Joseph Maghe Details

20 01 2022

Through his daughter Amanda, I’ve received details about Joe’s viewing, funeral, and memorial details.

-Friday (1/21) at 10AM-12PM rosary with visitation following at St.Joseph Catholic Church in Baxter Spring, KS.

-Friday (1/21) evening at 6PM-8PM rosary with visitation following at Our Lady of Lourdes in Pittsburg, KS.

-The funeral Mass will be Saturday (1/22) at 10AM at Our Lady of Lourdes in Pittsburg, KS. Burial to follow at Garden of Memories in Pittsburg, KS.

We understand there is a lot of illness this time of year, so if you are unavailable to attend in person, we are able to live stream the 6PM rosary and funeral Mass. Please use the following link:

Ollsmc.org/YouTube

To donate to the St Joseph Catholic Church Building Fund a check can be mailed to:

Father Jeremy Huser

115 W Walnut

Columbus, KS 66725





Joseph Maghe

18 01 2022

I woke this morning to the sad news that my friend, Joseph Maghe, has passed away. Some of you may remember Joe from the Bull Runnings In the Footsteps of the 69th NYSM tour back in 2019. He and his wife Debi travelled all the way from Kansas with a sizeable selection from his extensive collection of Irish-American Civil War memorabilia. Joe set up a deeply researched display of 69th NYSM memorabilia, owned by or related to members of the regiment, in the Henry House. He brought all of this valuable material at his own expense. It was a big hit with everyone. And so was Joe. He was a good Friend of Bull Runnings, and a friend to countless people in the Civil War and collector communities. More important, he was a very good man with a strong faith. I will miss him. My condolences to Debi, his family, and his many friends.

Joe on the battlefield of First Bull Run, 2019
Joe and Damian Shiels, 2019
Joe with some of his collection in the Henry House, 2019
Damian Shiels, John Hennessy, Joseph Maghe, and Harry Smeltzer, 2019




Interview: Groeling, “First Fallen”

14 01 2022
Meg Groeling

Meg Groeling has been a friend for a long time. She crossed over from what I call and “e-quaintance” to a real, live friend on the Bull Runnings “In the Footsteps of the 69th NYSM” tour a in 2019 when, despite some health issues, she made the trip from California and gamely joined us as we tramped the sometimes-challenging terrain of the battlefield. She has recently published First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the North’s First Civil War Hero, with Savas Beatie, and was good enough to take the time to answer a few questions about it.

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

MG: In high school I told my dad I wanted to be a writer and a historian. He told me that was a terrible idea, because I needed a job that would support me and writing history would never do that. He was correct, as dads usually are. I began this iteration of my life after thirty-three years of teaching 5th grade and middle school math. Sure enough—without my retirement I’d be out of luck. So, believe me when I say I am enjoying every moment of life just now. My master’s degree is from American Public University and is in Military History with an American Civil War emphasis. I have written one other book, published by Savas Beatie as well. It is The Aftermath of Battle: The Burial of the Civil War Dead. It is part of the Emerging Civil War series.

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

MG: I think most of us has a parent, grandparent or some relative who loves history. They talk about the dead as though they were still with us, and laugh at their jokes. My maternal grandmother was the first one of those for me. My first remembered lullabies were war songs like “Bonnie Blue Flag,” and “Hail Columbia.” I learned to play checkers because “that’s what Uncle George liked to do.” (Uncle George was a Tennessee Yankee cavalryman). The oldest class at my elementary school re-enacted the Great Oklahoma Land Run, so from Kindergarten I was primed to want to be involved in participatory history. My stepfather was a WW2 vet who came with old records called Songs of the North and the South, and lots of books, including the one with the dead men at Antietam. When we moved to California, I loved the Life magazines that were issued to commemorate the Civil War Centennial. I had few Barbies, but enough Ken dolls to at least handle a cannon if need arose. They all had tattoos, too. Eagles, I think! Life intervenes, I reinvented myself a couple of times, but finally there is time in my life again for the Civil War.

BR: What got you interested in Elmer Ellsworth?

