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.





Backlog of Book Previews

24 04 2021

I apologize for the break – I won’t go into detail, but things have been busy. So let’s just get to this.

I have a few books that have been sent that are new-ish. Three from the good folks at Savas Beatie.

Layout 1

Meade and Lee at Rappahannock Station is the third installment in Jeffry William Hunt’s look at that period after Gettysburg in the East. Subtitled The Army of the Potomac’s First Post-Gettysburg Offensive, From Kelly’s Ford to the Rapidan, October 21 to November 20, 1863, you get:

  • 287 pages of text, including six appendices (Deciphering the Rappahannock Station Battlefield, Ordering the Rappahannock Station Attack, Emory Upton and Rappahannock Station’s Legacy, and Confederate Uniforms at Rappahannock Station and Kelly’s Ford, and Orders of Battles for both Rappahannock Station and Kelly’s Ford).
  • Bottom of page footnotes.
  • New and historical maps (I’m not sure who prepared the new maps), illustrations, and photos.
  • Nine page bibliography, including numerous unpublished manuscript sources.
  • Full Index

OIP

The Maps of the Cavalry at Gettysburg: An Atlas of the Mounted Operations from Brandy Station through Falling Watters, July 9-July 14, 1863, is also the latest in a series, this one by Bradley M. Gottfried who has authored all but on in the series so far. The format has not changed, with maps and narrative on facing pages. You get:

  • 169 pages of text and maps through the epilogue.
  • An appendix with Orders of Battle.
  • 33 pages of endnotes (footnotes would not be practical given the facing pages format).
  • Ten page bibliography including unpublished archival sources.
  • Full index.

——————–

th

Seceding from Secession: The Civil War, Politics, and the Creation of West Virginia is a collaborative effort between prolific author Eric J. Wittenberg, Edmund A. Sargus, Jr., and Penny L. Barrick, all three Ohio lawyers. You get:

  • 186 pages of text.
  • Five appendices: 
    1. The Letters to Abraham Lincoln from His Cabinet
    2. The Complaint in State of Virginia vs. State of West Virginia
    3. The Supreme Court’s Decision in Virginia vs. West Virginia
    4. The Supreme Court’s 1911 Decision in Virginia vs. West Virginia
    5. Current Events Prove that These Questions Live On
  • Bottom of page footnotes.
  • Numerous photos throughout.
  • 11 page bibliography including numerous newspapers and manuscripts.
  • Full index.





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).

——————–

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: Stotelmyer, “Too Useful to Sacrifice”

19 02 2020

Steve StotelmyerToo Useful

2019 saw the release of Steven R. Stotelmyer’s Too Useful to Sacrifice: Reconsidering George B. McClellan’s Generalship in the Maryland Campaign from South Mountain to Antietam, from Savas Beatie. Mr. Stotelmyer took a little time to discuss his work, which is sure to raise eyebrows and hackles.

———————————————————————————–

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

SRS: I am a native of Hagerstown, Maryland. After a stint in the U.S. Navy I earned a Bachelor of Science Degree from Frostburg State College majoring in Elementary Education. I also minored in English Literature and World History. I earned my Master of Arts from Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. My areas of study were mathematics and science, content and educational methods. I taught in the Washington County Public School System for ten years. One of the high points my fifth-grade students looked forward to in the spring was the day long field trip to the Antietam Battlefield. Eventually I made a career change into surveying and that eventually led to civil engineering. My new employment took me to Frederick where I spent over twenty-five years. My daily commute throughout those years carried me directly through the South Mountain battlefield.

Shortly after my career change in 1988, I became extremely interested (my wife would say obsessed) about the fate of 58 dead Confederate soldiers dumped down a farmer’s well at Fox’s Gap after the battle of South Mountain. I knew that Fox’s Gap, just like Antietam, was a real place and this led me to seek out the location and story of those unfortunate souls dumped in that well. As with many events in the Maryland Campaign I discovered there were actually two stories; one tale was legend and the other was fact. The legend blamed the farmer Daniel Wise for the deed and the facts led to a Union burial detail.

My curiosity in the Legend of Wise’s Well brought me into contact with others interested in the South Mountain battlefield. At that time there was a real possibility of the ground behind the Reno Monument at Fox’s Gap being developed for a private building lot. That situation resulted in my becoming a founding member of the Central Maryland Heritage League (CMHL) in 1989. Our initial purpose was to purchase that ground and save it from being developed. I served as the group’s Historian and briefly as President before my departure in 2000. CMHL was not only successful in saving the Reno Monument property but also gained a modest amount of success increasing the public’s knowledge of the Battle of South Mountain. Eventually we were able to save over 30 acres of that endangered battlefield. My research into the fate of those dead 58 Confederate soldiers put into the well at Fox’s Gap resulted in the publication of The Bivouacs of the Dead: The Story of Those Who Died at Antietam and South Mountain in 1992.

