I’ve known James A. Morgan, III (Jim) for going on ten years now. We’ve been mutual members of a couple of email discussion groups, and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting up with him a few times, incuding once for a personal tour of his “baby”, the Ball’s Bluff Battlefield. Most recently, he introduced me before a meeting of the Loudoun County Civil War Roundtable. The first edition of his book, A Little Short of Boats: The Battles of Ball’s Bluff and Edwards Ferry, October 21-22, 1861, was published in 2004 to critical acclaim. Now Savas Beatie has released an updated edition, available here. Jim took some time to answer a few questions I posed via email.
BR: Jim, tell our good readers about yourself.
JM: I was born in New Orleans and grew up in Pensacola, Florida. We’ve lived in various places including Belgium and Romania while I was in the Foreign Service, but my wife, Betsy and I now live in Loudoun County, Virginia and have come to think of it as home.
My Civil War ancestors were all Confederates and served in the Pointe Coupee (La.) Artillery, the 6th Louisiana Battery, and the 41st Mississippi Infantry. The Morgan family lived at Morganza plantation during the war. It was about 40 miles upriver from Baton Rouge and is a site that will be familiar to readers with some western theater expertise. The name pops up in the O.R. a good bit. Of course, the damnyankees trashed the place during the war and my part of the family eventually settled in New Orleans.
For the past few years, I’ve been deeply involved in Civil War activities of various kinds. I’m active in the Loudoun County Civil War Roundtable, Loudoun County Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee, and the Mosby Heritage Area Association in addition to being a volunteer guide at Ball’s Bluff. I used to reenact quite a bit; Union and Confederate artillery and infantry impressions plus occasionally as a civilian. That was a lot of fun but, alas, I succumbed to the effects of what Abe Lincoln called “the silent artillery of time.” In other words, I got too old for it.
Got into Civil War music for some years and did programs for roundtables and similar groups. I even made a couple of cassette tapes which sold in NPS stores for a time. One was titled “Just Before the Battle” after my favorite Civil War song. The other was called “60’s Music.” Both were compilations of Civil War standards though the second one included several alternate, less well known versions. I never made them into CDs, however, so there probably are only a few old copies of the tapes left around.
In the late ‘80’s, while I was part of the Battery M, 2nd U.S. Artillery reenactment unit, I put together a small booklet, a thumbnail sketch history of Battery M, which Dave Zullo at Olde Soldier Press in Frederick, Maryland published. It is titled Always Ready, Always Willing: A History of Battery M, Second United States Artillery, From Its Organization Through the Civil War. The title is almost as long as the booklet. I’ve actually seen it on amazon.com occasionally.
I’ve written articles for several Civil War magazines including Civil War Times, America’s Civil War, Blue and Gray, and The Artilleryman among others. That said, I’m most proud of my tactical study of Ball’s Bluff titled A Little Short of Boats: the Fights at Ball’s Bluff and Edwards Ferry, October 21-22, 1861, which originally was published by Eric Wittenberg’s Ironclad Publishing Company in 2004 and was just rereleased in July, 2011, in an expanded, updated, hardback edition by Savas Beatie.
Not sure what else you want to know. In terms of education I’ve got a master’s degree in Political Science from the University of West Florida and a master’s in Library Science from Florida State University. I’ve been an ardent Seminole fan since I was about 13 so I’ve seen the ‘Noles through both the depths and the heights. I’m looking forward to their return to greatness after these past few mediocre years.
BR: Battery M 2nd US was Peter Hains’s outfit: I guess I have to add one more to my “get” list. What got you interested in the Civil War in general, and in Ball’s Bluff in particular?
JM: I suppose that, like all kids who grew up in the South when I did, I just breathed my interest in through the air. It was all around us even in Florida. Of course I grew up in north Florida which was and is very southern so I come by my interest naturally. South Florida, largely populated by retired Yankees, is very northern and those people don’t care about anything but ice hockey and the slow, plodding brand of football they play in the Big 10.
I don’t actually remember a time when I wasn’t interested in the war. Even as a kid I read a lot about it and, like many people, I owe a debt to Bruce Catton for giving me my first serious Civil War exposure. Growing up in Pensacola didn’t hurt. My brother and I were always at the beach and spent many hours playing in and around Fort Pickens long before it became part of the National Park Service and was restored. And, perhaps ironically, I spent the summer of 1980 as an NPS seasonal giving tours of Pickens and Fort Barrancas and the other historical military facilities in the area.
With regard to Ball’s Bluff, though, I can be more specific. In 2000, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority put out a call for volunteers to form a guide group for the little Ball’s Bluff battlefield not far from where I live. That sounded like fun and I joined. I didn’t know a thing about Ball’s Bluff at the time but I did my homework and soon began giving tours. Having done that sort of thing at other Civil War sites, it was actually pretty easy. That was 12 years ago and I’m still at it and still having fun with it.