MG: A casual convo with my middle school principal actually inspired the book. I worked at—here it comes! —E. E. Brownell Middle School. The principal dropped by to say hello at my first parent conference. I had just started teaching there, and I happened to be sitting under a painting of a 1940s-looking chap. The principal was making general conversation and happened to ask if I ever wondered just what the E. E. in Brownell’s name stood for. I looked up at the painting and then said that I had guessed they stood for Elmer Ellsworth. “I wonder if he is related to Frank Brownell,” I mused. That was when I found out my principal was a serious Civil War buff and wanted to just get coffee and talk about Ellsworth and Brownell for the rest of the conference. Greg Camacho-Light is one of those bosses that becomes so much more than a boss. He gave me the opportunity to work on my Masters, he supported the writing I did, and we have become very good friends. And FYI, E. E. Brownell is a very distant relation of Frank Brownell, “Ellsworth’s Avenger.”

BR: Can you describe Ellsworth’s role in the militia system in the antebellum North?

MG: I am fascinated by this, and by the idea that the Algerian zouave infantry drill could have revolutionized the role of the infantry in a way that took many more years to happen. If Ellsworth had not been killed—one of the great what ifs! There is a quote from Robert E. Lee alluding to his thought that Ellsworth would have led the Army of the Potomac had he lived. I don’t believe that, but I do believe that his combination of tactics and troop usage could have brought the idea of “Special Forces” into being. Not in the Confederate sense of extra-legal maneuvers but playing a parallel role to Berdan’s Sharpshooters. I am actively researching the combination of Ellsworth’s ideas for organizing state militias, his mastery of infantry drill (any and all versions) and the changes in military basic training which might have ensued. Just in case you think I am jumping down an empty rat hole, please look at Seal and Ranger training videos, then compare what they are learning with what Ellsworth’s U. S. Zouave Cadets did. Getting the unit over the wall brought tears to my eyes.

BR: What were the most surprising things you learned about Ellsworth?

MG: I had a suspicion that Ellsworth had a bigger story than just what most people knew—that he was killed in Alexandria over a flag. It was what I had learned in reading about the early war in all the usual places that made me wonder if he had anything to do with that period, and my curiosity, which sprung from re-enacting and Billy Yank made me wonder about the Union men who so eagerly answered the call to war. I had gone through Vietnam, so I knew what it was like when folks did not care to fight. I wanted to understand these earlier volunteers better. After I got my degree, I saw where Ellsworth fit in in the antebellum militia movement and saw how important that was—not just to Elmer, but to Lincoln as well. Ellsworth created the first “national craze,” the Zouaves.

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”?

MG: I began the book in 2011, thinking I would just fool around with the idea of writing a biography of someone I had always found interesting but who was not on the “A” list, as fellow author David Dixon says. I was not sure I had anything new to say about Grant. But since no one had said anything about Ellsworth since 1960, well—that looked more promising. I wrote a first draft in about a year (remember, I was also working full-time and writing new math curriculum for our district) and gave it to a few friends to read.

When I revisited the book again and heard/read the comments, I realized that this book might actually have legs. If that was true, I needed to be more than a “Civil War buff.” “Retired math teacher” didn’t sound so great either. I looked for a masters’ program in local colleges and universities, but quickly realized that if I wanted an advanced degree in tree hugging, California was the place. Military history? Not so much. I found a wonderful program at American Public University. APU is the sister program to American Military University, which was developed so that service members who are stationed worldwide could continue their educations in a single place. APU is the place where we civilians enroll, but the courses are the same. The work was demanding, the professors often were the same ones whose books I owned, and often the number of women in class was very small compared to the number of military men, all of which created a challenging, dynamic learning environment. I loved every moment! I would never consider the four years it took me to finish as any kind of impediment, but it did slow down things a bit.

The time it took, eleven years in all, worked to my advantage. I now came back to my manuscript with enhanced research skills, much more confidence as a writer, a far more complete understanding of the change the military needed to make to fight the Civil War effectively, and during all that time, I kept finding new information. For instance, it was not until 2017 that positive proof of Ellsworth’s passing the Illinois Bar Exam was found, clearing up at least one unknown detail of his life. Also, Ancestry.com had, by then, linked to Fold3, FindAGrave, and other online resources that are simply invaluable to understanding the details of a person’s life that place him or her in a specific social stratum. This culminated in my being able to refute Ellsworth’s claims of dire poverty. It also helped greatly as I chased the men who were U. S. Zouave Cadets into the Civil War and beyond. Every one of those fellows served in some capacity. Huzzah!

