Civil War News Review

For the newest review of Stand to It and Give Them Hell go to this site:
http://www.civilwarnews.com/reviews/2014br/nov/stand-priest-br111404.html?utm_source=Campaigner&utm_campaign=November_14_CWN_Newsletter_&campaigner=1&utm_medium=HTMLEmail

While you are at it, consider purchasing Mr. Jorgensen's excellent micro-history, Gettysburg's Bloody Wheatfield, which is now available in Kindle, Nook, and iTunes formats.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Primary Sources on the Internet


I use the Internet a great deal to find hard to obtain historical resources.  I have listed below those to which I refer.


This is an excellent source to find regimental rosters, and war related primary sources on every New York unit, which served during the Civil War. I have found it invaluable in identifying obscure documents  relating to the regiments about which I have written. Some photos are available of individual soldiers and regimental flags.


The Soldier and Sailor System consists of a searchable database for nearly every Union and Confederate regiment which was involved in the war.  It is a great way to identify men by state, company, and regiment and to find thumbnail regimental histories. This provides the researcher with only the individual’s company and ranks held throughout the war but does not indicate when he transferred or got promoted. It is a great place to start.  The U.S. Regular Army citations are the most incomplete.


Confederate Veteran is self-explanatory. For about 30 years the aging Confederate soldiers contributed memoirs and recollections to this serial magazine. A great deal of the material is devoted to perpetuating the “Lost Cause”, and meticulously recording the  obituaries of its members. Nevertheless, it does contain a great deal of good war time material. Check out the sources carefully.  As they got older the veterans tended to promote themselves to ranks they never attained during the conflict. This is also a great genealogical source.


The War Papers of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, with the exception of the Pennsylvania Commandery, are mostly downloadable. Part of the site also contain transcriptions of some of the articles which were cited in the index but not available through other sources. It contains a complete index for every volume.


The National Tribune, which later evolved into Stars and Stripes, began as the voice for Union veterans’ to press the government to pay them pensions. This index only covers this weekly veterans’ paper from 1871 through 1911, but the information within its pages are invaluable. The editors dedicated at least one page in every issue under the caption “Fighting Them Over”, for the old soldiers to record their recollections of the War and to argue over points of accuracy. It was the early version of  Facebook and ran into the 1930’s by which time the information became harder to find and less reliable.


If the reader wants to find downloadable published recollections, memoirs, and regimental histories this is the go to site. It is a great way to build up a research library of hard to find material. http://archives.org is another great site.


Exclusively dedicated to Pennsylvania’s regiments, a person can look up regimental rosters, diaries, published materials, prison records, in some cases, photos of soldiers.  It is a real gem.


For anyone studying Gettysburg who wants to go to the library in the battlefield Visitor Center, this is the source to use to identify particular regimental and biographical sources. I cannot recommend this too highly. The battlefield library also has a tremendous collection of hard copy regimental histories. Call in advance to make an appointment to use the library. The librarian is a tremendous individual to work with. You can bring a camera to photograph pictures and you may bring in a laptop computer.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

“Only”


In a recent web discussion about Gettysburg, a small controversy sprang up over the word “only.” The following does not minimize or denigrate any of the contributors’ comments. Rather, it prompted me to evaluate about how often the word appears in historical interpretation.

            As an interpreter/guide at Antietam, for instance, I have often used it to compare the casualties inflicted in the four major battlefield sites – the Cornfield, the West Woods, the Bloody Lane, and the Burnside Bridge. Approximately 8,000 casualties occurred in and near the Miller Cornfield in about two hours and twenty minutes. The West Woods claimed an estimated 5,000 in twenty minutes. Around 5,500 fell during the three and a half hour struggle over the Bloody Lane and the three and a half hour struggle for Burnside Bridge accounted for around 600 more. Ironically, the largest number of visitors visit the bridge, followed by the Bloody Lane, the Cornfield, and rarely, the West Woods. 

When explaining this phenomenon to guests, I find myself apologizing for using the word “only” when referring to the number of souls struck down per hour in the most frequented spots on the field. I tell them about the 6th Alabama losing three sets of brothers in the Lane and of the dying father who cradled his deceased son in his arms until death overtook him. I mention the unfortunate Colonel Francis Barlow who received a serious groin wound in the final assault on the Lane. I emphasize how easy it is to reduce battles to numbers and statistics to evaluate which side won, and which side did not. I remind them that the battlefield monuments are tombstones for those comrades who did not return home and not to the survivors.

