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, July 30, 2014

Tips to Beginning Historians and Writers

1.      Gather as much primary information as is humanly possible about the topic you are researching.

2.      Form a hypothesis, if you must. It is best to let the evidence guide you. Do not guide the evidence to prove your hypothesis.

3.      Do not write to deliberately revise history. Be honest and have the courage to discover the history rather than rewrite it.

4.      Learn to write well. Develop your own style but make sure is reads well. Making it too scholarly and erudite will turn off the general public, if they are the intended audience.

5.      Footnote! Footnote! Footnote!

6.      Explain the logic behind your conclusions in the footnotes as you believe they are needed.

7.      Historians are nitpickers and territorial, I included. Anyone who has invested time in their work will try to defend it, some more tenaciously than others.

8.      Accept criticism, if it is well founded.

9.      Re-study the contested topic and be willing to concede error you made an honest mistake or if you did sloppy research.

10.  There is nothing wrong with another author coming to a different conclusion based upon newly revealed sources. It in no way is a negative reflection upon your scholarship.

11.  Never! Never! Never! Attack another author’s personal integrity or their motives for writing what they did. They might be the north end of a southbound mule but do not make yourself one by being personally vindictive.

12.  Be professional. Put your findings in writing by explaining how you researched your topic and came to your conclusions.

13.  Generally, it is best not to get in petty disputes unless someone brings it up to you. Parry the differing conclusion with evidence and logic not with vitriol and pettiness.

14.  Use common sense. Think. Cause and effect. People have not intrinsically changed at all throughout time.
15.  With military history read Erich Remarque, Bill Mauldin, John Hersey, Ernie Pyle, John Keegan and as many letters, diaries, reminiscences, and memoirs as you can get your hands upon, searching for their common ties.

16.  Study psychology to understand how people think.

17.  Study to teach yourself and write to enlighten and educate.

18.  Send your work to a reputable publisher.

19.  Listen to your editors and stand your ground on matters that you deem important. I do not recommend self-publishing. You will make a lot of mistakes which good editors will catch because in your own eyes, your writing is perfect.

20.  Above all, let your passion for the subject and your enthusiasm pour onto the pages you write.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Folly of Political Correctness

I generally try to avoid controversy but I see an insidious trend moving into society where tolerance has become synonymous with acceptance and a cult of victimization has become an excuse to suppress another individual’s right to express a different or opposing opinion. Political correctness, which has always existed, should not become the norm in an ethnically diverse, republican democracy. The First Amendment protects a person’s right to express himself even if it is offensive and in many cases stupid. (The use of “himself” in no way is intended as a disparaging remark against women. If you do not like it, mentally replace it with “herself/himself” but put the “herself” first because “e” comes before “i” in the alphabet.)

PC squelches freedom of speech, honest debate, and genuine discussion. It makes it impossible to tell jokes, because most jokes are the expense of someone else. It deprives a person of their individuality and makes writing history nearly impossible. No two people are the same. We are all individuals right down to our fingerprints. Not everyone is polite, conscientious, honest, faithful, and loyal. The world is filled with individuals whom and groups whom we do not like or care to associate with. History is filled with “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

Let me give you some examples of PC in action.

Confederate General John Brown Gordon was a tough, fearless officer who helped form the Ku Klux Klan in 1866. Should we remove his photograph from national battlefields because he was a racist? Historically, he proved to be a very good officer despite being an avowed segregationist. While I do not agree at all with his role in the Klan, should I stop studying him as a general?

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. While I find that personally reprehensible, should we remove their faces from our currency? Personally abhorrent behavior does not negate their contributions to U.S. history. The current trend to remove “offensive” names from school mascots and sports teams has gone to ridiculous lengths. Some Native Americans (Indians) have bought into the myth of the noble savage and of their brutal suppression by white Europeans. That was in the past. It happened and we cannot change it but we can faithfully record it and rejoice in the fact that we are no longer killing one another. Life on the frontier was brutal. Inter-tribal warfare helped destroy the Indian way of life as much as any foreign incursions into the New World.

Should the U.S. government have suppressed the tribes by outlawing their religion and by confining them to reservations? No. But they did and we cannot change that.

I had relatives who rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest in the 16thTennessee Mounted Infantry. Does that make them racist? Honestly I do not know if they were racist or not. I do not know why they joined the Confederate army considering that East Tennessee was so strongly pro-Union. Am I responsible for their actions? No. I am not responsible for the errors and misbehavior of my forebears. I am responsible for my own behavior.

PC deprives a person of the right to exercise common sense. There is a time and a place for everything. I am not a neo-Confederate. I do not celebrate my Confederate heritage because I choose not to do so. I do not celebrate my Union heritage either. I do write about the horrendous, life altering horror in which the soldiers immersed themselves. I do not dislike people who do otherwise. They have that right under law and to deprive them of that right is illegal.

Practitioners of PC read negative motivation into everything which offends them. Anyone wearing a Confederate logo has to be an ignorant, southern racist. People who drawl are lazy, ignorant, and stupid and need to get educated. Tomahawks and war bonnets are offensive. The one was a tool as well as a weapon. The war bonnet was sacred and represented a warrior’s prowess. It was an honor to wear one. Jokes are offensive because they are told at the expense of someone else unless the person telling it is politically correct and making fun of someone who is not. I love redneck jokes, because I know some of the people who they are joking about.

Common sense should replace PC. If you do not like what a person is saying or doing, sit down and discuss it with them or just walk away. Mark Twain once said about an ignorant person, that he should keep his stupidity to himself rather than open his mouth and remove all doubt. On the other side, out of common courtesy do not deliberately offend someone by what you believe or do. Treat everyone decently as you would want to be treated but if asked tell the truth as you understand it knowing that it is your personal responsibility, if at all possible, to remain civil.

