appeared a couple of years later on Da Capo.

The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln, my latest book, took me about 7 years to research and write. It was a labor of love, of course. I love the scavenger hunt that is research, and I love trying to make the words come out right.

BR:  How long has Abraham Lincoln been a focus of your studies? 

LT:  Lincoln has been the focus of my studies since about 2001, when I was working on a follow-up to my book The Generals of Gettysburg.  Since I hadn’t seen a good history of the Army of the Potomac since Bruce Catton, I was working on a new history of that army that would take advantage of all the research that’s been done in the last 50 years, and which would concentrate more on the effects that the relationships between its generals had on the battles it fought.  I was starting at the very beginning, with Winfield Scott and Charles Stone and the District of Columbia militia during the Secession Crisis.

BR:  What first got you interested in tackling his “unpopular” side? 

LT:  Right away, I started turning up an alarming number of disparaging references by the generals to their Commander-in-Chief, Abraham Lincoln.  It seemed like none of them took him seriously, or worse, thought he was an ignoramus, totally overmatched by the crisis.  That jarred me, since it didn’t square with my education on The Great Emancipator, and it made me curious.  The more I looked into opinion on Lincoln, both within the army and without, the more incredibly poisonous stuff I found.   I thought, “Here’s the story!”

BR:  What challenges did the project present?

LT:  The most serious challenge in writing The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln was not to find material.  That abounded—I ended up including in the book only the “10s” on a 1-to-10 scale of slurs I found on Lincoln.  The hard part was walking the line between including enough examples of the violent criticism of Lincoln to make the book a good resource on one hand and writing a good narrative on the other hand.  I had to go to the University of California to send for microfiche of Democratic newspapers, then wade through those for hours sitting at a microfiche reader.  I had to be careful to balance those obviously biased sources with neutral observers that were more valuable as indicators of the lack of political support Lincoln had during almost his entire time in office.  I am also careful, on any Civil War topic, to take with a grain of salt any reminiscences written by the participants later in the century—these were so clouded over, after hundreds of dinner speeches and rose-colored retellings, that they’re not worth much.

BR:  Tell us about The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln.

LT:  The thesis of the book is that Abraham Lincoln accomplished more with less political capital than any other figure in American history.  I think the book is particularly valuable where it discusses the context of his presidency, the tenor of the times—I am particularly grateful to reviewers who appreciate these chapters of the book.  Lincoln was president when respect for all authority was at low ebb, and when respect for the presidency as an institution was at its lowest point.  (Just last week, I saw a new poll on presidents, and, as usual, the four presidents preceding Lincoln were in the bottom ten.  The low quality of presidents was the result of the same boss-run party system that produced Lincoln, and Americans of that time were increasingly horrified by the quality of the presidents produced by the system.  Lincoln seemed to many to be the worst of the lot.  As a result of the seeming capriciousness of his nomination by the Republicans in 1860, wags titled Lincoln “His Accidency.”)  Once he took office, he inherited a political milieu so overheated that everyone had flown to extremes right and left, which soon left Lincoln, a moderate, alone in the middle.  I think that the more one knows about this context, the more one appreciates what he was able to accomplish.

The audience for the book was not academia, although I am a teacher myself.  I was extremely scrupulous with my research and my conclusions so that my book would stand up to academic scrutiny, but I wrote for an intelligent general audience.  I have to say I continue to be amazed that this book had not been written before.  (As a songwriter, I knew a great song when I heard it and thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?”)  I think the “angle” I took in The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln is a particularly powerful one for studying Lincoln the President, the mood of the North, and the politics of the Civil War.  I recommend it as a primer on those closely related subjects.  Besides my effort as a historian, I also put in a lot of effort as a writer.  It is a great story—a wild ride.

BR:  Did you find out anything while researching The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln that changed – or reinforced – any opinions you already had?

LT:  It’s funny that in researching a book about how little people thought of Lincoln at the time, I can’t remember anything I found made me think less of Lincoln—the experience only added to my esteem for him.  Politician is so often used as an epithet, and Lincoln, who was an unapologetic, bare-knuckles fighter of a politician—reminds us how a great politician can be a crucial asset to the American people.  As a writer, I loved reading what Lincoln wrote; even his everyday notes to generals and politicians had a sinewy quality to them, a unique ability to see to the heart of a problem, small or large.  Along with the rigor of his logic, there was a gentleness and a humor in his writing that is the most incontrovertible testimony to his character.  However, I am not among those who think Lincoln was a military genius.  Although he was an excellent student of military principles, his lack of knowledge about logistics and the friction of war made him a poor general-in-chief, which he was for the four months that ended with the disaster of the Peninsula Campaign.  Also, he had inherited the racial prejudices of his place and time, and his flirtations with projects to deport African-Americans are embarrassing to us now.  However, they were serious attempts to solve monumental, centuries-old national problems, and it was with regard to race that he showed the most growth as a man and leader.

BR:  Considering Lincoln’s continuing unpopularity with Congress after Lee’s surrender, what’s your opinion of his prospects of successfully achieving a “soft” peace with the former Confederates and implementing the details of emancipation, while at the same time satisfying the Radicals?

