Every once in a while a book will come out that perfectly achieves what it initially set out to do. How They Croaked, by Georgia Bragg, is a children’s book (though I use that term loosely) which will completely gross the reader out to no end in all kinds of unimaginable ways, yet does it with intelligence, wit, and historical accuracy. The purpose of this work is to inform the audience how some of the world’s most famous people died, and the horrific journey their last days took them on, in a world where medicine was either in its infancy, or the doctors at hand just did not know what the heck they were doing. Everyone from Henry VIII and George Washington, to Cleopatra and Charles Dickens is profiled here, each getting their own brief chapter with plenty of neat little factoids and nuggets of information scattered about the overall disgusting subject matter. Now, why is this perfect for children? Well, they just love gross things! I borrowed this from a colleague and read a few chapters to a fifth grade class I was substituting in, and they loved it so much that five of them went out and bought it that weekend. I also lent it to students in older grades, and they too loved it. Oh, and what about me and people my age and older? Yes, the consensus is complete: this is a book that can be enjoyed by all.
Frosty the Snowman’s corncob pipe was taken away several years ago, and now, thanks to a hack author from Canada, Santa’s has now gone missing as well. Yes, that’s right, the politically correct, over-sensitive lunacy that has engulfed this continent has made its way to Clement Clarke Moore’s timeless tale, Twas the Night Before Christmas, as a new edition has been released with verses related to Santa’s evil pipe smoking deleted. The author, Pamela McColl, has omitted all references to tobacco, along with adding the subtitle, “Edited by Santa Claus for the benefit of children of the 21st century”, because she feels that Santa’s bad habit will negatively influence the young, malleable minds reading and listening to the story. While some may see this as harmless, I see it as a desecration of literature, much in the same way that people were aghast when Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was edited down a few years ago, removing all uses of the N-word, to appeal to “modern audiences”. Twain, the complete reverse of a racist in real life, used such language to articulate a point, and tell a story, one which has been butchered by the ultra-liberal pansies who want to shield young eyes from the slightest upsetting remark or image. Apparently, the jolly old elf enjoying a pipe after flying around the world is so disgusting, it had to be removed as well.
Well, look at that: three Lincoln-related posts in a row, though I hope this will be more accurate than Honest Abe hunting vampires and zombies…
This may not be “news”, but it just came to my attention, thanks to an actor I know who is auditioning for the part of Abraham Lincoln in this documentary project for National Geographic slated to air in 2013, and be produced by Ridley and Tony Scott. This special will be based on the best-selling book Killing Lincoln, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, which examines the events leading up to the president’s assassination and immediately following it. I was actually given this book as a gift last November by one of my students following the conclusion of a middle school-level twelve-week elective course on the Civil War I taught, and although I was very happy to receive such a gift, I just could not bring myself to read anything written by Bill O’Reilly, a personality which I do not care for. However, over time, I eventually skimmed through it, and I must admit, I enjoyed it.
Wanting to both learn more about the Middle Ages and Renaissance, as well as take a short break from Civil War and WWII studies, I picked up William Manchester’s A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance (Back Bay Books; 1992) at a recent book sale. Having a bad habit of starting books, getting engrossed and breezing through the first half, before getting preoccupied with something else and never completing it, I was not sure if I would ever end up reading this. However, one day, as I pondered something to do in my free time, I just decided to flip it open and read a random page, which had to do with the Inquisition, therefore it intrigued me (anything involving Church corruption is more often than not going to alert and keep my attention). I started reading it that day, and I do not think I have ever been so into a historical narrative, not from any other subject. This book had me in its grip the entire time and would not let go until I was finished. I will be quick to say that this is the best narrative I have ever read, hands down.
