Interview: McMillan, “Armistead and Hancock”

17 07 2021
Author Tom McMillan

New from Stackpole Books is Tom McMillan’s Armistead and Hancock: Behind the Gettysburg Legend of Two Friends at the Turning Point of the Civil War. The author took some time to answer a few questions about himself and the book.

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

TM: Bottom line, I’m someone who loves history and studying the Civil War. I just retired from a 43-year career in sports media and communications, but my second career choice was history teacher, and history has always been a passion. I serve on the board of Trustees of Pittsburgh’s Heinz History Center and previously was on the board of directors of the Friends of Flight 93 National Memorial. I’m also a docent at the Civil War Room/GAR Post at Carnegie Library in Carnegie, Pa. My first history book was Flight 93: The Story, The Aftermath and The Legacy of American Courage on 9/11, and my previous book on the Civil War was Gettysburg Rebels: Five Native Sons Who Came Home to Fight as Confederate Soldiers, which won the 2017 Bachelder-Coddington Literary Award as the best new work on the Gettysburg Campaign.

BR: What first got you interested in history, and the Civil War in particular? What Civil War authors have influenced you?

TM: Like most kids growing up in Pennsylvania, I visited Gettysburg with my parents on vacation, but I was so focused on my professional career as a young adult that there wasn’t room for much else. It wasn’t until the movie Gettysburg came out in 1993 that I turned the corner. I saw it at a theatre in Pittsburgh on a Tuesday night, drove to Gettysburg on a Friday and have been immersed in the study of the Civil War ever since. It was only after this became my No. 1 hobby that I realized “I had so many ancestors who fought in the war (including several who fought in the Wheatfield at Gettysburg). The authors who impacted me most at the start were Edwin Coddington and Harry Pfanz, the Gettysburg icons. As a long-time writer I also appreciate the talent of Stephen Sears — a brilliant writer — although I don’t always agree with his conclusions. From a more contemporary perspective I really like the work of James Hessler, (Sickles, Peach Orchard, Pickett’s Charge), who is also a Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guide.

BR: Your previous Civil War related book was about Gettysburg’s rebels, while this new one focuses on Gettysburg as well. Is this battle your main Civil War interest?

TM: There’s a powerful draw to Gettysburg, especially for someone who lives only a few hours away. And it was the movie Gettysburg that sparked my renewed interest in the 1990s, so, yes, there is something very special about the place. My wife and I always attend the Anniversary Days. But we’ve really become interested in Antietam in recent years and may try to become guides there in retirement. We’ve visited the Virginia battlefields, and Vicksburg, and will always continue to appreciate those places as well. It’s important to have context about the entire war. Frankly, though, from a bottom line perspective as an author, national publishers have more interest in Gettysburg books than those from other battles.

BR: So, why Armistead and Hancock?

TM: Did I mention the movie Gettysburg? (he says, laughing). The movie, and the novel it was based on, The Killer Angels, have made such a huge impression on an entire generation of Civil War visitors – probably more than any other works about the battle. The impact is so strong that many people tend to forget they are based on historical fiction. I was fascinated from the start by the story of Armistead and Hancock, two friends described as “almost brothers,” but was curious that I couldn’t find much information in bonafide histories about their friendship – that the topic had never been addressed in book form. Many Hancock books barely mention Armistead. I knew the movie version was heavily dramatized, so I set out to see if I could find the story behind the legend. It was an intriguing research journey.

BR: Hancock has spawned a Caspian Sea of Ink over the years. Armistead, on the other hand, while well-known, remains a shadowy figure. How were you able to overcome the relative dearth of information on him?

TM: That was part of the attraction, part of the challenge — could I find much about the story of Armistead? It was kind of amazing to me that there had been only one book written about him in the 158 years since the battle — a short biography by the legendary guide Wayne Motts back in 1994. There just isn’t a lot of stuff that is readily available. But Wayne’s previous work led me to some productive research paths, and by digging into the service records of Armistead’s 22-year U.S. Amy career at the National Archives; studying his family’s long military history, which is profound; obtaining his Confederate service records, along with those of his three younger brothers, and his son; checking out the incredible library at West Point; and finding some very interesting nuggets from newspapers of the time, I was able to piece together the story. The frustrating part is that there always will be gaps in the record and questions we can’t answer. There was a fire at the Armistead family home in the 1850s and that may have destroyed some of his letters and other materials.

