Interview: John Schmutz, “The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History”

1 11 2012

I did a brief preview of John Schmutz’s The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History for America’s Civil War back when it first came out in 2009. At the time the format of my column paired books together, and I gave Schmutz’s book the edge over Richard Slotkin’s No Quarter. But I did take the book to task, as I did most McFarland publications, for its just-plain-silly price. The Battle of the Crater will soon be released in paperback and at a more reasonable $35. Since many folks may have been turned off by the price tag three years ago, I thought it would be fair to Mr. Schmutz to give everyone a little refresher on the book, and to that end John agreed to answer a few questions.

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BR: What can you tell the readers about John Schmutz?

JS: I am a native of Oneida, New York, and currently live with my wife of many years in San Antonio, Texas.  We have three adult children currently located in various parts of the U.S.  I hold a B.S. from Canisius College, and law degrees from both The University of Notre Dame and George Washington University.  Following a tour in the U.S. Army as a lawyer, I enjoyed a rewarding career as a corporate attorney, initially in private practice, and then as general counsel and a member of senior management for several public companies.  Given a long-standing ambition to one day find the time to write on the Civil War, I seized an opportunity to reduce my legal workload and became a founding principal in a business venture which ultimately allowed me the time and flexibility to do so.

While I had published a number of legal theses throughout my career, The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History was my first full-length book.  It enjoyed considerable success when it was first published, and was highly regarded by reviewers generally.  The Civil War Times indicated that “[f]or anyone who sees the Crater as the decisive battle that could and should have been, this book will provide the long-awaited answer to prayers.”  Civil War News wrote that “Schmutz has set the standard for a study of this period of Civil War history.”  Civil War Books and Authors remarked that there “exists no great shortage of books and articles written about the … Battle of the Crater, but it’s safe to say none are remotely comparable to John F. Schmutz’s recently published study.”  Unfortunately, the publisher’s pricing ($75.00), placed a considerable damper upon retail sales, and was the one universal criticism of the work.  Thus, I was most happy to learn that sales of the book were nonetheless strong enough that a soft cover edition was just published at a much reduced price.

In addition to immersing myself in Civil War history and writing, I enjoy genealogical research, and reading generally.  I still do pro bono legal work for charitable organizations, as well as serving on several boards.  I am an avid golfer and sports fan and have a fascination for international travel, which my wife and I continue to indulge in whenever we can.

BR: What set you along the path to researching the Civil War?

JS: I have always enjoyed a deep-seated interest in all aspects of the Civil War.  I attribute this particular trait to my father and grandfather, both of whom were Civil War enthusiasts.  Some of my earliest childhood memories are of trekking around the battlefields at Antietam and Gettysburg, as well as listening to Richard Bales’ recordings of The Union and The Confederacy.  I remember at the age of seven taking my accumulated savings, about $.50, to an estate auction where I learned of a Civil War rifle that was on the auction block.  Needless to say, I did not complete that purchase.  However, my interest in the Civil War grew exponentially.  Early in my formative years, I was fascinated by Bruce Catton’s easily readable works, and later by Shelby Foote’s magnum opus, The Civil War, A Narrative.

When I became a parent, family trips with the kids would most often included at least one stop at a Civil War battlefield, regardless of the ultimate destination.  While I was serving on active duty in the Army in Washington, DC, I was part of a group which routinely walked the battlefields of Virginia, and hunted for relics (legally).  Some of my prized possessions remain those finds.

Throughout my career, I remained an avid reader of Civil War history, and dreamed of the day when I might find the time to research and write for myself.  In this regard, I was inspired early on by the example of a senior partner in the first law firm for which I worked, Alan Nolan, who published The Iron Brigade while he was still immersed in the practice of law.  This encouraged me that having chosen the law as a career did not preclude becoming a Civil War author.

BR: Why The Crater?

JS: Everyone who delves into the history of the Civil War has, on some level, heard of the siege of Petersburg and the Battle of the Crater. My interest in this particular event as the subject for a book was based initially upon two factors.  First, the elements which went into making the narrative of this battle were both intriguing and utterly fascinating.  Secondly, through my genealogy research, I discovered that I had two ancestors who were involved in the action – one was a member of the 14th New York Heavy Artillery, which ultimately became the first unit to enter the breach and, as a consequence, suffered horribly.  The other was with the 2nd New York Heavy Artillery, which was in a reserve position during the fight, but still felt the effects considerably.

The promise of the action’s carefully devised battle plan was that the action would not only allow the Union to lift its siege on Petersburg, but hopefully would result in a favorable resolution of that dreadful war, which had by then had entered its fourth year, claiming close to 500,000 lives and countless wounded.  By that time, the conflict was sorely testing the very foundations of the republic, with many Northerners questioning the merits of its further prosecution.

Despite a total lack of support from the high command of the Army of the Potomac, and with a bevy of detractors, a mine of over 510 feet in length was constructed without utilizing any visible ventilation system which would have alerted the enemy to the project.  With very few exceptions, officers with any engineering experience had contended that completion of a mine of such length was impossible.  Upon its completion, everything was in place for the assault subsequent to the mine’s detonation to result in a huge military success.  The majority of the Confederate forces had been drawn away from the Petersburg lines by a massive diversionary movement on Richmond.  Fresh troops had been identified and trained to take the lead in assaulting the breach and rolling up any remaining Confederate opposition on both flanks of the breach.  The Federals enjoyed overwhelming numerical superiority, and additionally, had two more corps to envelop the flanks of the breach once the assault started, further ensuring victory.  Given these extremely favorable conditions, all elements seemed in place to guarantee a solid, rather unmistakable Union victory.  Regardless, the battle ended in disaster for the Federals, with the magnitude of the defeat being decisive, almost too bitter to swallow.  As one of the Union officers engaged in the fight later proclaimed, it “was agreed that the thing was a perfect success, except that it did not succeed.”  Ulysses Grant, in command of all Federal forces, commented that this was “the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war.”  Instead of a decisive victory, the Union suffered a humiliating defeat and the bitter war waged on for almost another nine more months, claiming another 100,000 plus lives and countless more wounded and maimed.

The Battle of the Crater is one of the lesser known or understood, yet most intriguing battles of the Civil War.  It is set amongst the brutal and unendurable trench warfare at Petersburg, Virginia, which served as a remarkable foreshadowing of the situation faced by the adversaries in France fifty years later.  The battle itself, and the machinations leading up to it, present a plot worthy of the most creative piece of fiction – so much so that one might find  it incredulous if it was not entirely factual.  The plot has all the elements necessary for the weaving of a great novel – political considerations trumping sound tactical judgments, the commander of the critical lead element drunk and hiding in a bomb shelter as his troops passed into harm’s way, a titanic clash of egos and petty jealousy at the high command, and an unusually colorful cast of characters.  Add to this mix the employment of unique military tactics and movements, war atrocities, the destruction of the military career of one of the war’s most famous generals, the blundering of an officer considered the war’s worst general, and then throw in a Congressional investigation, and one has all the makings of remarkable novel, though perhaps one that strains credulity.  However, these elements are all documented facts.  Given all these considerations, my feeling is that I could not have chosen a better topic for a book.

BR: In a nutshell, who in your mind was ultimately responsible for the failure of the Federal operation that day?

