In Memory of Wiley Sword

Lee White Wiley Sword
Lee White and Wiley Sword

ECW was saddened to hear of the death this week of historian Wiley Sword. Sword passed away on Monday at the age of 77.

Sword was one of the best-known voices of the Western Theater, and his series of letters in Blue & Gray Magazine made him universally known among hardcore buffs.

We’d like to share a few of our reflections on the career of this remarkable historian.

Dave Roth, Blue & Gray Magazine: I am proud and honored to have been one of Wiley’s publishers. He was a good friend and a wonderful historian and writer. I will greatly miss our conversations about all things Civil War. He was a true gentleman and scholar.

Chris Kolakowski: Wiley Sword was a prolific author who introduced (sometimes re-introduced) legions of readers to various topics on the Civil War. Wiley’s concise books told engaging stories but also offered rigorous discussions. For anyone concerned with the War in Tennessee, his name comes up early in the conversation. He will be missed.

Bert Dunkerly: Having grown up and spent most of my time in the East, I was new to both the region and Civil War scholarship of the Western Theater when I began graduate school in Tennessee. Wiley Sword’s books opened my eyes to the importance of various western battles, Franklin and Nashville in particular. His level of detail and clear writing style have, to me, set the standard for scholarship of battlefields in Tennessee. As we reflect on his passing, I paused today to recall fond memories of driving through suburban Franklin and the outskirts of Nashville, with his book at my side, following the movements of the armies. His works will remain treasured parts of my library, and I will pull them out the next time I travel to Tennessee.

Lee White: He was truly a scholar and a gentleman, though we disagreed on some interpretations. I remember eating nothing but cheap McDonalds Hamburgers for a week when I was in college to save up enough money to buy his Embrace An Angry Wind when it first came out. He encouraged me a young man and it was truly an honor a few years ago when I spoke at a conference alongside him.

Edward Alexander: I was so impressed by his incredible generosity in donating his entire manuscript collection to Pamplin Historical Park at the beginning of this year. So many authors are very guarded with their research, not wanting to make it available as if it would dilute their intellectual authority. But Wiley wanted his extensive collection available for future research. Each of the thousand or so letters in the collection is an incredible research tool. Wiley was very selective in the manuscripts he accumulated so there is no fluff within the collection. And because of his foresight the collection lives on for continued research, a legacy to his scholarship and philanthropy.

Daniel T. Davis: When I think about the scholarship on the Western Theater, the first name that comes to mind is Wiley Sword. While I never met him, my first introduction to Wiley came from watching Civil War documentaries on the History Channel. His work on Shiloh, Chattanooga and the Tennessee Campaign are the starting points for anyone who is interested in learning more about those events.

Dave Powell: I first “met” Wiley Sword through his books. Shiloh: Bloody April (1974) Embrace an Angry Wind(1992) and Mountains Touched with Fire (1995) are all remarkable works, exciting and thought=provoking. I think it is safe to say that his talent was part of my own inspiration to write. When you finish a good book, something stays with you, and his books definitely stayed with me.

I was privileged to get to know Wiley in person, thanks to a group of like-minded people I joined a few years ago – an informal academic group called The Western Theater Historians. Wiley was also a member, and so I got to know him during several of our annual conferences. I found him just as engaging in person as on the page.

There I also discovered the other remarkable contribution Wiley made to Civil War Scholarship. Wiley Sword was a collector. He bought letters and other documents that caught his attention, at shows, sometimes at auction, later through internet sites like Ebay. Once he bought them, he researched them, transcribed them, and added contextual material. Over the years, he amassed a huge number of items, including some great material on battles and leaders. Best of all, he was generous, more than willing to share those documents with other historians.  Last year he sold this fabulous collection to Pamplin Park, thereby preserving it intact for future use. Over the years, Wiley rescued several thousand documents from potential historical oblivion.

I will miss Wiley when the Western Theater Historians meet in Chattanooga next spring. His absence will leave a void. I also will miss his avid collecting. In the future, how many Civil War letters will surface on an auction site, only to disappear again into private hands, perhaps lost forever? Every time I see a letter or collection come up for sale, I will think of Wiley.

Thank you Mr. Sword.

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