An Interview with Ted Alexander (part one)

One of the many mementos in Ted Alexander's office: a gift from Capt. Bender's, one of his favorite places in Sharpsburg to eat
One of the many mementos in Ted Alexander’s office: a gift from Capt. Bender’s, one of his favorite places in Sharpsburg to eat

part one

Once, the mountains of paper provided a home for one of the Civil War community’s best-known historians. Now, most piles have been trimmed down and filed, or “circular filed,” while others wait in the patient hope that someday Ted Alexander will return.

He plans to, once the weather gets nicer. But after thirty years as historian for Antietam National Battlefield, Alexander is eying the warmer climes of Tupelo, Mississippi, and the company of his daughter and son-in-law. The couple recently bought a house, and he plans to visit once they’re settled. “To get away from the cold,” he tells me one day, beaming like the sun itself. Retirement will have that effect on a man.

Ted used to make his office in Antietam’s research library, and it was there that I stopped to see him in December. His countdown clock had less than two weeks to go. I wanted the chance to talk with him—one of the great legends among Park Service historians—before he headed out.

He greets me like an old friend, an aspect of his personality that comes out time and time again in our conversation. I’m here to talk about his career, but he’s just as eager to talk about the people he’s worked with and the people whose work he has promoted. Aside from his position with Antietam National Battlefield, he’s been director of the Chambersburg Civil War Seminar since its founding in 1989. Those two positions have made his career a veritable who’s-who of Civil War scholars.

He also had a side career doing tours and talks and planning seminars for the Smithsonian Resident Associates for 20 years “My mentor that got me into that was the late Dr. Martin Gordon,” he tells me, giving one more nod to the many people who’ve worked with him.

Ted during his days in the Marines
Ted during his days in the Marines

Ted Alexander earned his bachelor’s from the University of Maryland and his master’s from the University of Maryland—Baltimore County. He served nearly five years in the Marine Corps, where he was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal with Combat V for running medevacs under fire during his service in Vietnam, where he did two tours. As a historian, he’s author, editor, or contributor to about a dozen books, “mostly on the Civil War,” he says, and he’s written more than 200 magazine articles or book reviews for Civil War News, Blue & Gray, and The Washington Times. He’s the recipient of the Henry Kyd Douglas Award from the Hagerstown Civil War Roundtable. He has also lectured and developed material on John Brown and the Underground Railroad for the Franklin County (Pa) Visitors Bureau.

“Try to go for a master’s, on that end of things,” he advises young historians. “And start volunteering, and start writing, whether it’s for your local historical society’s newsletter, volunteering at a local museum, a state park, or a national park if you can. That’ll get your foot in the door and get you some experience. Those are things I wish I had done more of. I didn’t get on board—I was a school teacher, teaching U.S. History for a couple years—I didn’t get with the Park Service ’til I was in my 30s. And if I would have volunteered more when I was younger, maybe I would’ve gotten on sooner.”

We sit at a desk-sized metal table, with stacks of books lining the walls around us. Behind Ted, rows and rows of Gaylord-brand acid-free boxes fill shelves beneath a big glass window that looks into—or out from—his office. I see Elvis memorabilia in there! Knowing Ted has his own connection to Tupelo, the town where Elvis was born, I ask him about the road that brought him from northeast Mississippi to Sharpsburg, Maryland.

“My mother was from Greencastle, Pennsylvania, which is where I live now,” he tells me. “It’s my hometown. She and my dad, they met at Fort Ritchie, Maryland, which is right on the Maryland/Pennsylvania state line. Mom was a U.S.O. girl. They’d take busloads of ’em up and they’d go to dances and all that. Dad was there training in the intelligence school to be an interrogator of Japanese prisoners. He served in the Pacific under McArthur.

“They got married after the war, and she moved to Mississippi. And I was born in Tupelo. Meanwhile, my dad was struggling with a brain tumor, and he died when I was just an infant. So mom moved back to Greencastle and, in the summer, we’d go down to Tennessee and Mississippi, where I had cousins and various kinfolk and my grandparents in Mississippi. So I’d spend my summers in the South and then come back to Greencastle.

“And then when I was a teenager, I got into some trouble. (He laughs.) I was a troubled youth. Some say I’m still a troubled youth. (He laughs again.) So I went to school in Smithsburg, Maryland, and graduated from there. And I’ve also lived in Hagerstown, Maryland, so I’ve lived in this area, in the Cumberland Valley, most of my life.”

Over the next few days, I’ll share portions of my conversation with Ted Alexander—his last interview before retiring from the Park Service as Antietam National Battlefield’s historian.

2 Responses to An Interview with Ted Alexander (part one)

  1. In 1994 I spent some time in Boonsboro to house sit and finish an M.A. thesis in philosophy. I was left with a list of a few places to visit, including Antietam. At this point I knew next to nothing about the Civil War, but one day I decided to drive over to check it out. I ended up on a tour with Ted and within a few hours I was hooked. I returned every day during my stay and gradually developed a friendship with Ted. My first attempt at writing anything about the Civil War was done in the research room of the visitors center. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t be doing what I do without Ted Alexander. Congratulations on your retirement, Ted.

    Kevin Levin

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