Interview: Knight, “From Arlington to Appomattox”

2 08 2021
Charles R. Knight

New from Savas Beatie is one of those volumes that Civil War researchers will keep on their reference shelves along with Warner, Heitman, Crute, Dyer, Boatner, Long, and Miers – Charles R. Knight’s From Arlington to Appomattox: Robert E. Lee’s Civil War Day by Day, 1861-1865. Mr. Knight has been good enough to answer a few questions about the book.


BR: You’ve spoken with us before – any updates with you?

CRK: Since our last interview, I’ve moved across the country…twice. First to the Civil War research hotbed of Phoenix, AZ, and then to the much better Raleigh, NC. Still in the museum field and now have 20+ years experience in the museums/historic sites field – a career choice I made for the money, obviously. Oh, and the family has grown by one since last time as well.

BR: In the beginning, this new book must have seemed either like an insurmountable task, or a put-my-nose-to-the-grindstone-and-it will-eventually-be-done procedural. What, in the first place, possessed you to undertake it? Were you influenced by Miers’s Lincoln Day-by-Day?

CRK: A number of years ago I was well into the research on my biography of “Little Billy” Mahone when Ted Savas sent me this cryptic message to call him. He asked me how that was going and said he had an idea that could use a lot of the same research materials, but looking at R.E. Lee rather than Mahone. “Go on,” I replied. He asked if I was familiar with E.B. Long’s CW Day by Day, which of course is an invaluable work looking at the major events of every day of the war. Ted explained that he wanted someone to do a similar work but focusing on Lee during the war. I thought “OK sure, how hard can this be? Between Lee’s own papers, the ORs, the writings of Lee’s major staff officers (Walter Taylor, Charles Marshall, Armistead Long) and D.S. Freeman to fill in the gaps, this shouldn’t be too much of an undertaking.” I cannot have been more wrong, that became apparent VERY quickly. For all the scores of titles that have been written in the last 160 years about Lee, no author – not even Freeman – set out to record the detail this type of project required. In fact the only person I am aware of for whom such a project had ever been attempted was Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln Day by Day project was similar but quite different at the same time, in that it looked at his entire life and there was a team of researchers compiling EVERY known scrap of paper with Lincoln’s signature on it. This Lee project was concerned only with four years of his life, it was just me (although I could not have done it without the help of many friends and colleagues) pulling everything together, and I knew it would be an impossibility to even attempt to find everything. But I’m a detail person when it comes to research, and I found myself going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole, sometimes chasing things that wound up in the finished book, others that either hit a dead end or were not important enough to include.

BR: While nothing about this could have been easy, did you find any kind of freedom in the fact that you didn’t have to construct an overall narrative? Was there less “creative” writing?

CRK: With the exception of the introductory section for each month April 1861 through April 1865, it really was largely just compiling raw data: where Lee was, who he was with, who he wrote to, etc. There was no need to try to weave it into a sort of narrative for each day. That said, there are of course some days with gobs of information which do require a lot more organization than those for which there is little recorded. When I sat down to convert my notes into “complete” entries for each day, there were instances where I could move through several months in a matter of hours and other times where a single day of Lee’s life took me an entire weekend to do. Because of the lack of much interpretation, I was afraid that the finished product would be dry – and in some cases I admit it is – but, I think when you tackle large chunks, say at least a week at a time, you can really see how events both big and small take shape. And in a traditional biography that is lost.

BR: Cutting to the chase, what were some things you learned about the Marble Man that surprised you (individual events or overall characterizations)?

