Interview: Gary Ecelbarger, “The Day Dixie Died”

8 12 2010

I first met author Gary Ecelbarger about ten years ago on a tour of the 2nd Bull Run Campaign.  Our senses of humor run along the same lines and we got along well, so we’ve kept in touch off and on, and we booked him for a discussion group tour of the Shenandoah Valley a few years ago.  Gary has a new book out on the Battle of Atlanta, and agreed to talk about it with Bull Runnings.

BR: Gary, can you fill the readers in on your background?

GE: The most important thing to know about me is that I have never played the lottery, never took a vitamin, never purchased bottled water for myself, and have never been convicted of a felony.  That said and out of the way, I should add that I have had a life-long interest in history beginning while growing up in North Tonawanda, NY, 10 miles upriver from Niagara Falls; but I chose science as my academic background, graduating with an M.S. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’ve lived in Western NY for 23 years, Wisconsin for 5, and  Northern Virginia for almost 20 years (the math should tally up to 48 years). I’ve been married since 1989 and reside about 20 miles west of Washington D.C. in Annandale, VA with my wife Carolyn (a Georgetown professor) and three teen-aged children. I’ve worked at area hospitals for most of that time, primarily in ICUs, where I’ve taught a little, conducted some research, and primarily have developed nutritional regimens to infuse through IV lines or through tubes into very sick people.

I started writing history in the mid-90s. The Day Dixie Died: The Battle of Atlanta is my eighth book which includes two co-written works. I have also published about 20 articles.  My book, magazine, and journal topics are primarily focused in the mid 1800s.  I also have researched heavily into the life and times of Abraham Lincoln, the American Revolution and Western exploration.  I have spoken at several symposia and conducted tours within all these arenas of yesteryear– hired by touring companies, Civil War Roundtables, and other historic-minded organizations.

For what it’s worth I used to be as crazy for professional sports as I was for history but when your boyhood idol kills his wife and another, and your team loses four consecutive Super Bowls and hasn’t made major waves in 15 years, that interest gets tempered a bit. But I’m still a Bills fan and have followed the Atlanta Braves since the 70s—from the days of Hank Aaron, Ralph Garr, Phil Niekro, Bob Horner, and Dale Murphy. I like hockey and still consider the Miracle on Ice as the most thrilling event I ever saw although my kids will never appreciate it. Sometimes I miss the Cold War!

I must say I enjoy everything that I do which is really what life is all about, isn’t it?

BR:  What sparked your interest in history in general and the Civil War especially, and what made you decide to publish?

GE:  I remember migrating to history books in my elementary school years. My father also shares this interest which he and I discuss more now than we even did when I was a child. I chose American history courses as all my electives as an undergraduate in Buffalo.

My interest in the Civil War has been with me since childhood but it blossomed to a passion more than 20 years ago during my graduate school years in Wisconsin when I took a trip to visit my then-girlfriend’s (and now my wife’s) brother in a Maryland suburb of D.C.  We stopped at Gettysburg along the way and I became so hooked that I finagled a way for us to visit Manassas, Antietam, and Harper’s Ferry during this vacation. I devoured nearly 50 books about the Civil War in one year after coming back to Madison (I remember slipping in chapters here and there between rat experiments in the lab where I worked).  The basement stacks of the state historical library and archives became my morning routine and also where I started researching topics through their extensive and national newspaper collections. I’d be lying if I said that the Civil War played no role in my decision to take a job in Northern Virginia—within an hour’s drive of so many battlefields—at the end of ’91.

My interest and research experience intensified throughout the 90s.  I live 20 miles from the Library of Congress and National Archives. I took an interest in Kernstown with me from Madison and met the people necessary to conduct me on my first trip onto private property to visit the battlefield. I turned that into my first book topic (“We are in for it!”,: The First Battle of Kernstown), urged on by Bill Miller who had recently organized the Bull Run Civil War Roundtable and as then editor of a Civil War magazine, he oversaw my first publications of book reviews and other small pieces, including an editing credit for a wonderful letter I found on the Battle of Shiloh which was still getting cited nearly 15 years after I had it published.  Bill encouraged me to turn my Kernstown research into a book and also got me in contact with the folks at White Mane (they had published his Camp Curtain book) and they took on my Kernstown project.  Perhaps I eventually would have entered the magazine and book writing world, but Bill Miller is the reason that all started in the mid-90s.