JS: As I detailed in the book, Burnside was quickly set up to take the overall fall for the failure, and indeed, he fell quite short in his leadership that day.  However, blame can also be assigned to many throughout the Union command that day.  While there were a number of brave and competent regimental and brigade commanders who led their men into battle as best they could, there were few commanders above the brigade level who could be considered competent on that particular day, with the possible exception of Brigadier General John Turner.  Conversely, some were guilty of gross malfeasance, such as Brigadiers James H. Ledlie and Edward Fererro.  However, considerable blame should also be assessed to George Meade and his total disconnect with the actions that day, as well as his attempt thereafter to stack the deck against his subordinate, Ambrose Burnside.  Ultimately, Ulysses Grant has to bear a portion of the fault for not becoming even tangentially involved when he knew that the newly revised battle plan and its leadership clearly indicated that the situation was ripe for disaster.

BR: What does your book contribute to the literature on The Battle of the Crater?

JS: At the time I undertook my work on The Battle of the Crater, this intriguing subject had been dealt with only twice to any extent.  The first work, entitled The Battle of the Crater: “The Horrid Pit” June 25-August 6, 1864, by Michael Cavanaugh and William Marvel is part of the Virginia Civil War Battles and Leaders series.  It is a remarkable study of this most intriguing battle.  Then in 2002, John Cannan wrote The Crater: Burnside’s Assault on the Confederate Trenches, July 30, 1864, which was published in a paperback format as part of the Battleground America Guides, which contained additional reflections on the battle.  While both of these works are scholarly endeavors, they are both considerably brief in their presentation of the events leading up to the battle, and in the additional testimony of events by the participants themselves.  The Cavanaugh work consists of a mere ninety-four pages of text.  On the other hand, my book consists of 407 pages, with considerable explanation of the relative positions of the two armies based upon what had transpired in the two month’s leading up to the battle.  The mood of the country is carefully examined.  Additionally, considerable care was taken to bring in anecdotal material from the participants themselves, in order to give a perspective which is otherwise often missing from a discussion of the bare facts alone.  Combine this with graphics, maps and an easy to follow presentation, and this book provides the reader with a fascinating story that is sure to captivate him or her.

Following the publication of my book, there have been several other works on the subject.  However, in my humble opinion, The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History remains the best study of the events leading up to the battle, the reasons for the Union’s  failure and the ultimate impact it had on the remaining course of the war.  That feeling is clearly borne out by a number of reviews.

BR: Can you describe the process of writing your book, and anything you turned up about The Battle of the Crater that particularly struck you?

JS: It took me a little over six years in research and writing to complete the book, with the majority of that time involving research and analysis.  In the process, I tried judiciously to maintain the role of an objective observer, letting the soldiers speak for themselves whenever possible, and sifting through conflicting evidence to reach what I felt were the true facts.  I had no preordained conclusion on the reasons for the Union’s failure to capitalize on what appeared to be a sound plan and the presence of overwhelming strength.   I did not encounter what I would consider to be “major” stumbling blocks in the research; however, there were considerable difficulties in locating the regimental histories for several key units.  In the case of the 14th New York Heavy Artillery, the first unit into the breach, I finally located what appeared to be the only copy left in a small town library in Oregon.  I also encountered occasions where eyewitness accounts on a particular incident were diametrically opposed to each other.  In those instances, I had to undertake considerable background research to decide between these conflicting accounts, or, in some instances, to conclude that the truth was somewhere in the middle.

As I delved deeper into the background, I was quite surprised at the ineptitude of the Union command at that particular point in time.  It was, in my opinion, extremely dysfunctional at the time, and in the book I attempt to cite the many reasons therefor.  The backstabbing and distribution of blame following the battle made for an unsatisfactory conclusion for me, as did the court of inquiry orchestrated by Meade with Grant’s apparent blessing.  I finally felt that I had a satisfactory resolution when I wrote the chapter on the hearings and findings of the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, which refocused fault to include the Union high command.

BR: Can you describe your research and writing process, and the sources you consluted?

JS: Regarding sources, I am deeply indebted to a panoply of institutions and organizations.  Of particular note would be the Petersburg National Battlefield archives, the South Caroliniana Library of the University of South Carolina, the Virginia Historical Society, the University of Virginia Library, as well as the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library of that same school, the Museum of the Confederacy and the U. S. Army Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, and a host of others.  I relied significantly on the Southern Historical Society Papers, the MOLLUS journals, and the Confederate Veteran Magazine for background materials in the development of my research.

Research has been rendered much easier with the proliferation of materials on the Internet.  One can locate a wealth of source material online and/or learn exactly where it may be obtained.  Many libraries were quite willing to copy files and furnish them at a modest cost once I identified the needed material from their respective online catalogues.  The Making of America website provides a wealth of information for research, including the entire Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, of which I made extensive use.  Unit histories were extremely important, and locating them sometimes proved difficult, as I have already mentioned, but this work was greatly aided by the Internet.

I began my generalized research with the battle itself as the topic, in order to get my arms around the subject matter.  Not having embraced the “notebook” method of note taking, I took my notes on loose-leaf paper, each limited to a single topic, with sources cited.  Once I fully grasped the subject matter, I began looking for unit histories to fill out accounts, and then broke the subject into specific categories for intensified research.  After about three years of this type of research, I commenced drafting certain chapters where I was confident that I had amassed all the material that was needed.  I did this to vary my workload and obtain a sense of accomplishment that there was, indeed, a light at the end of the tunnel.  Otherwise, one could tend to bury oneself in the research, and easily become discouraged by the lack of an end in sight.

Once I sensed that I had a good grasp of the subject matter covered in the research, I began organizing potential chapters and pulling the whole thing together. I outlined each chapter with extensive subheadings, which might reach ten to fifteen pages in length.  Then, taking my notes, all of which had individual headings, I organized them by codes related to the subheadings of a particular chapter.  Then I began to write the narrative of each chapter using the organized notes. This process was tedious, and I went through a series of drafts on each chapter.  Once I pulled all the chapters together into a draft manuscript, I began the process of fine-tuning the manuscript into a free-flowing whole.  Again, this involved numerous drafts, and many months of intensified work.  Once I was satisfied with the content of the entire manuscript, I then began the process of pulling it all together in a readable narrative.  This process involved considerable cuts, which were often quite painful for an author who was immersed in his work.  Often, I would find in the process that more research was needed on a particular topic.

Finally, I reached the point where I felt that a complete manuscript had been obtained.  I then drafted a detailed book proposal to begin the process of identifying a publisher.

BR: What’s next for you?

JS: After writing a detailed account of a battle that lasted only a number of hours, I decided to change course and follow a particular unit through the entire Civil War.  Currently, I have a manuscript depicting the history of the Fifth Texas Infantry Regiment of Hood’s Texas Brigade at the publishers.  The book will follow this regiment of that fabled brigade from its organization in the summer of 1861 through the end at Appomattox and the long journey home following the war.  This intrepid regiment took part in just about every major engagement in the East, as well as Chickamauga.  The book is scheduled to be published in the late spring of 2013.

Good luck with that regimental history, John. And kudos for being the first author to use “panoply” in an interview here at Bull Runnings!





