Interview: Dixon, “Radical Warrior”

27 10 2020

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I interviewed David T. Dixon previously with the release of The Lost Gettysburg Address.”You can read the interview here to learn about that book and to get a little background information on David that I won’t repeat here. His most recent work, Radical Warrior: August Willich’s Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General, is available from the University of Tennessee Press, and you can order it on David’s site here. David took the time to answer a few questions about his new book.


BR: I’ve always been mildly intrigued by the story of, for lack of a better term, “Marxists” in the Union army. I got a little more of a boost when I ran across your man’s name while browsing a biography of Friedrich Engels. But for you, why the interest in August Willich? 

DTD: First of all, the term “Marxist” did not exist in the 1860s, as Karl Marx was little known outside of a small circle of radicals. His economic philosophies only gained widespread notice following his death. There were, as you mention, numerous communists and socialists in the Union Army, especially among exiled European revolutionaries. My interest in Willich stems not so much from his political orientation but more from his compelling life story and the need to bring outstanding but obscure general officers like him to the attention of Civil war enthusiasts.

BR: Can you give us a brief sketch of Willich’s life?

DTD: Willich was born into the Prussian lesser nobility known as Junkers. His father was a decorated cavalry solider in the Napoleonic Wars, but died early as a result of his war wounds, orphaning three-year-old August Willich. August grew up in the household of German philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher, who was called the father of German liberal theology. After attending the Prussian cadet schools and military academy, Willich embarked on a 17-year-career as a lieutenant in the Prussian artillery. Exposure to republican ideas, however, caused him to leave the army and rebel against his king in the revolutions of 1848 and 1849. While a political refugee in London, he fought a duel with an acolyte of fellow Communist League leader Karl Marx, whom Willich thought was not radical enough to overthrow the princes of Europe. Willich journeyed to America in 1853 and edited a German language newspaper in Cincinnati; the first daily labor paper in any language in the U.S. He was an ardent abolitionist and champion of workers and welcomed the coming of the Civil War as a war to destroy what he saw as a slaveholder aristocracy in the Confederate states and validate the principles of republican government and universal human rights. His experience and leadership talent in the military arts led him to advance quickly through the ranks from private in April 1861 to brigadier general in July 1862. He fought with great tactical skill and bravery in most of the largest engagements in the Western theatre until a sniper’s bullet ended his combat career at Resaca in May 1864. He died at St Marys, Ohio in January 1878. The New York Times praised Willich as “undoubtedly the ablest and bravest officer of German descent engaged in the war of rebellion.”

BR: What did you find while researching Willich that most surprised or impressed you?

DTD: I am most impressed by Willich’s extraordinary self-sacrifice and lifelong commitment to social justice. He renounced his noble status, alienated his family, abandoned a successful military career, foreswore marriage and children, and was exiled from his homeland all because he believed wholeheartedly in free government and human rights. He never strayed from his moral compass.

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”?

DTD: Research on the book took about two years. The fact that so many German language primary sources were in barely legible Kurrentschrift handwriting or archaic Fraktur print and spread all over western Europe and America was more than challenging. I traveled to Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Switzerland to walk in Willich’s footsteps and, of course, tramped the US Civil war battlefields where had had his most significant engagements. The best surprise, given that my bachelor general left no collection of personal papers, were the timely and intimate letters I found in numerous collections all over the world. This, combined with two pamphlets he wrote and his daily newspaper editorials, gave me plenty of material to work with. I knew I was “done” when I felt I could tell the story completely and add enough scholarly context to tell it intelligently. But of course, one is never really done with the research and I hope my book will encourage others, especially in Germany, to dig deeper and reveal answers to still unsolved mysteries about this man’s life.

BR: I’ve asked you this before, but can you describe your research and writing process? Particularly, how did writing your prior work affect how you approached this one.

DTD: So glad you asked this question. The process was very different from The Lost Gettysburg Address in two ways. In that first book, I had an embarrassment of riches in terms of primary sources; 45 boxes of personal letters to and from Charles Anderson at one archive alone! The challenge was what to include and exclude. As I mentioned, I really had to dig deep and wide for the Willich archival gold. Most importantly, I learned the value of peer collaboration in my Willich biography. I was fortunate to have a volunteer translator in Germany, a small platoon of expert peer readers, and formed a partnership with a German PhD candidate. He and I traveled in Europe and America together as he researched Willich for his dissertation.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

DTD: I have been so pleased with the feedback so far. Early reviewers have been very kind and invitations for interviews and podcasts have been streaming in. Launching a book during a pandemic is challenging. All my in person speaking engagements either canceled or postponed, so I feel very fortunate that the book has received so much attention online.