Referring to the first paragraph, one contributor used “only” to refer to the length of time two brigades stayed in action in the Wheatfield and the low percentage of losses which they incurred. I did not take offense nor do I chastise the individual who punctuated the statement with “only.” From a general's perspective those two brigades might have suffered unacceptably low casualties. In most Civil War actions, the average brigade or regiment, if it was not resupplied with ammunition, would have exhausted most of its rounds in that time. In places like the Wheatfield and the Cornfield, where the opposing forces, because of the limited visibility from the powder smoke, fired into each other at very close ranges, regiments incurred very serious casualties, each one of whom had a name.


These casualty returns come from Tilton’s and Sweitzer’s Brigades, Barnes’s Division, V Corps in the Wheatfield. Bear in mind that Sweitzer went into the field twice. In all three actions, those units spent about 15 – 20 minutes in action. Tilton’s Brigade of four regiments, numbering 655 officers and men lost 19% (125 casualties): 6.25 men/minute. Switzer’s Brigade went into the fray with 1011 officers and men and after an estimated 40 minutes in action lost 420 men (42%): 10.5 men/minute. By Civil War standards, those were not high casualties as compared to our “modern” acceptable casualty rate. Nevertheless, they are just numbers. I write from the soldiers’ perspectives because they were and are not “only” numbers. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Importance of Thanksgiving


On October  3, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln signed the document which officially designated the fourth Thursday in November as the national day of Thanksgiving. 

Following the victories at Gettysburg and more importantly at Vicksburg, the people of Union, despite the horrific suffering created by the Civil War, had reason to give thanks. 

After Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia would never again muster as large an army as it had at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg and with the fall of Vicksburg, the Federal army could execute the final phase of Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan. 

Lincoln still had to face re-election during the war, but militarily, the Confederacy had paid too heavy a price to ever regain its military superiority.

What have we citizens of the United States have to be grateful for during this fast approaching Thanksgiving Day. I cannot speak for anyone other than myself. I am thankful, in no particular order, for:

1.       My lovely wife and our family, for their love, their support, and their patience.

2.       My personal faith, and its promises, which sustain me when my life seems the darkest.

3.       The few close friends in my life.

4.       My counselor, and my doctors whose skills and compassion have guided me along a rather turbulent route to a better life style.

5.       My publisher and his excellent staff who had faith in my work. 

6.       Answered prayers for those who needed it more than I.

7.       A free country and its Constitution and an abiding belief in a government of laws, legally created by a legislative body.

8.       Being alive and viable, warm, and well fed.

9.       The thousands of individuals, who have touched my life, read my books, sat patiently through my classes and have tolerated some very, very bad jokes.

10.    Too many blessings to count and the relegation of so many bad experiences to the past, which has enabled me to emerged as a victor rather than needlessly allow myself wallow in self-pity as a victim.

Like the Confederate’s  prayer which I recounted in an earlier bog, “I am among all men so richly blessed.” Have a great holiday!
     

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Playing “Catch Up”



My apologies for not writing for so long but a lot has happened since I last penned anything. As a soldier in the Civil War would write, “I set down, pen in hand to inform you that I am still in the land of the living.”

1.      Stand to It and Give Them Hell has already gone into its second printing, which is genuinely amazing. At this rate it will outsell Antietam: The Soldiers” Battle.

2.       I have been very busy selling books in Gettysburg.

3.      I have just reviewed Eric J. Wittenberg’s “The Devil’s to Pay” John Buford at Gettysburg: A History and Walking Tour (Savas Beatie, 2014) and George Kimball, A Corporal’s Story, Civil War Reflections of the Twelfth Massachusetts (University of Oklahoma Press, 2014). I highly recommend both to anyone interested in new and refreshing information about the Union cavalry at Gettysburg and the best recollections of the 12th Massachusetts I have yet seen.

4.      I look forward to the talks, which I am giving this winter in Cleveland, OH and Houston, TX and the book signings in Gettysburg during the Remembrance Day celebrations.

5.      I am also engaging in a new research and writing project on a series of Civil War battles in the East.

            When things calm down after November, I will devote more time to the blog.