I would far rather know where an individual stands on an issue than to suppress it. I prefer honesty over hearing only what I want to hear. I may not agree with a person’s actions or beliefs but my suppressing them will only reinforce their importance to that individual. I prefer history based upon the evidence over stories based upon tradition or propaganda. What was it Davy Crockett allegedly said? “Be sure you’re right then go ahead.” 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tooting My Own Horn

Today, July 14, 2014 I received one of the best compliments I have ever received about my writing. Lee Meredith, Production Manager, Savas Beatie Publishers, sent me an email in which he said Stand to It and Give Them Hell, was not like any other Gettysburg book he had ever read. He wrote, in part, “I’ve grown old reading the same old stuff about the 1st Minnesota or the 20th Maine moving around the battlefield. Gettysburg wasn’t just a battle of maneuver, but it was a battle fought by individuals, and that is what I like about your book. It is on a personal level. I enjoy that. I wish other books would be that way instead at the unit level.” I am extremely grateful to him for his kind words. I would be lying if I said that I was not blowing my own horn because I am. There is nothing wrong with saying that I have written a very good book, because I have. Mark Twain said, “I was born modest, but it wore off.”

The book would never have existed without the writings of the veterans.  They wrote the stories and fought the battle, I merely pieced together what they witnessed and tried to preserve it for the future. As an historian and as a human being, I understand what they went through even though I have never been shot at. I know what it is to face death up close and personal. I know gut wrenching fear and not being able to sleep at night, of spending hours staring at the shadows on the windows and waiting for daylight. I have held a person’s hand while she died and I know what it feels like to feel the skin turn unbearably cold, to watch the face turn gray  with the eye slowly going blank and then staring without any luster into the void. The “death rattle” is very self descriptive.

I know what it is like to feel helpless and utterly alone, unable to stop the insanity whirling around me and what it is like to carry a permanent injury, and the recurring pain associated with it. I know what it is like to realize that, in the harsh reality of life, those in charge all too often do not value the lives of their subordinates. I know what it is like to be haunted by memories which keep resurrecting themselves when I least expect them to and to blame myself for just being alive. I know what it is like to turn off my emotions and withdraw from those whom I love, to keep my real feelings locked up because deep inside I am afraid to tell anyone what I am thinking.

I write the way I do because those men and anyone else who has walked through the hell which they experienced should never be forgotten. No one should ever be forgotten. No one. All too often we remember the evil people in this world and the card board heroes, many of whom were shameless self-promoters. What about the average guys? What about the ones who died for no other reason than they happened to be in the proverbial wrong place at the wrong time? What about the alleged “cowards,” a word which we use too freely? They also served. How about the ones who fell out from exhaustion while their comrades went into the fray?

All I have done is piece their stories together and woven into the narrative my insights into how they marched, how they maneuvered, and how they reacted to the frightful world in which they found themselves. Through my writing, I can guarantee in part that the world will see them as they saw themselves without apology or regret. I am connected to them by that mystical bond of memory of which Lincoln wrote. Just as I cannot undo my past and how it has affected me, they cannot undo theirs. I do not see heroes when I write. I see men whose lives and those of the people whom they knew, were never the same after this terrible ordeal of Civil War.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

A People Without a Vision Perish

During my 30.5 years in the public school system, I had to answer this question more times, than I can recall. Administrators have asked it. Students have asked it. My family has asked it. Visitors at Antietam have asked it. "Why do we have to study history?" I had a department chair question the validity of teaching history. Go figure. When attempting to transfer to safer schools, I had to attempt to answer it. I apparently answered incorrectly because I never received a transfer, generally because I was not qualified to fill the available position.

So, how would I answer?

History is a jigsaw puzzle scattered across the floor of time. The history student, with a picture of the finished product, starts with the first piece and then begins studying the other pieces, looking for patterns and pieces, which properly fit. Sometimes, however, because history is about people, the patterns shift and branch in an unexpected direction, revealing a pattern, which the student had not anticipated. I see history as a puzzle within a puzzle. Each piece has a separate identity. Each one contributes something toward the solution of the puzzle. The student has to decide which pieces are irrelevant or do not pertain to the newly discovered thread.

History is not just facts. Facts in isolation are useless. However when placed within a specific time slot they start to become relevant. Each one builds upon the other and they are no longer trivia but evidence. Learning history is an adventure, cause and effect, action and over reaction, love and hatred, fear and euphoria, confidence and utter despair. It is about who we are and where we originated. It explains who we are and explores out intricacies. It helps us discover who we are, where we have been, and where we hope to end up.

How did I teach it?

The old-fashioned way – notes and storytelling, interspersed with humor, music, movies, readings, and writing. I was the outdated “sage on the stage” rather than the “guide on the side.” I used activities but only if they were based upon fact. Too many teachers used activities to mask ineptitude. Learning is work. It is not always fun. It is not “artsy fartsy.” Learning was the one thing no one could ever take away from me. No beatings, no belittlement, no humiliation, no intimidation could take away what I had buried in my brain. I had to work at learning. Once I had it, I locked it away to savor and to recall when times got rough.

History involves knowing people for who they are and learning how they think and act. Throughout the centuries, people have not really changed. We all know fear, anger, love, ecstasy, courage, and cowardice. History will exist as long as people have memories. Imagine living without the ability to remember. Imagine living in a void without dreams, without aspirations, without any past and no vision of the future – that is a world without history, without people, without aspirations. Maybe that is what the politicians want – a populace of mindless, unthinking automatons. A thorough understanding of history is tyranny’s greatest enemy.