by ECW Correspondent Liam McGurl
For Bill Backus, co-author of Want for Vigilance: The Bristoe Station Campaign, his lax collegiate writing didn’t necessarily exactly prepare him for authorship. Fortunately, though, he pulled on every Civil War-related experience for his first Emerging Civil War installment, leading to a successful first publication.
Backus, who found an interest in history before even reaching his secondary education years, said his passion for the topic seems as natural as any other daily to-do.
“I was always interested in the Civil War,” Backus said. “Usually, my family would vacation down in Florida every summer. I grew up in Connecticut and, during the road trips down—when gas was still affordable—we’d go through Virginia, and I-95 has about half a dozen battlefields within a 35 mile radius of it. So, going down, we always stopped at around at least one Civil War battlefield, and that really started to increase my interest in the American Civil War era.”
Backus, who worked at battlefields all through his collegiate years, said his early professional experiences aided in his writing. He added that he’s worked at Vicksburg National Military Park running a volunteer, youth interpretation program—consisting of 14-17 year-old local teenagers reenacting events of the Civil War—and at Petersburg National Battlefield as a tour guide.
Inevitably, these experiences led him to Bristoe Station Battlefield and Heritage Park, the focus of his first Emerging Civil War Series effort.
Backus’ book, co-written by Robert Orrison, discusses this often-overlooked period of the Civil War in October 1863. The book provides detailed information about the logistics of the Bristoe Station campaign, along with plenty of images to illuminate the story.
According to Backus, who serves as an interpreter and site manager at the park, researching for his manuscript wasn’t quite as tedious as he expected, despite there only being one accessible book about the campaign.
“The research was pretty easy because we’d been compiling research for close to 3-4 years,” said Backus, a graduate of the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. “So, we had the research for the book at the park archives. We didn’t have to do a lot of heavy lifting.”
Backus added that he had done personal research on the topic before being offered to take on this Emerging Civil War installment. He had assisted with tours for the war’s 151st anniversary and helped with interpretation of the park for the installment of new site markers.
For Backus, who holds a degree in historic preservation, authorship seemed like a far-off feat. However, after being approached by Orrison about the opportunity and “kicking around the idea,” he said, he decided to seize the moment.
Although the writing process posed some obstacles for Backus, he said seclusion served as a loyal companion to his writing—locking himself away in his home office for spans of 5-6 hours, over three weekends.
“I worked on it for three main weekends,” Backus said. “I was able to get a pretty fleshed-out outline for each chapter and the main sections in the first weekend. The second weekend, I got more or less everything done, and the third weekend, went back to polish it up a little bit.”
Backus added that, since the book was a combination of both his and Orrison’s writing, he had to get the writing done in a timely manner to mesh their writing styles effectively.
“You don’t read the first half of the book, notice that’s one person, and then change the chapter and it’s a completely different writing style,” he said. “I had to try to get it done so that I had the opportunity to make it a flowing narrative.”
Aside from stylistic struggles, Backus was subject to constantly shortening publishing dates, which moved from “sometime in 2016,” to Christmas-time of 2015 and, finally, around the 151 Anniversary celebrations.
Backus said his portion of the book was written, “polished,” and submitted for review by Feb. of 2015, even though it wasn’t due until late August. He attributes his early submission to rigorous, personal deadlines.
Despite the obstacles Backus faced writing A Want of Vigilance, he said he enjoys the ability to impassion people about both history and its preservation.
“The ultimate goal that Rob and I had was not only to have people become interested in this campaign, but to come out to these sites,” he said. “To actually walk on the grounds and, hopefully, getting them on the grounds will also pique their interest about the preservation of these sites and make them advocates for preservation.”
Backus added that he hopes to write more often after completing his first published book.
“I find it really enjoyable because it was a different type of writing project that I wasn’t used to,” Backus said. “In college, it was very much academic types of papers I was used to writing. This was very fun to set my own schedule, but also, more importantly, to write a book that was not geared towards an academic and expert audience but just one that the general person could pick up.”