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.
“Lincoln” Watch is how we are going to keep tabs on anything and everything related to the upcoming film, as we wind down to its November 9 World Premiere, and November 16 wide release. How excited are you?
As expected, the MPAA handed down a PG-13 rating for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. To me, this is a very important part of the film’s potential success, because it would have affected the size of the possible viewing audience, and whether or not that film would be available in schools for use as a teaching tool after it gets released to DVD. The actual description of the rating reads as: “For an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language”. So it appears that people are going to see a bit more war than they originally thought, and a realistic depiction at that. I also want to make mention that people on message boards seem to have been thrown into a tizzy at the fact that part of the rating is due to strong language. While most people are having fun with it (“Hey, maybe Mr. Lincoln drops the F-bomb!”), some are raising some serious points as to what the language could be. PG-13 movies are allowed one usage of the F-word to still retain their rating, but I highly, highly doubt that word will be used here. Someone else brought up the possibility of the N-word being used, which could fit in with the intense scenes of debating about the slavery issue. Still, I do not think I have seen a movie made after the late 1970′s that used that word and was not rated-R. Why are the tiny particulars of this so important? Well, to be honest, they’re really not, but it does give us something to talk about, like maybe whether or not some of Abraham Lincoln’s bawdy jokes will make it into the film.
Dissent: often scorned, sometimes praised, always misunderstood. The American Civil War is sometimes called the Second American Revolution or the Second War of Independence, yet the American Revolution is never referred to as our country’s first Civil War. And why not? One could argue that the situation is exactly the same, and that is the people wanting to remove themselves from a ruler they deemed as tyrannical. Don’t think Abraham Lincoln was a tyrant? Well, there were plenty of people that didn’t think King George III was either.
For the first time in my life, I am going to publicly reveal who my favorite president is, in honor of President’s Day weekend. Not once during the six years I have been teaching in various locations and settings, or in two years as a history lecturer, have I ever said who it is. The reason? Well, it is just so hard to narrow them down. I have more that I do not like than like, but I think that is the same for most people. After all, has there been a president that was ever truly honest to a fault? No. Has there ever been a president not corrupted in some way? No. Has there ever been a president that truly gave a damn about the American people, instead of his political cronies? Hell no. So, you can see why it has taken me so long to come to an answer. I have known for some time now, but just wanted to double-check and make sure. He is not perfect either, you can be sure, but you will find him to be a rather adequate choice when you look at some of the other brilliant commanders-in-chief we have had over the years.
For the past several years, historian Cary Eberly has been writing for the very popular, and award-winning website, ExplorePAHistory, and if he was not busy during that time, he surely is busy now! The accomplished writer is currently working on three books; one on the American Civil War, one on George Washington, and the other on Indian chiefs Cochise and Geronimo. These books, however, will be a little bit different, as they are photographic narratives, which will attempt to illustrate the history and bring it alive, either inspiring an interest in those new to the field we love so much, or enhancing it for those who have already immersed themselves in the subject. While I have known Cary only briefly, I can confidently say that if his kindness is indicative of his writing, than we are all in for a treat.
I had contacted him last week, and he told me that he was going to Antietam for a photo-shoot for his book on Grant and Lee, and would do the interview when he returned. Sure enough, he did not forget, and I now have him to thank for these wonderful and informative answers below. Cary is also serving as a historical adviser to the upcoming television mini-series To Appomattox, which was the main subject of our discussion. I also want to point out something he says in his second answer, about wanting this series to appeal to all ages, and consideration being made to create companion lesson plans for the series to be used in schools. This is probably the most important aspect, aside from the entertainment factor in this show, and that is the education of our youth. As someone who will be teaching a class on the Civil War this fall, as part of a special weekly elective program at a nearby middle school, this will be my chance to do my part and drum up interest to those still in school. Please enjoy the conversation below:
GC: How did you first get involved with “To Appomattox”? What will your role be with production?
CE: My involvement with To Appomattox began with a suggestion from my friend, author Thomas Fleming, to contact documentary filmmakers about making my George Washington book into a film. I had developed a friendship with him over the previous two years, as he was quite impressed with my photo narrative format in the George Washington book, and offered to help me, as well as write the introduction for it. By the way, his next books will be his 51st and 52nd , and will be with Da Capo Press; one on the Civil War and the other on the Revolution. So as I began to contact documentary filmmakers, I saw comments about the upcoming To Appomattox on various reenactor chat rooms, and contacted Michael Beckner with a photo narrative book I was working on about all the battles of Robert E. Lee. Like Tom, he also liked the format, and after reading his script, I decided to combine a Grant and Lee battle narrative into a single book in the hope that he would use it as a companion volume to his film. As for the production itself, I don’t see myself having a role in that. At one point, we discussed another photographic book that would present my photographs of the actual battlefields to the sets that they will create, and I suggested we ask each actor the same three questions about the Civil War, and sprinkle their answers throughout the book. [People love celebrity quotes!] Maybe something to add to the DVD boxed set.