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

25 10 2012

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

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

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

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

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

BR: Why The Iron Brigade?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Interview: Guy R. Hasegawa, “Mending Broken Soldiers”

22 10 2012

I first became familiar Guy Hasegawa through his collaboration with Jim Schmidt on Years of Change and Suffering: Modern Perspectives on Civil War Medicine. At Jim’s request Guy sent me a copy of his new book, Mending Broken Soldiers: The Union and Confederate Programs to Supply Artificial Limbs. OK, well, after I dropped a not very subtle hint to Jim on Facebook, that is. It’s a slim volume, only 80 pages of text with another 45 pages of appendices, notes, etc., but it’s chock full of good stuff all in answer to a question which perhaps you never actually considered – how did governments and industry satisfy the explosion in demand for artificial limbs brought about by the Civil War?

BR:  Guy, can you start off with a little background?

GH: I was born and raised in Santa Monica, CA, and received a B.A. in zoology from UCLA and a doctor of pharmacy degree from UC San Francisco. Further pharmacy training and jobs accounted for a series of moves eastward until I landed in suburban Maryland, where I have worked since 1988 as an editor for a pharmacy journal. I’ve published numerous articles on pharmacy and medical topics. My historical articles started appearing in 2000, and I collaborated with my good friend Jim Schmidt in editing and contributing to Years of Change and Suffering. I’m honored to serve on the Board of Directors of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine (NMCWM) and am a Director Emeritus of the Society of Civil War Surgeons (SOCWS). My wife and I have two college-age sons. Our remaining family member is of the canine persuasion – a male Belgian Malinois.

BR: How did you get interested in studying the Civil War?

GH: I think I’ve always been interested in military history. The Civil War Centennial started when I was nine, and I remember ordering a map – by mailing in some cereal box tops, I think – that showed the location of various battles and had portraits of generals around the border. I didn’t really start studying the war, though, until I moved to Maryland and began visiting battlefields and other sites. After seeing NMCWM in Frederick, MD, I volunteered my services there and was assigned, because of my pharmacy and editorial background, to research and write a panel for a display of medicinal herbs. The Museum referred me to Dr. Terry Hambrecht, an expert on Confederate medicine, who became a friend and mentor and continues to be an invaluable sounding board and information resource. The herb project required examination of primary reference sources, and I soon became hooked on the challenge of finding obscure information and trying to make sense of it. I began attending and lecturing at NMCWM and SOCWS conferences and writing historical articles based on my research. The members of these organizations are knowledgeable, encouraging, and eager to hear about each other’s research. Interacting with them has taught me a lot and helped me differentiate between tired topics and those that warrant further investigation.

BR: Why prosthetics?

GH: Much of my research has been on the Confederate medical department, and I have spent considerable time at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) facility in Washington, DC. While scanning NARA holdings, I became aware of the record book of the Association for the Relief of Maimed Soldiers (ARMS), which I later learned was the wartime Southern organization that provided artificial limbs to amputees. I promised myself that I’d examine the volume when I had time, and once I did, I concluded that ARMS would be a good topic for an article or talk. A little more thought convinced me that the corresponding Union program also needed to be researched, and it eventually dawned on me that there might be enough material altogether for a book, especially if I included a description of the limbs industry. I didn’t start with an intention to learn about prostheses, but the story told by the records was too good not to relay. Because of my familiarity with Civil War medicine, I was pretty certain that the topic had not been explored in-depth and that I could handle it without wandering too far outside my areas of expertise.

BR: What will most folks, regardless of their experience studying the Civil War, learn from Mending Broken Soldiers?

GH: Mending Broken Soldiers is unique in numerous ways. It describes in detail the wartime efforts of both North and South to assist military amputees. Most of the existing literature deals with the postwar Southern programs, and the few brief descriptions of the wartime programs are incorporated into discussions of the social aspects of amputation and prosthetics.

My primary goal was to describe what happened and why, but this story cannot be appreciated without a basic understanding of prosthetics – how they were produced and by whom – so the book describes the intensely competitive limbs industry and includes an appendix of the makers important to the story. People interested in invention and technology should enjoy learning how the limbs were constructed and how makers used mechanical innovations and marketing to gain a competitive edge. I’m not aware of another modern work that provides this sort of information. One can find old articles and books about artificial limbs, but many of them were essentially advertising pieces and none, to my knowledge, provides a balanced overview of the business.

The book also serves as an effective case study demonstrating how the vast differences between the North and South influenced the respective programs’ ability to attain their goals. Constructing and distributing artificial limbs required, among other things, technical know-how, administrative competence, industrial capacity, manpower, raw materials, adequate transportation, and money. Although the Southern limbs effort did not lack for administrative ability and zeal, the book neatly illustrates how deficiencies in those other factors compromised the program. The tribulations of the Southern program provide insight about the difficulties that plagued other aspects of the Confederate war effort. Mending Broken Soldiers features a slew of illustrations, many of which have not previously appeared in print. The publisher has posted lists of soldiers who applied for or received an artificial limb through the programs. These lists, which are available at no cost, convey some idea of the war’s human toll and may be useful to genealogists and others who are researching individual soldiers. Readers looking for a connection between past and present will learn that today’s programs to supply prostheses to service members arose from the efforts described in Mending Broken Soldiers. Those interested in famous military men will learn something new about Union cavalryman Ulric Dahlgren and Confederate generals N. B. Forrest, J. B. Hood, and R. S. Ewell. The book is not just for Civil War medicine enthusiasts.

BR: Can you describe the project and what you learned along the way that surprised you?

GH: My research started in mid-2009 and continued until I submitted the final manuscript about two years after that. It would have taken much longer if I had not already been familiar with Civil War medicine and with some of the resources at NARA and other repositories. A major difficulty, common to much Civil War research, was the incompleteness and scattering of records and the difficulty of piecing together documentary evidence into a cohesive story. Much of the documentation I used was in the form of letters that had to be gathered from various sources and put in chronological order to get a picture of events. The U.S. Surgeon General’s records were particularly troublesome because they are massive and require you to look in registers and indexes to find possibly pertinent letters, which are often mis-filed. All this takes time because of the limits that NARA puts on the number of records you can request – not to mention the mental fatigue that sets in after a few hours of trying to read strange handwriting in disappearing ink. I was dismayed at my inability to find some vital reports to the Surgeon General, without which I’d have to make some risky inferences. These were referred to but not filed with the Surgeon General’s correspondence, and I almost gave them up for lost when I discovered them among records of the Adjutant General. Another obstacle was the lack of cooperation from an important archival source, which I will not name. I eventually got what I needed, but it was like pulling teeth.

Since I started with no knowledge about the limbs programs, everything was new and interesting. One of the neat things about the Union records was correspondence from prominent physicians – guys you hear about when studying the history of medicine, like Valentine Mott and Samuel Gross. I had no idea that ARMS, a civilian agency, was administered by a Confederate surgeon. This helped explain why the organization operated as well as it did, and it also accounted for the ARMS documents showing up among official Confederate records. I was surprised at the difficulty that ARMS had in finding decent artificial limbs to copy. There must have been Southerners wearing high-quality Northern prostheses, so I’m perplexed about why they were so hard to locate. I was also surprised that when amputees were given a choice, after the war, between a replacement prosthesis and cash, the vast majority took the money. The archival material is sprinkled with bits of unexpected information, and many of these nuggets made it into the book.

