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.





Interview: Knight, “From Arlington to Appomattox”

2 08 2021
Charles R. Knight

New from Savas Beatie is one of those volumes that Civil War researchers will keep on their reference shelves along with Warner, Heitman, Crute, Dyer, Boatner, Long, and Miers – Charles R. Knight’s From Arlington to Appomattox: Robert E. Lee’s Civil War Day by Day, 1861-1865. Mr. Knight has been good enough to answer a few questions about the book.


BR: You’ve spoken with us before – any updates with you?

CRK: Since our last interview, I’ve moved across the country…twice. First to the Civil War research hotbed of Phoenix, AZ, and then to the much better Raleigh, NC. Still in the museum field and now have 20+ years experience in the museums/historic sites field – a career choice I made for the money, obviously. Oh, and the family has grown by one since last time as well.

BR: In the beginning, this new book must have seemed either like an insurmountable task, or a put-my-nose-to-the-grindstone-and-it will-eventually-be-done procedural. What, in the first place, possessed you to undertake it? Were you influenced by Miers’s Lincoln Day-by-Day?

CRK: A number of years ago I was well into the research on my biography of “Little Billy” Mahone when Ted Savas sent me this cryptic message to call him. He asked me how that was going and said he had an idea that could use a lot of the same research materials, but looking at R.E. Lee rather than Mahone. “Go on,” I replied. He asked if I was familiar with E.B. Long’s CW Day by Day, which of course is an invaluable work looking at the major events of every day of the war. Ted explained that he wanted someone to do a similar work but focusing on Lee during the war. I thought “OK sure, how hard can this be? Between Lee’s own papers, the ORs, the writings of Lee’s major staff officers (Walter Taylor, Charles Marshall, Armistead Long) and D.S. Freeman to fill in the gaps, this shouldn’t be too much of an undertaking.” I cannot have been more wrong, that became apparent VERY quickly. For all the scores of titles that have been written in the last 160 years about Lee, no author – not even Freeman – set out to record the detail this type of project required. In fact the only person I am aware of for whom such a project had ever been attempted was Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln Day by Day project was similar but quite different at the same time, in that it looked at his entire life and there was a team of researchers compiling EVERY known scrap of paper with Lincoln’s signature on it. This Lee project was concerned only with four years of his life, it was just me (although I could not have done it without the help of many friends and colleagues) pulling everything together, and I knew it would be an impossibility to even attempt to find everything. But I’m a detail person when it comes to research, and I found myself going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole, sometimes chasing things that wound up in the finished book, others that either hit a dead end or were not important enough to include.

BR: While nothing about this could have been easy, did you find any kind of freedom in the fact that you didn’t have to construct an overall narrative? Was there less “creative” writing?

CRK: With the exception of the introductory section for each month April 1861 through April 1865, it really was largely just compiling raw data: where Lee was, who he was with, who he wrote to, etc. There was no need to try to weave it into a sort of narrative for each day. That said, there are of course some days with gobs of information which do require a lot more organization than those for which there is little recorded. When I sat down to convert my notes into “complete” entries for each day, there were instances where I could move through several months in a matter of hours and other times where a single day of Lee’s life took me an entire weekend to do. Because of the lack of much interpretation, I was afraid that the finished product would be dry – and in some cases I admit it is – but, I think when you tackle large chunks, say at least a week at a time, you can really see how events both big and small take shape. And in a traditional biography that is lost.

BR: Cutting to the chase, what were some things you learned about the Marble Man that surprised you (individual events or overall characterizations)?

