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.





Interview: Somerville, “Bull Run to Boer War”

12 03 2020

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Michael Somerville is an English military historian whose doctoral thesis at the University of Buckingham looked at the influence of the American Civil War on the Victorian British Army. The end result of that work has been published by Helion & Company as Bull Run to Boer War: How the American Civil War Changed the British Army. Michael has been good enough to answer a few questions for Bull Runnings.


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

MS: I graduated with a First Class degree in History from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge University, but at the time I didn’t want to continue academic study and made what was as the time perhaps a rather unusual decision to go into a career in IT. I spent nearly forty years as a programmer, consultant and project manager before retiring in 2018. Alongside my professional career though I always remained interested in history and particularly military history. I live in Wimbledon, south-west London with my wife, Gillian. She did her degree in American Studies, so interest in the Civil War period is something we share, though mine are primarily military and hers in the social aspects.

When I was working overseas for a year Gillian suggested that I do an MA course in military history to keep me occupied in the evenings! This was not practical for many reasons, but the following year I signed up for the MA course at the University of Buckingham, and with the centennial of the First World War coming up in 2014, the idea of researching the idea of looking at how one conflict had influenced the other was an obvious. In 2017 I was awarded a doctorate by the University of Buckingham for my thesis on the influence of the Civil War on the Victorian British Army.

I’m a member of the American Civil War Round Table UK, who appointed me their President this year. I’ve written a number of articles for our society journal (which publishes some excellent scholarship), mostly on British observers to the war, but Bull Run to Boer War is my first externally published work.

BR: I’m curious – as an Englishman, what got you in the American Civil War? Who/what were your early influences, for both your interest in the Civil War and Military History?

MS: I had always been interested in military history as a boy, but it was initially about the Second World War, like many of my generation I think. I did read a little on the American Civil War at University, but only briefly. In the 1980s I became quite a serious wargamer – figures, not re-enactment – and the period covering the American Civil War and contemporary European and British wars became my main focus. The historical side of the hobby was always as important to me as the gaming aspect, and I did a lot of reading and research in order to set up games and competitions that I felt challenged the players with the problems and choices that the generals had to make at the time.

In 2011, Gillian was working in the BBC on a series of radio programmes to mark the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and she was put in touch with the American Civil War Round Table (United Kingdom) who were organizing a number of events around the country. We went to their conference and I was hugely impressed with the level of collective knowledge that the group had, and with the welcome we received, we joined the group on the spot. Although the war is a minority interest here in the UK, it is a small but important part of the heritage of some places such as Liverpool. Many of our members visit the USA regularly to tour the battlefields, and we also have many people who trace the stories of the many British-born soldiers and sailors who served on both sides. Attending the Conferences and hearing the many excellent speakers also made me want to build on such knowledge as I had to do more academic research into the American Civil War, prompting me to sign on for the MA.

BR: I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to the use of the term “military history.” I think it gets misused and abused here in the U. S., and means something deeper and broader than simply researching or writing about people, places, and events of a military nature. How do you define “military history” and “military historian?”

MS: The book could almost be classified as ‘pure’ military history. It looks at how a military event (the American Civil War) was studied by a military organization (the British Army), and how that influenced its military equipment, tactics, and thought. It is not a narrative about the war, or about the army, but tries to analyze the influence of one on the other. That potentially limits its appeal to those interested in purely military matters, and put off those who are drawn to military history by depictions of battle and by personal stories. I was very conscious when writing the book that I needed to make it accessible to the non-specialist where possible. But I believe that military history needs to be more than a narrative of a battle or a series of vignettes of soldiers’ personal experiences – it needs to have an element of analysis, to explain how and why people acted and things happened the way they did, and with what consequences. I am also fascinated by parallels and comparisons between different military periods and armies, and how armies function as institutions, an understanding of which I think is essential to a military historian.

BR: Bull Run to Boer War looks at how the American Civil War “predicted the way in which later wars such as the Boer War and the First World War would be fought.” Can you summarize this premise, and give a brief overview of your findings?

MS: The Civil War and the First World War hold similar places in the American and British national consciousness – they are the bloodiest conflicts that the two nations have respectively fought, and they are each portrayed to some extent as being unnecessary, incompetently fought, or both. Many histories of warfare point to technical and tactical innovations in the Civil War – the machine-gun or trenches for example – and how these were then features of the First World War. The inference is that the men in charge of the armies in 1914 should have seen what was going to happen, and therefore have avoided it. The British come in for particularly severe criticism – partly because they were one of the few European armies to actually fight significant actions in the closing years of the nineteenth century. For example, some websites on the Boer War perpetuate the idea that the British expected to fight it using almost Napoleonic tactics, whereas if only they had studied the Civil War properly they would have realized the errors of their ways.

My basic premise is that this is twenty-twenty hindsight, and even then mostly inaccurate. If you trace the history of this view, it really derives from British critics of the Army’s performance in 1914-18 which were written in the 1930s. But the British Army of the nineteenth century was responding to the challenges and demands of the day, which did not include planning for a four-year global war involving every Great Power. The tactics and technologies of the Civil War were not as novel or unprecedented as they are sometimes depicted, so when the British went to America in 1861-65 – and many more officers did than the few who are usually mentioned – they did not see dramatic change in the nature of warfare, because none had yet occurred. Also the geography of America at the time was not at all like most of Europe with its highly developed agricultural and transport systems. The Civil War was Napoleonic in the scale of its armies but most individual campaigns were fought over sparsely populated wilderness. Attributing some aspects of the way that the Civil War was fought (such as the way the Americans used cavalry) to these local factors, was not a misunderstanding of what was seen, it was in fact quite perceptive. And the conditions in South Africa, with wide open plains and steep bare hills, were nothing at all like the mostly forested battlefields of the Civil War.

Conversely, the British did not subsequently ignore what they had seen in America. The latter half of the nineteenth century was a time of great technical change in the military. To give just one example, the British infantryman used at least five different standard small arms between 1850 and 1900 – ranging from the smooth-bore musket with a range of about 100 yards and firing twice per minute to the Lee-Metford magazine rifle, with twenty times the range and seven or eight times the rate of fire. With such weapons, to plan to fight the next European war in the same manner as Waterloo – or even Gettysburg – would indeed have been suicidal. But they did not. The infantry understood the need to entrench and to use open formations. The cavalry knew it could not charge machine guns and magazine rifles frontally, and looked to use its mobility to beat its opponents by maneuver, surprise, and dismounted firepower. And there are descriptions of preparing defensive positions written in the 1870s that refer to the use of trenches, wire entanglements, explosive mines and machine guns – not a bad prediction of what would be seen over forty years later.]