When used to describe a person, the term “gadfly” is usually considered an insult, as it refers to a type of fly that can be seen hovering around cattle pens, acting as quite an annoyance to the livestock. A “social gadfly” is even worse, as it is a person who upsets the status quo. Normally, one would not want to be called this, but it is a nickname that White House Press Correspondent and political talk radio show host Les Kinsolving has earned over his many years of service, and one that he relishes, so much so, that his biography is even titled as such, and it was written by his own daughter Kathleen, the subject of this next interview. I had the honor and privilege of interviewing Les last year in regards to his work in the films Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, as he portrayed Confederate General William Barksdale (he is also a distant cousin of his as well), but as I did more research on his background, I realized he built up quite an esteemed career in the White House press room, always asking the tough questions and keeping establishment leaders uneasy. We met briefly at the Extended Director’s Cut World Premiere last July in Manassas, and once again, I was honored. Our political beliefs may be very different—he’s more of a conservative (though not completely, as I was reminded) and I’m a liberal—but as I told Kathleen Kinsolving when we were first in contact, “…I have never listened to his show, but I hear he takes shots at anyone and everyone who he does not approve with, which I think is a very admirable quality”, to which she responded with that little word, “Yes, he’s quite the Gadfly—very fearless and provocative!”
For those of you that could not get enough of the Shaara Civil War trilogy, started by father Michael and finished by son Jeff, a set of three books that forever changed the genre of historical fiction, the first installment of Jeff Shaara’s next trilogy on the war that divided a nation will be available on May 29. Titled, A Blaze of Glory, this new trilogy, one book being released in each of the next three years, part of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary, will be set in the Western Theater of the war, a region often shunned by fictional literature and film alike. This will be a stirring new look at the players who won and lost, and fought and died in the west, both major and minor. The official synopsis reads as follows:
Alan Bass and I have known each other since 2007, when we both started writing for a sports website called Bleacher Report. We quickly became friends, though the relationship was, and still is, a severe case of love-hate, considering he is a die-hard fan of the Philadelphia Flyers, while I root for the New York Rangers. In the summer of 2008, that intensity led us to create an online hockey radio show for the Youcastr Network, which has since dropped its programming of all individual shows. From July to November of that year, we broadcasted weekly, interviewing a wide array of people such as New York Rangers radio announcer Kenny Albert, Tampa Bay Lightning radio announcer Dave Mishkin, Toronto Maple Leafs television announcer John Bowen, and members of the Philadelphia Flyers broadcast team for both television and radio, Jim Jackson and Keith Jones, as well as their pre-game anthem singer Lauren Hart. We were also able to land interviews with then-current Rangers goaltender Steve Valiquette, and later, Colin Wilson, future center of the Nashville Predators. In retrospect, it is hard to believe how much time we actually spent doing these shows, even though they were only around an hour long each, and working on individual episodes, which were difficult in themselves to produce, because we had to talk through Skype, since we live almost two hours apart from one another.
When the radio show ended, Alan continued to write for Bleacher Report for a few more years, and I moved around to other blogs, before finally settling in on this one. He then got himself an internship with The Hockey News, and from there, the creativity kept on blossoming. It was in early 2010 when he first told me his initial idea to write a book on the 1967 NHL Expansion, and I offered my encouragement and said I would help him if he needed it. The topic was definitely an interesting one, as it was never written about previously. Little did I know, those early drafts and revisions that I got a chance to read through would actually turn into a finished product that would be published in 2011, titled, The Great Expansion: The Ultimate Risk that Changed the NHL Forever. This book, as I can personally attest to, was meticulously researched and mapped out, and will prove to be the definitive work on this great, important, and now, almost forgotten era of hockey history. Brad Kurtzberg, author of Shorthanded: The Untold Story of the Seals, said the following about the book, “Alan Bass has captured the history of the biggest turning point in NHL history. [He] brings both the highlights on the ice and all the important maneuvers behind the scenes to fans, including what happened and why. Full of in-depth analysis and interesting and never before heard stories, this book is a must for any hockey fan.” Below is our interview:
What exactly constitutes someone being considered an “expert”? There are many qualities you can contrive in order to define the word, but I am pretty sure, that at the end of the day, no matter what you think of, historian and author J. David Petruzzi would always be considered one when it comes to the American Civil War. He is the author of five books on the subject, including the freshly released New Gettysburg Campaign Handbook, which has been described as a must-read for diehards and newbies alike. With another trip to Gettysburg coming up in the next couple of weeks for me (have not yet decided on the dates), I think I am going to pick up a copy and take it along with me, because it seems to be the real deal according to the reviews.
