Do You Have Something To Say?

I couldn’t help but think about the evolution of my own writing career as I completed yesterday’s post on the selection of Civil War titles at Barnes and Noble and Borders.  A few months back a reader asked me to share how I got my start writing about the Civil War.  I thought it would be worthwhile to take a few minutes to reflect on this for the benefit of those out there who would like to give it a shot.  Before I get started I should say that I can’t help but feel just a little ambivalent about giving this advice – whatever it’s worth.  After all, there is so much nonsense out there in both printed and electronic sources that passes for Civil War history, and I don’t want to be responsible for exacerbating the problem.  Still, if "everyman is his own historian" than I guess we all have a right to jump in at some level.

The best place to start out is at the local level in your local newspaper.  Back in 1997 when I was working for Borders a colleague suggested that rather than simply read all of these Civil War books why not write a review for the newspaper.  He suggested the Washington Times which apparently included a Civil War section every Saturday.  The late Woody West edited that particular page and is responsible for providing me with my first publishing opportunity.  I sent in a review of James McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades and although it was not solicited it still made the paper.  Over the following few years I reviewed a couple of titles and even published two feature articles.  Local newspapers are always looking for good writing and especially for people who can write in a timely fashion.  If you live in a "Civil War Hot Zone" such as Virginia your local paper or magazine may devote space to the Civil War.  The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star regularly includes articles and book reviews focused on the war.  Your local publications are an excellent way to get your feet wet and begin to build a resume that can be used to break into other areas.  Check to see if reviews will be considered without being solicited or just do what I did and send them in.  If it’s well written it will be published.

I emphasize book reviews because they allow you to focus your writing, and most importantly, publishers are always looking for good review writers who can keep to a schedule.  In addition to newspaper there are a number of publishing opportunities in both printed and on-line magazines.  Since I ran the magazine section at Borders I opened the first batch of North and South Magazine when it arrived in 1997.  I immediately called Keith Poulter to ask if I could write a review for the magazine.  Over the next four years I contributed reviews on a regular basis.  Again, magazine publishers are always looking for well-written book reviews.  You may also want to check out the numerous on-line magazines such as Civil War News and Civil War Book ReviewOnce you’ve established yourself in a few magazines and newspapers you may want to check out a historical journal.  The same rule applies as stated above so start with your local historical society’s journal where there may be less of a constraint on the minimal academic qualifications.  Most state historical organizations commission reviews from academics, but given that you’ve now published a few reviews it may be possible to convince the editor to give you a shot.  Even without an M.A. and a number of reviews in publications like the ones cited above I was able to get into both Civil War History and The Journal of Southern History. 

What matters in the end is that your reviews are well-written.   In addition, stay away from summarizing the narrative.  If the book under review has a thesis make sure that you explain what it is and if you feel comfortable – based on your understanding of the historiographical terrain – critique it in light of what else has been written.  Finally, the best reviews offer some kind of critical assessment of the book.  Regardless of whether you enjoyed or disliked the book state as clearly as possible why. Reviews are a great way to develop your analytical skills as the writing forces you to concentrate on the author’s thesis rather than a straightforward narrative approach.

While I started out writing book reviews, over the past few years I’ve cut back as I am focused on larger projects.  If you are interested in writing an article I would recommend taking the same approach.  Stick with local publications and work your way out into more popular venues. You are much more likely to run into a roadblock as you move into publications that attract more qualified writers.  Still, there are plenty of opportunities.  That said, keep in mind that most of what is submitted to magazines, newspapers, and journals is rejected.  And most of what is rejected is the result of little skill or an inability to write.  I say this as someone who continues to struggle to improve his writing skills.  It is a painful process.  The best advice I can give is to start out small.  Stick to a local publication and write a short, but thoroughly researched article.

I guess the final option is to start your own blog.  It gives you a venue to share your ideas and also to practice writing.  The number of Civil War blogs continues to grow – though I have not kept up with all of them – so why not jump in.  There is no risk in starting a blog and it is just as easy to stop as apparently occurs in the overwhelming majority of cases.  My only piece of advice here is that if you are thinking about getting into the blogosphere make sure that you have something to say.  Blogs that simply link to news items and other unimportant things are of little value.  The other nice thing about blogging is that it levels the playing field.  As long as you write thoughtful posts people will read them and pass them on to others. 

Try to find a niche in the blogging community.  I like to think that my blog satisfies a certain demand out there for posts that go beyond a more traditional understanding of the Civil War.  Most of the other Civil War sites on my blogroll have managed to find a niche of their own.  Well, that’s about it. 

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Civil War Books, Bookstores, and Other Ramblings

A few of my fellow Civil War bloggers have commented on the poor offerings of Civil War titles at their local stores.  Most of us browse either our local Barnes and Noble or Borders and have noticed a difference in the quality of the overall selection.  Since I worked for Borders from 1994 to 1998 I can comment on the difference.  I worked at the Borders in Rockville, Maryland, which as many of you who live in that area know is one of the larger stores in the chain.  I was in charge of the magazine section, but given my growing interest in the Civil War at the time was also responsible for the Civil War section.  Those of you who have commented on the selection between these two competitors have rightfully pointed out that Borders seems to offer more.  At least when I worked for the company I had the option of ordering any title that I thought would enrich the section.  I took full advantage of this opportunity.