BR:  Can you walk us through the progression from your first book to this one?

GE:  I’m really glad you asked that question (not that I was suggesting that your other questions  were subpar!). If someone sees that between the summer of 2005 and today that I have published 4 books, the first thing that would pop in their heads is that these must be the product of incomplete, haphazard research.  That’s what I would think, so it’s important to see how I took advantage of the cycle of researching, writing, and publishing as book.

I finished the Kernstown manuscript in the early spring of ’96, but it would not be published for nearly 1 ½ years.  In that time I was hired by Kirk Denkler, an editor of the Voices of Civil War Series for Time-Life Books (a lucky break for me). Denkler got word of all the unpublished letters I discovered about the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign and had me write captions and battle descriptions for their Valley volume and for the Fredericksburg book that followed. By the time the Kernstown book was published I had already started writing my biography of a Western explorer and general named Frederick Lander. He commanded Shields’s division until 3 weeks before Kernstown when he unexpectedly died.  The first chapter of my Kernstown book was my lead in to him.  I published that book (Frederick W. Lander: The Great Natural American Soldier) with LSU Press in 2000 and was already working on my Front Royal Winchester book in the year and a half between manuscript submission and the publication of Lander. I wrote 8 chapters of that Valley book and then sat on it for almost 8 years after I was unsuccessful at landing an agent to represent it.

In the meantime, before Lander was published and while I was writing Front Royal/Winchester I became fascinated by “Black Jack” Logan and also the Atlanta campaign.  I researched both topics together and separately for a few years and decided to write a one-volume bio of Logan’s life and career.  I made the conscious decision not to craft this as a Civil War book (completely opposite from my approach to Lander), but rather a fairly equal and representation of his entire life—almost a political bio of a Civil War general. I succeeded in getting representation for this, submitted the manuscript in ’04, and got it published (Black Jack Logan: An Extraordinary Life in Peace and War) by Lyon’s Press in the summer of ’05.  I deliberately kept much of my Atlanta campaign material out of that book knowing it would receive a separate treatment someday.

Now comes some major overlap of several book topics and a big career decision. Late in the autumn of ’03 I made my first of what would be at least half a dozen trips to Springfield, Illinois to research Logan material at the state library and archives and also to plan a Lincoln tour for the Civil War Education Association. I decided to expand my research to include pre-Presidential Lincoln, or as I like to call it LBTB—Lincoln Before the Beard. The tour I designed throughout central Illinois included a heavy focus on events leading to Lincoln’s nomination. Two years later with much more Lincoln research completed by the fall of ’05 and a few months after Logan came out, I realized I should get a trade publisher to take a Lincoln topic with the Lincoln Bicentennial approaching, but my research and writing projects were restricted by my full-time (and then some) clinical job.  With my wife’s blessing I took a shot and did what a writer should never do—I quit my day job at the end of ‘05 after 14 years to try to make a full-time career as a writer, speaker, and tour guide.

I went back to full-time hospital work exactly four years later (insert heavy sigh here). I could blame the sudden turn in the economy, but it would have been tough even in a boom.  I was productive, though. In the winter of ’06 I finished the remaining chapters of the old Front Royal/Winchester book and found an excellent home for it with the University of Oklahoma Press. I also landed an agent for my Lincoln nomination project—Ed Knappman of New England Publishing Associates. He struck a deal with Thomas Dunne Books (an imprint of St. Martin’s Press) and I spent the rest of 2006 and the first half of 2007 completing the research and writing that manuscript. Early in ’08 I believe, the good folks at Thomas Dunne suggested to Ed that they would be interested in publishing a Civil War book from me if there was a big battle out there that had yet to be covered. I pounced on that one with the Battle of Atlanta (By this time I had already conducted four of my five trips down there to study what was left of the field and conduct more research) and immediately went to work on it.

This is how I suddenly had three books published on completely unrelated Civil War era topics in the past 30 months. Three Days in the Shenandoah, Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester, mostly written between 2000-2002, was published in April of 2008; The Great Comeback: How Abraham Lincoln Beat the Odds to Win the 1860 Republican Nomination, written in 2006-2007, was published five months later in September of 2008; and now The Day Dixie Died, written in 2008-2009 and submitted in October of 2009, has just been released this past Thanksgiving.  And boy am I thankful I got all of that–along with a few articles, several speeches and several history tours, and a fairly extensive book tour—completed before I went back to work again in February of 2010.