Since its creation I have served as a part-time volunteer and historical consultant for the South Mountain State Battlefield. Currently I serve as a Volunteer Battlefield Ambassador and NPS licensed Tour Guide at Antietam National Battlefield (see their website).

BR: What got you interested in the Civil War? 

SRS: It is near impossible to grow up in Hagerstown and not even become remotely aware of the American Civil War. I was 12-years old in 1962 and that year not only saw the Bicentennial Anniversary of the founding of Hagerstown, but also the Centennial Anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. I would have to credit my father for generating my interest in the Civil War. He had no great passion for history, but he belonged to the Maryland National Guard and Maryland donated their services during the Antietam Centennial. It was the only time in his entire life I ever saw him grow a beard. I figured there had to be something important about the Civil War if it caused Joseph Robert Stotelmyer, Jr. to grow a beard.

BR: You’re an Antietam Battlefield Guide. What got you interested in the battle to the extent you pursued that?

SRS: Ever since I can remember Antietam has always been a part of my life and a special place. I can truthfully say that I have been visiting Antietam since before I was born. I have a treasured old black and white photo of my mother and father at the top of the observation tower at Bloody Lane and mom has the proverbial baby bump and it is me. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of my parents picnicking at the Philadelphia Brigade Park with a blanket spread out in the shade playing Scrabble on a lazy Sunday afternoon while me and my sisters played around (and on) that towering monument. I also remember Saturday afternoon visits to Lohman’s Souvenir Stand at Bloody Lane. Dad would get me a soda and candy bars (for a quarter) and we would always end up at the tower. I have vague memories of a clear hilltop where the current Visitor Center now stands. My grandmother knew some farmers in Southern Washington County and sometimes in the early Spring my father would take her and my mother dandelion hunting.

Our travels took us over the Burnside Bridge (in those days it was still open to traffic). I was impressed by the monuments attached to the bridge at that time. I didn’t understand why they were on the bridge, but I was old enough to know something was special about that bridge.

I became aware that something very special happened at Antietam during the Centennial celebration and that sparked a lifelong search to find out what made the battle so important. I camped on the battlefield as a Boy Scout and continued to visit with family and friends as a teenager. As a young adult I taught fifth-grade at an elementary school in Hagerstown. Every Spring I would take them on a day long field trip to the battlefield. Every trip was a learning experience for me as well. I met my wife while we were both teachers and as fate would have it, we purchased a home within 10 minutes driving time to Antietam. It remained a popular place to visit with family and friends. My wife also played violin with the Maryland Symphony. In 1986 family history seemed to be repeating itself as my wife was 8 months pregnant with our second daughter during the first Salute to Independence. Consequently those 4th of July weekends became yet another special family memory connected to Antietam.

This was about the same time as my career change from teaching to surveying. Because I worked in Frederick my morning commute took me through Turner’s Gap. My daily journeys over South Mountain sparked an interest in the Maryland Campaign that continues to this day. Many people think I’m a Civil War buff. Actually, I’m not; for me it is just local history. When I retired, I discovered that the Antietam Guides were taking applications for the guide exam. It seemed like the natural thing to do. Becoming a guide at Antietam has provided me the opportunity to share my lifelong process of discovery about that special place. I continue to learn with every tour I give. I am often asked by visitors how long have I been giving tours at the park. I tell them officially since 2013, unofficially as long as I can remember.

BR: Over the past twenty years or so, the worm has, to some extent and despite stiff resistance, turned for George McClellan. Joseph Harsh, Ethan Rafuse, Tim Reese, Tom Clemens, and most recently Dennis Frye have all contributed to this altered view. Can you describe your own personal journey with the Young Napoleon?

SRS: I grew up with the standard anti-McClellan stereotype of the slow timid commander who did not like to fight. I often refer to these beliefs as the three pillars of the Bad General Stereotype. Furthermore, the battle of Antietam was always the standard tale of Robert the Bold vs. George the Timid (Joe Hash’s phrasing, not mine). I believed these stereotypes as being true the better half of my adult life. I credit two people with changing that perception. My early days with CMHL and battlefield preservation efforts on South Mountain brought me into contact with a kindred soul who was instrumental with preservation efforts at Antietam, Thomas G. Clemens. I think I first met Tom when CMHL was trying to purchase some Iron Brigade battlefield east and below Turner’s Gap (sorry Tom, you know, and I know it’s Gibbon’s Brigade). We were touring the property and I was attempting an overview of the Maryland Campaign and made some statement about the Lost Orders to the effect that a more aggressive commander might have made better use of the once in a lifetime opportunity fate handed to him (you know the standard spiel). Rather than call me out publicly, Tom waited until the tour was over and quietly took me aside and gave me a few things to think about. I have always believed in the old adage “Don’t talk when you can listen.” At the time I knew Tom taught at the Hagerstown Junior College and to hear him talk about McClellan in a positive manner greatly impressed me that day. Tom gave me something quite different to think about that was at odds with what I grew up believing.