BR: What’s next for you?

DTD: I have a book proposal ready to go and a fair bit of research completed on another biography. I will use that one as a case study to examine the impact of emotions of allegiance and Confederate dissent. With archives closed, the project is on ice, so I have spent more time publishing short form pieces in magazines and on the Emerging Civil War blog. Long term, I would really love to transition from university press publishing to a trade press to reach a much larger readership. All I need is a great story and a bit of serendipity. Wish me luck!





Those Plans (Plural) of June “24,” 1861

24 10 2020

Today’s update to the Correspondence – USA Official page of the Resources section is Irvin McDowell’s June 24th response to Winfield Scott’s June 20th request for a plan for his force to cooperate with that of Maj. Gen. (of PA Militia) Robert Patterson’s force to “sweep the enemy from Leesburg to towards Alexandria.” A few things to keep in mind:

  • McDowell took four days to respond to Scott’s request. Patterson’s response came in just one day.
  • Neither man seemed very enthusiastic about the project, to put it lightly.
  • McDowell’s response to Scott’s request should in no way be construed as having anything at all to do with his plans to move against Beauregard at Manassas Junction. In my opinion, some historians have done exactly this, particularly pertaining to McDowell’s plans against Bory having some sort of “requirement” regarding Patterson’s responsibilities. McDowell clearly cast out that excuse after the fact and the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War (JCCCW) took the bait, but I see no validity in it whatsoever.
  • McDowell’s plans for the movement against Manassas is dated by the compilers as “about June 24, 1861.” This seems odd because McDowell sent his plan for the Leesburg/Alexandria proposal on June 24th. So why was he sending another plan on the same day? I suspect it was written later, but perhaps it was written after some discussion with Scott on the 24th (the second plan was submitted, McDowell says, “in compliance with the verbal instructions of the General-in-Chief”). If so, McDowell sure came up with that plan fast. Another possibility is that he didn’t like the plan to co-operate with Patterson and anticipated that he would be asked for an alternative, and so came up with one in advance. Maybe that’s why it took him four days to respond. Would love to know the compilers’ reasoning for the assumed date. Guess I’ll need to see the actual document. (Keep in mind that the published Official Records – the “ORs” – are NOT in and of themselves primary documents. They’re transcriptions of primary documents.)




Recap: Rufus Barringer Civil War Roundtable 10-15-2020

19 10 2020
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About 18 socially-distanced people showed up at the Rufus Barringer Civil War Roundtable

For the first time since Fo Da Co, or what others refer to as the Before Times, I gave a real, live, in-person presentation this past Thursday. Nope, not Zoom, or Facebook Live, or any of those other presentations we see on-line every day. Me, with a computer, projector, and a room not-full of people. People wearing masks, which, I’ll tell you, makes it a little difficult to judge how well things are going.

The good folks at the Rufus Barringer Civil War Roundtable in Southern Pines, NC, were wonderful as always (this was my 4th trip there). They sat through what turned out to be a 90 minute presentation, nobody walked out, and some great questions were asked afterwards.

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And Away We Go!

Roundtable director and dear friend Teej Smith and newsletter editor Matt Farina treated my wife and me to a great dinner prior to the meeting, and we were joined by friend and author Charlie Knight of the North Carolina History Museum. After my talk, Civil War stamp aficionado Matt presented with two nice framed items now proudly displayed in my library.

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Clockwise from left, Teej Smith, Charlie Knight, Myself (with newsletter), Matt Farina

We spent the rest of the weekend with my in-laws, who also attended the talk and with whom we stayed, tooling about Pinehurst, taking in the mostly golf-related sights and wrapping up with a round on the Country Club of North Carolina’s Dogwood course. I had never hit out of long Bermuda rough or pine straw before, which I did often and with predictable results (yes, I could have stayed out of the rough, but then I’d have seen a lot less of the course). I played horribly and had a great time.

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Fore!

Thanks to everyone!





6th North Carolina Ravine

4 10 2020

From August 11 to August 27 this year I posted several letters from members of the 6th North Carolina Infantry describing the regiment’s actions, and specifically their approach to the battlefield. As I was transcribing them, I sent a note to Friend of Bull Runnings (FOBR, a truly worthless title I bestow on folks who have been helpful to the site but, hey, it’s a title nonetheless) John Hennessy:

Working my way through some 6th NC stuff, and for not the first time I’m running across references to the regiment emerging from a “rugged ravine” to come upon Sherman’s (Ricketts’s) battery.