BR: What were some things you learned about these two men that surprised you.

TM: I had so little knowledge of the Armistead story, other than his famous day at Gettysburg, that it was all interesting and surprising. He was brevetted multiple times for gallantry in the Mexican War. He had a tragic personal life, losing two wives and two of his three children to disease on the frontier. But some of the most intriguing insights were about his family and its military history. His father was the third man to graduate from West Point and became a brigadier general in 1828. I also had no idea that his three younger brothers also fought in the Civil War (and that one had graduated from West Point). It’s no coincidence at all that Armistead became a soldier. As for Hancock? Despite all the Hancock books out there, I’ll admit that most of what I knew about him centered on his three outstanding days at Gettysburg. It was interesting to track the progress of his life and career both before AND after the war — it provides a lot of context for his Gettysburg actions. And he did a lot more after the war than just running for president in1880. Mostly, though, I was interested in finding what I could about their interactions and their friendship. It’s an interesting and compelling story — although not quite the same as what you saw in the movie.

BR: Can you describe how long it took to write the book, what the stumbling blocks were?

TM: Looking back, I realize that I was “researching” the story of Armistead and Hancock long before I decided to write a book. The quest to learn more about them as a student of history is what led me, eventually, to do the book. The project itself took four years, with lots of twists and turns. The biggest challenge was uncovering as much of the hard-to-get-at Armistead material as I could. My wife, Colleen, is such a great researcher that she was a big part of this effort. Also, because of the power of the movie, I wanted to find as much as I could about their farewell in California before the war. Some people think it’s all fiction, that it didn’t happen at all. It’s a puzzle with some missing pieces, but I believe it DID happen. As for the overall story, there always will be questions we can’t answer. But that’s why we all keep studying history, right?

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

TM: My own process is to do some significant research, then start writing a bit, then go back to more research … and on it goes. I can’t just research, research, research. I have to start writing a little, to create a style for the book, to get the momentum going … and then go back for more research. Do I often double-back and edit or completely rewrite a segment because of something I’ve found? Sure. All the time. You’re constantly editing as you write. But I find that switching between research and writing throughout the process adds some freshness, at least for me.
There’s nothing like the National Archives when you are researching Civil War soldiers — their pre-war U.S. Army records and Civil War records, many of which include signed documents and letters. It’s eye-opening. Their online site at fold3.com is tremendous, but there are items at the Archives building in D.C. that are not yet digitized online, so traveling there is a must. We went to the West Point library and I was in awe of the information they have on the cadets — their academic records, even their application papers, which also include letters. I was stunned at the information we found in contemporary newspapers of that era, available at newspapers.com and other sites. Reporters wrote a lot about the army in those days, which is invaluable to a historian. Copies of the Confederate Veteran magazine series, which are both online and in some libraries, were a great resource on Armistead; those letters and articles were written by soldiers themselves, and a number of them wrote about serving with Armistead during Pickett’s Charge. All authors utilize previous books on our subject matter, of course, but finding some of the lesser-known books related to these guys (and, in Armistead’s case, his family) was also helpful for uncovering nuggets. A tidbit here, a tidbit there.

BR: In the editorial process something always ends up on the cutting room floor so to speak. Was there anything that didn’t make the final cut – things for which you expected to find support and came up dry, for example?

TM: I didn’t enter this project with many preconceived notions, so the answer is probably no. One specific topic I wanted to examine was the pre-war meeting in California, and I think I found as much as I could. Everything else was an open book. I was learning as I went alone. As we mentioned earlier, there really wasn’t much written in book form about Armistead before this. I guess you’re always a little frustrated at the end, because you wish you could have found more, but I thought I had exhausted many of the research avenues and had a pretty good story to tell. I hope readers agree.

BR: What’s next for you?

TM: RETIREMENT! That means more time to travel, research and write. I’m hoping there are more books in my future. My wife and I are also interested in doing more volunteer work at Antietam, and hopefully becoming guides some day. It’s an exciting time.


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One response

17 07 2021
omalley138

Thx for posting this great interview and will lead to me reading the book

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