The Boer War provided the British with a new and important set of lessons – which is why I decided to close my book in 1900. But since these descriptions and recommendations appear in manuals, books, and articles written before 1900, they cannot be ascribed to lessons from the Boer War or the early twentieth century – they derive from the study of earlier conflicts, in which the American Civil War featured prominently.

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”?

MS: The book originated in 2012 as a dissertation for a MA in Military History at the University of Buckingham, which was meant to last one year. At the end of that time, I realized that I had far more material than I could fit into a 25,000 word dissertation, and my supervisor suggested that rather than submit it I expand it into a doctorate thesis. I was still doing a full-time job, so it was around four years before I was in a position to submit, and then about another year of reviews and amendments to finally get the thesis accepted in 2017. During that final year I was already thinking that maybe I would like to publish it in some form, as I felt that the subject matter had been left unresearched for many years and the material which I was uncovering was of significant importance to the history of military thought.

I thought it would be relatively easy to turn the thesis into a book, but my publisher warned me that it would take some time; in the event around two years! Some of that was the immensely tedious business of revising things like footnotes to meet a different editing standard. Rather less soul-destroying was the need to make the book comprehensible to the non-specialist reader. I knew it was a subject that could interest readers on both side of the Atlantic, but a lot of British would not be familiar with Civil War people and events, while most Americans probably don’t know much about British operations in Africa, India and elsewhere. Getting the balance between accessibility, readability, and brevity was a challenge.

Mostly my research supported my initial belief that the British Army had been over-criticized for its indifference to the Civil War. In fact I was surprised when I discovered just how early some changes were initiated. The Austro-Prussian War of 1866 is traditionally supposed to have made European armies wake up to the potential of the breech-loading rifle and the railways, but the British Army adopted the former in 1864 (nine months before the US Army!) and set up a railway board in 1865. Far from ignoring the machine-gun the British were keen adopters of the technology, even though early weapons had not performed well in field, because it could compensate for their relatively low numbers of troops. The use of barbed wire was mentioned in books published twenty years before the First World War. I don’t conclude that the Army was perfect – both the organization and individuals made lots of mistakes. But we should not judge them by twentieth century standards.

I started the process rather skeptical of the idea that the American Civil War predicted the First World War. I would still argue that is true in the field of technology – there is no comparison between the artillery, machine guns, and rifles of the Civil War and those of 1914. And as a result the tactics of most of the better known battles have more in common with the Crimean War than the Western Front. But I now think that by 1865 there were aspects that could be said to have been more comparable to the two World Wars at an operational and strategic level, such as the mobilization of most of the countries human and physical resources for war. Unfortunately these were the lessons that it was most difficult for a democratic country, like Britain or America, to prepare for in time of peace, so they had to be relearnt and reapplied.

My test audience is my long-suffering wife, who has read almost every version of every chapter. She is keen on history but not so much on the military side, so can tell me where I need to explain or clarify things for the non-specialist. If she told me a bit of the book was interesting or good I could feel confident it was about ready.

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

MS: As a former Project Manager I have a tendency to set plans and targets, so although there is sometimes some tension between ‘academic’ and ‘amateur’ historians, I rather appreciate the rigor which the academic process enforces. Because it started out as an academic thesis, I had to produce a detailed work plan up front, with a core research question and a series of subsidiary questions that the thesis intended to answer. The next stage was to read any secondary works already written on the subject. In one respect I was fortunate that there is only really one work that covers it directly – Jay Luvaas’ Military Legacy of the Civil War, which was ground-breaking for its time but sixty years old. I discovered that most books describing the military impact of the Civil War on Europe, if it was mentioned at all, simply referenced Luvaas’ research. I determined to read all of Luvaas’ primary sources, and see whether I agreed with his interpretations and conclusions, trying to look at everything from a nineteenth century rather than a twentieth century perspective.

That meant going through large numbers of old military books and journals. Some of these are available online, and I was able to borrow some from the RUSI library in London, but for many it meant long hours taking notes in the British Library – at weekends or in the evening after work. As well as articles about the Civil War, reading other articles and books on tactics and weapons revealed several less obvious evidence that people were taking note of what had happened in America. I also looked at military manuals of the period – both official and unofficial – and found it was mostly untrue that tactics did not change during the period. I had already decided that I would adopt a thematic rather than a chronological structure, and this research largely formed the basis for the chapters on the infantry and cavalry in particular, by identifying what soldiers saw as being the military issues of the day and analyzing what they thought the solutions were.

Being able to download electronic versions of much of the out of copyright material from sites such as archive.org meant that I could view them on my laptop at home and on holidays. Having online search engines was immensely useful, and generated some surprising leads. Even in the British Library, browsing their online catalogue with various search terms and date ranges revealed an interesting but long-forgotten pamphlet by a British general written in 1865, proposing how to fight a war with the United States. A Google search for British observers came up with a bookseller who had a report written by [William T.] Sherman and dedicated by him to Sir Bruce Hamley, a prominent British military writer, and pointed me to a set of letters between them contained in Hamley’s biography. I would probably never have found this otherwise. Another Google search came up with a copy of the Guards Brigade’s Journal for 1863 and an article describing a visit to Meade’s army after Gettysburg – another source I don’t think has been previously identified. I also used family history sites to research the background of the different observers in 1861-65. It turned out one young Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers who visited the Confederate lines at Petersburg in 1864 was a nephew of Robert E. Lee – which was both unexpected and perhaps gives some insight how he managed to travel through Virginia at the time. .

There are a number of reports in the old War Office records at The National Archive in Kew, London, that show how American technology was being studied both during and after the war. This ranges from artillery, fortifications, to coastal obstructions and mines. And a friend at the ACWRT pointed me to the leave records held there for the British troops stationed in North America, from which it is possible to check when many of the known observers visited. I did further analysis to spot patterns in the leave records which enabled me to suggest how many undocumented visits might have been made, and by who and when. Almost all of this is new research on previously untapped sources.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

MS: There has been a significant amount of interest from several military journals, although I have not yet seen any reviews published. The few people who I have had feedback from have said that they have found it both interesting and convincing in its argument. One acquaintance from the Round Table has authored several successful historic novels about the Civil War, and I was especially pleased that he found the book very readable as well as informative. I have given a couple of informal lectures to small groups in the UK, and it generates a lot of discussion. I am visiting America in the summer and have one talk planned in Charleston SC, I hope to do a few others. This will be interesting, as I expect to get different challenges and questions from an American audience compared to a British one.