CRK: Without a doubt the most surprising revelations came from the private writings of those closest to Lee: either his family or his staff. Walter Taylor, Armistead Long, and others who were part of Lee’s inner circle wrote of their time with the General in the decades after his death, and the public by and large gobbled it up. But these were specifically designed for public eyes – none of them would say anything bad about their chief in that format. But when you look at their private letters – those not meant to be seen by the public at large – that is where you get their true thoughts. By reading Freeman one would never suspect that Lee harbored a tremendous temper and could hold a grudge for days on end, or that he would ever order his staff to fire on their own men. The writings of Lee’s military family however reveal much that would have made Freeman cringe. Taylor frequently griped about the lack of recognition he received from Lee and how frequently the General took out his temper on those around him at HQ. In fact Taylor referred to Lee in not so flattering terms as the “Tycoon.” Charles Venable – who butted heads with Lee perhaps more than any other of his aides – recorded some of the most eye opening details about Lee, and just how unpleasant life could be at ANV HQ. One of my favorite incidents I found that doesn’t come from one of the staff was an account by a gentleman who sat next to Lee on the train as the General returned to the army from a meeting in Richmond in the midst of the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid, which noted how anxious Lee seemed and how distant he was whenever anyone tried to talk to him, and he was constantly looking out the windows on both sides of the car. No one at the time understood Lee’s behavior, but once they arrived at Gordonsville they all learned just how close they had come to being captured by Union horsemen and immediately grasped the reason for his odd actions. I was also surprised at how much things of a non-military nature Lee dealt with on an almost daily basis. When we look at battle or campaign studies, such things are often not mentioned or if they are it is just a cursory one. Personal tragedy struck Lee multiple times during the war, with the well-known death of his daughter Annie in the wake of Sharpsburg, but also the death of his two grandchildren – one during the Seven Days, and one only weeks after Annie’s death, the death of his daughter-in-law Charlotte the day after Christmas 1863, Rooney’s capture from his literal sick-bed days before Gettysburg, how much his wife’s nomadic lifestyle concerned him, and not to mention his own failing health.

BR: Can you describe how long it took to write the book, what the stumbling blocks were?

CRK: When I first began this project I was living in Norfolk, VA – hometown of Walter Taylor. So I had easy access to Taylor’s papers at the Norfolk Public Library and the important repositories in Richmond were only a couple hours away. Then I moved to Phoenix, which is of course widely known as one of the major centers of CW scholarship in the country. Access to original papers became quite difficult to say the least and an increasing amount of my research was done remotely. Then I really lucked out when I got a job in Raleigh and had the immense collections at UNC and Duke at my fingertips. The first six months I was in NC I spent almost every weekend in either Chapel Hill or Durham, and I found a lot of smaller collections that I may not have ever found otherwise, many of which had some excellent REL material. I was researching this for at least five years, and it took a good six months to convert the raw data in my notes into daily entries. I never intended to find EVERY piece of Lee correspondence or reference to him, and I know there are lots of them out there that I didn’t find, so there’s always that little voice in the back of your mind that wonders if one of them has info that would fill in some of the gaps.

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

CRK: I don’t remember now for certain, but I think the very first source I started with was Dowdey & Manarin’s volume of Lee’s papers. I just started a Word document and for every event in Lee’s life, be it a letter written or received, a meeting with someone, etc., I recorded it by date. When I was “done” I think that document was 600-something pages, and it still didn’t have all of my notes – some of which I just plugged directly into the manuscript. The first mss collection I targeted was Walter Taylor’s papers at the Norfolk Public Library. His wartime papers were published back in the mid-90s, but the original collection has so much more of value than just those – I learned a lot from Taylor’s post-war correspondence with the other members of Lee’s staff as well as other notable officers like Jed Hotchkiss and others; anybody who uses just the published letters misses out on so much that Taylor offers. I got to be on a first name basis with the folks at UNC, Duke, VA Historical Society (even though one archivist there just seemed to take a perverse delight in making me request Lee materials one letter a time), and the VA Library. And speaking of the Library of Virginia, they have some of Freeman’s original Lee notes – it is incredible to me what he was able to accomplish in a pre-internet world, in particular his list of Lee mentions in the Richmond newspapers. I much prefer hardcopy books to electronic versions, but in this instance I was very glad to be able to use the “search” function of the online version of the ORs. Thankfully I had been putting off the large multi-volume works – the ORs, Southern Historical Society Papers, Confederate Veteran – so my time in Arizona was not a complete waste research-wise, as I was able to tackle them either online or the actual books.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

CRK: I’ve heard nothing but good things. Well, except for one Amazon review from someone who didn’t seem to read the book description before purchasing.

BR: In the editorial process something always ends up on the cutting room floor so to speak. Was there anything in that didn’t make the final cut – things for which you expected to find support and came up dry, for example?

CRK: I was lucky in that regard, not much in the way of text was cut. The format of the book wasn’t really conducive to that – eliminate text and data rather than interpretation or fluff is gone. Some of the bios and explanatory text in the footnotes were trimmed, but nothing major. I had far more images than could be used, and thankfully Ted Savas likes images and uses far more than any other publisher but even still it was difficult to pick and choose what would make the cut.

