New York Times Sesquicentennial Blog

26 11 2010

The New York Times has set up a blog of sorts that will continue throughout the Sesquicentennial.  Disunion “revisits and reconsiders America’s most perilous period — using contemporary accounts, diaries, images and historical assessments to follow the Civil War as it unfolded.”  You can also follow Disunion on Facebook.  Authors are varied, though currently dominated by one Adam Goodheart who has this book on 1861 coming out soon.

Interview: Robert Wynstra, “The Rashness of That Hour”

24 11 2010

A brand new release from Savas Beatie is The Rashness of That Hour: Politics, Gettysburg, and the Downfall of Confedertate Brigadier General Alfred Iverson, by Robert J. Wynstra.  Iverson is best known to us as the leader of an ill-fated advance on July 1, 1863, the results of which were a long line of dead Confederates and the supposedly haunted “pits” in which those men were buried.  Robert sat down – well, I assume he sat down – and pounded out some anwers to questions posed by Bull Runnings.

BR:  This being your first book, many readers may be unfamilar with you.  Who is Robert J. Wynstra?

RW:  My background is both in history and journalism. I recently retired as a senior writer with the News and Public Affairs Office in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois. I hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history and a master’s degree in journalism, all from the University of Illinois. I spent two years as a teaching assistant in the History Department and recently taught as a visiting lecturer in the College of Media.

BR:  What was it that got you interested in history, in the Civil War era, and specifically Alfred Iverson?  He’s been a controversial figure almost to the point of dismissal by many students of the war. 

RW:  My interest in the civil war dates back to my teenage years. I grew up around the time of the Civil War centennial, with all the hoopla that went along with it. I visited Gettysburg during that time and came away with a real interest in that particular battle. One book, in particular, sparked my fascination with the Confederate side of the war. That was Douglas Southall Freeman’s three volume set, Lee’s Lieutenants. At the time, I was really caught up with the stories about Lee, Jackson, and Jeb Stuart fighting against hopeless odds. I’m always a sucker for underdogs, so I was totally hooked. I remember at the time that our local library obtained a set of the Official Records. I thought here’s everything you need to know, all in one place. Little did I know how naive that was.

In reading about Gettysburg, I came across the story of Iverson’s men being slaughtered along Oak Ridge on July 1. My immediate thought was: how could such a thing happen? I really wanted to know more, so I started digging into some of the primary sources. I initially decided to develop a complete roster of the entire brigade at Gettysburg. I obtained a gigantic pile of microfilm from the National Archives and spent months going through the compiled service records for every man in the four regiments. To my surprise, the records contained a number of contemporary letters, which I had no idea of at the time. As I read through them, I realized that there was much more going on behind the scenes than anyone knew. From there, I just continued digging deeper and deeper. Ten years later I’m still digging.

BR:  How do the fruits of your research compare to history’s judgment of Iverson?

RW:  Like many authors, I went into the process with the thought of producing a revisionist history of Iverson. I thought, surely he could not be as bad as everyone in his brigade said. To my surprise, I quickly found out that he was that bad, if not even worse. The surprises came in the details. The usual story is that he rose to his position through the influence of his father, who was a powerful U.S. senator and an ally of Jefferson Davis. He supposedly was widely hated by the men in his former regiment, who resented the fact that he was Georgian commanding a Tar Heel brigade. According to the standard account, he performed well before Gettysburg but for some reason he faltered badly there, possibly because he was drunk. He later redeemed himself at the battle of Sunshine Church in Georgia, where he surrounded and captured General Stoneman and most of the men from his command.

Like so many stories, that account is part true and part wrong. Clearly his father played a prime role in promoting his career. The idea that he performed reasonably well before Gettysburg is far from true. He spent the first year of the war on coastal duty in North Carolina. He certainly did well at Gaines’ Mill in the Seven Days campaign, where he was wounded and cited for gallantry. His regiment, however, broke and ran from the field at both South Mountain and Sharpsburg in the Maryland campaign. His next major fight came at Chancellorsville, where some of his men openly accused him of remaining well behind lines throughout the battle. Dodson Ramseur even heard that Iverson would be tried for cowardice. No trial ever happened, but clearly the dissatisfaction with his performance ran deep. Surprisingly, the men under his command at Sunshine Church also charged that he was nowhere near the front lines at that battle and had little to do with winning the victory. Later in the war, some of his commanders openly complained that he would withdraw along Sherman’s front without putting up any kind of a fight.