A few friends have said that they thought I have been rather hard on Jay Luvaas. This was not my intent, his original work was a classic of its time and the foundation to my research, but it did not tell the whole story. Like mine it originated as a dissertation, was expanded into a thesis and then became his first book. Unfortunately I never met him, but I would like to think that he would have approved.

BR: What’s next for you?

MS: My next project is very different. My father served in the Second World War, but like the majority of veterans from that conflict he rarely talked about it, even to me. A few years ago I decided to get his military record, and that led me to thinking that most history about that war is written about famous battles and elite units. I want to try and write the story of an ordinary infantry battalion. Unlike Bull Run to Boer War it will be a narrative history, but through the narrative trying to understand what it was like to be one of the millions of ordinary men serving in the war – who they were, why they joined up, how they trained, what happened to them in combat, plus all of the mundane aspects of military life that often get forgotten.

I’ve chosen the 5th Battalion Sherwood Foresters, my father’s unit, as the subject for obvious personal reasons – but it is effectively a random selection, as British conscripts of whom my father was one got relatively little choice which unit they joined. They were not at Alamein, or Anzio, or Normandy or Arnhem, so most of the battles in which they fought have had very little written about them. I also want to try and visit as many of the locations as possible to understand why the battles were fought as they were and with the results that they had. It is likely to be a three or four year project. I hope will appeal to both dedicated military historians and to a wider audience who want to understand more about their father’s or grandfathers’ experience of the war.

Michael will be speaking at the Ft. Sumter Civil War Round Table in Charleston, SC in August, 2020 (this is the same venue hosting me in May).





Interview: Powell, “Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah”

12 02 2020

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I’ve interviewed long-time friend Dave Powell here before. His numerous books on the war in Tennessee and Georgia have been previewed on this site as well – search his name in the box in the right margin. Now, Powell has moved his pen to the Eastern theater of the war with Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah: Major General Franz Sigel and the War in the Valley of Virginia, 1864, from Savas Beatie. Dave recently took some time to answer a few questions about his new work.


BR: Dave, you’ve done a Bull Runnings interview before, so our readers are familiar with you. Any updates you’d like to share? 

DAP: Just that I have been busy, extremely busy. I published two books in 2019, and I have two books coming out in 2020: a volume co-authored with Eric Wittenberg, on the Tullahoma Campaign; and a volume on Grant at Chattanooga for SIU Press’s The World of Ulysses S. Grant series. (). Both have been tremendous projects to work on, and I am excited that they are coming to fruition.

BR: You’ve made your bones in the Western Theater, especially the Chickamauga Campaign. Geographically at least, Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah is quite a departure for you, at least at this level. What prompted this shift? What are the overlaps?

DAP: I don’t see it as much of a departure, actually. Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah is a command study, and most of my other work fits that category. What drew me to the Shenandoah project – aside from the fact that I attended the Virginia Military Institute and hence, couldn’t really avoid New Market – is the lack of sober analysis on the Union side of the campaign and battle. There are good tactical studies of the battle, and considerable insight into Confederate thinking in May, 1864, but the Union role in the Valley has not really been subject to the same rigorous analysis.

BR: Can you describe Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah? 

DAP: Union Command Failure in the Shenandoah examines the 1864 Spring Valley Campaign from the Federal perspective. It sets the campaign in the framework of Ulysses S. Grant’s strategic concept, outlines both sides’ command problems and objectives, and examines the outcomes of various decisions up to and including the Battle of New Market, fought May 15, 1864. For a such small engagement (about 5,000 combatants on each side) New Market had an outsized impact on the subsequent campaign in Virginia.

BR: Union General Franz Sigel is central to the book, of course. Can you give us some background on him, his experience in Germany for example, and your ten cent assessment on his performance in the Valley?

DAP: Sigel is an interesting character. One of the reasons I wrote the book is because I think most other descriptions of him reduce him to a cartoon; the bumbling, clueless European “political general” that is a stock character in Civil War literature. In fact, Sigel was a highly trained European soldier with both a professional education and real field experience, not only with German regular troops but also in leading raw revolutionary troops in 1848.

Certainly, however, he is a flawed character. His leadership and combat experiences in the American Civil War were uneven, to say the least; but he did perform competently at Pea Ridge and even Second Bull Run. He could be exceptionally stiff-necked in matters of what he viewed as his honor, but he also was willing to try and execute the orders he was issued to the best of his ability. I argue that this is what brought him to grief at New Market – he was doing his best to follow Grant’s intent, while other Union commanders didn’t execute their missions nearly as well. George Crook, for example, was supposed to capture Staunton. Instead, even after winning handily at Cloyd’s Mountain, Crook lost his nerve and retreated into West Virginia.
Sigel achieved most of what he was supposed to accomplish in the valley that spring. However, at New Market he let subordinates ignore his orders and draw him into a fight he neither wanted nor was prepared for: That was a blunder, and he paid the price.

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”?

DAP: This project was first intended for the History Press, with a publication date of 2014. The writing took most of 2013. In the end, they didn’t want it, so I offered it to Savas Beatie, who have published so many of my books. Theodore Savas liked it, and agreed to publish it. I took the first draft and revised it a bit, so it received considerable polish along the way, even prior to the official editorial process. As for knowing when it is “done,” I always know I am finished when, instead of making useful edits, I reach the stage of merely re-arranging words in sentences during re-write; whereupon I know it is time to let other folks get involved.
I knew I was going to write a book that challenged the conventional view of Franz Sigel. I did not expect to level much criticism at the Confederate commander, John C. Breckinridge, but I did in the end offer some critique of him, as well. I was also surprised at the amount of pro Sigel Federal sentiment in the ranks of his army. To date, he has been portrayed mainly by those critical of him, but even after the defeat at New Market, many of his soldiers were sorry to see him go. Some even thought he “saved” them from a worse disaster. That is not the traditional view of Sigel we gain from the extant literature.

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

DAP: I generally try for a very broad approach; I want to gather as many primary sources as possible, especially from the rank and file. And more and more, research is shifting to online access, as archives digitize large elements of their manuscript collections. I used several excellent online sources, including some very useful items from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Library of Congress’s Chronicling America Newspaper site was very useful for ferreting out newspaper accounts. Still, most of the research was done the old-fashioned way, visiting archives and copying material. By far the single most useful repository was the Virginia Military Institute’s Preston Library, with its treasure trove of accounts on the battle, but the Western Reserve Historical Society, which holds a large collection of Sigel papers also proved invaluable. I copied nearly 100 pages from those papers, including some extremely useful day-to-day campaign commentary.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

DAP: Very well. The book has received a number of very solid, very positive reviews; and I think it is selling decently for such a small topic. It’s always a struggle to find new ground on well-covered subjects, but I try and only tackle projects where I think I can do so, and I feel well satisfied with this one.