             Rather than continue babbling I will bid you adieu until I really have something more earth-shaking to share. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Number Crunching: Antietam, the Bloodiest Single Day in U.S. History



As Americans, we are often obsessed with terms like “the most,” “the best,” “the least,” and “the worst” in nearly everything we do. In years books individuals are rated as the “most likely to succeed.” We have BFF – “best friends forever.” We discuss sports teams as the “least likely to win a championship. A lot of this obsession is rooted in our innate competitiveness, despite the Herculean efforts of the politically correct crowd to eliminate it lest we offend someone by labeling them.  
The same applies to military history as well. Trivia like, the “General with the longest beard,” the “tallest man in the Union army,” and “The Bloodiest Day in U.S. History” appeal to many individuals. In this case, I have chosen to discuss the casualties at Antietam. Why? I wanted to explore the veracity of that title. Here are the results:
1.      The editors of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume II examined the reports of Confederate corps and division commanders, which included the losses from September 14, 1862 through September 20, 1862 in their casualty returns.
Those tabulations also excluded the numbers for Jones’ and Rodes’ brigades and A. P. Hill’s entire division.
a.       The officers recorded 1,800 killed, 9,770 wounded, and 2,304 missing in action, which totaled 13,694 casualties.

2.      The editors arbitrarily multiplied those numbers by 80% based upon the assumption that only 20% losses occurred before and after September 18 – 18, 1862.

a.       In turn, they reported 1,512 killed, 7,816 wounded, and 1844 missing which equaled 11,172 casualties.

3.      The Union losses, as tabulated in the Official Records, was 12, 410 which included September 16 – 18, 1862.

4.      When added together, the editors arrived at 23,582, thereby making Antietam the bloodiest single day battle in U.S. history, “fact” which so many historians, myself included, accepted as fact, until now.

a.       We neglected to take into account the editors’ admonition that, at best, the calculations were not necessarily accurate.

5.      The Ezra Carman manuscript, until very recently, hundreds of historians have cited without necessarily using his casualty calculations to check the veracity of the Battle and Leaders estimates. I had consulted his casualty returns when working on Antietam: The Soldiers’ Battle and Before Antietam: The Battle for South Mountain, but never attempted to re-evaluate the returns. Savas Beatie’s release of Thomas G. Clemens’ expertly edited and annotated two-volume edition of the Carman manuscript - The Maryland Campaign of September 1862 – changed everything. With Carman’s charts readily available, I could easily account for the combat losses before and after September 15. Thomas A. McGrath, Shepherdstown: Last Clash of the Antietam Campaign, September 19-20, 1862 contained detailed regimental losses for the Confederates in that action.

a.       Using those two sources, I calculated the following casualties, exclusive of September 17, 1862:

461 killed, 1,838 wounded, 1,523 missing, plus 16 unspecified casualties. Total: 3,838

b.      By deducting those numbers from the original reports in Battles and Leaders, I arrived at the following losses for September 17:

1,339 killed, 7,932 wounded, 781 captured, totaling 10,052 Confederate casualties.

c.       For the Federal losses, I deducted 30 killed and 65 wounded for the skirmishing on September and 4 or 5 miscellaneous casualties in skirmishing on September 18.

This resulted in 2,078 killed, 9,484 wounded, 753 missing, and 5 miscellaneous for a number of 12,310 casualties.

d.       Adding 12,310 to 10,052, the total losses for September 17 are 22,362 casualties in a single day.

6.      Carman concluded that the armies lost 22,726 officers and men.

7.      The National Park Service at Antietam reports approximately 22,720 lost.

Why does this matter?

It clearly illustrates how recent scholarship contributes to a clearer understanding of the past.

It is a reminder not to get overly concerned about whether or not a battle’s fame depends upon its horrible casualty returns, although Antietam still remains the bloodiest single day in U.S. history.

The numbers will always change and authors will continually use them to prove that their calculations are more accurate than someone else’s.

It admonishes me to remember that behind every number is a person with a name, a family, an identity, and a soul. Their humanity takes precedence over statistics.

 

 

 


  

 




Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Heartfelt "Thank You"


 When I was writing my first book, Antietam: The Soldiers' Battle (White Mane, 1989), a colleague and friend of mine at South Hagerstown High School told me that I could write a book with all of the best information available but if no one could read it, it was all in vain.  I took his advice.  I have written all of my battle books from the front line soldiers' perspectives because they intimately experienced the horrors of combat and it changed their lives forever. It changed this country forever, also.