Any idea what ravine they’re talking about?

His response:

The ravine–yes. Just S-SE of Griffin’s guns is a ravine at least some of the 6th used, though it’s only “rugged” on a relative basis. A Pittsburgher wouldn’t even notice it. But on that field, it’s fairly apparent if you walk the ground, which is today pretty well choked with trees. You can see it well on Google Earth, connecting the park and the community college. It points straight toward Griffin’s guns.

Of course, the 6th probably had a front a couple-hundred yards long. The ravine is short and narrow, and so probably most men never saw it. Of course if you look at Google Earth, you can see there is a pretty steep rise to the right of the ravine which those of the 6th not in the ravine would have encountered as they moved forward.

John obligingly provided this map:

6th NC Map





Coming Up!

4 10 2020

Just a couple of housekeeping things.

On Thursday, Oct. 15, I’ll be speaking about McDowell’s Plan to the Rufus Barringer Civil War Roundtable in Pinehurst, NC. This will be my fourth trip to this fine group. The state has limited attendance to 25 and members get first dibs, so if you’re thinking of stopping by check with them first. We’ll be turning this into a mini vacation with my NC in-laws.

Having some time on my hands the other day, I flipped through S1, V2 of the ORs and marked all the correspondence associated with First Bull Run. I think I’ll start posting those soon (I label them “Official Correspondence” to differentiate from personal letters, which for some reason I first labeled “Private Correspondence,” even though much of it was intended for publication in newspapers – I should probably fix that, but have to figure out a simple and efficient way).

Still plenty of newspapers to look at, and I have one letter from a private in the 18th VA that was subsequently purchased by the NPS. I received a copy before they purchased it, and was in the process of transcribing, but they’ll be sending me a transcription from the much clearer original soon. Good stuff in it. Thanks to readers Tim Smith of Joliet, Il., and Patrick Schroeder of Lynchburg, Va.

Two interviews of authors of new books in the works, so be on the lookout for them.





Notes on the Suicide of Lt. C. E. Earle

17 09 2020

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Richmond’s Exchange Hotel and Ballard House (contributed by reader Tom Leupold)

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Contributed by reader Tom Leupold

My last post  was an article in the August 8, 1861 Richmond Dispatch on the suicide of Lt. C. E. Earle, of Co. B, 4th South Carolina Infantry. I like to leave the items in the Resources section of this site generally free of opinion and analysis, other than providing links to where the reader can learn more. The interest this post has been surprising, considering I debated whether or not to include it in the first place, and has impelled me to provide a little more information.

As stated in commentary at the bottom of the post, I suspect the C. E. Earle in question is Claudius Eugene Earle, based on this site,  which for some reason shows his death date as July 7, 1861 as opposed to Aug. 7, but does show a birth date of 1835. Fold3 tells me that C. E. (and that’s how all his available records show, “C. E.”) was one of four Earles in Co. B, the others being Alexander C., G. W., and James W., all privates. I located a FindAGrave entry for a Claudius Eugene Earle in Anderson County, S. C., where Co. B was raised, but it shows birth and death dates in 1835. Was this another C. E. Earle, or perhaps was it some convention to allow for the burial of a suicide within the churchyard? I don’t know.

As to whether or not whatever action Earle saw at Frist Bull Run impacted his decision to leap from the 6th floor of Richmond’s Ballard House to Franklin St. below, I have no idea. Earle is mentioned twice in the after action report of Col. J. B. E. Sloan. Basically, Earle as a lieutenant was in command of Co. B. on the 21st (why Capt. W. W. Humphreys was not, I don’t know). First, the company was held in reserve at the Stone Bridge, with companies E and J (yes, J) deployed as skirmishers there. The rest of the regiment was sent to Matthews Hill. After the Confederates fell back across the Warrenton Pike… I’ll let Sloan take it from here:

Lieutenant Earle, commanding Company B (Palmetto Riflemen), and Captain Dean’s company (C), both reserves, occupied the position first held by the regiment (on the left of the road near the bridge) until after the battery retired, when they also retreated toward Lewis’ house and were then formed into a battalion, with portions of Captain Shanklin’s company, under Lieutenant Cherry, and Captain Long’s company and the New Orleans Zouaves, Captain ——-, and some Alabamians, under Major Whither and Colonel Thomas, of Maryland, and by them led to the field of battle on our extreme left. They charged a battery of the enemy, and, after a severe conflict, repulsed him. Sergeant Maxwell planted the colors of the Fourth Regiment South Carolina Volunteers on the cannon of the enemy and maintained his position until after his comrades had been repulsed by a superior force, who had deceived our men and prevented their firing upon them by using our colors and sign of recognition. During this contest Major Whitner had his horse shot under him while endeavoring to rally the men led to the charge.

