Interview: Charles R. Knight, “Valley Thunder”

24 08 2010

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

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

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

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

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

BR: How about a thumbnail sketch of Valley Thunder?

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

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

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

BR: Can you describe your research and writing processes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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8 responses

25 08 2010
Charlie Knight

Thanks for posting this Harry.

(And I need to go fishing this weekend to get a better ‘fishing trip’ photo…)


26 08 2010
Dick Stanley

One of my old Army comrades, who is retired in the area and is a docent at the New Market battlefield museum, certainly enjoyed the book.


26 08 2010
Sean Trainor

Hi Harry — nice interview. Did you happen to see the other interview with Charlie Knight at This Mighty Scourge? Here’s the URL:

Also, I wanted to let you know that my colleagues and I at Penn State University’s Richards Civil War Era Center recently launched a new Civil War-era blog entitled A People’s Contest. Hope you get a chance to stop by and check it out sometime. Here’s the URL: Thanks!


26 08 2010
Harry Smeltzer

Sean, I’ve seen the blog and am following it on my feed reader. I have to follow for a while before I add a blog to my roll – I don’t want to send my readers to sites that delve too often into the “forbidden” waters of modern religion or politics. Once I’m certain that your blog is relatively free of these topics and produces good Civil War related articles I’ll add it. I’m looking forward to what you and your colleagues have to say.


27 08 2010
Ted Savas

Thanks Harry,

We enjoyed working with Charlie, and think his book is really an outstanding example of battle history at its finest.

Theodore P. Savas
Savas Beatie LLC


28 08 2010
Mike Peters


Valley Thunder is a great read!

Mike Peters


1 09 2010
“Valley Thunder” Book Trailer « Bull Runnings

[…] Above is the book trailer for Charlie Knight’s Valley Thunder.  See his Bull Runnings interview here. […]


2 08 2021
Interview: Knight, “From Arlington to Appomattox” | Bull Runnings

[…] Since our last interview, I’ve moved across the country…twice. First to the Civil War research hotbed of Phoenix, AZ, […]


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