Interview: Ovies, “The Boy Generals”

24 09 2021

New from Savas Beatie is The Boy Generals: George Custer, Wesley Merritt, and the Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, by Adolfo Ovies. Mr. Ovies took some time to answer a few questions about his book and his writing.


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

AO: The most influential moment of my life was in 1960, when my family fled Communist Cuba for a new life in Connecticut where I became a “Connecticut Yankee” —more American than Cuban. I have, however, always remained comfortable in both cultures.

Nothing in my academic career prepared me to become a historian. During my college tenure, monetary issues turned me in the direction of the food service industry and for 45 years I worked as an executive chef and food service director, opening restaurants in both the midwest and southwest. Throughout the years my passion for history has flourished. The books in my library span the period from the Vikings to the Vietnam war.

Tournament bass fishing provided an outlet for my competitive nature. In Florida, many of our fisheries came under pressure from a host of environmental groups. I was a founder and president of South Florida Anglers for Everglades Restoration (SAFER), a group dedicated to restoring the Everglades, thus preserving the sport we all loved so much. At this time I began researching and writing what would become my first book on George Armstrong Custer.

BR: What got you interested in the Civil War? Who/what were your early influences?

AO: My love of Civil War history developed almost as a perfect storm. I have always been an avid reader and at ten years old I made the switch from reading the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift to reading Quentin Reynold’s book on Custer, a part of the Landmark Series of history books for children.

Hard on the book’s heel came Errol Flynn’s mesmerizing portrayal of George A. Custer in They Died with Their Boots On. When I was 12, my father took us on a vacation to Gettysburg. Up to this time, I had just been nibbling on the bait, but with the visit to this storied battlefield I took a full bite and was hooked for life. When my grandfather gave a copy of Jay Monaghan’s Custer, I knew I had made the transition to becoming a big time Civil War history buff.

BR: Why Custer and Merritt?

AO: The answer to the question comes down to a letter written by Elizabeth Bacon Custer (Libbie) to then General of the Army, William T. Sherman. In the letter, written at the time that Wesley Merritt was appointed superintendent of West Point. Libbie told Sherman, “years ago I knew . . . that General Custer was his [Merritt’s] enemy.” I have always believed that history is sometimes written in too cut and dried a manner. Here was a chance to be a storyteller, to write the tale of two men who came to detest each other with a passion. My book is more than a recitation of the battles and campaigns of the cavalry. Though well researched and detailed, it is also the story of two men whose differing personalities and tactical philosophies led them to what I call “a fight for the soul of the cavalry.” Compelled to trace the development of their dysfunctional relationship, I found more than I bargained for.

BR: Can you describe the relationship between the two what we can learn from it, in a nutshell?

AO: The flamboyant Custer, often chastised for his recklessness, would suffer a horrific death on Last Stand Hill at the battle of the Little Big Horn. His name will remain emblazoned on the pages of our nation’s history as long as there are historians to write. He was 38 at the time of his death on June 25, 1876.

The understated Merritt would go on to a long and influential career in the U.S. Army. He fought the Native American tribes on the frontier and led the expedition to the Philippines in the 1898 Spanish-American War. But his greatest contribution would be his founding and presidency of the United States Cavalry Association. He would use the journal of the association (JUSCA) as a platform to transform an army utilized to fight on the western frontier into one capable of fighting against the best the European powers had to offer. Yet his life and achievements remain obscure.

The lesson here is that each man created his own legacy, wove his own destiny. The old Saxons and Norsemen called it Wyrd.

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”?

AO: My first attempt at writing a history book was a self-published effort entitled Crossed Sabers: General George Custer and the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864-65. That was back in 2004. It was not a commercial success, however, as the result of his review of this book, I met and became friends with cavalry historian Eric Wittenberg. Eric graciously offered to mentor me in my next effort, The Boy Generals, which has been in the works for about 9 years.

I had two major stumbling blocks in writing this trilogy.

1. Much of the mythology that has sprung up around Custer had to be challenged. Often conflicting accounts exist that needed to be verified. During his Civil War career, Custer was a great soldier sometimes disguised by his flamboyant nature.

2. The enigma that is Wesley Merritt had to be brought into the light of day. Unlike Custer, there are no trunks filled with personal material. His character had to be fleshed out through his official reports, his extensive after-war writings and the accounts of the men who fought under him.

The extent of the deterioration of the relationship between Custer and Merritt was crystal clear once I understood the underlying roots. It was not something that occurred overnight, but developed gradually, battle by battle, campaign by campaign, right up until the end of the war, and even beyond. The effect of Custer always being subordinated to Merritt cannot be understated. I knew I had come to the end of the scope for this project when, during Sheridan’s 1865-1866 Texas campaign, Custer sent Merritt a brief note in which he basically thumbed his nose at Merritt and told him that he was no longer Custer’s boss.

BR: You describe this as the first volume of a trilogy. Very briefly, what does each volume cover?

AO: Volume 1 lays out the background of the hatred that developed between Merritt and Custer. It covers the time from their tenures at West Point, to McClellan’s Peninsular campaign, and on to Brandy Station, where, already, there were inklings of tension. During the battles of Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville, their careers, literally, took divergent roads. Destiny took them on dissimilar paths to the fields of Gettysburg. Merritt’s actions on South Cavalry Field and Custer’s participation at East Cavalry Field were but the groundwork for their blossoming adversarial relationship.

Volume 2 follows their respective brigades as they contested the defeated Rebels down the face of the rugged Blue Ridge Mountains. After Major General Philip H. Sheridan replaced Major General Alfred A. Pleasonton as commander of the Cavalry Corps, the confrontation between Merritt and Custer was ratcheted up several notches. The volume covers the hard-fought battles of the Overland campaign, and details the battle at Trevilian Station, where their rupture became part of the official record. In August 1864, Sheridan’s troopers were transferred to the Shenandoah Valley. For Custer and Merritt, things began to deteriorate rapidly.

