Civil War News Review

For the newest review of Stand to It and Give Them Hell go to this site:

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.

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.”

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


According to tradition, this “Unspoken Prayer” was found on A Confederate corpse at Pickett’s Charge. In its simplicity, it contains a vivid approach to dealing with depression and self-doubt.

I asked for strength that I might achieve;
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy;
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I had asked for,
but eveything that I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself my unspoken prayers were answered;
I am, among all men, most richly blessed.

With the release of, Stand to It And Give Them Hell I take pause to count my many blessings and say “Thank you,” to those individuals who, over the last thirty years, have made it possible for me to pursue this dream of writing history and being published.

My mother: Rita Marie Priest, who taught me to love books and reading, and who always wanted to write.

My wife of 45 years: Rhonda, who though she is not a history person, never stopped believing in me and who tolerated the long, long hours I spent ignoring her so I could do my work.

Our children: none of whom are really into history who, when they were younger, traveled with my wife and I to Duke, and Chapel Hill, and who patiently slept in the libraries while I researched dead people.

Harold Collier (White Mane), Martin Gordon (White Mane), Ted Alexander (Antietam National Battlefield), John Heiser (Gettysburg National Battlefield), Dr. Richard Sommers (formerly from USAHEC), and Ted Savas (Savas Beatie) and their staffs for their encouragement, and professional support.

Critics: both fair and unfair for making rethink what I have asserted and spurring me to improve my research skills.

My father: Ira Lee Priest, who despite his tremendous personal flaws, instilled in me a respect for the combat veterans and the need to understand the trials, which they endured.

God: for the gifts of writing, and storytelling.

“I am among all men most richly blessed

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Heritage or Hate?

Once again a great deal of controversy has arisen over the public display of the Confederate battle flag – “That damned Red Flag of the Rebellion” and I am not going to try to defend it one way or another because it is a question which I have yet to resolve. All I am going to do is present the facts, as I know them without attempting to claim infallibility.

     §  The Confederate battle flag is not the Confederate National flag yet it does appear on later issues of the Confederate National.

  That being the case, does it not then represent the Confederate government and what it espoused?

  The Ku Klux Klan adopted the Confederate battle flag in the 1950’s during the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement.

  The Klan of the 1860’s claimed their members represented the ghosts of dead Confederates.

  The Klan of the 1860’s terrorized Blacks, scalawags, carpetbaggers, and Northerners. 

  The Klan of 1915 flew the U.S. flag until the 1950’s.

  The “new” Klan terrorized Blacks, Whites, Catholics, Jews, Foreigners, and Communists.

 The 20th Century Klan ran clear through the Bible Belt of the Midwest.

§  During the Civil War, the battle flag represented the enemies of the United States and was treated with as much disrespect as Confederates treated the U. S. flag.

§  The Confederate battle flag today is very closely associated with:


   Being ignorant

 Being redneck
 Being Southern

 Representing an honorable heritage

The concept of it representing “Heritage not Hate” raises a more problematic question.

  What is the Heritage, which it represents?

 Why did men and women support secession?

 What was the “Lost Cause”?

      These questions need to be addressed honestly and historically, not to insult people, not to make them feel bad about their forebears having served in the Confederate army but to answer why they sided with the Confederacy.

What mystical bond, tied the individual to a particular creed or country?

The Confederate battle flag is either vilified or revered.

                    It is not the cause of the debate but it stirs up deep personal questions about why it is so divisive. 
                 §  Some argue that the Confederate battle flag represents the army not the Confederate government.

 Has anyone ever tried to objectively address why the men on both sides joined the armies?

 Has anyone attempted a systematic study of what the veterans said about why they enlisted?

Have we relied too much on the writings of polemicists like Jubal Early and Edward Pollard to explain the causes of the Rebellion?

Maybe if we answered those questions, we would be able to form a more balanced perspective on the battle flag issue.