My Call to Arms: A Look Back at My Overland Campaign

Chris-CallToArmsWhat no one ever tells you about being an author is that it mostly involves schlepping a lot of books from place to place. Sure, there’s some writing involved (and, oh, if only I had time to do more!), but in the end, writing is not just an art and not just a passion—it’s a business. That means selling books. And that means schlepping them around.

Fortunately, the business of writing can be one of the coolest businesses to be in. I get to meet some fantastic, interesting people, and I get to share with them the stories I love so much. I also get to enjoy warm hospitality, see some beautiful places, and do some wicked cool stuff. Life really doesn’t get any better than that. It’s a blessing to be able do this job (which might strike some people as a strong word, but I really do think it’s true). I am deeply grateful to the many, many people who make it possible.

Because I sometimes get questions about what it’s like being a historian/author/professor, I thought I’d share a glimpse of my manic May, which felt like a combination of “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” and “Where’s Waldo,” all done up in shades of blue and gray.

Books-smI apologize if any of this comes across as though I’m showboating or being self-congratulatory. I share it because I’d like you to see what YOU make possible for me—and for which I am thankful. (If you’re not interested in the adventures of an author/historian, which are nothing like Indiana Jones, than save yourself the time and quit reading now.)

Generally speaking, May is always a busy month for me: not only do I typically have to wrap up the spring semester, but the spring Civil War campaign season kicked off in May once upon a time. Three of the four battles I write about most often have their anniversaries in May, which means lots of time-sensitive stuff to do. This year’s sesquicentennial of the Overland Campaign made it even worse: May was on steroids.

Phill (left) and I receive bright-blue boxes of what looks like Chinese take-out from Pete Rainey of the Wilderness Study group (they were actually beautiful crystal glasses).

Phill (left) and I receive bright-blue boxes of what looks like Chinese take-out from Pete Rainey of the Wilderness Study group (they were actually beautiful crystal glasses).

I kicked things off on Saturday, May 3, as the keynote speaker for the Lake of the Woods Study Group’s annual dinner. I was privileged to be on the bill with my good buddy Phill Greenwalt, who was there to speak about an ancestor of his who was killed at the Wilderness. We were also joined by Dan Davis for a book signing. Phill and Dan’s book, Hurricane from the Heavens: The Battle of Cold Harbor, had just come out, and as the book’s midwife (er, I mean, editor), I was proud to see Dan and Phill enjoy such a nice splash. They’ve been enthusiastic partners to work with.

Don Pfanz (left) and Bert Dunkerly (center) sign copies of their new book "No Turning Back" while I make like Grant hovering over Meade's shoulder.

Don Pfanz (left) and Bert Dunkerly (center) sign copies of their new book “No Turning Back” while I make like Grant hovering over Meade’s shoulder.

Unfortunately, I had a death in the family that took me away from the rest of the Wilderness anniversary, but I was back on the morning of May 8, on the edge of Spindle Field (just like the Federal army). There, I joined historians Don Pfanz and Bert Dunkerly for a book signing at the Spotsylvania Battlefield exhibit shelter. Their book No Turning Back: A Guide to the 1864 Overland Campaign had also just come out and, as with Hurricane, I edited the book.

Daniel Davis (left), me, Becky Cummins, and Edward Alexander at the Jackson Shrine on May 10, 2014.

Daniel Davis (left), me, Becky Cumins, and Edward Alexander at the Jackson Shrine on May 10, 2014.

May 10 found me going back in time a year, from 1864 to 1863. For nine years, I have worked at the Jackson Shrine on the anniversary of Jackson’s death, and I wasn’t about to break the streak this year, Spotsy Sesquicentennial or not. I feel especially entwined with the story of Jackson’s death, for all sorts of reasons, and that’s why The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson remains, to this day, my greatest literary labor of love. On May 10 at the Shrine, I got to work with one of my very favorite NPS historians, Becky Cumins, who loves the Jackson story and the Jackson Shrine as much as I do, so that was a really nice treat. We also had visits from a couple ECWS authors: Dan Davis and Edward Alexander. Edward, who works at Pamplin Historical Park, has a Petersburg-related book coming out next year, which we’ll share details about soon.

BloodyAngleDawn-sm

The Bloody Angle at dawn on May 12, 2014

May 12 found me getting up well before dawn in order to be at Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle to help with the NPS’s real-time tour. This is the piece of ground that’s most special to me, so to be there at that time on that day was chilling in all the best ways. I’ve given more Bloody Angle tours than any of the other tours I do at the park, I think, but on this morning, I was there in a supporting role as one of several volunteers there to help the inestimable Frank O’Reilly lead the tour (and what a fantastic tour he gave). One of my jobs was to count attendees—the NPS loves its statistics—so as the guy with the clicker, I got to be the first person over the Confederate works, in real-time, so I could position myself at a good spot to count heads. Being first over the works was a real privilege.

I spent that afternoon at the exhibit shelter, talking with visitors, answering questions, and signing more books. (I have a love-hate relationship with that little exhibit shelter, which can turn into a brick bread oven on hot, humid summer days!)

BusTour-sm

Road trip! (sorta)

On the afternoon of May 13, a busload of visitors from the McKean County Historical Society rolled into town from northwestern Pennsylvania. That’s Bucktail Country for folks who don’t know. More importantly to me, that’s my home territory! For ten years, I’ve led a double life between McKean County, PA, and Spotsylvania County, VA, and I hardly ever get to share one with the other, so it was particularly exciting for me to have a group of folks from “back home” join me in Virginia and let me show them around the battlefields I love so much. We hit all four, plus the Jackson Shrine and Salem Church, with lunch thrown in one day at Stevenson Ridge, so it was a jam-packed two-and-a-half days.