The other person that greatly influenced me was Joseph L. Harsh. In September 1998 CMHL held a fund-raising re-enactment near Boonsboro. This was shortly before the publication of Taken At The Flood. I had no idea at the time who he was, but Tom had suggested him as a guest speaker. Joe graciously consented to donate his time and spoke on Saturday afternoon. I remember a rather heated argument after he spoke with someone in the crowd who just would not accept Joe’s assertion that it was an aggressive McClellan Lee faced in Maryland. Afterwards Joe had some time to kill before his ride arrived and he sat with me and helped out at CMHL’s information booth. I actually spent the better part of a Saturday afternoon talking and listening to Joe Harsh chat about McClellan and the Maryland Campaign. After speaking with Tom and Joe there was no going back, I never looked at McClellan the same again.

My personal journey with the Young Napoleon has resulted in a complete debunking of the Bad General Stereotype. McClellan was not slow in the Maryland Campaign. Divisions were covering 8 to 10 miles a day on roads little better than modern gravel driveways. In the words of Robert E. Lee, “the enemy was advancing more rapidly than was convenient.” McClellan was not timid. He aggressively attacked Lee three times in six days at South Mountain, Antietam, and Shepherdstown. Furthermore, at Antietam he attacked Lee, it wasn’t the other way around. What is remarkable is that McClellan attacks Lee believing he is outnumbered and knowing that for the better part of the battlefield Lee holds the high ground. McClellan does not believe he has the required 3:1 attack ratio taught at West Point necessary to carry the position (in his mind’s eye he doesn’t even have parity). Furthermore, he knows Lee is an engineer like himself (they both served on the staff of Winfield Scott in the Mexican War). As an engineer it was logical to assume his enemy had entrenched his position or constructed field works. Attacking an entrenched enemy in an elevated position with less that overwhelming force is certainly not the hallmark of a timid commander. The last pillar is the most easily demolished. The general who did not like to fight was directly responsible for the single day’s worst bloodletting in our nation’s entire history. Clearly the stereotype is flawed and, in my opinion, the characterization should be George the Courageous vs Robert the Reckless.

BR: Can you describe and, if you like, defend Too Useful to Sacrifice? 

SRS: My favorite Lincoln biographer, James Garfield Randall, wrote in 1945 that George B. McClellan “is most bitterly assailed, not by those who have gone afresh into the elaborate sources to restudy his campaigns, but by those who repeat or perpetuate a party bias.” Many people are not aware that most of the negative elements of the McClellan stereotype popularized over the years had their origins in the Presidential Election of 1864 when Democrat McClellan ran against the incumbent Republican President Lincoln. Politics is politics and to discredit McClellan the candidate it was necessary to discredit McClellan the General. The groundwork for destroying McClellan the general was laid in pamphlet literature that survived for years on library shelves. That is the party bias Randall spoke of and it survives to the present. Randall identified 16 political themes used by writers to propagate the bias (it is interesting to note that a very popular book written about Antietam in the 1980’s scores a perfect 16 out of 16). What I have attempted to do with Too Useful To Sacrifice is go afresh into the primary sources and restudy the Maryland Campaign of 1862.

The title of the book is taken from something President Lincoln is purported to have said to his secretary John Hay. It occurred after Lincoln restored McClellan to command following Second Manassas. There was strong opposition against McClellan in the President’s Cabinet. It was generally believed he had betrayed Gen. John Pope. According to Hay, Lincoln told him, “Unquestionably he has acted badly toward Pope! He wanted him to fail. That is unpardonable, but he is too useful just now to sacrifice.” The book is not a comprehensive treatment of the Maryland Campaign (for that I would definitely recommend the works of both Clemens and Harsh). I provide five chapters that deliver thought-provoking essays regarding major themes of the campaign.

Chapter 1 addresses the discovery of the Lost Orders. A few of my arguments are that its finding was not the singular event it is made out to be; it did not hasten McClellan’s army; the alleged 18-hr delay between the finding and McClellan’s orders to march to South Mountain is a myth; and that South Mountain and Antietam would have occurred regardless of the finding of the document.

Chapter 2 is about the Battle of South Mountain.

Chapter 3 covers the September 15 pursuit of Robert E. Lee; the true Prelude to Antietam.

Chapter 4 explores the influence of the Battle of Second Manassas upon people and events at Antietam. It also debunks the myth of McClellan’s unused 20,000 reserves.

Chapter 5 deals with the post Antietam supply crisis and the Lincoln-Stanton-Halleck triumvirate conspiring in the background against McClellan. The supply crisis was genuine and not a figment of the Bad General’s imagination. There is strong circumstantial evidence presented that the supply crisis was deliberately engineered by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton as part of his documented efforts to oust McClellan from the army.