And there, as far as I can tell, Earle disappears from the record, until showing up in the Dispatch eighteen days later.

What drove him to the act? Was it heredity, as the article suggests, something he saw or did during the battle of the 21st, something that happened before or afterwards unrelated to the battle, or some combination? It seems unlikely that Lt. Earle would have been given such responsibility as command of the regiment’s reserve had he been exhibiting signs of mental instability (though later in the war we can certainly point to many such cases). Was it what we today call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? I’m not a fan of post-mortem psychoanalysis after 159 years (although plenty of folks have based entire books on such drivel), so I won’t conject. But perhaps some reader out there has C. E. Earle in their tree, and can help us fill in the blanks with facts.

UPDATE: This from reader Brad in the comments:

Richmond Whig 8/8/61

Extraordinary Suicide.—Yesterday afternoon, about 4 o’clock, Lieut. C. E. Earle, of the Palmetto Rifles, 4th Regiment South Carolina Volunteers, (Col. Sloan) committed suicide by throwing himself from the front window, nearest the Eastern end, of the sixth or top story of the Ballard House. He fell upon the granite pavement below, and was instantly killed. His head and body were dreadfully fractured and crushed by the fearful concussion. The deceased was a native of Greenville, S. C. He had been sick at his room, in the Ballard House, for several days, but made bis appearance at the office, yesterday, and paid his bill, intending, as he intimated, to leave for Manassas this morning. A note found in his room, addressed to Mr. Ballard, indicates that he was laboring under an aberration of mind when he committed the rash act. He refers to certain “slanders,” charging him with refusing to recognize a young lady, whose name he mentions, and gives directions for the disposition of a considerable sum of money which he had left in the custody of Mr. Ballard.

There is also an article on the suicide in the 11/30/61 Daily Dispatch, page 2.

What caused the Dispatch to publish another article nearly 4 months later? Well, here it is (I apologize, some of image on Newspapers.com is too blurry to make out):

The Late Lieut. Earle. – The reader will remember the remarkable suicide of Lieut. Earle, at the Exchange Hotel, in August last. The reporter at that time employed in this office, noticed the event, in the local department, in a paragraph in which it was stated that the act was occasioned by insanity, which was hereditary in the deceased. – The [?] remark, so unnecessary and heedless, and in no view of the case justifiable, attraced the notice of Mr. Wm. E. Earle, a relative of Lieut. E, and he soon afterwards wrote to the editors denying the statement, and inquiring upon whose authority it was made. This letter, in the course of official business, was transferred to the local department, without reaching the editors, and was not properly answered, whilst the cause of [???] aggravated by a statement in the local column that Mr. Wm. E. Earle denied that insanity was inherited by his relative. That gentleman has recently brought [??] to the knowledge of the [???] never read the paragraph [???] or saw the letter of Mr. Earle. [??????] for the very objectionable statement is too vague to be entitled to notice.

This case is one of the wrongs of journalism growing out of inconsiderateness, without improper motive, which it must be confessed, occur too often, and which, in the nature of things, it is impossible fully to repair. We very much regret that this paper has been the medium of it, and make this explanation in justice to Mr. Wm. E. Earle and ourselves.

For now, that’s all I have. The family refuted the statement regarding the heredity of insanity. And the possibility that a woman was somehow associated with the act has been introduced. I’ll update here if I get any more, and if you find anything, please, be like Brad and leave a comment.





Watermelony Death

10 07 2020

Oh, the things we find.

Now that I’ve fallen into the black hole of Newspapers.com, I find that I can’t just focus on Bull Run stuff. I recall reading once that Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit and Unbroken, reads ALL of the papers when she’s researching her subject – that is, she reads the whole paper. This in fact is how she came across the story of Unbroken, while she was researching Seabiscuit. Anyway, today I was cruising through the August 1, 1861 issue of the Richmond Dispatch. On page two I came across this tidbit, a reminder that there are stories everywhere.