After a while, any researcher starts to see that the investment of time is yielding less and less new information. I reached a point at which I considered the narrative fairly coherent and detailed enough for most readers. I also had a deadline for submitting a finished manuscript, so that forced me to halt further research and devote my remaining time to cleaning up my writing and making sure all the pieces were in place. At this point, I don’t think I omitted anything important.

BR: You’ve covered some of this above, but can you expand on your research and writing process, and where you found your information?

GH: The bulk of my research was conducted at NARA. I transcribed nearly all of the Confederate material I found into Word documents. This greatly facilitated later reading and made it possible to use the search function to locate pertinent documents or passages. I should have done the same for the Union documents but didn’t. Beyond that, I cast a wide net to gather as much pertinent information as I could and always tried to trace it back to its original source. I consulted the Official Records and the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion and searched the Surgeon General’s Index Catalogue (the predecessor of Index Medicus). Google books and other online sources provided lots of leads and many complete documents, including government reports. Fold3, a great online source for Confederate compiled service records, census records, and city directories, saved me many trips to NARA. I’m lucky to be close not only to NARA but also to other important information sources that I visited or contacted for this project. These included the National Library of Medicine, Library of Congress, National Museum of Health and Medicine, and NMCWM. I used WorldCat and other sources to identify libraries and other repositories holding important documents, and in almost all cases, I successfully obtained electronic or mailed copies.

As an editor, I often advise aspiring authors to write an outline and not to worry too much about eloquence or style when preparing initial drafts. My own practice is pretty much the opposite and did not change with the book even though it was a larger project than my articles. While I’m reading and organizing my stacks of references, I picture how the information is coming together and how it can best be arranged. By the time I actually begin writing, I know what I want to do with only a mental outline. For the book, I created a decent draft of one chapter before starting on the next, and the order in which I wrote the chapters depended on how complete my information was for the subject at hand. As I wrote, I discovered holes in the information or in my understanding of the topic, and this prompted additional research or reexamination of the sources. I also refine organization and wording constantly, starting with the first draft, so a piece of my writing is altered scores of times before I’m happy with it. I don’t recommend my approach, and it has probably worked for me only because my projects have been relatively small.

BR: Is there another Civil War related book in your future?

GH: I have another possible book in mind that would allow me to use a lot of material I’ve collected over the years on Union and Confederate medical purveying. As is the case with Mending Broken Soldiers, I’d like the material to demonstrate how conditions forced the two sides to take different approaches. I also want the work to be relevant to a wide range of readers, not just those specializing in Civil War medicine. Until I figure out how to do all of that, I won’t know exactly what the book will cover or how much more research I’ll need to do. For now, I’ll be promoting Mending Broken Soldiers, attending Civil War medicine conferences, and keeping my eyes open for something new to research.

Thanks, Guy, for a truly enlightening look into how Mending Broken Soldiers came about!





Interview: D. Scott Hartwig, “To Antietam Creek”

18 10 2012

I’ve known NPS Historian Scott Hartwig of Gettysburg National Military Park for about a decade, and every time I’ve met up with him over the years I’ve asked him the same question: “How’s the Antietam book coming?” Well, I guess I’ll need to come up with a new greeting, because his massive work To Antietam Creek: The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, has been published by Johns Hopkins. This is the first of two planned volumes, and takes the reader to the eve of the Battle of Antietam. Scott took a little time to answer a few questions about this, probably the most important Civil War book of 2012.

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BR:  While I’m sure many readers know you from visits to Gettysburg or from dozens of PCN Anniversary Battle Walks, can you tell those less familiar a little bit about yourself?

SH: I am a supervisory historian in the division of Interpretation at Gettysburg National Military Park.  What this means is I do public history and manage the park’s day to day interpretive program.   I grew up in Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, but had the itch to live out west and went to University of Wyoming.  By pure luck I stumbled onto a Civil War historian teaching there named E. B. Long.  For those today who don’t know him, E. B., or “Pete,” as his friends called him, was the research editor for Bruce Catton’s magnificent three-volume centennial history of the Civil War.  E. B. knew more about the Civil War than anyone I have ever known and could talk about the people who lived the war as if he had known them.  I ended up taking nine credit hours from him on the Civil War and he was a major influence on my decision to seek a career at a Civil War park in the National Park Service.  I have worked 33 years for the NPS, almost all of it at Gettysburg.  I can honestly say that I have never been bored there a single day.  In fact, some days I wish things would be a little more boring.  There is never enough time to get everything done.  I have written a number of essays and articles for magazines and books, and seminar proceedings, and back in the 90’s appeared in a number of History Channel documentaries relating to Gettysburg, some of which still show but only really late at night.

BR: Who or what were your early Civil War influences?

SH: The earliest influence was the Time-Life magazines in the early 1960’s that followed the course of the war and featured original art of battles, which was the sort of thing that excited a 7-year-old.  Next was probably Hugh O’Donnell, my 8th grade history teacher, who encouraged critical thinking not just about the Civil War, but about history in general.  Bruce Catton was also a major influence.  I read everything he wrote.  My parents also always actively encouraged my interest in history.

BR: Why did you decide to study the Maryland Campaign?

SH: I think Catton’s Mr. Lincoln’s Army was the initial catalyst.  His chapter on Antietam was unforgettable.  The other reason was, when I first started contemplating this, the only two books on the Maryland Campaign were Jim Murfin’s Gleam of Bayonets and Francis Palfrey’s The Antietam and Fredericksburg, which had been written in the 1880’s.  I thought the campaign could use a thorough study that employed the wealth of sources that had come to light since Murfin’s book.

BR: Besides the scale (652 pages of text, plus appendices and an online bibliography available here), what does To Antietam Creek contribute to the existing literature?

SH: This volume gives focus to several aspects of the campaign that have only really been brush stroked to this point.  I spend two chapters carefully assessing the two armies so the reader can understand their strengths and weaknesses.  This part of military campaigns is often overlooked, but when we know the character of an army it helps us understand why it performed well, or poorly, or was mediocre.  The bulk of the book examines the Harper’s Ferry operation and battles of South Mountain in detail, but also in the context of the larger campaign.  South Mountain has been studied by others but there is no in-depth study of Harper’s Ferry existing.  So this volume gives needed attention to what precedes Antietam, which was quite significant, since this encompassed the largest surrender of U.S. troops until World War II, and Robert E. Lee’s first defeat as an army commander, at South Mountain.

BR: Your book has been in the works a long time – as long as I’ve known you. Can you describe how long it took, what the stumbling blocks were, and what you discovered along the way?

SH: It took at least twenty years.  A big reason it took so long is working a full-time job and raising three kids is not conducive to writing.  But I was very disciplined and pecked away at it.  There were certainly times that I despaired I would ever finish it, but there was also something about the learning and writing process that I really enjoyed which always pulled me back.  Much as I enjoy writing it does not come easily to me.  There were many nights I would sit staring at the computer screen and never write a word, and more times that I would struggle to find the right words to describe something.  It was like getting stuck in the mud.  You had to keep pushing and eventually you broke free and started moving again.