BR: What’s next for you?

DAP: I have begun writing on another very large project, a history of the Atlanta Campaign. I’ve been laying the research groundwork for this project for years, and frankly I probably now have more material than I can ever use. I expect the study to require multiple volumes – something like Gordon Rhea’s excellent Overland Campaign studies. While this might seem ambitious, I feel that Atlanta is very much a neglected subject, especially from the operational perspective, and I hope to be able to fill that void.

 





Interview: Hessler & Isenberg, “Gettysburg’s Peach Orchard”

10 09 2019

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A few weeks ago, I gave very brief previews of a number of recent Savas Beatie releases here. Among them was Gettysburg’s Peach Orchard: Longstreet, Sickles, and the Bloody Fight for the “Commanding Ground” Along the Emmitsburg Road, by Licensed Gettysburg Battlefield Guides Jim Hessler and Britt Isenberg. The authors recently took some time to discuss this new book.

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

JH: In addition to spending the majority of my working life in financial services, I have been a Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guide since 2003. My second career as a public historian took off with my first book, Sickles at Gettysburg, which was published by Savas Beatie in 2009. In 2015, I co-authored Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg with Wayne Motts and maps by Steve Stanley. I speak across the country at Civil War Round Tables and have had various media appearances on venues such as the Travel Channel and NPR Radio. I also recently started co-hosting The Battle of Gettysburg Podcast with fellow Guide Eric Lindblade. So I always keep pretty busy. I am blessed to have a family that allows me to do this while still working and giving battlefield tours.

BI: I grew up in Millersburg, Pennsylvania and graduated from Millersville University in 2008 with a BA. I spent a few years working in the airline industry and with Fedex Express before taking the guide exam and passing in 2014. I’ve been guiding full-time for five years now.

BR: Britt, we’ve heard from Jim on this before, but what got you interested in the Civil War? Who/what were your early influences?

BI: I was fortunate enough to know my great grandfather on my mother’s side as a kid and he was the definition of a Civil War buff. Some of my fondest memories as a kid are sitting with Grandpa Leroy and watching the movie Glory or paging through his Civil War coffee table books with all Matthew Brady’s most famous images. I then began learning about my own direct ancestors who served in the war, which exacerbated a new condition known as civilwaritis. Trips to Gettysburg, Antietam and Harper’s Ferry sealed the deal!

BR: You’re both Licensed Gettysburg Battlefield Guides. How long have you known each other?

JH: I’m not sure where and when we met, but I imagine like most people locally we probably met at O’Rorkes. I had finished writing both my Sickles and Pickett’s Charge books. I was considering doing something in depth on the Peach Orchard because I knew there were many aspects of that story that didn’t fit into my Sickles book. When Britt published his regimental on the 105th Pennsylvania, it struck me that he might be someone who would want to tackle this project together.

BI: I met Jim when I was going through the process to become a battlefield guide back in 2013. I knew of him long before he met me (isn’t that the story for all of us!), so we’ve known each other about six years. I really enjoyed his Sickles at Gettysburg and Pickett’s Charge books, but then I found out he was a New York Yankees fan and the relationship soured (not really).

BR: That Yankees thing should have sunk him. But despite that, you’ve written Peach Orchard together. How did you come to the decision to write it in tandem, and how does that process work? How do your positions as guides inform this book?

JH: Since I had done my Sickles book and Britt had done his 105th PA book, it was obvious that we both had enough interest on this part of the field to complete books. Many people try to write books and never finish, so knowing that we both had the ability to finish was important. I’m not a proponent of telling people, “This contribution was mine and that was his,” since it’s either a team effort or it isn’t, but the best part of working with someone is that both parties can add stories that the other one might not know. You don’t know what you don’t know. As for being Guides, the obvious answer is “we spend a lot of time on the ground and know the terrain.” But beyond that, we get to audition stories for audiences and figure out which ones work well, and which ones don’t, long before we have to commit them to paper. Many Gettysburg buffs look at Battlefield Guides and say, “Oh, I could easily do that,” but the art to it is really being able to tell stories concisely. That skill hopefully lends itself to writing.

BR: Why yet another microstudy of Gettysburg?

JH: Why not? Why do we always have to answer this question? But seriously, because if people are still interested in the Civil War, then Gettysburg is the battle that still garners the most interest. As for the Peach Orchard, amazingly this topic has NEVER been done in a full-length study before. Beyond the Sickles and Longstreet stuff, we wanted to tell the stories of the people who lived and fought at the Peach Orchard. We think many of these stories have not been told before, and certainly not in one book like this. Plus Sickles and Longstreet, our two primary protagonists, still generate heat among Gettysburg enthusiasts. Someone asks a question about Sickles, and usually gets eviscerated for it, at least once per day in social media forums.

BR: How would you characterize the popular notion of the Peach Orchard operations, and how does your book conflict with that notion?

JH: Traditional interpretation of the Peach Orchard is always something like this: “Sickles murdered his wife’s lover before becoming a dreaded political general. Then he told Meade to ‘go to hell,’ and moved into the Peach Orchard. Sickles created a salient which is bad. Very bad. General Barksdale’s attack was the most amazing of the war and broke Sickles’s salient. Afterwards, Sickles dated the Queen of Spain.” Well, we try to tell the REAL story, starting with the story of the Sherfy family themselves. As for the battle itself, we provide the details on who defended the orchard, their actions, and how those actions contributed to Barksdale’s success. Sickles, Longstreet, and Barksdale are part of our story, of course, but we try to tell it in a broader context.

BI: Most of the focus on the second day at Gettysburg is a mile too far east. The Peach Orchard often gets a mere drive-by as people make their way to Little Round Top. We think the Peach Orchard is second only to Cemetery Hill as the most important piece of ground on the second day of the battle. Also, it’s often forgotten, but the Peach Orchard was an important part of R.E. Lee’s day two objectives and the decisions made by commanders on both sides because of the terrain’s deceptive nature drove the outcome of the battle. Instead of being just a footnote, the significance of the orchard should be elevated since it is integral to understanding why the battle played out as it did.

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”?