The men in his original regiment, the 20th North Carolina, certainly hated him well before Gettysburg. What remains less well-known is that he endured equally bitter disputes with the officers in two of the other regiments in his brigade. The conflicts reached into the highest levels of the state government in North Carolina, including Governor Zeb Vance and both Confederate senators, and served to seriously undermine his position. At least one of those disputes was still well underway even as they marched toward Gettysburg. For me, the most important thing to take away is an appreciation how much the politics behind the scenes affected events on the battlefield.

As bad as Iverson was, some of his opponents in the brigade were hardly better. There were few heroes in this story. Blind ambition—on both sides of the many controversies—often overruled sound judgment. Petty jealousies and personality clashes were more important in shaping events than military glory.

Another surprise was that there is virtually no evidence that he was drunk at Gettysburg, or even at Carlisle days before the battle. In fact, there is no reason to think that he was drunk at any time during the entire war.

BR:  I’m very interested in the research and writing processes of different authors.  How would you describe the way you work?

RW:  For me, everything goes back to using primary sources. I first obtained copies of letters and reminiscences from the well-known collections at places like Chapel Hill and Duke. Sometimes a single line in letter would open up a new line of inquiry. A major help for any researcher is the internet. Exhaustive searches would often uncover references to collections in obscure historical societies or private collections or smaller university repositories. Google books and other internet sources provided instant access to many of the older books and reminiscences. I eventually hired a professional researcher. With his help, I obtained a ton of great letters that were published in contemporary newspapers. Anytime a new book came out, I would turn immediately to the footnotes or endnotes and try to track down any primary sources that were new to me. Another treasure trove was the National Archives. With the help of a professional researcher, I obtained dozens of letters and diaries that had never been used before. In the writing process, I really want to give voice to the individual soldiers. As much as possible, I like to quote them directly.

BR:  What’s next?  I see you’re working on a something on Robert Rodes.

RW:  Yes, my next project is a full-scale treatment of Rodes’ Division in the Gettysburg campaign. I have accumulated a mountain of material on the other brigades in the division that did not fit into the Iverson book. A major emphasis will be on the events during the advance to the north. Although many at the time compared the results to those of Stonewall Jackson’s campaigns, Rodes’ actions at Berryville and Martinsburg in the Shenandoah Valley have been completely overlooked. Also I will be providing a detailed account of the encounters with the people in Pennsylvania as Rodes’ Division moved forward at the front of Lee’s invasion. The amount of supplies that they gathered up is truly staggering. There are lots interesting accounts on this aspect of the campaign. I have unearthed a ton of new information on the rounding up of free blacks and runaway slaves during the advance through Pennsylvania. Also, I hope to present the first detailed account of Albert Jenkins’ cavalry brigade during the time that it operated in coordination with Rodes’ Division. I will continue with the same emphasis on primary sources. Hopefully it will be a good read and provide some new insight.

The Rashness of That Hour has received the endorsement of historian Robert K. Krick.  A must-read for Gettysburg nuts, it includes 10 maps and over 30 photos.  The bibliography includes an impressive list of unpublished manuscript sources.

Bull Run Dead at Cenantua’s Blog

23 11 2010

Robert Moore has this recent post which concerns the family ties of a Confederate soldier of the 2nd VA killed at Bull Run.  Check it out – good stuff!  Once you read that, you can read a little about this fellow and his regiment here and here.

Interview: Elizabeth Leonard, “Men of Color To Arms!”