All of Petruzzi’s hard work has led him to be selected as a historical adviser to the highly anticipated television miniseries To Appomattox (2013), which has been mentioned a few times on this blog. With many fans out there wanting to learn more about it, and his role, I asked him to shed some light on that, as well as his general opinion on various aspects of the Civil War and films made about it. He is also the author of other related works, including walking and driving tours of Gettysburg, One Continuous Fight, which details Lee’s retreat, and finally, Plenty of Blame to Go Around, which currently holds distinction as the only book dedicated entirely to Confederate cavalry General J.E.B Stuart’s famous, and controversial ride, from Virginia to Gettysburg. Mr. “Call Me J.D” Petruzzi also maintains a blog called “Hoofbeats and Cold Steel”, which I discovered after stumbling upon his review of the History Channel Gettysburg documentary from late May—both of us had choice words to say about that one, while his expertise took it even further! Below is our interview, which we conducted by email this afternoon:
GC:You are serving as a historical adviser to the upcoming mini-series To Appomattox. What exactly will your job entail?
JDP: First, I’m really humbled and honored to be a part of this, which I truly believe will be the media event of the Sesquicentennial. It’s all been very exciting, because I’ve never been involved in something of this scope and magnitude. My initial duties a few months back entailed two things: First, I was asked to read the entire script and offer historical accuracy suggestions. As an aside, I was hooked after the first few pages. From the very first scene in the first episode to the last scene of the last episode, it is an amazing story. Writer Michael Frost Beckner is a life-long student of history (he also has ancestors who fought in the war) and his research went extremely deep, so the writing was already very accurate from a historian’s point of view. I just caught some things here and there and helped Michael do a few rewrites and modifications. Second, I assisted in assembling a world-class team of consultants, each of them with a particular specialty. We have a uniform expert, a flag expert, personality experts, battle/campaign experts, and so forth. We’re all experienced enough to know that some historical boo-boos will creep in here and there, but our team is comprised of the finest in their fields. Viewers will have the confidence knowing that in each scene, within the context of the dramatic storytelling, every word uttered by every character – every item in the shot – every military action portrayed – will be historically accurate and plausible. My primary duty now is to bind the script of each episode, and begin making a collection of them with all of my historical notes and supporting material with them. For example, each episode, page-wise, runs about 65-70 pages. By the time I’m done, each of my episode binders will consist of about 200 or more pages. I’ll also be collating the material of the consultants. Therefore, as each and every scene is being blocked and prepared, we’ll have information at hand which gives us all of the historical accuracy details ready and available. If there’s a flag or flags in a scene, we’ll have the right ones. If Robert E. Lee, during the Mexican War, is in a scene, it will list what he looked like at the time, and exactly what his uniform should look like. When U.S. Grant’s home, “Hardscrabble,” appears in an exterior shot, there’s a photograph of it. Michael and I speak just about every day, often several times a day. He has me participate in just about everything having to do with the historical environment of the series, and that means assisting with things like enlisting corporations that provided consumer goods during the war to be sponsors and/or advertisers. I’ve assisted in preparing printed presentations submitted to many entities having connections with the series. It’s been great fun, and I enjoy helping any way I can. Once pre-production begins in the spring of next year, my full-time work begins. From pre-production through the end of filming, I’ll be full-time on the set. I very much anticipate that, and it’ll be a lot of hard, long work but a great deal of fun. As Historical Adviser, I’ll be working personally with the actors and actresses, helping them understand their characters and hopefully in some small way to help them give a believable performance. Michael has written into this story no caricatures, no icons up on pedestals – these historical figures are shown as exactly who I believe them to have been in real life… human, fallible, successful, and failures. Angels didn’t sing when Lee walked into a room, but his men loved him and his enemies respected him. Grant wasn’t a slosh who spent all his time on the floor passed out (though some would have you believe that). He had only periodic struggles with alcohol, and that because he was often very lonely – he dearly loved and often ached for his wife and family – and his internal conflicts with his failures in life. I think when folks are finished watching this series, they will come away feeling that they understand Grant and all of these men and women much more clearly. On the set I’ll also be coordinating, as the head of the Historical Department, the efforts of consultants and the crew assembling sets, reenactor/extra coordinators, battle scenes, etc. Basically, any way that I can assist the producers, director, and all departments regarding history and accuracy. When I don’t know an answer, I have to find it. But as I mentioned earlier, Michael has written such a wonderful script that my job won’t be nearly as difficult as it otherwise could be. Once filming and editing is complete, I hope to continue to be involved as Michael’s ambitious list of “extras” are worked on. We plan to include, in the resulting DVD boxed set that will be released, to have a “Behind the Scenes” documentary, mini historical documentaries, educational tools, etc. We really want the entire To Appomattox experience to be just that – an experience. We don’t want it to be over for the audience once the final episode begins. Truly, it is then that the real learning and teaching begins.
