Thursday, October 19, 2006

Oral History

I’ve profiled about two hundred soldiers over the last six years, and the story of Frederick Waugh Smith, a Confederate staff officer and the son of Virginia governor William “Extra Billy” Smith, is the first time that part of an oral history will be included. The anecdote, told to me by descendant Bill Turner, relates an incident during the burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in July 1864. The story involves a woman, her house, and Smith’s efforts to help her. Bill told the story to me by telephone in two separate conversations, each slightly different. However, one element remained consistent: The exact words spoken by the woman to Smith. Bill put special emphasis when he spoke the word “exact,” which suggests to me that it meant a lot to Smith when he first heard them as he stood amidst the burning town on a summer day 142 years ago: “Sir, you are a true cavalier.”

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Exact Placement

It’s one thing to place a soldier on a battlefield, but quite another to determine the exact location of where he was wounded, killed, or acted in some way that caught the attention of their superiors.

Case in point: Virginia Military Institute cadet Sam Shriver. Various sources note that he was wounded in action at the Battle of New Market. He and his fellow cadets played a significant role during the engagement. The boys had a busy day. Initially held in reserve, they later were ordered to the front lines and helped to drive back an enemy advance.

Shriver could have become injured at several points in the battle. My research led me to speculate that he was likely wounded during the key point in the battle. But without any source to place him there, I could not include this speculation in his profile.

Shriver’s story might have ended with the general notation that he was wounded at New Market. But it didn’t. I found The New Market Campaign by Edward Raymond Turner, published in 1912. Initially impressed by the book’s research, I was disappointed that the index included only a minor reference to Shriver. Then I noticed several appendices. Intrigued, I carefully scanned them. On page 148 I hit the jackpot: A cadet letter describing his experience during the key part of the battle. His observations included Shriver’s advance out in front of his company, and the moment he was struck down by a musket ball.

I could not have asked for anything more. Well, maybe one more thing: A second source. However, I’ve learned that this level of information is a rare find, and typically is the only one of its kind.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Capture of Two Future Presidents?

Capt. Jesse C. McNeill is the subject of one of my current research projects. He is the Confederate cavalryman credited with the daring capture of Union generals Crook and Kelley at Cumberland, Maryland, in February 1865. According to one account, he missed the chance to make future presidents William McKinley and Rutherford B. Hayes prisoners of war, as both men were supposedly quartered in the same hotel as Crook.

Upon checking other sources, including a well-regarded biography of McKinley and the diary of Hayes, I discovered that McKinley was in the same hotel with Gen. Kelley, but Hayes was not with Kelley or Crook at the time.

Although the account is partly true, the fact that McNeill could have captured McKinley makes for an interesting historical footnote!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Call for Manuscript Reviews

Today I mailed letters twenty letters to authors, historians, reviewers, publishers and collectors, inviting them to review the manuscript. I expect to complete the profiles by mid-December, and send them out to those who respond positively to this mailing before the end of the year.

It may seem a bit early to begin the review process — especially since the manuscript is not yet completed. However, I feel this is a very important aspect of writing a book, and I am making every effort to collect as much feedback as possible before submitting the finished manuscript to the Johns Hopkins University Press.

If you are interested in receiving a copy of the manuscript for review, please contact me now.