LT:  Yes, Lincoln was still considered an enemy by the Radicals who controlled Congress, and his prospect of pleasing them, while he tried in his usual gentle way to make Southern governments out of nothing, were nil.  Andrew Johnson at least had a honeymoon period with the Radicals, while Lincoln had never been their man.  However, Lincoln was without a doubt the best man to establish a “soft” peace with the former Confederate states.  I consider the next hundred years, the hundred years of Jim Crow rule in the South, to be the biggest what if in American history:  I think Jim Crow might have been avoided if Lincoln had lived.  He was the one man who best knew how to navigate on the race question, and a president not squeamish about using presidential power to advance Jefferson’s principle that “all men are created equal.” 

BR:  How has the book been received?  [Tagg’s response here is brief and modest.  Personally I’ve noticed a profound silence from the Lincoln “establishment” on this, in my opinion, very important book, which gives us a rare look at Lincoln as he was viewed without the prism of martyrdom.]

LT:  The response to the book by those who have read it has been all I could have hoped.  However, not very many people have read it.
 
BR:  What’s next for you?

 LT:  I look around for quite a while to find a great subject before I start writing.  So I’m in the “read, read, read” phase right now, which precedes the research phase of my book writing.  Two subjects have struck me.  One is the two-week period after Fort Sumter when Maryland teetered on secession and Washington—with the entire government apparatus—was surrounded by rebellion and almost totally unprotected.  I think that could be a “cinematic” narrative, and tramping around Maryland to find primary sources on those two weeks would be fascinating (though not easy; I live in California).  The other subject is Lincoln and the Thirteenth Amendment, an act in which, unlike the Emancipation Proclamation, he did not take the initiative.  I think there’s probably a good story there—he was trying to get re-elected at the same time, and his feelings toward a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery were complicated.  I’ve got about six books next to my bed on that subject right now (though none specifically treats Lincoln’s role, which is good).  I may also write a book on statistical research on Civil War battles, a subject I’ve been gathering material on for about twenty years, especially since I’m now working with the company that has produced Scourge of War: Gettysburg, an excellent computer strategy game on the Battle of Gettysburg.

These would be smaller books than The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln—I’m in the mood to concentrate on a smaller subject.  I think, however, that The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln will be the “big book” to which people will return.

 Thanks to Larry for taking the time to share his thoughts with us all, and we look forward to his future work.  I’m intrigued by anyone who has an interest in exploring the numbers of the Civil War – it’s decidedly un-sexy but can be enormously enlightening.  Remember back when folks thought Lee was outnumbered by McClellan during Seven Days

Pick up a copy of The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln and give it a read.  You’ll be glad you did.

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Interview: Dr. Thomas Clemens, “The Maryland Campaign of September, 1862 Vol.I”

15 07 2010

Dr. Thomas Clemens (pictured below) of Keedysville, MD is the editor of The Maryland Campaign of September, 1862 Volume I: South Mountain.  I’ve known Tom for a few years, and serve with him on the board of the Save Historic Antietam Foundation (SHAF).  He recently sat down (virtually) for an interview with Bull Runnings.

BR:  Tom, before we get started can you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?

TC:  I have Bachelor’s and Masters’ degrees in history from Salisbury State College, now Salisbury University.  In 1990 I went to grad school at George Mason University in Fairfax VA where I met Dr. [Joseph L.] Harsh.  I graduated in 2002 with my doctorate, and also a firm foundation in the Civil War thanks to Joe Harsh.  I have been at Hagerstown Community College for almost 32 years, mostly teaching U.S. History, but occasionally I get to teach a class in Civil War. 

I also became involved in battlefield preservation in 1985 when Dennis Frye, John Schildt and a lot of other people formed Save Historic Antietam Foundation, Inc.  I have been president of the group since 1989, and it is a great experience.  

I have been a volunteer at Antietam National Battlefield since 1979, doing everything from cannon firing demonstrations to scene restoration work.   Living within cannon-shot of the battlefield allows me to walk the ground on a regular basis.  That allows me to better understand some of the details of the action of the battle. 

BR:  What first got you interested in Ezra Carman’s papers?

TC:  Joe Harsh was the person who most inspired me to focus more attention on the Maryland Campaign, something I’d been interested in for years, but not in a serious fashion.  I spent a lot of years traveling to battlefields and reenacting with some great folks, including the incomparable Brian Pohanka, but Joe Harsh had so much enthusiasm and so much knowledge, and an incredible ability to ask the right question and do the research to answer it.  He became a friend and mentor, in that order.  One night sitting in a bar with Joe he asked me what I had in mind for a dissertation.  He suggested editing the Ezra Carman manuscript, which he had been using to write his splendid trilogy on the Maryland Campaign.  He had typed a lot of it, and I finished the job.  He had thought about editing it, but it was too time-consuming.  Beware of “gifts” from friends!  The size and complexity of the project was unknown to me then, and I thought it would be a relatively simple job.  Little did I know how many years it would take to finish the job.

BR:  How long have you been working on Carman?