GC: As it stands in pre-production, what are your hopes for what this series will accomplish?
JDP: I touched on that a bit in my previous answer – I hope that viewers come to begin to understand just in what environment the war took place, and who these people were who fought it, planned it, and those who waited at home and worried. Today, we look at a picture of U.S. Grant and see a black and white, detached-from-us-today photograph. But what was he thinking at West Point? What was his relationship with James Longstreet? What were his struggles with civilian life failures, alcohol, and loneliness? What was it like to be in a room with George McClellan before or during the Civil War at particular times? How did all these main characters – Grant, Longstreet, Lee, William Sherman – and all of their mutual friends interact with each other over several decades? What did they laugh about? What did they worry over? What did the war do to their relationships? All of these and more are dramatic limbs among the dramatic spine of the series, which is Grant’s memoirs. I also hope that it will go a long way toward getting young people more involved and interested. It is they who will carry on the work of understand the war properly after us. We are, after all, within the Sesquicentennial and interest in everything about the war is at an all-time high. If one child turns to a parent and says “Let’s go visit Gettysburg – or Shiloh – or Chickamauga” then it’ll have all been worth it. Further, to be quite blunt, I believe the series and the portrayal within will knock a few pedestals out from under some “iconic” figures – as it SHOULD be. It’s not an intentional effort to make any of these historical figures any less than what they were… quite the opposite, in fact it is to portray them (most often in their very own words) as they really were. They laughed, they cried, they stumbled, they were successful, they failed. And many of them leashed Hell upon the earth and to each other. An enormous percentage of Civil War soldiers died on battlefields utterly alone. In the dirt. In their own blood. Perhaps clutching a picture of their wife or a child. And their everlasting legacy on Earth was to be tossed into a trench, their identity never to be known again. Many families didn’t have even a grave to mourn over. Thousands of soldiers today still lie in parts unknown, all but forgotten. Theirs and many like stories are another foundation of this series.
GC: What is your favorite Civil War movie of all-time, and why?
I love so many – The Horse Soldiers, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Glory, you name it. But probably my favorite is Gettysburg, based on the Michael Shaara novel The Killer Angels. Much of the dialogue is just plain silly, but it was Shaara’s interpretation of those characters and they’re simply wonderful. Admittedly, the movie has set standards by which many reenactors and living historians now do their craft. For instance, Longstreet never wore the huge hat (it should have been given its own zip code) that actor Tom Berenger wore in the movie. Longstreet typically wore a regular kepi. I’m told that while in the town of Gettysburg prior to filming, Berenger went into the store Dirty Billy’s Hats and asked for the biggest hat in the place. Folks tried to tell Berenger that it would be inaccurate for Longstreet, but he wore it anyway. Now, when you see one of the dozens of Longstreet portrayers around, they’re all wearing one of those huge hats for fear of not being “recognized.” Many of them know better, but it is “Longstreet pop culture” to wear a big hat even though it’s utterly silly and inaccurate. But if a Longstreet portrayer showed up at a reenactment wearing the correct kepi, no one would know who he was. And that’s understandable. But in our series, Longstreet wears the right clothes during the war, and none of the uniforms will look like they were just pulled off a Hollywood wardrobe rack. But all of that aside, every time the movie Gettysburg is on, I can’t take my eyes off it. All of the actors are simply fabulous and I utterly enjoy watching it. And if the pre-Pickett’s Charge bombardment and the Charge itself doesn’t touch your heart, then you need to check your pulse immediately.
GC: You recently just published another book, “The New Gettysburg Campaign Handbook”. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
JDP: Thanks for asking about that – folks who know me know that I never turn down an opportunity for shameless self-promotion! In the Savas Beatie “Handbook” series, it’s a neat little companion to The Complete Gettysburg Guide that I also did with master mapmaker Steven Stanley. It contains a lot of material that we couldn’t include in the Guide – things like Gettysburg Campaign facts, trivia, personalities, and even Medal of Honor awardees. There’s a photographic study of the entire five weeks of the campaign. There’s also a comprehensive Order of Battle that is the most accurate and up-to-date available. Steve designed the entire book for our publisher, did all of the maps (he’s the best in the business bar none) and it’s simply gorgeous to look at. Steve and I are working hard on many more books – such as a Maryland Campaign Guide and others – and I’m simply blessed to be partnering with him on these projects. Between the two of us, Steve has more talent in his little finger than I’ll ever have, period.