BR:  What is your research/writing process?

GE:  I think the previous answer offered a good glimpse into my process.  I can only write in the mornings.  Prior to 2006 I would write from about 4:30 a.m. until I left for work. During my four-year retirement, I began a few hours later but I usually was done before noon.  I would review material I intended to use in my morning’s work the evening before.  I’m not much of a typist and rarely write more than a couple of pages in a stint, but I usually get 5-6 days in per week so I usually could finish writing a book manuscript within 12-15 months from the start date. After Kernstown, my start date for each book usually began the day after I submitted the previous manuscript. That running tradition ended last year after I submitted the Atlanta manuscript. This past year is the first time in 15 years that I have gone more than a month without actively writing a book.

I usually feel comfortable enough to start writing with about 65-75% of the research completed and then fill in the blanks as I acquire new and usable material. My books are outlined in chapter summaries before I write them. This is a requirement for a nonfiction book proposal which is submitted with just one or two sample chapters written. With one exception (the Lincoln book), I rarely begin with chapter one. For example, I wrote the battle chapters first in all three of my battle books and finished with the introductory and concluding material afterwards. Similarly, the first chapter of both of my biographies ended up being the last chapter I wrote. I can never be convincingly charged with having a padded bibliography because I create my bibliographies from my footnotes, so I only reference in the end what I cite within a chapter.  I don’t use index cards or transcribed notes—I am a photocopy animal. I organize my sources as copies of letters, diaries, memoirs, archive material, newspapers, etc. and either group them by subtopic or by chapter where they are intended to be used.  I get familiar with a source by the way it looks as a photocopy—I still remember how photocopied items look many years after I have used them for a book.

If I have a knack about anything as a writer it is the ease at which I can compartmentalize a battle or a life story into distinct chapters. I tend to end my chapters with a little cliffhanger or two to entice the reader to go on to the next one. I don’t hash out disagreements between claims in primary source material in the narrative; instead, I’ll come down on one side or another based on the quality and quantity of the available evidence and then bring out the opposition to my conclusion in the respective footnote. I always try to maintain a strong flow of the story without throwing in speculations and suppositions to break the flow, but make sure to elaborate on “the story behind the story” in the footnotes.

My research techniques have evolved with experience and time. Prior to 2002 or so the Internet was not that helpful to me for history research; now it is a godsend. Except for hiring private researchers to acquire some genealogy and local history work for biographies and researcher extraordinaire Bryce Suderow for archival work for one of my battle books, I usually conduct my own research and gladly accept items generously provided by others. I have already accumulated primary source material for three future projects while on research trips for books that I was writing at the time. I try to keep my book topics finite enough to make research a fruitful and not too expansive effort. For example, I didn’t delve into Army of the Cumberland sources for my Battle of Atlanta book since they were not active in the battle, realizing however, that there may have been opinions or first-hand accounts within that material pertinent to my topic that I missed.  I had to cut off the notion of reading a Union soldier’s Peachtree Creek letter in the hopes he talked about the Atlanta battle two days later because he would not be a participant of that battle and if he said anything, it was likely a hearsay opinion.

I learned to look for things I never had access to or conceived a decade ago.  I purposely spell names wrong in search engines in hopes of – and oftentimes succeeding in – finding a primary account where the soldier misspelled his commander’s name or where he was. For biographies, if I look for an opinion or account of something that occurred, for example, in the first week of January of 1864, I’ve learned to look at handwritten letters also headed with an early January date in 1863, because human tendency was and still is to misdate letters, documents, checks, etc., in a new year with the previous year’s designation for the first week or so. (I wonder how many good Stones River/Murfreesboro accounts are still hidden in letters dated January of 1862 rather than 1863.)  But now I am straying from the topic . . . The most important facet of my research is newspaper letters.  They are a researcher’s dream: they are primary source material, oftentimes contemporary, already transcribed, and not subject to copyright infringement, and although they are technically considered “published,” they have been virtually unseen for nearly 150 years.  I use more than 50 of these in my latest book and placed them under a separate bibliographic heading rather than the misleading “Newspapers Cited.”

BR:  There have been two books on the battles for Atlanta released over the past two years. How does yours differ from those?

