Interview: Groeling, “First Fallen”

14 01 2022
Meg Groeling

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

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

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

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

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

BR: What got you interested in Elmer Ellsworth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BR: How has the book been received so far

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

BR: What’s next for you?

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