GC: Back in May you wrote a scathing review of the History Channel documentary on Gettysburg (as did I). How is it possible, with so much information out there, for a major production to be so misinformed and inaccurate?
JDP: Oh yeah, I ripped that show and to think of the thing still makes me ill today. It was that bad. How something like that can air? I think much of it has to do with marketing and trying to appeal to an audience which today is pretty inflicted with ADD. And I also know that the writers and producers didn’t consult with the historical advisers and consultants beyond just their few minutes of speaking throughout the episode. If they had – consulted with knowledgeable folks like Garry Adelman and such – most or all of the garbage that aired wouldn’t have seen the light of day. It was filmed in South Africa literally on the cheap, so the terrain looked nothing like Gettysburg (unless Gettysburg is comprised mainly of acres and acres of sand and pine stands and I’ve somehow missed that). If you read my review of the show, you’ll see that I point out an error committed just about every minute, and I actually didn’t include most of them. The show was very, very hard to watch, and my wife kept running into the room thinking that I was screaming in physical pain rather than mental. I’ve seen only a couple positive comments about that show, and universally everyone trashed it. All the CGI and graphics done by the Scott Brothers studio – which was brought onto the project only at the very last second in order to do the CGI and attach their names to it – couldn’t save that show from making everyone’s eyes bleed. The History channel can only do the right thing by burning all copies of that program and never allowing it to see the light of day ever again. It also bears mentioning that such historically deficient tripe places even more expectations on us and our series, and we plan to rise to it. Glaring historical inaccuracies in personalities and the set will only distract viewers, and we don’t want that. We want everyone – student and scholars of history to those who know very little about it – to enjoy it and learn from it. The demographics of our expected audience are enormously broad. Not only will Civil War folks watch this, but, for instance, fans of Rascal Flatts (who is doing the music score and acting in it), fans of NASCAR drivers participating, and fans of the particular actors and actresses. We have a heavy responsiblity to each of them to do this right and honorably.
GC: Lastly, aside from Gettysburg which you have invested so much time in, which is your favorite battle? Who is your favorite general? And why?
JDP: I dearly love Antietam. It’s so quiet and non-commercial there, a stark contract to many things about Gettysburg. Watching the sun set from Little Round Top is always awesome, but watch the sun come UP from the area of Burnside’s Bridge, and now you’re talking my language. The area of the Cornfield there always gives me goosebumps, and I can’t help when walking the length of the Sunken Road (Bloody Lane) and just nearly tearing up as I look around an envision all those dead young boys of both sides that were in and around that. Because of my interest in the cavalry, another favorite field is Brandy Station. For us “Cav” folks, Brandy is the Motherload. There, the cavalry of both sides brought “Thunder on the Plains.” When I’m standing up on Buford’s Knoll or near Fleetwood Heights, nothing else in the world matters at that moment. If you asked others about my favorite general, they’d all probably assume John Buford. And they’re probably right. I admire the guy. Soft-spoken and reserved, but he’d dangle you from the nearest locust tree if he suspected you just didn’t smell right. I’d have loved to have been on a battlefield with him. I also like Winfield Hancock. Guy always had a clean white shirt on no matter what, and he could swear a blue streak said to have made flower wilt at his feet, and if any ladies had been present they’d have fainted dead away. His men felt invincible near him, and that fella would have been one to have shared a wee nip with. I bet he had stories. I also like to study the cads, the scoundrels. Speaking of having a whiskey with someone, Dan Sickles would probably be the ultimate party dude. And a fellow like Judson Kilpatrick fascinates me. Snarky, shrill, but hell-bent-for-leather. It’s why Sherman wound him up and turned him lose. Kilpatrick had a habit of getting just about everyone and everything around him send to Providence, but his personal traits are both confusing and fascinating. Truly, I like ‘em all. Everytime I discover an officer or common soldier with an interesting story, I just have to know more. That’s what keeps this so exciting and endless – there are quite literally millions of stories out there, and millions more to find. Among those millions of stories, our To Appomattox series will bring some of them to people’s living rooms – and hopefully their hearts. It is there that the seed of curiosity is born.