GE:  I was aware that both of those books were being written either before or very early into my battle book. From what I heard at the time I was convinced that my subject was much more pinpointed than theirs and when both of those books came out in the summer of ’09 I was relieved to see that they not only don’t repeat my topic, they enhance interest in the period. The Bonfire: The Siege and Burning of Atlanta is primarily a social history about Atlanta during the war and the war’s impact upon its citizenry. War Like the Thunderbolt: The Battle and Burning of Atlanta includes “The Battle of Atlanta” in the subtitle but is actually referring to “the battles for Atlanta.”  That book deals with the last half of the Atlanta Campaign with a focus on its effect on the city. He has two chapters dedicated to the same topic as my book. I believe it is Mr. Bonds himself who proclaims the need for book-length attention to the individual battles of the campaign. Regardless, I read both books with interest and relief that mine was not a copycat of theirs. I think they are both outstanding books.

BR:   Were there any surprises you uncovered in your research, or anything that conflicted with or confirmed any notions you may have held prior to starting the project?

GE:  I approached this book the same way I did with the other battle books I have written. I tried to rid myself of any preconceived notions from other secondary sources and let the primary source research direct me. This battle was more difficult to interpret compared to the Shenandoah Valley battles I covered. There are powerful voices from the past making claims that are absolutely refuted by the Official Records and other solid primary sources.  For example General Sherman in his memoirs insisted that The Army of the Tennessee fought the battle alone without assistance from their northern neighbor, Schofield’s Army of the Ohio.  Yet, it’s clear that 10,000 members of that army were deployed to do just that.  They were never engaged but they were deployed late in the afternoon.  Also, the notion that XVII Corps troops fought a two-front contest on and near Bald Hill by jumping from one side of the earthworks to the other and back again is literally true, but the impression that this feat was accomplished seemingly after every volley or two may only be true for one harried Iowa regiment at the end of the line. Other corps members fought a two-front battle but not against troops that were attacking consecutively from opposite directions.  Instead, one side seemingly attacked within minutes after their comrades converging from the opposite direction were repulsed. I even found that I could not accept the tradition surrounding the deaths of the highest ranking officers on each side. General McPherson could not have been mortally wounded as late as 2:02 p.m. as a damaged watch found by an orderly suggests, but in my opinion, it had to be at least 20 minutes earlier. I also refute the site of Confederate General William H. T. Walker’s death, and place it at 1:00 p.m. instead of before noon and I also place it about a mile northwest of where his monument currently stands.

I came to realize that to interpret this battle General Hood must not be viewed through the prism of the Tennessee Campaign which followed—two entirely different campaigns run by a general who was not the same commander at Atlanta than he was at Franklin and Nashville. I find much less to fault in Hood’s strategy and tactics at Atlanta than most others who have written about him. The similarities to Hood’s circumstances and Robert E. Lee’s in front of Richmond in the late spring and summer of 1862 are remarkable. Both men necessarily sacrificed 20,000 troops to save their beleaguered city from capture. Lee succeeded and Hood failed in the end, but I don’t credit the obvious difference in talent between Lee and Hood to be the major determinant to those disparate outcomes. I also maintain that the Army of Tennessee divisions and brigades defending Atlanta were clearly more experienced and led by commanders who were at least the equals of those in Lee’s army two years before. In my mind the major difference in the outcome was the confidence, efficiency, experience and skill of the Western soldiers fighting within Sherman’s three armies compared to those in McClellan’s Army of the Potomac in 1862. This is clearly apparent at the Battle of Atlanta. On opposite ends of the Union line troops were routed from their entrenchments and yet the panic was isolated, it did not last, and was replaced by resurgence to claim the lost ground. I can only point to Cedar Creek three months later as an example where you see this on a comparative scale to Atlanta on July 22, 1864. Hood’s battle plan perhaps was too ambitious to pull off but it had a chance to work except that the army he struck again and again refused to leave the field. The fact that Hood was applying a go-for-broke strategy—a “Hail Mary” if you will—indicates that he was considering in forethought what I have concluded in hindsight: that the Battle of Atlanta was the turning point of the campaign.

I also have appreciated from my work on this project that the unit of tactical impact in 1861 and early in 1862 appears to be the regiment, but in 1864 this progresses to the brigade and division. Brigades in 1864 were not only close to the size of regiments in 1861-1862 but also the added two years of experience made the brigade a much more cohesive fighting unit. No better example of this can be seen than by the accomplishment of Brigadier General Daniel Govan’s Arkansas brigade (in Cleburne’s Division), who turned in one of the most spectacular performances in the War. In less than half an hour Govan’s men routed a larger Iowa brigade (a unit that had proven the day before and would prove later this day that it was no pushover)  from its entrenchments—earthworks supported by artillery—killing, wounding and capturing more than 400 Federal soldiers and capturing 8 cannons. This was an awesome performance that should not have gone unnoticed as long as it did.