There were plenty of stumbling blocks along the way.  Many have faded from memory but George McClellan was one.  He was not so much a stumbling block as much as he was a conundrum.  The first chapter of the book is his story from his arrival in Washington after First Bull Run to his return to command after Second Manassas.  I tried to avoid that chapter at first.  Everyone analyzes McClellan.  I thought I could avoid his controversial personality and history and just focus on the campaign but that proved a foolish thought.  You cannot separate the McClellan of the Maryland Campaign from his history before that campaign.  To understand the campaign the reader had to know McClellan’s history.  I also wrestled with how to treat McClellan.  My initial approach was to follow the lead of a host of writers and historians and bash him as a weak and vacillating commander with a monumental ego.  McClellan is easy to bash, but the more I studied him, his campaigns and his relationships with the Lincoln administration, I felt my initial treatment too critical and I re-wrote the chapter, this time taking a more sympathetic perspective.  I let this re-write sit and when I read it again decided that it too failed to achieve a balanced assessment.  I had strayed too far in the other direction.  This lead to more research and a third re-write, which is what ended up in the book.  My final analysis of McClellan is critical but I think it is honest and evaluates him in the context of the circumstances and conditions he faced both politically and on the military front.

When you work on a project of this size and for this long you are constantly encountering things you did not know, or uncovering evidence that challenges convention.  Two examples are the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia.  The legend is that the Army of the Potomac was an immense host that failed to win a decisive victory at Antietam because McClellan was too cautious and inept and the Army of Northern Virginia, vastly outnumbered and reduced by the summer’s fighting to a hard-core of less than 40,000 men, simply outfought them.  I discovered the reality was considerably different.  The Confederates fought well in every engagement in the campaign, but the reason they ended up with an army of 40,000 or less at Antietam was the result of straggling on a scale the army would not experience again until the Appomattox Campaign.  Confederate logistics utterly failed their soldiers, and when combined with the arduous marching required during the campaign, men broke down by the thousands sick or exhausted.   During the Battle of South Mountain some of Longstreet’s brigades lost far more men to straggling on the march from Hagerstown to Boonsboro than they did in the battle.  If you don’t believe the Confederates experienced a crisis in straggling then read Lee’s correspondence immediately after the Maryland Campaign.  As for the Army of the Potomac, it was not as large as is commonly believed, and was beset by numerous organizational and logistical issues the impaired its effectiveness.

BR: Can you describe your research and writing process? What sources did you rely on most?

SH: I typically like to assemble my research for a chapter before I start writing.  The research also guides the story the chapter needs to tell.  But I sometimes was so eager to write – because I really enjoy the process – that I would get started before I finished the research.  I don’t recommend this method as it leads to an excessive amount of re-writing when you discover evidence that contradicts something you have already written.

The U.S. Army Heritage Education Center, Dartmouth College, the National Archives and Library of Congress were four of the most important archives among many I accessed for this project.  USAHEC houses the finest collection of Union related manuscript material in the country and it is an absolutely first class resource to use.  Besides all the official documents, correspondence, regimental books, etc., that the National Archives houses they had an obscure collection called Antietam Studies, which contained dozens of letters from veterans of the battle mainly to Ezra Carman, a veteran of the battle, and its historian in the late 19th Century, documenting in great detail their unit’s part in the battle, and sometimes, in the entire campaign.  The Library of Congress had Ezra Carman’s massive unpublished manuscript of the Maryland Campaign, which is indispensable to any study of the campaign.  Thankfully, Tom Clemens did a masterful job of editing this manuscript and it has been published by Savas BeatieDartmouth College housed the John Gould Collection.  Gould was an officer in the 10th Maine Infantry at Antietam who in the 1890’s initially set out to determine where General Joseph K. Mansfield fell at Antietam, but the project expanded until Gould was receiving correspondence from dozens of Union and Confederate veterans who fought in the cornfield and East Woods.  Although there is a great deal of correspondence from Confederate soldiers in the Antietam Studies and Gould Collection, for wartime manuscript material the Southern Historical Collection at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is the largest.

When I started this project the web as we know it did not exist yet, but in the last few years I used it quite a bit.  The best on-line source for the Maryland Campaign is [Brian Downey's] Antietam on the Web.  It is an excellent resource.

BR: What’s next for you?

SH: Next is volume 2, which will cover the Battle of Antietam, the end of the campaign and the aftermath of Antietam, both in the battlefield area and nationally.  My guess is it will take three years.

We’re all looking forward to that – but good luck with that three year schedule!





Interview: Blaikie Hines, “The Battle of First Bull Run”

26 05 2012

Blaikie Hines is the author of The Battle of First Bull Run, Manassas Campaign – July 16-22, 1861: An Illustrated Atlas and Battlefield Guide (you can order it from Mr. Hines’s website here). The book is a little hard to explain (though I tried to do so here), so I thought it best to let the author tell us all about it:

BR: Blaikie, tell the readers about your background.

BH: I was born in New York City in 1949 and grew up in Connecticut. I  am  a well-known fine art conservator who specializes in 19th century paintings and frames.  I am also a Civil War collector, historian  and author.  I grew up in a family steeped in Civil War history.  Along with two great, great Grandfathers  who served from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, my great-uncle was a Lutheran Minister who graduated from Gettysburg Seminary in 1909. He had first hand stories of that great battle from eye witnesses. My Massachusetts ancestor fought with the 1st Massachusetts Infantry at Blackburn’s Ford on July 18th, 1861.  In addition to my Bull Run book, I am also the author of  “Civil War Volunteer Sons of Connecticut”  Both are published by American Patriot Press.  I live in Thomaston, Maine with my wife Judith.

BR: What got you interested in the Civil War?

BH:  In 1963 at the age of fourteen, our family visited the battlefield at Gettysburg during that centennial year. My Lutheran minister uncle came with us and for the first time in my life I heard history become alive through his stories about that great battle. Some of his professors had been seminarians in 1863 and had actually witnessed the conflict. We were all so enthralled and eventually had a crowd that was following us around listening to Uncle Charlie’s stories.  After that, I remember my Dad began to buy Civil war books and when a my uncle passed away Dad inherited his books. For me, my youth took over and my interest in the Civil War lay dormant for about 30 years. When at the death of a great-aunt on my mother’s side I came into possession of a Civil War dog tag that had belonged to my great, great, Pennsylvania grandfather who had fought at Antietam and was eventually severally wounded at Fredericksburg fighting with the 132nd Pennsylvania Infantry. I began to look into the Civil War very deeply at first from his perspective and then from the perspective of my home state Connecticut. That research of seven years produced Civil War Volunteer Sons of Connecticut.

BR: Why did you decide to write The Battle of First Bull Run…, and what were you hoping to accomplish with it?

BH: In 2003 our daughter enrolled at American University located in Washington, DC. On one of our visits, my wife and daughter went off together to do “girl” things and I headed due west to the battlefield at Manassas about 30 miles away. I knew very little of the battle except for  the most elementary facts. I arrived at the visitor center and was very impressed by the facility and staff. Armed with the park service map I walked Henry Hill, then Matthews Hill, and finally the Stone Bridge  and Van Pelt area. I returned to the visitor center and went into the bookstore. I was surprised that there was no comprehensive guide-book. There were numerous books on 1st Bull Run but all were mostly narrative with a few maps and scattered photographs. The only book that came close to what I was looking for was Bearss’s map guide-book and accompanying maps. I found the maps so jammed packed as to be almost unreadable however the text part was extremely helpful but there were no photos or illustrations. I did not really know it at the time but I began to assemble, over several years, all of the components that would become my 1st Bull Run book. I finally set before me the task of putting together a fully illustrated battlefield atlas and guide. In essence I created what I thought someone else would have done years before.  In 2011 I finished writing and published that book I was looking for at the Manassas Battlefield bookstore eight years before.