I realize it is an uphill battle all the way. So much anti-McClellan bias has been repeated over the years that there exists a historical consensus that he was a Bad General. It is so ingrained in the national consciousness that it is seldom questioned. Even people who are not Civil War buffs, if asked about McClellan will likely respond that he was the general Lincoln said had the Slows. People however are not to blame. The documentaries they watch and most of the popular books they read perpetuate the consensus. But consensus is not fact; it is collective opinion and I hope to seriously challenge that popular opinion. To that effect, to go afresh, I have employed over 150 primary sources and 100 scholarly secondary sources. Another of my favorite historians and veteran of the Maryland Campaign, Emory Upton, once mused in 1912, “seeking information at the point of the bayonet is one thing, and looking for it on the shelves of a library is another.” I have attempted to use the experience of those who participated and not those who repeat the party bias in the pamphlets on the library shelves. I hope I have done it in a manner that even the non-Civil War buff can find interesting.

BR: What have you found the greatest obstacle in your attempt at reconsidering McClellan’s generalship in the Maryland Campaign?

SRS: There is not one, but two obstacles that immediately handicap any attempt at accurately portraying Gen. McClellan’s conduct not only in the Maryland Campaign, but in any aspect of the war as well: Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee.

At the outset, it should be noted that the mere mention of Abraham Lincoln’s name frequently hamstrings any attempt at an even-handed accounting for George B. McClellan. Most popular histories recount the events of the Civil War from President Lincoln’s viewpoint (or what they think is Lincoln’s viewpoint). Joe Harsh identified this perspective as the Unionist Interpretation. Others have called it the Centennial Theme. Writers espousing this point of view insist the results of the Civil War: the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery are attributable primarily, if not solely, to President Lincoln. They also acknowledge that the war was a great national tragedy that cost too many lives, too much time, too much destruction. Adherents of this interpretation assume that victory might have come sooner and are critical of anybody who may have hindered victory, especially by causing delays. The standard theme of the Unionist histories is that the president’s greatest problem was finding a general who would win the war for him. In this scenario Lincoln suffers through a sorry lot of candidates until Ulysses S. Grant appears, whereupon the doom of the Confederate States was sealed. A constant in the Unionist theme is that McClellan was the first and sorriest of the candidates to try the president’s patience.

Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the greatest American heroic symbol in our collective culture and in the eyes of popular history, he stands as a martyr by tragic assassination for his success. Honest Abe has become many things to many people. For a large number of Americans, he is Father Abraham, the Great Emancipator. For an even larger number he is the man responsible for single-handedly saving the Union. Few historians have been willing to honestly appraise McClellan because it would mean criticizing the martyred Lincoln. James G. Randall, who Joe Harsh considered the greatest Lincoln scholar, provided the most succinct summation of the Unionist Theme I have ever read, “It is assumed that if one is pro-Lincoln, he must be anti-McClellan.”

The final nail in the coffin regarding an appraisal of McClellan is the fact that his story is tainted from the beginning to be one of failure because Lincoln sacks him and removes him from command. There are varied reasons behind the decision, some petty and some political, but none military as the Unionist theme would have you believe. Regardless, after November 7, 1862, when McClellan is relieved of command and leaves the army, the Young Napoleon’s image in popular history is fixed: he forever becomes the Bad General Lincoln was forced to fire.

To a lesser extent any attempt at an honest appraisal of McClellan faces a similar difficulty with Robert E. Lee. As with Lincoln, an established perspective surrounds Lee’s story. Historian Alan T. Nolan calls it the Lee Tradition. Among its certain unmistakable earmarks are that Lee was a reluctant American who sided with his state over his country. Marse Robert is often held up as the personification of the Christian gentleman. A master military strategist and tactician, he often appraised his opponents and their intentions with near clairvoyant insight. Above all, Robert the Bold was audacious. It is the antithesis of McClellan and the cornerstone of the Lee Tradition, manifesting itself in his admirable predilection for the offense. Amazingly, until the publication of Joe Harsh’s Taken At The Flood, Lee was very much immune from the analysis and evaluations that are the conventional techniques of history. Almost all who wrote about Lee previously, especially Southern writers, have accepted Lee entirely on his own terms. If he said something was so, it was accepted as so. Analysis of Lee’s activities usually stopped with a determination that he did what he thought was right. Because of the Lee Tradition apparently, few historians before Harsh dared question whether Lee’s actions were ethical, wise, or even rational. Historian T. Harry Williams summed up the popular attitude and provided the most succinct description of the Lee Tradition when he wrote, “Whatever Lee did was right because he was Lee.”

As they must with Lincoln, any person attempting an honest appraisal of McClellan must tread carefully with any criticism of the audacious Lee. It is beyond strange that a general commanding an army engaged in armed insurrection against the United States of America has become an iconic hero in America’s popular culture. He represents one of the most appealing of tragic themes, the man who goes down in defeat battling against overwhelming odds. To this day throughout much of the nation he embodies the Lost Cause. Honest appraisals of Lee often invite the charge of trying to change history.