TC:  I began editing Carman’s manuscript in the 1990’s, completed several early chapters to get my degree, but got much more focused after Ted Savas approached me about publishing my work. He has been very supportive. 

BR:  What particular challenges did editing Carman’s manuscript present?

TC: What makes the editing so difficult is that I am working backwards compared to the way an author usually works.  Instead of obtaining source material and using it to create a narrative, I am tied to a narrative written over 100 years ago, and trying to figure out what source material Carman used to create it.  Sometimes he cited sources directly and then it is simply a matter of tracking down old books to verify his work.  Far more often he did not cite sources and then it becomes something of a detective game.  Tracking down the sources for his work in many instances led to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion.  These books, known as the ORs, were being compiled in the 1880s and Carman had access to them.  He also had access to captured Confederate government records, allowing him to cite Muster Rolls and diplomatic correspondence.  A few regimental histories were available then and Carman used them on occasion.  He also referred to early biographical works on Lee, Jackson and others.  For better or worse, Carman also relied on McClellan’s Own Story, and he made much use of the Century Magazine’s Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.  If he had only used published sources this work would be simple.  But even before Carman was hired on the Antietam battlefield Board they had been soliciting memoir accounts from veterans of both sides.  These letters provided many otherwise unpublished material which Carman used liberally.  To accurately determine which letters Carman used and how reliable they are it became necessary to organize all the letters into one database.  There are over 1,000 letters in the National Archives and Library of Congress Manuscript Division.  More letters exist in the New York Public Library and others were scattered into private hands.  John M. Gould of the 10th ME Infantry gathered even more letters regarding the fighting in the East Woods and Cornfield area.  Carman and Gould swapped information, so it became necessary to add Gould’s letters to the database.  Currently there are over 2,200 entries in the file, and I am still adding more.  So gathering source material, checking it against current scholarship, and then finally writing a footnote is the bulk of my work.  In the first volume there are over 850 footnotes; do you see what I mean about time consumption? 

BR:  What can you tell us about Carman and his project?

TC:  It is a testament to his thoroughness that Carman created the manuscript at all.  He was hired in 1894 to be the “Historical Expert” on the Battlefield Board.  He was to layout the field and tour roads, create and place plaques, and monuments and map the field.  He also was charged to write a “pamphlet” to advise future leaders in developing the battlefield.  This “pamphlet” became the 1,800 page manuscript that has kept me busy for over 18 years.  He began writing the manuscript in the late 1890’s and completed it shortly after the turn of the century.  I have found notes scribbled in the margins that came from material dated 1905, but most of the work was complete by 1902 or 1903. 

Mostly what Carman wanted to know was the positions on the field and the identity of opposing forces.  This knowledge helped him create the extremely detailed time-sequenced maps to place the combat on the proper locations in the field.  In doing that he overlooked or ignored many fascinating details, humorous stories and anecdotes which provide so much richness to our understanding of the battle today. I am constantly fascinated by reading these letters, although their memories may be hazy 30 years after the war, their stories are still captivating.

Carman was in many ways the creator of the field as it appears now and the interpretation of it we still recognize today.  This is a good thing, and in some ways a bad thing.  Carman had his limitations and his prejudices, and they carry over into his manuscript.  For example, Carman unabashedly admired Lee and Jackson, often criticized McClellan and positively loathed Halleck.  That amazes me when you think that Carman fought through the war in the Union army, and suffered all his later life from Confederate-inflicted battlefield injuries.  He clearly did not hold any grudge against his former enemies.

BR:  What will Carman’s manuscript – and your annotations – tell us about the Maryland Campaign that we don’t already know?

TC:  For many years Carman’s manuscript languished in the Library of Congress.  A few people read parts of it, the battlefield had a copy, and built their interpretive plan around it, but that was about it.  A few historians looked at it, but the writing is quite small and difficult to read.  That is a shame because Carman had the “correct” story about a lot of things that several historians botched in their books.  For example, Carman correctly stated that the staff officer who verified Chilton’s handwriting on S.O. 191 knew Chilton through a business relationship.  Other accounts mistakenly say they were in the U.S. army together.  These mistakes happened because Carman did not document how he knew things, and people weren’t sure he was right.  That is exactly what I am trying to do; inform the reader about where Carman is correct, and where he is questionable. 

There were also several “stories” that Carman included in his manuscript that had no known source other than him.  I am especially thrilled to say that by careful attention to the letters I have solved several of these “Carmanisms,” as I call them.  For example, there is a story in the early part of the campaign where Jackson, reaching the vicinity of Buckeystown on September 6, asked Col. E. V. “Lige” White to ride with him.  Together they rode almost back to the Potomac and then returned to camp, Jackson never speaking during the entire ride.  Nobody ever knew where that story came from until I discovered the letter from White in one of the letter collections. 

BR:  What is unique about your edition of Carman’s manuscript?