BR: The layout/organization of The Battle of First Bull Run… is not conventional in any way. What was your concept of what you wanted the reader’s experience to be, and how do you feel you succeeded in that regard?

BH: Since the work before me was to create an illustrated atlas and battlefield guide, the landscape format served my needs very well. I wanted the text for each map or photo to appear right next to the accompanying  image so that one did not have to thumb through one page to connect with an image on another. A more traditional vertical format would have added not subtracted from this concern. I wanted the spread of two side by side pages to be as wide as practically possible. In my book it is about 24 inches.  I wanted the book to be as chronological as I could make it rather than divided up into separate geographical, organizational, uniform and artillery sections.  I was intrigued by the various uniforms and wanted to have an extensive treatment of them scattered through the time line.  I wanted every type of artillery piece engaged to have a separate photo with specs and organizational distribution. I wanted every photograph of identified individuals to include  rank, organization, state of birth and age along with any military training. West Point class and rank is intriguing to me. I have always loved historical photographs and wanted mine to be of the highest quality and of the largest size that could be reasonably confined to one page. I do not enjoy photos that spread across two pages mostly because of what is lost in the binding. I used enhancement techniques that were recommended to me by an Israeli defense photographic analyst. I feel that the quality of the period photographs in my book are superb. I also wanted a modern view to be placed right next to the period view hopefully from the same angle. With regard to the type of map I created, I used the most up to date satellite images. That way the modern vegetative pattern becomes the setting for the conflict even though the vegetation from the 1860’s in large part has changed. With my maps, it is much easier for an individual to locate oneself on the field relative to the map. I wanted the modern battlefield trails on the maps and an indication of the various battlefield markers. I wanted all significant distances to be indicated. One of my frustrations with my visit  to the field was my inability to judge where I was on the field and the distance to significant landmarks, not so much for historical purposes but for walking purposes. Inevitably I would run out of energy before I ran out of desire. The distances on the maps helps one plan the “walk”.

I am a perfectionist and in that light I can view my book with an eye to its weaknesses. By and large, I am very pleased. For those that have read the book, the overwhelming comment has been that I have been able to present the conflict in a very clear and compact manner. The one word that I often hear is that the book is  “beautiful”. I am aware of the grammatical errors and regret them  but I view them as minor and have tried not to confuse the baby with the bath water. I am also aware that 1st Bull Run was surrounded in much controversy so  I am very sure that not everyone fully agrees with my presentation of the events. Apart from the grammatical editing part (I know how to solve that), I would love for anyone to take my book and show me where it can be improved. I would have to trust that such an individual would do so from a constructive rather than a destructive point of view. My labor has been one of love. Nothing more than that. I simply love the study of the Civil War.

BR: Can you describe your writing and researching processes? How has the web impacted both?

BH:  Since my goal was primarily illustrative, my immediate challenge was to assemble as many images as possible.  Extensive internet searches led me to the major and minor collections of civil war images. Some I would visit personally, others I would buy specific images from, or in some instances hire someone to help me. The Library of Congress, United States Military History Institute, and the Montgomery County Historical Society in Dayton, Ohio were my major sources. Gettysburg College, Southern Methodist University, Louisiana State University, and the University of Georgia are just a few of my minor sources. Through Google Earth and Terre Server I was able to download amazing satellite images. There is also a web site called Historical Aerials were I found the 1949 battlefield aerials. I visited the battlefield many times and with a digital camera could fire away as much as I wished with no concern for cost of film, developing, etc.   With regard to the text, I read every First Bull Run history that I could find, from period writings to modern publications. The Internet Archive was hugely helpful for the period writings along with Google Books. The internet has had a gigantic impact on my research. When I came to writing the text I was not intent on discovering some new writing or anecdote.  I took the campaign day by day, hour by hour, and would compare text across many sources. I would use generally common knowledge, highlight differences when they occurred, and in essence boil down the narrative to fit a certain page space. The image, whether map or photo, along with the identifying labels was the most important component of each page.

BR: Why did you decide to self-publish, and what do you think are the pluses and minuses of self-publication.

BH: I decided to self publish because I wanted to make all of the critical decisions about every design aspect of the book from size, paper, layout, binding, font, etc. I did not want the quality of the publication left to someone else. I am pleased when someone says my book is unconventional. If I had gone to a regular publisher I fear I would have gotten conventional and lower quality.  I received 40 quotes from printers (not publishers) in the U.S. There is a general rule of thumb that the retail price of a book is eight times the cost of printing. My book at 225 pages, 9 x 12, softcover, and in edition of 2,000 copies was estimated at the low end to be $8 per copy all the way to $15. That means my book would have to have sold for $64 – $120. Who would buy that?  Hardcover would have been through the roof. Any regular American publisher would have had to lower the quality to have it printed here. I did not want that. Would they look offshore? I ultimately had the book printed in India for $5 per copy including shipping, customs etc. That is how I arrived at $39.50 retail. Another thing I did not want was for my book to be dumped to discount booksellers and sell for just above cost. Well, that is the upside of self publishing. Now to the down, the monetary risk is all mine, I should have hired a competent copy editor instead of having the editing done by an inexperienced editor, and finally I miss the wider distribution that would have come with a regular publisher. Even in that light I would do it all over again.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

BH: Apart from the remarks about grammar, the reviews have been excellent. It has been very satisfying. The battlefield park at Manassas now sells it along with the Manassas Museum, Amazon, Alibris, and the American Patriot Press website

BR: Do you plan to have any future printings, and what (if any) changes will you be making?

BH: I definitely plan future printings. In addition to the grammatical errors I would love to see some constructive changes that others may offer, be it historical or whatever. As along as it is done with the right spirit, I will listen.

BR: Are you working on anything else right now?

BH: I actually have three projects competing with one another. All are in the same vein and format as the Bull Run book. I have been working on the Battle of New Market, Battle of Fredericksburg, and Battle of 2nd Bull Run. In time one will begin to take the lead. Newmarket is perhaps the easiest  because of its size. The other two are huge and far more  daunting. The natural thing for me to do is 2nd Bull Run. I have most of the images already, am familiar with most of the field, and once again there is no comprehensive atlas and battlefield guide. Time will tell.





Interview: Mark Snell, “West Virginia and the Civil War”

17 11 2011

I met Mark Snell about 10 years ago at a Penn State – Mont Alto conference, sipping scotch and smoking cigars with Joe Harsh in the gazebos into the wee hours. Since then our paths have seldom crossed, though I did run into him in the Reliance Mine Saloon in Gettysburg a couple of years back. I don’t think he remembered meeting me, but he did say he was a Bull Runnings reader. Mark has a new book out from The History Press’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Series, titled West Virginia and the Civil War: Mountaineers Are Always Free, and he recently took some time to answer a few questions about it.

BR: For those who don’t already know, who is Mark Snell?