As I worked at the Rockville store before the company went "corporate" the place had a sincere intellectual feel about it. I worked with some very thoughtful people who were passionate about reading and engaging customers.  I organized my own Civil War reading group and we welcomed a number of local Civil War historians to join us to discuss their own recently released books.  In 1997 I organized a day long event which included historians such as William Matter, James Kegel, Ed Fischel, and Craig Symonds.  Brian Pohanka dropped by at the end of the day in full uniform to wrap up the event.  He was a pleasure to meet.  Participants presented formal presentations about their books and stayed to talk to customers and sign books.  Needless to say it was a great day.

There is no doubt that the selection of Civil War titles has diminished in the major chain stores.  There is no conspiracy however; it is a simple question of how best to utilize limited space.  If you want large selections of books than I suggest you find religion or engage in a little self-reflection to uncover your short-comings and any other psychological malfunction that could be helped by browsing the Self-Help section.  I suspect that many people are buying on-line where there are some excellent discounts available.  I’ve recently moved in this direction, but I still enjoy browsing a well-stocked store.  Amazon typically offers up to a 36% discount on newly-released titles.  Small press titles are probably suffering more than those published by the university presses, and the reason is that the latter will be bought by both colleges and university libraries.  Perhaps that is why they can get away with charging higher prices as they don’t need to print as many.  As I’ve said before, most Civil War enthusiasts don’t read books.  And most of the people who attend Civil War Roundtable meetings are senior citizens which suggests that unless new blood is discovered the Civil War section will be even more difficult to find in your local store. 

Finally, I wanted to say something about the recent rally of the Ku Klux Klan in Sharpsburg this past weekend.  The story is quite popular over at Google News with right around 200 references.  Of course this organization has the right to exercise their First Amendment privileges and at the same time we should not tolerate the kind of racist nonsense that they spew.  That said, I was struck by the number of people who when asked why they decided to protest the Klan’s presence on the battlefield responded by trying to distance the men who fought the Civil War from any racial considerations.  In the end I wonder who does more damage to our understanding of the past.  Is it the Klan who claim to be the "ghosts of our Confederate brothers" or is it those of us who continue to push a racially sanitized view of the Civil War?  Just a thought. 

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Confederate Military Executions

I am in the process of planning my summer in hopes that I will be able to finish the Crater manuscript by September.  Before I get started I hope this week to finish an article that I started a few years ago which analyzes accounts of Confederate military executions over the course of the war.  I examine individual soldiers’ accounts, newspaper accounts, and even the script of a play which appeared in Atlanta.  I argue that while Confederates were saddened by the loss of comrades they maintained a hardened stance on the importance of such practices.  The majority of accounts that I’ve collected suggest that these men approved of executions as a way to maintain the integrity of the army and the viability of the nation.  Though it is difficult to quantify, Confederates continued to support the practice of executions even late in the war.  The manuscript has already received comments from a number of historians  Here are the first few paragraphs.  Feel free to send me references to Confederate executions that you’ve come across in your own reading.

In his 1912 memoir War Stories, Berrien M. Zettler devoted a section to describing in detail the December 9, 1861 execution of two men who served in the Louisiana "Tiger Rifles."  The two soldiers had "overpowered" an officer and threatened to kill him, "and for this they had been court-martialed and condemned to be shot."  According to Zettler, the execution attracted around fifteen thousand men; so many crowded into the site of the execution that "the sentinel threatened repeatedly to put his bayonet into those of us in front if we did not stand back."  The prisoners finally came into sight on a wagon, which also contained their coffins.  Zettler and the rest of the crowd formed three sides of a hollow square.  The open side of the square contained two posts measuring about two feet above the ground and were located approximately 30 feet apart.  The prisoner’s hands were tied behind them before being attached to the posts.  Finally, they were blindfolded.  A detail of twelve men was marched in front of the prisoners.  Zettler remembered "that only six of the guns in each platoon had balls in them, the other being loaded with blank cartridges."  The officer in charge raised his hand signaling the detail to lower their weapons "to the position of aim."  The orders were given silently by these movements, so that the prisoners would not know the exact moment when they would be killed."  Even after sixty years, Zettler still recalled the event as a "very sad sight and one that deeply impressed me."

Zettler’s description and reaction to the execution of two fellow Confederates courses through the letters, diaries, and memoirs of Civil War soldiers.  For many of these soldiers the sight of public executions was more horrific than the carnage witnessed on the battlefields.  Surprisingly, historians have not provided anything close to a systematic analysis of how Civil War soldiers responded to the execution of comrades and friends.  The absence of such an analysis is difficult to explain considering the extent to which Civil War historians have gone to account for the lives of common soldiers throughout the conflict.  Historians have offered accounts of Civil War soldiers’ ideological convictions, the role of unit cohesion, and the influence of loved ones back home as factors to understanding what motivated so many to remain in the ranks even after years of bloody fighting.  The daily minutiae of camp life has been recovered, and the hard realities of marching and battle have also been described in detail and broken down into coherent chapters as if the soldiers themselves experienced the war in this way….