BR: What’s different about this new edition of A Little Short of Boats?
JM: First of all, the new edition is in hardback and has a new, more colorful jacket so it draws the eye better than the original paperback edition did. More importantly, however, there is quite a bit of new material in the expanded edition including more biographical information on many of the participants, additional participant anecdotes about the fighting, and more on some of the units which were involved. I’ve rewritten the battlefield walking tour appendix so as to make it fit the improvements we’ve done on the battlefield since the first edition came out (new signage, more marked interpretive trails, etc). And there are several previously unpublished photographs as well. I’m very pleased with the way it turned out.
BR: If there is one misconception about the battle or the individuals involved which you hope your book corrects, what would it be?
JM: To my way of thinking, it has always been extremely important that people understand WHY Ball’s Bluff was fought. The traditional tale that it came out of a deliberate, pre-planned Union attempt to take Leesburg has been a huge stumbling block over the years because it is simply wrong. Ball’s Bluff was totally unplanned, sheer accident, and had absolutely nothing to do with taking Leesburg.
Because there were three separate Federal forces in the area and because everyone on both sides of the river was expecting some kind of Union advance in the near future, what happened at Ball’s Bluff appeared to be planned and coordinated. Leesburg, with its critical road intersections and many nearby crossing points on the river, was an obvious target so people assumed that it was the Union objective.
Expectations and appearances combined to give us an elaborate story about a three-pronged Union encirclement of Leesburg. It made perfect sense given what people knew or thought they knew and historians just repeated the story so that it gained credence by repetition over the years.
I believe – certainly I hope – that what I’ve done has corrected this mistake. Understand, though, that I do not consider myself to be a revisionist. I don’t like that word as it smacks of iconoclasm and personal agendas. I didn’t set out to challenge anyone’s interpretation. I simply went where my research led and it led to a fairly complete reinterpretation of why the battle of Ball’s Bluff happened. I suppose that is a kind of revisionism but a more limited one that essentially just involves correcting some honestly-made historical errors.
BR: The first edition was very well received. What’s the word so far on the new book? FYI I did see two copies on the shelf at my local Barnes & Noble today.
JM: So far, so good. I haven’t seen any reviews yet (as of mid-August) but the book seems to be selling well and word-of-mouth is positive. Frankly, I’m not surprised. I’m proud of this book and believe that it improves the first edition as I intended it would. The additional information and general updating should make it worth buying even for people who already have the original.
BR: One of the things I try to do with the author interviews here at Bull Runnings is look at individual research and writing processes. Can you describe yours? What are your favorite/least favorite parts of the processes?
JM: I doubt that I do much of anything that is out of the ordinary. My research and writing are part-time endeavors as I still have a job which takes up most of my weekday hours. Some authors enjoy research but don’t like to write or vice-versa. Happily, I thoroughly enjoy both parts of the process. I’m probably never happier than when I’m nosing around in musty old archives somewhere.
BR: What’s next for you?
JM: For several years now, I’ve been chipping away at the research for what I hope someday will become a full biography of General Charles P. Stone. When I was first working on the Ball’s Bluff book, I looked for a Stone bio and was surprised to discover that there isn’t one. He deserves one and I’d like to write it. I’ve got a very large amount of information on him but am held up by the fact that I’m eventually going to have to make an extended research trip to Egypt to go through the files from Stone’s twelve years (1870-82) as chief of staff to two consecutive khedives. I know where the materials are and have made some preliminary contacts in Egypt but getting there is another question. First, I can’t do it until I retire which I hope will be within another couple of years at most. Second, I’ll have to find some funding, maybe a grant from somewhere, as I know I’ll need to be in Egypt for at least three months in order to do this right. But, I’m working on it.
Other than that, I stay busy with a few topics for which I have articles planned and, of course, there are the Ball’s Bluff tours and all the sesquicentennial activities to keep me busy as well. And, in truth, I’m loving it. I just wish that work wouldn’t keep getting in the way of the important stuff.
BR: I see that Florida State has been picked as high as 5th in some preseason NCAA football polls. I’m sure you take some pride in that, even while you’re surely aware the ‘Noles will finish the season well below the Nittany Lions…
JM: Fifth is probably too high. We had a good season in 2010 and things are looking up but we still have to prove that we’re back. I’d rank FSU around tenth or twelfth to start the season but I’m cautiously optimistic that good things are about to happen. While I’m not a Penn State fan, I have always liked Joe Paterno and considered him one of the good guys in college football. But of course I still hope that the ‘Noles kick butt regardless of who we play. As to who finishes where, that’s why they play the games and don’t just depend on pre-season rankings. We shall see. Scalp ‘em, Seminoles!!!