Interview: Stotelmyer, “Too Useful to Sacrifice”

19 02 2020

Steve StotelmyerToo Useful

2019 saw the release of Steven R. Stotelmyer’s Too Useful to Sacrifice: Reconsidering George B. McClellan’s Generalship in the Maryland Campaign from South Mountain to Antietam, from Savas Beatie. Mr. Stotelmyer took a little time to discuss his work, which is sure to raise eyebrows and hackles.

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

SRS: I am a native of Hagerstown, Maryland. After a stint in the U.S. Navy I earned a Bachelor of Science Degree from Frostburg State College majoring in Elementary Education. I also minored in English Literature and World History. I earned my Master of Arts from Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. My areas of study were mathematics and science, content and educational methods. I taught in the Washington County Public School System for ten years. One of the high points my fifth-grade students looked forward to in the spring was the day long field trip to the Antietam Battlefield. Eventually I made a career change into surveying and that eventually led to civil engineering. My new employment took me to Frederick where I spent over twenty-five years. My daily commute throughout those years carried me directly through the South Mountain battlefield.

Shortly after my career change in 1988, I became extremely interested (my wife would say obsessed) about the fate of 58 dead Confederate soldiers dumped down a farmer’s well at Fox’s Gap after the battle of South Mountain. I knew that Fox’s Gap, just like Antietam, was a real place and this led me to seek out the location and story of those unfortunate souls dumped in that well. As with many events in the Maryland Campaign I discovered there were actually two stories; one tale was legend and the other was fact. The legend blamed the farmer Daniel Wise for the deed and the facts led to a Union burial detail.

My curiosity in the Legend of Wise’s Well brought me into contact with others interested in the South Mountain battlefield. At that time there was a real possibility of the ground behind the Reno Monument at Fox’s Gap being developed for a private building lot. That situation resulted in my becoming a founding member of the Central Maryland Heritage League (CMHL) in 1989. Our initial purpose was to purchase that ground and save it from being developed. I served as the group’s Historian and briefly as President before my departure in 2000. CMHL was not only successful in saving the Reno Monument property but also gained a modest amount of success increasing the public’s knowledge of the Battle of South Mountain. Eventually we were able to save over 30 acres of that endangered battlefield. My research into the fate of those dead 58 Confederate soldiers put into the well at Fox’s Gap resulted in the publication of The Bivouacs of the Dead: The Story of Those Who Died at Antietam and South Mountain in 1992.

Since its creation I have served as a part-time volunteer and historical consultant for the South Mountain State Battlefield. Currently I serve as a Volunteer Battlefield Ambassador and NPS licensed Tour Guide at Antietam National Battlefield (see their website).

BR: What got you interested in the Civil War? 

SRS: It is near impossible to grow up in Hagerstown and not even become remotely aware of the American Civil War. I was 12-years old in 1962 and that year not only saw the Bicentennial Anniversary of the founding of Hagerstown, but also the Centennial Anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. I would have to credit my father for generating my interest in the Civil War. He had no great passion for history, but he belonged to the Maryland National Guard and Maryland donated their services during the Antietam Centennial. It was the only time in his entire life I ever saw him grow a beard. I figured there had to be something important about the Civil War if it caused Joseph Robert Stotelmyer, Jr. to grow a beard.

BR: You’re an Antietam Battlefield Guide. What got you interested in the battle to the extent you pursued that?

SRS: Ever since I can remember Antietam has always been a part of my life and a special place. I can truthfully say that I have been visiting Antietam since before I was born. I have a treasured old black and white photo of my mother and father at the top of the observation tower at Bloody Lane and mom has the proverbial baby bump and it is me. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of my parents picnicking at the Philadelphia Brigade Park with a blanket spread out in the shade playing Scrabble on a lazy Sunday afternoon while me and my sisters played around (and on) that towering monument. I also remember Saturday afternoon visits to Lohman’s Souvenir Stand at Bloody Lane. Dad would get me a soda and candy bars (for a quarter) and we would always end up at the tower. I have vague memories of a clear hilltop where the current Visitor Center now stands. My grandmother knew some farmers in Southern Washington County and sometimes in the early Spring my father would take her and my mother dandelion hunting.

Our travels took us over the Burnside Bridge (in those days it was still open to traffic). I was impressed by the monuments attached to the bridge at that time. I didn’t understand why they were on the bridge, but I was old enough to know something was special about that bridge.

I became aware that something very special happened at Antietam during the Centennial celebration and that sparked a lifelong search to find out what made the battle so important. I camped on the battlefield as a Boy Scout and continued to visit with family and friends as a teenager. As a young adult I taught fifth-grade at an elementary school in Hagerstown. Every Spring I would take them on a day long field trip to the battlefield. Every trip was a learning experience for me as well. I met my wife while we were both teachers and as fate would have it, we purchased a home within 10 minutes driving time to Antietam. It remained a popular place to visit with family and friends. My wife also played violin with the Maryland Symphony. In 1986 family history seemed to be repeating itself as my wife was 8 months pregnant with our second daughter during the first Salute to Independence. Consequently those 4th of July weekends became yet another special family memory connected to Antietam.

This was about the same time as my career change from teaching to surveying. Because I worked in Frederick my morning commute took me through Turner’s Gap. My daily journeys over South Mountain sparked an interest in the Maryland Campaign that continues to this day. Many people think I’m a Civil War buff. Actually, I’m not; for me it is just local history. When I retired, I discovered that the Antietam Guides were taking applications for the guide exam. It seemed like the natural thing to do. Becoming a guide at Antietam has provided me the opportunity to share my lifelong process of discovery about that special place. I continue to learn with every tour I give. I am often asked by visitors how long have I been giving tours at the park. I tell them officially since 2013, unofficially as long as I can remember.

BR: Over the past twenty years or so, the worm has, to some extent and despite stiff resistance, turned for George McClellan. Joseph Harsh, Ethan Rafuse, Tim Reese, Tom Clemens, and most recently Dennis Frye have all contributed to this altered view. Can you describe your own personal journey with the Young Napoleon?

SRS: I grew up with the standard anti-McClellan stereotype of the slow timid commander who did not like to fight. I often refer to these beliefs as the three pillars of the Bad General Stereotype. Furthermore, the battle of Antietam was always the standard tale of Robert the Bold vs. George the Timid (Joe Hash’s phrasing, not mine). I believed these stereotypes as being true the better half of my adult life. I credit two people with changing that perception. My early days with CMHL and battlefield preservation efforts on South Mountain brought me into contact with a kindred soul who was instrumental with preservation efforts at Antietam, Thomas G. Clemens. I think I first met Tom when CMHL was trying to purchase some Iron Brigade battlefield east and below Turner’s Gap (sorry Tom, you know, and I know it’s Gibbon’s Brigade). We were touring the property and I was attempting an overview of the Maryland Campaign and made some statement about the Lost Orders to the effect that a more aggressive commander might have made better use of the once in a lifetime opportunity fate handed to him (you know the standard spiel). Rather than call me out publicly, Tom waited until the tour was over and quietly took me aside and gave me a few things to think about. I have always believed in the old adage “Don’t talk when you can listen.” At the time I knew Tom taught at the Hagerstown Junior College and to hear him talk about McClellan in a positive manner greatly impressed me that day. Tom gave me something quite different to think about that was at odds with what I grew up believing.