This essay surveys the spectrum of reactions to executions from Confederate soldiers throughout the war.  A study focused specifically on the variety of experiences associated with executions will tell us much about how individuals came to terms with a war that was at its core an emotionally wrenching experience.  More importantly, an analysis of executions sheds light on the extent to which soldiers in the ranks identified with a Confederate nation.  The evidence in this essay demonstrates that although soldiers in the ranks were saddened by the sight of the execution of their comrades they overwhelmingly supported the practice as necessary for the maintenance of the army and ultimately independence.  The sharp contrast between soldiers’ strong emotional reactions to executions and their more reflective assessment of its necessity suggests that sacrifice and identification with the army and nation was paramount even late in the war.   

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Glenn W. LaFantasie on William C. Oates and Memory

I just picked up Glenn W. LaFantasie’s new biography Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates (Oxford University Press, 2006).  Oxford has released a number of first-rate studies over the past year, including Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation, J. Matthew Gallman’s America’s Joan of Arc: The Life of Anna Dickinson and David Brion Davis’s Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World.

I have only had a chance to read the Introduction to LaFantasie’s study, but it looks to be a very interesting study.  No doubt all of you are familiar with Oates who served as Colonel of the 15th Alabama and fought at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863 against the better known Joshua L. Chamberlain.  Oates was wounded six times during the war, including the loss of his arm.  Following the war he went on to serve seven terms in the U.S. Congress and one as Governor of Alabama.  Interstingly enough, in 1901 he argued for black suffrage rights at the Alabama Constitutional Convention.  LaFantasie spends a great deal of time on Oates’s postwar career, including his attempt to reconcile his belief in the tenets of the Lost Cause and the role of public memory in shaping his preferred narrative of the war and his private memories which were crowded with the horror of battle.  LaFantasie seems to have a great deal to say about this tension:

Oates participated more buoyantly in the concoction of a patriotic and public memory that honored the Confederacy’s righteous cause and its stand against Northern political domination, sectional aggression, and military invasion.  While he balked at celebrating the leadership of Jefferson Davis, whom he held in extremely low regard, or mindlessly praising Lee for every order the general issued on the field of battle, he did become an enthusiastic believer in and promulgator of the Lost Cause and all its tenets.  By doing so, he succeeded in temporarily sublimating his very worst memories of the war and substituting in their place the more glorious recollections of a mythical romantic war fought bravely by the finest sons of the South against the most rapacious devils of Yankeedom.  In the end, though, the terrible memories always seeped through, like ink stains through paper, as they did so often and so poignantly in his book [The War Between the Union and the Confederacy (1905)] and in his private letters.  Memory for William Oates was both public and private.  But it required great energy, which he repeatedly expended, to keep the private memories from view.

Later LaFantasie makes the important point that the difficulty concealing the content of one’s private memories suuggests that sectional reconciliation and reunion was not as straightforward as has been suggested by some historians.  This point has been forcefully made by John Neff in his recent book Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation (University of Kansas, 2005). 

I am learning to appreciate this distinction between public and private memory as I continue my research on the Crater.  A perfect example of this can be seen in the 1903 Crater reenactment which took place on the battlefield in Petersburg.  While the public witnessed a reenactment and speeches that made no reference to the presence of black soldiers in the battle, the veterans of Mahone’ brigade who took pen to paper continued to emphasize this salient feature of so many wartime letters and diary entries.  William Stewart, who commanded the 61st Virginia, collected upwards of 50 personal accounts that were included in a scrapbook and is now part of the collection at the Museum of the Confederacy.  It is hard to know whether this volume was meant for publication.  The accounts are so rich in detail especially in their focus on the emotions that were unleashed once they realized that the attacking columns included U.S.C.T.  And yet public ceremonies in which these men participated in were void of racial overtones. 

I look forward to reading this, though I will probably not get to it for some time.  On a different note entirely, I highly recommend Francis Fukuyama’s America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative LegacyFukuyama is an excellent writer and provides both a long and short-term analysis behind recent foreign policy decisions.  It is relatively short and easy to read.  He is one of those writers who has the ability to make you feel intelligent about an issue that seems incredibly complex. 

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Civil War Talk Radio

I had a great time being interviewed by Professor Gerry Prokopowicz on Civil War Talk Radio – listen for yourself.  Although he was suffering from bad allergies he managed to stay focused and asked some very good questions.  We talked a bit about teaching in the first segment, but concentrated on the Crater in the last two.  I would have liked to have talked a bit more specifically about memory and the Crater, but we did hit on a number of important themes.  As I mentioned at the end of the interview, it was a real honor being asked to take part in the show.  I just hope I didn’t come across as a bumbling idiot. 

Thanks again Gerry.

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