I realized I was done when Elmer died—seriously! I knew then that, except for polishing and improving my writing, I wanted to add some important things about his legacy and then John Hay’s NY Times obituary, but that was all. My amazing editor, Mitch Yockelson, suggested using appendices instead of trying to add unnecessary chapters. He was, in my opinion, spot on. This is where I became even more of a bullrunnings.com fan. Harry, you are a blessing to us all.

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

MG: I think my reading/writing process is pretty common. I did plan the overall outline of the book, and when a particular source seemed to be rich in information I either printed it off in hard copy or bought the book from amazon, if possible. I bought used books whenever I could, so no priceless first editions line the shelves. As for brick-and-mortar, I have to say the museums and battlefields I visited. Not bookstores, but the Kenosha Civil War Museum, the Brown University Library, the New York State Military Museum, Fort Ward, and the battlefield at Manassas were inspiring, helpful, and very real. Mostly I was able to use on-line resources, even to point to hard copies of information.

I also read extensively. Lesley Gordon’s work on the exoneration of the 11th New York Fire Zouaves helped me navigate the OR in a totally different way, and that helped a great deal. I really like to write, so I have little trouble fitting it in, although my life went through full-time work, retirement, a new marriage, keeping up with a house built in 1928, writing for other places such as the magazine American Bungalow, and getting cancer. Reading and writing are my happy places, I guess.

BR: How has the book been received so far

MG: Amazingly enough, it is getting excellent reviews. I say “amazingly enough” because I doubt if many authors expect their firstborn to do as well as this one has. I am so grateful. The writing journey has been the best, people have been so kind, and the reviews say I have written a book that will help historians more fully understand Ellsworth, the years before the war in Illinois, and the earliest days of Lincoln’s presidency. I feel I have broken ice on the facts of the Baltimore Plot as well. The plot to kill Lincoln as he stopped to change trains in Baltimore was much debated. With the release of Alan Pinkerton’s personal papers and research done up to that time, I think I have what might be the closest (so far) explanation of that particular incident.

BR: What’s next for you?

MG: I have cancer, so staying well enough to do the traveling and presentations I have looked forward to is really what is next. I am working on a book about Walt Whitman for the Savas Beatie Emerging Civil War series, and I shall keep blogging for Emerging Civil War, which gave me my first opportunity to be published as a historian back in 2011. As I said before, I am researching Ellsworth’s ideas for interior drill changes and trying to push that forward. That and petting cats…





Two Days with the U. S. Marine Corps

15 12 2021

On December 9 and 10 I was honored to share the history of the Civil War in general and the First Battle of Bull Run in particular with members of our United States Marine Corps. Specifically, 38 young officers of 2nd Platoon, Echo Company, of The Basic School at USMC Base Quantico. I did so at the invitation of their commander Captain Zachary Byrd, and for me it was quite an experience. I can only hope they learned as much as I did.

After a quick scout of the field with Capt. Byrd, Thursday started off at the crack of noon with a Sand Table Exercise (STEX). In brief, in a STEX a field of operations is recreated in a big, elevated sandbox. Individuals are assigned tasks, and in the case of historic events, are cast in the roles of the actors. So the platoon was broken up into Confederate and Union teams, and roles of generals assigned accordingly by the teams. Then, using the sandbox with general terrain, road, and waterway features represented, each “side” determined actions based on the information provided regarding strengths, armaments, and positions, as well as on scenarios presented on the fly by the CO. I would step in every now and again and provide historic info, but the exercise focused very much on what the teams would do and not so much on what really happened.

Marines, as you may know, are an aggressive lot, so it wasn’t surprising to find that the Confederate team behaved very much as P. G. T. Beauregard would have.

The platoon graduates on the 17th, so this exercise and the battlefield tour the next day were more low-key and informal than what they had been going through for the past six months. You may be able to pick that up in the photos.

Setting up the STEX
Lines deploy
Me, pointing at something
Still pointing

Afterwards, we all retired to 2 Silos Brewing Co., a cool brewery/restaurant/concert venue. Try the Goat 2X.