The other person that greatly influenced me was Joseph L. Harsh. In September 1998 CMHL held a fund-raising re-enactment near Boonsboro. This was shortly before the publication of Taken At The Flood. I had no idea at the time who he was, but Tom had suggested him as a guest speaker. Joe graciously consented to donate his time and spoke on Saturday afternoon. I remember a rather heated argument after he spoke with someone in the crowd who just would not accept Joe’s assertion that it was an aggressive McClellan Lee faced in Maryland. Afterwards Joe had some time to kill before his ride arrived and he sat with me and helped out at CMHL’s information booth. I actually spent the better part of a Saturday afternoon talking and listening to Joe Harsh chat about McClellan and the Maryland Campaign. After speaking with Tom and Joe there was no going back, I never looked at McClellan the same again.

My personal journey with the Young Napoleon has resulted in a complete debunking of the Bad General Stereotype. McClellan was not slow in the Maryland Campaign. Divisions were covering 8 to 10 miles a day on roads little better than modern gravel driveways. In the words of Robert E. Lee, “the enemy was advancing more rapidly than was convenient.” McClellan was not timid. He aggressively attacked Lee three times in six days at South Mountain, Antietam, and Shepherdstown. Furthermore, at Antietam he attacked Lee, it wasn’t the other way around. What is remarkable is that McClellan attacks Lee believing he is outnumbered and knowing that for the better part of the battlefield Lee holds the high ground. McClellan does not believe he has the required 3:1 attack ratio taught at West Point necessary to carry the position (in his mind’s eye he doesn’t even have parity). Furthermore, he knows Lee is an engineer like himself (they both served on the staff of Winfield Scott in the Mexican War). As an engineer it was logical to assume his enemy had entrenched his position or constructed field works. Attacking an entrenched enemy in an elevated position with less that overwhelming force is certainly not the hallmark of a timid commander. The last pillar is the most easily demolished. The general who did not like to fight was directly responsible for the single day’s worst bloodletting in our nation’s entire history. Clearly the stereotype is flawed and, in my opinion, the characterization should be George the Courageous vs Robert the Reckless.

BR: Can you describe and, if you like, defend Too Useful to Sacrifice? 

SRS: My favorite Lincoln biographer, James Garfield Randall, wrote in 1945 that George B. McClellan “is most bitterly assailed, not by those who have gone afresh into the elaborate sources to restudy his campaigns, but by those who repeat or perpetuate a party bias.” Many people are not aware that most of the negative elements of the McClellan stereotype popularized over the years had their origins in the Presidential Election of 1864 when Democrat McClellan ran against the incumbent Republican President Lincoln. Politics is politics and to discredit McClellan the candidate it was necessary to discredit McClellan the General. The groundwork for destroying McClellan the general was laid in pamphlet literature that survived for years on library shelves. That is the party bias Randall spoke of and it survives to the present. Randall identified 16 political themes used by writers to propagate the bias (it is interesting to note that a very popular book written about Antietam in the 1980’s scores a perfect 16 out of 16). What I have attempted to do with Too Useful To Sacrifice is go afresh into the primary sources and restudy the Maryland Campaign of 1862.

The title of the book is taken from something President Lincoln is purported to have said to his secretary John Hay. It occurred after Lincoln restored McClellan to command following Second Manassas. There was strong opposition against McClellan in the President’s Cabinet. It was generally believed he had betrayed Gen. John Pope. According to Hay, Lincoln told him, “Unquestionably he has acted badly toward Pope! He wanted him to fail. That is unpardonable, but he is too useful just now to sacrifice.” The book is not a comprehensive treatment of the Maryland Campaign (for that I would definitely recommend the works of both Clemens and Harsh). I provide five chapters that deliver thought-provoking essays regarding major themes of the campaign.

Chapter 1 addresses the discovery of the Lost Orders. A few of my arguments are that its finding was not the singular event it is made out to be; it did not hasten McClellan’s army; the alleged 18-hr delay between the finding and McClellan’s orders to march to South Mountain is a myth; and that South Mountain and Antietam would have occurred regardless of the finding of the document.

Chapter 2 is about the Battle of South Mountain.

Chapter 3 covers the September 15 pursuit of Robert E. Lee; the true Prelude to Antietam.

Chapter 4 explores the influence of the Battle of Second Manassas upon people and events at Antietam. It also debunks the myth of McClellan’s unused 20,000 reserves.

Chapter 5 deals with the post Antietam supply crisis and the Lincoln-Stanton-Halleck triumvirate conspiring in the background against McClellan. The supply crisis was genuine and not a figment of the Bad General’s imagination. There is strong circumstantial evidence presented that the supply crisis was deliberately engineered by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton as part of his documented efforts to oust McClellan from the army.

I realize it is an uphill battle all the way. So much anti-McClellan bias has been repeated over the years that there exists a historical consensus that he was a Bad General. It is so ingrained in the national consciousness that it is seldom questioned. Even people who are not Civil War buffs, if asked about McClellan will likely respond that he was the general Lincoln said had the Slows. People however are not to blame. The documentaries they watch and most of the popular books they read perpetuate the consensus. But consensus is not fact; it is collective opinion and I hope to seriously challenge that popular opinion. To that effect, to go afresh, I have employed over 150 primary sources and 100 scholarly secondary sources. Another of my favorite historians and veteran of the Maryland Campaign, Emory Upton, once mused in 1912, “seeking information at the point of the bayonet is one thing, and looking for it on the shelves of a library is another.” I have attempted to use the experience of those who participated and not those who repeat the party bias in the pamphlets on the library shelves. I hope I have done it in a manner that even the non-Civil War buff can find interesting.

BR: What have you found the greatest obstacle in your attempt at reconsidering McClellan’s generalship in the Maryland Campaign?

SRS: There is not one, but two obstacles that immediately handicap any attempt at accurately portraying Gen. McClellan’s conduct not only in the Maryland Campaign, but in any aspect of the war as well: Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee.

At the outset, it should be noted that the mere mention of Abraham Lincoln’s name frequently hamstrings any attempt at an even-handed accounting for George B. McClellan. Most popular histories recount the events of the Civil War from President Lincoln’s viewpoint (or what they think is Lincoln’s viewpoint). Joe Harsh identified this perspective as the Unionist Interpretation. Others have called it the Centennial Theme. Writers espousing this point of view insist the results of the Civil War: the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery are attributable primarily, if not solely, to President Lincoln. They also acknowledge that the war was a great national tragedy that cost too many lives, too much time, too much destruction. Adherents of this interpretation assume that victory might have come sooner and are critical of anybody who may have hindered victory, especially by causing delays. The standard theme of the Unionist histories is that the president’s greatest problem was finding a general who would win the war for him. In this scenario Lincoln suffers through a sorry lot of candidates until Ulysses S. Grant appears, whereupon the doom of the Confederate States was sealed. A constant in the Unionist theme is that McClellan was the first and sorriest of the candidates to try the president’s patience.

Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the greatest American heroic symbol in our collective culture and in the eyes of popular history, he stands as a martyr by tragic assassination for his success. Honest Abe has become many things to many people. For a large number of Americans, he is Father Abraham, the Great Emancipator. For an even larger number he is the man responsible for single-handedly saving the Union. Few historians have been willing to honestly appraise McClellan because it would mean criticizing the martyred Lincoln. James G. Randall, who Joe Harsh considered the greatest Lincoln scholar, provided the most succinct summation of the Unionist Theme I have ever read, “It is assumed that if one is pro-Lincoln, he must be anti-McClellan.”