GC: This is something I asked J.D: what are your hopes for what this series will accomplish?
CE: My hope for the series is that it will reach a whole new generation who are not being taught the central role that the Civil War played in making Americans who we are. The American Revolution set us free, but the Civil War was the white-hot cauldron that forged what it would mean to be an “American.” That war decided what kind of country we would be, with freedom for all, regardless of race, creed, or religion. It settled issue of slavery once and for all, something that had been a stain on America’s character since the first slaves arrived. And I think this series has a unique opportunity to reach people across a wide spectrum of age, interest and education, as a result of the script that Michael Beckner has crafted. Not only is it extremely accurate, but he weaves the drama of the war into his story while capturing the relationships between so many of these generals who shape the way this war was fought. These men had bonded together like brothers during their years together at West Point, and in so many life and death battles during the Mexican-American War. By placing these deep relationships at the very heart of the story, he paints a compelling and accurate picture of the gut-wrenching human drama that tore so deep into American families. I think when the final episode airs, the viewer will come away with a very accurate picture of who these principle characters were; flawed human beings who often did unbelievably heroic deeds. And this series can be a jumping off spot for people who want to learn more about the Civil War, and that includes schools. We have spoken of creating a lesson plan for all levels in the educational system, starting with middle school, all the way up to college level courses. Everything in this film reflects the most recent scholarship, and all my books are designed to appeal to a more visual generation who will see elegant photographs of the battlefield itself, what the soldiers looked like, opposite a thrilling narrative designed to spark a deeper interest in these stories that every American should know by heart.
GC: What event or character are you most excited to see portrayed on-screen?
CE: I think I’m most excited to see Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman portrayed accurately on the screen. So many films have painted both men as a caricature of who history and their own private letters teach us they really were. The truth is always more interesting than fiction, and in the case of these two men, it could not be more applicable. Like all of us, both men were flawed human beings who overcame a whole range of human hardships, to contribute and shape America in positive ways that still reverberate in our culture today. I also look forward to seeing the relationships develop between the young boys who arrived at West Point, and would someday lead these immense armies against each other. Men who had been like brothers; West Point roommates, Mexican War tent mates, the best-man at each other’s weddings, many married each other’s sisters, etc. The story Michael Beckner will bring to the screen, will really show the bond that developed between the men, North and South, who would lead these armies in a war that cost more than 620,000 American lives, and another 500,000 wounded.
GC: You just got back from a photo shoot for a book you are working on. Can you tell us about that?
CE: The photo shoot was at Antietam. It was for my Civil War book, On to Appomattox: Grant & Lee, Following the Warrior’s Trail. Early in the summer, I met a number of young, lean reenactors, mostly from the 63rd Virginia. In this case, two of men are park rangers at Antietam National Battlefield, and were able to secure permission for a few of them to sleep on the battlefield last Saturday night. While I already have more than enough photographs to complete this book right now, I keep getting better and better reenactor photographs, so it’s very hard to stop at this point! Ha! These are all young, lean men of the right age and weight to reflect the kinds of men who actually fought the Civil War, so I plan to get a few thousand more images so that I can operate from abundance when it’s time to put the book together. I’ve posted a few of the new ones on my Facebook page, but I always keep the majority offline, and save them for the book.
GC: Do you have a favorite battlefield you like to visit? How about a favorite General? And why?
CE: I don’t really have a favorite battlefield or general, per se. Like so many stories from history, there is always something new to discover. At any given time, there are usually eight to ten books on my nightstand that span anywhere from the Roman Empire to the Afghanistan war. I sometimes read two or three books on the French & Indian War, before choosing a different era and immersing myself into that. So there is always something new to read and learn about. When I tire of a certain subject for a while, I simply go to a new subject and my interest is renewed.
GC: Lastly, if you had a time machine and could travel back to any period in history (aside from the Civil War), where would you go and why?
CE: Great question! And that reminds me of a movie that must have had a great deal to do with deepening my interest in history at a young age. The 1960 movie Time Machine with Rod Taylor, was an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ famous novel. While the 1960-era special effects left allot to be desired, like the body-builders who played mutants, painted blue with really bad, long-haired white wigs, it was that time machine itself that really intrigued me. The machine itself could never move off of its specific patch of earth, but could go backwards or forwards in time, according to the date you set on the “dashboard” of what looked like a stripped-down Model A. As Rod set the machine to go backwards, the time-lapse of his neighborhood would be visible in all directions, until the buildings were long-gone and dinosaurs were roaming the neighborhood. When he went forward in time [if memory serves], nuclear war had left the landscape with very few humans who were working as slaves underground and being rounded up by the blue mutants! Now I grew up about two miles from Valley Forge, and during our winter sledding of the hills below where Anthony Wayne’s men were stationed, I would try to imagine what had happened in specific spots around the park like Washington’s headquarters, the river crossings, etc. Ever since that movie, I often make history a little more real when I am standing where it happened, by pausing for a few minutes, and quietly reflecting on what happened there right where I am standing. I have a Twitter account approaching 20,000 followers, and a post a few stories each day from the History Channel about what happened “This Day in History.” Knowing that something happened on this day, so many years ago, makes it a little more real to me to stop and imagine it occurring “on this very day!” Now, if I had that time machine you’ve so graciously brought to me, I would have a virtually endless list of where I would like to go. But if you would make me choose a single place and time, this week I would travel back to the Battle of Long Island which will take place this Saturday, 235 years ago, August 27, 1776. It was the first major battle of the American Revolution after the Declaration of Independence, and the beginning of a brutal series of losses for our young Continental army that would test George Washington’s resolve all the way until he turned the table on the Hessians at Trenton on Christmas night. Exactly how long can I stay?
