An Interview with Pulitzer Finalist Brian Matthew Jordan (part one)

Jordan, Brian Matthew
Brian Matthew Jordan, Ph.D.,assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University

part one of three

In April, the Pultizer Prize committee announced its winners for 2016. This year’s winner for history was Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles. But on the list of finalists was Emerging Civil War’s Brian Matthew Jordan, whose book Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War, focused on the postwar disillusionment and difficulties Union veterans encountered on the home front. Publisher’s Weekly called it a “thoughtful, well-researched book.” (Read Derek Maxfield’s ECW review).

Shortly after the announcement, Brian took some time to chat with me about the book, his writing process, and the Pulitzer committee’s unexpected news.

CM: Congratulations! This is so exciting.

BMJ: Thank you. It’s more than a little overwhelming.

CM: I bet. I bet. (chuckles)

Where’d you get the idea for putting the book together?

BMJ: Well, it started almost twenty years ago. As a young Civil War buff, I got to know a man in my hometown of Akron, Ohio, who passed his own childhood criss-crossing the Midwest in search of some of the last survivors of the Union army, and he got to know intimately some of those last survivors. Most impressively, he went to the 105th birthday party of Ohio’s last surviving African-American survivor, Alvin Smith. He had a close personal relationship with Dan Clingaman—“Uncle Dan,” he called him—who was the last survivor in Ohio and went to the 1938 reunion in Gettysburg. Gary also had more than a decade of correspondence with Albert Woolson, of course the last survivor of the Grand Army of the Republic. Gary took at least two train trips up to Duluth to meet with him before he died in 1956.

And he would tell me these stories, and he had these scrapbooks just teeming with newspaper articles, and he had snapshots of these old guys. You know, it really made the Civil War real and intimate and immediate for me. And here was my entry point into the war itself. And I thought, My god. I was jealous. I wanted to do it myself!

And he, in the course of talking about this, made this comment: He said that despite the fact that it had been 70, 75 years for these guys, despite the fact that a lot of them like Woolson were mere drummer boys, that he had this sense that there was all this trauma and anguish and guilt that they hadn’t put away. That, for me—I was haunted. I never really got over that remark.

I went off to graduate school, and I was casting about for a dissertation topic, and I knew I wanted something that would be in the memory vein, that would complicate David Blight’s Race and Reunion, the thesis of which I found compelling but I never completely bought. And I thought, I really want to do this intimate, emotional history of Union veterans. And Blight was all for it. But other senior scholars in the field said, “You just won’t be able to do it, you won’t be able to really get into their psyches, you won’t be able to get into their minds, their hearts. The sources just aren’t there. They stopped writing after Appomattox. You won’t be able to access that world.”

Of course, that was the invitation for me to do it. And I spent three or four years visiting every northern state historical society and probably well more than two-thousand manuscript collections and probably more than 150 libraries. My problem wasn’t a dearth of material. I probably did not use maybe 80 percent of what I got. It’s all in boxes in the garage. (laughs)

CM: That’s one of the things I thought was so remarkable about the book: you just seemed to have a ton of material.

BMJ: Yeah. Yeah. When I wrote the narrative, I wanted it to be a popular history and something that would be accessible to a wide reading public, but about forty percent of the book is in the endnotes—I did that for my fellow scholars.

CM: As a writer, what was your challenge to sort through that material, to cull that information and find what would best tell your story?

BMJ: I was in the great position of having probably eight to ten examples for every line in the book—there were eight to ten additional stories I could have told but simply couldn’t for the sake of the narrative. I spent probably three years on the road gathering and probably another year culling through and organizing all the material.

In terms of all the acclaim that has come to the book, it’s humbling and it’s flattering, but I think why people respond to the book is in their voices. They’re terribly compelling. I allowed their voices to tell the story. For me, those voices had such an urgency, and I had lived with them for so long, that they just kind of came out of me. (laughs)

It was never really a challenge to think about it. It just flowed very naturally. I know that sounds odd, but after living with them for so long and literally feeling as though I could finish their sentences, that’s the moment I knew I was done. I felt that I’d been with them for so long, I felt like I could really let them tell the story, and everything else would kind of come naturally.

CM: It turns out you found a story that probably didn’t have as happy an ending as people have wanted to believe or tended to think.

BMJ: Yeah. Yeah, and I’m totally aware of that. A lot of the big reviews that the book has received, they comment on that—well, they try to make it seem as though I was just obsessed with Iraq and Afghanistan. You know: “This deliberately dark story must be making some kind of larger political statement.” And yes, I think the fact that we’re living in a postwar period, that we’re more attentive to veterans issues, no doubt made me to ask some of the questions I did. But really, I came about this in the most genuine way of really wanting to engage the scholarship and the memory question, more than anything.

People say all the time that it’s so dark. Look, there were days that I was literally emotionally spent after spending eight hours in the archives. I simply couldn’t tell this story any other way. I needed to tell it in this way. So people read in political undertones that really aren’t there. I expected that reaction, but it’s also sort of frustrating.

CM: The really poignant parallel I picked up on was that you talk about these guys as they’re kind of passing away, and you end up with the last few survivors, and I think about the World War Two veterans, where we have just the very youngest of those guys who are still with us, and their voices are being lost. That was a really interesting echo that I picked up out of it.

BMJ: I think we’re seeing the very same thing happen with them, and we haven’t really paid a lot of attention to their struggles—until we’re at that twilight moment now, where we’re having the last survivors of certain events, and we’re down to the last handful of guys. That, for me, was kind of the tragic thing in my story. So much anguish among Union veterans—and it’s not until the 40s and 50s that they get a lot of recognition—and then it’s really too late. We do this as a nation over and over and over again.

I hope that, if the book has had any effect at all, that it’s initiated a larger conversation about this inherent problem of veteran care and the inherent difficulty of how we deal with issues like reintegration. What is our collective national responsibility? It’s about more than just lamenting these guys. It’s more than just a simple prescription. It’s a national conversation we need to have. If anything comes of all this acclaim, I hope that it helps steer us in that direction.

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[In the next installment of the interview, Brian talks about his relationship with his mentor/advisor, historian David Blight, whose seminal book Race and Reunion inspired Marching Home. “I’m going to write the book that refutes yours,” Brian told him….]

2 Responses to An Interview with Pulitzer Finalist Brian Matthew Jordan (part one)

  1. I used Marching Home as one of the sources for my thesis, and I gotta say–I loved the way you made those old guys so real. Time did forget them–time has a way of doing that to just about everything. They scared little kids, they drank too much, and were ornery as heck. Not all, of course, but many, just like our few remaining WWII vets, or those who fought in Korea. I know the young men coming home from the Middle East will suffer the same fateful forgetting. I guess that is how things are, maybe how they must be. But thanks, Brian, for giving us a glimpse into their remaining years. You gotta love those old fellows.

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