An Author of Vigilance: An Interview with ECW’s Rob Orrison

Vigilance-coverAs the author of one of the newest Emerging Civil War Series installments—A Want of Vigilance: The Battle of Bristoe Station—Rob Orrison is still amazed at how much work it took to complete his first published book.

Orrison said his debut book, released on Oct. 17, was the culmination of nearly 20 years working in Civil War history.

Orrison—who works for the Historic Preservation Office in Prince Williams County, Virginia—helps manages eight historic sights and museums, which he called the starting point of his road to authorship.

“I had some background knowledge, and Bill [Backus] (the co-author of the piece) did, as well,” Orrison said.  “That’s just generic Civil War knowledge, but this book required a bit of research because there wasn’t much written about it.  There weren’t many contemporary books or articles written on it.”

Orrison added that while his work led him to this underrepresented topic, his feeling of responsibility to tell the story of Bristoe Station led him to write about it.

“It was something where I thought there was a hole,” Orrison said.  “There’s not a whole lot that hasn’t been written about [in Civil War history], besides this one thing.  I felt like it was important to let people know these places exist.”

The piece focuses on the often-forgotten 1863 Bristoe Campaign, a military operation carried out by George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac and Robert E. Lee’s Northern Virginia Army. Highlighting the significant Confederate casualties that followed this bloody campaign, Orrison utilized a variety of unconventional methods to unravel the obscurity of the battle of Bristoe Station.

From a nine-stop driving tour embedded within the main text of the work to appendices covering a multitude of topics, plus engaging photographs to preservation timelines, Orrison pulled out every stop to communicate the importance of the event.

According to Orrison, this comprehensive work stemmed from isolated, intensive research in a nearby library. “I couldn’t do it at home,” he said. “There’s a big screen TV and I have a two year old. I would go to a local library about 20 miles from my house, close myself off, take a huge bag of all my research and write there. I probably wrote 80 percent of my book there.”

Orrison added that he and co-author Backus may have admittedly over-researched.

While he expected the volume of research that authorship required, he was surprised by the challenges layout posed.

“I think what surprised me the most was the work that goes into laying it all out,” he said. “Finding images, maps and working with a layout editor is like a jigsaw puzzle. There’s a lot of work that goes into that.”

Orrison added that the biggest adjustments he faced were in his writing pace and style.

“I enjoy writing casually,” he said. “When you do a book, you have a contract and a date. You have to continuously write.  Professionally, I’m a museum person, so I like history—but I like the public side of history. I usually wrote 200-word blurbs for exhibits, so I had to adjust my writing style.” While Orrison said overcoming these obstacles was difficult, he added that it was manageable, as well.

Receiving his first copy of the book made all the hard work worthwhile, he said.

Now, with his first book published and released to the public, Orrison said he’s looking forward to focusing his attention on upcoming projects.

“We are working on an essay book for Southern Illinois Press, and I’m working on a book with a friend of mine on Gettysburg,” Orrison said. “I have two projects that need to be wrapped up by New Year’s Day.”

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