TC:  It is the attention to the letters and the analysis of Carman’s historical method that make my edition much different from the other published version of the manuscript.  While the [Joseph] Pierro edition has almost as many footnotes, he was content to identify sources; I go the next step in analyzing them.  For instance, Carman relied on Battles and Leaders for much information, especially in the early part of the campaign.  Pierro correctly noted that fact, but I go on to point out that many writers in that work are embellishing or fabricating what they wrote.  Confederate General John Walker is a good example: he claims to know much of the strategic aspects of Lee’s plans in 1882, but in his after-action reports in 1862 he seemed not to know much at all. 

I also believe that maps are critical to understanding the narrative and so there are 22 detailed maps in my edition.  In fact, I am thrilled with the maps – Gene Thorp did an outstanding job creating them.  Some pictures are included too, but not the usual Gardner photos of the battlefield.  I included some lesser-known photos mostly from the time that Carman was writing.  It seemed logical to use pictures that showed the sites as they looked to Carman. 

Because of the in-depth footnoting and more readable format in my version the book runs a bit longer in total pages.  The publisher and I decided to break it into two volumes for the convenience of the reader.  The price [of both volumes combined] will still be less than the earlier all-in-one volume. 

BR:  What’s next?  Any plans to go beyond the second volume, like editing the papers?

TC:  What’s next?  – Right now I am working on Volume II, as well as reading collating and categorizing letters from the John M. Gould collection and also some from the New York collection into my database.  All of this work is very time-consuming so you won’t see the second volume anytime soon.  Ultimately there are a lot of other things I’d like to see published.  Some of the letters are absolute gems and it would be nice to see them in print.  The database I am creating would allow readers to see who wrote to Gould or the Battlefield Board.  I also am creating a biographical register with a brief bio of every person mentioned in the manuscript.  Whether Savas-Beatie will want to do that is unclear at this time, but these things are on my wish list. 

Thanks Tom.  We look forward to seeing more of your ground-breaking work in print soon.

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Interview: Dr. Victoria Bynum, “The Long Shadow of the Civil War”

13 07 2010

Dr. Victoria Bynum is the author of several books on southern society during the war, with a focus on dissent and Unionism in the Confederacy.  She kindly agreed to an interview with Bull Runnings.

BR:  So, who exactly is Vikki Bynum – inquiring minds want to know?

VB:  I became a fulltime college student at age 26. As a single mother with two children to raise, I enrolled at San Diego City College in hopes of becoming a commercial artist. I soon became interested in American literature and history, and eventually changed my major to history after transferring into the California state college system. In 1978, I received my B.A. from Chico State University. By then, I had begun to research free people of color in the Old South and was eager to enter a graduate program that would enable me to continue research in Southern court records.  I was accepted into the history program of the University of California, San Diego, where I earned a PhD in 1987. By then, I was teaching fulltime at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. I retired from Texas State this past January, shortly before the release of The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies (Chapel Hill, 2010).

BR:  How long have you been working on Southern Unionists, southern dissent, and Jones County, and in what forms?

VB:  I became interested in Southern Unionists in 1983 while researching the doctoral dissertation that became the basis for my first book, Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South (Chapel Hill, 1992). I had originally intended to confine that study to racial and class differences among women in a slaveholding patriarchy, but quickly discovered that women played an enormously important role in Civil War home front conflicts. The Randolph County region of North Carolina, including portions of Montgomery and Moore Counties, was a major area of Unionism, much more so even than Jones County, Mississippi. Particularly in the NC Governors’ Papers, the voices of women and Unionists came alive.

Writing Unruly Women stimulated me to begin researching the history of Mississippi’s legendary “Free State of Jones,” another region of strong Unionist allegiances, in 1992. My own Bynum ancestors had lived in Jones County, and, I soon discovered, were deeply involved in that region’s inner civil war. Although my ancestors’ history made the topic all the more interesting for me, my larger goal was to uncover the factual history of an important Civil War uprising shrouded in legend. In the study that resulted, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (Chapel Hill, 2001), I focused extensively on the roots and legacy of political dissent and Unionism in piney woods Mississippi. An important tool for accomplishing that was my tracing of the frontier migrations and experiences of key families backward through Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, and forward to Texas.

To my amazement, while researching the migration of several Jones County families to Texas, I encountered another Unionist uprising in the Big Thicket region of East Texas, where, I discovered, several of the outliers were brothers of band members of Mississippi’s Free State of Jones! It was at this point that I decided to combine my research on Southern anti-Confederate dissent in a single volume, where I could show the links between these communities, and also compare and contrast them in a broader historical context. The result was my third book to explore Southern Unionism (among other forms of dissent), The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and its Legacies.

BR:  Tell us about The Long Shadow of the Civil War.

VB:  Long Shadow provides a comparative analysis of three Civil War areas of dissent: the Quaker Belt of the North Carolina Piedmont, the Jones County area of piney woods Mississippi, and the Big Thicket region of East Texas. The volume features six distinct but related essays, each of which centers around a particular story. Some essays combine the regions for comparative purposes; others focus on a single topic in a single region, such as women’s resistance to Confederate forces in the North Carolina Quaker Belt, the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction, or Newt Knight’s thirty-year effort to gain federal compensation for his Mississippi band of guerrillas.  All the essays reveal the varying importance of community norms, kinship networks, religion, and attitudes toward slavery in stimulating Southern resistance to secession and the Confederacy.

