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!