The final nail in the coffin regarding an appraisal of McClellan is the fact that his story is tainted from the beginning to be one of failure because Lincoln sacks him and removes him from command. There are varied reasons behind the decision, some petty and some political, but none military as the Unionist theme would have you believe. Regardless, after November 7, 1862, when McClellan is relieved of command and leaves the army, the Young Napoleon’s image in popular history is fixed: he forever becomes the Bad General Lincoln was forced to fire.

To a lesser extent any attempt at an honest appraisal of McClellan faces a similar difficulty with Robert E. Lee. As with Lincoln, an established perspective surrounds Lee’s story. Historian Alan T. Nolan calls it the Lee Tradition. Among its certain unmistakable earmarks are that Lee was a reluctant American who sided with his state over his country. Marse Robert is often held up as the personification of the Christian gentleman. A master military strategist and tactician, he often appraised his opponents and their intentions with near clairvoyant insight. Above all, Robert the Bold was audacious. It is the antithesis of McClellan and the cornerstone of the Lee Tradition, manifesting itself in his admirable predilection for the offense. Amazingly, until the publication of Joe Harsh’s Taken At The Flood, Lee was very much immune from the analysis and evaluations that are the conventional techniques of history. Almost all who wrote about Lee previously, especially Southern writers, have accepted Lee entirely on his own terms. If he said something was so, it was accepted as so. Analysis of Lee’s activities usually stopped with a determination that he did what he thought was right. Because of the Lee Tradition apparently, few historians before Harsh dared question whether Lee’s actions were ethical, wise, or even rational. Historian T. Harry Williams summed up the popular attitude and provided the most succinct description of the Lee Tradition when he wrote, “Whatever Lee did was right because he was Lee.”

As they must with Lincoln, any person attempting an honest appraisal of McClellan must tread carefully with any criticism of the audacious Lee. It is beyond strange that a general commanding an army engaged in armed insurrection against the United States of America has become an iconic hero in America’s popular culture. He represents one of the most appealing of tragic themes, the man who goes down in defeat battling against overwhelming odds. To this day throughout much of the nation he embodies the Lost Cause. Honest appraisals of Lee often invite the charge of trying to change history.

I am constantly surprised by the number of visitors to Antietam that are not aware of Lee’s debilitating injuries which plagued and hindered him throughout the Maryland Campaign. It is understandable; I have never been able to find an illustration accurately showing Lee’s true physical condition in the campaign. Showing Robert E. Lee as a frail invalid riding in an ambulance with both hands bound tightly in splints and the right arm in a sling would be heretical to the Lee Tradition. The image of a national iconic hero that can’t dress himself, feed himself, or take care of his own toilet without help is one many visitor’s refuse to accept. As you know there is actually a monument at Antietam portraying Lee on horseback holding a pair of binoculars, that simply is not an accurate portrayal of him in the Maryland Campaign. Such is the staying power of the Lee Tradition.

Together, the Unionist Theme and the Lee Tradition tend to bias most narratives that focus on McClellan’s activities. Because of them a fair appraisal of McClellan is an uphill struggle all the way, if not impossible. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” goes an old saying in American popular culture. As I previously stated, the stereotype of McClellan as the Bad General has become so entrenched that it amounts to a historical consensus, and the Unionist Theme and the Lee Tradition has cemented it in popular American culture. Indeed, we could easily mimic the Lee Tradition by stating an antithetical McClellan Tradition that permeates traditional history: Everything McClellan did was wrong because he was McClellan.

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?

SRS: This book was decades in the making. After the publication of Bivouacs of the Dead, and while still a member of CMHL, I embarked on writing a book about the Battle of South Mountain. To put the battle in context required writing a book about the Maryland Campaign. There was a lot about the campaign I did not know. In the process of learning about the campaign I had to study the two commanders involved with the campaign. I began to learn that a lot of what I thought I knew about McClellan simply was not true. My conversations with Tom and Joe cemented that fact. I was determined to not repeat the myth and stereotype others had presented as fact. Too Useful To Sacrifice grew out of that effort.

In the beginning the biggest obstacle was back-sourcing popular books and locating those sources. I was extremely fortunate to have access to both the Hagerstown and Frederick public libraries. They both have special collections that proved extremely helpful. There were also many trips to the old USMHI at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In the days before the internet (I’m getting old) their library and manuscript division were valuable resources. I was also extremely fortunate to have been a volunteer at Antietam Battlefield at the time. In their library they have a collection of primary sources researched by rangers and letters and diaries of ancestor participants donated by visitors over the years that is truly unique.

I was greatly surprised at how ill-prepared Lee was for South Mountain and the effect that battle had upon his campaign. McClellan caught him totally by surprise and delivered a blow from which Lee never fully recovered. Although many Southern writers often claim it as somewhat of an operational victory for Lee because it bought him a chance to regroup at Sharpsburg, it was the surrender of Harpers Ferry that gave him that opportunity, not South Mountain. Lee had actually decided to abandon his campaign in Maryland and move back into Virginia after South Mountain. South Mountain was the turning point of the campaign, and Joe Harsh was right: it was an aggressive McClellan that caused that battle to occur.

I already knew that military sources generally spoke favorably of McClellan’s leadership. But I was surprised at the number of competent military men who experienced an epiphany regarding McClellan. Even Francis Palfrey, a staunch critic, had to admit “there are strong grounds for believing that he was the best commander the Army of the Potomac ever had.” Theodore Lyman, of Gen. Meade’s staff, admitted later in the war that he was not fanatic about any general and then declared, “I am forced to the conclusion that McClellan (who did not have his own way as we have) managed with admirable skill. Mind, I don’t say he was perfect. I say he was our best.” I was especially astonished by Emory Upton. Upton was a bit of a prodigy. He entered the Civil War as a 2nd Lt. of artillery (was with Franklin’s VI Corps in the Maryland Campaign) and by war’s end, at age 25, had served in all 3 branches, artillery, cavalry, and infantry. He stayed in the army as a career officer. He is credited as the father of the modern American General Staff. In 1912 his comprehensive The Military Policy of the United States was published posthumously. Upton, an ardent abolitionist whose sympathies were strongly Republican and anti-McClellan at the war’s beginning, admitted to his lifelong friend Henry Du Pont in 1879, “I now regard McClellan in his military character, a much abused man.” That same year he wrote future President James A. Garfield that he once believed McClellan had not done his “whole duty to the country,” but in the process of writing his manuscript, “I have been compelled to change my mind.” Finally, according to his son, even Robert E. Lee, when asked after the war which of the federal generals he considered the greatest, replied “McClellan, by all odds.”

BR: Can you describe your research and writing process? What online and brick and mortar sources did you rely on most? When did you know you were “done”?

SRS: Research on the Maryland Campaign has pretty much been ongoing since the days of taking my fifth-graders to Antietam. The easy thing at present is that most of the stuff I had to get at brick and mortar libraries in the past is now available on the internet.