By approaching Unionism as a community issue, I avoided a Great Man approach toward the study of movements of resistance in which a single individual, such as Newt Knight [the central figure of The Free State of Jones] of Mississippi or Bill Owens of North Carolina, overshadows the complex societal forces that stimulated and sustained such movements. So, while Long Shadow identifies key similarities among regions of dissent, it also pinpoints important differences between them.

BR:  Did you find out anything while researching Long Shadow that changed—or reinforced—any opinions formed during The Free State of Jones?
 
VB:  The new materials cited in Long Shadow enriched my knowledge of Jones County, Mississippi’s Civil War uprising, and enabled me to expand on the story. They did not, however, refute the essential arguments I made in The Free State of Jones. In both works, I maintain that Newt Knight’s anti-Confederate views accelerated during and after the Civil War. For example, in 1861, Newt volunteered for Confederate service before passage of the South’s first conscript act (in contrast to men who later formed the Unionist core of his guerrilla band, The Knight Company).

Also expanding the story of the Jones County uprising is Newt’s second federal claims file, 1887-1900, which I obtained a copy of just before The Free State of Jones went to press. The file was rich with depositions that quote directly from aging former Knight Band guerrillas (including Newt), enabling me to include their voices in Long Shadow.

New research materials also allowed me to discuss in far greater depth in Long Shadow the extent to which dissent among certain Knight Band members extended into the New South era.  Like Warren J. Collins in Texas and Jasper Collins in Mississippi, Newt Knight displayed far greater political militancy in his later years than during the war, or even during Reconstruction when he served the Adelbert Ames Administration.   Newt’s remark around 1894 that plain southern farmers should have risen up and killed the slaveholders rather than fight their war for them reflected his disappointment with wartime governments, both North and South. Viewed in historical context during periods of dizzying change and violence, ordinary people (like Newt) responded to and helped to shape those times.  By 1894, the experiences of war, Reconstruction, and New South politics had reshaped Newt Knight’s beliefs significantly. The man who volunteered for Confederate service in 1861, led an anti-Confederate guerrilla band in 1863, and served the Union government during Reconstruction, was now advocating internal class revolution as the best way to have defeated slaveholders .

Long Shadow presents a wider and longer view of the multiracial community founded by Newt, his white wife Serena, and Rachel and George Ann Knight, the mixed-race former slaves of his grandfather, than did The Free State of Jones. As a result of additional research and wider communication with present-day Knight researchers, Long Shadow also provides a more nuanced view of racial identity among mixed-race Knights. We are unlikely ever to know the exact nature of Newt Knight’s racial views, or, for that matter, those of the three women with whom he fathered children. While there is evidence that Newt and his parents may have disliked slavery, as did a fair number of non-slaveholders, there is no evidence that they were abolitionists, or that Newt Knight ever advocated equal civil rights for freed people of African ancestry.  Rather, some Knight descendants insist that Newt considered his children by Rachel and, later, her daughter George Ann, to be white and that he encouraged them to identify themselves as such. This is certainly plausible given their physical appearance, small degree of African ancestry, and the fact that many did self-identify as white.

BR:  How has the book been received?

VB:  It’s a bit too early to tell, but so far I’m pleased with Long Shadow’s reception. It has been favorably reviewed by an academic historian (Paul Escott for H-Civil War), by a Civil War blogger (Brett Schulte, TOCWOC), and by a newspaper editor (Joe L. White of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger).  Privately, individuals have emailed me to tell me how much they enjoyed the book. 

BR:  What’s next for you?

VB:  I’m not sure what’s next for me, but am reasonably certain it will not be another academic history. I remain fascinated by the lives and struggles of ordinary people, but hope in the future to tell stories in a new way, perhaps through a different writing genre or medium of art.

That last bit is tantalizing, if cryptic.  I’ll be curious to see what Dr. Bynum comes up with.

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Interview: Dr. Lesley Gordon, Civil War History

10 07 2010

Dr. Lesley Gordon (left, at Gettysburg) recently took over the editor’s reins at the long running quarterly journal Civil War History.  She graciously agreed to an interview for Bull Runnings.

BR:  Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

LG:  I received my B.A. from the College of William and Mary, and my M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Georgia.  I am presently Professor of History at the University of Akron where I teach courses in the Civil War and Reconstruction, U.S. Military History and the Early Republic.   My publications include General George E. Pickett in Life and Legend (University of North Carolina Press, 1998), Intimate Strategies of the Civil War: Military Commanders and their Wives (Oxford University Press, 2001),Inside the Confederate Nation: Essays in Honor of Emory M. Thomas (Louisiana State University Press, 2005); and This Terrible War: The Civil War and its Aftermath (Longman, 2003), as well as several articles and book reviews. I am currently in the final stages of completing The 16th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers in War and Memory to be published by Louisiana State University Press.

BR:  Some readers may be unfamiliar with Civil War History (CWH).  Can you fill them in?