Lamentable Affair – We learn that Capt. Charles H. Axson, of South Carolina, was killed last Tuesday evening, near Wilson, North Carolina, on the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad, by Arthur B. Davis, of the Second Georgia Regiment. The main particulars of the affair, as we learn from eyewitnesses, are as follows:

Capt. Axson, en route for Richmond, was bringing with him some watermelons and fine tropical fruit, as a present to distinguished friends in Richmond. Davis, while intoxicated, cut open several of the melons and crushed others. He afterwards approached the Captain and offered as an apology the remark that he was drunk, to which the Captain replied that being drunk was no excuse for stealing. During the day Davis again approached the Captain, and declared that he was sorry for what he had done while intoxicated, and was willing to make any apology for it. The Captain replied that he was satisfied, shook his hand and joined him in a drink. – They appeared afterwards to be friendly for some hours. In the afternoon, Davis being again under the influence of liquor, was making a rather careless exhibition of side-arms, when the Captain, in a good humor, and apparently remonstrating, held him for a moment. Being released, Davis withdrew for a moment to another car; but soon returned, with pistol in hand, demanding to know who was the man who had imposed on him. Captain A, supposing at once that he was the person alluded to, stepped forward, and was shot in the breast by Davis when very near him. Capt. A. died instantly. Davis was arrested.

Capt. Axson was the commander of Company “M,” First Regiment South Carolina Volunteers, which returned home a few weeks since. He was returning with his company again to enter the service. He was a true Southern man and a gallant officer. His company were warmly devoted to him, and are much afflicted by his untimely death.

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The next day, in the same paper, on the same page (semi-colons abound!):

The Late Homicide Followed by an Attempt at Murder! – Yesterday we learned that young Davis, who shot Capt. Axson on the Wilmington cars on Tuesday evening, was taken by a mob from a car on the south side of the river, opposite the city, and after being conveyed some half mile or so, was shot and stabbed several times. Though not killed outright, it is feared that his wounds are mortal. Some account of this shocking affair will be found in our local column, and it is also referred to in a letter, which we publish below.

We published yesterday an account of the killing of Capt Axson, which was furnished by a member of his company. We regret that in it the paper was led into the statement of circumstances that certainly reflect upon Mr. Davis, and are disputed. We are satisfied that he was a gentleman most respectably connected, and held in warm esteem amongst his fellow citizens. We give place very readily to the following communication in his vindication;

Richmond, Va., August 1st, 1861.

Editors Dispatch: Sir – In your issue of this morning, under the heading of “Lamentable Affairs,” I find an account of the shooting of Captain Axson, 1st South Carolina Volunteers, by Mr. Davis, of 2d Georgia Volunteers. So far as the fact of Captain Axson having been shot by Mr. Davis you are correct, and in so far only. From disinterested eye-witnesses, (witnesses who do not belong to either State, South Carolina or Georgia,) I learn that both parties were inebriated; that Mr. Davis did cut one, or perhaps more, melons of Captain Axson’s; when taxed for so doing Mr. Davis apologized, stating that he had supposed they were for sale, (as fruit was thus exposed all along the line,) and that he expected to pay for them on the appearance of the owner; that he was sorry for the mistake; that the excuse satisfied Captain A., when both drank together, more than once. A dispute afterwards arose, during which Captain Axson held Mr. Davis to the floor, choking him. On being released, Mr. Davis left the car, and procuring his side-arms returned to the car and to his seat, remarking that he would not suffer himself to be thus imposed on again; that on Captain Axson’s making a rush on him, Mr. Davis shot him. Your informant neglected to state to you other facts: that Major Butt, of the Second Georgia Regiment immediately arrested Mr. D, disarmed him and conveyed him to this city; that he left him in one of the cars, under a corporal’s guard, and went to hunt up the proper authorities, to whom he intended to surrender him; that during his absence the guard was set upon by a posse of armed men, (supposed to belong to Capt. Axson’s company;) that being no longer able to hold him the guard surrendered him, on the possee or mob promising to only convey him to the proper authorities; that the armed mob took Mr. Davis a half mile out of town, and there brutally murdered him; shooting him, and on his falling, one of the party ran up and stabbed him. Major Butt having taken his arms from him, no such cowardly assassination would have been attempted; for men who could this act, would have lacked the courage to have attacked him openly, when armed. Mr. Davis is well known in Georgia; his previous character has been unimpeachable. His conduct at home and abroad has been that of the true gentleman. The blood of Georgia’s Governors flow not in other veins, and the 2d Georgia Regiment had hoped that the press of Richmond would have waited until a judicial investigation had thrown full light on the affair. I do not know why the disposition of the fruit being bought by Capt. A. was mentioned. The piece says it was or “distinguished friends of Richmond.” If, by this mention, it was intended to leave the impression of social inequality on the part of Mr. D, it should have been left out; for Mr. D., socially, was any one’s equal. He occupied in his native State a high social position and deservedly. He was connected with (and never disgraced his connection,) the most honorable families in Georgia, begin a grandson of ex-Gov. Schley. So much for “distinguished friends” and its inference.