The new museum at CVC looks great, and I was honored to be there for the opening.

The new museum at CVC looks great, and I was honored to be there for the opening.

On May 17, the NPS held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for its new museum at the Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center. What a splendid, splendid job they did on that new museum! The bookstore at CVC invited me to come in and sign some books during the morning, which was a fun time to be there with all the hubbub going on. The exhibit redesign had been delayed for some months, but the wait was well worth it. It’s an immersive, interactive experience (and best of all, they managed to keep the two old dioramas—Stonewall’s wounding and the Bloody Angle—while updating them to fit into the overall redesign).

My family first fell in love with Stonewall Jackson in Manassas, so to return there to tell his story felt like things had come full-circle.

My family first fell in love with Stonewall Jackson in Manassas, so to return there to tell his story felt like things had come full-circle.

May 18 found me at the Manassas Museum—a great little place to visit if you’re ever in town—doing a book talk on The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson as part of their Sunday afternoon book talk series. Manassas was where my family first fell in love with Stonewall, many years ago, so it was a real honor to visit the museum to tell Jackson’s story

On Monday, May 19, a couple from Texas that was staying at Stevenson Ridge asked for a guided tour of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. With stops at Saunders Field, Widow Tapp Field, Longstreet’s Wounding Site, the Brock Road/Plank Road intersection, the Sedgwick Monument, the Bloody Angle, Lee’s Last Line, and Harris Farm, it was a full morning—but wow, I love to walk that ground and share those stories with people who are experiencing them for the first time. “We made it back to Texas,” they wrote a few days later, “but I wanted to say thank you again for your fantastic tour of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania last Monday. You really MADE our vacation!”

In the midst of all this, I’d been doing some blogging here at the site. Kris had been doing a lot of the heavy lifting on days when I had events scheduled, but I tried to pick up the slack on days when I could. Cranking out so many words under pressure was a huge rush. Along with what I’d done already, I was specifically responsible for the march out of Spotsy and the North Anna phase of the campaign, which I love.

I teach at a Franciscan university, so it was only appropriate that St. Francis (background) keep me company as I signed books at VMI.

I teach at a Franciscan university, so it was only appropriate that St. Francis (background) kept me company as I signed books at VMI.

My lovely wife, Jennifer, had been with me for most of May’s adventures, and so on Friday, May 23, we decided to take full advantage of our scheduled excursion. After a morning drive-through of North Anna in honor of the Sesquicentennial, and then an early lunch meeting in Richmond, we headed west toward the Valley. I had a book signing at the Virginia Military Institute Museum in conjunction with the biennial Stonewall Jackson Symposium. Jenny and I took our time driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway to enjoy the breathtaking scenery. We then did a brief tour of Lexington before having dinner downtown. At the museum, we talked with a lot of great folks and I had the chance to meet some old friends, including Peter Furmick, a volunteer at the Jackson House who has, for years, given horse-drawn carriage tours of the town. Bill and Corty Freeman also stopped down to say hello; Corty is Stonewall Jackson’s great-great granddaughter. Even fellow Savas Beatie author Matt Lively popped by for a visit.

VMI-cameos

Some great friends in Lexington: Peter Furmick, Bill and Corty Freeman, Matt Lively, and Little Sorrel.

I had an easier time telling the stories at the Luminaria than my face probably suggests.

I had an easier time telling the stories at the Luminaria than my face probably suggests.

My last event of the month came on May 24. The NPS held its annual Luminaria event at Fredericksburg National Cemetery. I was fortunate to be at a stop near the very heart of the cemetery, with tens of thousands of flickering candles stretched out around me. The theme this year focused on the stories of men killed during the Overland Campaign. The stories I shared: Paul Kuhl and John Young, both of the 15th New Jersey, both killed at the Bloody Angle. Kuhl, a first sergeant, was shot through the leg during the battle. He improvised a tourniquet with his handkerchief and a bayonet, but the fighting was so intense, he was unable to crawl to safety. He was shot again, and again, and again, and again. By the time comrades recovered his body on the thirteenth, Kuhl had been so shot up, they said, that his corpse resembled “a sieve.”

That’s a heavy note to wrap up the month, I realize—but it’s a sobering reminder of why I do what I do. It sounds like a lark—and make no mistake, it’s a lot of fun doing this—but I do it for guys like Kuhl and Young and the hundreds of thousands of other guys who lost their lives in the war. I don’t want their stories or their sacrifices to be forgotten or taken for granted. I want to share their stories and the larger story of the war with as many people I can in as many ways as I can. I want to do my part to help us all remember. That’s my call to arms.

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One Response to My Call to Arms: A Look Back at My Overland Campaign

  1. Meg Thompson says:

    Wow, Chris! I envy you completely! My May was spent fighting for Common Core classrooms in Math, trying to finish a paper for APU, and just fretting in general.

    Seriously–everyone–Chris & Kris are two of the most dynamic folks out there. I have been given chances an old, fat lady would never have even hoped for! And because of them, I am beginning to think that the last 1/3 of my life might be the best ever. Your confidence in me, and your examples of energy and commitment have given me such a lightness of spirit. Huzzah!

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