I would like to thank J.D for an absolutely enlightening interview! Reading and digesting this really makes me excited for 2013, when we will see this television series released. I had been trying to keep up with it, but with different updates being posted daily from their Facebook Page, I figured one day, I would just sit down and browse through all of it. This interview has given me just-cause to do that, because I don’t think I have felt this much excitement since 2003, when as a 12 year old, I waited with anticipation for my favorite Civil War film, Gods and Generals, to reach theaters. I cannot promise to provide as much coverage for To Appomattox as I did with G & G, but this is as good a place as any to start. Many thanks again to J. David for taking the time to type all of this out and send it over—this could have been a book in itself!
There is a reason why every time I go to a flea market or yard sale, I buy as many history related books that I can. At the risk of sounding like George Orwell or Ray Bradbury, I am so convinced that one day, in the not so far future, books will be looked upon as archaic and old-fashioned tools of learning that only “old people” use. There will be a day, perhaps in twenty years or so, when I will have to stand in front of a history classroom and explain what a book is and how exactly it works, as every one of my students sit at their desks with a lap top…or will they be called something else by then? The written word is already slipping into obscurity, and it scares me, which is why I am stocking up on books ranging from Ancient Egypt and Rome, to the American Civil War, and finally to areas of the supernatural and unexplained. I just returned from a massive yard sale, and had a field day with the book section, that included these massive coffee-table size books on everything you can imagine.
The top shelf of my closet contains a small library of historical topics, that one day I hope to get a nice book case for. When the rest of the world is downloading books onto a Nook or iPad, I will have the real thing. People may think I am crazy, and that I spend hours of my life scanning these books. While I may be crazy, I hardly ever just sit down and look at these books. I mostly use them for reference, or if I am bored, I will flip through and look at the pictures. What I am doing is saving these for years to come, and when I buy American Heritage sets from the 1960′s, whose information is outdated and biased, it is to preserve what books used to be about and how far we came in later years.
But this quest is not just about stockpiling books, it is to save the written word itself. Nobody knows how to talk any more, which applies to the spoken word as well (I actually stopped having my CCD students read out loud because it was the most atrocious thing I ever heard). Furthermore, our children cannot even concentrate on a book for more than ten minutes because of this. My generation will have lived the first ten-twelve years of our lives before computers became a fixture in every home. We also had to wait longer for iPods, Blackberries, and other handheld electronic instruments. People being born today will not know life without them, though, and when you need to find information, why look through a book when you can type it in in Google? To say this is a bit hypocritical of me, because I do this just as we all do, but at least I will know how to find information in a book if need be. Do kids born today know how to use an index or glossary? Dare I ask if they know how to manipulate a dictionary?
Then comes communication, and once again I am guilty. I must send out and receive a hundred emails a week, regarding this blog, school, work, and just personal notes. Then comes text messaging. I do not average as many as most, but there are days when I am texting all day long, especially during the NHL free agency and trade deadline periods. Of course, with these, grammar goes out the window, but that is okay for people my age and older because [hopefully] we know better, and know that we don’t write/talk like that when it comes time to write a report or letter to someone important. Once again, the children suffer. They grow up talking like “Yo dude u wanna chill 2nite” and “OMG LOL he did wut”. Notice there is no punctuation present, and I only capitalized the first letters of the “sentences” to make myself feel better. When was the last time anyone actually mailed a letter? If it’s someone’s birthday or we want to thank someone, we don’t even have to send cards in the mail, we can send an E-card.
This blog will also one day slip into obsolescence. When I am dead, hopefully many years from now, or if I just lose interest, this blog were merely be taken off-line due to inactivity. All these hundreds of articles and hundreds of hours spent spent toiling on the keyboard will simply be seen by a computer program as trash and deleted, not one word surviving me. There are times when I consider printing out my best articles and interviews, in case this wonderful technology crashes or is hacked. Hundreds of years for now, no one will know who I am. No one will know of what my interests were, that I wrote about on here almost daily. No one will care. But yet other people, from hundreds of years ago, are known and studied, some of which who were not even famous when they lived. We are shown a doorway into their lives, we know what they were thinking, we know who they corresponded with, we can read their letters and journals. Why? Because they wrote it down on paper. Go back even further, into antiquity of thousands of years ago, and we know people’s names and how they lived their lives. It truly is magnificent when you think about it, and nothing but depressing when you realize that it will never be like that again.