JH: I think we were working on it for close to 4 years. We both had some preliminary research done due to our prior projects, but we soon realized that we still needed to do much more research to fill in blanks on other regiments and individuals. While it didn’t surprise me, in terms of going ‘against the grain’, we wanted to emphasize why this action is so important vs. less significant but more heralded actions at places like Little Round Top and the Wheatfield. Lee repeatedly referred to the Peach Orchard and Emmitsburg Road as significant on both July 2 and July 3, yet not enough people appreciate it. In fact, the Peach Orchard on July 2 directly leads to Lee’s decisions on July 3. While several friends pre-read our manuscript and provided very useful commentary, we also shocked several of them by including July 3 in our scope. They were shocked because they had been conditioned to think of the Peach Orchard as “Day Two” only. We need to stop looking at this battle as isolated days. The actions of one day lead to the next day, and nowhere is that more evident than at the Peach Orchard.

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

JH: We create an outline; we research; we write; we edit; we edit again; we edit again. Then we turned it over to an editor and edited it again. And again. Our bibliography is pretty extensive; I’ll let readers check it out. As for the sources relied on the most, first and foremost remains the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. Yes, I know their limitations, but they remain the place to start.

BI: We both spent a lot of time searching for sources in so many different places. Like most Civil War studies, the source we leaned on the most was the Official Records. Beyond that, newspapers were a great help. Our fellow guides and other historians from the Civil War community were also extremely helpful in pointing us towards other less-publicized accounts.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

JH: It’s been received very well and we thank everyone for that. I admit I wasn’t originally sure if the market wanted a “Peach Orchard book” but we tried to strike a balance between military and human interest. We seem to have accomplished that. I am very proud of the book and think it stands up equally to my prior books.

BR: What’s next for you?

JH: I am currently enjoying co-hosting The Battle of Gettysburg Podcast. I know I am supposed to say, “I will keep writing history for the joy of creating,” but I’ve decided that writing history is too thankless. Writers of history need to be: informative, entertaining but not too fluffy, new but not revisionist, have great maps, have rare photos, have detailed but not too detailed footnotes at the bottom of the page, not use end notes (except for the one person in ten who prefers end notes), and have an extensive bibliography of primary sources. All for little to no money, so that social media warriors can critique it and then forget it in 12 months. So I might be finished with this phase of my career. I am proud of the three full-length books that are on my resume. Or I might do a book on Custer and the Little Bighorn, which I have been promising for years because I enjoy being miserable.

BI: I’ll tell you one thing… I’m never writing a book again!!! No, I do have a couple other projects in mind, but first and foremost I’m taking a break. Then I’m going to continue work on a regimental history of the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry and maybe a photo study of cavalrymen from the Cumberland Valley. We’ll see what happens…





Interview: Richard M. Allen, “Anderson’s Brigade Rosters”

18 07 2018

 

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Rick Allen giving a tour of Anderson’s Brigade at Gettysburg

Richard M. “Rick” Allen has been a friend for a while, and an e-quaintance for much longer. He has recently published, with Savas Beatie, a four volume set of rosters for the Georgia Regiments (7th, 8th, 9th, & 11th Infantry) of G. T. Anderson’s brigade. It’s a wonderful set of books that amounts to a collection of mini-biographies of the thousands of men who served during the lives of the regiments. I’m enjoying the heck out of them. Rick graciously took the time to talk about the project. You can order your own copies right here.

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

RMA: Not much to tell really. I’m an only child and a 1990 graduate of the Maryland Institute of Art, where I received a B.F.A degree in what was truly a unique environment. Not having the sense to be a Graphic Arts major, we Fine Art types took our degrees and went on to work in just about any field excepting Art. In my case, I’ve spent most of my work career in the field of warehousing and purchasing, pretty much because I was always good at organizing things.

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

RMA: I come from largely military family; my father served, my uncles, both grandfathers, the whole shebang. I was lucky to have a father who enjoyed taking trips to battlefields and who instilled in me some sense of appreciating history. We spent many of my childhood trips on various battlefields, much to my mother’s dismay. My earliest influences were common, Tucker, Catton and Foote, but my initial fascination with the Civil War probably had as much to do with those great battle drawings with the little soldiers in The Golden Book of The Civil War as anything else. I was amazed by those drawings. It’s funny how often you hear that as an influence, but it absolutely was in my case.

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The Golden Book of the Civil War

BR: So, how did you settle on Anderson’s brigade for this study, and why did you only publish the Georgia regiments?

RMA: From about the late 90’s I started to get fascinated with Anderson’s Brigade mostly because at the time, it was like looking into a black hole. I’m primarily a Gettysburg guy, and there was always this kind of blank between Kershaw and Robertson. It seemed as if Anderson and Semmes just got sucked into the Rose Woods and that was that. You’d hear about Anderson in the Wheatfield fight of course, but it was usually just a passing reference with no real meat on the bone. The more I looked into this situation and the more tours I took, the more this pattern of emptiness repeated itself. Also, around this time, in following the line of the brigade’s attack on July 2, I became very interested in the terrain they had to cross and the particular set of circumstances that made their task so difficult. Nobody else really seemed to be doing much on the brigade, so after a few years of tentative learning, I finally decided that I would “adopt” them. This led to my serious interest in these regiments and I spent about 15 years learning all I could about them.

As you referenced in the above question, the original idea was to create a Roster for every unit that ever served in what would become G. T. Anderson’s Brigade. Taking things chronologically, that starts with Bartow, so I first made a Roster for the 4th Alabama Infantry, which was attached to Bartow’s Brigade before it transferred to Bee before Manassas. That roster turned out well as the 4th AL has a great deal of information out there and a very complete set of CSRs [Compiled Service Records]. The next Roster I made was for the 1st KY Infantry……which you really have to do by battalion as they weren’t consolidated into a regiment for some time……so I next made three battalion rosters for them. These Rosters are not much, as the 1st KY only existed for less than a year, so this Roster is not really anything to brag about, but they have one. These two rosters and one for the Wise Artillery (which was frequently attached to Anderson’s brigade early in the War) served as my training grounds. By the time I got done these 2400 or so men, I had a good idea of what I was doing. I knew I would have much more meat on the bones with the Georgians coming up, and with some skills behind me, the next rosters I did were the 9th, 11th, 8th and 7th GA in that order. I think these turned out very well, but they were more work than even I expected. By the time I was done the 8th Georgia, I knew that I only had one roster left in me, so I knew the 7th would be my last. This effectively trashed the original idea of my making a roster for every unit in the brigade because I saw no way I could complete a roster for the 1st Georgia Regulars, 10th Georgia Battalion and 59th Georgia Infantry on top of what I had already done. The thought of 3000 more men to document was just too much. I was burned out. Six regiments and an artillery battery are apparently my limit.

BR: Describe if you will the biographical rosters, their format, and the rationale for that format.

