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.
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.