I would like to thank Cary, not only for this interview, but for his kind words. When he sent me the responses to my questions, he noted, “First, I wanted to compliment you on your blog site. It’s really impressive to see how you are crafting this site into something really special! And I am honored that you have asked me to be a part of it.” This really means a lot to me, and hope to keep interviews such as these coming as many times as I can! And please click here to visit Cary’s official website.
Unlike the other cast members of the films Gods and Generals and Gettysburg that I have been able to track down over the last several months, Les Kinsolving is not noted for his acting. Appearing as Confederate General William Barksdale, the distant cousin of the real general, he is more known for his career in the political spectrum, which includes serving as a White House correspondent (part-time now) and talk-radio host on 680 WCBM, which is run out of Baltimore. Les’ career has spanned several decades and has encompassed so much, including being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
When I was done asking him about his filming experience, I just had to probe him on some of his political views, and what being a reporter in our nation’s capital is like. Les was very kind to me and answered all of my questions, and I did not even know this interview was going to be taking place when I woke up this morning. I had contacted him a few days ago, and he responded this afternoon. Rather than schedule an interview for the future, we thought it best to just get it done today. I asked him about his filming experience, what it is like being related to a Civil War general (and a second one which will knock your socks off!), and much more, in our interview below!
LK: Well, I have a cousin, the one that I played the part of, General William Barksdale, and I had always been interested in the Civil War, and I heard they were going to do a movie on the battle of Gettysburg. So, I talked to the author of The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara, on the phone and I enjoyed speaking to him very much. He was a very stimulating person and he told me about Ron Maxwell who was going to direct it. I phoned up to Maxwell in New York, and we made an appointment. I did not tell him of my relation to Barksdale, and I talked with him and we had a wonderful time and there was a great deal of mutual interest. It was then when I told him of my relationship to General Barksdale of Mississippi, and he asked, “You’re his cousin?” and I responded, “I am.” and he said, “You look like him.” Then he said, “Just a minute”, and he went into this closet and came out after a while with this great big picture of Barksdale. He was the only Confederate general at Gettysburg who did not have a beard or a mustache, and again he told me that I looked like him, and I said, “I’m complimented”. He then asked me if I would like the part! (laughs). It took a long time to be produced but I had the part, and I played it again in Gods and Generals, which followed it.
GC: In both films, your scenes were very short, but how much did you have to prepare for these roles?
LK: I had previously been in a considerable number of plays, both little theater and light opera, but this did not take any time at all—I just had a couple of lines in each. I was still honored to have these lines. When I was first cast in Gettysburg, there were no lines and Maxwell waited until my scene came and put in a line for me. General Lee, played by Martin Sheen, says to me, “General Barksdale, is Mississippi ready?” and I said, “Mississippi is ready!”. (laughs) And that was it! I just had one or two lines in Gods and Generals as well. But in Gettysburg, I also played an extra as a flag bearer in a Virginia regiment during Pickett’s Charge, which took seven days to film.
GC: What was the hardest part of your filming experience?
LK: I think the hardest part was when I was playing this Confederate flag bearer and we went over the wall at the charge, and there were three huge Yankees who went after my flag, and I held it and it broke right in two, and I went down and got kicked; I don’t think they did it on purpose, there was just an enormous amount of action. They strapped me up with one of these wrap-around bandages and I was able to go back and do it three or four more times, because we did that scene six times that day.
GC: Did you happen to see the Gettysburg documentary that was on the History Channel last week?
LK: I did not see the whole thing because it came on while I was broadcasting.
GC: Okay, because there was a pretty big section on General Barksdale in it and I was just curious if you had any thoughts on that.
LK: Yes, my son watched it and told me, and I just ran in and took one look and was disgusted because the first thing I saw was that this Barksdale had a beard, and Barksdale did not have a beard at the time of the battle! The picture that I have of him, he does not have one, and I was disgusted at that.
GC: Now, a lot of us Civil War enthusiasts and historians wish we could be related to somebody who fought during the Civil War, so what is it like for you, to not only be related to a soldier, but a prominent general at that?
LK: Well, I am also related to another Confederate soldier named Robert E. Lee, who is a fifth cousin. Robert Duvall, who portrayed Lee in Gods and Generals, was also related to him, and so we found that we were distant cousins.