My newest book, Stand to It and Give Them Hell, looks like it is going to surpass all of my other books, which I find rewarding and humbling. I wanted to thank everyone who has obtained a copy of the book and have read it or are intending to read it, because, in doing so, you will personally meet the men who, whether they wanted to or not, sacrificed so much for generations yet unborn. When I receive reviews, like the newest one, which I am posting below, with the author's permission, it encourages me to keep on writing. It means I have accomplished what I have intended to do - to bring home to the public the lives of the Civil War soldiers as Ernie Pyle did for the men and women in World War II and Erich Maria Remarque accomplished for the veterans of the Great War. They experienced war. I have only done so vicariously by being raised around veterans who brought the war home with them and passed their sorrows on to me.

I have not written about them yet and probably will not because I probably will never visit the field upon which they fought and lost their friends and their youth. I have stayed with the Civil War because it was literally fought in my own back yard and I want to preserve the soldiers' memories before a society which does not generally value history shovels them aside.

To my readers "Thank you."  The those who came before, "Thank you." "Lest We Forget."

"When I first heard about the premise of Stand To It and Give Them Hell I was intrigued.  Throughout all of the works about the Battle of Gettysburg I have read, there are only a select few which rely heavily on the primary sources to tell the story.  What John Michael Priest has done in this work has given us the story of the Second Day of Gettysburg from the Round Tops to Cemetery Ridge with over ninety percent of primary sources.  Even before I go into the analysis on the book, I can only say good things about this book.  Priest has given us something which I hope will become a classic in the years to come.

                John Michael Priest is a retired high school history teacher and has always been interested in the American Civil War.  He is a graduate from the Loyola College in Baltimore and Hood College in Frederick, Maryland.  He has written many works on the Civil War including Into the Fight: Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, and  Nowhere to Run: The Wilderness, May 4th & 5th, 1864.  He has also been considered the “Ernie Pyle” of the Civil War soldier by the legendary Ed Bearrs.  Priest is also one of the historical consultants for the upcoming television miniseries To Appomattox.

                Stand To It and Give Them Hell lives up to the hype of a narrative of the second day of Gettysburg as seen through the eyes of the soldier.  The main characters in the book are the soldiers themselves, but there are some accounts of the commanders as well in order to set up the action which takes place later on the day.  The greatest thing which I think Priest does in his work is set up the action by hours instead of by location.   There have been many other works in the second day at Gettysburg which have been chronicled by location, but Priest does this by hour.  Not only does this help the reader understand the action of the battle and the waves in which Longstreet attacked, but even the set up, which takes the first hundred pages of the text, are well read.  Without that background, the reader could be lost in the text without any aid as to the reasons for the attacks.  Also, there are a few sources which Priest mentions which may give the reader a different look on the stressed Robert E. Lee.  Some of the stories throughout the action are heartbreaking as to the sacrifice which these soldiers made on the fields of Gettysburg.  Some of these stories even make the reader proud to be American given the sacrifices made for the freedom of the country.

                I cannot recommend this book enough, highly highly recommended.  There was a lot of hype behind this work in the realm of Civil War academia, and it is well deserved.  This is a work which delivers time and time again only making the reader want more and more.  When the end of the book comes, the stories of the soldier are inspiring.  Thank you, John Michael Priest, for bringing us this work on the Battle of Gettysburg.  Highly Recommended."
  

From “The Gettysburg Chronicle" by Matthew Bartlett


Thursday, September 25, 2014

Miniature Wargaming


I have played with toy soldiers since the age of five. It began with a Marx Fort Apache Set, evolved into HO scale Airfix Figures and then switched back to the 54mm. I find it particularly relaxing to play “historical” scenarios and a challenge to write fun to play rules. The pictures shown below represent a fictitious Civil War engagement which my friends and I played in my basement several months ago. My “pard” and fellow school teacher painted the figures because I cannot do so with my partially disabled right arm.

This aerial view of the battle shows the field from the Confederate lines with infantry advancing, followed by artillery (lower left). Though it is hard to see, the Rebels are advancing up hill on the right through a stump field and over fences, all of which slow down the speed of the advance. The hayfield on the left does not impede movement but the smoke and the movement affects the effectiveness of the fire.



Facing the Rebs, and advancing through a woodlot, Union Zouaves rush forward to stop the Confederate advance. They are in two ranks and their officer (the figure with the sword) is trying to urge them forward under a hail of small arms fire ( as indicated by the smoke in the distance).