MS:  I’m a retired US Army officer, having served from 1973-1994. I currently work as a professor of history and the director of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War at Shepherd University.  As a graduate student I studied under Herman Hattaway at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC). I own and live on a circa-1832 farm just outside of Gettysburg. On July 1, 1863, two divisions of the Army of the Potomac’s 11th Corps marched down the road between my house and my barn.

BR: What got you interested in military history and the American Civil War as a line of study?

MS: I grew up in York, Pennsylvania, during the Civil War Centennial. York is about a 45-minute drive east of Gettysburg. Naturally, as a little boy I was fascinated by the monuments and cannons at Gettysburg National Military Park, and many family visits there sparked my interest. When I got older, I bought a metal detector and started digging relics, and later joined a re-enactment group. Those things really escalated my interest in the Civil War. Then, as a young army lieutenant, I was stationed in Germany, and I frequently traveled during my free time to the battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars, the Franco-Prussian War, World War I and World War II. Then, when I was a captain, I was selected to teach history at the US Military Academy. Uncle Sam sent me to graduate school prior to that assignment, and while at Rutgers University I wrote a master’s thesis on recruiting and conscription in York County, PA, during the Civil War. I was not really trained as a military historian, and in fact I taught courses in American history, not military history, at West Point. Nonetheless, I slowly gravitated towards specializing in military history, although I still consider myself a social/cultural historian.  I then became a doctoral student at UMKC, where I wrote a biography of Union general William B. Franklin for my dissertation [later published as From First to Last: The Life of Major General William B. Franklin - BR]. As I was completing my studies there, I was hired to be the director of the Civil War Center at Shepherd University. Recently, I taught for one semester in the Department of War Studies at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. There, I taught strictly military history, from the history of expeditionary operations to the history of insurgency/counterinsurgency warfare to military leadership from a historical perspective.

BR: While the West Virginia link is obvious from your connection to Shepherd University, how does your work there tie to the book? I know you have researchers working on a WV soldiers database – did the results of that study impact the book?

MS: Ever since my arrival at Shepherd, our staff has been compiling a database comprised of the transcribed military service records of West Virginia soldiers, both Union and Confederate, who fought in the Civil War. The information from the micro-filmed service records is entered, by regiment, in a special database that we created using Microsoft Access. Thus far we have entered the records of approximately 20,000 soldiers from both sides. Currently, we are entering the service records of soldiers who were assigned to the 22nd Virginia Infantry, a Confederate regiment recruited from the Kanawha Valley of modern-day West Virginia.  Since approximately 32,000 Union soldiers are credited to West Virginia, and somewhere around 20,000 (West) Virginians served in Confederate units, we still have a long way to go until the completion of that project. A few years ago we released a CD titled “Mountaineers of the Blue and Gray,” which contains historical data on West Virginia units, the battles in which they fought, key Civil War sites in West Virginia, the creation of the State of West Virginia, biographical sketches of famous or interesting West Virginia Civil War personalities, etc. The research that the staff of the George Tyler Moore Center had accomplished in constructing this CD, as well as the data gleaned from the military service records database, greatly facilitated the writing of my recent book.

BR: Was there anything that you turned up in the process of researching and writing this book that particularly surprised you (I know that’s a loaded question since you’ve been researching this topic for a long time)?

MS: Yes. I was surprised at the level and ferocity of guerilla warfare—which was then called “bushwhacking”—within the borders of the state. I found one instance where a Union soldier was ambushed and hacked to pieces and then beheaded by Confederate guerillas. In his autobiography, General George Crook remarked that the bushwhackers caused so many problems that, once captured,  they “accidentally” drowned, or “fell” and broke their necks, or were shot while “trying to escape.”

BR: Is there anything you wish had made it into the book but didn’t?

MS: I was limited by the number of words that was dictated by the publisher, but most of what I wanted to get into print actually survived the editor’s slashing.  This past semester I taught a course on West Virginia history, made necessary by the unexpected retirement of a faculty member who had taught that course for more than three decades. I only wish I had taught this course before I wrote West Virginia and the Civil War, as the knowledge I’ve gained from teaching it would have given me a better perspective for placing the war in the larger context of antebellum Western Virginia history and post-bellum West Virginia history. Also, I would have liked to have written an entire chapter on the guerilla war. Finally, because I had exceeded the publisher’s word-count limitation, I had to cut out some images.

BR: If there’s one thing about WV’s role in the Civil War that you hope people take away from this book, what is it?

MS: The one thing that people should understand is that West Virginia was the most divided state in the country—more so than Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri— with approximately 40,000 of its citizens serving as combatants (about 20,000 on each side). There were battles—particularly the ones fought in the Shenandoah Valley and within the borders of the new state, such as the 1863 clash at Droop Mountain and the 1864 battle at New Market—that pitted friends and family members against each other. Also, I think I set the record straight on the actual number of Union soldiers who enlisted in West Virginia’s Union regiments. The “official” number has always been given at approximately 32,000, but about a third of that number was made up of citizens of Pennsylvania or Ohio who came across the state border to enlist. Also, some of those 32,000 troops were men who re-enlisted in Veteran Volunteer regiments.  Older histories focusing on West Virginia and the Civil War also deflated the number of West Virginians serving in Confederate—mostly Virginia—regiments, but recent scholarship has adjusted the number upwards to approximately 20,000.

BR: Can you describe your researching and writing process?

MS: My research process for West Virginia and the Civil War was much easier than it should have been because of the ongoing research that the staff of the George Tyler Moore Center has been doing for more than a decade and a half. Nonetheless, I still used archival material and special collections found in the West Virginia University Library and the West Virginia State Archives. Plus, I used unpublished letters and other primary sources from our own library, as well as the plethora of primary sources that have made their way into print in the past few decades.  The internet also proved useful, as I was able to find on-line primary sources from reputable websites, as well as out-of-print books that have been scanned and made available on-line, such as the ones found at Google Books. The actual collection of my research notes is done on my laptop. When most of the research is completed, I write a detailed outline, and then I immediately begin writing the manuscript.  During the actual writing period I have books, photocopies and hand-written notes all over the place, usually in my dining room. The best way to describe it is “organized chaos.”

BR: What’s on tap for you?

MS: Right now I’m writing the narrative to accompany a photographic album on West Virginia and the Civil War, to be published in 2013 by West Virginia University Press, and I’m co-editing, with Ethan Rafuse, an anthology focusing on Union corps commanders, to be published by LSU Press. After those projects are finished, I’ll either write a book about the guerilla war in West Virginia, or I’ll do something completely different, like tackle a World War II subject.

The WVa guerilla war sounds particularly intriguing. Here’s hoping that we see at least one more Civil War related work from Mark before he goes traipsing off into other conflicts.





Interview: James S. Price, “The Battle of New Market Heights”

18 10 2011

Public historian and blogger James S. “Jimmy” Price is the author of the recently released The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will be Theirs by the Sword. I’ve never met Jimmy, but am acquainted with him via his blog and Facebook. So when I learned of this new study of a relatively little known engagement involving US Colored Troops I was intrigued and thought maybe some of you would be, too. So I shamelessly begged a copy, looked it over, and did my thing.