I am constantly surprised by the number of visitors to Antietam that are not aware of Lee’s debilitating injuries which plagued and hindered him throughout the Maryland Campaign. It is understandable; I have never been able to find an illustration accurately showing Lee’s true physical condition in the campaign. Showing Robert E. Lee as a frail invalid riding in an ambulance with both hands bound tightly in splints and the right arm in a sling would be heretical to the Lee Tradition. The image of a national iconic hero that can’t dress himself, feed himself, or take care of his own toilet without help is one many visitor’s refuse to accept. As you know there is actually a monument at Antietam portraying Lee on horseback holding a pair of binoculars, that simply is not an accurate portrayal of him in the Maryland Campaign. Such is the staying power of the Lee Tradition.

Together, the Unionist Theme and the Lee Tradition tend to bias most narratives that focus on McClellan’s activities. Because of them a fair appraisal of McClellan is an uphill struggle all the way, if not impossible. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” goes an old saying in American popular culture. As I previously stated, the stereotype of McClellan as the Bad General has become so entrenched that it amounts to a historical consensus, and the Unionist Theme and the Lee Tradition has cemented it in popular American culture. Indeed, we could easily mimic the Lee Tradition by stating an antithetical McClellan Tradition that permeates traditional history: Everything McClellan did was wrong because he was McClellan.

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?

SRS: This book was decades in the making. After the publication of Bivouacs of the Dead, and while still a member of CMHL, I embarked on writing a book about the Battle of South Mountain. To put the battle in context required writing a book about the Maryland Campaign. There was a lot about the campaign I did not know. In the process of learning about the campaign I had to study the two commanders involved with the campaign. I began to learn that a lot of what I thought I knew about McClellan simply was not true. My conversations with Tom and Joe cemented that fact. I was determined to not repeat the myth and stereotype others had presented as fact. Too Useful To Sacrifice grew out of that effort.

In the beginning the biggest obstacle was back-sourcing popular books and locating those sources. I was extremely fortunate to have access to both the Hagerstown and Frederick public libraries. They both have special collections that proved extremely helpful. There were also many trips to the old USMHI at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In the days before the internet (I’m getting old) their library and manuscript division were valuable resources. I was also extremely fortunate to have been a volunteer at Antietam Battlefield at the time. In their library they have a collection of primary sources researched by rangers and letters and diaries of ancestor participants donated by visitors over the years that is truly unique.

I was greatly surprised at how ill-prepared Lee was for South Mountain and the effect that battle had upon his campaign. McClellan caught him totally by surprise and delivered a blow from which Lee never fully recovered. Although many Southern writers often claim it as somewhat of an operational victory for Lee because it bought him a chance to regroup at Sharpsburg, it was the surrender of Harpers Ferry that gave him that opportunity, not South Mountain. Lee had actually decided to abandon his campaign in Maryland and move back into Virginia after South Mountain. South Mountain was the turning point of the campaign, and Joe Harsh was right: it was an aggressive McClellan that caused that battle to occur.

I already knew that military sources generally spoke favorably of McClellan’s leadership. But I was surprised at the number of competent military men who experienced an epiphany regarding McClellan. Even Francis Palfrey, a staunch critic, had to admit “there are strong grounds for believing that he was the best commander the Army of the Potomac ever had.” Theodore Lyman, of Gen. Meade’s staff, admitted later in the war that he was not fanatic about any general and then declared, “I am forced to the conclusion that McClellan (who did not have his own way as we have) managed with admirable skill. Mind, I don’t say he was perfect. I say he was our best.” I was especially astonished by Emory Upton. Upton was a bit of a prodigy. He entered the Civil War as a 2nd Lt. of artillery (was with Franklin’s VI Corps in the Maryland Campaign) and by war’s end, at age 25, had served in all 3 branches, artillery, cavalry, and infantry. He stayed in the army as a career officer. He is credited as the father of the modern American General Staff. In 1912 his comprehensive The Military Policy of the United States was published posthumously. Upton, an ardent abolitionist whose sympathies were strongly Republican and anti-McClellan at the war’s beginning, admitted to his lifelong friend Henry Du Pont in 1879, “I now regard McClellan in his military character, a much abused man.” That same year he wrote future President James A. Garfield that he once believed McClellan had not done his “whole duty to the country,” but in the process of writing his manuscript, “I have been compelled to change my mind.” Finally, according to his son, even Robert E. Lee, when asked after the war which of the federal generals he considered the greatest, replied “McClellan, by all odds.”

BR: Can you describe your research and writing process? What online and brick and mortar sources did you rely on most? When did you know you were “done”?

SRS: Research on the Maryland Campaign has pretty much been ongoing since the days of taking my fifth-graders to Antietam. The easy thing at present is that most of the stuff I had to get at brick and mortar libraries in the past is now available on the internet.

