Interview: D. Scott Hartwig, “To Antietam Creek”

18 10 2012

I’ve known NPS Historian Scott Hartwig of Gettysburg National Military Park for about a decade, and every time I’ve met up with him over the years I’ve asked him the same question: “How’s the Antietam book coming?” Well, I guess I’ll need to come up with a new greeting, because his massive work To Antietam Creek: The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, has been published by Johns Hopkins. This is the first of two planned volumes, and takes the reader to the eve of the Battle of Antietam. Scott took a little time to answer a few questions about this, probably the most important Civil War book of 2012.

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BR:  While I’m sure many readers know you from visits to Gettysburg or from dozens of PCN Anniversary Battle Walks, can you tell those less familiar a little bit about yourself?

SH: I am a supervisory historian in the division of Interpretation at Gettysburg National Military Park.  What this means is I do public history and manage the park’s day to day interpretive program.   I grew up in Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, but had the itch to live out west and went to University of Wyoming.  By pure luck I stumbled onto a Civil War historian teaching there named E. B. Long.  For those today who don’t know him, E. B., or “Pete,” as his friends called him, was the research editor for Bruce Catton’s magnificent three-volume centennial history of the Civil War.  E. B. knew more about the Civil War than anyone I have ever known and could talk about the people who lived the war as if he had known them.  I ended up taking nine credit hours from him on the Civil War and he was a major influence on my decision to seek a career at a Civil War park in the National Park Service.  I have worked 33 years for the NPS, almost all of it at Gettysburg.  I can honestly say that I have never been bored there a single day.  In fact, some days I wish things would be a little more boring.  There is never enough time to get everything done.  I have written a number of essays and articles for magazines and books, and seminar proceedings, and back in the 90’s appeared in a number of History Channel documentaries relating to Gettysburg, some of which still show but only really late at night.

BR: Who or what were your early Civil War influences?

SH: The earliest influence was the Time-Life magazines in the early 1960’s that followed the course of the war and featured original art of battles, which was the sort of thing that excited a 7-year-old.  Next was probably Hugh O’Donnell, my 8th grade history teacher, who encouraged critical thinking not just about the Civil War, but about history in general.  Bruce Catton was also a major influence.  I read everything he wrote.  My parents also always actively encouraged my interest in history.

BR: Why did you decide to study the Maryland Campaign?

SH: I think Catton’s Mr. Lincoln’s Army was the initial catalyst.  His chapter on Antietam was unforgettable.  The other reason was, when I first started contemplating this, the only two books on the Maryland Campaign were Jim Murfin’s Gleam of Bayonets and Francis Palfrey’s The Antietam and Fredericksburg, which had been written in the 1880’s.  I thought the campaign could use a thorough study that employed the wealth of sources that had come to light since Murfin’s book.

BR: Besides the scale (652 pages of text, plus appendices and an online bibliography available here), what does To Antietam Creek contribute to the existing literature?

SH: This volume gives focus to several aspects of the campaign that have only really been brush stroked to this point.  I spend two chapters carefully assessing the two armies so the reader can understand their strengths and weaknesses.  This part of military campaigns is often overlooked, but when we know the character of an army it helps us understand why it performed well, or poorly, or was mediocre.  The bulk of the book examines the Harper’s Ferry operation and battles of South Mountain in detail, but also in the context of the larger campaign.  South Mountain has been studied by others but there is no in-depth study of Harper’s Ferry existing.  So this volume gives needed attention to what precedes Antietam, which was quite significant, since this encompassed the largest surrender of U.S. troops until World War II, and Robert E. Lee’s first defeat as an army commander, at South Mountain.

BR: Your book has been in the works a long time – as long as I’ve known you. Can you describe how long it took, what the stumbling blocks were, and what you discovered along the way?

SH: It took at least twenty years.  A big reason it took so long is working a full-time job and raising three kids is not conducive to writing.  But I was very disciplined and pecked away at it.  There were certainly times that I despaired I would ever finish it, but there was also something about the learning and writing process that I really enjoyed which always pulled me back.  Much as I enjoy writing it does not come easily to me.  There were many nights I would sit staring at the computer screen and never write a word, and more times that I would struggle to find the right words to describe something.  It was like getting stuck in the mud.  You had to keep pushing and eventually you broke free and started moving again.

There were plenty of stumbling blocks along the way.  Many have faded from memory but George McClellan was one.  He was not so much a stumbling block as much as he was a conundrum.  The first chapter of the book is his story from his arrival in Washington after First Bull Run to his return to command after Second Manassas.  I tried to avoid that chapter at first.  Everyone analyzes McClellan.  I thought I could avoid his controversial personality and history and just focus on the campaign but that proved a foolish thought.  You cannot separate the McClellan of the Maryland Campaign from his history before that campaign.  To understand the campaign the reader had to know McClellan’s history.  I also wrestled with how to treat McClellan.  My initial approach was to follow the lead of a host of writers and historians and bash him as a weak and vacillating commander with a monumental ego.  McClellan is easy to bash, but the more I studied him, his campaigns and his relationships with the Lincoln administration, I felt my initial treatment too critical and I re-wrote the chapter, this time taking a more sympathetic perspective.  I let this re-write sit and when I read it again decided that it too failed to achieve a balanced assessment.  I had strayed too far in the other direction.  This lead to more research and a third re-write, which is what ended up in the book.  My final analysis of McClellan is critical but I think it is honest and evaluates him in the context of the circumstances and conditions he faced both politically and on the military front.