LGCWH was founded in 1955, its first issue edited by Clyde C. Walton, and included contributions by Douglas Southall Freeman and T. Harry Williams.  When CWH began it was largely a popular publication oriented toward general readers with a heavy emphasis on battles and leaders.  Bud Robertson started to shift the journal’s direction toward a more scholarly bent, adding book reviews and an extended bibliography, and he solicited articles by academics.  Editors Robert Dykstra, John Hubbell and William Blair continued that tradition, each increasing the quarterly’s audience and prominence and broadening its coverage to economic, political and social topics.   Today CWH stands as the leading scholarly journal in the field of the American Civil War era.

BR:  How did you become editor of CWH?

LG:  Kent State University Press issued a call for applications earlier this year and I submitted my proposal in April.  I was notified a few weeks later by the director Will Underwood that I had been selected.

BR:  What are the particular challenges facing CWH?

LG: I think any print journal today faces challenges of dwindling institutional resources and fewer readers.  In addition, William Blair has founded his own competing Journal of the Civil War Era published by the University of North Carolina Press.  So certainly CWH needs to stay relevant, competitive, and appealing in order to retain subscribers, and also find new readers.

BR:  How do you plan on addressing those challenges, particularly that of attracting new readers?

LG:  CWH will continue to publish high quality academic scholarship, book reviews, and historiographical essays.  It will always welcome traditional military history, but I am also seeking out fresh approaches in cultural, social and comparative studies that delve in pioneering directions and utilize new methodologies.  The field of Civil War History has expanded considerably since the journal’s founding in 1955; I like to think we can reflect that fact in the journal’s content.

In addition, I do think the journal needs to have a greater digital presence including a better, more interactive webpage, Facebook page and Twitter account.   All of these are things we will be exploring in the coming year.  Officially, my first issue as editor begins with Vol. 57 (March 2011).

I am not doing any of this alone.  I am assisted by my Associate Editor, Kevin Adams (Kent State University), Book Review Editor, Brian C. Miller (Emporia State University), and a dynamic Board of Editors, which includes Catherine Clinton, Michael Fellman, J. Matthew Gallman, Susan-Mary Grant, Chandra Manning, Kenneth Noe, Anne Sarah Rubin, Brooks Simpson, Daniel Sutherland, and Brian S. Wills.

BR:  So what can readers – and potential readers - expect to see in future issues of CWH?

LG:  I plan to have a yearly “historians’ forum” with different scholars, museum curators, National Park Service Historians, even bloggers, addressing specific issues and topics.  The upcoming Sesquicentennial offers a great opportunity to focus on the anniversaries of battles and other events, with fresh perspectives and renewed interest.   I also plan to invite guest editors to assemble their own array of authors and articles centered on a theme of their choosing.  In addition, there will be photographic and documentary essays to vary the content of the journal.  We have also given the journal a new look: each issue will have a photograph or illustration on the cover that ideally will match one of the articles featured.

Overall, I would like to find ways to expand the journal’s audience to encompass the larger general public that remains keenly interested in the war.  And I hope that some of these new features and contributors will help us to achieve that goal.

While the challenges are not insignificant, it looks like the journal is in good hands.  Good luck, Dr. Gordon.

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Interview: Ed Bearss “Receding Tide”

17 05 2010

On April 8th I interviewed NPS Historian Emeritus Ed Bearss (via telephone) about his new book, set for release tomorrow, May 18.  I’ll get to the interview in a minute, but first here’s what I submitted to America’s Civil War for my July 2010 previews, courtesy of the good people at the magazine:

Receding Tide: Vicksburg and Gettysburg, the Campaigns that Changed the Civil War, Edwin C. Bearss with J. Parker Hills

Ed Bearss is known as the Pied Piper of the National Park Service.  His battlefield tours are legendary, as are his photographic memory, stentorian voice, and physical stamina.  If there has been one criticism of Mr. Bearss’s work it is that his ability to spellbind tourists on the battlefield has not translated to his writings.  The good folks at National Geographic tried to remedy this deficiency – if it can be called that, since Bearss’s The Vicksburg Campaign is a tour de force after 25 years – with 2006’s Fields of Honor, which consisted of transcriptions of Bearss tours of about twenty Civil War sites.  This year they follow that up with Receding Tide, which uses more detailed transcriptions to focus more narrowly on the period from the end of 1862 through the early days of July and the twin Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg.

I was a little nervous about the interview, which was set up courtesy of Penny Dackis at National Geographic.  I bought a digital recorder for the event, and like most of you I really hate the way I sound on tape (or digital).  Add that to the fact I was going to be talking to possibly the most recognizable name – definitely the most recognizable voice – among students of the war, and you see where I’m coming from.  I tried my best to throw my questions in quickly, step back and let the man speak.

BR: Your new book, Receding Tide, covers a broad period and is concerned with more than simply the campaigns of Vicksburg and Gettysburg.

EB: It starts with the Union setbacks of Fredericksburg and Chickasaw Bayou, when the Union has run into severe difficulties.  It follows through to the early stages of the Vicksburg Campaign when the Confederates are doing fairly well, and through Chancellorsville, playing [the two theaters of operation] off against each other, and ending for all practical purposes on the Fourth of July, 1863, though Gettysburg doesn’t really end until Lee crosses [the Potomac] and Vicksburg doesn’t end until Sherman drives the Confederates out of Jackson.

