In Memory of Al Conner, Jr.

Stafford Tour Stop 01-pathThe shady glen look like something out of Middle-Earth: ferns cluster in small patches on the sun-dappled forest floor and piles of lichen-covered rocks sit half-submerged in the ground. A lightly mulched path winds among the trees and among the dips and small hillocks. Old pits the size of mattresses pock the landscape everywhere. The only touch of modernity: small laminate signs beside each pit identifying them as “hut site partially dug into the ground.”

This is the Stafford Civil War Park in Stafford County, Virginia, which preserves part of the Federal XI Corps’ encampment site from the winter of ’62-’63.

This was also the landscape my friend Al Conner, Jr., loved so much. I have come here on the day of his memorial service to pay tribute to him.

Conner, Al-mugshot
Al Conner, a graduate of VMI and Georgetown University, was  Vietnam infantry combat veteran and career intelligence officer. Al lived in Stafford County, scene of the “remarkable story” highlighted in “Seizing Destiny.”

Al passed away on Friday, May 20, after a years-long battle with cancer. As often happens, the fight caused complications of its own, and that eventually took its toll. I met Al a couple years ago, well into that fight, when he and our mutual publisher, Ted Savas, asked me to join in on a book project Al had been working on.

That book, Seizing Destiny: The “Valley Forge” of the Army of the Potomac and the Civil War Winter that Saved the Union, turned out to be a remarkable, insightful piece of scholarship. Al recognized that the winter of 1862-’63 represented a major turning point of the war that virtually no one paid any attention to. Historians discussed it as fallout following Ambrose Burnside’s unfortunate tenure at the head of the Army of the Potomac, and they discussed it as a prelude to Joseph Hooker’s Chancellorsville campaign, but in and of itself, that cold, dismal winter never got the attention it deserved.

And it deserved a lot of attention, Al believed. The army somehow went from rock bottom to fighting trim during that time—efficient enough to be competitive at Chancellorsville and eventually find victory two months afterward at Gettysburg. How does a turnaround like that happen, he wondered?

His answer: Seizing Destiny.

Al ran into a fair amount of skepticism when he began his book, but that only pushed him to dig deeper and analyze harder. A former military analyst by profession, the task was right up his alley. He parsed data, crunched numbers, read innumerable accounts, and let the hunt invigorate him.

All the while, Al was sustained by his wife, Jane, whose good model of devotion amazed me. In his dedication of the book to her, Al likened her to “fully equal to the best women of the ‘Valley Forge.’”

When Al and I met for the first time to talk about the book, he laid out his premise and walked me through the supporting research, carefully laying out his argument. I immediately recognized he was on to something. My work with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park over the years had well-acquainted me with the stories of both Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, and I had written books on both, but like so many others, I hadn’t given fuller consideration to the time between those battles. What I knew about them helped me understand Al’s thesis immediately.

As I worked on the manuscript, Al turned his attention to his next project: research he’d been doing about alumni from the Virginia Military Institute who’d served in the Civil War. A VMI alum himself, Al was deeply devoted to his alma mater. Over the course of his last year, he helped organize his class’s 50th anniversary. By the time the anniversary itself came around this spring, he was too ill to go, but a string of his classmates stopped by to see him on their way and way back from the event. He might not be able to make the reunion, but they ensured their fellow “rat” would not be left behind. Collectively, they donated tens of thousands of dollars toward VMI scholarships in Al’s name—a gesture that moved and gratified Al deeply.

All the while, Al was sustained by his wife, Jane, whose good model of devotion amazed me. In his dedication of the book to her, Al likened her to “fully equal to the best women of the ‘Valley Forge.’”

I knew Al to be similarly generous. He designated all his proceeds from Seizing Destiny to the Stafford Civil War Park. It was his way to make a lasting contribution to the story he loved so much.

Stafford Park SignDriving into the park, the sign at the entrance identifies it as “Union Army’s Valley Forge 1863.” The orientation sign explains it further at tour stop one. Rufus Dawes, serving with the 6th Wisconsin, first made the “Valley Forge” reference made by several others at the time and reiterated by many historians since—but usually in the context of the army’s low point , illustrating its suffering. Al is the one who really extended the metaphor to include the transformative experience that occurred for the Continental Army to the Army of the Potomac.

Aside from the site of the winter huts, the park preserves earthworks, artillery emplacements, corduroy roads, and other features of the XI Corps’s encampment. It’s a military story but also the story of the daily lives of 135,000 Union soldiers in all. Because of poor health and poor sanitation, more than 3,500 of those men made Stafford their final resting place. The park also captures a slice of the story of the civilians who also saw their lives radically transformed by the presence of that army.

Al loved this place. He loved this story. He loved the memory of these men. For me, Al’s story will forever be tied to this landscape and the men who once occupied it.

Other obligations prevent me from attending the memorial service later today, so I come here instead to pay my respects. I have had the privilege of working with many, many wonderful, talented historians over the past decade-plus, but I learned as much from Al and his way of analyzing the information right in front of me than I have learned from anyone. It was a privilege to help him bring the story of the Valley Forge to light so that these men and their remarkable transformation would not be forgotten. I am a better historian for having known him.

7 Responses to In Memory of Al Conner, Jr.

  1. A very touching tribute. Al and Jan have always been amazing and dedicated historians. Their presentation and preservation of Stafford history was second to none and the park is really a testament to their efforts. I had the privilege of reviewing several of Jan’s books and speaking at two Stafford Historical Society events due to the Connors and I will always look back on those as some of my favorites. He was an exceptional person and historian. – Michael Aubrecht

  2. I am so sorry I put this manuscript off for so long. I planned a trip to meet Al in May, but fell sick in Chicago right after Book Expo and could not make it to the East Coast. Al passed away two days later. From all accounts he was a wonderful guy, a decorated combat veteran, and a great father and husband. Rest in Peace, Al. You left behind one hell of a book.

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