BR: Jimmy, we usually start off here with a little background information. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

JP: I had the great privilege of being born in the best sports town in America (and by that, of course, I mean Pittsburgh, PA). My family moved to Richmond when I was five years old, which was just in time for the 125th anniversary of the Civil War. History soon became my passion and I got involved with re-enacting at the age of 15. I was also fortunate enough to have wonderful parents who supported me while I made peanuts working at some local museums and battlefields. I was able to gain some great work experience at places like Petersburg National Battlefield and Richmond National Battlefield Park. This opened the door to doing more serious work at Pamplin Historical Park and The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar. At the same time I was pursuing an academic career in history, completing my undergraduate work at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2005 and grad school at Norwich University in 2009. I currently live in Fredericksburg with my beautiful wife and our two kids and I’m working with John Hennessy and the fabulous staff at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park developing a web-based curriculum entitled “Community at War.”

BR: What got you interested in the Civil War as a line of study?

JP: My Dad taking me to the battlefields around Richmond initially spurred my interest. Shortly after that I got a free subscription to the Time Life Civil War series and managed to get my hands on a copy of the American Heritage History of the Civil War by Bruce Catton. After that it was game over, and I knew that I wanted to pursue Civil War history as a career. Over a decade later when I came to work for the County of Henrico, I had to spend a lot of time familiarizing myself with the battles that took place there, and it was then that I did my first real research into the Battle of New Market Heights (I had known about it since my days at Richmond National Battlefield, but hadn’t done any significant research). This prompted me to launch The Sable Arm: A Blog Dedicated to the United States Colored Troops of the Civil War Era as a means to force myself to learn more about USCTs and the battle that led to fourteen of them receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor.

BR: New Market Heights is not an action that pops to the top of most Civil War enthusiasts list of well-known engagements. What first got you interested in it?

JP:  The thing that really piqued my interest at first was the amount of Medals of Honor that were issued for just one action. Add the fact that they were issued to African-American troops and I started to think that this battle was at least as important as the more famous charge of the 54th Massachusetts at Battery Wagner that was immortalized in the motion picture Glory. To have United States Colored Troops attacking a position that was defended by some of Lee’s best troops within a few short miles of the Confederate capital seemed to be a story worthy of more exploration.

BR: Since some readers may not be familiar with the battle, how about a brief synopsis?

JP: New Market Heights was part of a larger two-day action known today as the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, fought on September 29-30, 1864. It took place during the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign of 1864-65. In late September of 1864, Grant prepared an offensive to strike at Petersburg, prevent Robert E. Lee from reinforcing his troops in the Shenandoah Valley, and – if possible – seize the city of Richmond. Grant planned a two-pronged assault with the Army of the Potomac striking at Petersburg while Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James struck north of the James River to threaten the rebel capital. Spearheading one prong of this attack would be Brig. Gen. Charles Paine’s Third Division of the XVIII Corps, a unit comprised entirely of United States Colored Troops. Their objective would be New Market Heights. Early on the morning of the 29th, Paine designated Col. Samuel A. Duncan’s 3rd Brigade to take New Market Heights. Duncan’s men deployed in a skirmish line 200 yards long and soon encountered obstacles that hampered their movement. A marshy stream called Four Mile Creek ran across their line of advance and slashing, abatis, and chevaux-de-frise blocked access to the Rebel entrenchments. Duncan’s men advanced into the thick fog and, in the words of one survivor, were “all cut to pieces.” Intense musket and artillery fire shredded the ranks of the oncoming Federals and soon Col. Duncan was down with four wounds. His brigade was forced to withdraw, losing 387 of its 750 effectives. Paine then sent in his 2nd Brigade under the command of Col. Alonzo G. Draper. As the sun began to rise, Draper’s men went in over the same ground that Duncan’s men had crossed and they were soon entangled in the slashing. For thirty brutal minutes, Draper’s men endured a barrage from the Confederate lines before the Confederates began to withdraw.  Draper would lose 447 out of his 1,300 men. They had taken New Market Heights, but as the day’s events played out, they would not capture Richmond. That being said, one former Confederate did write that “upon [the] 29th [of] September, Richmond came nearer being captured, and that, too, by negro troops, than it ever did during the whole war.”  While Butler met with only partial success that day, the fighting prowess of the African-American soldiers under his command was put on full display for all to see. Throughout the entire course of the war, only eighteen black soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor. Of that number, fourteen were awarded to the black troops who stormed New Market Heights.

BR: What did your research turn up that particularly surprised you?

JP: I was happy to find some unpublished accounts that backed up some of the more famous incidents that have been called into question. For instance, the story has always gone that Butler rode up to the men of Duncan’s brigade who were about to step off and exhorted them that their battle cry should be “Remember Fort Pillow!” People tend to doubt anything that Butler claims to have said or done, but I did find an account from a Texan who spoke about the attacking USCTs shouting “Remember Fort Pillow!” and how mad that made him. I was also happy to find an unpublished account from Alexander Kelly, who was a member of the 6th USCT and one of the Medal of Honor recipients. That, plus some great photographs from the collection of a gentleman named Rob Lyon that he graciously allowed me to reproduce in the book were very pleasant surprises.

BR: If your work impacts how the Battle of New Market Heights is remembered in one way, what would you hope that is?

JP: Well, the longstanding tradition about New Market Heights is that, while the USCTs displayed bravery and heroism during the assault, we shouldn’t read too much into the fact that there were 14 Medals of Honor awarded to those who fought there. Skeptics claim that the nefarious Beast Butler hatched up the idea of New Market Heights being a grand victory to further his political interests. I’ve read one author who referred to the idea of the black troops winning a legitimate victory at New Market Heights as being “hoopla” while another refers to this notion as “militarily irrelevant Negrophilia.” I hope that folks who read my book will view the battle in a more balanced light.

BR: Can you describe your research and writing process?

JP: In terms of researching USCTs, Record Group 94 at the National Archives and Records Administration is a treasure trove of good information. Richmond National Battlefield had been compiling information on New Market Heights for over 20 years, and I was fortunate enough to be able to go through every scrap of paper they had concerning the battle. I was also astonished at how many good sources I could find through Google books and http://www.archive.org/, www.footnote.com, and Accessible Archives. I used the information gathered through these various sources to guide the rest of my research and then had to sift through what I could use and what I had to leave behind (keep in mind I was working with a 40,000 word limit).

BR: What’s next for you?

JP: Well, I have a few things cookin’ on my plate right now. I’ve had my first two experiences with Hollywood as of late. I had the privilege of serving as a historical consultant for the upcoming miniseries To Appomattox, which was a great experience. I reviewed the scenes having to do with USCTs and, from what I’ve seen of the script, this is going to be a fine production. I’m also working as one of the extras in the upcoming Lincoln film, which gives me the ability to brag that I’ve been in the same room as Steven Spielberg. And in other (breaking) news, I recently just signed a contract for my second book with The History Press! This time I will be examining the First Battle of Deep Bottom, fought from July 27-29, 1864, where Winfield Scott Hancock and Phillip H. Sheridan both failed to add any battlefield laurels to their respective careers. Life is busy!

It sounds busy! Pick up a copy of The Battle of New Market Heights. It’s a quick read at just over 100 pages, nicely illustrated with photos, drawings, and maps. Jimmy Price has helped bring this event into sharper focus.








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