BR: Were there any areas in which you found info lacking?

CRK: The first year of the war for Lee is probably the least documented part of his CW service. For this I blame Walter Taylor; well not Taylor himself, but his fiancée Bettie Saunders. Taylor served with Lee for all but the first 3 weeks of the war, joining the General as an aide in early May ’61. Taylor was a very observant and detail-oriented young man, and he wrote to Betty usually at least twice a week, more often when he could. His letters are the best source we have on the inner circle at ANV HQ. But his letters from the beginning of the war up until mid’62 don’t survive – Bettie for whatever reason destroyed them. When Taylor found this out he was not happy and he pleaded with her to save them, as he was writing not only for her information, but for his own use as well – his letters to her were the only personal record he was keeping of his service. When he wrote his two books in later years, one can plainly see he was referring back to those letters as his main source. So without Taylor’s insight for Lee’s time as commander of Virginia’s military forces the first few months of 1861, his time in the mountains of western Virginia that summer and autumn, and while in command on the south Atlantic coast in late 61 and early 62, the sources are largely few and far between. And whenever Taylor went on leave later, documentation of HQ suffered as a result. A couple other areas were surprisingly little-documented as well: the period after Sharpsburg, as well as winter encampments.

BR: What’s next for you?

CRK: I hope to have my Billy Mahone manuscript finished by the end of the year, assuming of course places open back up for outside researchers. Mahone’s papers – almost 500 boxes of them – are at Duke, which as of now, is still closed to non-Duke people. Mahone is one of the few remaining important figures of the ANV without a good biography. Nelson Blake did a bio of Little Billy back in the 30s, but he focused on Mahone’s post-war political and railroad career – he devoted only about 25 pages to the Civil War. As one of the most peculiar of Lee’s lieutenants, Mahone clearly deserves better. Once that is done, I want to publish Charles Venable’s memoirs and letters. His writings are a great resource on Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia and only a relative handful of folks are aware of them and even fewer have ever used them.





Interview: McMillan, “Armistead and Hancock”

17 07 2021
Author Tom McMillan

New from Stackpole Books is Tom McMillan’s Armistead and Hancock: Behind the Gettysburg Legend of Two Friends at the Turning Point of the Civil War. The author took some time to answer a few questions about himself and the book.

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

TM: Bottom line, I’m someone who loves history and studying the Civil War. I just retired from a 43-year career in sports media and communications, but my second career choice was history teacher, and history has always been a passion. I serve on the board of Trustees of Pittsburgh’s Heinz History Center and previously was on the board of directors of the Friends of Flight 93 National Memorial. I’m also a docent at the Civil War Room/GAR Post at Carnegie Library in Carnegie, Pa. My first history book was Flight 93: The Story, The Aftermath and The Legacy of American Courage on 9/11, and my previous book on the Civil War was Gettysburg Rebels: Five Native Sons Who Came Home to Fight as Confederate Soldiers, which won the 2017 Bachelder-Coddington Literary Award as the best new work on the Gettysburg Campaign.

BR: What first got you interested in history, and the Civil War in particular? What Civil War authors have influenced you?

TM: Like most kids growing up in Pennsylvania, I visited Gettysburg with my parents on vacation, but I was so focused on my professional career as a young adult that there wasn’t room for much else. It wasn’t until the movie Gettysburg came out in 1993 that I turned the corner. I saw it at a theatre in Pittsburgh on a Tuesday night, drove to Gettysburg on a Friday and have been immersed in the study of the Civil War ever since. It was only after this became my No. 1 hobby that I realized “I had so many ancestors who fought in the war (including several who fought in the Wheatfield at Gettysburg). The authors who impacted me most at the start were Edwin Coddington and Harry Pfanz, the Gettysburg icons. As a long-time writer I also appreciate the talent of Stephen Sears — a brilliant writer — although I don’t always agree with his conclusions. From a more contemporary perspective I really like the work of James Hessler, (Sickles, Peach Orchard, Pickett’s Charge), who is also a Gettysburg Licensed Battlefield Guide.

BR: Your previous Civil War related book was about Gettysburg’s rebels, while this new one focuses on Gettysburg as well. Is this battle your main Civil War interest?