Along the fence row at the upper edge of the grove, Confederate “Louisiana Tigers” (Zouaves) cannot see their opponents across from them because the sulfuric cloud caused by the small arms fire has obscured their line of sight. In a situation like this they will expend a great deal of ammunition with minimal effects upon the enemy.




Meanwhile, a Union artillery piece abandons its forward position to escape being overrun by Rebel infantry. Across the road, another guns provides cover fire.


As they strategically “redeploy”. A heavy concentration of rebel infantry and artillery advance, hoping to inflict the final blow upon their Yankee opponents. The outcome is in the air.


Games like these teach small unit tactics and the difficulties of trying to move large numbers of troops within the confines of a small field. It incorporates terrain and smoke to simulate their effects upon movement and fire. In addition, as casualties mount, units have to run morale checks which can turn the battle, unexpectedly, in the favor of one opponent or the other.

I used games like these in the classroom to teach gamesmanship and Civil War history to students who had never played with “army men” before and I discovered that they accidentally enjoyed learning history while having a lot of fun. Many times they had to write after-action reports to explain how they fought the battles. No matter what, they learned that no strategy survived the first shot and that officers sometimes had little control in what happened upon the field.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Why They Fought


Setting aside political, moral and social reasons, all of which have been hashed and rehashed ad nausea, why did many of the men serve in their respective armies?

1.       Pay – Army pay started out at $11 to $15 per month for a private, more money that a man could make on the farm or in the mines or a factory.

2.       Bounties – the local county and state governments as well as the national governments on both sides often paid cash to enlistees, which could amount into hundreds of dollars.

3.       In December 1863, the U.S. army offered every man who reenlisted for the duration of the war, a veteran’s stripe on his sleeve, 30 days furlough, and a $300 bounty. The government failed to tell the men who “re-upped” that the money came in three installments – $100 down, $100 later, and $100 upon discharge from the army, provided the recipient was still alive to receive the final two installments.

4.       Peer pressure – Often classmates and relatives enlisted together on “dares” or because everyone around them signed up.

5.       Food – The army promised three meals a day – albeit not often healthy –but in some cases - better than the food from home and a fellow did not have to hunt for it.

a.       Hard crackers (hardtack or sea biscuits in the Navy) came in two basic varieties – rock hard or moldy and mushy, - both with and without protein provided by weevils. The story goes that a sergeant bit into a particularly hard specimen and exclaimed, “God, there’s something soft in this!” Upon examination, he discovered that he had found a nail.

b.       Army beans (Navy beans today) had to be boiled to make them edible. The saying went that “Beans killed more than bullets.” Chronic diarrhea killed a tremendous amount of soldiers.


c.        Salt pork, often aged beyond reason and stored in casks of salt brine, could float from the salt content. Boiled, fried or raw, its fat content and greasiness became legendary. According to one source, a soldier, reviled by its smell and color, threw a slab of it against a cabin wall where it stuck fast.

d.       Salt horse, actually salt beef, defied any type of cooking, Virtually indestructible and taken from beef older than the Dark Ages, the men often buried it with a piece of harness.


e.        Coffee became the staple of both armies whether it came from coffee beans or chicory. The doctors considered three pints a day, often without sugar or milk, healthy.

6.       Clothing – According to regulations, a man received a uniform, two pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks and shoes which were cut to fit only the right foot. Unfortunately, as with so many armies, the clothing came in two sizes – too large or too small. Charlie Siringo, from Texas, received the first pair of pants and underwear he had ever worn by enlisting in the Confederate army. Before then he had run around in a gunnysack which ma kept lengthening, as he grew taller.
        
a.       A change of underwear often meant turning them inside out or “finding” them in an enemy supply depot.

b.       A man with more than two shirts, in some instances in the Federal army, resulted in disciplinary action.


c.        Shoes, for many, became somewhat problematic because they were cut for the right or the left foot and could only be interchanged if they were too big. Prior to enlisting, some of the rural boys either went shoeless or wore square cut shoes, which would fit either foot. The drillmasters had to teach them the concept of “left” and “right.”

7.     Adventure and travel – Many men saw it as an opportunity to leave home and travel all too often by foot – “shoe leather express.”

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Greatest Compliment of All


For years, I honestly believed that none of my children have read any of my books until my wife mentioned just the other day that our son had read Antietam: The Soldiers' Battle (1989). Two days ago ,he called me while on the way home from work.  My last surviving uncle in my mother's immediate family passed away suddenly on Monday and I was feeling a bit at loose ends.

