(part one in a five-part series)
The recipient of Emerging Civil War’s Award for Service in Civil War Public History is Dave Roth, editor and publisher of Blue & Gray Magazine. After an incredible 34-year run, Dave decided he had to cease publishing for financial reasons—although the website continues on.
I had the opportunity in late July to talk with Dave, shortly after we informed him about the award. Over the next few days, I’ll share that conversation with you—although, largely, I just sat back and listened with rapt attention as Dave shared war stories from more than three decades in the field.
“It’s been a great experience to be able to do something that I acquired as a hobby—I’m not trained in this,” Dave told me.
CHRIS: Can you trace that progression for me? How did you end up doing the Civil War for a living?
DAVE: I grew up in Martins Ferry in eastern Ohio. That’s right on the border with West Virginia. Wheeling is just across the Ohio River, so I was a border guy between the North and South.
In college—I went to Ohio University—I was an accounting major, not a history major. So later, when I got into history, I wasn’t taught, really, how to do history. I just decided it was what I wanted to do. I graduated from college in 1974 with an accounting degree, took the CPA exam later that year, and in February 1975, learned I’d passed it. I thought, “Wow, no more studying for me.” I needed a hobby.
I went to a Little Professor’s bookstore that was nearby, and I bought two paperbacks. One of them was The Battle of the Bulge by Robert Merriam. The other one was Bruce Catton’s Short History of the Civil War, published by American Heritage. I took those books home and scanned them a little bit, and Bruce Catton kind of got me interested.
Then what really got me the bug was, I was walking through a drugstore one day, and I saw a paperback of The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. That was 1975. I took that home and read that book, and at that point, I was hooked. I went to Gettysburg.
And as it turned out, I started putting feelers out at the accounting firm where I worked, and I found some other guys there who were interested in the Civil War.
So I started planning tours, and those guys went along with me. And these guys then started calling me “The General.” So that’s where that came from. [Dave signed his driving tours in Blue & Gray with that moniker: “The General.”]
Several years later, I was working as controller for a large construction company and real estate developer—you know, the enemy to every preservationist out there, pretty much. (laughs) And while working there, that’s when I met Robin. I was introduced to Robin by my boss’s secretary. And I got Robin hooked. I don’t know what it was I did, but I managed to get people hooked on my interest in the Civil War. She wasn’t into it the same way I was. She was more into the Gone With the Wind aspects of it, the romance. Even though she liked to listen to me talk on battlefields when I took her around and showed her places, she still referred to that as boring “left flank/right flank” stuff (laughs)
We got married, and the rest is history.
When I turned thirty, I decided, “If we’re ever going to do anything crazy in this life, now would be the time, because if we fail, we’re young enough to bounce back.” We got the idea for Blue & Gray in the family room of our home, and on July 21, 1983, the first issue of Blue & Gray came out. [Although that was the anniversary of the battle of first Manassas, the first issue actually focused on Harper’s Ferry.]
And I guess that’s how I began to expand my public history interest to a larger group.
CHRIS: Can you walk me through the process of putting an issue together?
DAVE: First of all you have to find the right person to write for you, someone who is identified with the site. And then you have to arrange to meet at a common time that fits for everybody. So, a lot of different things have to come together. You have to make sure everyone can get to the site so you can point out to me the things you want to include on the driving tour, and I take the photos. And in order to get the right photos, as you know, you have to wait for the good weather.
Once, back in the—it was our sixth issue ever, volume one, number six—I actually took Robin and Jason [his son] on that one; the girls weren’t born yet—we actually had to wait a week for it to stop raining. It was almost like real Spotsylvania [where it rained for five consecutive days in the middle of the battle]. I’m pretty sure Ed Raus wrote part of that Spotsylvania piece—that’s where it was, it was in Spotsylvania—and it was the first issue where I didn’t write the whole feature. We were just starting out, and didn’t have a lot to pay anybody, so I wrote the first five.
Then I have the author send me some info for the maps. So, then I do the maps. Everybody loves the maps. And then I sit down and start reading the manuscript and looking at the maps. And you would be surprised how many times you find inconsistencies. I call that “mapping the article.” You do a map based on what the article says, but then you go look at other sources, and you think, “Wait, wait, wait—this is different.” So you have to make the maps conform to the text or people get pissed off at you. It can be painstaking at times.
CHRIS: But it seems like that’s a great opportunity for new scholarship….
DAVE: Yeah! And that makes putting them together so interesting.
So, find your place. Get the right author to write it. Make it lengthy enough and annotate it. That’s the best part—it has to be annotated. And then give readers good, detailed maps and a driving tour.
Those ones Mackowski and White do, they just come together real easy. (laughs)
CHRIS: How long does it take to do an issue, from start to finish?
DAVE: It varies. For some of them, the maps can take a whole month to do—just the maps. And when you consider the travel time, the issues just vary.
Most editors spend their time sitting behind a desk. I spent a whole lot of time behind the wheel of my truck. So that’s another difference in the way Blue & Gray has done it.
CHRIS: That’s a lot of work for two people, you and your son Jason.
DAVE: Yeah. We used to have assistants, but remember, computers came on the scene, so a lot of stuff changed….
I remember the old days when, gosh, if you had to change something, you had to run all the way over to the other side of town to take it to a typesetter and sit there and wait until someone could finish up what they were working on to change, you know, five lines, which then you had to rush back to paste it down—are you familiar with the photographic paper? You put wax on the back of it and then put it down on an art board? That’s the way it used to be done.
Oh, God, I hate thinking about those days—especially those late-night runs across town.
The advent of desktop publishing changed the way the magazine came together. But Blue & Gray also evolved in other ways over the years. In tomorrow’s segment, Chris will talk with Dave about some of those other changes.