RMA: The Rosters I created are pretty much the books I would love to have been able to read 15 years ago…except they didn’t exist. They are essentially based on the same format used by Lillian Henderson in her epic Roster of Confederate Soldiers of Georgia, but with much more information. I used a basic template like Henderson, and I tried to write in as detached and clinical a manner as possible while expanding the scope of Henderson’s effort. Breaking the men down into chronological rank, a process I termed as “slotting”, is really the most radical departure from Henderson’s format, but I thought that was an important and unique addition. It also damned near drove me crazy.

BR: Can you describe your research and writing process? What sources, paper and digital, did you use most frequently? How long did the whole thing take to complete?

RMA: The rosters were all done in a Word file and constantly adjusted through three distinct steps. Henderson first, then the massive amount of CSR information was added, and the third step was “everything else.” The rosters began with just the names in Henderson’s Roster, so that would be the skeleton of the entire work. As I would come to learn, what you find in Henderson is not always what you find in the CSR; in fact, quite often, there are major differences. Most of these differences can be resolved, but only by looking at the totality of an issue. In other words, you find clues in the most unlikely of places and you would never know they were there unless you looked at EVERYTHING. Records are sometimes mixed and contradictory, and there are notes on cards relating to entirely different people within the company or regiment that can solve an issue. Until you look at everything, especially as it relates to rank slotting, you are playing Jenga in the dark. Slotting was by far the most challenging aspect of these books. Frequently, on a project like this, you are at the mercy of long dead First Sergeants. Some company records were very detailed, and some were not. Figuring out how things fit together was most of the work. What could not be satisfactorily resolved was footnoted as such. By way of adding meat to the bones, these days we are lucky enough to have access to the CSRs online and essentially, these Rosters are probably 75% information that can be found in an individuals CSR. By far the largest amount of information comes from there, but it is quite a chore to organize in light of every other source. The other 25 percent comes from a combination of sources, including Henderson, the US census, Georgia Historical Societies, the National Archives, my own research material, war-time and post war rolls, Ancestry.com webpages, period newspapers, burial information from the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Find-A-Grave.com and material contributed by Henry Persons from his archive. Once all that information was assimilated, it was a matter of my editing all the information into the existing format. It was rather like throwing everything at the wall, then making sense of it by subtraction.

BR: What were some of the most surprising finds you turned up in your research?

RMA: The most poignant things were the deaths by disease. I knew the statistics, but until you go through a regiment man by man, I don’t think you can appreciate the variety of ways death was visited on these young men. The emotional impact was accumulative. You can really get strangely attached to a person or a group when you are clearing the dirt off their tombstones every day and I think the sense of responsibility was a little surprising to me.

In the lighter vein, I was totally shocked by how many Georgians had some variant of the first name Greenberry.

[FWIW, here’s a letter from a Virginian named Green Berry right here in the Bull Runnings resources!]

BR: How has the book been received? Any demographics on sales thus far?

RMA: I think for those who have seen the books, they have been received very well. I never had any illusions about creating a best seller or even something most casual students of the CW would need in their collections. Not everybody likes licorice either, but the ones that do, really like it. For the average reader, I’m pretty far in the weeds on this project, but these are very narrowly focused reference books, so I always knew that would be the case.

As simple as it sounds, I really take all my satisfaction from the fact that nobody will have to stand on a battlefield ever again and wonder who these regiments were. That’s why I made them.

BR: What’s next for you?

RMA: What is next? Well, I won’t be pumping out some new book every six months, I can tell you that. I’m satisfied with my contribution and I think my hat will hang on these Georgians for better or worse. Having completed 17 years with Anderson’s men, I did all I could for them and I willingly pass the torch. The next big thing for me is taking the trip I always wanted to take.

Lord willing, I’ll be headed to the west of Ireland for two weeks next April.





Interview: Brandon Bies, Superintendent of MNBP

13 10 2017

Back in February 2017, Brandon Bies was named the new Superintendent at Manassas National Battlefield Park (read the NPS press release here). In a somewhat unusual move for the NPS, they have placed someone with a very strong Civil War background in charge of a Civil War battlefield park. Mr. Bies recently took some time to talk to Bull Runnings about himself and the future of MNBP.

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

BB: We might touch upon this more later, but for most of my life I had an interest in American military history – mostly in World War II and the Civil War. Realizing this, I entered college at the University of Delaware as a History major, though at age 19 I had no idea what exactly I would do for a career. Fairly quickly, I decided to double major in Anthropology, which is typically what you study in the United States if you are interested in archeology. I also added a minor in American Material Cultural Studies. I graduated in 2001 and went straight to grad school at the University of Maryland, earning my Masters in Applied Anthropology (with a concentration in Historical Archaeology) in 2003.

While at UMD, I got my first real taste of the National Park Service, and spent 2 ½ years as an archeologist at Monocacy National Battlefield. That is where I did my Master’s project (we didn’t call it a thesis), which was to identify and prepare a National Register of Historic Places nomination for the archeological remains of the encampment of the 14th New Jersey. But my work at Monocacy also exposed me to other time periods as well, because the archeological history at Civil War parks goes back long before the battles were fought.

By the end of grad school, I knew pretty well that I wanted to work for the NPS – I really identified with the mission, and the efforts the NPS makes to tell diverse stories. I was incredibly fortunate in that – just a half year after getting my Masters – I was able to find a permanent position as a Cultural Resource Specialist at the George Washington Memorial Parkway. I held that position until 2010, when I made the difficult decision to not get my hands dirty as often, and transition into park management. I served a brief stint as the Site Manager of Great Falls Park, and then spent four years as the Site Manager of Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial. While there, I was fortunate enough to work with the Director of the National Park Service to secure a $12.35M donation from philanthropist David Rubenstein for the rehabilitation of the entire site.

At about that time, I began to dabble in legislative affairs, and so I moved over to the NPS regional office in D.C., where I split my time handling congressional affairs for all of the parks in the National Capital Region, while also still helping to manage the extensive planning of the Arlington House project. After three years in that office, I became the Superintendent here at Manassas in March 2017.

BR: How did you get interested in history in general, and in the Civil War in particular?

BB: I’d say I have always been drawn to history – particularly to military history. Both my grandfathers were veterans of WWII, and one of them went through some pretty bad stuff with the 1st Marine Division. I was always craving for him to share his experiences (which he eventually began to do prior to passing away in 2011). So as a kid I was always fascinated by WWII and, to a lesser extent, the Civil War. I do think that the Ken Burns series – which came out when I was eleven – made an impression on me, and by the time I got to high school I was reading a good bit about both conflicts. But unlike WWII, I could actually visit Civil War battlefields, which I began to do while in Boy Scouts.