2 Silos

The battlefield tour was Friday, the 10th. There were a total of six platoons in five busses. Ours was the only bus with an outside guide (other platoon tours were student led), and so the only bus not to go directly from the base to the park visitor’s center on Henry Hill. This was news to our driver Donna, who was game for it and proved a real trooper – three cheers for Donna. We stopped first at the Stone Bridge, then Sudley Springs Ford, Matthews Hill, and finally Henry Hill. We spent the most time on Matthews Hill, where we discussed first contact, the strong impact of Rhode Island on the battle, how to fire a civil war cannon, and made a trip to the Stovall marker for a dose of social history and, well, romance. We traversed Henry Hill (did not go to the Robinson House) and spent some time covering the USMC Battalion at the battle, as well as the antebellum Marine Corps and the changes it went through in the wake of secession. I had prepared WAY more material than I had time in which to cover it, and most of Henry Hill was a whirlwind. I told them that what happened actually was very confusing, so if they were confused, my job was done!

Me still pointing, this time at the bridge in case they missed it
Going through the loading and firing procedure on Matthews Hill. I think they got a kick out of it.
Walking back from Stovall. The weather was surprisingly mild for December.
At Imboden’s position forward on Henry Hill
The obligatory group photo.

It was a fun and interesting two days. The class asked great questions and had a sharp sense of humor. I learned a bit about how the USMC officer education process works, but still know very little. I also learned some things about leading a tour for folks who don’t necessarily have the Civil War knowledge base that I’m used to. On the one hand it required more explanation, but on the other I didn’t have to deal with breaking down preconceived notions.

I think the Corps is in good hands with young men and women like these. Thanks to Capt. Byrd for the opportunity to meet them. I wish them all the very best as they move forward in their lives and careers.

Me at the corner of Belleau and Montezuma at USMC Base Quantico




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BR: How did you two meet?

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

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

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

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

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

BR: Why a biography of Irvin McDowell?

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

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

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

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

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

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

BR: Can you describe how long it took to write the book, what the stumbling blocks were, what you discovered along the way that surprised you or went against the grain, what firmed up what you already knew? When did you know you were “done”?

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

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

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

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

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

BR: How has the book been received so far?

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

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





15 Years Blogging

3 11 2021
No, I’ve never had it. But, if you want to send me a bottle (or case or pallet), feel free!

And then one day you find 15 years have got behind you.

Yeah, that’s a long time for a blog. A really long time for a Civil War blog. As they say, if you spend enough time in a train station you’ll see a lot of trains come, and a lot of trains go. Although, these days I’m seeing fewer and fewer trains.

It’s been fun and I’m happy I’ve been able to pretty much keep my focus (here, at least). I still have plenty of material to post, lots of letters and news items from the papers of the day. And I have a couple of other irons in the fire, including another field trip to the battlefield in the spring (I’ve lined up the guest guides, and we will be spending a lot of time on Henry House Hill this time) and a collaborative presentation project that you’ll be able to watch right here.

So, thanks for reading, and keep checking back.

Every.

Single.

Day.





The Reports of My Death are Greatly Exaggerated

2 11 2021
Mark Twain

Please be patient: I’m still going through southern newspapers, and finding lots and lots of good stuff. Sometimes it’s stuff I’m not quite sure how to use here, so I’ve been posting that sort of thing over on my Facebook page (you can follow me on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, though there isn’t much stuff on the latter). Once I finish up Florida and Delaware, I’ll get back to posting. And remember, if you have any letters, diaries, or memoirs by First Bull Run participants, send them along and I’ll add them to the database.





Interview: Ovies, “The Boy Generals”

24 09 2021

New from Savas Beatie is The Boy Generals: George Custer, Wesley Merritt, and the Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, by Adolfo Ovies. Mr. Ovies took some time to answer a few questions about his book and his writing.


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

AO: The most influential moment of my life was in 1960, when my family fled Communist Cuba for a new life in Connecticut where I became a “Connecticut Yankee” —more American than Cuban. I have, however, always remained comfortable in both cultures.

Nothing in my academic career prepared me to become a historian. During my college tenure, monetary issues turned me in the direction of the food service industry and for 45 years I worked as an executive chef and food service director, opening restaurants in both the midwest and southwest. Throughout the years my passion for history has flourished. The books in my library span the period from the Vikings to the Vietnam war.

Tournament bass fishing provided an outlet for my competitive nature. In Florida, many of our fisheries came under pressure from a host of environmental groups. I was a founder and president of South Florida Anglers for Everglades Restoration (SAFER), a group dedicated to restoring the Everglades, thus preserving the sport we all loved so much. At this time I began researching and writing what would become my first book on George Armstrong Custer.

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

AO: My love of Civil War history developed almost as a perfect storm. I have always been an avid reader and at ten years old I made the switch from reading the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift to reading Quentin Reynold’s book on Custer, a part of the Landmark Series of history books for children.