When you work on a project of this size and for this long you are constantly encountering things you did not know, or uncovering evidence that challenges convention.  Two examples are the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia.  The legend is that the Army of the Potomac was an immense host that failed to win a decisive victory at Antietam because McClellan was too cautious and inept and the Army of Northern Virginia, vastly outnumbered and reduced by the summer’s fighting to a hard-core of less than 40,000 men, simply outfought them.  I discovered the reality was considerably different.  The Confederates fought well in every engagement in the campaign, but the reason they ended up with an army of 40,000 or less at Antietam was the result of straggling on a scale the army would not experience again until the Appomattox Campaign.  Confederate logistics utterly failed their soldiers, and when combined with the arduous marching required during the campaign, men broke down by the thousands sick or exhausted.   During the Battle of South Mountain some of Longstreet’s brigades lost far more men to straggling on the march from Hagerstown to Boonsboro than they did in the battle.  If you don’t believe the Confederates experienced a crisis in straggling then read Lee’s correspondence immediately after the Maryland Campaign.  As for the Army of the Potomac, it was not as large as is commonly believed, and was beset by numerous organizational and logistical issues the impaired its effectiveness.

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

SH: I typically like to assemble my research for a chapter before I start writing.  The research also guides the story the chapter needs to tell.  But I sometimes was so eager to write – because I really enjoy the process – that I would get started before I finished the research.  I don’t recommend this method as it leads to an excessive amount of re-writing when you discover evidence that contradicts something you have already written.

The U.S. Army Heritage Education Center, Dartmouth College, the National Archives and Library of Congress were four of the most important archives among many I accessed for this project.  USAHEC houses the finest collection of Union related manuscript material in the country and it is an absolutely first class resource to use.  Besides all the official documents, correspondence, regimental books, etc., that the National Archives houses they had an obscure collection called Antietam Studies, which contained dozens of letters from veterans of the battle mainly to Ezra Carman, a veteran of the battle, and its historian in the late 19th Century, documenting in great detail their unit’s part in the battle, and sometimes, in the entire campaign.  The Library of Congress had Ezra Carman’s massive unpublished manuscript of the Maryland Campaign, which is indispensable to any study of the campaign.  Thankfully, Tom Clemens did a masterful job of editing this manuscript and it has been published by Savas BeatieDartmouth College housed the John Gould Collection.  Gould was an officer in the 10th Maine Infantry at Antietam who in the 1890’s initially set out to determine where General Joseph K. Mansfield fell at Antietam, but the project expanded until Gould was receiving correspondence from dozens of Union and Confederate veterans who fought in the cornfield and East Woods.  Although there is a great deal of correspondence from Confederate soldiers in the Antietam Studies and Gould Collection, for wartime manuscript material the Southern Historical Collection at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is the largest.

When I started this project the web as we know it did not exist yet, but in the last few years I used it quite a bit.  The best on-line source for the Maryland Campaign is [Brian Downey’s] Antietam on the Web.  It is an excellent resource.

BR: What’s next for you?

SH: Next is volume 2, which will cover the Battle of Antietam, the end of the campaign and the aftermath of Antietam, both in the battlefield area and nationally.  My guess is it will take three years.

We’re all looking forward to that – but good luck with that three year schedule!





Civil War Times August 2011

11 06 2011

Inside this issue:

Inside cover – a picture of John David Hoptak’s great big giant head.

Letters:

  • Praise and criticism of Kim O’Connell’s photo-essay of monuments at Gettysburg in the June 2011 issue.
  • Praise and criticism of Gary Gallagher’s article on James Longstreet in the June 2011 issue.
  • A little more artillery info provided by Craig Swain and prompted by David Schneider’s article on “Lee’s Armored Car” in the February 2011 issue.

Blue & Gray

  • Gary Gallagher asks, Did the Fall of Vicksburg Really Matter?

Collateral Damage

Your host discusses the stories behind the homes of two Pemelias – Higgerson and Chewning – on the Wilderness Battlefield. Thanks again to Noel Harrison of F&SNMP and author Josef Rokus for all their help.

Field Guide

  • The staff show us the Civil War sites of Frederick, MD.

Interview

  • Repeat Lincoln impersonator Sam Watterson (I like to think of him as Michael Moriarty’s fill-in on Law & Order).

Letter from the Editor

  • Editor Dana Shoaf says let’s refer to the observance of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War as something other than a celebration. Commemoration sounds good to me.

Features

  • The Winter that Made the Texas Brigade – Susannah Ural and Rick Eiserman on Hood’s Brigade and the winter of 1861-62.
  • Yankee Super GunCraig Swain wonders if the big guns of the 1st CT Heavy Artillery could have ended Pickett’s Charge before it began.
  • The Boy Brigadier – Iconoclast William Marvel challenges the long recognized answer to a favorite Civil War trivia question – Who was the youngest general of the war?
  • WWII Comes to Gettysburg – Jennifer Murray on the ‘Burg in the Big One.
  • “The South Was My Country” – Douglas Gibboney gives us a glimps of John Singleton Mosby’s life after the war.

Reviews





Interview: Jeffry Wert, “A Glorious Army”

9 05 2011

I first met prolific author Jeffry D. Wert (and his charming wife, Gloria) during a Civil War seminar almost 13 years ago, and the following summer spent an amazing few days riding at the back of a bus with him and the late Dr. Joseph Harsh during another conference. I probably learned more about the conflict in those few hours than I had up to that point, just by keeping my mouth shut (mostly) and my ears open.

