What Historians Really Do–Part 1

Colonel Ellsworth
Colonel Ellsworth

Elmer Ellsworth. This is the man who has been the focus of my intellectual life for over ten years, although there were times earlier that he was certainly in my sights. Who knows exactly why one person, one battle, one war or one period of history grabs the mind and heart, and simply will NOT let go?

For those readers who do not know the story: I had taken a job as a middle school math teacher after twenty plus years teaching 5th grade. I was just burned out trying to teach American History to a bubble-test. I was offered math, so I took it. Parent Conference Night rolled around, and I was seated in the gym against a wall that was adorned with a large picture of E. E. Brownell, the namesake of Brownell Middle School. My principal walked by, making small talk, and he came over to say “hello” to the new teacher–me. We exchanged a couple of words, and then he indicated the large painting behind me. “E. E. Brownell . . . I wonder what the E. E. stood for?” he asked.

Elmer Ellsworth Brownell, California Educator
Elmer Ellsworth Brownell, California Educator

EllsworthDeathWithout even pausing, I replied that it was probably Elmer Ellsworth, since many boy babies bore that name in the past. Elmer who? Elmer Ellsworth . . . the first Union officer to die in the Civil War . . .. And that was the beginning of a wonderful journey!

Little did I know that my new boss was a serious Civil War buff, nor did I know just how encouraging he would be as I began the journey that changed a burned-out math teacher into a “real” historian.

Chris & Kris
Chris & Kris

I initially wrote the manuscript of my book First Fallen: the Life & Times of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth during the spring and summer of 2010. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, which was a plus. Had I known, I would never have had the nerve to undertake the effort, much less to reach out to the then-new EmergingCivilWar blog as some sort of “expert” on anything, much less the Civil War. Somehow, the gods of war were otherwise occupied that day, because Chris/Kris responded to my entreaty and let me try out. The rest, as they say, is history. Literally.

Once the book was “done” (lol!!) I realized that, were it ever to see print, the author American-Public-University-System-Impressive-Information-6description would have to say that I was a math teacher and Civil War buff. Yeah. Not so good. The book deserved to be taken seriously, and to that end, I tentatively enrolled in an on-line Masters Program at American Public University. I finally graduated this Spring, with a hard-earned advanced degree in Military History, with a Civil War emphasis. I was finally a historian!

Layout 1This summer I learned first-hand exactly what a historian does–and it is wonderfully exciting! The success of Aftermath of Battle, and the entire Savas Beatie ECW series, has brought the opportunity to finally allow First Fallen a chance to be published by an academic press of excellent reputation. Only there was one problem–one HUGE problem: when I first wrote the book, I had pretty much NO idea how to source much of anything. I knew the MLA formatting style guidelines from college, but that had been a long time ago, and even though the MLA style is used in the humanities, history uses the Chicago, or Turabian formatting style.

After getting a Masters in history, I now knew just how poorly sourced my initial effort was, and the chore ahead was to properly source my book–all gazillion pages of it. ARGH! So . . . the journey began.

photoThis summer I spent almost a week in Kenosha, Wisconsin, at the Kenosha Civil War Museum. It was heaven, in every sense of the word. Finally I was spending time with people who did not need to ask me who Elmer Ellsworth was, or why anyone should care.

In the next couple of posts, I will share my experiences working with Doug, Gina and Susan–and with Phebe Ellsworth, Carrie Spafford, and the Colonel himself. Oh my!



7 Responses to What Historians Really Do–Part 1

  1. Nice piece. I was talking with our home contractor the other month–he noticed my civil war library–and he mentioned that he had a connection to the war. He was related to Elmer. I think I surprised him when I knew exactly who Ellsworth was. Small world. Looking forward to the book.

    PS: Congrats on finishing the degree.

    1. One of the things about Elmer is how many “relatives” he has . . . even though there were only two children of Ephraim & Phebe Ellsworth. Their younger son, Charley, died of typhoid fever in Chicago, under Elmer’s care, alas. He was pretty young, never married, and died without issue. Elmer himself was engaged, but never married, and died before he and Carrie Spafford ever had offspring. So–technically–the line stopped with Charley & Elmer. There were no children of either to carry on the name. Phebe Denton, EE’s mom, had many siblings–whole & step. The only way anyone can be actually related to Elmer Ellsworth is to be related to his mother through one of her sibs.

      That does not stop anyone from making claims, however–just remember they are probably based on wishful thinking. Don’t argue, just hope they continue to be interested in the Civil War.

  2. What a great personal story Meg! I have the same love of Elmer Ellsworth as you do. I bring people on tours though Old Town Alexandria and Ford’s Theatres and I try to bring the him to life to my audiences. As you know the first martyr of the Civil War and a rallying cry, a good friend of Lincoln who has him laid out in the White House in state after he is killed makes him a popular figure in America history and folklore. Keep up the articles and books coming. I look forward to reading them! Good luck with your new career!

    1. That’s our guy! Even Robert E. Lee thought he might have ended up running the Army of the Potomac, although I think Lincoln would have been loath to let him into harm’s way. Please stay in touch–I may need pictures!! And thanks.

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