Interview: Simione & Schmiel, “Searching for Irvin McDowell”

13 12 2021
Gen Schmiel, “Dutch” Schnieder, and Frank Simione

Frank Simione, Jr. and Gene Schmiel, with E. L. “Dutch” Schneider, have recently published a Searching for Irvin McDowell: Forgotten Civil War General. Frank and Gene took some time to answer a few questions about the book. For more info, check out the review at Civil War Books and Authors.

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

FS: I am a retired bioscience industry administrative professional who has written a number of technical papers and review articles, manuals, and book chapters throughout my 42-year career. Prior to the McDowell biography my only other book writing experience was the story of the organization I worked for titled, Transformation of an Icon: ATCC and the New Business Model for Science written in collaboration with our CEO.

GS: I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. After receiving my Ph.D. from The Ohio State University, I taught History for four years at St. Francis University (PA). I then changed careers, becoming a U.S. Foreign Service Officer in the Department of State. I served as a diplomat in five nations overseas and in several positions in Washington over a 24 year career. Since my retirement from the Foreign Service, I have worked part-time for the Department of State in historical document declassification.

In 2010 I decided to write a biography of Civil War General Jacob D. Cox based on my doctoral dissertation. That book, Citizen-General: Jacob Dolson Cox and the Civil War Era, was published in 2014 by Ohio University Press and was a History Book Club selection. A companion volume, My Dearest Lilla: Civil War Letters Home by General Jacob D. Cox, is currently under consideration for publication by the University of Tennessee Press.

I have written and self-published thirteen other books about the Civil War, ten of which are part of my series, “Civil War Personalities, 50 At a Time.” These books are designed to introduce the reader to key people in distinct categories, ranging from Civil War Trailblazers and Troublemakers to Civil War Virginians to Civil War Women to The Civil War in Statuary Hall. I will soon begin the eleventh book in the series, tentatively titled, Baptism by Fire at First Bull Run. [See Gene’s Amazon Author Page here.]

I also have lectured to some 25 Civil War Round Tables around the country, and beginning in 2019 I have been the guest lecturer about the Civil War aboard American Cruise Lines ships on the Mississippi River and on the Southeast Coast. Here’s my Civil War web-site.

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

FS: My interest in the Civil War began during the 1961-1965 centennial. Authors such as Bruce Catton were a major influence, and living only 40 miles from Gettysburg, my early interest focused on the Battle of Gettysburg. I have sustained my Civil War interest since then, primarily through reading, and expanded that interest well beyond Gettysburg and Pennsylvania. My personal library contains nearly 200 volumes on Lincoln and the Civil War.

GS: My main doctoral field of study was 19th century American history, and the Civil War was the most important event in that era. While I have always been interested in the Civil War, it was the 2014 publication of my book about Jacob Cox that convinced me to devote a considerable amount of time and effort to studying, writing, and speaking about this critical era.

BR: How did you two meet?

FS: When I realized I needed help, Dave Button, a mutual local colleague, and an early reviewer of the book draft, introduced me to Gene in early 2020.

GS: Yes, our good friend Dave Button is responsible for our meeting, and we have thanked him many times since.

BR: You’ve written “Searching for Irvin McDowell” together. How did you come to the decision to write it in tandem, and how does that process work?

FS: After unsuccessful attempts to get my first draft published, Gene joined me in early 2020. He provided a critical review of the first draft, agreed to review a revised version as it was developed, and in the process made major edits, rewrote sections, and added new material.

GS: At first I thought that I would just help Frank here and there with edits and suggestions. But as the project evolved, and because I had additional free time because of COVID’s closing my office in the Department of State, I decided to “dive into” the project. Most importantly, Frank was amenable to my editing and tinkering with the text and my additions. Further, we found that we had complementary skills and interests: I did the formatting and organizing, Frank carefully proofread and checked the text and created the index, and we both checked each other repeatedly. In the end it became a solid partnership.

BR: Why a biography of Irvin McDowell?

FS: Our third author, Dutch Schneider, is a McDowell look-alike who portrayed him in local events in Manassas, Virginia. When I saw Dutch in his McDowell role, I became interested in learning more about him and went looking for a biography. Dutch informed me that there were none, and I suggested that we write one as I was appalled that no one had told McDowell’s story.

GS: I knew that there was no biography of McDowell, but until I met Frank, I had not thought of filling that historiographical gap. But when this opportunity arose, I jumped at the chance. The fact that I live just a few hundred yards from the Manassas battlefields and am able to walk that ground whenever I wish was another motivator. Finally, as in the case of Jacob Cox, Irvin McDowell deserved to have his story told.

Let me emphasize here that our objective was to write a biography focusing primarily on McDowell’s time on the battlefield, but not a definitive study. In fact, we chose the title because we recognized that the “search” for Irvin McDowell would be ongoing. As we noted in the Preface, we wish others engaging in that search with an eye to writing the definitive scholarly text, “God Speed.”

BR: Of course the stumbling block when it comes to McDowell is the lack of personal papers. Other than the ten letters to his wife written in the summer of 1862, there’s not much out there (I suspect there’s more, of course, we just need to find it). How did you deal with the lack of your subject’s private voice?

FS: We focused on the “public” voice by looking for what others said about McDowell. Our hope was that what we found would contribute to a meaningful story about who McDowell was.

GS: Of course we also used the Official Records and other key primary sources, including those ten letters. I especially found McDowell’s testimony at Fitz-John Porter’s re-trial to be revealing of the “inner Irvin McDowell,” a man who, deep down, knew he had performed poorly at Second Bull Run but, as he testified, “I shut it out of my mind as best I could.”

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”?

FS: I began doing the research in January 2017 by looking through my private library, the local libraries, and doing online searches. We knew from the beginning that there was little primary material on McDowell, no memoir, few letters and that he did not contribute to “Battles and Leaders” or other publications regarding his experiences. The lack of these materials made the search and the selection of material to include in the book more difficult. At the end of 2020, Gene and I determined that we had reached a point of diminishing returns in our quest for additional material.

GS: After I began working with Frank, I thought that while he had exhausted most of the available material, there were several other areas to focus on, including the Porter trial transcripts and the records of McDowell’s military administrative work after the war. When we had gone through those sources and a few others and had finished our umpteenth re-write, we decided to declare the book “done.”

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

FS: Brick and mortar sources were limited to books and articles that included McDowell, mostly as a secondary character. For example, Francis Baylies’, A Narrative of General Wool’s Campaign in Mexico: in the Years 1846, 1847 & 1848, published in 1851, is about General Wool’s campaign, but also contains interesting information about McDowell, Wool’s aide-de-camp. The Official Records, and Supplement to the Official Records, provided primary information on McDowell during the Civil War. Information on his family history was found primarily by searching online resources.

GS: I agree with Frank. Also, see what I wrote above.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

FS: Gene did the publishing via amazon.com and has been in touch with other scholars and reviewers, so I leave this answer to him.

GS: Civil War Books and Authors and Civil War Monitor magazine will be reviewing it soon. We hope and trust other Civil War magazines and interest groups will be doing the same. Sales of the book, which is available in hardbound, paperback, and ebook, have been quite good.


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