Jeff’s latest book is A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph, 1862-1863, and below he discusses the project.

BR: While I’m sure my readers are very familiar with your works, how about telling us about yourself?

JW: I am a native Pennsylvanian and taught history at Penns Valley Area High School in the central part of the state for 33 years.  I am now retired from the profession.  I am an avid Atlanta Braves and Penn State football fan.

BR: Your new book is about the Army of Northern Virginia from 1862-1863, from Seven Days to Gettysburg.  What prompted you to look at this army for this period?

JW: Lee and the army’s record during those thirteen months is arguably unmatched in America’s military annals.  Although I have covered the army in previous books, I wanted to write a more analytical study on the reasons for their successes and do it, hopefully, in a smooth-flowing narrative.  My book is not a detailed tactical work but looks at leadership, morale, and the common soldiers’ fighting prowess.

BR: What did you turn up during your research that surprised you?

JW:  The amount of straggling in the army was endemic during 1862.  It reached a climax in the Maryland campaign but was a problem with the rank and file until Chancellorsville.  It appears from the evidence that straggling was minor during the Gettysburg Campaign.  Secondly, my research convinced me more that Lee’s aggressiveness offered the Confederacy its best chance for independence.  Admittedly, it is a controversial subject, but the results, I think, speak for themselves.  Finally, I address whether Lee took the so-called “bloodiest roads” and concluded that he chose the tactical offensive when circumstances dictated it, except for July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg.  Malvern Hill resulted in a tragedy because of misinformation.

BR: Can you sum up for us, in a nutshell, how Lee was able to be successful for most of this period, and what caused his setbacks?

JW:  When Lee assumed temporary command of the army on June 1, 1862, it was as though all the stars aligned for the Confederacy.  The Union Army of the Potomac’s subordinate leadership could not match the likes of Jackson, Longstreet, Stuart, Ewell, A. P. and D. H. Hill, and others.  To be sure, the caution of McClellan, the incompetence of Pope and Burnside, and the unraveling of Hooker contributed to the Confederates’ victories.  Lee’s infantry’s incalculable ‘élan in battle was a significant factor.

BR: What is your research and writing process? Did you visit archives and sites, and how much of a role did online research play?

JW:  I am old-fashioned in my methodology.  I put my research on note cards and write my books on legal-sized paper.  I am blessed with a wife who is an excellent assistant, and she transcribes my words into a word document.  I edit from printed pages.  During my research, I visit archives and libraries.  I use the internet to locate manuscript collections and fortunately for historians more institutions are putting letters and diaries online, making it unnecessary to travel as much.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

JW:  The book has been reviewed in a few places and has been praised.  None of the major Civil War magazines have had a review in as of today.  I am gratified to have been a main selection of History Book Club and Military Book Club.

BR: What’s next for you?

JW:  For the first time in many years, I am not under contract on another project.  I may do another book in the future but not at the present.

So for the first time in years, Mr. Wert is taking a break. I have a feeling it won’t be too long before something catches his eye and we hear from his pen – really, his pen! – once again.





Civil War Times June 2011

27 04 2011

Inside this issue:

Letters:

  • Correction of tables that were erroneously flipped in Edward Bonekemper’s article on U. S. Grant in the April 2011 issue.
  • Gregg Biggs disputes Gary Gallagher’s thesis on the importance of the Eastern Theory put forth in his essay in the February 2011 issue.

Blue & Gray

  • Gary Gallagher discusses the historiography of James Longstreet.

Collateral Damage

Your host this time looks at the “Squire” Bottom house on the Perryville battlefield. Thanks go out to author and Bull Runnings reader Dr. Kenneth Noe and to Kurt Holman of the Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site. I’m mortified that the acknowledgements did not make the final print version.

Field Guide

  • Bjorn Skaptason show us the Civil War sites of Chicago, IL – don’t laugh, there are more than you think.

Interview

  • Eric Campbell, for years a favorite interpretive ranger at Gettysburg NMP, talks about the challenges of his new job at Cedar Cree & Bell Grove National Historical Park.

Letter from the Editor

  • Editor Dana Shoaf introduces the features, and disputes (as do I) some of the monuments chosen as Gettysburg’s “worst” in one of them.

Features

  • Bread or Blood – Stephanie McCurry on female dissent in the Confederacy.
  • Immortals: Where to Find Gettysburg’s Best and Worst Monuments – Kim O’Connell’s text and Eric Forberger’s photos look at the arguably good and the arguably bad. Personally, I disagree with some choices on both lists, but then I’m one of those weirdos who believe fingers should be longer than toes.
  • Landscape of Remembrance – Philip Kennicott delves into the history of the Manassas National Battlefield Park, warts and all.
  • First Manassas Campaign Map – David Fuller has produced a very fine map, oriented with north to south running left to right, which gives a better overall picture of the movements of the troops, complete with an OOB and four inset maps. Nice! I’m trying to get a good copy to post here. Wish me luck!
  • Hell  in the Harbor – Adam Goodheart on the shelling of the Federal garrison at Ft. Sumter. Photo captions by Craig Swain.
  • Where is Meade? – Tom Huntington tells us “how Union General George G. Meade became the Rodney Dangerfield of the Civil War.”