Respectfully,
W. A. T.

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There’s more, in other papers (for example, here), but I can’t delve too deeply into it. But YOU can! Let me know what you turn up in the comments section.

Capt. Charles H. Axson at FindAGrave

I couldn’t find anything definitive on Arthur B. Davis, but from what I can gather his wounds were not fatal.





Yet More Handcuffs

23 04 2020

Here’s another example of reports of vast quantities of handcuffs taken by the Confederates from the debris of the Federal army after First Bull Run. Again, it’s second-hand, and perhaps an example of a recruiting gimmick.

Thirty Thousand Handcuffs.

It is stated that among the spoils taken from the enemy in the late glorious victory, were thirty thousand handcuffs! Gentlemen of respectability say they have themselves seen these novel and extraordinary appendages of an invading army.

Thirty thousand handcuffs! And for whom and for what? It is easy to guess. To treat as guilty felons, to enslave and secure for a felon’s death, the patriotic sons of the South, whose only crime is the defence of constitutional liberty, and resistance to the tyrant and usurper at Washington. If this does not rouse the whole South to rise as one man against this hideous adversary, we know nothing of the character of her people. – Richmond Examiner

Athens (GA) Southern Banner, 8/7/1861

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Contributed by John Hennessy





Photo: Members of 69th NYSM

16 04 2020

Reader Matt Regan has provided this image of members of the 69th New York State Militia, post battle, as officers in the later-formed Irish Brigade. Photo IDs are per Mr. Regan.

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L to R, Pvt. Peter Kelly (Co. I), Pvt. James McKay Rorty (Co. G), and Sgt. William O’Donohue (Co. K), as officers of units in the Irish Brigade, post Bull Run and 69th NYSM

These three were captured at First Bull Run, and subsequently escaped and returned north together, as recounted by Rorty here.

The photograph is in the possession of Mr. Regan’s family. Kelly is Mr. Regan’s “great-uncle.” He was commissioned in Co. K, 69th NYVI. Rorty, as discussed here, was commissioned in the 14th NY Independent Battery, as was O’Donohue. Rorty was KIA at Gettysburg, O’Donohue KIA at Chancellorsville (with Battery C, 4th US Artillery) and Kelly resigned in 1862.

Peter Kelly at Ancestry.com

Peter Kelly at Fold 3

Peter Kelly Bio

James Rorty at Ancestry.com

James Rorty at Fold 3

James Rorty at FindAGrave

James Rorty Bio

William O’Donohue (as William O. Donohue) at Ancestry.com

William O’Donohue (as William O. Donohue) at Fold 3





Interview: Quest, “I Held Lincoln”

31 03 2020

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Richard Quest, Author of I Held Lincoln: A Union Sailor’s Journey Home (spoiler alert – this book is much more about the sailor’s journey than about his role in the moments after the assassination of POTUS 16) has been good enough to answer a few questions for us.


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

REQ: Harry thanks very much for the opportunity to share a little bit about the book and myself. I began my career in education over 30 years ago now and began as high school history teacher in upstate New York. I taught 11th and 12th grade for 10 years and then moved into administration and became a principal serving at both the high school and elementary levels. After completing my doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania I left K-12 education and moved into higher education. I held positions as an Associate Dean and Dean at a couple of community colleges and then as an Associate Vice President at a four-year college. Along the way I founded a nonprofit called Books in Homes USA and along with my wife established that organization and then became the founding Executive Director in 2014. In October of 2018 I accepted a position as the National Director of Education with the US Naval Sea Cadet Corps located in Arlington Virginia and continue there today.

BR: What got you interested in the Civil War?

REQ: I became interested in the Civil War when I took a trip with my sixth grade class to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Standing on little round top looking across at Devil’s Den and seeing in the distance the Peach Orchard I suddenly realized that something extraordinary had happened there. It was as if I could feel the struggle. I must have talked a lot about it after I got home because my parents decided that we should take a vacation and go camping there that summer. That was it I was hooked not just on the civil war but with history in general. It seems that I have always been interested in old things and growing up in a historic (read that as old, circa 1870’s) house in upstate New York led to my poking around and often finding things stuck in the corners of the basement of that old house and garages. Those early interests would lead me to my college major in anthropology and archaeology as an undergraduate student and then working at the Public Archaeology Facility at SUNY Binghamton as a field archaeologist.