TM: There’s a powerful draw to Gettysburg, especially for someone who lives only a few hours away. And it was the movie Gettysburg that sparked my renewed interest in the 1990s, so, yes, there is something very special about the place. My wife and I always attend the Anniversary Days. But we’ve really become interested in Antietam in recent years and may try to become guides there in retirement. We’ve visited the Virginia battlefields, and Vicksburg, and will always continue to appreciate those places as well. It’s important to have context about the entire war. Frankly, though, from a bottom line perspective as an author, national publishers have more interest in Gettysburg books than those from other battles.

BR: So, why Armistead and Hancock?

TM: Did I mention the movie Gettysburg? (he says, laughing). The movie, and the novel it was based on, The Killer Angels, have made such a huge impression on an entire generation of Civil War visitors – probably more than any other works about the battle. The impact is so strong that many people tend to forget they are based on historical fiction. I was fascinated from the start by the story of Armistead and Hancock, two friends described as “almost brothers,” but was curious that I couldn’t find much information in bonafide histories about their friendship – that the topic had never been addressed in book form. Many Hancock books barely mention Armistead. I knew the movie version was heavily dramatized, so I set out to see if I could find the story behind the legend. It was an intriguing research journey.

BR: Hancock has spawned a Caspian Sea of Ink over the years. Armistead, on the other hand, while well-known, remains a shadowy figure. How were you able to overcome the relative dearth of information on him?

TM: That was part of the attraction, part of the challenge — could I find much about the story of Armistead? It was kind of amazing to me that there had been only one book written about him in the 158 years since the battle — a short biography by the legendary guide Wayne Motts back in 1994. There just isn’t a lot of stuff that is readily available. But Wayne’s previous work led me to some productive research paths, and by digging into the service records of Armistead’s 22-year U.S. Amy career at the National Archives; studying his family’s long military history, which is profound; obtaining his Confederate service records, along with those of his three younger brothers, and his son; checking out the incredible library at West Point; and finding some very interesting nuggets from newspapers of the time, I was able to piece together the story. The frustrating part is that there always will be gaps in the record and questions we can’t answer. There was a fire at the Armistead family home in the 1850s and that may have destroyed some of his letters and other materials.

BR: What were some things you learned about these two men that surprised you.

TM: I had so little knowledge of the Armistead story, other than his famous day at Gettysburg, that it was all interesting and surprising. He was brevetted multiple times for gallantry in the Mexican War. He had a tragic personal life, losing two wives and two of his three children to disease on the frontier. But some of the most intriguing insights were about his family and its military history. His father was the third man to graduate from West Point and became a brigadier general in 1828. I also had no idea that his three younger brothers also fought in the Civil War (and that one had graduated from West Point). It’s no coincidence at all that Armistead became a soldier. As for Hancock? Despite all the Hancock books out there, I’ll admit that most of what I knew about him centered on his three outstanding days at Gettysburg. It was interesting to track the progress of his life and career both before AND after the war — it provides a lot of context for his Gettysburg actions. And he did a lot more after the war than just running for president in1880. Mostly, though, I was interested in finding what I could about their interactions and their friendship. It’s an interesting and compelling story — although not quite the same as what you saw in the movie.

BR: Can you describe how long it took to write the book, what the stumbling blocks were?

TM: Looking back, I realize that I was “researching” the story of Armistead and Hancock long before I decided to write a book. The quest to learn more about them as a student of history is what led me, eventually, to do the book. The project itself took four years, with lots of twists and turns. The biggest challenge was uncovering as much of the hard-to-get-at Armistead material as I could. My wife, Colleen, is such a great researcher that she was a big part of this effort. Also, because of the power of the movie, I wanted to find as much as I could about their farewell in California before the war. Some people think it’s all fiction, that it didn’t happen at all. It’s a puzzle with some missing pieces, but I believe it DID happen. As for the overall story, there always will be questions we can’t answer. But that’s why we all keep studying history, right?