Reviews





Preview: Jeffry Wert, “A Glorious Army”

21 04 2011

I received a copy of Jeffry D. Wert’s new book, A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph, 1862-1863, from the good folks at Simon & Schuster. I first met Jeff about 13 years ago during a seminar in Gettysburg, and the next year got to spend a few days with him and Joseph Harsh at the back of a bus during a tour of Second Manassas. Good times. Jeff is a very down to earth, good guy (even if he’s a Braves fan), and his writing reflects his common sense approach to history. Back in the day I know he didn’t do email, but I sent a note to Simon & Schuster to see if he’d be able to participate in an e-interview for Bull Runnings. I’ll let you know how that goes – I haven’t heard back from them yet. From the jacket:

A Glorious Army draws on the latest scholarship, including letters and diaries, to provide a brilliant analysis of Lee’s triumphs. It offers fresh assessments of Lee; his top commanders Longstreet, Jackson, and Stuart; and a shrewd battle strategy that still offers lessons to military commanders today. A Glorious Army is a dramatic account of major battles from Seven Days to Gettysburg that is as gripping as it is convincing, a must-read for anyone interested in the Civil War.”





Civil War Times February 2011

15 12 2010

Inside this issue:

Letters

  • Ethan Rafuse and Ron Baumgarten each wrote in to comment on the Bonekemper McClellan article from the December 2010 issue.  For an expansion on Rafuse’s letter, see here.
  • Kevin Levin is criticized for “excusing” the execution of Colored Troops after the Crater – how bizarre is that?

Blue & Gray

  • Gary Gallagher challenges modern Civil War “PCness” and considers if perhaps the war was actually won in the east.

Field Guide

  • Our nation’s capital’s Civil War monuments

Collateral Damage (by your host)

  • The Jacob Weikert farm behind Little Round Top on the battlefield of Gettysburg.  I’ll have more on this later.

Interview

  • Garry Adelman and the Center for Civil War Photography

Features

  • Judging George Custer – Stephen Budiansky
  • Lee to the Rear – R. K. Krick
  • Hell on Water (slave ships) – Ron Soodalter
  • Lee’s Armored Car (rail mounted guns) – David Schneider
  • Super Spy from Wales (Union agent Pryce Lewis) – Gavin Mortimer

Reviews

  • Civil War Citizens: Race, Ethnicity and Identity in America’s Bloodiest Conflict – Susannah Ural (ed.)
  • The 111th New York Volunteer Infantry: A Civil War History – Martin Husk
  • American Civil War Guerilla Tactics – Sean McLachlan
  • The Lincoln Assassination: Crime & Punishment, Myth & Memory – Holzer, Symonds, Williams (eds.)
  • At the Precipice: Americans North and South During the Secession Crisis – Shearer Davis Bowman
  • Recollections of War Times: By an Old Veteran While Under Stonewall Jackson and Lieutenant General James Longstreet – by William McClendon
  • The Grand Design: Strategy and the U. S. Civil War – by Donald Stoker (see his interview here)




Interview: Tonia Smith, Author and Professional ACW Researcher

3 12 2010

Here’s an interview that’s a bit of a departure from the formula:  Tonia “Teej” Smith, while an established author in her own right, is probably most noted as a professional researcher (she’s even helped out Bull Runnings on occasion).  Her name may be familiar to you if you read the acknowledgements sections of a number of Civil War books published in the past 10 years or so.  Teej has also moderated a couple of Civil War email discussion groups and founded the Rufus Barringer Civil War Roundtable in Pinehust, NC, where I’ll be speaking for the second time this coming May.  Always a great friend, Ms. Smith graciously consented to answer a few questions for Bull Runnings and shed some light on a little known aspect of that there book-writin’ process.

BR:  Can you tell the millions of Bull Runnings readers a little about yourself?
 
TS:  I’m a native Tar Heel, born in Oxford, NC, but, my dad being a career soldier, I was an army brat for the first thirteen years of my life. We did a couple of tours in Germany and were stationed stateside in a number of posts such as Fort Riley, Kansas, Fort Carson, Colorado and my personal favorite, Fort Knox, Kentucky. We came back to North Carolina when I was in the 8th grade and, except for a two year sojourn in Fredericksburg, Virginia, I’ve been here ever since. I now live in the golf capitol of North Carolina, Pinehurst, but I have no interest in chasing the little white ball. In 2001, with the urging and support of some dear friends, I started the Rufus Barringer Civil War Roundtable in Pinehurst. We began with fourteen members meeting in my sunroom and finished last year with eighty-one paid members in our third meeting place. I still serve on the board of the RBCWRT and am its program director.  Over the years I began doing research for various Civil War authors and eventually began writing articles myself. I also got involved in presenting Civil War programs at local schools and doing roundtable programs based on the articles I’ve written. 
 
BR:  What was it that got you interested in history, and in the Civil War era in particular?
 
TS:  You might say my dad, who was himself a history buff, planted the seed when he took me to my first battlefield, Stones River, and lifted me up so that I could touch a minie ball buried in a witness tree. What I remember most about that trip was the cold and mist (it was January) and the intense silence across the field.  I then took about a thirty-five year hiatus from studying the war when I got involved in school, marriage and raising a family. What brought me back may surprise you. While channel-surfing one Sunday afternoon in the mid 1990s I came across an advertisement for THE MOVIE aka Ted Turner’s Gettysburg. After watching it, I bought the book The Killer Angels, on which the movie was based, and joined an online discussion group that was and still is dedicated to the study of the Gettysburg campaign. I then began building my own library. At first I was all over the place with my studies, trying to learn about individual battles, whole campaigns, and commanders all at the same time. Trying to make up for lost time, you might say, but it didn’t take me long to realize I was going to have to narrow my field of interest if I didn’t want to become overwhelmed. From the very beginning, I was drawn to J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry. The first biography I bought was Manley Wade Wellman’s Giant In Gray.  However, what attracts me most to the Civil War period are the characters that you might say were created by the war. I don’t mean the central players like R.E. Lee, U.S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson, etc but people such as Confederate nurse Abby House, or the Cape Fear Minutemen, or cousins Orton Williams and Walter Gipson Peter, both also cousins of Mrs. Robert E. Lee who were executed on June 9, 1863, for spying at Franklin, Tennessee. History has all but forgotten these people but, in my opinion, it’s their stories and stories like theirs, that add the richness and color, and in many cases, the humanity to that era. 
 