While this is a loose paraphrase of what he said, I will never forget the impact of what he said.  I've been reading your new book. It is very good, much like your previous books on Antietam, South Mountain and the others in its approach but this is better. I don't know how you can remember all that detail. It started a little slow for me because I am not into the grand maneuvers but once I got into the action I could not believe how detailed it was. It is excellent for understanding the effect of leadership on the small unit level. This is very good. 


I told him I could not remember what happened five seconds before. I told him he honored me and I appreciated it.


He told me, "You cannot stop writing."


My heart nearly exploded in my chest. I could barely speak. He was genuinely proud of me and my work. What an honor! What a blessing! He is a man of few words and does not usually speak until he has something to say. I am so proud of him. I can say no more. But "Thank you!" For once, I could not think of a single thing to say. He had said it all and made all of my hard work mean something. I can write no more. Thank you.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Credit Where Credit is Due

There is so much more to writing and publishing a book than the manuscript, the author, and the final draft. I would like to delude myself in thinking that I am a reincarnated Wolfgang Mozart, who never rewrote any of his compositions because they were perfect the first time, but I cannot. As a book reviewer for Civil War News, I complain about the poor writing and lack of editorial work in far too many of the new releases.

Despite all of my published books, until I went through the publishing process with Savas Beatie on my recent release Stand to It and Give Them Hell, I had never worked with a developmental editor or a production manager. Ted Savas, the managing director of the press, assigned to me Tom Schott in the former capacity, and Lee Meredith is the company's production manager. Ted selects the basic design, and Lee implements it, handling the formatting, placement of maps and photographs, captions, and final design tweaking of the book. Stand to It and Give Them Hell looks as good as it does because of Lee's all-too-often overlooked role in producing a very polished book.

.The developmental editor has the difficult nitty-gritty task of polishing a manuscript into something ready to go to the production manager. In my case, Tom Schott was much more than a copy editor. Stand to It and Give Them Hell is a tribute to Tom Schott’s expertise.

Tom took a rough manuscript from a writer who had never worked with a developmental editor and honed it for my readers. He checked and corrected far more than my typos. He scoured the work word-by-word, line-by-line, one tedious footnote after another.
Tom did many things. He . . 
         Rewrote awkward sentences.

         Questioned the reasoning behind assertions I had made.

         Showed me the proper way to construct footnotes to better meet SB's guidelines.

         Helped me better organize a bibliography.

         Deleted unnecessary descriptions.

        Hounded me, quite rightly, to review confusing sentences.

        Moved parts of the text into the notes, and some text from the notes into the main text, etc.

Tom's hard work turned what I thought was a good battle book into a much better one.

Stand to It and Give Them Hell is a tribute to the professionalism of a press like Savas Beatie, demonstrated specifically by the likes of Lee and Tom, two professionals who usually work in the shadows without the attribution they so richly deserve. Their personal dedication to produce a book worth owning is laudatory. They, as well as the many others who work behind the scenes, deserve every bit of credit for their hard work.

These two gentlemen are a credit to Savas Beatie LLC.


John Michael Priest

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

To Thine Own Self Be True

            It is never easy to admit an error, even if it was not mine but having written what I did last week, I found myself having to follow my own advice. Very recently, a discussion developed about whether or not General James Longstreet and his staff also helped a battery along the Harpers Ferry Road at Antietam as well as at the Piper orchard on September 17, 1862. Since the argument hinged upon three citations I used in Antietam: the Soldiers’ Battle (1989), I had to revisit my research.

I acquired a copy of the Latrobe Diary from the Virginia Historical Society in the hopes of refuting the argument against me. When I reexamined the document, I discovered that I based my conclusion upon an addenda, which Latrobe attached to his diary about what he believed happened along the Harpers Ferry Road. H.H. Penny wrote the article, which Latrobe inserted in his diary in which Penny describes Longstreet actually firing the guns against Ambrose Burnside’s soldiers.

I searched records, which were not available to me in 1989 and found three men in the Army of Northern Virginia with that name. One H.H. Penny served in the 8th Georgia (G.T. Anderson’s Brigade) and would have been nowhere close to either the Harpers Ferry Road or Piper’s farm. The other two, W. H. Penny and William H, Penny served in Carter’s Virginia Battery and in Armistead’s Brigade, both of which were at Piper’s while the Union counterattack from the Bloody Lane surged toward the orchard and barn.