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

TM: My own process is to do some significant research, then start writing a bit, then go back to more research … and on it goes. I can’t just research, research, research. I have to start writing a little, to create a style for the book, to get the momentum going … and then go back for more research. Do I often double-back and edit or completely rewrite a segment because of something I’ve found? Sure. All the time. You’re constantly editing as you write. But I find that switching between research and writing throughout the process adds some freshness, at least for me.
There’s nothing like the National Archives when you are researching Civil War soldiers — their pre-war U.S. Army records and Civil War records, many of which include signed documents and letters. It’s eye-opening. Their online site at fold3.com is tremendous, but there are items at the Archives building in D.C. that are not yet digitized online, so traveling there is a must. We went to the West Point library and I was in awe of the information they have on the cadets — their academic records, even their application papers, which also include letters. I was stunned at the information we found in contemporary newspapers of that era, available at newspapers.com and other sites. Reporters wrote a lot about the army in those days, which is invaluable to a historian. Copies of the Confederate Veteran magazine series, which are both online and in some libraries, were a great resource on Armistead; those letters and articles were written by soldiers themselves, and a number of them wrote about serving with Armistead during Pickett’s Charge. All authors utilize previous books on our subject matter, of course, but finding some of the lesser-known books related to these guys (and, in Armistead’s case, his family) was also helpful for uncovering nuggets. A tidbit here, a tidbit there.

BR: In the editorial process something always ends up on the cutting room floor so to speak. Was there anything that didn’t make the final cut – things for which you expected to find support and came up dry, for example?

TM: I didn’t enter this project with many preconceived notions, so the answer is probably no. One specific topic I wanted to examine was the pre-war meeting in California, and I think I found as much as I could. Everything else was an open book. I was learning as I went alone. As we mentioned earlier, there really wasn’t much written in book form about Armistead before this. I guess you’re always a little frustrated at the end, because you wish you could have found more, but I thought I had exhausted many of the research avenues and had a pretty good story to tell. I hope readers agree.

BR: What’s next for you?

TM: RETIREMENT! That means more time to travel, research and write. I’m hoping there are more books in my future. My wife and I are also interested in doing more volunteer work at Antietam, and hopefully becoming guides some day. It’s an exciting time.





Interview: Powell & Wittenberg, “Tullahoma”

5 11 2020

I’ve known David A. Powell and Eric J. Wittenberg now for a depressingly long time. I won’t go into their numerous publications, but you can find them on Dave’s and Eric’s Amazon author pages. There are a lot of them.

Dave and Eric have teamed up for a new book from Savas-Beatie on the 1863 prelude to Chickamauga, The Tullahoma Campaign: the Forgotten Campaign that Changed the Course of the Civil War, June 23 – July 4, 1863. They took some time to answer a few questions (I’ve interviewed Dave a couple of times, so you can get even more info on him in his most recent interview here – see, I get more page views this way).

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BR: Can you tell the readers a little bit about yourselves? 

DP: Just an update: I still live and work in the Chicago suburbs. Since we last talked, I merged my company with another local messenger service, which means I am still doing the same thing: running a specialized delivery service, just with a different title — Vice president of Airsped, Inc. In the history field, I have been very busy: publishing a book a year for about the past ten years. I write primarily on the Western Theater of the American Civil War, with a focus on the campaigns in Tennessee and Georgia, though I have written one monograph covering Franz Sigel in the Shenandoah Valley.

EW: Thanks for asking, Harry. I’m a native Pennsylvanian, born in the Philadelphia suburbs and raised in a suburb of Reading. I have a BA from Dickinson College, an MA in international affairs from Pitt, and a law degree from Pitt (it was a four-year, dual degree program). After graduating from Pitt in 1987, I settled in Columbus, Ohio—I had to go where the job was—and am still here more than 33 years later. Once I finished law school and got out into the real world, I decided to try my hand at writing history since I wanted to challenge myself—I haven’t had a formal history class since 10th grade and am entirely self-taught. I found that I really liked doing so, and I’ve continued with it since my first attempt at it in 1991. Today, I am a partner in my own law firm, Cook, Sladoje & Wittenberg Co., L.P.A., where I manage our litigation practice. My wife Susan and our three golden retrievers live in Columbus.

Today, I serve on the board of directors of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust and the Little Big Horn Associates, and I likewise serve as the program coordinator for the Chambersburg Civil War Seminars. I am also a member of Emerging Civil War, although it’s been quite a while since I last contributed anything. Battlefield preservation is one of my primary focuses.

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

DP: My dad was interested in the war and had numerous books on the subject. He owned both the American Heritage Illustrated History of the Civil War, for example, and Bruce Catton’s works. He took me to Gettysburg when I was eight, and I was hooked. I have been reading ever since, which translated into designing boardgames through much of the 1980s and 1990s, and later, to writing about the war.