GC: What it is like being related to one of the greatest generals in military history?
LK: I agree with you, I think he is one of the greatest men in our history, with enormous courage and fundamental decency, and he will always be remembered. Of course, there are those that like to tear him to pieces, but that is expected of those who are still fighting that war.
GC: I would like to move to your other career now, as a White House correspondent. What does that entail?
LK: I am a White House correspondent, but I am not a full-time one anymore because I am a talk radio host and columnist, and I just can’t do it full-time, and with this particular press secretary, as well as the last one, who are two of the three most difficult I have ever dealt with, they hardly ever call on me. This one almost refuses me consistently, so I only go once a week. What I do is, I always have two questions, just two. He allows the people in the front two rows from the networks, to ask eight, ten, and twelve questions, but he will try to bypass me. Sometimes I will call out the networks, and sometimes I don’t. So what I do is, we report for the nine million people who visit World Net Daily, we list all the people at the briefing and the large majority whom he never recognizes or allows to ask questions because he is playing favorites with the front two rows. I think that is abysmal. I made a suggestion once, which was one of the few times I have ever had applause from the back, that he should call on each person in the front row for two questions and work his way right back so he gives everybody a chance, and then go back to the front row and give them two more. That got applause, but not from the front row (laughs).
GC: I have another question for you, and this is just out of curiosity, but what do you think of Sarah Palin?
LK: To look upon her, I think she is a very beautiful lady, and I realize that she had a lot of problems at home, but I think she really damaged herself by leaving the position of Governor of Alaska. I thought she did a good job out there, but she resigned. Now she is going all over the country campaigning, but she hasn’t, to the best of my knowledge, announced her candidacy as yet. I’m generally impressed with a lot of what she stands for, though I do not agree with her on everything…I don’t think there is anybody I agree with on everything.
GC: One more political question for you, who would be your favorite president, whether in your lifetime or in the past?
LK: Let me say that I think the greatest of all presidents, closely followed by Abraham Lincoln, was the father of our country, George Washington. I am a great admirer of his and he was not only a military leader that without him, we would have never won our independence, but he was our first president and guided us through the really tough times in getting us established as a country. There are a number who I admire in the modern era as well. I personally liked Ronald Reagan a great deal and I knew him when he was in California because I was a columnist and reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, and then the Examiner, while he was governor. There were times when I would ask him questions and he was always very astute and very amusing. I thought he was a great president, and there were others of course. The Roosevelt’s were two of the greatest and let me see who else…we have had some bad ones (laughs).
GC: Well, then who would be the worst president of your lifetime?
LK: That would be a tie between Jimmy Carter and the one we’ve got now (laughs).
GC: Thanks for being honest! I’m an independent so I don’t care who you don’t like.
LK: It’s not that I don’t like Barack Obama, it’s just that he has these press conferences where there are eighty reporters (I’ve stopped going to his press conferences) and they’re ridiculous. He’ll only call on certain ones. In the last three he called on thirteen, thirteen, and seven. He takes an enormous amount of time in answering questions—he gives these long monologues, and it sounds like he is dodging questions with these long answers, and he does this often. That is one of the reasons why I am not very impressed with him. There are times when I have commended him, and I think his order to go after Bin Laden was wonderful, but I think Bush had the same purpose. If they had just found him earlier under Bush, like the Seals did, I think he would have given the same order. I will try to be fair with the president whenever he says or does something that I believe honestly is good. I feel that it is only fair that you should try to emphasize that, and I do.
GC: One last question for you, and this is going back to the Civil War. If there is one piece of information that you think is being taught the most incorrectly about it, what would that be to you?
LK: I would say the alleged massacre at Fort Pillow, where they try to smear [Confederate General] Nathan Bedford Forrest. I have really studied that issue, and I have concluded and spoken out on this a number of times that it was not true. I think there are a lot of things that are misrepresented, but that is one of the worst. I hope that answers your question.
GC: Yes, it is definitely up there on my list. That, and people who say the war was fought solely because of slavery.
LK: Well, the interesting thing about the slavery issue, which is not often mentioned (laughs), is that among the slaveholders in the United States were Ulysses S. Grant and Mrs. Grant.
GC: And I don’t think Robert E. Lee owned any.
LK: His wife, Mary Custis, had a number of slaves, and he emancipated them. Grant, who was too poor to keep slaves, sold them, but Mrs. Grant continued to own them, and I think it was in 1864, she was almost captured by Confederate cavalry with her slaves! (laughs) I have no indication that the Grant’s ever mistreated their slaves, and I do not believe that the Lee’s did either. I have always been opposed to slavery, even though I am a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and I was one of the 25,000 who walked in the last day of the Selma March to Montgomery, because I believe new occasions teach new duties, and time makes ancient good uncouth.
GC: I want to thank you so much for this interview. It was great getting a chance to speak to you.