I bring my background in science to my writing. With the Scientific Method one forms a hypothesis, and then devises an experiment to prove or disprove the hypothesis. If you prove it fine, if not then revise the hypothesis and start over. With accurate history one starts with a statement, consensus, or assumption and then one looks for primary sources or indisputable facts to prove or disprove the them. If you find reputable primary accounts fine, if not then you have to accept the statement, consensus, or assumption. Unlike science, the hard part with history is being able to tell the difference between a statement, consensus, or assumption and an indisputable fact. This can also sometimes be true with primary sources. Just because something was said or written in the nineteenth century by an alleged primary source doesn’t necessarily make it true. Case in point: “McClellan was slow” certainly qualifies as a statement, consensus, or assumption. It was said a number of times by no less a primary source than Abraham Lincoln. As I have shown with primary accounts from numerous participants marching thru the Maryland countryside in 1862 there were units ranging from regiments to divisions marching at rates that are anything but slow. Individual regiments, brigades, and divisions moving 10 to 19 miles in a day. These are rates of march any competent military commander would hardly judge as slow. The truth is, as far as I have been able to tell, McClellan is accepted as being slow in the Maryland Campaign simply because President Lincoln said he was slow. I remember Joe Harsh making a very convincing argument that Lincoln had a bad case of the Fasts. Unionist historians simply parrot Lincoln’s alleged fact without realizing it is a value judgment from an impatient politician, not an actual campaign participant. However, going against a primary source such as Lincoln requires indisputable facts from numerous primary sources, not counter statements, consensus, or assumptions. Having the primary sources is only half of the writing process. It also requires that you present it to the reader in a manner they find interesting. You want them to have the desire to turn the next page. I think my background studying literature in my youth helped me with that.

My wife would tell you that I’m never done.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

SRS: Generally, the book has been received very well. Even though it was not released until August 2019, it became one of the top five bestselling books at the Antietam Bookstore. Obviously, the staff as well as my fellow volunteers and guides at Antietam are overjoyed at having a reputable book to suggest to visitors that counters decades of misrepresentation of Gen. McClellan. Some of the rangers have revised their presentations to incorporate new information from my book. Many visitors bring with them the three pillars of the Bad General stereotype and my fellow guides are happy to have something they can suggest countering that narrative. It has been my experience as a tour guide that there are many facets of the campaign and battles (South Mountain and Antietam) presented in the book visitors are not aware of and find interesting. I have had people tell me that have gone back to read the book two and three times.

However, going against the grain of long accepted historical consensus is not easy. There does exist a hard-core group of anti-McClellan bashers in the Civil War community and nothing you can say or do will disabuse them of the notion that the Young Napoleon was the Bad General. As an Antietam Volunteer and Tour Guide I have years of experience tactfully and sympathetically dealing with these folks; after all, I once believed it myself. I now have a book I can specifically suggest that counters their opinions. I generally know I’m succeeding with the critics when they are forced to bring up the subject of the Peninsula or McClellan’s arrogance (his alleged snub of Lincoln). My response usually is that my book is about the Maryland Campaign, not the Peninsula. It is a different animal (although there is a lot of criticism about that campaign that is also popular consensus). As far as being arrogant, I simply counter that by asking visitors if they have ever met a general? Even the most ardent of McClellan critics comment on the extensive research and documentation in my book. The McClellan bashers are fond of dismissing me as a McClellan apologist. I know that technically it simply means one who argues in defense or justification, but in the popular culture it has a negative connotation. I am not apologizing for anything. McClellan was a human being and he had his faults just like the rest of us. However, he was not a bad general. In my opinion, he was a bad politician. His biggest mistake may have been running against Lincoln for President. I cannot help but think he would have been remembered more favorably if he had not.

A few weeks ago, I was involved in a back and forth on Facebook regarding the merits of Stephen W. Sears’s Landscape Turned Red which certainly is on the other side of the spectrum from Too Useful To Sacrifice. Somebody responded that he thought the truth about McClellan was somewhere between Sears and Stotelmyer. I thought to myself, Wow, if I have managed to move the needle halfway in the popular image of George B. McClellan then I feel like I have accomplished something special.

BR: In the editorial process something always ends up on the cutting room floor so to speak. Was there anything in your manuscript that you regret being cut from the published book?

SRS: Yes, I had several appendices that were cut. The one I regret the most that never made it to print was titled Little Mac at the Front. In the popular imagination there is this image of McClellan never leading from the front and spending the whole day of the battle of Antietam leisurely smoking cigars at the Pry House. With primary sources this appendix proved that image false. McClellan came under enemy artillery fire at a forward observation post on September 15. The same on the 16th while conducting reconnaissance at the Lower Bridge. Also, during the late afternoon and evening of the 16th several primary sources from soldiers in the Pennsylvania Reserves put him near the East Woods and the Joseph Poffenberger farm. One account has McClellan directing counter-battery artillery fire. On September 17 there are several primary accounts proving a morning visit to the East Woods in addition to the well-documented afternoon visit. During the afternoon visit he again directs counter-battery fire from an exposed position near the Cornfield. He revisits the forward observation area and is also seen with the long-range artillery on the high ground astride the Middle Bridge. The most remarkable primary account I found was a letter written by an Ohio soldier a few days after the battle of Antietam. Private Alexander Wight of the 23rd Ohio wrote his brother that he saw and interacted with McClellan on the southern part of the field somewhere in the area of the Final Attack. Wight was a member of the regimental band on duty as a medic helping a wounded soldier of the 23rd to the rear when he turned around and saw both McClellan and Burnside. Little Mac asked Wight if the wounded soldier could ride and offered his mount. Later that evening Wight observed McClellan at a field hospital talking to the wounded like a father and shaking their hands. Evidently Wight and his brother were critical of McClellan before the Maryland Campaign because he ends the letter, “I don’t know what your opinion is about George McClellan, but I have changed my opinion.” It is a primary account, a letter from one brother to another not meant for the public. I (and several of my fellow guides) have no reason to doubt it. It places McClellan on the southern part of the Antietam Battlefield on September 17 and that has never been presented in any other book on the battle that I have ever read. I am hoping I can get the essay published as a magazine article.

BR: What’s next for you?

SRS: I’m torn between doing a companion piece on Lee and something on South Mountain. The Confederates made mistakes in Maryland, some of which doomed the campaign from the start. Part of the campaign was supposed to be about recruiting in Maryland, but there is no Confederate Maryland infantry regiment to attract Marylanders. Confederate signalmen occupied Sugar Loaf Mountain at a time when McClellan’s army was marching thru the Maryland countryside. The large clouds of dust raised from that advancing army should have been visible to even a casual observer at Sugar Loaf. Somehow that information never seems to have made it to Lee and he completely misjudges McClellan’s rapid advance. The Confederate reception in Frederick was not as cold-shouldered as traditionally portrayed. I have always been curious how Lee’s injuries may have affected his judgement. Given the staying power of the Lee Tradition that may be even more of an uphill battle than accurately portraying McClellan. Then again, I’m considering going back to my first love: Fox’s Gap. Most people are not aware that proportionately, square foot per square foot, the Sunken Road that runs thru Fox’s Gap was bloodier that it’s famous counterpart at Antietam. I feel confident that I could write a comprehensive history of what occurred in and around Wise’s cabin from dawn to dusk during that bloody sabbath. It would give me another chance to exonerate Daniel Wise from throwing those bodies in his well. Daniel’s story is personal to me. By some strange mysterious metaphysical design I won’t try to explain, my great nephew is Daniel’s fifth great grandson.

However, to be honest, I am enjoying the down time. I am looking forward to the Spring and resuming my Volunteer and Tour Guide activities at Antietam. As we guides like to say to each other, “See you on the field.”

I highly recommend anybody interested in a fair treatment of McClellan by a Lincoln biographer check out a copy of James G. Randall, Lincoln The President: Springfield To Gettysburg, 2 vols., volume 2, chapters 18-20. And for how Lee becomes an American iconic hero, Thomas L. Connelly, The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society.

There is a formatting error on page 85 of Too Useful To Sacrifice which resulted in a few lines of missing text. This web page that corrects the mistake and provides the missing text.