22 11 2010

Men of Color To Arms!: Black Soldiers, Indian Wars, and the Quest for Equality is a new release from W. W. Norton by Elizabeth D. Leonard.  This study “restores black soldiers to their place in the arc of American History, from the Civil War and its promise of freedom until the dawn of the twentieth century and the full retrenchment of Jim Crow.”  While the focus is almost entirely on the period following the war, the story of African-American participation in the military if limited only to the Civil War is unsatisfyingly open-ended.  Leonard gives it the Paul Harvey treatment.  Elizabeth recently took time from her busy schedule to answer a few questions for Bull Runnings.

BR:  Elizabeth, can you tell  us a little about yourself?
EL:  I am a native of New York city, though I have lived in lots of other places, including Japan, the Netherlands, California, and, since 1992, Maine. In addition to teaching at Colby College, where I am the John J. and Cornelia V. Gibson Professor of History and teach American history, I am the proud mother of two sons, Anthony (16) and Joseph (14).
BR:  What was it that got you interested in history, in the Civil War era, and in pursuing history as a career?
EL:  Back in the early 1980s, I became very interested in the nation’s political conflicts–including those surrounding the federal government’s policies in Central America. I began to wonder what sort of history lay behind those conflicts, and this question led me to graduate school at the University of California, Riverside (I was living not far from Riverside at the time). In the course of taking classes, I grew particularly interested in American history, and Civil War history in particular, perhaps because I had two great professors who taught about the Civil War era: Roger Ransom and Sterling Stuckey. I also was, for many years, a teaching assistant for a scholar of Great Britain named John Phillips, who was from Georgia and who had deep interest in the Civil War, which he communicated to me.
BR:  Your first two efforts (Yankee Women and All the Daring of a Soldier) dealt with women in the Civil War, and your third (Lincoln’s Avengers) expanded to Lincoln’s assassination.  Now you’ve moved on beyond those topics and the Civil War to Black soldiers in the Indian Wars.  Can you discuss that progression and how it led to Men of Color to Arms!?

EL:  Yankee Women is a much revised version of my dissertation, and examines the concrete contributions of women nurses, ladies’ aid activists, and one woman doctor to the Union’s cause, as well as how those women have been remembered. After I wrote Yankee Women, I decided that it would be interesting to look at the experiences and contributions of women during the war who had done things we would consider “less conventional”: as spies, resistance activists, soldiers, army women. It was my research about these women that became All the Daring of the Soldier. While I was writing that book, I became interested in the question of why it was that the federal government often failed to punish southern “she-rebels” very harshly, especially when I learned the story of Mary Surratt, who was executed in July 1865 after being convicted of being one of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators. Originally, I was going to write a book just about her, but as I studied the assassination and its aftermath more closely, I grew interested in the larger story and decided instead to write Lincoln’s Avengers, which deals with Mary Surratt and also with the whole question of how the government handled the assassination in the turbulent context of early Reconstruction. When I finished Lincoln’s Avengers, I wanted to write a full-scale biography of Joseph Holt, who as the judge advocate general of the army was instrumental in the prosecution of the Lincoln assassins. But I also got caught up in a question one of my sons asked me: he wanted to know what the Union army had done after the Civil War, and how its postwar activities were related (if at all) to its earlier role in emancipating the slaves. It is this question that I have tried to answer in Men of Color to Arms!

BR:  What were the surprises you uncovered in your research?  What conflicted with or confirmed any of the notions you held prior to starting it?

EL:  I don’t think I encountered any real surprises in writing this book, but I did have at least one great (if not entirely unanticipated) disappointment, and at least one (if not entirely unanticipated) happy revelation. The disappointment was that I guess I had hoped to be able to uncover evidence of more of the black soldiers having a sense of sympathy for the Native Americans whom they — like white soldiers — were sent West to “pacify.” As it turns out, from what I could see, black soldiers identified first and foremost as U. S. soldiers, and they took their job of “pacification” seriously, without spending much time thinking about the fact that they, too, were people of color whom white Americans had dominated for centuries. As for the “happy revelation” I mentioned: this was the discovery that there were whites connected with the army — Nelson Miles, Guy Henry, Benjamin Grierson, Richard Henry Pratt — who really thought hard about race issues during the latter half of the 19th Century, and tried to figure out ways for America to get beyond the bitter race relations that had been so central to the nation’s experience for so long. These thinkers were not always graceful, nor would they necessarily seem “progressive” or even “egalitarian” to us today, but they were trying, using the tools they had and the context they knew, and I was impressed.