CRK: Without a doubt the most surprising revelations came from the private writings of those closest to Lee: either his family or his staff. Walter Taylor, Armistead Long, and others who were part of Lee’s inner circle wrote of their time with the General in the decades after his death, and the public by and large gobbled it up. But these were specifically designed for public eyes – none of them would say anything bad about their chief in that format. But when you look at their private letters – those not meant to be seen by the public at large – that is where you get their true thoughts. By reading Freeman one would never suspect that Lee harbored a tremendous temper and could hold a grudge for days on end, or that he would ever order his staff to fire on their own men. The writings of Lee’s military family however reveal much that would have made Freeman cringe. Taylor frequently griped about the lack of recognition he received from Lee and how frequently the General took out his temper on those around him at HQ. In fact Taylor referred to Lee in not so flattering terms as the “Tycoon.” Charles Venable – who butted heads with Lee perhaps more than any other of his aides – recorded some of the most eye opening details about Lee, and just how unpleasant life could be at ANV HQ. One of my favorite incidents I found that doesn’t come from one of the staff was an account by a gentleman who sat next to Lee on the train as the General returned to the army from a meeting in Richmond in the midst of the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid, which noted how anxious Lee seemed and how distant he was whenever anyone tried to talk to him, and he was constantly looking out the windows on both sides of the car. No one at the time understood Lee’s behavior, but once they arrived at Gordonsville they all learned just how close they had come to being captured by Union horsemen and immediately grasped the reason for his odd actions. I was also surprised at how much things of a non-military nature Lee dealt with on an almost daily basis. When we look at battle or campaign studies, such things are often not mentioned or if they are it is just a cursory one. Personal tragedy struck Lee multiple times during the war, with the well-known death of his daughter Annie in the wake of Sharpsburg, but also the death of his two grandchildren – one during the Seven Days, and one only weeks after Annie’s death, the death of his daughter-in-law Charlotte the day after Christmas 1863, Rooney’s capture from his literal sick-bed days before Gettysburg, how much his wife’s nomadic lifestyle concerned him, and not to mention his own failing health.

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

CRK: When I first began this project I was living in Norfolk, VA – hometown of Walter Taylor. So I had easy access to Taylor’s papers at the Norfolk Public Library and the important repositories in Richmond were only a couple hours away. Then I moved to Phoenix, which is of course widely known as one of the major centers of CW scholarship in the country. Access to original papers became quite difficult to say the least and an increasing amount of my research was done remotely. Then I really lucked out when I got a job in Raleigh and had the immense collections at UNC and Duke at my fingertips. The first six months I was in NC I spent almost every weekend in either Chapel Hill or Durham, and I found a lot of smaller collections that I may not have ever found otherwise, many of which had some excellent REL material. I was researching this for at least five years, and it took a good six months to convert the raw data in my notes into daily entries. I never intended to find EVERY piece of Lee correspondence or reference to him, and I know there are lots of them out there that I didn’t find, so there’s always that little voice in the back of your mind that wonders if one of them has info that would fill in some of the gaps.

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

CRK: I don’t remember now for certain, but I think the very first source I started with was Dowdey & Manarin’s volume of Lee’s papers. I just started a Word document and for every event in Lee’s life, be it a letter written or received, a meeting with someone, etc., I recorded it by date. When I was “done” I think that document was 600-something pages, and it still didn’t have all of my notes – some of which I just plugged directly into the manuscript. The first mss collection I targeted was Walter Taylor’s papers at the Norfolk Public Library. His wartime papers were published back in the mid-90s, but the original collection has so much more of value than just those – I learned a lot from Taylor’s post-war correspondence with the other members of Lee’s staff as well as other notable officers like Jed Hotchkiss and others; anybody who uses just the published letters misses out on so much that Taylor offers. I got to be on a first name basis with the folks at UNC, Duke, VA Historical Society (even though one archivist there just seemed to take a perverse delight in making me request Lee materials one letter a time), and the VA Library. And speaking of the Library of Virginia, they have some of Freeman’s original Lee notes – it is incredible to me what he was able to accomplish in a pre-internet world, in particular his list of Lee mentions in the Richmond newspapers. I much prefer hardcopy books to electronic versions, but in this instance I was very glad to be able to use the “search” function of the online version of the ORs. Thankfully I had been putting off the large multi-volume works – the ORs, Southern Historical Society Papers, Confederate Veteran – so my time in Arizona was not a complete waste research-wise, as I was able to tackle them either online or the actual books.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

CRK: I’ve heard nothing but good things. Well, except for one Amazon review from someone who didn’t seem to read the book description before purchasing.

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

CRK: I was lucky in that regard, not much in the way of text was cut. The format of the book wasn’t really conducive to that – eliminate text and data rather than interpretation or fluff is gone. Some of the bios and explanatory text in the footnotes were trimmed, but nothing major. I had far more images than could be used, and thankfully Ted Savas likes images and uses far more than any other publisher but even still it was difficult to pick and choose what would make the cut.

