Interview: Mark Snell, “West Virginia and the Civil War”

17 11 2011

I met Mark Snell about 10 years ago at a Penn State – Mont Alto conference, sipping scotch and smoking cigars with Joe Harsh in the gazebos into the wee hours. Since then our paths have seldom crossed, though I did run into him in the Reliance Mine Saloon in Gettysburg a couple of years back. I don’t think he remembered meeting me, but he did say he was a Bull Runnings reader. Mark has a new book out from The History Press’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Series, titled West Virginia and the Civil War: Mountaineers Are Always Free, and he recently took some time to answer a few questions about it.

BR: For those who don’t already know, who is Mark Snell?

MS:  I’m a retired US Army officer, having served from 1973-1994. I currently work as a professor of history and the director of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War at Shepherd University.  As a graduate student I studied under Herman Hattaway at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC). I own and live on a circa-1832 farm just outside of Gettysburg. On July 1, 1863, two divisions of the Army of the Potomac’s 11th Corps marched down the road between my house and my barn.

BR: What got you interested in military history and the American Civil War as a line of study?

MS: I grew up in York, Pennsylvania, during the Civil War Centennial. York is about a 45-minute drive east of Gettysburg. Naturally, as a little boy I was fascinated by the monuments and cannons at Gettysburg National Military Park, and many family visits there sparked my interest. When I got older, I bought a metal detector and started digging relics, and later joined a re-enactment group. Those things really escalated my interest in the Civil War. Then, as a young army lieutenant, I was stationed in Germany, and I frequently traveled during my free time to the battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars, the Franco-Prussian War, World War I and World War II. Then, when I was a captain, I was selected to teach history at the US Military Academy. Uncle Sam sent me to graduate school prior to that assignment, and while at Rutgers University I wrote a master’s thesis on recruiting and conscription in York County, PA, during the Civil War. I was not really trained as a military historian, and in fact I taught courses in American history, not military history, at West Point. Nonetheless, I slowly gravitated towards specializing in military history, although I still consider myself a social/cultural historian.  I then became a doctoral student at UMKC, where I wrote a biography of Union general William B. Franklin for my dissertation [later published as From First to Last: The Life of Major General William B. Franklin - BR]. As I was completing my studies there, I was hired to be the director of the Civil War Center at Shepherd University. Recently, I taught for one semester in the Department of War Studies at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. There, I taught strictly military history, from the history of expeditionary operations to the history of insurgency/counterinsurgency warfare to military leadership from a historical perspective.

BR: While the West Virginia link is obvious from your connection to Shepherd University, how does your work there tie to the book? I know you have researchers working on a WV soldiers database – did the results of that study impact the book?

MS: Ever since my arrival at Shepherd, our staff has been compiling a database comprised of the transcribed military service records of West Virginia soldiers, both Union and Confederate, who fought in the Civil War. The information from the micro-filmed service records is entered, by regiment, in a special database that we created using Microsoft Access. Thus far we have entered the records of approximately 20,000 soldiers from both sides. Currently, we are entering the service records of soldiers who were assigned to the 22nd Virginia Infantry, a Confederate regiment recruited from the Kanawha Valley of modern-day West Virginia.  Since approximately 32,000 Union soldiers are credited to West Virginia, and somewhere around 20,000 (West) Virginians served in Confederate units, we still have a long way to go until the completion of that project. A few years ago we released a CD titled “Mountaineers of the Blue and Gray,” which contains historical data on West Virginia units, the battles in which they fought, key Civil War sites in West Virginia, the creation of the State of West Virginia, biographical sketches of famous or interesting West Virginia Civil War personalities, etc. The research that the staff of the George Tyler Moore Center had accomplished in constructing this CD, as well as the data gleaned from the military service records database, greatly facilitated the writing of my recent book.

BR: Was there anything that you turned up in the process of researching and writing this book that particularly surprised you (I know that’s a loaded question since you’ve been researching this topic for a long time)?

MS: Yes. I was surprised at the level and ferocity of guerilla warfare—which was then called “bushwhacking”—within the borders of the state. I found one instance where a Union soldier was ambushed and hacked to pieces and then beheaded by Confederate guerillas. In his autobiography, General George Crook remarked that the bushwhackers caused so many problems that, once captured,  they “accidentally” drowned, or “fell” and broke their necks, or were shot while “trying to escape.”

BR: Is there anything you wish had made it into the book but didn’t?

MS: I was limited by the number of words that was dictated by the publisher, but most of what I wanted to get into print actually survived the editor’s slashing.  This past semester I taught a course on West Virginia history, made necessary by the unexpected retirement of a faculty member who had taught that course for more than three decades. I only wish I had taught this course before I wrote West Virginia and the Civil War, as the knowledge I’ve gained from teaching it would have given me a better perspective for placing the war in the larger context of antebellum Western Virginia history and post-bellum West Virginia history. Also, I would have liked to have written an entire chapter on the guerilla war. Finally, because I had exceeded the publisher’s word-count limitation, I had to cut out some images.

BR: If there’s one thing about WV’s role in the Civil War that you hope people take away from this book, what is it?

MS: The one thing that people should understand is that West Virginia was the most divided state in the country—more so than Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri— with approximately 40,000 of its citizens serving as combatants (about 20,000 on each side). There were battles—particularly the ones fought in the Shenandoah Valley and within the borders of the new state, such as the 1863 clash at Droop Mountain and the 1864 battle at New Market—that pitted friends and family members against each other. Also, I think I set the record straight on the actual number of Union soldiers who enlisted in West Virginia’s Union regiments. The “official” number has always been given at approximately 32,000, but about a third of that number was made up of citizens of Pennsylvania or Ohio who came across the state border to enlist. Also, some of those 32,000 troops were men who re-enlisted in Veteran Volunteer regiments.  Older histories focusing on West Virginia and the Civil War also deflated the number of West Virginians serving in Confederate—mostly Virginia—regiments, but recent scholarship has adjusted the number upwards to approximately 20,000.

BR: Can you describe your researching and writing process?

MS: My research process for West Virginia and the Civil War was much easier than it should have been because of the ongoing research that the staff of the George Tyler Moore Center has been doing for more than a decade and a half. Nonetheless, I still used archival material and special collections found in the West Virginia University Library and the West Virginia State Archives. Plus, I used unpublished letters and other primary sources from our own library, as well as the plethora of primary sources that have made their way into print in the past few decades.  The internet also proved useful, as I was able to find on-line primary sources from reputable websites, as well as out-of-print books that have been scanned and made available on-line, such as the ones found at Google Books. The actual collection of my research notes is done on my laptop. When most of the research is completed, I write a detailed outline, and then I immediately begin writing the manuscript.  During the actual writing period I have books, photocopies and hand-written notes all over the place, usually in my dining room. The best way to describe it is “organized chaos.”

BR: What’s on tap for you?

MS: Right now I’m writing the narrative to accompany a photographic album on West Virginia and the Civil War, to be published in 2013 by West Virginia University Press, and I’m co-editing, with Ethan Rafuse, an anthology focusing on Union corps commanders, to be published by LSU Press. After those projects are finished, I’ll either write a book about the guerilla war in West Virginia, or I’ll do something completely different, like tackle a World War II subject.

The WVa guerilla war sounds particularly intriguing. Here’s hoping that we see at least one more Civil War related work from Mark before he goes traipsing off into other conflicts.








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