LK: It was my pleasure, and I hope that this gave you everything you needed, and I am grateful and honored.
I want to thank Les again for taking the time to conduct this interview. It truly was an enlightening experience! You can visit his official website here. Please check out my other interviews with Gods and Generals and Gettysburg personnel, located in the Civil War section on this site, which include Brian Mallon (General Hancock), Patrick Gorman (General Hood), Bo Brinkman (Major Taylor), and Jeff Shaara (Author of G & G).
Yesterday afternoon, I had the pleasure of meeting with Kurt Epps, who you all met here, at the Proprietary House in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. The award-winning writer, speaker, and historian was having a documentary filmed on him by a pair of students from Montclair State University, who were delving into the work Kurt does at the house, most importantly with his character, Royal Governor William Franklin. When the self-proclaimed “legend in his own mind” asked me to come along, I could not say no, and answered some questions that the two filmmakers had as well as sitting in on their interview.
There was also a gift I had been waiting to give Kurt since we both attended a dinner in November, and that is a Coors Lite bottle shaped like a Louisville Slugger baseball bat (pictured above). The Governor accepted it, and admitted he had never seen anything like it before, even though he had some choice words to say about Coors, a beer he would not be seen drinking even if there was a loaded gun to his head.
Being a blogger himself, Kurt was kind enough to give me a shout-out on his website, aptly named The Pub Scout. Below is an excerpt of what he wrote last night:
Admittedly, I’m no devotee of Coors Beer, and I confess I rarely follow professional baseball these days, but thanks to a friend named Greg Caggiano, I became an owner of some pretty neat memorabilia today. It’s that bottle in the shape of a Louisville Slugger in the pictures to the right of this blog. I was impressed by the detail of the wood-grain look, and even the number 18 on the bottle cap. In my youth, I recall that all the Louisville Sluggers I ever got my hands on had the bat size stamped on the bottom. This bottle bat has the number of ounces in the bottle in that hallowed spot.
Of course, back in the day, all bats were made out of wood and cost about $6. Today, they’re made of space age metal, can rocket a ball at you faster than a bullet from a .357 Magnum and cost as much as a ticket to a Yankee game.
I don’t know how much a collectors’ item like this is worth, nor do I care. There was no beer in the bottle (which may have actually increased its value to me). Still, it’s neat to have. Maybe the Mets should come up with something like this to keep their fans happy…
It was a great afternoon hanging out with Governor Franklin, as well as the film crew of Rob Dickerson and Matt Fabiano. They shot about fifteen minutes worth of an interview, but I managed to film a few minutes of it myself, with a sort of behind-the-scenes look. Enjoy this story Kurt tells about the house and how he first got involved with acting there:
The next time Kurt will be at the Proprietary House is June 12, when we reenact the arrest of William Franklin. All are invited to attend this free and lively event, where we get to see him in full form. Just don’t acknowledge the picture of George Washington hanging in the foyer, for it is highly insulting to his excellency.
There are people who know their stuff, and then there are people who really know their stuff—Jeff Shaara would fall into the latter category. It was an incredible opportunity to be able to interview the author of Civil War novels Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure, both of which have reached the New York Times Bestseller List. Jeff Shaara has been lauded by readers and historians alike who appreciate his epic style of storytelling, that has included nine novels spanning the American Revolution, Mexican-American War, Civil War, World War I, and World War II, with the fourth part of his WWII series coming out in May. I really learned a lot today, not only about history in general, but what goes into writing a book and how that gets transformed into a film. I also had to ask about his late-father Michael, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning historical-fiction novel The Killer Angels, which was turned into one of the most successful war films of all-time, Gettysburg, in 1993.
I knew the interview would be great because right off the bat I told Jeff to feel free to talk as much as he would like, and he jokingly said he felt a bit intimidated by that, and I explained that sometimes interviewees give only a one sentence answer. His response was, “I never do that.” Our main focus today was the Civil War but we covered all aspects of American history in our interview below:
GC: I just want to start off by asking you about your father. I read somewhere that you and him were not close while he was writing The Killer Angels. Is this true?
JS: Actually, the chronology of that is a little bit inaccurate. During the writing of The Killer Angels, we were extremely close. I was a teenager at the time and we went to Gettysburg together and worked on some of the research together, and I stopped way short of taking any credit for the book, that’s not what I’m saying. During the time writing the book, he was suffering physically because of his first heart attack and there were a lot of things, particularly on the battlefield of Gettysburg, that he could not do such as climbing the Round Tops and things like that. I was the kid, so that was my job to go around through the bushes and climb the hills looking for things that he was trying to find. After the writing, when the book came out in 1974, he and I, by that time, had parted ways, so when the book was published we had a very difficult relationship. He had a difficult relationship with almost everyone including his brother and father. He was very dramatic in the way he approached relationships and if you didn’t live up to his expectations or do things the way he thought they ought to be done, he had a tendency to react very dramatically and write you out of his life. He was a difficult man, he was suffering from the effects, not only of his heart disease, but of a motorcycle accident that had happened in Florence, Italy, in the early 1970′s that really cracked him on the head badly—he was in a coma for several weeks and the effects of that changed his entire life; it changed his brain, the way he wrote, the way he thought about things and it really affected his relationship with everyone.