BR: The concept behind this book is similar to that of Fields of Honor, which National Geographic published in 2007?

EB: Yes, both books are basically transcriptions of recordings of my tours at the various sites.  In Receding Tide, [co-author J. Parker Hills] edits them down and fills in the connecting parts.

BR: In what ways do these projects differ from traditional works, like your Vicksburg Campaign?

EB: I’m standing on the spot when I’m talking about what happened there.  People who liked the first volume said it comes across like I’m talking, that it’s like being on the field with me.  Talking in the field, you can get more emotions in than if you’re writing and footnoting everything.  People who like oral presentations like it the best.  Fields of Honor has sold better than any book I’ve written.

BR: How do you think the two types of works, the tour transcriptions versus traditional works like your Vicksburg set, differ – that is do you like one better than the other, or are they really apples and oranges?

EB: The three-volume Vicksburg study is for people who want to know everythingReceding Tide looks more at the highlights, interesting facts and personalities.  It has more of an emotional appeal.

BR: Would you say it tells a better story?

EB: Yes.

BR: What different challenges are presented when conducting a tour of Vicksburg versus Gettysburg?

EB: Gettysburg is much better known – in the English language, there are more books on Gettysburg and Little Big Horn than any other campaigns because they sell well.  Little Big Horn sells well because nobody really knows what happened in those last thirty minutes or so.  Gettysburg sells well because so much has been written and is known about it, particularly the controversies.  I can do a complete tour of Vicksburg, for a well-informed group, in about three days: two on the campaign up to the seige, and one on the seige.  Gettysburg, because of the knowledge of the general public and the interest in the personalities, the fighting of the Lost Cause, the Meade/Sickles controversy, and the fact that more people know a lot more about Gettysburg, it takes longer to tour.  The buffs know a lot about Vicksburg, but the general public doesn’t. 

When I took the job with the National Park Service at Vicksburg in 1955, I did so because it was the only Civil War site that had an opening.  If I had had my choice, I would have said “Give me an eastern battlefield, give me Gettysburg”.  That’s what everyone wanted, what everyone was writing about.  Catton had just finished his trilogy, and Lee’s Lieutenants focused primarily on that.  But when I got out there I found out Vicksburg had a lot going for it.  I’d more or less become convinced that the Vicksburg Campaign is why Grant became General-in-Chief in February of 1864.  Meade’s result after the Battle of Gettysburg was not what the President wanted.  In his mind, Vicksburg was a more important victory than Gettysburg – except for the address he gave there.

You can argue that the worst day of Meade’s life was when he issued the congratulatory order to his troops on July 7th, where he calls on them for “further exertion to drive the enemy from our soil.”  Lincoln will say “My God, my God!  What does the man mean?  It is all our soil!”  On the same day, Lincoln gets the message from Grant that Vicksburg has fallen.  And not only had Grant accomplished the military objective, he has opened the Mississippi river to divide the Confederacy, and has destroyed a Confederate army of 40,000 men.

BR: The letter that Lincoln wrote to Meade, the one he never sent, it has always struck me that we can give so much import to a letter like that, one that Lincoln thought better of and didn’t send, when we don’t have any idea how many other letters like that were written and to whom.

EB: We only know about this one because he kept a copy.

BR: And because Nicolay and Hay made sure it was preserved.

EB: Right.

BR: Are there any similar studies like this from National Geographic in the works?

EB: Yes.  Because of the increased interest in the Revolutionary War, we’re considering doing a book on those conflicts similar to Fields of Honor, which will again be based on my battlefield tours.

There was more, but we moved far afield from the focus of the book, talking a lot about Meade and the bad spot into which he was put after Grant was named General-in-Chief and how history has perhaps misrepresented what Meade would or would not have done had Grant not come east; the influence of surviving correspondence (or lack of same) on the way history has treated various commanders; and even an interesting tidbit regarding why he doesn’t spend much time on the internet and what influenced his decision to retire from the NPS (in short, in the 1940s real men didn’t type).  Maybe at some later time I’ll cover that material here.

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Interview with Brad Gottfried

19 02 2009

Author Brad Gottfried of the upcoming The Maps of First Bull Run was kind enough to take the time to respond to a few questions regarding the book and the Savas Beatie project in general.

What is the Savas Beatie Battlefield Atlas project, and how did you get involved?

The “Battlefield Atlas” project actually started with my Maps of Gettysburg book.  I had written a book entitled, “The Brigades of Gettysburg” that highlighted the activities of every infantry brigade that participated in the battle.  As a result of that book, I realized that the battle would be much more understandable if they had a series of good, accurate maps, accompanied by a descriptive text.  After some thought, I came up with the idea of a map book, where the map is on the right page and the description is on the left.  That book included over 140 maps and it has been well received.  Since that time, Ted Savas has decided to broaden the concept and has signed up authors to do maps of other campaigns.

Why did you choose Bull Run as your second project?

I basically decided to prepare a book on every campaign in the Eastern Theatre of the Civil War, so it was natural that I go in order.  I had been to the battlefield several times, but like so many others, really had trouble getting my arms around the swirl of events.