And of course, the tremendous courage and determination of the black men I studied, to make their way to citizenship by doing the nation’s work, was no surprise, but it was nevertheless immensely inspiring.
BR:  How has the book been received so far?

EL:  From what I can tell so far, it’s been received very well, though one reviewer said I tried to do too much in the book, and another said my focus was too narrow. As we say here in Maine, “go figgah!”
BR:  What is your research/writing process?

EL:  I think that if anyone else observed my research and writing process they would wonder how I ever complete my projects, because from an outsider’s perspective, my process probably would seem chaotic and disorganized. But it isn’t really! It’s just that I am a voracious researcher, and I take tons and tons of notes about all of the materials I examine: archival materials, published and unpublished primary sources, and secondary sources, which I store in computer files that I do not put in any sort of predetermined order. The reason I do this is because I am anxious not to impose, in advance, a set “meaning” on the material I gather: I prefer to dive into the sources and then let them generate meaning for me as I think about them over and over and over, and read my notes over and over and over, sometimes in one sequence, sometimes in another. I also do a lot of writing while I’m still doing research: I write about “chunks” of my research. What do I know about a particular person? What issue is particularly salient in a particular context? etc. I then organize the “chunks” in the way that makes the most sense, as I have become more and more familiar with the material as a whole. This may sound crazy, but it works for me, and it allows me to make connections within and about the material I am working on that I might not otherwise make. Once I start writing the manuscript for real, I just write and write and write, hours every day, day after day, so that I can keep my train of thought running as smoothly as possible along the track. I do a tremendous amount of rewriting too, taking vigorous advantage of the brilliant editors it has been my good fortune over the years to work with. It’s a tiring, but extremely fulfilling process overall!

BR:  What’s next?

EL:  My biography of Joseph Holt (the first ever published) will appear with UNC Press in fall 2011. The title is Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky. And now I’m waiting for my other son to come up with a question for me, so I know where to turn my focus for my next project!

Nothing like putting pressure on the kid!  Holt is a fascinating if somewhat murky figure, and I’m sure many are now looking forward to Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally.  In the meantime, be sure to check out Men of Color To Arms!

Civil War Hollywood (and Burbank)

21 11 2010

A couple of announcements from the entertainment world hit the wires this past week.

The long anticipated, talked about, delayed, postponed, suspended, whatever Abraham Lincoln project by producer Steven Spielberg was again in the news, this time with the announcement that Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis will play Abe.  I’m not really sure how this film will be an adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, because that book doesn’t read like a film.  At all.  I suspect that the purchase of the movie rights to the book, which was made prior to its publication, was more a PR move than anything else – an attempt to lend some gravitas to the effort.  But I think Day-Lewis would be aces: the guy just doesn’t do anything badly.  He’s the real deal.  And the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum reported on Facebook that the actor and Goodwin toured the joint in Springfield this past Friday.

Elsewhere, word has it that the executive producer of the hit series Lost (Carlton Cuse) is working on a series set in Virginia during the Civil War.  Not a lot of info on this yet, but it’s being described as an “event”.  Whatever that means.  Hopefully, it doesn’t mean that I’ll get really interested in it only to get turned off because I’m never sure if the episode that week will be a repeat, or even if the show will be on that week, or if I’ll have to wait until December for the season premier, or why the fat guy stays fat even after all the food in the Shenandoah Valley has been burned up by Sheridan.  Start the damn show in September, run about 30 new episodes in a row and then repeat them over the spring and summer, just like Gilligan’s Island.  And you can still get away with letting the fat guy stay fat.

Back to Booth

20 11 2010

Yep, I get suckered in every now and then.  I run across a new release in the book store and/or hear the author of that book on C-Span and, despite the fact that the book will be available used or as a remainder in one of the many used book stores I frequent within 6 months, I lay out the cash.  More often than not, this happens in the case of a book on Lincoln.  And also more often than not, the book goes unread.  But every once in a while I pick one up that I know I’ll read, and these are usually in that peculiar subset of the Assassination.

