Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Beyond the Facts

During the course of my research into the life and military service of Maj. Edward Burgin Knox of the Forty-fourth New York Infantry (later a colonel in the Illinois National Guard), I discovered a quote that resonates with me for the simple reason that it suggests that one needs to go beyond the facts to capture the essence of a soldier:

“No mere record of military service will give the history of Colonel Knox. His life cannot be measured by dates of commissions, or periods of duty. For into these commissions he poured out all the strength of his life, striving as few men have striven to make these periods fruitful. In his career as a soldier he exemplified the three graces of the warrior — courage, obedience, loyalty — never faltering in times of danger, never hesitating in a swift compliance with all orders given him; and at all times rendering a true and cordial support to his commanders.”

Fortunately, a number of statements that attest to Knox’s character have survived, including the quote above, taken from a MOLLUS memorial sketch.

For many soldiers, these details were not recorded, have not survived, or remain undiscovered, leaving us with just the facts. It is the hunt for these character references that keeps me engaged in researching their lives.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Choosing an Entry Point

Today, I struggled to tell the story of J. Lewis Spalding, a wartime volunteer officer who served in three regiments, fought in plenty of battles, and went on to serve in the regular army. There are numerous entry points into his story, and I had a terrible time choosing one: His experience as a white officer in a black infantry regiment, his wounding at Darbytown Road near Petersburg in 1864, his transition to the regular army in 1866, his court martial in 1867, or his experience as an Indian Agent.

For two hours in the morning, I started and stopped no less than eight separate introductory paragraphs. Each emphasized a different aspect of his military career. Feeling little sense of accomplishment, somewhat frustrated, and bordering on being late for my regular job, I showered, shaved, dressed, kissed Anne goodbye, patted the pugs, and drove off to the office — putting Spalding’s story completely out of mind.

As I closed in on the office, my mind turned back to Spalding. The proper words in the right order started flowing. Sentences formed. I composed the introductory paragraph within a few minutes, and pulled over to the side of the road to jot it down on a spare piece of notepaper in my briefcase.

It was a productive morning, after all.