GC: What inspired you to write the prequel and the sequel?
JS: It began, and you probably know some of this, with the film Gettysburg. It was this film being such an enormous success, and for my family, it propelled The Killer Angels to number one on the bestseller list, and it had never been a bestseller at all. When it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, the book was never successful, which was really a blow to my father. He expected greater things to come from that. Any writer who receives the Pulitzer Prize has the right to believe that his ship has come in and that all the doors will fly open and he can do anything he wants now, and that didn’t happen to him. So it was very ironic and very bittersweet to my family that in 1993 and 1994, when Gettysburg was such a monumental success, he missed all that. He died in 1988 and didn’t live to see any of it. And so when I learned that Ted Turner wanted to do more Civil War films, the idea would be to take my father’s book and go before and after it with some of the same characters. I had never written anything before, I was not a writer, I never wanted to be a writer. I was actually a dealer of rare coins and precious metals down in Tampa, and the idea of continuing his work, the whole point was for me to tackle this, but it was always about a film, about doing the background and research, creating a story that someone else could adapt for a screenplay. Because I’m representing my father’s estate in New York, and the heirs are my sister and I, my sister being an anthropologist, she said to just handle it and that she wasn’t interested in the business side of it at all. Well, I’d been a business man all my life so it was natural to me. So I’m dealing with the publisher in New York, Random House, who now has this number one bestseller, and so they’re taking my phone calls and I’m getting to know these people up there, and when I told them I was working on the prequel to The Killer Angels, their response was, “Send it to us and we’ll take a look at it.” That totally surprised me because I had no expectations. I’m often asked, “How did you know how to write a book?” I had no clue, and secondly, “Were you intimidated by trying to follow your father’s footsteps?” The answer to that is no, because I had no expectations. Ron Maxwell and I agreed that if whatever I wrote was lousy, nobody would ever see it. It would go in the trash can and that would be the end of it. I attacked this with really no sense of destiny or any of that. All I was trying to do was put a story together with the same kind of research my father had done, which I learned with walking with him at Gettysburg, was to put a story together that could be adapted to a screenplay. When I sent the manuscript to Random House in September of 1995, and I’ll never forget this, the phone call I got from Claire Ferraro, who was the publisher then, said, “We don’t care if it’s a movie. We like the book. We think you’re a writer, here’s the contract.” That changed my whole life.
GC: When you write a novel, how much research do you do and how long does it typically take you?
JS: The research is usually twice as long as it takes to write the book. I typically read 50 to 60 books for each book that I write, and it has to be original source material—the diaries, the memoirs, the letters, the collections of writings of the people who were there. That is a big lesson I learned from my father, stay away from modern history and modern biographies. That does me no good at all. If you’re getting into the heads of a character, and you’re speaking for a real historical character, you better get it right because a lot of people out there will get pretty upset about that. I had somebody actually say to me, “How dare you put words in the mouth of Robert E. Lee?” Well, okay, that’s a challenge and if I dare do that, or put words in the mouth of George Washington, or “Black Jack” Pershing, or Eisenhower, or Adolf Hitler for that matter, I had better believe that those words are authentic to that character because if I don’t believe it, neither will you. Then the book deserves to lose credibility. That’s the point of research, to feel that before I even write the first word, feel as though I know the character and that I would speak for them. Once the reading is done, the other part of it, is again, a lesson I learned from my father, to walk the ground. To go walk in the footsteps of people, see the hillsides, see the battlefields, see the homes, the grave sites, whatever there is out there for me to see, and it’s not that it’s mystical—I don’t go to battlefields and look for ghosts, but there really is something very powerful about walking the same ground as the characters I’m writing about. That’s a crucial part of the research as well. Once that is done, only then do I start writing, and typically, it takes me five to six months to write a manuscript because I’m doing it full-time.
GC: You’ve made hundreds of historical figures come alive in your books, but in your two Civil War novels, which of them has been your favorite?
JS: There are some obvious answers there, like Joshua Chamberlain, and the characters that people latch onto and have made popular, but I love the character of Ulysses S. Grant, and to some people he is sort of a non-entity because he’s not as charismatic as Robert E. Lee, he doesn’t have the young charm of Chamberlain, but Grant changed history. Grant changed the world, and he was responsible, primarily, because you can make an argument that Abraham Lincoln had something to do with it, for winning the war, and a lot of people don’t realize just how powerful his role was. I just love his character, I love his relationship with his wife. Writing his death at the tail-end of The Last Full Measure was difficult, I was emotional about it. I did the same with all three of the characters in The Last Full Measure, Lee, Grant, and Chamberlain, and I said goodbye to each of the three of them but Grant in particular, because he was suffering from throat cancer and dealing with Mark Twain and these magnificent scenes at the end of his life, and boy that was hard. So I would pick him above all others.