The other day I bought My Thoughts Be Bloody, touted as The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth that Led to an American Tragedy.  I heard the author, Nora Titone, on C-Span: she does one of those presentations where you’re pretty sure every word has been scripted out (in contrast to my own presentations, where with the exception of quotations I speak off a very general outline).  There have been at least two other books published over the past 18 years that specifically examine the relationship between the Booth brothers, and Michael Kauffman’s American Brutus also spends some time on it.  Regardless, Titone’s is the story of how Wilkes was affected by the very strained relationship he had with his older, more talented, more respected, and more powerful brother Edwin.  I’ll read this once I finish the difficult to finish West Pointers and the Civil War (the title is misleading and it lacks focus and structure, but there’s a lot of good stuff in it).

Titone’s book has a shiny silver color, not unlike that of another new Lincoln book, Bloody Crimes by James Swanson.  This combines the stories of Lincoln’s funeral procession back to Springfield with the pursuit and capture of Jefferson Davis.  Swanson appears to be taking a page from Stephen Ambrose’s playbook by blending a story he has already written (the funeral train was a big part of Swanson’s previous work, Manhunt – which also had a shiny silver cover) with another story that just happened to be going on at the same time.  I guess that’s a good gig if you can get it.  I hope that the covers are the only similarity between Titone’s book and Swanson’s – I read Manhunt and, while it’s very well written, there’s not much there there.  Know what I mean?

Wa-Po Again

19 11 2010

So it would seem that the cavalcade of commentators at Wa-Po is a continuing enterprise.  Civil War Times editor Dana Shoaf has weighed-in on the Sesquicentennial today.  Perhaps my irritation at one expert’s repeated use of the word “must” spilled over into the tenor of my posts regarding this series (they keep using the word “blog”, but I do not think it means what they think it means).

Fundraiser for Carnegie Free Library, Carnegie, PA

18 11 2010

Friend Jon-Erik Gilot, who is working with the manuscript collection there, informs me that a fundraiser is to be held on Saturday, November 27 at the Carnegie Free Library, Carnegie, PA.  A film, The Angel of Marye’s Heights, will be shown in the music hall, a cool room in and of itself; I’m told proceeds from the ticket sales going toward the library and its Civil War collection.  After the movie, the Espy Post GAR room (above via the Pittsburgh Post Gazette) will be open for tours, with additional artifacts from the collection on display.  I’ve written about the room before here, but you can see more on the manuscript and artifact collection here.  In short, the room was pretty much sealed up in the ’30’s after the vets stopped meeting, with all contents left in place (pretty much).  Back in the 80’s it was opened up and the whole room and much of the contents restored over a 20 year period.  It’s something to see.  The library also has a Civil War collection on display in another area.

Details on this event are available here.

More on Wa-Po’s Sesqui Ops

17 11 2010

Dmitri  has weighed in on the Washington Post’s panel of historians and their thoughts on the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  Check it out here and here.  As a reminder, I wrote about it here.

Considering that much of the country will experience the Sesquicentennial at one of our National Parks, it would have been nice if at least one representative of the NPS had contributed to this series.

Wa-Po Historians Declare How the Sesquicentennial “Should” Be Observed

16 11 2010

There’s an interesting series of opinion pieces over at the Washington Post’s House Divided site in which historians of various stripes expound on how they feel the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War should be observed.  I’m linking here to this article by Mike Musick, who has been a friend to Bull Runnings.  Links to the thoughts of other contributors can be found at the bottom of each article (I’d post each link, but it’s late and I’m tired).  I’m making my way through them and am finding a mixed bag, both in variety and quality.  One writer made the unusual declaration that any reenactments “must” include both black and white soldiers, while stressing that the “true histories” also “must” be presented.  Hmm…I’m trying to imagine how a First Bull Run reenactment could pull those two things off. 

Here’s a list of contributors:

Chandra Manning
Brent Glass
David Blight
Mike Musick
Joan Waugh
Waite Rawls
Harold Holzer
John Marszalek