The more technology we have at our disposal, designed for our betterment, the more our intelligence is zapped away by mind-numbing gadgets who make us dependent on their existence. Maybe I will start keeping a journal, written on paper, so that a hundred years from now, someone might sit down and see what my life was like in 2011, however dull and ordinary it may seem now. It is up to us, to safeguard as many manuscripts that we can, and try to jot down important occurrences in our daily lives. For some, the inspiration could be for future children and grandchildren. For me, it is to try and save as much history as I possibly can.
When it comes to historians, James M. McPherson has a résumé that the rest of us can only dream about. Having put more than fifty years into studying the American Civil War, Mr. McPherson has authored over twenty books on the subject, including his Pulitzer Prize-winning volume which served as a part of Oxford’s History of the United States, Battle Cry of Freedom. More familiar to me would happen to be a book he wrote in 1982, Ordeal by Fire, which was transformed into a textbook for the excellent Civil War class I took last semester (HIST 235 for those who may want to take/audit the class at Brookdale). To this day, it is the only book I have purchased at my college that was actually worth the money.
Aside from writing tremendous pieces such as the aforementioned books, and some of his other notable works, What they Fought For: 1861-1865, For Cause and Comrades, and Tried by War, he has also authored books aimed towards children, such as Fields of Fury, which I actually enjoyed myself, even a 19. Other than publications, he has also appeared on television numerous times, including slots on Biography and The American Experience. He is currently a Professor Emeritus at Princeton University and is the foremost Civil War historian in America, and it was an honor to be able to conduct this brief email interview with him. Below is our conversation:
GC: The thought of 600,000 Americans dying over the fact that cooler heads did not prevail in the years leading up to 1861 is appalling . Is there anything that Abraham Lincoln or any of the other politicians could have done differently to prevent the American Civil War?
JM: The Southern states could have accepted Lincoln’s election and remained in the United States. Lincoln could have acquiesced in Southern secession and allowed the United States to be broken up. The Confederate government could have refrained from firing on Fort Sumter. Lincoln could have pulled the troops out of Fort Sumter before it was fired upon. Any of these actions might have prevented the war.
GC: In your mind who was the best general in each army? And who is your personal favorite?
JM: Lee and Grant. Grant [is my favorite].
GC: Blame is always thrown in so many different directions for why the Confederates lost the battle of Gettysburg. What do you think was the real reason?
JM: To explain why the Confederates lost the battle of Gettysburg, I have always liked Pickett’s own response to that question several years after the war: “I always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”
GC: I find George McClellan’s tendencies, personal letters, and actions to be almost comic. Do you feel the same way about the “Young Napoleon”, and what do you think was his biggest mistake?
JM: I think his letters were tragicomic. His biggest mistake was to patronize Lincoln and not to pay attention to Lincoln’s repeated advice to him.
GC: Out of all the different movies made about the Civil War, which one is your favorite, and why?
JM: Glory. It gets at a key issue of the war better than any other movie.
GC: A new theory (if I can call it that) out there is that John Wilkes Booth was not killed after he escaped, and that the soldiers shot the wrong man and lied so that the nation would be at ease about the Lincoln assassination. Do you give any credence to this notion?
JM: It is actually an old theory, and it is absolute rubbish.
GC: Lastly, because you have studied the Civil War for so long, where is the level of interest today compared to when you first started writing about it in the 1960′s? Is battlefield preservation where you would like it to be?
JM: The Civil War probably had a level of interest in the first half of the 1960s similar to today’s, but it declined thereafter until it began to rise again in the late 1980s until it is reaching another peak right now at the beginning of the sesquicentennial. I have been gratified by the amount of success in battlefield preservation during recent years, but there is always room for even greater efforts and successes in this endeavor.
I would like to thank Mr. McPherson for taking the time out of his busy schedule to conduct this interview. I probably don’t have to recommend his work to anyone, because even if you are a newbie to the Civil War, chances are you have read something by him, whether it was a book or an article. His most recent work was a biography of Abraham Lincoln, which came out in 2009.