Interview: Schmidt, “September Mourn”

17 02 2020

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I first met Alann Schmidt when he was a ranger at Antietam National Battlefield probably 10-15 years ago. He has since moved on from the NPS, but recently published with co-author Terry Barkley September Mourn: The Dunker Church of Antietam Battlefield (previewed here). Mr. Barkley was unavailable for interview, but Alann took some time to answer a few questions.

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

AS: I was born in Bethesda Naval Hospital, but have lived most of my life in south central PA. I have had some interesting jobs over the years, as I started out as a funeral director at one of the largest funeral homes in Pittsburgh, but eventually I decided to go back to school to pursue what was always my greatest interest – history. While completing my Master’s degree at Shippensburg University I did an internship at Antietam, and I jumped through whatever hoops necessary (and there were many) to stay. It was a terrific job for nearly 15 years, but suddenly I became sick with an unknown illness, to the point where I was so dizzy that I couldn’t stand, my vision was blurry, and I was so achy that I could hardly get around. It turned out to be Lyme disease and a malaria related disease called Babesia, and I had to take a disability early retirement. Over the years I have improved somewhat and am able to function fairly well, but I am still affected by neurological damage and limited in what I can do. Despite this (or maybe because of this!) I followed the Lord’s call to become a pastor, and I was ordained last year and now lead a small country church (Cherry Grove Church of God) near my home.

BR: What got you interested in the Civil War?

AS: Well, I am sure that this is sacrilege to admit, but I never was much of a Civil War buff. I live near Fort Littleton, a fort on the Forbes Road, so I was interested more in the French & Indian War. When I started at Antietam I obviously needed to learn all I could about the Civil War, and spending every day for years and years immersed in it does tend to sink in! And I had an amazing bunch of friends around me, like long-time Antietam fixtures Ted Alexander and Paul Chiles, Brian Baracz and Keith Snyder, and current authors like John Hoptak and Dan Vermilya. It was a privilege to learn from them and be part of that group. And certainly Rev. John Schildt, who I dedicated the book to.

BR: How did you come to be interested in the Church of the Brethren? Obviously you worked at the Antietam Battlefield, but did your interest predate your employment there?

AS: My denomination (Churches of God) has very similar beliefs, but I am not Brethren and had no connection to the Dunkers before I came to Antietam. As rangers we present general orientation talks and tours, but also have the opportunity to highlight other more specific topics. I was drawn to the Dunker Church simply because no one was doing a program on it, and in practical terms it was right across the road from the visitor center so I could easily organize and take groups over there! But as I began to research it to put a talk together I found more and more interesting sides to its story. I began to organize files, thinking perhaps someday I would write a magazine article or something, and gradually I had a large plastic tub full of files. I eventually became the go-to guy on the church and have been blessed with many opportunities to share the story, from park events to local history groups. The Brethren community very graciously welcomed me, and I have made several friends and often speak at their churches and events.

BR: Tell us a little about the Dunkers.

AS: “Dunker” is actually a nickname for a Protestant denomination that began as the German Baptist Brethren. To learn about them you simply break down that longer name. The group began in Germany in 1708 as part of the Pietism movement, wanting a more personal religious experience. One of their most notable features was that they practiced adult baptism out in the river, dunking themselves in the water (hence the nickname.) Like many others, the Dunkers came to America for religious freedom, and later spilt into a few denominations, the largest being the Church of the Brethren. The Dunkers were similar to other “plain” churches like Amish and Mennonite, and believed in a very literal reading of the New Testament. They were against most forms of indulgence, like drinking and gambling, were against slavery, and perhaps most of all were against any form of violence. There were Dunkers in central Maryland by the 1750s, and their first meetinghouse in the area was called the Manor church, built in 1829 in Tilghmanton, between Hagerstown and Sharpsburg. By 1852 the small white building we know as “the Dunker Church” was built on land donated by Samuel and Elizabeth Mumma just north of Sharpsburg.

BR: What roles did the Church (the building and the congregation) play during the battle and afterwards?

AS: The Dunker Church is the classic example of wrong place at the wrong time. It sits along the road on the ridge north of Sharpsburg. This made a good defensive position for the Confederate army, but that meant that all through the morning of the battle the Union army would be making waves of attacks coming right at the area. So… sitting right in the middle of the worst part of the worst one-day battle in American history was this church, dedicated to the principle of peace. You couldn’t write a fictional story like that and have anyone take it seriously, yet it is all true. The church sustained heavy damage (as you can see in the Gardner photos) but remained standing. Immediately after the battle it was a triage/emergency room, as surgeries were performed in it and soldiers were loaded up and taken to one of the many farm hospitals in the area, and it is even claimed that embalming was later done there.

While the locals, including the Dunkers, had left before the battle and were not in physical danger during it, when they came back they found a much different scene from what they had left behind. Their crops were destroyed, especially devastating since it was harvest season, and now their fields are giant cemeteries, greatly impacting how they will be used in the future. Their homes and farms are now hospitals, and they will be expected to provide much of the care and labor in these endeavors, not to mentions even more of their supplies. And their church has been defiled by the very thing they stand against. How would we respond? Obviously the focus of most Civil War studies is on tactical aspects of the battles, but there is so much more to these stories, so much more to think about. From just one day of battle these local folks’ lives were forever changed, and not only right after the battle, but years later, as due to things like monuments, tourists, and National Parks there would always be out of the ordinary impacts. I think the way the locals, especially the Dunkers, persevered, recovered and are still there is an inspiring story that we can learn much from.

One aspect that I wanted to shine a light on is the overlooked story of what happened later to the church. The congregation outgrew the building and moved in town in 1899, and it fell into disrepair, eventually collapsing in a windstorm in 1924. While it is known such an important landmark to the battle most folks don’t realize that the church was not there for nearly 40 years. It was only through a long, arduous process that it was finally reconstructed for the battle’s Centennial in 1962. This church has a tremendously interesting story of ups and downs (literal ups & downs!) and fascinating tidbits (like a connection to Mark Twain!) that is so much more than the Battle of Antietam.

BR: As we may have discussed, my great-grandmother’s brother, Pvt. James Gates of the 8th PA Reserves, was mortally wounded on Sept. 17, 1862, while advancing toward the church from the north. I learned of the circumstances of his death from the 8th PA Reserves file in the Park office, in accounts written by his comrade Frank Holsinger. I also learned that prior to the war, he came down from his Pennsylvania home as a seasonal hired hand on the farm of Church Elder David Long, and that he had courted one of Long’s daughters. After the battle, prior to Gates’s eventual death in Smoketown, Holsinger visited the Long’s and informed them of the wounding. Later, after the war, Holsinger returned for the dedication of the National Cemetery, where Gates is buried, and again struck up relations with the Longs, marrying another of their daughters. Can you tell us a little about the Long family?

AS: Elder David Long was the main pastor for the Manor church for many years before and after the battle, and as such would have also been the same for Antietam’s church, as it was one of several in the area grouped together. He was born in 1820, and in 1841 married Mary Reichard. They had 12 children; four sons were ministers and three daughters married ministers (one named Seth Myers – probably not the NBC one.) It is said that Elder Long would go to slave auctions and purchase slaves to set them free. Lots of folks (as many as 100) gathered at his house during the battle, and he would been the one preaching in the Dunker Church the Sunday of the Battle of South Mountain. He represented the area’s Brethren churches at many Annual Meetings, and is said to have performed more marriage ceremonies than anyone else in the area. He died at 75 from pneumonia. The History of the Brethren in Maryland notes that “Few families in Middle Maryland have made such a deep impression on the life of the Church as the family of David & Mary Long.”