I bring my background in science to my writing. With the Scientific Method one forms a hypothesis, and then devises an experiment to prove or disprove the hypothesis. If you prove it fine, if not then revise the hypothesis and start over. With accurate history one starts with a statement, consensus, or assumption and then one looks for primary sources or indisputable facts to prove or disprove the them. If you find reputable primary accounts fine, if not then you have to accept the statement, consensus, or assumption. Unlike science, the hard part with history is being able to tell the difference between a statement, consensus, or assumption and an indisputable fact. This can also sometimes be true with primary sources. Just because something was said or written in the nineteenth century by an alleged primary source doesn’t necessarily make it true. Case in point: “McClellan was slow” certainly qualifies as a statement, consensus, or assumption. It was said a number of times by no less a primary source than Abraham Lincoln. As I have shown with primary accounts from numerous participants marching thru the Maryland countryside in 1862 there were units ranging from regiments to divisions marching at rates that are anything but slow. Individual regiments, brigades, and divisions moving 10 to 19 miles in a day. These are rates of march any competent military commander would hardly judge as slow. The truth is, as far as I have been able to tell, McClellan is accepted as being slow in the Maryland Campaign simply because President Lincoln said he was slow. I remember Joe Harsh making a very convincing argument that Lincoln had a bad case of the Fasts. Unionist historians simply parrot Lincoln’s alleged fact without realizing it is a value judgment from an impatient politician, not an actual campaign participant. However, going against a primary source such as Lincoln requires indisputable facts from numerous primary sources, not counter statements, consensus, or assumptions. Having the primary sources is only half of the writing process. It also requires that you present it to the reader in a manner they find interesting. You want them to have the desire to turn the next page. I think my background studying literature in my youth helped me with that.

My wife would tell you that I’m never done.

BR: How has the book been received so far?

SRS: Generally, the book has been received very well. Even though it was not released until August 2019, it became one of the top five bestselling books at the Antietam Bookstore. Obviously, the staff as well as my fellow volunteers and guides at Antietam are overjoyed at having a reputable book to suggest to visitors that counters decades of misrepresentation of Gen. McClellan. Some of the rangers have revised their presentations to incorporate new information from my book. Many visitors bring with them the three pillars of the Bad General stereotype and my fellow guides are happy to have something they can suggest countering that narrative. It has been my experience as a tour guide that there are many facets of the campaign and battles (South Mountain and Antietam) presented in the book visitors are not aware of and find interesting. I have had people tell me that have gone back to read the book two and three times.

However, going against the grain of long accepted historical consensus is not easy. There does exist a hard-core group of anti-McClellan bashers in the Civil War community and nothing you can say or do will disabuse them of the notion that the Young Napoleon was the Bad General. As an Antietam Volunteer and Tour Guide I have years of experience tactfully and sympathetically dealing with these folks; after all, I once believed it myself. I now have a book I can specifically suggest that counters their opinions. I generally know I’m succeeding with the critics when they are forced to bring up the subject of the Peninsula or McClellan’s arrogance (his alleged snub of Lincoln). My response usually is that my book is about the Maryland Campaign, not the Peninsula. It is a different animal (although there is a lot of criticism about that campaign that is also popular consensus). As far as being arrogant, I simply counter that by asking visitors if they have ever met a general? Even the most ardent of McClellan critics comment on the extensive research and documentation in my book. The McClellan bashers are fond of dismissing me as a McClellan apologist. I know that technically it simply means one who argues in defense or justification, but in the popular culture it has a negative connotation. I am not apologizing for anything. McClellan was a human being and he had his faults just like the rest of us. However, he was not a bad general. In my opinion, he was a bad politician. His biggest mistake may have been running against Lincoln for President. I cannot help but think he would have been remembered more favorably if he had not.

A few weeks ago, I was involved in a back and forth on Facebook regarding the merits of Stephen W. Sears’s Landscape Turned Red which certainly is on the other side of the spectrum from Too Useful To Sacrifice. Somebody responded that he thought the truth about McClellan was somewhere between Sears and Stotelmyer. I thought to myself, Wow, if I have managed to move the needle halfway in the popular image of George B. McClellan then I feel like I have accomplished something special.

BR: In the editorial process something always ends up on the cutting room floor so to speak. Was there anything in your manuscript that you regret being cut from the published book?

SRS: Yes, I had several appendices that were cut. The one I regret the most that never made it to print was titled Little Mac at the Front. In the popular imagination there is this image of McClellan never leading from the front and spending the whole day of the battle of Antietam leisurely smoking cigars at the Pry House. With primary sources this appendix proved that image false. McClellan came under enemy artillery fire at a forward observation post on September 15. The same on the 16th while conducting reconnaissance at the Lower Bridge. Also, during the late afternoon and evening of the 16th several primary sources from soldiers in the Pennsylvania Reserves put him near the East Woods and the Joseph Poffenberger farm. One account has McClellan directing counter-battery artillery fire. On September 17 there are several primary accounts proving a morning visit to the East Woods in addition to the well-documented afternoon visit. During the afternoon visit he again directs counter-battery fire from an exposed position near the Cornfield. He revisits the forward observation area and is also seen with the long-range artillery on the high ground astride the Middle Bridge. The most remarkable primary account I found was a letter written by an Ohio soldier a few days after the battle of Antietam. Private Alexander Wight of the 23rd Ohio wrote his brother that he saw and interacted with McClellan on the southern part of the field somewhere in the area of the Final Attack. Wight was a member of the regimental band on duty as a medic helping a wounded soldier of the 23rd to the rear when he turned around and saw both McClellan and Burnside. Little Mac asked Wight if the wounded soldier could ride and offered his mount. Later that evening Wight observed McClellan at a field hospital talking to the wounded like a father and shaking their hands. Evidently Wight and his brother were critical of McClellan before the Maryland Campaign because he ends the letter, “I don’t know what your opinion is about George McClellan, but I have changed my opinion.” It is a primary account, a letter from one brother to another not meant for the public. I (and several of my fellow guides) have no reason to doubt it. It places McClellan on the southern part of the Antietam Battlefield on September 17 and that has never been presented in any other book on the battle that I have ever read. I am hoping I can get the essay published as a magazine article.