Towards the end of high school, I started going to Civil War reenactments, and I became more and more interested in the material culture of the Civil War and in the common soldier. In my freshman year of college, I took a course on the archeology of American battlefields, taught by Dr. David Orr. I was hooked. Dave was an archeologist with the National Park Service out of Philadelphia, and at the time was largely focused on the Civil War. I think that class is what refocused me, and I realized if I could be one thing, I wanted to be Civil War archeologist.

BR: Since you’ve had a little time to settle in, what do you see as the challenges facing MNBP at this time?

BB: I’d say the park is facing three major challenges: impacts from adjacent development, severe traffic congestion, and maintaining/restoring the historic landscape.

The surroundings of the park have changed drastically over the last 30 years. While the park was once surrounded by farms, it is now bounded by development or planned future developments. 15% of the lands inside the congressionally-authorized boundary of the park are not federally owned. As I type this, there are multiple housing developments being planned or constructed on private lands within the boundary of the park. That will make it very, very hard to ever acquire and preserve those lands. But it’s not just housing developments – we’re working with the Virginia Department of Transportation on minimizing the impacts of a massive expansion of I-66, which runs along the southern boundary of the park. The proposed project will almost double the size of the road, and may include lengthy flyover ramps that are visible from within the park. And of course, there are frequent proposals for new cell phone towers and power lines that have the potential to create visual impacts.

With development comes traffic. On weekdays, it is exceptionally difficult to move around the park except for in the middle of the day. Even then, hundreds of large trucks pass through the park daily, and the car traffic is still intense. This makes it challenging for visitors to experience the different parts of the park or to drive the audio tour. It doesn’t matter what we do to restore the landscape; with the constant buzzing of traffic through the park, visiting Manassas can be a very different experience than standing in the heart of, say, Antietam or Shiloh. The Department of the Interior is legislatively mandated to explore ways to divert traffic around the park, and if deemed to be in the interest of protecting the integrity of the park, construct new highways and close the major thoroughfares that bisect the park. Although planning for this did come close to reality a few years ago, rerouting the existing roads is a divisive proposal that is dependent upon considerable political and financial support to be put back on the table.

Finally, restoration of the Civil War-era landscape is a huge priority of mine, but it is also a significant challenge. Many areas of the park that are now heavily wooded were historically open fields, but (for good reason) we can’t just go in one day and remove hundreds of trees. Besides needing to go through a considerable environmental and public review process, we also need a plan on how to maintain these areas once they are cleared. A classic example is the ~130 acres adjacent to the Deep Cut that were cleared about ten years ago; between the stumps that were left behind and the rocky terrain, it has been very difficult to maintain this area using traditional mowing methods, and thus portions have grown back up considerably.

BR: On the flipside, what do you see as the opportunities for the park, in the way of programs and projects?

BB: Well, speaking of landscape restoration, we are hoping to try some new things to keep some of these open spaces cleared, including the use of controlled burns. While using fire could alarm some people, it is a widely-accepted management tool throughout the NPS, and with proper outreach to the public, I think will ultimately help us significantly. It is also a great way to clear out nasty non-native invasive species, and ultimately supports the establishment of habitat for native birds like quail.

We also have a quickly-growing friends group, the Manassas Battlefield Trust. They have a lot of energy, and I think in the next few years we are going to see some great things from then, ranging from the rehabilitation of historic structures to new educational opportunities.

Finally, I really think we have an opportunity to reach new audiences. We cannot and should not depend upon Civil War buffs like you and I to be the sole supporters of this park. We have something for everyone, whether they want to come here to bird watch, to exercise, or just to enjoy 5,000 acres of open space. Now is the time to try to reach new user groups, forge them into advocates for the park, and share some significant Civil War stories at the same time.

BR: Bull Runnings had a very successful (IMO) outing at the park in April 2016. We had over 60 folks tour the field from top to bottom, so to speak, on what started out as a rainy Saturday. Hopefully, we can arrange another such tour in the future. Many visitors to the park tend to spend their time on the Henry Hill loop, so far as First Bull Run is concerned. Are there any plans to raise the profile of the first battle on other areas of the field?

BB: As I mentioned above, I am keenly interested in continuing to restore the landscape here, and that certainly includes looking at some of the key views related to the first battle. But it’s going to be a process and not happen overnight. Your readers may be interested in learning that, beginning in mid-October, we will begin a million dollar project to rehabilitate the Stone Bridge. This will include stabilizing some of the structural elements, replacing missing stones and repointing the whole bridge, and laying down new textured and colored pavement (called a chip seal) on the bridge road surface. If all goes according to schedule, the bridge should look great by the end of the year.

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After completion of this interview, there was an incident of vandalism at Manassas National Battlefield Park. The Superintendent had this to say regarding that incident:

59d507ab2a525.imageBB: Obviously, the current debate over Confederate symbols and remembrance is something that has hit close to home recently at Manassas. On the morning of October 4th, park staff discovered that the monument to Stonewall Jackson had been vandalized. While far from the first Confederate monument to be vandalized over the last few months, to my knowledge, this was the first to be struck that was within the context of a national park or battlefield. If there is any place where monuments to the Confederacy are appropriate, it should be at the places where the fighting took place. After all, it takes two sides (at least) to tell the story of a battlefield; otherwise, it’s just a field. And, in terms of monuments being placed in their appropriate context, you really can’t get more context for a Jackson monument than it standing at the very spot where he got the name “Stonewall.”

I’d say that my reaction – and that of most of the staff – is disappointment. Our National Parks should be places for dialogue, not destruction. It’s healthy to have a debate over the causes of the Civil War, and over how we remember those who fought. But in national parks, we tell all the stories, from the combatants to the civilians to the enslaved, all of whom left their marks on these fields, and all of whom are worthy of being remembered.





Interview: Carleton Young, “Voices From the Attic”

2 04 2016

Carleton Young is the author of Voices From the Attic: The Williamstown Boys in the Civil War. Carleton was good enough to take the time to answer a few questions about his book and his research/writing process.

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Young_1578BR: So Carleton, what would you like us to know about you?

CY: My undergraduate degree is in economics from Westminster College. By my senior year, however, I was becoming increasingly interested in history. I attended Ohio University for an MA in history, and then began teaching at Thomas Jefferson High School while working towards my PhD at the University of Pittsburgh. I had anticipated switching over to college teaching, but by the time I had completed my degree, I found that I thoroughly enjoyed teaching high school students (it helped that I was teaching primarily AP American history) and had no interest in leaving. So I continued what I was doing and added in teaching college classes evenings as an adjunct professor at several colleges.