(I do apologize that the Gates and Holsinger stories didn’t make the book, as things were pretty far along in the editing process until I realized what an interesting side story that was. I was amazed at this Bedford connection to the battlefield, as that isn’t far from where I live.)

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”?

AS: All in all it took 15 years, as I continued to gather information here and there in my daily work as well as in dedicated research. I continued to hone the material mostly through what was best received in my presentations, and even used the subject for class projects (deed chain exercises, term papers, archival studies.) As I continued to work at it I hoped to get it published as a book, but I had no idea of how that end of the process actually went. I hoped to have it completed for the 150th anniversary of the battle in 2012, but I always seemed so busy that I just never got around to finishing it. Then I got sick in 2015 and retired, and I simply thought that I had missed my chance, that it never would get done, as my mind is not nearly as sharp as it was before I got sick. I hoped that at least the material could be passed on for future ranger use, so that the park programs would continue after me and the subject not forgotten, but as time went by it all slipped further away.

Then fortuitously Terry Barkley contacted me in 2016! He was newly retired from the Church of the Brethren archive, and remembered that I had been there to research several years before. He asked me if I had ever finished the book, and I explained that I hadn’t and my circumstances. Much to my delight he offered to take up the project and finish it for me, especially the Dunker background chapters. He added and polished and made it so much more than I ever imagined it could be. We decided to send it to Savas Beatie, and much to our surprise they agreed to publish it. I am so happy that finally the Dunker Church story is out there for all to learn. Together with Terry’s Brethren background and my NPS background we have tried to give the subject the attention and respect it deserves, and in turn fill in a gap in the Antietam story.

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

AS: One of my collateral duties at Antietam was working in the park library, so I got to spend at least a small part of every day with lots of various source material, so that was where the vast majority of my information came from. I visited any other facilities I thought may have some related material, such as the Washington County Historical Society and the Washington County Library, both in Hagerstown, and the two National Archive facilities in Washington DC and College Park, MD. Once they heard I was working on the project folks far and wide gave me information, especially locals like Betty Otto, Ike Mumma, Tom Clemens, and Steve Recker, and my ranger friends would pass along things they would find in their research as well. I tried to cover all sides of the story, from Dunker religious history, to battle accounts, to park development, anything and everything. Terry had daily access to the Brethren archive and library for many years, so he was well versed in Dunker history subjects and got lots of material there. He was living in Lexington, VA at the time and did much of the final writing at the VMI library.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

AS: Well, it sold out of the hardcover printing run, so that’s good. I’ve been very encouraged by the good reviews, enthusiastic turnouts at my signings (2 years in a row now at the Church of the Brethren’s Annual Meeting the books sold out before I even got there!), and the appreciative feedback I’ve received from so many. I hoped to simply provide another option for those coming to Antietam that maybe weren’t hardcore tactical buffs, and it seems that the book has been that and more, and I hope will be for years to come.

BR: What’s next for you?

AS: Probably no more books, but who knows. I still write a lot – preparing sermons every week, and I really enjoy the research and public speaking I got used to doing as a ranger. My wife and I have a volunteer cat rescue, Righteous Rescues, that keeps me plenty busy enough for what I can handle physically.

My co-author Terry Barkley has a new book out, The Other “Hermit” of Walden Pond: The Sojourn of Edmond Stuart Hotham, also published by Savas Beatie. It is another interesting but little known side to a well known story, in this case Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Check it out.

Thanks for this opportunity, I have been so very blessed by this book and this whole process. All the best to you and your readers.





Preview – Stahl & Borders, “Faces of Union Soldiers at Antietam”

13 12 2019

0facesantietamA 2019 release from The History Press is Faces of Union Soldiers at Antietam, by Joseph Stahl and Matthew Borders. Mr. Stahl is a licensed Antietam Battlefield Guide and has authored numerous articles on the civil war. Mr. Borders is a National Park Service ranger at Monocacy National Battlefield as well as a licensed Antietam Battlefield Guide.

Faces of Union Soldiers at Antietam is built around carte de visites (CDVs) of 36 individual soldiers who fought at Antietam, from Mr. Stahl’s personal collection. They’re organized by the sectors of the field in which the men fought, six sectors with six soldiers each. Each CDV is accompanied by a biographical sketch of the soldier. Maps from Brad Gottfried’s The Maps of Antietam kick off each sector/chapter. Also included are endnotes, bibliography, and full index.





Preview – Orrison & Pawlak, “To Hazard All”

4 11 2018


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New from Savas Beatie and the Emerging Civil War Series is “To Hazard All”: A Guide to the Maryland Campaign, 1862. Here’s the lowdown:

  • 169 pages of narrative, in seven chapters, from Lee’s move north after the Second Battle of Bull Run to his return to Virginia.
  • No appendices in this volume.
  • Five driving tour maps tied to the text: Confederates Enter Maryland; Federal Response; Harper’s Ferry; South Mountain; Return to Virginia. No tour for the Battle of Antietam, and while the texts for Harper’s Ferry and South Mountain run 32 pages, that for Antietam is half as long.
  • Nine additional troop movement maps.
  • No orders of battle, no index, no footnotes, no bibliography.

Rob Orrison the Historic Site Operations Supervisor for Prince William County, VA.

Kevin Pawlak is Director of Education for the Mosby Heritage Area Association and an Antietam Licensed Battlefield Guide.





Preview – Schmidt & Barkley, “September Mourn”

29 09 2018

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September Mourn: The Dunker Church at Antietam Battlefield, by Alann Schmidt and Terry Barkley, is a book that I have been anxiously anticipating due to a familial connection. My great-grandmother Smeltzer’s brother, Pvt. James Gates of the 8th Pennsylvania Reserves, was mortally wounded on September 17th, 1862, as he and his regiment moved south towards the Dunker Church outside Sharpsburg, Maryland. Prior to the war, however, he came down from his home in Bedford County, PA, to Sharpsburg and hired himself out to local farmers to assist with the harvest. One of those farmers who hired him was David Long, an Elder of the Dunker (German Baptist Brethren) Church. In fact, if a comrade’s recollections can be trusted, James had struck up a romance with one of the Long daughters, making the circumstances of his wounding and death all the more tragic.

While my great-great-uncle (or great-granduncle, depending on who you ask) and his story did not make it into this book, there is plenty on Elder Long, and plenty else to make this chronicle of one of the war’s most iconic structures worth your time. This history of the Church and its influence in the Sharpsburg community from its founding in 1853, through the battle and afterward, to its destruction and eventual restoration is thoroughly researched and engagingly told.

Schmidt is a former Antietam National Battlefield ranger and a pastor. Barkley is a former archivist and museum curator, and was the director of the Brethren Historical Library and Archives at the Church of the Brethren General Offices.





Preview – Vermilya, “That Field of Blood”

22 06 2018

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The folks as Savas Beatie’s Emerging Civil War have moved on to the pivotal 1862 Maryland Campaign with Dan Vermilya’s That Field of Blood: The Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862. Here’s the lowdown:

  • 149 pages of narrative, including eleven chapters and an epilogue.
  • An eight-stop tour guide map tied to the text.
  • Appendices on Presidential visits to the field and a history of the Antietam National Battlefield.
  • Order of Battle
  • Suggested reading list
  • No bibliography (a link to an online bibliography is included)
  • No footnotes
  • No index
  • Seven Hal Jesperson maps

Dan Vermilya is an interpretive ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park, and has previously worked at Antietam National Battlefield and Monocacy National Battlefield. He is also an Antietam Licensed Battlefield Guide, and was the 2012  was the recipient of the Joseph L. Harsh Memorial Scholarship from the Save Historic Antietam Foundation.