BR: What’s next for you?

SRS: I’m torn between doing a companion piece on Lee and something on South Mountain. The Confederates made mistakes in Maryland, some of which doomed the campaign from the start. Part of the campaign was supposed to be about recruiting in Maryland, but there is no Confederate Maryland infantry regiment to attract Marylanders. Confederate signalmen occupied Sugar Loaf Mountain at a time when McClellan’s army was marching thru the Maryland countryside. The large clouds of dust raised from that advancing army should have been visible to even a casual observer at Sugar Loaf. Somehow that information never seems to have made it to Lee and he completely misjudges McClellan’s rapid advance. The Confederate reception in Frederick was not as cold-shouldered as traditionally portrayed. I have always been curious how Lee’s injuries may have affected his judgement. Given the staying power of the Lee Tradition that may be even more of an uphill battle than accurately portraying McClellan. Then again, I’m considering going back to my first love: Fox’s Gap. Most people are not aware that proportionately, square foot per square foot, the Sunken Road that runs thru Fox’s Gap was bloodier that it’s famous counterpart at Antietam. I feel confident that I could write a comprehensive history of what occurred in and around Wise’s cabin from dawn to dusk during that bloody sabbath. It would give me another chance to exonerate Daniel Wise from throwing those bodies in his well. Daniel’s story is personal to me. By some strange mysterious metaphysical design I won’t try to explain, my great nephew is Daniel’s fifth great grandson.

However, to be honest, I am enjoying the down time. I am looking forward to the Spring and resuming my Volunteer and Tour Guide activities at Antietam. As we guides like to say to each other, “See you on the field.”

I highly recommend anybody interested in a fair treatment of McClellan by a Lincoln biographer check out a copy of James G. Randall, Lincoln The President: Springfield To Gettysburg, 2 vols., volume 2, chapters 18-20. And for how Lee becomes an American iconic hero, Thomas L. Connelly, The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society.

There is a formatting error on page 85 of Too Useful To Sacrifice which resulted in a few lines of missing text. This web page that corrects the mistake and provides the missing text.





Previews – Three New(er) Savas Beatie Titles

12 12 2019

Here we go: a post! I have a stack of books here, some requiring a preview, and some requiring interviews. My apologies for the delay. So, without further ado, three recent releases from Savas Beatie.

914351794_480x480“Lee is Trapped and Must be Taken:” Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863, by Thomas J. Ryan and Richard R. Schaus. In this sequel to his Spies, Scouts, and Secrets of the Gettysburg Campaign, author Ryan is joined by Schaus, a fellow former government intelligence employee. From the promotional materials:

This comprehensive day-by-day account examines how Maj. Gen. George G. Meade organized and motivated his Army of the Potomac in response to President Abraham Lincoln’s mandate to bring about the “literal or substantial destruction” of General Robert E. Lee’s defeated and retreating Army of Northern Virginia.

You get:

  • 301 pages of narrative in 11 daily chapters, aftermath, and assessments
  • An appendix on Meade and the Bureau of Military Intelligence (BMI)
  • An appendix of BMI reports
  • An appendix on Lincoln’s famous, unsent letter of frustration to Meade
  • 17 page bibliography, including  numerous newspapers accounts
  • Full Index
  • Bottom of the page footnotes
  • 14 Hal Jesperson maps

———-

0johnsonvilleJohnsonville: Union Supply Operations on the Tennessee River and the Battle of Johnsonville, November 4-5, 1864, by Jeffery T. Wooten. Wooten is currently the Park Manager for Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park in Nashville, TN, and has worked at various Tennessee stat parks and Pamplin Historical Park. From the promotional materials:

[Wooten’s book] sheds light on the creation and strategic role of the Union supply depot, the use of railroads and logistics, and the depot’s defense. [It] covers the emergence of a civilian town around the depot…[and] includes the best and most detailed account of the Battle of Johnsonville…The complex land-water operation nearly wiped out the Johnsonville supply depot, severely disrupted Gen. George Thomas’s army in Nashville, and impeded his operations against John Bell Hood’s Confederate army.