BR: Were there any areas in which you found info lacking?

CRK: The first year of the war for Lee is probably the least documented part of his CW service. For this I blame Walter Taylor; well not Taylor himself, but his fiancée Bettie Saunders. Taylor served with Lee for all but the first 3 weeks of the war, joining the General as an aide in early May ’61. Taylor was a very observant and detail-oriented young man, and he wrote to Betty usually at least twice a week, more often when he could. His letters are the best source we have on the inner circle at ANV HQ. But his letters from the beginning of the war up until mid’62 don’t survive – Bettie for whatever reason destroyed them. When Taylor found this out he was not happy and he pleaded with her to save them, as he was writing not only for her information, but for his own use as well – his letters to her were the only personal record he was keeping of his service. When he wrote his two books in later years, one can plainly see he was referring back to those letters as his main source. So without Taylor’s insight for Lee’s time as commander of Virginia’s military forces the first few months of 1861, his time in the mountains of western Virginia that summer and autumn, and while in command on the south Atlantic coast in late 61 and early 62, the sources are largely few and far between. And whenever Taylor went on leave later, documentation of HQ suffered as a result. A couple other areas were surprisingly little-documented as well: the period after Sharpsburg, as well as winter encampments.

BR: What’s next for you?

CRK: I hope to have my Billy Mahone manuscript finished by the end of the year, assuming of course places open back up for outside researchers. Mahone’s papers – almost 500 boxes of them – are at Duke, which as of now, is still closed to non-Duke people. Mahone is one of the few remaining important figures of the ANV without a good biography. Nelson Blake did a bio of Little Billy back in the 30s, but he focused on Mahone’s post-war political and railroad career – he devoted only about 25 pages to the Civil War. As one of the most peculiar of Lee’s lieutenants, Mahone clearly deserves better. Once that is done, I want to publish Charles Venable’s memoirs and letters. His writings are a great resource on Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia and only a relative handful of folks are aware of them and even fewer have ever used them.





Anniversary Video with Civil War Times: Jackson’s Gun Line, Wrap Up, 7/21/2021

29 07 2021

Our seventh and final stop on Thursday was a cannon on Jackson’s gun line on Henry Hill. It was the end of a long day. It was hot. It was humid. I was going on 2 hours sleep and a Cliff bar. I ran out of gas and lost my voice. Then it started to rain – which felt kind of nice. There were a few things I had prepared as a wrap up, including the myth of the “death” of the idea of a “single grand victory” with this defeat for the Union (it didn’t die – as John Hennessy has pointed out, the notion that the next fight was “the big one” persisted throughout the war). But I couldn’t get to them. All in all, it was a great day. Thanks to Dana, Melissa, and Brandon for having me along. Appearing in this video are Civil War Times editor Dana Shoaf, Civil War Times director of photography Melissa Weeks, Manassas National Battlefield Park superintendent Brandon Bies, and myself.





Anniversary Video with Civil War Times: The Robinson Farm and Family, Hampton’s Legion, 7/21/2021

28 07 2021

Our sixth (penultimate) stop on Thursday was the site of the Robinson house and the farm lane/driveway down to the Warrenton Turnpike. Here Brandon Bies related the fascinating and complicated story of James Robinson and his family (here’s a website that discusses archaeology at the site). Then I spoke briefly and extemporaneously on the actions of Hampton’s Legion in this area. Appearing in this video are Civil War Times Magazine editor Dana Shoaf, Manassas National Battlefield Park superintendent Brandon Bies, and myself. The magazine’s director of photography Melissa Winn is behind the camera.





Anniversary Video with Civil War Times: Preservation Issues, Tree Clearing, the Battlefield in Quadrants, 7/21/2021

27 07 2021

Our fifth stop on Thursday was on Henry Hill, below the Henry House near the wayside describing the activities of John Imboden’s battery. Here we discussed Stone House rehab, threats to the battlefield view shed, recent tree clearing, and viewing the battlefield in quadrants (correction: Imboden’s Staunton Artillery was with Johnston’s army, not Beauregard’s – read his memoir and his after action report). Appearing in this video are Civil War Times editor Dana Shoaf, Manassas National Battlefield Park superintendent Brandon Bies, and myself. The magazine’s director of photography Melissa Winn is behind the camera.