Preview: Rossino, “Six Days in September”

11 08 2017

9781611213454_2Just in from Savas Beatie is the unedited galley proof of Six Days in September: A Novel of Lee’s Army in Maryland, 1862, by Alexander B. Rossino. (It appears that this is a new edition of the work previously published in 2015.) Novels are problematic subjects for a preview, since the typical features of notes, bibliography, maps, prefaces, and conclusions aren’t present. The subject matter is self-explanatory, thanks again to the post-colon subtitle. A flip-through reveals that this story is focused on the Confederate angle, and focuses on familiar “real life” players with a smattering of what I’m guessing are narrative-propelling, representative fictional characters.

The book is impressively blurbed, with James McPherson calling it a “page turner” that “provides the most vivid description…of the desperate plight of Southern forces” during these events; Scott Hartwig notes that it “provides the best that historical fiction has to offer”; and Tom Clemens calls it “an insightful look” and “a great read!”

Alexander B. Rossino is a resident of Boonsboro, MD. He is the author of Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology, and Atrocity. 





Preview: Clemens (ed.) – “The Maryland Campaign, Vol. III”

23 03 2017

MarylandCampaignIIIAfter a long, long slog, friend Dr. Thomas G. Clemens has completed his Maryland Campaign campaign with volume III of his edition of the work of Ezra Carman in The Maryland Campaign of September, 1862, Vol. III: Sheperdstown Ford and the End of the Campaign. There, I used the word Campaign four times in one sentence.

I’m assuming my readers’ familiarity with the scope and importance of campaign veteran Ezra Carman’s work with the establishment of the Antietam National Battlefield and the chronicling, through massive solicitation of primary accounts, of the campaign. For the rest of you, think of Carman as the Bachelder of Antietam – or, more apporpriately, think of John Bachelder as the Carman of Gettysburg.

This last installment gives us the five closing chapters of Carman’s opus: Boteler’s Ford; The Results of the Maryland Campaign; Lincoln and McClellan; Lincoln, Halleck and McClellan; and Resume of the Maryland Campaign of September, 1862. Then we have three appendices: one each on the errata of Vol. I and Vol. II; and a wonderful Biographical Dictionary. These are followed up with a surprisingly brief five-page bibliography (keep in mind that this is an edition of a manuscript based primarily on Carman’s own papers), and finally an index (to this volume only). Footnotes are provided at the bottom of the applicable pages.

Dr. Clemens has produced an unparalleled reference work for the Maryland Campaign that will stand a long, long time. Research, write about, or argue online the Maryland Campaign of 1862 without first reading all three volumes at your own peril and eventual embarrassment. Thank you, Tom, and the folks at Savas Beatie for providing this invaluable resource.





Interview: Dr. Carol Reardon, “A Field Guide to Antietam”

9 08 2016

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I’ve known Dr. Carol Reardon, George Winfrey Professor of American History at my alma mater The Pennsylvania State University, since 1998 when I first started following her around various eastern Civil War battlefields. A true military historian – as opposed to a historian who writes about events with a military element – she is the author of numerous books, including the seminal memory study Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory; Soldiers and Scholars: The U.S. Army and the Uses of Military History, 1865-1920; With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other: The Problem of Military Thought in the Civil War North; and Launch the Intruders: A Naval Attack Squadron in the Vietnam War, 1972In 2013, she and co-author Tom Vossler released the game changing guide-book A Field Guide to Gettysburg: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People. Now, the duo have followed up the phenomenal success of that book with A Field Guide to Antietam: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People. Dr. Reardon took some time from her very busy schedule to answer a few questions about that work for Bull Runnings:

100_5190BR: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

CR: I was born and raised in Pittsburgh and graduated from Brentwood High School. I attended Allegheny College in Meadville PA, where I received a BS in biology. I did not reinvent myself as a historian until graduate school. I received my MA in history from the University of South Carolina and my PhD in history from the University of Kentucky. My first position after receiving my doctorate kept me at Kentucky as the associate editor of The Papers of Henry Clay documentary editing project. I then taught at the University of Georgia for two years before accepting a position at Penn State University. I’m entering my twenty-fifth year of service at Penn State this August. During my time at Penn State, I’ve been fortunate to receive two appointments to teach at the US Army War College and a one-year assignment to teach at the US Military Academy at West Point. I take special satisfaction from my fourteen years of service on the Board of Visitors of Marine Corps University. I also won election to two terms as the president of the Society for Military History. I maintain a busy public service profile that includes military staff rides and leadership programs on Civil War battlefields, appointments to advisory boards for several history – focused non-profit organizations, and related activities. And, of course, my professional life has been shaped by the usual academic mantra of “publish or perish.” I also have a healthy garden, keep a year list of bird sightings, and have a vested interest in a few Simmental beef cattle.

BR: What got you interested in the Civil War?

CR: I became interested in the Civil War as early as second grade during the Civil War centennial. I made my first trip to Gettysburg in May 1963, just before the 100th anniversary of the battle. I wrote my first “research paper” about that trip, and the full-page I printed impressed my teachers. I guess I responded well to positive reinforcement. Also, my next door neighbors were into the Civil War, and that gave me people I could talk to about it. But the biggest pushes came from my father, an officer in the Army Reserve, who encouraged my interests in anything military, and my maternal grandmother, who got behind anything educational that interested me. She was the one who took me on my first visit to the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland [in Pittsburgh, PA] to find my great-great-grandfather’s name on the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry’s plaque on the wall. Once I got to college, much of the inspiration and motivation that sent me down the path of military history came from the triumvirate of Professors Jay Luvaas of Allegheny College and the Army War College and Charles P. Roland and George C. Herring of the University of Kentucky.

BR: Can you describe the format of the tour book, and the rationale behind that format?

CR: David Perry, former editor at University of North Carolina Press, was the mastermind behind the field guide. He went on a Gettysburg tour with me about fifteen years ago and decided then that he had to figure out a way to “bottle it.” As the sesquicentennial drew near, he raised the idea again. By then, Tom Vossler and I had done so many field programs and staff rides together that it was natural that we’d do this as a joint venture. The format followed from the experience gained from those various programs. We knew what information a visitor had to know–the what happens, who made it happen. We knew what interested them–numbers, units, casualties. We knew what we wanted them to think more about –the cost of war in very personal terms through the individual vignettes, the civilian experience, the play of memory on how we recall the past. That shaped the six questions around which we built the Gettysburg field guide, and we’ve received a positive response to it.

BR: The subject of your previous guide-book was an obvious choice. How did you settle on Antietam for the follow-up?

CR: It just seemed like the obvious next place to go. It’s an important battle in a number of different ways, from military concerns such as the great number of casualties to political consequences such as the Emancipation Proclamation that added the abolition of slavery to preservation of the Union as national war aims. The battlefield is very well-preserved. Its National Park Service staff and the members of the Save Historic Antietam Foundation are excellent stewards of the battlefield, and their active advice, support, and expertise provided a level of support that we knew would ensure a top-notch final product. It didn’t hurt that it was only an hour away.

BR: What were the most surprising finds while researching the Battle of Antietam?

CR: It’s a far more complex battle than it appears. I was taught for years to break down the fighting into the early-morning phase centering on the Cornfield, the late-morning/noon phase at the Bloody Lane, and the afternoon phase at Burnside’s Bridge as three distinct pieces. It became increasingly clear as the work progressed that these phases overlapped at times, and that actions in one phase directly influenced those in the others. Restoring the complexity became an unexpected element of the guide.