GC: What was your reaction when you found out that Ron Maxwell wanted to make a movie out of Gods and Generals?
JS: Well, Ron and I had been talking all the way through Gettysburg and I got to know him during the filming, and so we had talked about this for years. We talked about it from the time it was a success in the theaters and from the time The Killer Angels became a bestseller, we were already talking about continuing with this project. We struggled through several years because this was something we wanted to do and no one else cared. We had a lot of verbal support, and a lot of Civil War groups and reenactors thought this was a great idea, but unfortunately none of them had millions of dollars to make this happen (laughs). Even when we started talking with TNT and Ted Turner’s people it was difficult because none of them really believed in this project. So it wasn’t a surprise to me when we started talking about this, it was the point right from the beginning.
GC: Did you have any role in the production at all?
JS: None. We could expand on that but I don’t know that I want to. To this day, I do not own a finished script, and I made some suggestions that were ignored, little historical things that I thought were problematic, and they listened dutifully and ignored everything I said. I realize at the end of the day, this was not my film—it was Ron Maxwell’s and Ted Turner’s film. I really had nothing to do creatively with the film or physically with the production. I mean, I’m in it, in one scene on camera, but really, it’s not my movie, and if I can add, it’s also not my book. It’s based on my book, despite what some historians say, and I’ll leave that alone, but it is based on my book but it is not my book. It is maybe ten percent of my book, and that was really a shock to me because The Killer Angels is about ninety percent of the film Gettysburg.
GC: Yeah, The Killer Angels is almost word for word.
JS: That’s exactly right, it is almost word for word. In Gods and Generals, there are maybe only three or four scenes taken from my book and put in the film, and that’s it. It’s an entirely different movie than I would have written, and would have liked to have seen done.
GC: My next question was actually going to be, for those that have not read the book, how did it differ from the final print of the film? But I guess that would be too much to go into.
JS: It’s enormously different, it’s radically different from the film. There are characters in the film that do not exist in the book, and a great many characters in the book that never made it to the film. It’s just an entirely different story, and I have to tell you, I’ve heard from literally thousands of people through my website, and I get emails every day and try to be as accessible as I can, and the overwhelming percentage of those that wrote me said, “How could you let them butcher your book like that?” I have no answer to that because I had no control or power to change what came up on the screen.
GC: I know you said on your website that right now, there are no plans to make The Last Full Measure into a film, but if they do decide to make it into a film in the next four years because of the 150th anniversary, will you comply with that and let them use your manuscript?
JS: When you say “they”, that’s the big question. Who is “they”? (laughs) We don’t know the answer to that because there is no “they” right now, but the thing is, there were mistakes made with Gods and Generals that I would not allow to happen again. If a film is going to be made from The Last Full Measure, I will have much more involvement or there simply won’t be a film. I’m not saying it has to be a hundred percent my book, I know better than that, some things don’t translate from the book to the screen, I get that. It’s not about ego, it’s about telling the story. The failure of Gods and Generals was to tell a good story and reach out to the general audience. The enormous success of Gettysburg was that it was attractive to a general audience. You didn’t have to be a Civil War buff or reenactor to understand what was going on, the characters were developed for you so you knew who they were, and it was a marvelous film. In Gods and Generals, the film was almost, and I don’t know this, it is my opinion, as though it was geared to the academic historians and the general audience was ignored. I’ve heard that, it’s not just my opinion, from a huge number of people. Like a guy would go to the film all excited because he knew what the story was about, and he would take his wife and kids and the wife and kids would get up and leave because they had no clue what was going on. That was the problem and it will not happen again. I’m not saying I will write the script, I’m not arrogant to suggest that I’m also a screenwriter because I don’t know that I can do it, but I will have considerable input into the script and will make sure it’s a good story and that it does appeal to a general audience, or there will be no film.
GC: Well, let’s hope that a producer steps forward and puts down some money because I would really like to see this trilogy complete.
JS: It has to start there, you’re absolutely right. That’s the other thing I hear, and I get letters on this literally every day, people want to know (which was why I put the note on my website) when the third movie is coming out, and it’s like they’re waiting for the shoe to drop because the story needs to be completed. I’ve had people chew me out and say, “Why aren’t you making the third film?” as though somehow I am stopping this. Gods and Generals cost $60 million to make, and if someone comes up with $60 million, fine, let’s talk. But so far it hasn’t happened (laughs).
GC: Could all of this have been avoided if they made Gods and Generals into a miniseries? Say like five parts, or even two separate films which was talked about?
JS: I don’t think the two separate movie idea would have worked, but I do think the miniseries idea would have worked much better. The problem is, you can’t make a ten-hour movie, I get that, but you can make a ten hour miniseries and I think some of the resistance, originally from TNT, and I don’t know this for sure, but some of the resistance was because they realized there was just too much story to cram into a movie that someone is going to sit in a theater and want to watch. Definitely, it could have been much more successful as a miniseries.