How does this book differ from your Gettysburg Atlas?

The book is similar to the Gettysburg Atlas with two exceptions.  First, and perhaps most important, the maps are in color.  This was one of the biggest criticisms of the Gettysburg volume.  The second difference is the length of the book.  The Gettysburg book ran 363 pages and contained about 140 maps; the new one on First Bull Run/Manassas, is 144 pages long and contains 51 maps.  It also includes a section on Ball’s Bluff.

What were the particular challenges of doing a Bull Run Atlas?

I think that Gettysburg spoiled me.  There are so many first-person accounts and so many analyses of what occurred there that I was able to get a much richer picture of what really happened.  Less is written about First Bull Run/Manassas and there is much more ambiguity.  Harry Smeltzer and Jim Burgess really helped me to sort out the fact from the fiction regarding the First Bull Run/Manassas campaign.  Jim Morgan did the same for the Ball’s Bluff section.

Were there any surprises while writing this book?

Not really.  I learned so much about the campaign.   If I had to name some, it was how close General McDowell came to winning this battle and how lucky the Confederates were in moving units into position at just the right time.  Most of us know about Stonewall Jackson’s gallant stand on Henry Hill, but I was surprised by how so many of his units were defeated at one time or another.

What’s up next for you in the series?

I will stop going in order now and concentrate on the most “popular” campaigns.  Next up is the Maryland campaign.  After that I may go back and work on the Second Manassas Campaign.  That book will probably be double the size of the First Bull Run/Manassas book.

Ted Savas was good enough to provide me with one map and corresponding facing text.  You can find the pdf file here.   The pages will face, text on the left, map on the right.  The map is lower res than what will be in the book.  If you can’t open pdf files (you can get a pdf reader for free, just enter “free pdf reader” into a search engine), below are clickable thumbs of each page.

text-17map-17

Again, you can register to be notified when this book becomes available here.





An Interview with Weider History Group’s Dana Shoaf

10 03 2008

 

cwt_april_08.jpg acw_may_08.jpg

Last month, Weider History Group announced that Dana Shoaf was taking over the helms of both Civil War Times and America’s Civil War.  I had a chance to virtually sit down with Dana and ask him some questions about his new responsibilities and about the direction in which the magazines would be moving.

BR: What led to the decision to name you as Executive Director of Weider History Group’s Civil War publications and allow you to oversee both CWT and ACW?

DS: The biggest reason was to coordinate between the two magazines, making sure they were not going over the same ground, using the same art, etc. Also, we want to make the magazines more different than they now are. It was thought that would be easier to do if one person was keeping a close eye on both.

BR: Will the two magazines remain separate?

DS: Yes. There are no plans to merge them.

BR: What are the big challenges you’ll be facing?

DS: For me, the biggest challenge is to keep organized; keep all my manuscripts straight and to try and be prompt in responding to email and author queries. I struggle with this, I admit, but I’m working to get better at it. Also, it’s a pretty big challenge to keep printing fresh material about the Civil War in the magazines. I actually cruise the blogs out there—some are really good while some are just bloviation. From the good blogs, I’ve picked up some good topics that have come out of discussions. I can also tell who can write and who can’t by reading blog entries. You’re okay, Harry, you can write. And you are a Steelers and Pirates fan like me. You’re okay.

In a larger sense, this is the biggest challenge—our readership is getting older, and we need to attract younger readers for these magazines to survive. The upcoming sesquicentennial will raise some interest that we hope to capitalize on. I have to admit though, every time I despair that young people don’t care about history or the Civil War, I meet some youngster who is all into it, and that gives me hope.

BR: Conversely, what are the big opportunities?

DS: I think by coordinating these magazines, and making them different in tone, we can reach a very wide Civil War audience. We also want to amp up our web presence. This will take a little while though, as we are focusing on the magazines right now. One thing that’s exciting is that our newsstand sales are up, so some bookstores are talking with us about increasing our visibility in their stores. I think that’s great—not only because the increased sales mean more revenue—but also because potentially more people can get turned on to the Civil War. I really believe the overarching mission of mine is to provide great Civil War history for the masses. 

BR: What about CWT going to 6 issues/year (from 10/year)?  What will the publication schedule be for the two magazines?

DS: They alternate every other month. Civil War Times is: June, August, October, December, February and April.  America’s Civil War is: July, September, November, January, March, May.

BR: Are there any other changes in the works (re: staffing, layouts, focus, features)?

DS: As you can see by the publishing schedule, I’m basically overseeing a monthly magazine. We do plan to hire one more person to work on America’s Civil War. Each magazine will have a Managing Editor, Senior Editor, Art Director and Picture Editor. Both magazines will share one Copy Editor. That may seem like a lot of people, but it’s basically a bare bones staff for a monthly magazine. As far as layout changes, there is a big one in the works for CWT. I don’t want to say anymore right now, but if it comes off, I will be be very happy and so will the readers, I’m sure.

Oh yeah, another change—I’m getting grayer by the minute. My hair and beard will be as gray as Marse Robert’s before too long!








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