Interview: Hessler & Isenberg: “Gettysburg’s Peach Orchard”

10 09 2019

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A few weeks ago, I gave very brief previews of a number of recent Savas Beatie releases here. Among them was Gettysburg’s Peach Orchard: Longstreet, Sickles, and the Bloody Fight for the “Commanding Ground” Along the Emmitsburg Road, by Licensed Gettysburg Battlefield Guides Jim Hessler and Britt Isenberg. The authors recently took some time to discuss this new book.

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BR: Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves?

JH: In addition to spending the majority of my working life in financial services, I have been a Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guide since 2003. My second career as a public historian took off with my first book, Sickles at Gettysburg, which was published by Savas Beatie in 2009. In 2015, I co-authored Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg with Wayne Motts and maps by Steve Stanley. I speak across the country at Civil War Round Tables and have had various media appearances on venues such as the Travel Channel and NPR Radio. I also recently started co-hosting The Battle of Gettysburg Podcast with fellow Guide Eric Lindblade. So I always keep pretty busy. I am blessed to have a family that allows me to do this while still working and giving battlefield tours.

BI: I grew up in Millersburg, Pennsylvania and graduated from Millersville University in 2008 with a BA. I spent a few years working in the airline industry and with Fedex Express before taking the guide exam and passing in 2014. I’ve been guiding full-time for five years now.

BR: Britt, we’ve heard from Jim on this before, but what got you interested in the Civil War? Who/what were your early influences?

BI: I was fortunate enough to know my great grandfather on my mother’s side as a kid and he was the definition of a Civil War buff. Some of my fondest memories as a kid are sitting with Grandpa Leroy and watching the movie Glory or paging through his Civil War coffee table books with all Matthew Brady’s most famous images. I then began learning about my own direct ancestors who served in the war, which exacerbated a new condition known as civilwaritis. Trips to Gettysburg, Antietam and Harper’s Ferry sealed the deal!

BR: You’re both Licensed Gettysburg Battlefield Guides. How long have you known each other?

JH: I’m not sure where and when we met, but I imagine like most people locally we probably met at O’Rorkes. I had finished writing both my Sickles and Pickett’s Charge books. I was considering doing something in depth on the Peach Orchard because I knew there were many aspects of that story that didn’t fit into my Sickles book. When Britt published his regimental on the 105th Pennsylvania, it struck me that he might be someone who would want to tackle this project together.

BI: I met Jim when I was going through the process to become a battlefield guide back in 2013. I knew of him long before he met me (isn’t that the story for all of us!), so we’ve known each other about six years. I really enjoyed his Sickles at Gettysburg and Pickett’s Charge books, but then I found out he was a New York Yankees fan and the relationship soured (not really).

BR: That Yankees thing should have sunk him. But despite that, you’ve written Peach Orchard together. How did you come to the decision to write it in tandem, and how does that process work? How do your positions as guides inform this book?

JH: Since I had done my Sickles book and Britt had done his 105th PA book, it was obvious that we both had enough interest on this part of the field to complete books. Many people try to write books and never finish, so knowing that we both had the ability to finish was important. I’m not a proponent of telling people, “This contribution was mine and that was his,” since it’s either a team effort or it isn’t, but the best part of working with someone is that both parties can add stories that the other one might not know. You don’t know what you don’t know. As for being Guides, the obvious answer is “we spend a lot of time on the ground and know the terrain.” But beyond that, we get to audition stories for audiences and figure out which ones work well, and which ones don’t, long before we have to commit them to paper. Many Gettysburg buffs look at Battlefield Guides and say, “Oh, I could easily do that,” but the art to it is really being able to tell stories concisely. That skill hopefully lends itself to writing.

BR: Why yet another microstudy of Gettysburg?

JH: Why not? Why do we always have to answer this question? But seriously, because if people are still interested in the Civil War, then Gettysburg is the battle that still garners the most interest. As for the Peach Orchard, amazingly this topic has NEVER been done in a full-length study before. Beyond the Sickles and Longstreet stuff, we wanted to tell the stories of the people who lived and fought at the Peach Orchard. We think many of these stories have not been told before, and certainly not in one book like this. Plus Sickles and Longstreet, our two primary protagonists, still generate heat among Gettysburg enthusiasts. Someone asks a question about Sickles, and usually gets eviscerated for it, at least once per day in social media forums.