These were some of the many new “takes” on the battle that I have discovered.

BR:  How was this book different to write compared to your others, particularly those about the 1862 Shenandoah Valley battles?

GE:  This book required more pre-planning than any book I have written before, largely because of the inherent impediments that have bogged down writers and readers of the Atlanta Campaign and other campaigns of the Western theater.  The too-similar names of the opposing armies are a good indicator of these troubles: Army of Tennessee versus the Army of the Tennessee. There are six brigade and division commanders surnamed “Smith” in this battle and very few of the generals, Smith or otherwise, in this contest are household names of the Civil War except to those well versed in the Atlanta campaign. My challenge was to not only create a purely nonfiction battle study for them but to broaden the appeal to Eastern Theater Civil War aficionados and general readers of American history without condescending to the Western Theater buffs. Adding to these challenges is working around large-scale attacks (such as that conducted by General Carter Stevenson’s division) which have almost no documentation in the official records or any other useful primary source document.

Not to be overlooked is the mind-numbing challenge to rookie and veteran readers of recognizing Confederate brigades and divisions identified by a previous, popular commander who no longer leads the unit in this battle. For example, General Granbury no longer leads Granbury’s Brigade in this battle—Brigadier General James A. Smith does. So why should I ever mention Granbury’s name? This source of confusion comes up front and center when we deal with Cheatham’s Division of Tennessee soldiers in Hardee’s Corps. General Cheatham isn’t in charge of these men at the Battle of Atlanta; General George Maney is. Cheatham’s in charge of Hood’s Corps in this battle.  See the problem?  If I write “Cheatham’s men” am I referring to the Tennesseans in Cheatham’s Division or to the soldiers in Hood’s Corps, now commanded by Cheatham?  And I definitely wanted to avoid the cumbersome reminder like: “Cheatham’s Division commanded this day by General Maney.”

After working this out and testing it in bar-stool discussions with folks on my tours I found a way to write this narrative far different from most of the styles I have read in the past, and I included a special “Author’s Note” at the beginning of the book to inform the reader of the pitfalls and what I have done to avoid them.  Long story short, I avoid the official names of both armies in the same sentence or paragraph, I always use the full name of Colonel Smith or General Smith (as well as in the maps), and I refer to a Confederate brigade or division only by its commander on the battlefield followed by a lower case letter to designate the unit (i.e., Maney’s division instead of Cheatham’s Division).

I also deliberately chose to describe my attacks at the regimental level as I have done in the past, but sometimes l kept the description at that of the brigade. I experimented with complete regimental descriptions within all brigades but came to the conclusion that while this tact appeals to many readers of military history, it also unnecessarily jeopardized the comprehension of what I was trying to describe if I found that the regiments were working cohesively within the brigade (refer to my earlier position on Civil War brigades in 1864). My maps also reflect this decision; many of them show regiments while others are depicted at the brigade level. I also need to admit here that the occasional dearth of source material available to describe a portion of the battle, particularly on the Confederate side, prevented me from breaking down a brigade to its components because I did not (and still do not) know exactly how all the regiments were aligned within the brigade. A recent and fair review from Drew Wagenhoffer recognizes this decision and appears to understand the reason for it and accepts it.  I hope other readers agree with his conclusion.

BR:  How has the book been received so far?

GE:  Reviews thus far have been positive. I am confident with what I found, what I wrote, and how I wrote it. The book won’t appeal to some and others may have preferred a different emphasis, but I’m certain that all will read a story that either they had never heard before or one that clarifies a previously muddled interpretation.

BR:   What’s next for you?

GE:  There will be a “next” but I need to adapt to a new timetable since I now leave for work at the same time I used to write before work. I’m not sure if this will be the next book yet, but a natural follow up to The Day Dixie Died is a book about the next battle of the campaign fought between these two “Tennessee” armies: The Battle of Ezra Church.

Hopefully Gary can continue to produce good books despite his return to the workforce and retaking his palce as a productive member of society.  I suspect he will.








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