You get:

  • 179 pages of narrative in 9 chapters and aftermath
  • One appendix on the “U. S. Quartermaster’s Department in Tennessee
  • 11 page bibliography, including numerous newspapers and unpublished manuscript sources
  • Full index
  • Bottom of page footnotes
  • 9 maps

———-

0hornpeteThe Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War: A History of the 12 Virginia Infantry form John Brown’s Hanging to Appomattox, 1859-1865, by John Horn. Mr. Horn is the author of The Siege of Petersburg: The Battles for the Weldon Railroad. From the promotional materials:

Horn’s definitive history is grounded in decades of archival research that uncovered scores of previously unused accounts. The result is a lively, driving, up-tempo regimental history that not only describes the unit’s marches and battles, but includes personal glimpses into the lives of the Virginians who made up the 12th regiment.

You get:

  • 406 pages of narrative in 22 chapters and epilogue.
  • 20 page bibliography
  • Full index
  • Bottom of page footnotes
  • 32 (!) maps

 

 





Previews: More from Savas Beatie

30 07 2019

51UlNZMEdML._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_51RBgtYVfBL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_51oL3Z0Qj+L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_51dUMphiVpL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_51u6F+aMp7L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_51dK1k0sU6L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

The good folks at Savas Beatie, prolific publishers of our peculiar predilection, have been busy this year. Over the past couple of months, they’ve cranked out a number of new books, and I think I’ve received most of them. Due to time restraints, I’ve provided titles, authors, and links for info and ordering.

 

 





Previews: Emerging Civil War

27 07 2019

Layout 1all-hell-can-t-stop-them51aTAvCsdOLLayout 1Layout 1

I apologize for the brevity of this, but I’m digging myself out of a hole and this seems to be the only practical way out. Over the past few months I’ve received five new entries in the Emerging Civil War series from Savas Beatie. Luckily, the titles are all self explanatory, so I’ll give you those, the authors, and links to ordering and other info. Not perfect, but my world is far from that.

“Let Us Die Like Men”: The Battle of Franklin, November 30, 1864, by William Lee White.

“All Hell Can’t Stop Them”: The Battles for Chattanooga: Missionary Ridge and Ringgold, November 24-27, 1863, by David A. Powell.

“Attack at Daylight and Whip Them”: The Battle of Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862, by Gregory A. Mertz.

“The Most Desperate Acts of Gallantry”: George A. Custer in the Civil War, by Daniel T. Davis.

“Call Out the Cadets”: The Battle of New Market, May 15, 1864, by Sarah Kay Bierle

 





Preview – Mackowski, “The Great Battle Never Fought”

24 01 2019

top_story_c67c9533989694961295_the_great_battle_never_fought

New from Savas Beatie and the Emerging Civil War series is The Great Battle Never Fought: The Mine Run Campaign, November 26 – December 2, 1863, by Chris Mackowski. You get:

123 pages of narrative, in thirteen chapters plus epilogue.

  • An Afterword by Ted Savas, featuring how he located the Payne’s Farm battlefield site.
  • A ten stop driving tour with GPS coordinates.
  • Appendix A, Rest, Soldier, Rest, by Mike Block, on the Army of the Potomac’s hospitals during the winter encampment of 1863-1864.
  • Appendix B, I Suppose the Result Will Be a Pretty General Sweeping Out, by Ryan T. Quint, on the reorganization of the Army of the Potomac in the wake of the aborted Mine Run Campaign.
  • Orders of Battle.
  • Suggested Reading.
  • Eight Hal Jesperson Maps.
  • Profusely illustrated with vintage and modern-day photos.
  • No footnotes, no bibliography, no index.

Chris Mackowski is the editor-in-chief of Emerging Civil War. See his author page here.





Preview – Wittenberg, “Holding the Line on the River of Death”

20 01 2019

51vjgcb7lfl

Author Eric Wittenberg dips his toe into Civil War western waters with Holding the Line on the River of Death: Union Mounted Forces at Chickamauga, September 18, 1863 (Savas Beatie, $29.95).

This volume focuses on the two important delaying actions conducted by mounted Union soldiers at Reed’s and Alexander’s bridges on the first day of Chickamauga. A cavalry brigade under Col. Robert H. G. Minty and Col. John T. Wilder’s legendary “Lightning Brigade” of mounted infantry made stout stands at a pair of chokepoints crossing Chickamauga Creek. Minty’s small cavalry brigade held off nearly ten times its number on September 18 by designing and implementing a textbook example of a delaying action. Their dramatic and outstanding efforts threw Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg’s entire battle plan off its timetable by delaying his army’s advance for an entire day. That delay cost Bragg’s army the initiative at Chickamauga. 

You get:

  • 208 pp of narrative
  • Appendices – Orders of Battle
  • Appendix – Vidette and Outpost Duty Defined
  • Illustrated driving tour with 54 GPS benchmarks
  • Bibliography with quite a few manuscript and archive sources
  • Index
  • Bottom-of-page footnotes
  • 17 Mark Moore maps
  • 66 Illustrations

Eric Wittenberg has written multiple books on the American Civil War, with an emphasis on cavalry actions. Visit his Amazon Author Page for more.