EW: For me, it was a third-grade trip to Gettysburg. I was hooked by the end of the day. When my uncle heard that, he bought me Bruce Catton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy, and I was off to the races. Catton, for obvious reasons, was (and still is) a major influence on me.

BR: How long have you two known each other?

DP: I met Eric in the mid 1990s, and what would prove to be the first of many annual events, the Gettysburg Discussion Group’s Spring Muster. We were at an impromptu evening tour of “Iverson’s Pits.” At that time, I was involved in a wargame company, not doing much writing beyond a few articles, while Eric was deeply interested in the Gettysburg cavalry story. We became fast friends, and I have since been on many tours with Eric.

EW: Dave and I met in 1996 thanks to the magic of the Internet. We were both members of the late, great, lamented Gettysburg Discussion Group, and we struck up a friendship that remains strong nearly a quarter of a century later. I suspect that, if we didn’t live so far apart, we would hang out often. As it is, we get together when we can.

BR: You’ve written Tullahoma together. How did you come to the decision to write it in tandem, and how does that process work? How do your earlier solo works inform this book? Were there any unexpected benefits or difficulties

DP: I had some elements of an unfinished manuscript on the subject, a couple of chapters, really; and Eric had some stuff on Wilder and the Union Cavalry action at Shelbyville — his interest in cavalry, again. I wanted to finish this project, but never could quite make the time, until Eric proposed merging our stuff into a full-length campaign study. I was excited by the offer and said yes immediately.

My own work on Chickamauga of course carries echoes of the earlier Tullahoma campaign all through it. It is the most masterful of Rosecrans’s three offensive campaigns — Stones River, Tullahoma, and Chickamauga — and as such, it is hard to discuss Chickamauga without referring to what came before. So much of my research material bled over directly into the Tullahoma project as well.

The dual writing process proved very smooth. I think it is fair to say that neither Eric nor I carried big egos into this project. We were willing to accept each other’s editing and comments without pause, and each of us went over every chapter for continuity and style. As a result, I feel it really is a blend; we each wrote half the book and edited the other half to match. There were times when we had to do a fair bit of re-writing on one chapter, not so much for style, but because we were covering a big, detailed, complex operation; and narrative flow was critical to making sense of things.

Speaking for myself, I inevitably find things I would change when re-reading my own work. But having another writer along for the ride, smoothing out my own language, was a very real benefit. I think Tullahoma benefited a great deal from this partnership.

EW: I happen to enjoy doing collaborations with my friends. I find it to be a rewarding and enjoyable experience, and I had been looking for a project that Dave and I could do together. I had already written an essay on the seizure of Hoover’s Gap by the Lightning Brigade and had started one on the Battle of Shelbyville for a failed collection of essays. I had even toured the sites associated with the Tullahoma Campaign about ten years ago when I was working on those two essays. My interest in these actions was piqued by my Chickamauga studies. I knew from prior conversations that Dave wanted to tackle Tullahoma, so it seemed like a natural fit, and Dave readily agreed when I suggested it. We then divided up the primary drafting responsibilities, and we both got busy. We each served as the primary author of certain chapters, with lots of input from the other. We then smoothed it out once a complete draft was done so that differences in style were not jarring. I think we succeeded, because nobody has yet identified the chapters that we each wrote as primary author, other than that I gave away two of them here.

BR: Why the Tullahoma Campaign?

DP: Again, because Chickamauga led me there. And because it is one of the most interesting major campaigns of the war, but lacks any major study examining it. The Civil War field is largely driven by battle narratives, with actual operational histories few and far between. Tullahoma’s lack of a climactic battle has led to it being ignored.

EW: My interests have long been drawn by obscure actions—the more obscure, the better. Because of the lack of casualties and the lack of a marquee battle, Tullahoma has long been the red-headed stepchild vis-à-vis Gettysburg and Vicksburg. I wanted to correct that. Tullahoma was an absolutely brilliant piece of strategic planning and execution that drove the Army of Tennessee out of Tennessee without a full-scale battle and with minimal losses. The fact that the high command of the Army of Tennessee puts the fun in dysfunctional makes it an even more interesting study.

BR: How would you characterize the popular notions of the Tullahoma Campaign, and how does your book conflict with that notion? Is there any merit to Rosecrans’s fear that a lack of casualties would result in a lack of appreciation for the accomplishment? Do you think the administration at its far remove grasped the operational difficulties facing Rosecrans?