BR: How did you come across the story of Benjamin Loring?

REQ: I came across the story of Lt. Benjamin W. Loring in the mid-90s when I held the appointed voluntary position of Tioga County historian in upstate New York. The town of Owego historian Emma Sedore knew of my interest in the Civil War and that I was always looking for opportunities to bring some local history into my 11th grade United States history classroom. She asked me one day if I knew the story of Lt. Loring and that he had served during the Civil War and that it was alleged that he had been at Ford’s Theater the night of the Lincoln assassination. She then mentioned that it was rumored that he had actually come in contact with Lincoln. She also stated matter-of-factly that the frockcoat that Lt. Loring had worn the night of the assassination was in the local County Museum and that again it was alleged that Lincoln’s blood was on it. As the County Historian I was also an ex officio member of the county museum and so I sought out the frockcoat and more information. That was over 25 years ago now.

BR: Tell us a little about Loring prior to the titular incident.

REQ: Loring began life just outside of Boston, Massachusetts in the early 1840s. He was an active young man and left home in his teens seeking to make a living and find adventure at sea. Over the years he would gain enough experience to climb through the ranks to that of a sea captain. I don’t have a lot of information regarding Loring’s early life and career but we do find him in California and the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the 1860 census. Loring and his younger brother Bailey are listed as Packers taking supplies high up into the mountains to the gold miners and making a good living at it. It is here in 1861 that Loring learned of the first shots fired at Fort Sumter. Feeling it his duty to return and enter the fray Loring headed back east leaving the business to his brother. After arriving back east Loring enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was commissioned an Acting Master, which would today be considered a lieutenant junior grade. Loring was given orders to report for duty aboard the USS Galena. In command of that vessel was Loring’s distant cousin Capt. John Rogers. It is aboard the Galena that Loring would first see action and the severe cost, devastation and personal destruction of war.

BR: The stories around the night of Lincoln’s assassination are legion. I have a special interest myself, as the four soldiers who bore Lincoln from Ford’s Theater to the Peterson House were from my hometown and nearby. Without spoiling the book, can you clue us in on Loring’s role?

REQ: Lt. Loring plays an interesting, dynamic albeit small role at Ford’s theater the evening of April 14, 1865. It was this role that very early on captured my interest in the entire story. Over the course of many years of research it is this incredible story leading up to the events at Ford’s Theater that I have found most interesting. Lt. Loring’s living descendants have the actual orders which place Lt. Loring in the Navy Yard on April 12, 1865 where he was still recovering his health after his prison escape. It is through similar artifacts and documents such as those as well as Loring’s own writings that provide us with some incredible documentation regarding his time in the US Navy and eyewitness accounts to an extraordinary time in our nation’s history. Very often family histories are passed down through the ages, embellished and even rewritten however in this case we have Loring’s own words which transcend time.

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”?

REQ: This is a very interesting question about how long it takes to write a book and one that I am asked quite often. Because there are so many components to it; the research, the actual writing, the rewriting, the editing, the wordsmithing, checking data, rewriting some more and even setting it aside for a few weeks at a time to give yourself some distance and perspective. So… if you consider the first time that I heard about Loring and the frockcoat and his involvement at Ford’s theater that was over 25 years ago. It has taken decades to actually see a book come to fruition. However, the actual act of putting all this down on paper began in 2014 when I decided to make a phone call to Lt. Loring’s great-grandson whom I had met during the summer of 2000 to ask him if he had any materials that I might be able to borrow to actually write the story. After making the call and reintroducing myself from 14 years earlier I was warmly welcomed and told that we should get together to discuss this further. After our meeting in May 2014 and returning home with voluminous documents related to Lt. Loring I set about organizing all of these. Among the papers were included letters, orders, handwritten notes, journals, maps and a few photos. As I pulled all of this information together and began to create a chronology an incredible story began to unfold. It was a story of an ordinary man living in extraordinary times who felt that it was his duty to help preserve the union and his nation. The very nation that generations before his family and helped found.