BR: How would you characterize the popular notion of the Peach Orchard operations, and how does your book conflict with that notion?

JH: Traditional interpretation of the Peach Orchard is always something like this: “Sickles murdered his wife’s lover before becoming a dreaded political general. Then he told Meade to ‘go to hell,’ and moved into the Peach Orchard. Sickles created a salient which is bad. Very bad. General Barksdale’s attack was the most amazing of the war and broke Sickles’s salient. Afterwards, Sickles dated the Queen of Spain.” Well, we try to tell the REAL story, starting with the story of the Sherfy family themselves. As for the battle itself, we provide the details on who defended the orchard, their actions, and how those actions contributed to Barksdale’s success. Sickles, Longstreet, and Barksdale are part of our story, of course, but we try to tell it in a broader context.

BI: Most of the focus on the second day at Gettysburg is a mile too far east. The Peach Orchard often gets a mere drive-by as people make their way to Little Round Top. We think the Peach Orchard is second only to Cemetery Hill as the most important piece of ground on the second day of the battle. Also, it’s often forgotten, but the Peach Orchard was an important part of R.E. Lee’s day two objectives and the decisions made by commanders on both sides because of the terrain’s deceptive nature drove the outcome of the battle. Instead of being just a footnote, the significance of the orchard should be elevated since it is integral to understanding why the battle played out as it did.

BR: Can you describe how long it took to write the book, what the stumbling blocks were, what you discovered along the way that surprised you or went against the grain, what firmed up what you already knew? When did you know you were “done”?

JH: I think we were working on it for close to 4 years. We both had some preliminary research done due to our prior projects, but we soon realized that we still needed to do much more research to fill in blanks on other regiments and individuals. While it didn’t surprise me, in terms of going ‘against the grain’, we wanted to emphasize why this action is so important vs. less significant but more heralded actions at places like Little Round Top and the Wheatfield. Lee repeatedly referred to the Peach Orchard and Emmitsburg Road as significant on both July 2 and July 3, yet not enough people appreciate it. In fact, the Peach Orchard on July 2 directly leads to Lee’s decisions on July 3. While several friends pre-read our manuscript and provided very useful commentary, we also shocked several of them by including July 3 in our scope. They were shocked because they had been conditioned to think of the Peach Orchard as “Day Two” only. We need to stop looking at this battle as isolated days. The actions of one day lead to the next day, and nowhere is that more evident than at the Peach Orchard.

BR: Can you describe your research and writing process? What online and brick and mortar sources did you rely on most?

JH: We create an outline; we research; we write; we edit; we edit again; we edit again. Then we turned it over to an editor and edited it again. And again. Our bibliography is pretty extensive; I’ll let readers check it out. As for the sources relied on the most, first and foremost remains the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. Yes, I know their limitations, but they remain the place to start.

BI: We both spent a lot of time searching for sources in so many different places. Like most Civil War studies, the source we leaned on the most was the Official Records. Beyond that, newspapers were a great help. Our fellow guides and other historians from the Civil War community were also extremely helpful in pointing us towards other less-publicized accounts.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

JH: It’s been received very well and we thank everyone for that. I admit I wasn’t originally sure if the market wanted a “Peach Orchard book” but we tried to strike a balance between military and human interest. We seem to have accomplished that. I am very proud of the book and think it stands up equally to my prior books.

BR: What’s next for you?

JH: I am currently enjoying co-hosting The Battle of Gettysburg Podcast. I know I am supposed to say, “I will keep writing history for the joy of creating,” but I’ve decided that writing history is too thankless. Writers of history need to be: informative, entertaining but not too fluffy, new but not revisionist, have great maps, have rare photos, have detailed but not too detailed footnotes at the bottom of the page, not use end notes (except for the one person in ten who prefers end notes), and have an extensive bibliography of primary sources. All for little to no money, so that social media warriors can critique it and then forget it in 12 months. So I might be finished with this phase of my career. I am proud of the three full-length books that are on my resume. Or I might do a book on Custer and the Little Bighorn, which I have been promising for years because I enjoy being miserable.

BI: I’ll tell you one thing… I’m never writing a book again!!! No, I do have a couple other projects in mind, but first and foremost I’m taking a break. Then I’m going to continue work on a regimental history of the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry and maybe a photo study of cavalrymen from the Cumberland Valley. We’ll see what happens…