A Conversation with Dave Roth (part three)

Dave’s favorite cover–and his favorite adventure–came from New Mexico Territory

(part three in a five-part series)

I’ve been talking this week with Blue & Gray Magazine editor Dave Roth, the recipient of this year’s Emerging Civil War Award for Service in Civil War Public History. Yesterday, he shared a few stories about some of the cool people he’s worked with during his 34-year tenure with the magazine. Today, he shares some stories about some of the cool adventures he’s had in the field.

CHRIS: What would you count as some of your most notable adventures while putting the magazine together?

DAVE: The coolest place I can recall ever visiting was out in the New Mexico desert. My guide was a guy named Don Alberts, who is now deceased. He was an expert on the New Mexico campaign. And he said, “You are lucky, because you’re going to see a site that maybe no one else is going to get to see because it’s got new owners.” It was on the third-largest ranch in the state of New Mexico, and Don had access to the gate. So, we went through, and we drove forever. I don’t know how he knew where he was going because in the desert everything looks the same.

So we drove forever. And then he came up on to this mesa. And I looked, and thought, “My God! What happened here?” 

He said, “This is where the Fourth Texas Mounted Volunteers blew up their supply train.”

It looked like it might have been blown up the day before we got there.

The stuff was everywhere. The bands from the ammunitions boxes were just starting to show some rust. The ecology of that area had preserved that site pristinely. He said that people over the years had taken a lot of things, but still there was a lot of debris there.

That’s probably the coolest place I’ve ever been to, and that was part of Sibley’s 1862 campaign. It also has one of my favorite covers—one of the forts down in New Mexico.

I’ve told people that story before of the New Mexico desert, and people have said, “That’s the coolest place you’ve ever seen?” Yeah! Because it looked like it just happened.

There’s also a postscript to that story. You know who the new owners of that were? I was told they were Ted Turner and Jane Fonda. And they, through some agents, had bought that property thinking that’s where bison would roam. You know how Ted Turner now has those bison restaurants? Anyway, whoever their agents were had no idea because bison don’t live in deserts.

Besides that, on the other side of this ranch that my source said they bought is where the U.S. government exploded the first atomic bomb. I don’t think Jane would’ve liked hearing that. . . . (laughs)

CHRIS: That story reminds me of something you’ve mentioned to me before. You’ve said people who are fans of the Trans-Mississippi Theater tend to be more well-rounded than other Civil War buffs.

DAVE: The Eastern Theater, that’s the main theater. It has more people interested in it. Some folks even concentrate exclusively on Gettysburg. And some Eastern Theater buffs mock the West. I find that Western Theater people not only like it but also like reading about Lee or Gettysburg. Then there are people out in the Trans-Mississippi—they pretty much have their theater to themselves, but they still like reading about the Eastern Theater and the Western Theater.

You don’t see many people who are Eastern Theater buffs buying material on the Indian Territories.

I have just noticed over the years that the farther west you go, the more well-rounded Civil War enthusiast you tend to find.

CHRIS: I thought that was a fascinating insight.

So, anyway: cool adventures. I interrupted you.

DAVE: Well, another cool place was flying over a frozen Johnson’s Island—the prison up in Sandusky, Ohio, up in Lake Erie, for the Confederate officers. All the officers ever talked about was how frigid cold it was out there on the island, out there on the water, and the only escapees were the ones who were actually brave enough to walk on the ice and get away. That was about the only way to get away. So, we had a guy who wrote a feature article on it, and I said, okay, I cannot do this unless we have an aerial photo of what that place looks like when it’s ice bound. So we waited.

Finally the day came and, man, it was damn cold. We chartered an airplane. And the pilot was even leery of going up. He said, “Man, this is really cold.”

Well, we got up, and finally he’s over the island—and my camera won’t work because the batteries have gotten so cold. They won’t work.

So, we made another pass. I took the batteries out and handed them to the author of the piece, who happened to be along with me—and so he was really into this, too—and he took the batteries and rubbed them in his hands to warm them up until we got over the site. He quickly handed them to me, I put them in the camera, and took some shots before we got frozen.

Getting those shots, and seeing what Johnson Island looked like icebound—that’s one of my top places I’ve seen or visited.

CHRIS: That must’ve been totally worth it.

DAVE: Absolutely.

Another cool place: We did an issue on the Sultana, which blew up on the Mississippi River [on April 27, 1865]. Then everyone lost track of where the boat ended up. They had no idea. Everything had silted in. Nobody knew where the Sultana was.

Well, the guy who wrote the feature for us—his name was Jerry Potter, a Memphis attorney—he said, “Have I got a surprise for you.”

“I started looking for the site of where I thought the Sultana was,” he said, “and I pinpointed it, kind of. It was in this soybean field. So one day I went over and knocked on the door of the farmer and I said, ‘I think there is a steamboat buried under your soybean field right over there.’”

And he said the soybean farmer said, “Close. It’s over there.”

And Jerry and the farmer took me to this site, and you could see where they had been pumping stuff up out of the ground—and it was brown. It was wood. And then they started finding brick.

So seeing where the Sultana ended up, that was another one of my cool places.

And then we did an issue on West Point, and I got to meet the commandant there, Lt. Gen. Howard Graves. He gave me a tour of the house where [Robert E.] Lee and [Douglas] MacArthur lived when they were commandants. That was one of the coolest experiences at Blue & Gray.

And another cool place was the Ohio Penitentiary. I was able to get into the prison where John Hunt Morgan was imprisoned and later escaped from, and seeing the cell where he was held. It had a wall that was knocked down to make a bigger cell in modern times.

I took on a crusade to save the Ohio Penitentiary. I was on the news every night saying why they should save it. At the time, the mayor of Columbus was a jock—a former Ohio State football player—and he wanted the sports arena that was going to go on the site of the pen, so there was no way I was going to move him at all. And you know what he asked me? “If you think that’s such a cool damn place, then what do you think it would be good for?”

I asked him, “Have you ever been in that place? It’s got a lot of history.” It goes all the way back to the 1830s. O. Henry was even in there for a little while.

So he said, “No.”

And I said, “It would be great for a prison! Because these country clubs that they’re building today don’t deter people from getting out and committing more crimes. You put them in here for a while, they’re going to go straight.”

They decided to knock it down. But because I did make such a stink about it, they did let me pull up to the front of it with my own truck and some friends, and when they knocked the wall down that Morgan escaped over, they let us take a bunch of rocks from the wall.

So those are the cool places I’ve seen. I don’t know how’d they’d rank with you, but they’re kind of off-the-wall places you wouldn’t expect.

One not-so-cool adventure was finding a dead body at the foot of a fire tower in the area of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home in Santa Claus, Indiana. It was in December, when the state park was short-staffed, but we managed to find a ranger. We were preparing a “Life of Lincoln” issue in 1984. His sister is buried there. While searching out her grave, we watched as a white hearse drove by. I learned the fellow may have fallen trying to scale the tower.


To prepare for this interview, Dave looked through every back issue of Blue & Gray. In tomorrow’s segment, he’ll talk about some of his favorite issues.

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