GC: You plan on writing another Civil War trilogy, this time on the western theater. Can you tell us anything about that?
JS: Yes, the book I just finished, which will be out in May, is the fourth and final WWII piece, the end of the war in the Pacific. I am working, right now, on the research, for a new trilogy which will be Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Sherman’s March. Each one will be out in the spring, starting in 2012, ’13, and ’14, with each one of those year’s being the 150th anniversary of those events. It’s a challenge because doing a book a year is tough. I have so much research material already that I think gives me a leg up and I’m very excited about this, as is my publisher and people I’ve talked to around the country. This is funny, and I have to laugh, I’ve gotten a lot of letters from people in Tennessee and Mississippi saying, “You know, we’re kind of tired of hearing about just Robert E. Lee and Virginia.” (laughs) There’s a whole lot more story that no one seems to want to find out about. I’ll respond to that and do the best I can.
GC: I just took a Civil War course in college, and I knew so much about the War previously, but this class just opened by eyes to how much more is out there, and not many people focus on the western theater and it’s always Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson in the east, and I think the west would be a very important part of the war that hasn’t been covered.
JS: I agree completely, which is why I’m excited about doing this.
GC: Aside from the Civil War, you’ve written about the Mexican-American War, the American Revolution, WWI, and WWII. Which of those has been your favorite topic to cover?
JS: That’s a tough question, and the problem in answering that is, if I don’t love the characters and period I’m writing about, I’m not going to write a very good book. When I move into a new era, I get totally swallowed up by that era—I’m totally immersed in it and the characters. Of course, the biggest challenge is finding those characters and who the voices are going to be. I’m very proud of the American Revolution series. A lot of people have said this to me, and I don’t judge my own book, I wouldn’t even know how, that my World War I book is my best book. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ve heard that. The book I had the most fun doing was the Mexican War story, Gone for Soldiers, because I knew the characters so well from being involved in the Civil War and doing so much research, and going back to their early lives, and all of them with the exception of Chamberlain, talk about their experiences in Mexico and the profound effect it had on them. I didn’t know anything about the subject, most people don’t, and I started doing the research, and found a wonderful story and one that I had no idea existed—the heroism of Jackson, Grant, Longstreet, and Lee, was amazing. I didn’t know any of those stories and it was a lot of fun to write, plus I love the character of Winfield Scott and Santa Anna. I had a great deal of fun with both of them.
GC: I’m actually a big Alamo buff, so would you ever consider writing a story about that, since you mentioned Santa Anna?
JS: There have been two stories suggested to me that I should write. One is the Alamo and one is Custer’s last stand. Because they have been done so many times, I don’t know that I could do that. The thing is, the story of the Alamo doesn’t stop at the Alamo. The rest of the story is San Jacinto and Sam Houston and if I was to do it, it would probably be the whole war for Texas independence. I’ve had a lot of people from Texas write to me about that. As you know, the story is not just the Alamo. It’s hard to compete, especially when you have John Wayne’s Davy Crockett, it’s hard to tell a story and get away from that, and I would have to get away from that.
GC: I’m with the people from Texas, I think the story needs to be told, mainly, because no one has ever gotten it right. The John Wayne version was very inaccurate, to say the least.
JS: Absolutely, even the most recent Alamo movie and some of the books, nobody has gotten it right. Right now I have a pretty full plate and what I really want to do after the Civil War set is Korea and a Vietnam story, so I’m not sure when I would do that, but you’re right, it’s a story that needs to be told right.
GC: One last thing, an email question from “Andy”, and he writes, “Do you ever plan to write a novel that does not deal with war?”
JS: I get asked that fairly often, and it isn’t that I’ve decided to do nothing but war stories but my publisher was very clear, and they’ve told me that I’ve built an audience and it’s the thing my father never did. My father always wrote different topics. People are always asking me what other historical works did he write besides The Killer Angels, and the answer is none. He wrote a baseball story, a Hitchcock sci-fi story, he was all over the map. My publisher was clear that I’ve built an audience with this one theme, the epic historical military novel, and as long as there are readers out there who want this, to stick with it. Now there is a story I want to do, and I don’t want to get into too much, because it’s been done a few times, but I would like to do a story of a 1930′s gangster. The other thing, if I ever went outside of the United States and did a foreign story, it would probably be Napoleon. Even though that’s military, it’s a very different story and one that most Americans have no idea about. But for now, my publisher says, and this looks terrible on paper, but, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That’s the philosophy that they are employing with me right now. I’ve got an audience and the following is there so until that audience goes away, I’ll stick with what I’m doing.
I want to thank Mr. Shaara for taking the time out of his busy schedule to conduct this interview. It truly was an enlightening afternoon and I hope you all enjoyed reading this rather lengthy and extensive piece. I can only hope that The Last Full Measure will be made one day, but until then, enjoy the terrific books on American wars that Jeff has given us, because the book is always better than the film. Also, don’t forget to check out his website.