BR:  How did you get started as a researcher for other authors? 
 
TS:  As realtors like to say “Location, Location, Location…” Seriously, a writer friend of mine knew that I live just over an hour from the libraries at the University of North Carolina and Duke University. One day he asked me if I would be interested in taking a look-see at a couple of collections he knew to be at those two schools. Like so many researchers, I immediately fell in love with “the hunt,” but I also found out that I have a knack for digging out the arcane tidbit. More importantly, I’m pretty good at deciphering the flowery penmanship prevalent in Civil War era letters, diaries and journals. 
 
BR:  Can you mention some names, like who you’ve worked with and any specific books/articles?
 
TS:  Eric Wittenberg and I share a passion for all things cavalry so I’ve worked more with him than anyone else, most particularly, Glory Enough For All: Sheridan’s Second Raid And The Battle of Trevilian Station and The Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads and The Civil War’s Final Campaign. Monroe’s Crossroads is just thirty miles from my home so you can understand why I would be interested in it. I’ve also done some work for Dave Powell on his Chickamauga project and for Sheridan “Butch” Barringer whose biography of Brig.Gen. Rufus Barringer, commander of the North Carolina Cavalry Brigade is still in the works. Two years ago I assisted Stevan Meserve in researching his footnotes for an annotation of a journal that eventually became the book In The Shadow of the Enemy: The Civil War Journal of Ida Powell Dulany. If I had to choose a favorite it would be having contributed to A Little Short of Boats: The Fights at Ball’s Bluff and Edwards Ferry, October 21-22, 1861, by Jim Morgan, both his original edition and the newly revised edition due out next spring. Those last two projects were a bit of challenge for me since they were not cavalry specific. 
 
BR:  Can you describe your research process?
 
TS:  It varies. Sometimes an author will send me to a list of collections found at a specific repository/archive with the request that I look for a  letter or letters known to be in that collection. Most often though, authors send me a list and an overview of what they hope to find in those collections. In which case, it becomes my job to look for references in those collections that are specific to my author’s needs. That often requires that I read every letter in a collection. And sometimes I do come up empty, but that is not as disappointing as it sounds. Often it simply means that the letter writer wasn’t present at an event or he did not find it important enough to write about it. What does take the wind out one’s sails is coming across the letter that begins, “Brother John should be home by now and no doubt has told you all about the battle of __________ so I will not go into the details again…”   Sigh…

It’s an entirely different process when I’m doing research for myself since I have to start from scratch. Often I can get an idea of where to start to search by looking at bibliographies of other authors who have written on  similar topics but most often it comes down to running names, events and locations through the search engines of various universities and other archival sites. I generally start with the universities closest to home and branch out from there. Even when I find what I think I need in the collections at Duke or Chapel Hill, I will still check other facilities to make sure that all of my bases are covered. Whether I’m working for myself or another author, the process has been greatly simplified by the growing number of research institutions that allow the use of digital cameras. In the same amount of time it used to take me to copy a few letters in a file, I can photograph the entire file and then decide what is truly needed at a later time. Another lesson I’ve learned is if the research facility has a card catalog as well as an online finding aid, use both. Often things in the card catalogs fall through the cracks in the transcription process.  
 
BR:  What are some of the surprises you uncovered in your research?
 
TS:  WOW…that’s actually a tough question as I have seldom completed a research project without finding some surprising tidbit that either confirmed what I originally had thought or told me that I was going in the wrong direction. But one that comes to readily to mind was a letter written by J.E.B. Stuart to Custis Lee, April 9, 1864, that I found at Virginia Historical Society while researching material for an article on Flora Cooke Stuart [wife of J. E. B.]. It was marked “confidential” and with good reason. Most cavalry folks know there was no love lost between Stuart and Wade Hampton but until I saw this letter, I had no idea of the extent to which Stuart was prepared to go to rid himself of the troublesome South Carolinian. Stuart also made a reference to the need for him and Custis to do what they could to keep cavalry chieftain, Fitz Lee, from drinking for the duration of the war. Her husband was barely cold in his grave before Stuart’s chief of staff, H.B. McClellan, wrote to Flora to warn her of the destructive nature of this letter and to suggest that she get the letter from Custis Lee and destroy it. Lee, too, was all for destroying the letter but Mrs. Stuart refused to do so.  The Jonathan Olds’ Flora Cooke Stuart Papers at Virginia Historical Society – which I was fortunate to be allowed to access even before they were cataloged – turned out to be a virtual gold mine of little known facts concerning the Stuart family after Yellow Tavern. 
 
BR:  Can you describe any instances where your research turned up anything that either conflicted with or confirmed your preconceived notions prior to starting a project?
 