Anniversary Video with Civil War Times: Artillery Demo, 7/21/2021

26 07 2021

Our fourth stop on Thursday was behind the Henry House, where the NPS was putting on a living history artillery demonstration of Ricketts’s Battery. Appearing in this video is Civil War Times editor Dana Shoaf. Director of Photography Melissa Winn is behind the camera. I’m somewhere offscreen opening my mouth as wide as I can.





Anniversary Video with Civil War Times: A Dead Letter Soldier and Ranger Cameo, 7/21/2021

25 07 2021

Our third stop on Thursday was the Henry House, which is a reproduction of a post war structure. There we learned about a soldier in the 1st Ohio Infantry, commanded by Alexander McDowell McCook – gotta look into that middle name a little closer – in Schenck’s brigade of Tyler’s division. We also get to hear from Ranger Anthony Trusso of the battlefield staff. Appearing in this video is Civil War Times editor Dana Shoaf (who also stands behind the camera for the very first time), director of photography Melissa Winn, and MNBP Ranger Anthony Trusso.





Anniversary Video with Civil War Times: Bartow Monument, 7/21/2021

24 07 2021

Our second stop on Thursday was the monument to COLONEL (NOT Brigadier General) Francis Bartow on Henry Hill. There we spoke about the first monument on a Civil War battlefield (I think), the man in whose memory it was erected, as well as a little about the incidents surrounding the naming of “Stonewall” Jackson and his brigade. See here for a nice article on that by John Hennessy. You can also read more about the Bartow monument in the April 1991 issue of Blue & Gray Magazine (the one with friend Clark “Bud” Hall on the cover), in an article titled The Civil War’s First Monument: Bartow’s Marker at Manassas. Appearing in this video are Civil War Times editor Dana Shoaf and myself. The magazine’s director of photography Melissa Winn is behind the camera.





Anniversary Video with Civil War Times: Matthews Hill, 7/21/2021

23 07 2021

Our first stop on Thursday was the gun line on Matthews Hill. Until just recently, this meant the five James Rifles of Reynolds’s Rhode Island Battery. But just last week two 12-pdr Dahlgren Boat Howitzers were installed at the site of those of the 71st New York State Militia, then under the command of the Captain of Co. I, Augustus Van Horne Ellis (read his brother John’s account of the battle here).

Appearing in this video are Civil War Times Magazine editor Dana Shoaf, Manassas National Battlefield Park superintendent Brandon Bies, and myself. Civil War Times director of photography Melissa Winn is behind the camera.





Anniversary Videos from the Battlefield

23 07 2021
Left to Right, Dana Shoaf, Melissa Winn, and Brandon Bies on Matthews Hill

This past Thursday, July 21, 2021, I had the great fortune to roam about the battlefield for the 160th Anniversary of the First Battle of Bull Run, to record a series of Facebook Live videos with the good folks from Civil War Times Magazine, Editor Dana Shoaf and Director of Photography Melissa Winn. Also joining us was Manassas National Battlefield Park supervisor Brandon Bies. We spent time on Matthews and Henry Hill, and took in some familiar and new sites and sight lines. Over the next few days I’ll be posting the videos here. Topics discussed include: the 71st NYSM boat howitzers and their captain; Francis Bartow and his monument; Barnard Bee and “that nickname”; a dead letter office member of the 1st OVI; BOOM; tree clearing and the threat of a GINORMOUS data center to the view shed; the Robinson family; Hampton’s Legion; and the Gallant Pelham. And lots of other stuff on the way.

It was typically blistering hot on the Plains of Manassas. Not as hot as two years ago when it was 108 degrees, but still plenty hot enough for me to, I suspect, suffer from a little heat exhaustion toward the end of the day – but lack of sleep and food also had something to do with it.

Thanks so much to Dana and Melissa for giving me the chance to talk about the battle and the people and to be seen and heard all over the planet, and for allowing me to wear a hat!





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.