Interview: Janet Croon [Ed.], “The War Outside My Window”

23 07 2018
Jan 02

Janet Elizabeth Croon

Savas Beatie’s recent release, The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865 has been making quite a ruckus this summer. I previewed it here, and also briefly covered an upcoming companion book here. Editor Janet Elizabeth (Jan) Croon recently took time to answer a few questions for Bull Runnings.

BR: Jan, tell the readers a little something about yourself.

JEC: I began teaching at South Lakes High School [SLHS] in Fairfax County Public Schools with the class of 2000. My educational background was in Political Science (BA ’83 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; MA ’85 from the University of Dayton) and was living in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and during the First Gulf War in 1991. I taught in the International Baccalaureate Programme at SLHS, and did some consulting work for the IB as a moderator in the Middle Years Programme and a History Paper One examiner in the IB Programme. I raised two daughters who are now adults, at the same time.

BR: How did you first become interested in Civil War history?

JEC: When both of my daughters had “flown the nest,” I found myself with extra time and became interested in the Civil War through the study of quilting in Virginia. I discovered a story that took place in my own area of Northern Virginia, and that I had driven past the grave of one of the principal characters twice a day as I went to and from school and home. She left no written documentation, so I began researching the story with the intention of writing historical fiction, with a heavily researched foundation. That project is now on hold, but it introduced me to many of the books published by Savas Beatie which form the core of my research.

BR: Discuss if you will how this book came about.

JEC: While I was on medical disability leave from school, I spent a good deal of time on Facebook, and a post kept coming through my newsfeed. I eventually read it, and was so glad I did! It was a 2012 Washington Post article about a young man from Macon, Georgia, who had written seven journals during the war; the journals were featured in the Library of Congress’ sesquicentennial remembrance of the start of the Civil War. The two things that struck me that was it would be an amazing primary resource to use in teaching teens about the Civil War, and that it had apparently not been published. To make a long story short, I contacted Ted Savas at Savas Beatie and we soon had a contract signed to transcribe and publish LeRoy’s journals.

BR: What were the most surprising finds while researching LeRoy Wiley Gresham?

JEC: The most obvious is how incredibly bright and intelligent this young man was. He was exceptionally well-read, intellectually curious, and watching his intellectual abilities grow faster than his years was, for a teacher, an amazing process. I saw him in class with my own students and saw that he was at once an exceptional young man, but still a typical boy even by today’s standards. I also found he had identified flaws in Confederate policy before the government in Richmond did (or at least attempted to address them), and his criticisms of decisions made by military and governmental leaders were often correct. The further along we worked, we realized that The War Outside My Window provides history with the only complete teenaged male account of the Civil War from a purely civilian perspective, making it a very unique primary source. LeRoy was “blogging” his daily life and documenting with detail a pivotal transitional period in American history. Of course, there were “problems” that we had trouble answering, such as who was who in LeRoy’s entries and the origins of his many health issues. We eventually discovered that LeRoy did not know what his complete medical diagnosis was, because his parents had decided not to tell him. Research, technology, and collaboration helped us figure these problems out.

BR: Can you describe your research and writing process?

JEC: What I would do would begin by transcribing each entry from the LOC’s meticulous online scans exactly as he wrote them. LeRoy wrote with a beautiful cursive handwriting (experimenting at one point with cherry juice as ink!) and so it was relatively easy to transcribe his writing. I had to sometimes decipher his abbreviations and found that there were indeed words he would use that are no longer part of our common vocabulary. While transcribing, I tried to identify the many family, friends, and military members that LeRoy wrote about, using Ancestry.com as the main source for finding family connection; there ended up being only three cousins that I could not identify out of the 1700 individuals on the Gresham family tree. Other books on the history of Macon (credited in the book) helped with prominent friends and an overall history of the era. I also contacted the University of Georgia map room and two of their librarians provided invaluable information regarding the location and size of the Gresham plantations; the genealogy librarian at Macon’s Washington Library was also very helpful. I also researched major political/military events, putting all of this in the footnotes. Once all seven journals had been transcribed, Ted and I made some overall decisions regarding the formatting of the entries, what would be left out (which was basically only LeRoy’s record of temperatures three times a day for about a year and a half and a few people who appeared once who we could not adequately identify), how to approach the footnoting, etc. I focused on the genealogical and local personality aspects, while Ted (who has been studying Civil War history for about 40 years) focused on producing the lengthy military notations. We then had our few problem areas remaining to work on, but essentially to go from the contract to picking up the first completed bound copy was one year.

BR: Your promotional information indicates that the book was a collaborative effort with your publisher Ted Savas and author Dennis Rasbach. Can you describe that process?