TS:  One of the questions I’m most often asked when I do a program on Flora Stuart is whether there was ever reconciliation between the Stuarts and the Cookes. While I knew that Philip St. George Cooke reached out to his daughter when he heard about Jeb’s death, I hadn’t until recently been able to determine if she responded to him. Letters written by Cooke to his nephew, John Esten Cooke, which were recently posted on a website maintained by Cooke family descendants, indicated that she did. There is conclusive proof at Virginia Historical Society that Cooke also reconciled with his son, Brig. Gen. John Rogers Cooke, CSA.

The “smoking gun” that continues to elude me is proof positive that Orton Williams was not a glory hound so consumed with a desire to make a name for himself that he ended up getting himself and his cousin killed at Franklin, Tennessee. However, two years ago, I found a heretofore unpublished letter in the Mary Lee papers at Virginia Historical Society written April 7, 1863 by R.E. Lee to Orton Williams which totally debunked the often told story that Lee considered Williams a drunk and a failure. It also put to rest the notion that Orton’s immediate superiors, too, considered him a failure, and had removed him from command.  Add to that another unpublished letter I found at Duke’s Perkins Library which was written by J.E.B. Stuart at about the same time as the Lee letter to an unnamed colonel serving in the western theatre.  In his letter, Stuart stated he was he was pleased that the colonel was returning to serve in Virginia where “he should have been all along.” Lee, too, expressed a desire to have Williams back in Virginia. Not exactly resounding evidence that Williams and Peter had a legitimate reason to go to Fort Granger dressed in Union uniforms but if previous historians were wrong about the nature and character of Orton Williams which is the basis for their claim that Williams was unstable then in what other areas of the story might they have erred?

BR:  Can you tell us something about your own writing and speaking engagements?
 
TS:  My first article was titled Gentlemen, You Have Played This D____ed Well, published in the September 2005 issue of North and South Magazine. It was the story of the capture and execution of the aforementioned Confederate officers Colonel William Orton Williams and his first cousin, Lieutenant Walter Gibson Peter. Since then I’ve had an article on Confederate nurse Abby House published by America’s Civil War  and one in Civil War Times on the Stuart-Custis Lee letter. My article on Flora Cooke Stuart is still pending with ACW. I’ve done programs on Flora Stuart for the Loudoun County CWRT in Leesburg, Va., and the Eastern Loudoun County CWRT in Sterling Virginia, and for the Stuart-Mosby Historical Society in Richmond this past May. I’ve also spoken on Mrs. Stuart to various roundtables in my home state of North Carolina and will go to Huntsville, Alabama next June to tell her story of life without Jeb to the Tennessee Valley CWRT. In addition to the Stuart programs, I’ve also given presentations on Aunt Abby House, Confederate nurse; the capture and imprisonment of Brig. Gen. Rufus Barringer, the only Confederate general in uniform that Abraham Lincoln met; and the execution of Williams and Peter, most recently at the 2009 Longwood Seminar in Lynchburg, Virginia. 
 
BR:  What’s next for you?  

TS:  I’m very excited about a new research project that I will be starting next week for James Hessler, author of Sickles At Gettysburg. Jim’s next book will concern Lt. Gen. James Longstreet at Gettysburg and I will be going to Perkins Library at Duke and Wilson Library at UNC for him. On May 10, 2011, I will debut a new program based on the capture of Forts Caswell and Johnson on the North Carolina coast in January 1861 by a group of men out of Wilmington, NC who called themselves the Cape Fear Minutemen. Like my other roundtable presentations, this one will be based on an article that I am in the process of writing.

There are quite a few folks who owe Teej a lot, including writers, readers – and bloggers.  I have a couple of tidbits she scrounged up that I’ll be adding to the Resources section here in the future.  If you’re an author with research needs of your own and would like to explore the possibility of working with Teej, she can be reached at teej@nc.rr.com.





Interview: James Hessler, “Sickles at Gettysburg”

29 07 2010

Jim Hessler is the author of 2009’s award-winning Sickles at Gettysburg: The Controversial Civil War General Who Committed Murder, Abandoned Little Round Top, and Declared Himself the Hero of Gettysburg.   He recently was nice enough to take the time to answer a few questions for Bull Runnings.

BR:  Tell us about yourself. How did you become interested in the Civil War?

JH:  I was born and raised in Buffalo NY, a city with a fair amount of history but not exactly a Mecca for Civil War battlefields. Although there was always a general history interest in our family (we would annually take day trips to historic sites like Old Fort Niagara and watch movies like John Wayne’s The Alamo), unlike a lot of Civil War enthusiasts I didn’t have any great childhood interest in the Civil War. There was no epic family vacation to Gettysburg. The Civil War was interesting, and we played with our toy soldiers, but I liked things like hockey, video games, and baseball better. For some reason though, I remember always being interested in George Armstrong Custer’s “Last Stand” at the Battle of Little Bighorn, and I would read books on that subject when I could find them. Because so many of the officers who went out West to fight Indians got started in the Civil War, eventually an interest in the Civil War developed because I wanted to know the early careers of  these guys. One year, someone (I think it was my then future mother-in-law) bought me The Killer Angels for Christmas, and although to my initial disappointment there was no Custer in that book, I started to get hooked on the Gettysburg story. But Dan Sickles wasn’t even on my radar — I hadn’t really even heard of him at that point, although I imagine Custer had set the precedent for my being interested in controversial guys. The Gettysburg interest ultimately built up to my moving to Gettysburg in 2000, and in 2003 I became a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg.

BR:  When and why did Sickles become the focus of your studies?