Hard on the book’s heel came Errol Flynn’s mesmerizing portrayal of George A. Custer in They Died with Their Boots On. When I was 12, my father took us on a vacation to Gettysburg. Up to this time, I had just been nibbling on the bait, but with the visit to this storied battlefield I took a full bite and was hooked for life. When my grandfather gave a copy of Jay Monaghan’s Custer, I knew I had made the transition to becoming a big time Civil War history buff.

BR: Why Custer and Merritt?

AO: The answer to the question comes down to a letter written by Elizabeth Bacon Custer (Libbie) to then General of the Army, William T. Sherman. In the letter, written at the time that Wesley Merritt was appointed superintendent of West Point. Libbie told Sherman, “years ago I knew . . . that General Custer was his [Merritt’s] enemy.” I have always believed that history is sometimes written in too cut and dried a manner. Here was a chance to be a storyteller, to write the tale of two men who came to detest each other with a passion. My book is more than a recitation of the battles and campaigns of the cavalry. Though well researched and detailed, it is also the story of two men whose differing personalities and tactical philosophies led them to what I call “a fight for the soul of the cavalry.” Compelled to trace the development of their dysfunctional relationship, I found more than I bargained for.

BR: Can you describe the relationship between the two what we can learn from it, in a nutshell?

AO: The flamboyant Custer, often chastised for his recklessness, would suffer a horrific death on Last Stand Hill at the battle of the Little Big Horn. His name will remain emblazoned on the pages of our nation’s history as long as there are historians to write. He was 38 at the time of his death on June 25, 1876.

The understated Merritt would go on to a long and influential career in the U.S. Army. He fought the Native American tribes on the frontier and led the expedition to the Philippines in the 1898 Spanish-American War. But his greatest contribution would be his founding and presidency of the United States Cavalry Association. He would use the journal of the association (JUSCA) as a platform to transform an army utilized to fight on the western frontier into one capable of fighting against the best the European powers had to offer. Yet his life and achievements remain obscure.

The lesson here is that each man created his own legacy, wove his own destiny. The old Saxons and Norsemen called it Wyrd.

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”?

AO: My first attempt at writing a history book was a self-published effort entitled Crossed Sabers: General George Custer and the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864-65. That was back in 2004. It was not a commercial success, however, as the result of his review of this book, I met and became friends with cavalry historian Eric Wittenberg. Eric graciously offered to mentor me in my next effort, The Boy Generals, which has been in the works for about 9 years.

I had two major stumbling blocks in writing this trilogy.

1. Much of the mythology that has sprung up around Custer had to be challenged. Often conflicting accounts exist that needed to be verified. During his Civil War career, Custer was a great soldier sometimes disguised by his flamboyant nature.

2. The enigma that is Wesley Merritt had to be brought into the light of day. Unlike Custer, there are no trunks filled with personal material. His character had to be fleshed out through his official reports, his extensive after-war writings and the accounts of the men who fought under him.

The extent of the deterioration of the relationship between Custer and Merritt was crystal clear once I understood the underlying roots. It was not something that occurred overnight, but developed gradually, battle by battle, campaign by campaign, right up until the end of the war, and even beyond. The effect of Custer always being subordinated to Merritt cannot be understated. I knew I had come to the end of the scope for this project when, during Sheridan’s 1865-1866 Texas campaign, Custer sent Merritt a brief note in which he basically thumbed his nose at Merritt and told him that he was no longer Custer’s boss.

BR: You describe this as the first volume of a trilogy. Very briefly, what does each volume cover?

AO: Volume 1 lays out the background of the hatred that developed between Merritt and Custer. It covers the time from their tenures at West Point, to McClellan’s Peninsular campaign, and on to Brandy Station, where, already, there were inklings of tension. During the battles of Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville, their careers, literally, took divergent roads. Destiny took them on dissimilar paths to the fields of Gettysburg. Merritt’s actions on South Cavalry Field and Custer’s participation at East Cavalry Field were but the groundwork for their blossoming adversarial relationship.