Volume 3 For Merritt and Custer, the situation went from bad to worse as the Shenandoah campaign rumbled up the valley. The dysfunctional relationship finally erupted into public view following the battle of Cedar Creek, after which there was no hope of reconciliation. The glory of the Appomattox campaign would be forever tarnished when Custer was insubordinate to Merritt. Their acrimony would continue into the post-war army.

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

AO: My approach to research is that there is no such thing as a solitary clue. Each clue provides another direction that needs to be tracked down and examined, and then re-examined. Each account offers a different perspective, and none can be taken as gospel truth. I have tried not to bring an agenda to this work. Though I admit that I am an unabashed Custer buff, I have tried to keep an open mind in my research on Wesley Merritt. I believe that I have brought as much material to the book on his behalf as has been written since his solitary biography by Don E. Alberts was published back in 1980.

The Official Records have been one of my primary sources of information. It takes many, many readings to mine all the nuances that are contained in the reports of the participants. There are several versions of the OR online. My favorite is the one from Cornell/Hathi Trust as it is copied from the originals. I don’t trust some of the transcribed versions. Google Books has turned out to be a tremendous resource as I have been able to download many regimental histories, both north and south, that I probably wouldn’t have gotten access to. I have taken trips to the Army Heritage Institute, the National Archives and visited every accessible battlefield pertaining to the events in this work. Many fellow historians have given freely of their time and sources. To them I owe a great debt of gratitude.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

AO: I am really heartened by the responses I have received so far. Many of the comments make specific reference to the style of my writing. As I mentioned earlier, my main goal was to tell the story of these two men who played such an important part in the actions of the cavalry in the Eastern theater of the war. Judging from the comments, I think I have succeeded in accomplishing this.

BR: What’s next for you?

AO: I have already written the following volumes of this trilogy, though they need some tweaking to bring them up to date with some of my latest research. These volumes will be published next year. I am well into my next project which deals with the Bay of Pigs invasion. It is entitled The Cuban Conundrum: The Brigade 2506, the CIA and the Cuban Civil War. I have interviewed two dozen members of the Cuban Brigade and have gained access to over 200 declassified CIA documents written in Spanish of the Brigade’s training in the jungles of Guatemala. I hope to bridge the cultural gap that has separated Cuban and American historians and write the definitive story of the 3-day battle and its aftermath.





Funny Stuff, and an Update

14 09 2021

I made some updates to my speaking schedule. Between October 2021 and April 2022 I’ll be presenting in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Two McDowell’s Plan shows, and one on the 69th NYSM at Bull Run. The Plan programs will be brand new versions, stripped down, which should be more impactful. The 69th talk will be the Saturday preceding St. Patrick’s day, which here in Pittsburgh – where I’ll be speaking – is a pretty big day. That should be interesting. You can see the schedule here.

I’m working my way through South Carolina newspapers for the two months following the battle, and am finding good stuff, even if I’m going blind in the process. Very interesting the tone of the state’s newspapers versus Virginia’s and North Carolina’s. Think the freshmen football players who never get in the game, who taunt their opponents from the sidelines under the expectation of not having to face them on the field. (I’m talking about geography, here.) Check out this column, in the Charleston Mercury, criticizing Virginia for its soft treatment of Union prisoners captured at Bull Run. I may transcribe it later.





Preview: Schmiel & Simione with Schneider, “Searching for Irvin McDowell”

4 09 2021

Just in for preview is Searching for Irvin McDowell: Forgotten Civil War General, by Frank P. Simione,Jr. and Gene Schmiel, with E. L. “Dutch” Schneider. It’s billed as “The first biography of this important Union General in the early days of the Civil War,” and I’ll soon have an interview with the authors. But for now –

You get:

  • 244 pages of text in 10 chapters.
  • 2 appendices, discussing McDowell’s stay at Liberia in Manassas, and his unique taste in headwear.
  • Bottom of the page footnotes.
  • 10 page bibliography (published works, National Tribune and magazine articles, two websites – and no, I’m not in it)
  • Index
  • 14 Hal Jesperson maps
  • 7 images





Preview: Ramold, “Obstinate Heroism”

2 09 2021

Recently received for preview from the University of North Texas Press is Steven J. Ramold’s Obstinate Heroism: The Confederate Surrenders after Appomattox. From the jacket:

“Despite popular belief, the Civil War did not end when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, in April 1865. The Confederacy still had tens of thousands of soldiers under arms, in three main field armies and countless smaller commands scattered throughout the South. Although pressed by Union forces at varying degrees, all of the remaining Confederate armies were capable of continuing the war if they chose to do so. But they did not, even when their political leaders ordered them to continue the fight. Convinced that most civilians no longer wanted to continue the war, the senior Confederate military leadership, over the course of several weeks, surrendered their armies under different circumstances.

“Steven J. Ramold examines the reasons why the Confederacy failed in the final years of the Civil War and compelled the generals to surrender. Defeatism, a growing problem in the Confederacy thanks to failed political, military, and economic policies, was a pervasive influence upon the generals. Personal rivalries undermined efforts at cooperation, while practical military matters forced leaders to make difficult decisions.”

You get:

  • 365 pages of text in 11 chapters, plus a conclusion
  • 54 pages of endnotes
  • 35 pages of works cited (in lieu of bibliography), including 4 pages of manuscript collections, as well as various dissertations, newspapers, and online sources.
  • 18 maps, and mostly portrait illustrations sprinkled throughout.

Stephen J. Ramold is Professor of American History at Eastern Michigan University.