JH:  Sickles eventually started to interest me on a number of different levels. As a Battlefield Guide, Sickles provides some of your best tour stories. You can cover him from a lot of different angles for different audiences—murder, adultery, politics, disobedience of orders, etc. So I simply had a lot of fun telling Sickles stories as do many Guides. But I also became impressed by the importance that this guy holds to Gettysburg – he has one of the most interesting pre-battle resumes, his battlefield maneuvers are massively influential, and he is a key individual in the early preservation of the battlefield. He’s the only major player who is here both on the battlefield and later. So it became interesting to me that so many people had never heard of him or knew very little about him. Why? Because a lot of Civil War historians hate him and either minimize his importance, try to avoid talking about him, or simply make his romantic escapades into the butt of jokes. Then there was what I felt was an increasing trend to almost cartoonishly lampoon him as the villain of Gettysburg. At the end of the day, he might indeed be a villain, but I started to wonder if there was a real guy underneath what I thought were almost laughable one-dimensional stereotypes. My personal favorite: he moved to the Peach Orchard hoping that he could fight his way to a draw and spin that into a White House presidential bid. Really? So I thought there might be an opportunity here to find out if there was more to the story (and if he REALLY wanted to be President I wanted to find that proof!) 

BR:  Hmmm…I think you could delete the word “Sickles” in a lot of the above and insert a couple of other folks’ names in its place.  But, tell us about the book.

JH:  I didn’t start out with the intent to write a book. I was simply reading and learning what I could about Sickles for my own benefit; and contrary to some pre-publication skepticism about putting out “another Sickles book” there really wasn’t a lot of substance out there. W. A. Swanberg’s Sickles the Incredible was the justifiable gold standard but it was decades old and had several chapters that simply did not meet my Gettysburg needs, and Richard Sauers had mastered The Meade-Sickles Controversy, but it was very slim after that. And none of the “Sickles books” covered what I decided that I wanted to see under one cover: an understanding of who he was; an explanation of why Sickles and Meade disliked each other, and why Sickles did what he did at Gettysburg; a detailed account of the Third Corps’ fighting; and Sickles’ role in relation to Gettysburg after the battle. In particular, I was surprised at how his role in the early development of Gettysburg National Military Park received so little coverage in other books; I made that the focus of the final 1/4 of my book because I thought there was a lot of interesting and fun stuff there. Ultimately, I had all this Sickles research and figured I might as well try to write the Sickles book that I had always wanted to read.  To be clear, “taking sides” in the Meade-Sickles controversy was NEVER on my radar. I think it’s irresponsible when historians do that when their personal dislike of their subject clearly jumps off the page. Part of my goal was to peel away decades of name-calling and try to lay out the facts, BOTH sides of the story, as objectively as possible so that I could at least understand to the best of my abilities “what happened.” People were skeptical about this— a sneering “whose side are you going to be on?” was a question that I heard from historians far too often before the book came out. But now that Sickles at Gettysburg has been out for nearly a year, I’m grateful for the positive support that it has received. Nothing makes me happier than when a reader thanks me for being objective. It may sound like a cliché but I really thought this was a story that needed to be told – because I do think that if you want to understand Gettysburg then you need to understand Dan Sickles. You don’t have to love him or like him but he is worth more than a passing mention.   

BR:  Did you find anything during your research that changed or reinforced opinions you already held?

JH:  Honestly, other than the fact that I found him interesting and more important to Gettysburg than his critics give him credit for, I really didn’t come into this with many other opinions. What impressed me the most about him as I started to better understand him was that I liked his ability to overcome adversity. Several times during his life he appears down and out – after the murder trial, when his general officer nomination is delayed, when he loses a leg at Gettysburg, etc. But he has this ability to overcome, often by reinventing himself (from politician to “war hero”), and move forward. That’s an ability that I think possesses successful people, so given this skill, it became no surprise to me that Sickles was able to hang around for so long after the Civil War ended. The extent of his lifetime accomplishments is pretty impressive when you think about it – decades on the national stage in law and politics, tenures in Congress decades apart, a participant in some of the Civil War’s most memorable battles, and his involvement in veterans affairs and battlefield preservation. It fascinated me that someone must have thought fairly highly of his abilities during his lifetime, but a couple of generations later he is universally despised. And some may disagree with me on this point, but I do believe that his heart was in the Union cause, I think he loved being a soldier, and definitely had an interest in his veterans. This was not the villain that I had been conditioned to expect.

BR:  If as you say he had so many positive qualities, why, do you think, does he have so many strident detractors?

JH:  Well, like a lot of public figures he was a pretty complex guy, and he was capable of some very dirty tactics to protect his interests. Easily his worst character flaw. His womanizing is certainly of less historical value anyways.  The attacks on George Meade are the most notable examples of his post-battle tactics, and because a lot of Gettysburg enthusiasts feel that Meade did not get his due, perhaps because of Sickles, then he becomes an obvious target for Meade’s supporters. I don’t think that the venom directed at Sickles today has much to do with his battlefield performance. Lots of generals made costly mistakes on the battlefield.  Consider for example, the guys responsible for ordering and executing Pickett’s Charge.  And at the end of the day we forget that Sickles’ advance still caused Longstreet to suffer heavy casualties taking meaningless positions. I firmly believe that if Sickles had taken the “high road” after Gettysburg, or just faded into oblivion, we would not be here talking about him with such enthusiasm today. But he did not have that ability to quietly fade away. That was not him.

BR:  What has been the reaction to Sickles at Gettysburg?