Volume 2 follows their respective brigades as they contested the defeated Rebels down the face of the rugged Blue Ridge Mountains. After Major General Philip H. Sheridan replaced Major General Alfred A. Pleasonton as commander of the Cavalry Corps, the confrontation between Merritt and Custer was ratcheted up several notches. The volume covers the hard-fought battles of the Overland campaign, and details the battle at Trevilian Station, where their rupture became part of the official record. In August 1864, Sheridan’s troopers were transferred to the Shenandoah Valley. For Custer and Merritt, things began to deteriorate rapidly.

Volume 3 For Merritt and Custer, the situation went from bad to worse as the Shenandoah campaign rumbled up the valley. The dysfunctional relationship finally erupted into public view following the battle of Cedar Creek, after which there was no hope of reconciliation. The glory of the Appomattox campaign would be forever tarnished when Custer was insubordinate to Merritt. Their acrimony would continue into the post-war army.

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

AO: My approach to research is that there is no such thing as a solitary clue. Each clue provides another direction that needs to be tracked down and examined, and then re-examined. Each account offers a different perspective, and none can be taken as gospel truth. I have tried not to bring an agenda to this work. Though I admit that I am an unabashed Custer buff, I have tried to keep an open mind in my research on Wesley Merritt. I believe that I have brought as much material to the book on his behalf as has been written since his solitary biography by Don E. Alberts was published back in 1980.

The Official Records have been one of my primary sources of information. It takes many, many readings to mine all the nuances that are contained in the reports of the participants. There are several versions of the OR online. My favorite is the one from Cornell/Hathi Trust as it is copied from the originals. I don’t trust some of the transcribed versions. Google Books has turned out to be a tremendous resource as I have been able to download many regimental histories, both north and south, that I probably wouldn’t have gotten access to. I have taken trips to the Army Heritage Institute, the National Archives and visited every accessible battlefield pertaining to the events in this work. Many fellow historians have given freely of their time and sources. To them I owe a great debt of gratitude.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

AO: I am really heartened by the responses I have received so far. Many of the comments make specific reference to the style of my writing. As I mentioned earlier, my main goal was to tell the story of these two men who played such an important part in the actions of the cavalry in the Eastern theater of the war. Judging from the comments, I think I have succeeded in accomplishing this.

BR: What’s next for you?

AO: I have already written the following volumes of this trilogy, though they need some tweaking to bring them up to date with some of my latest research. These volumes will be published next year. I am well into my next project which deals with the Bay of Pigs invasion. It is entitled The Cuban Conundrum: The Brigade 2506, the CIA and the Cuban Civil War. I have interviewed two dozen members of the Cuban Brigade and have gained access to over 200 declassified CIA documents written in Spanish of the Brigade’s training in the jungles of Guatemala. I hope to bridge the cultural gap that has separated Cuban and American historians and write the definitive story of the 3-day battle and its aftermath.





Funny Stuff, and an Update

14 09 2021

I made some updates to my speaking schedule. Between October 2021 and April 2022 I’ll be presenting in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Two McDowell’s Plan shows, and one on the 69th NYSM at Bull Run. The Plan programs will be brand new versions, stripped down, which should be more impactful. The 69th talk will be the Saturday preceding St. Patrick’s day, which here in Pittsburgh – where I’ll be speaking – is a pretty big day. That should be interesting. You can see the schedule here.

I’m working my way through South Carolina newspapers for the two months following the battle, and am finding good stuff, even if I’m going blind in the process. Very interesting the tone of the state’s newspapers versus Virginia’s and North Carolina’s. Think the freshmen football players who never get in the game, who taunt their opponents from the sidelines under the expectation of not having to face them on the field. (I’m talking about geography, here.) Check out this column, in the Charleston Mercury, criticizing Virginia for its soft treatment of Union prisoners captured at Bull Run. I may transcribe it later.





Preview: Schmiel & Simione with Schneider, “Searching for Irvin McDowell”

4 09 2021

Just in for preview is Searching for Irvin McDowell: Forgotten Civil War General, by Frank P. Simione,Jr. and Gene Schmiel, with E. L. “Dutch” Schneider. It’s billed as “The first biography of this important Union General in the early days of the Civil War,” and I’ll soon have an interview with the authors. But for now –

You get:

  • 244 pages of text in 10 chapters.
  • 2 appendices, discussing McDowell’s stay at Liberia in Manassas, and his unique taste in headwear.
  • Bottom of the page footnotes.
  • 10 page bibliography (published works, National Tribune and magazine articles, two websites – and no, I’m not in it)
  • Index
  • 14 Hal Jesperson maps
  • 7 images