My academic areas of interest had always been on rather obscure topics in which few others had an interest. For my Ph.D dissertation, for example, I became an expert on nineteenth century American history textbooks and how they covered religious issues. I always assumed that if I ever wrote a book it would be on something like that, not on what is probably the most talked about subject in all of American history – the Civil War.

Until about twelve years ago, I knew only enough of the basics about the Civil War as was needed to teach AP History or a college survey class. My interest had been more in political history, so I could have told you a great deal more about the election of 1860 than about any particular Civil War battle. Then I found the letters.

BR: Tell us a little bit of the story behind how you came across the Martin letters.

CY: After my parents had passed away, I was clearing out their house in Pittsburgh. I did not expect to find much that I was unfamiliar with in the house in which I had grown up, but I was quite surprised that we found a very old wooden box in the attic. Inside it were hundreds of letters, still in their original envelopes, written home by two brothers as they fought in the Civil War. There were also things like officer commission papers and hand-written orders from the war. The letters had been written home by two brothers, Henry and Francis Martin, both members of the Vermont Brigade, Sixth Corps, Army of the Potomac. It was all quite confusing to me at first because I had no idea where the letters had come from or why they had ended up in my parents’ attic. I had never heard of any relatives with the last name of Martin. And I could not imagine why, with my interest in history, that my father had never mentioned to me that he had this box of Civil War letters in the attic.

BR: Once you recognized the significance of the letters, what was your game plan for organization and research? How did the narrative structure develop?

Intro letterCY: The next step was to call in a friend, Edd Hale, who taught history and was more of a Civil War buff than I had ever been. Once he saw the letters, he then called in Bill Lutz, another local teacher who was even more of a Civil War expert. Then along with my wife, Carol, and Edd’s wife, Nancy, the five of us began holding weekly meetings. First we organized the letters chronologically and by author and placed them in acid-free folders and then into binders (they are all stored away now in a climate controlled storage area). Edd scanned each of the letters and we used those scans to then begin transcribing the letters. There are about 250 letters and not only are some quite long, but the hand-writing can be very difficult to read at times (especially after a battle). The two brothers also frequently used cross-writing, conserving paper by turning the letter side-ways and writing over the lines they had just written [see attachment]. It took us several years to get through the letters, and then because we had left many gaps of words and phrases that we couldn’t decipher, we went back and started all over. Being more familiar with the hand-writing and with their experiences, we did much better the second time through.

We also began to do a good bit of traveling. We have visited the hometown of the two soldiers, Williamstown, Vermont, several times. We were quite amazed the first time that we visited that the head of the local historical society was able to direct us to the house of our two soldiers. Not only is it still standing, but it has become the front of a nursing home with the back wall of the house taken out for a large addition. The front of the house is used as a lobby and has been given a nineteenth century look, so we really felt like we had entered our soldiers’ home. We also received a great deal of help from historian Paul Zeller. He has written books on the history of the 2nd and 9th Vermont Regiments as well as a book on Williamstown soldiers in the Civil War, so that helped enormously in identifying other soldiers and townspeople mentioned in the letters. We also began visiting all of the battlefields where they fought. NPS rangers were always fascinated by the letters and very pleased to help us follow in the footsteps of our two soldiers in all of their battles.

BR: Was there anything you discovered along the way that surprised you or went against the grain?

CY: The study of the Civil War is like so many other areas in that the more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know, so there was always a desire to learn more. But another reason that this book was more than twelve years in the writing is that the research went off in so many directions. First there was the experiences of the Martin brothers throughout the war and learning about the role of their regiments at the Peninsula Campaign, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Funkstown, the New York City draft riots, the Wilderness, and Cedar Creek. At the same time, the Martins had many close relatives who appear in the letters and as we started researching them, we began to see how interesting they were as well. For example, Francis and Henry’s uncle, Major Issac Lynde, was blamed for an early defeat in New Mexico, just four days after Bull Run. When Henry first arrived in Washington, D.C. for training, his uncle Issac was in town trying unsuccessfully to meet with President Lincoln to explain his side of the story. Lynde’s son, Fred, was in camp in the same regiment as his cousin Henry. One of Lynde’s daughters, Helen, another cousin, was married to Frederick Dent, whose sister had married his close friend, Ulysses S. Grant. Dent ultimately became a Brigadier General. Isaac Lynde’s other daughter, Mary, was married to Major Norman Fitzhugh, Assistant Adjutant General for Jeb Stuart. And that was just one of many fascinating branches of their family. At the same time, I found it necessary to develop my own family tree using Ancestry.com and other sources to make the connection to the Martins, and that ended up being surprisingly complex to find what ultimately was a somewhat distant family relationship. All during these years, many people kept asking me when I was going to finish the book, but it was only last year that I finally felt a sense that the time had arrived.

BR: How do you sum up the experiences of the Martins, and how do you sum up how this project impacted you?

CY: The letters are significant in part for the depth that they go into about each of their battles and specific aspects of army life. It was much more common for soldiers to gloss over such topics and dwell on more mundane matters in their letters home. One of the letters, for example, details an execution. Another describes the burning of dead bodies, rather than burials, by Union soldiers at Antietam. When I showed that letter to a NPS ranger at the battlefield, he told me that he had heard of this occurring but that he had never before seen a firsthand account like this confirming it. When I showed a letter to a historian at Fredericksburg, he told me he wished he could have used the letter as a source for his last book because it was such a detailed account of a part of the battle, along Deep Run, about which little has been written. The two brothers wrote vivid and in-depth accounts of battles, but they also discussed many other aspects of army life during the war. The letters include everything from step-by-step instructions on how they built their winter quarters, to recipes for making hardtack into a tasty pudding, and how best to prepare coffee in a frying pan over an open fire.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

CY: When I finally decided to publish, I contacted a number of publishing companies. Commercial publishers tended to feel that books based on letters and journals were more appropriate for a university publisher. The university publishers prefer academic books filled with footnotes and references to the most recent research. Although I have done that kind of writing before, that was not the book that I wanted to write. I simply wanted to tell the story of two brothers, primarily in their words, who witnessed and helped to make history, and then preserved that history through surprisingly detailed and insightful letters. Consequently I decided to self-publish the book. That limits the book to mostly on-line sales on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.com, but so far I am very pleased with both the sales and the responses from those who have read the book.

BR: What’s next for you?

CY: I greatly enjoy telling the story, and since I am now retired, I have been able to start scheduling presentations with many libraries, historical societies, and book clubs. I am also planning on teaching a course next year based on the letters in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. But unless I stumble across another treasure trove of letters from the past, I do not foresee another book in the making.