JH:  I’m very grateful for the support that this book has received. I can’t thank enough those Battlefield Guides who have supported it. I was recently honored to win the Bachelder-Coddington Literary Award as the best Gettysburg release of 2009. There was a lot of skepticism about this book prior to release: Sickles was not a popular topic; people assumed the book would be on “his side”; the economy at the time of release was horrible; and frankly the Civil War community had no idea who I was. The book’s release at one very late stage was almost delayed indefinitely. But I really felt that this book would have an audience given the response that Sickles stories get on battlefield tours. That’s one advantage that the Gettysburg Battlefield Guides will always have – we’re out there talking to people about Gettysburg regularly and we know what parts of the story interest people, and Sickles will clearly “put butts in seats.” Sickles detractors are still his detractors after reading the book; some people tell me that they still hate him but understand him better. That’s OK with me – I never ask the reader to love Sickles. And other readers have told me that they have not changed their mind, again OK with me, but at least the issue was more complicated than they had previously believed. I love to hear that. We went into our paperback printing this spring and I’m still hearing from new readers so it has exceeded my expectations. The highlight of this experience has easily been that I have made many new friends because of the book and I’ll always remember those who overcame that early skepticism to support this. I thank forums like Bull Runnings for continuing to give me the opportunity to talk about it. There are still potential new readers out there.

BR:  What’s next for you?

JH:  As a first time author, I underestimated the amount of work that occurs after a book is released. Much of my “free” time is still spent on promotional work (signings, Round Table speaking, etc.) I also keep busy with my family, day job (non Civil War related), and giving Gettysburg tours. So I have a lot going on and that’s a good problem to have. I was also burned out on research and writing for months after Sickles at Gettysburg was released, but I’ve found in recent weeks that the urge is increasing to get started on another project. I have a couple of ideas in my head, but during the course of “Sickles” I amassed some information on Longstreet and I think a proper Longstreet book would be a good counter-balance to my Sickles book. Longstreet has his share of myths and stereotypes associated with him, “the defensive general whom Lee failed to listen to”, and I think my next full length project might be in Longstreet’s direction. Then I feel like I have to try my take on Custer at some point down the road, but I think something Longstreet-centric might be next. It is only a matter of finding time – the desire to do more is here.     

Jim, whatever topic you decide on, I’m sure there are plenty of new fans created by Sickles at Gettysburg who will be anxious to hear what you have to say.  Visit Jim’s website here.

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Preview: Dick Stanley, “Knoxville 1863”

1 06 2010

Dick Stanley of Austin, TX sent me a copy of his new book, Knoxville 1863, a novel about, well, Knoxville in 1863.  (For you folks who have wholeheartedly entered the 21st century, this is also available as an ebook.)  I’ve only skimmed the book, but this fictional account of the seige of Knoxville and the battle at Ft. Sanders seems to focus primarily on the 79th NY (the Highlanders) and Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade.  Stanley’s narrator is a Knoxville resident, the widow of a Confederate officer, through whose eyes and recollections the reader is brought up to speed on the war and Tennessee up to the point of the Confederate encirclement of the city and beyond.  From the back cover:

Gettysburg held.  Vicksburg has fallen.  Now rebel flags ring Knoxville in East Tennessee.  Longstreet means to wrench this railroad hub away from the occupying Union army.

To do it his ragged and starving men, veterans of Gettysburg such as Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade, must climb the icy, clay walls of Fort Sanders.

Inside are the New York Cameron Highlanders who are on half-rations and have never won a battle.  Yet they have special faith in the young lieutenant who leads them.

In Washington President Lincoln waits for news.  He sees the struggle as one more key to preserving the Union, freeing the slaves, and victory in the Civil War.

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Review: Gettysburg Battlewalks

22 04 2010

If you’re lucky enough to live in Pennsylvania (or otherwise receive PCN on your TV package), then you’re probably acquainted with the channel’s annual Gettysburg Battlewalks.  Every July 1, 2, & 3 since 1996 they have broadcast specialized tours conducted by NPS Rangers and Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guides during the anniversary of the battle.  (Although for the last few years the PA legislature can’t seem to finalize the budget by the July 1 deadline, so we’ve been treated to endless hours of truly bizarre bickering which has pushed the air dates back a week or more.) These tours are very popular with the 37 million people who converge on Gettysburg the first three days of July, who are happy to wear shorts in 90 degree weather and hip high grass (check out the guides, folks: they NEVER, EVER wear shorts.  Guess why?).  The tours are pretty specific, focusing on the actions of individual corps, divisions, brigades, even regiments.  PCN trails along and films each tour, panning over the crowd and the terrain but devoting most of the face time to the guides.  Then in the evening three or four of the tours are broadcast.  The rest of the day, tours from previous years are shown.  I have dozens and dozens of these tours on VHS and DVD.  They’re awesome time suckers.

The good folks at PCN sent me a copy of one of the Battlewalk DVD’s for review.  This particular tour is Ranger Troy Harman’s Longstreet’s Flank Attack:

General Longstreet authorized an after-dark scouting party to search for ways “by which we might strike the enemy’s left.”  He began to implement a tactical turning maneuver early on the last day of the battle, before General Lee cancelled it.  National Park Service Ranger Troy Harman poses the question – what if Lee had followed through with Longstreet’s plan?

Go here to order this or one of the many other Battlewalks that PCN has made available on DVD for $25.25 plus shipping and applicable sales tax.  Run times vary – Longstreet’s Flank Attack is 1 hour and 20 minutes.

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