Very often “W.” in script appeared in a typed transcription as “H.” I have seen it repeatedly, a case of which I will relate toward the end of this entry. The H. H. Penny in Latrobe’s diary mistook the men of the Federal II Corps as IX Corps soldiers. Latrobe erred in taking the document at face value and I erred in believing Latrobe.

Consequently, I wrote the historian who noted the error in my book and thanked him for bringing it to my attention and that upon revisiting my source, I realized that Latrobe had erred citing the article.
The historian, a true gentleman, wrote back that at the time I did my work I did not have access to the materials he had found while researching his books. 

I genuinely appreciate his reply and his sincerity. We both ended up in following the advice in my last blog though I have no reason to believe that he read it. He is not only an excellent historian but also a real professional.

Concerning transcription. In my book, Into the Fight: Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg (White Mane, 1998) I wrote that “Boney” Smith (7th Tennessee, Archer’s Brigade) carried the regimental flag after the color bearer went down. Rumor also had it that the 14th had a black color bearer. Writers have assumed, as my source did, that “Boney” was that individual.

In Robert Mockbee’s typed, Historical Sketch of the 14th Tennessee,” he mentions Smith as the “colored” bearer of the flag. I found a photocopy of Mockbee’s work and discovered that the color bearer as “Barney” Smith. When the transcriber copied the handwritten manuscript, he mistakenly wrote “Barney” as “Boney” and “color bearer” as “colored bearer.” While not uncommon transcription errors, they contributed to the rumor that “Boney” was the African-American color bearer of the regimental flag.   

An historian does not often have access to the original manuscripts but has to rely on typed copies. When I revised Antietam: The soldiers’ Battle, I found and corrected quite a few names that were copied incorrectly and consequently, changed them.


Thank goodness for the rosters, which are now available, and for the National Park Service Battlefield Libraries. It just proves that nothing is static in historical research. Something new will always provide material to make our work more accurate. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Stand to It and Give Them Hell!


This entry has nothing to do with my new book, and yet it does. With its publication, I have finally realized that I do good work. Perfect – no. Good - yes. Am I bragging – yes. False humility is just as wrong as unsupported bragging.

When I look back upon my life, I see that I have achieved a great deal, despite my rough upbringing, despite the years of physical, verbal, and psychological abuse, despite the resulting depression with which I am constantly struggling, and the paranoia  which comes with it.

1.       For any of you who express yourself through prose or poetry, listen to the justifiable criticism – the criticism which will improve your craft and learn from it..

2.       Ignore those who self-righteously question your motives for writing, because they are the “experts” in the field and not you.

3.       Realize that no one, yourself included, is perfect and neither is your writing.

4.       Accept the honest mistakes you make. If someone questions your scholarship, revisit the research to see if you did err. If you did, admit it and go on from there. Learn from it.

5.       If you were right, assert yourself and stand your ground based upon an honest re-evaluation of your work. 

6.       If you review books, poetry, and art, be honest but not brutal about it. Do not crush the author’s spirit. Rather, offer suggestions about what should have been done so the writer can revise it or make corrections in following works. Always keep in mind that when a person writes, he/she has generally invested their soul and love into what they have produced.

7.       Do not lose sleep over nitpicking criticism. If you must, send the critic a pen with the suggestion to rewrite or edit the book to correct its errors.

8.       When you write, make it the best you can do. Get a good editor to help you refine the work, which will protect you from a lot of grief.

9.       Continue to improve your craft without sacrificing your unique style of presentation. No two writers, no two people, including identical twins, are the same. Our uniqueness makes us individuals.

10.    Believe in yourself. If you do not believe in what you have written, do not expect anyone else to either.

11.  I know that I am “not wrapped too tight,” that I sometimes “row with only one oar” but I also know that I am a good historian and a thorough researcher. I know that not everyone likes what I write. Fine. If they bought the book and threw it away, I still will get my royalty. 

        Like Popeye, “I y’am what I y’am and that’s all that I y’am.” I will not change how I write or the subject about which I write. “Can’t make a silk purse out of the wrong end of the pig.” Above all, I know that I have flaws and am not perfect but I have determined that I need to follow my own admonition regarding critics: “Stand to It and Give Them Hell.”