BR: How did the view-scape of and access to sites in the park, which changed while you were writing the book, affect your process?

CR: We were amazingly fortunate that several big property acquisitions were finalized just before went to press. The purchase and amazingly quick demolition of a modern brick ranch house at the western edge of the North Woods made me go into the text and remove a few references to that structure as a visual cue before we went to print. The purchase of the Wilson farm just south of the Miller Cornfield happened at a time when we could adjust the text. The efforts of a hardy crew from Save Historic Antietam Foundation removed a treeline on the Wilson farm that restored a key view-shed that helped us to explain elements of the Union artillery deployment near the East Woods and Mumma farm. We went down and re-shot several photos to take full advantage of the new vistas that most decidedly illustrated points we made in our narrative.

BR: Can you describe your research and writing process?

CR: The Antietam guide took about two years to write. I did most of the primary-source research for the book. In addition to the richness of the Official Records and the Antietam Battlefield Commission records largely compiled by former colonel Ezra Carman (and the outstanding editing of his work by Thomas G. Clemens), two other sources proved invaluable. First, the library at Antietam National Battlefield has an excellent collection of primary-source material, plus Ted Alexander and Stephanie Gray to help us work through it. Anyone who knows Ted knows to pay attention when he begins a sentence with, “hey, have you heard about….”. Second, the outstanding collections of digitized Pennsylvania Civil War newspapers available on the Penn State University Library website; Civil War historians working on battle studies simply cannot ignore these incredibly rich (and lightly mined) materials; there are other digitized newspaper collections online, but the Pennsylvania collection is newer and access is easiest if one has an email account that ends with psu.edu

BR: You co-authored this and your preceding book with Tom Vossler. Can you describe the collaborative process?

CR: For the Gettysburg guide, we initially divided the writing/research along lines of our natural interests and strengths. At first, I focused in the sections that addressed what happened here, who fought here, who fell here, and what did they say about it later. Tom initially focused on who led here and who lived here. Tom owns a farm; the latter topic really drew him in. Increasingly, as Tom took on the primary responsibility for the modern photos and the maps (all original for each guide), I took on more of the traditional research and writing, while he focused more on the books’ highly detailed visual elements. We both worked on the historical illustrations, making considerable use of the collections at the US Army Heritage and Education Center; during Tom’s last posting before he retired as a colonel, he was director of this fine repository. It worked.

BR: What did you learn while writing the Gettysburg field guide that helped with writing the one for Antietam?

CR: We learned that we had hit on a formula that worked, so we did not have to consider any substantial format changes. But the biggest thing we learned is that everything connected with the publication process takes much longer than you estimate it will. Much longer.

BR: Was there anything about Antietam (process-wise) that you didn’t encounter while writing Gettysburg, or anything significantly different, that made it easier or more difficult?

CR: Not really. The process stayed pretty much the same. The special challenge for me, at least, centered on learning about a lot of units that fought Antietam that did not serve at Gettysburg. We both live in Gettysburg. We do much of programming here. We can recite the Gettysburg order of battle automatically. But Antietam made me become deeply acquainted with all the elements of the IX Corps, all the nine-month regiments that just joined the Union army before Antietam but leave it after Chancellorsville and miss Gettysburg, the Confederate brigades of Evans and Colquitt and Ransom and the like. But I enjoyed that part.

BR: What’s the promo schedule for Antietam look like? Any upcoming signings or lectures?

CR: Tom and I will be leading a special daylong tour of Antietam on September 10 for the Gettysburg Foundation’s First Corps members. We actually have more Gettysburg events coming up in the near future than Antietam events. I’m especially looking forward to taking a busload of folks from Allegheny College around Gettysburg in September, re-forging the bond between the Allegheny community and Civil War battlefields that Jay Luvaas established in the 1960s. He took me on my first visits to many battlefields, including Antietam, and it’s time for me to revitalize that little bit of Allegheny heritage.

BR: What’s next for you?

CR: We’re finishing up a new and revised edition of the Gettysburg field guide that will include two new stops, correct a few errors (yes, we know it’s not the Soldiers’ National “Seminary”), and tighten up the relationship between the maps and the narrative. UNC Press will also offer an expanded and revised eBook version of the field guide that will include the new stops, corrections, revised maps, and approximately 10,000 new words – mostly the very welcome restoration of items initially prepared for the original text that had to be cut when it got too long. We’re glad that we will finally be able to share some of these episodes and vignettes with our readers.





Chambersburg Civil War Seminars & Tours: Iron Brigade

19 05 2015

This past weekend I attended the Chambersburg Civil War Seminars & Tours event, On the Trail of Those Damn Black Hats: Weekend with Lance Herdegen & The Iron Brigade. I did so as the guest of friend and facilitator Ted Alexander, in return for coverage of the event on my Twitter and Facebook accounts. Hopefully you are all followers and were kept up to date of all the happenings – if not, just subscribe using the links over to the right. But I’ll give a recap here.

Friday featured presentations at seminar HQ the Hampton Inn by Lance Herdegen (see an interview with him here) on The Iron Brigade at Gainesville; Tom Clemens (see an interview with him here) on the Black Hats’ Memories of Antietam; and Dan Welch (with the Gettysburg Foundation) on Beyond the Sobriquet: The Men of the Iron Brigade. After a break for dinner, the evening concluded with Lance and “Forward! Forward! Charge! Align on the Colors!”: The Unfinished Railroad Cut at Gettysburg.

Bright and early Saturday the 40 or so attendees boarded a bus bound for South Mountain (where we stopped on the National Road at Mt. Tabor and Bolivar Roads where Lance described the brigade’s move on Turner’s Gap.) Then it was on to Antietam, and discussions at the Visitor’s Center and the Miller Farm. Finally we arrived at Gettysburg, and after lunch at the Dobbin House Lance held court near the Reynolds Wounding marker and covered the brigade’s actions in Herbst Woods and the Railroad Cut. Of course, time in the bus was spent talking about the brigade’s actions on other parts of the field, and Lance unleashed a small portion of his vast knowledge of the men and events of the Iron Brigade as well.

I decided to stay over Saturday night for a slate of talks on Sunday morning, and I’m glad I did. Lance kicked off with a more complete history of the Iron Brigade (by the way, Lance is one of the most upbeat, happy guys I’ve ever seen on tour, and it wasn’t just this time – a hail fellow well met); fellow Save Historic Antietam Foundation board member and founder of the National Civil War Medical Museum Dr. Gordon Dammann gave a delightful presentation on Civil War Medicine Hollywood Style: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly; and Gettysburg Association of Licensed Battlefield Guides President Joseph Mieczkowski concluded the formal talks with a really interesting talk on Rufus Dawes & the 6th Wisconsin at Gettysburg and Beyond. Joe is apparently a “thread puller” like me and shared some fascinating tidbits.

The seminar and tour were well-organized. Raffles and auctions held Friday and Sunday raised about $500 for battlefield preservation, which will go toward purchasing available land at Antietam (see Civil War Trust info here.) And to top it off, I got to spend some time with a couple of fellows whom I had not seen in ten years, friends from prior battlefield stomps.

Next up for Civil War Seminars & Tours is The End of the War: Richmond, Petersburg, & Appomattox, July 22-26 (see brochure here.) Speakers feature Ed Bearss (see interview here) and friend and blogger Jimmy Price (see interview here), among others (like Bud Robertson, Richard Sommers, R. E. L. Krick, John Coski, Chris Calkins, the list goes on.) Sounds like a great event – register soon if you agree!