JEC: Dr. Rasbach had worked with Ted before on his book about Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain at Petersburg, and Ted asked him if he would be willing, given his background in medicine, to try his hand at diagnosing LeRoy’s illness. I had discovered that LeRoy’s leg had been crushed in an accident when he was 8 years old, but that alone would not have caused all of the symptoms that he had. So Ted asked me to compile all of the medically related content from the text of the journals, which I called “LeRoy’s Medical Records.” I culled out the complaints, symptoms, treatments, and medications (what I refer to as the “pharmaceutical roulette”) that he was prescribed. Dr. Rasbach called Ted two weeks later, and had the diagnosis, which was a complete surprise: LeRoy was suffering from a rare but potent form of tuberculosis called Pott’s Disease. Dr. Rasbach provided a medical foreword and afterword, but there was so much more that could be explained about this form of the disease that it was decided that he would write a companion piece. We also discovered that LeRoy’s diary is the only complete 19th century record of this disease in existence, which still is a fatal disease in some parts of the world. The fact that his parents, John and Mary Gresham, did not tell their son this diagnosis makes sense once you get to know LeRoy. This knowledge would have crushed his incredible spirit.

BR: What do you feel is the real message, the impact of this book?

JEC: People who follow the Civil War are usually familiar with the battles, the personalities, the leaders, the politics, and the military strategies. But rarely are they provided with the insight as to how this conflict impacted an entire community. The War Outside My Window gives readers a very detailed look at how the war impacted daily life in Macon, especially (but not exclusively) for the slave-holding class. Because it was a railroad hub, Macon became a training and transport center with an armory, arsenal, ballistics laboratory, and eventually hospitals and an officers’ prisoner camp. LeRoy tells us what daily life is like, what he reads, what the family eats, how the plantations and the slaves living there supported the Macon household, and how the family took care of the slaves in their control. He tells us how people got war news and how they made sense of it all, be it from newspapers, telegraph, official reports, letters from soldiers in the fighting, or rumor; he soon learns to be skeptical. LeRoy talks about the hardships that his family is facing, with the full realization that there are others who are not as fortunate. He worries about their welfare as well, especially when horses and crops are requisitioned. He tells us what happened during Sherman’s advance, when Macon was suddenly not as safe as it once was. And he does all of this from a relative distance, due to his disability and continuing illness. We began to look at The War Outside My Window as being the young voice of the Old South, with his own life ebbing in parallel with that of the Confederacy. LeRoy described in clear and uncertain terms the process of change that marked one era of Southern history as distinct from the one that would follow, which makes it a truly unique book.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

JEC: Exceptionally well! It has only been out since June 1, and is in a second printing. It has gotten attention from all kinds of news sources, has sold out in a history book club, is going to be featured in some major Civil War magazines, and while it is not a quick and easy book to read, people are constantly telling us how much they are learning about the Civil War and how civilian life was changed. People who are well-versed in the war are learning new things about civilian life, and those who are not are becoming interested in the subject as a whole, which was one of our hopes for this book. We have been contacted by many homeschool groups that are very interested in using LeRoy’s writing to teach their kids about the Civil War, so there are applications for this book that I had hoped could be tapped, but wasn’t sure was practical. Now we know there is a definite demand!

BR: What’s next for you?

JEC: Currently, I am working with a friend on a curriculum guide to go along with The War Outside My Window. It is going to have a multi-disciplinary approach that will allow teachers from grades 7-12 to choose from a wide range of activities that they can format to fit the needs of their own classrooms and will be grounded in Common Core and Virginia Standards for History. Between the two of us, we have all that covered so teachers can be assured they will have a guide that will allow them to make the most of LeRoy’s diary. Ted Savas and I are also currently working on abridging LeRoy’s journals for audiobook. I am finding that making it accessible for a listening audience will be a different challenge, but one I am excited to meet. I also have many book talks and signings scheduled in different parts of the country through the end of next year! Eventually, I do want to finish the work that initially got me interested in writing about the Civil War, but for the time being, I will be introducing more and more readers to LeRoy Wiley Gresham and The War Outside My Window.





A Few Words on Two New Releases

12 06 2018

9781611213881Scan

I have a backlog of previews to write. Sorry, man, but this is my hobby, not my full time job! Two of these, from Savas Beatie, are The War Outside My Window, Janet Croon, editor, and a set of regimental rosters for the Georgia regiments (7th, 8th, 9th, & 11th) of Anderson’s Brigade, compiled by Richard M. (Rick) Allen. Both are, in my opinion, important books, for different reasons.

I have arranged for interviews with both authors. Plenty can be found on these books regarding their content, so anything I provide in way of preview, beyond these interviews, will be a little extraneous. Follow the links above to learn a little more about them, and keep an eye out for my interviews coming soon (I hope).