DP: I joke that Tullahoma is the campaign that everyone has heard about, but no one really knows much of anything about it. Rosecrans’s fear that the campaign would be overlooked has certainly been borne out. However, that same lack of knowledge is also a small blessing, since our book fills a blank slate. The late 19th and early 20th century mythology that sprang up around so many battles (Just think, for example, of stuff like the Barlow—Gordon incident at Gettysburg) does not exist for Tullahoma. We had little to unlearn or refute.

As for the Lincoln administration not grasping the operational difficulties, that is true for not just Tullahoma, but Chickamauga and Chattanooga as well. In October, 1863, when Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs finally came west to help in the relief of Chattanooga, he recorded that he simply would not have believed the difficulty of the terrain unless he saw it for himself — a clear sign that the Washington authorities were beset by similar terrain blindness.

EW: Traditional notions seem to be that Tullahoma was, to borrow a phrase, a sideshow to the big shows at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. I believe that it was every bit as important as those two major victories, and that the combination of the three were the death knell of the Confederacy. Certainly, the lack of casualties meant that the newspapers weren’t going to give it the same coverage as Vicksburg and Gettysburg, and Stanton really didn’t like Rosecrans, who carped and complained a lot. Because of that, the Union high command tended to ignore a lot of what he said.

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”?

DP: For my part, some of the chapters were written as much as fifteen years ago, though they all had to be revised before integrating them into the current book. Once we agreed to write, however, I think it took us about ten months. Given the publisher’s schedule, we had the chance to do some polishing after that, but I knew we were essentially done in late 2018.

EW: Dave had independently started on the introductory chapters before we decided to do this, and I had written Hoover’s Gap and part of Shelbyville, so some of it was done before we ever agreed to collaborate. That significantly shortened the writing process. It took us about a year to get the thing to a state where we felt it was ready to go to the publisher.

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

DP: My earlier research really drove a lot of the book, since I had so many overlapping sources from my Chickamauga work, and I had been adding material while also researching for Atlanta. Eric had some great information, especially on Shelbyville, and of course, our friend Greg Biggs helped us immensely by providing a huge amount of material that he had collected on the subject. The Stones River National Battlefield gave me access to their files, so I was able to find some particularly good accounts there as well. Finally, the newspapers and older regimental histories are now so readily accessible online that huge amounts of material can be found at the click of a mouse. I am a subscriber to Newspapers.com, to Fold3.com, and to Ancestry.com — each provides useful avenues when I am running down details.

EW: Fortunately, I had all the research done on Hoover’s Gap and Shelbyville. Dave had a lot of stuff that he has accumulated over the years that is in PDF form, so he shared all of it with me. A fair amount of the newspaper stuff came from various online databases such as the Library of Congress and Newspapers.com. I also have a fair number of applicable sources, such as the Official Records, in hard copy form in my personal library.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

DP: Very well. The book is drawing positive reviews on Amazon and other places, and it is selling well. It is a book club selection, is doing brisk business in digital form, and we have even gone into a quick reprint. I originally worried that the subject’s lack of a big battle to hang the narrative on might hinder sales, but so far that has not been a concern. It won’t sell like a Gettysburg title, but what else does? It is holding its own. I am delighted.

EW: Very well. I’m tickled by the reception. There was (and is) interest in this topic out there, and we filled a gap in the historiography that had needed to be filled for a long time.

BR: What’s next for you?

DP: I have just published another book: The Impulse of Victory: Grant at Chattanooga, have just completed the manuscript for The Critical Decisions at Shiloh, which should be out in 2021, and am returning to a project I have been researching for a while: a full length campaign study of Atlanta. I am sure there will be other stuff along the way.

EW: I’ve got a couple of other individual projects that are finished and in the production queue, including a study of cavalry actions leading up to the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864 and a monograph on the Johnson-Gilmor Raid of July 1864. My friend Jim Hessler and I are working on a complete battlefield guide to the Battle of the Rosebud and Little Big Horn together. Other projects down the road include a monograph on the burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania/the Battle of Moorfield that will be a collaboration with Dan Welch, and a monograph on the Battle of Battery Wagner.





Interview: Dixon, “Radical Warrior”

27 10 2020

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BR: How has the book been received so far?

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

BR: What’s next for you?

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





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.