Once I had organized the papers and created the chronology the most difficult part of writing the book was actually getting started. I was unsure of how to proceed. I knew I would need an editor and so began that search online. As has been the case with this project since the beginning I have been very lucky. I found an online offering stating that if you filled out the form an editor would contact you within three hours to discuss your project. I had nothing to lose so I filled it out. Three hours later no one had contacted me so I called the number left a message and emailed the company complaining and thinking this was some type of a scam. Sure enough someone emailed me back and provided me with a name and phone number. I called the number and was introduced to a person that would become my initial editor and later literary agent in this project. From the point of identifying this editor to having a written document and landing a publisher to actually seeing a book in my hands took nearly four years to the day.

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

REQ: My research process is based on the fundamental of trying to triangulate all the data that I come across. Utilizing primary sources, letters, Adjutant Generals reports, US Navy documents, official US government reports, referencing historical newspapers and other eyewitness accounts are all part of the process. It is important to note that I rely heavily on Lt. Loring’s own writings whether through family letters, journals or personal memoirs. This book is his story and told through his experiences and I have tried hard to remain true to that perspective. I have however corroborated all the historical facts utilizing the aforementioned triangulation of data where possible. The actual writing process however has been more about telling a story and making it interesting, engaging and exciting and less a traditional scholarly work. I’ve always felt that it was important to bring history alive for my students when I was teaching and so with this work I have taken that same idea to produce this book. All too often I hear from people about how boring history can be. Well it doesn’t have to be. This book is for all those who have been unfortunately exposed to history presented in a boring manner and who might be interested in an amazing story regarding an incredible time in our nation’s history presented in what I hope is an engaging story. So, even those who may not be interested in the Civil War or the US Navy or the Lincoln assassination might be very interested in one man’s story of survival, the ability to overcome and adapt and the willingness to put others first while sacrificing your freedom and putting your own life in jeopardy so others may survive. Lt. Loring takes his patriotism to a level unsurpassed and when combined with the action and adventure throughout this book it provides the reader with a first- hand view of our nation’s struggle during our most critical time.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

REQ: The book has been well received thus far. Those who have read it have thoroughly enjoyed the story. One of the most often received comments has been that it is a “page turner” and I take that as a tremendous complement. People enjoy reading history when told in this fashion. I am sure there are historians that question the events as told to us by Lt. Loring regarding the evening of April 14, 1865 as they unfolded in Ford’s theater. However, with all of the corroborating evidence and artifacts I have no doubt that this is factual. However, it is a small piece of the entire story and up until now it is information that has been lost to history.

BR: What’s next for you?

SRS: I continue to study the volumes of documents that the family has very generously given me access to and I continue to research the various ships Lt. Loring was attached to and the battles in which he participated. The family continues to come across new material as they sift through boxes and old trunks. For example, new information in the form of letters and artifacts regarding Lt. Loring’s action aboard the USS Galena at the battle of Drewry’s Bluff have recently been uncovered and provide new information written the day after that battle. In fact, one amazing discovery ties Lt. Loring to Marine Corporal John Mackey on board the USS Galena and Mackey’s gallantry in action. In fact, Mackey would become the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor and it was Lt. Loring who nominated Mackey for that medal. This is clear in the letters written in the days and months after the battle. In addition, 86 letters were recently uncovered relating to the time just after the Civil War when Lt. Loring was mustered out of the Navy and was commissioned a 3rd Lieutenant in the US Revenue Cutter Service, predecessor to the US Coast Guard. These letters span nearly 10 years and are full of historical detail related not only to the Revenue Cutter Service ships which Lt Loring served aboard but it includes the names of other officers he served with, the daily business that the cutters were engaged in and the locations in which they were working. These letters also provide a glimpse into the life of the post-Civil War period during reconstruction and what life was actually like for Lt. Loring while he was trying to build a new life for himself and his family.

I thoroughly enjoy delivering lectures related to the book and Lt. Loring. If people are interested in contacting me to ask questions or schedule a lecture they can do so via email at RichardEQuest@yahoo.com

There is currently some interest in bringing the book to the big screen and I am in conversations with a script writer who is a Sundance Fellow from that famous film society. I’m also currently considering the next book regarding Lt. Loring onboard the USS Galena and bringing to life the battle of Drewry’s Bluff as well as more of a traditional history of the Revenue Cutter Service and Lt. Loring’s service in the mid-1860s and early 1870s.

Harry, I want to thank you again for this wonderful opportunity to share with you and all of your Bull Runnings followers and readers a little bit about Lt Loring and myself. I also want to thank you for providing a forum to share Lt. Loring’s incredible story and all that is related to the Civil War while continuing to contribute to our understanding of this critical time period in our nation’s history.