A Conversation with Dave Roth (part four)

Dave Roth and I look over notes in the field at Spotsylvania. (photo by Kris White)

(part four in a five-part series)

I’ve been talking this week with Dave Roth of Blue & Gray Magazine. After a 34-year career as editor and publisher, Dave wrapped up the magazine’s run this past spring. Earlier this month, Emerging Civil War recognized his decades of work by naming him the recipient of the Award for Service in Civil War Public History.

CHRIS: What have been some of your favorite issues?

DAVE: I went through every one of them to prepare for you.

CHRIS: That’s a lot of issues! [Dave later told me they published 198 issues in total.]

DAVE: I think you’re going to enjoy this. I really enjoyed this. It was a nice stroll down memory lane. 

The Lincoln Assassination and Booth’s Escape issues that Mike Kauffman did. He used to be a cameraman for CNN’s Washington bureau, so he lived in the D.C. area. Mike was so into the Lincoln assassination that he lived in John Wilkes Booth’s house for a time. A fascinating guy. Mike wrote an excellent book about Booth. I warrant that Mike Kauffman knows more about Booth and the assassination than any other living person.

St. Albans, up in Vermont. The St. Albans Raid—you know, the Confederates coming in from Montreal. I arrived in St. Albans on the anniversary of the raid, went into one of the banks that was robbed by the Confederates, and the people in there had never heard what I was talking about. I thought that was shocking.

CHRIS: Their Historical Society up there is a really neat place.

DAVE: Yeah, and it’s right there in that park. They have Norman Rockwell memorabilia in there, too. The people there knew about the raid, but many of the townsfolk had no idea what was going on.

Grierson’s Raid. I got a manuscript in from a guy who was a graduate student at a midwestern university—and I’m not going to say where it was—and the piece was on Grierson’s Raid [April 17-May 2, 1863 as a diversion during Grant’s Vicksburg campaign]. We were going to do a feature on it. I had an assistant back then, Neal Meier, so I gave a copy to him. We took it home for the weekend. I was planning to take a trip down to Mississippi in the next week or so. And come Sunday night, Neal calls me and says, “I’ve got a problem with this manuscript.” I said, “Yeah, I do too: this thing is plagiarized.” Dee Brown wrote the book on Grierson’s raid. The manuscript was absolutely, horribly plagiarized from Dee Brown’s book. This was supposed to be the next issue, and we had nothing to go in there in its place.

So Grierson’s Raid became one of my favorite issues because I just took some books, the O.R.s, corralled another Blue & Gray associate, Gary Milligan, and we flew to Memphis. We rented a vehicle and just started down the raid route, stopping at historical markers, visiting towns touched by the raid, knocking on doors, going into local libraries and historical societies, houses that had historical plaques in front of them that said they dated back to that period, and just started turning up material. We got down to Baton Rouge where it ended, and flew back from New Orleans, and ended up with an issue based on all those little stops we made in those little towns. That has a special place for me.

And I let the plagiarist know, “You’re a graduate student. You should know better than to do that.”

CHRIS: You mentioned earlier that a favorite cover was from the issue you did on Sibley’s New Mexico campaign. Do you have any other favorites?

DAVE: Another favorite cover—I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the issue—it’s on East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg. [The cover depicts a cavalry saber in the ground.]

The cavalry saber—my friend, Gary Kross, took it with us when we went out to East Cavalry Field. And he said, “There’s a grave here that’s unmarked. He’s a cavalryman, and he’s buried right here on the field. He’s right there.”

I said, “You know what would be cool? If you stuck your saber, that you’ve been carrying around here, in the ground right there and I’ll take a picture.” And that ended up on the cover.

And do you know, it wasn’t that long ago that people actually called up and said, “Someone’s taken that cavalry saber because we can’t find that grave.” (laughs)

Well, Gary wasn’t going to leave his cavalry sword out there to mark that grave.

Let’s see…. You know, we did three “haunted places” issues that I thought were tremendous. But your serious buffs didn’t like those. Too much “pop culture,” they said.

Another favorite was Mobile Bay because we took a naval battle and did a General’s Tour [a driving tour] out of it. Now there’s a challenge for you.

CHRIS: Did that actually take people out on to the water at all?

DAVE: No, but you can get to the forts. We still made a successful tour out of it and said, “If you want to get out on the water, you’ll have to take the boat.”

[I can hear Dave going through some notes that he’s taken in preparation for our interview.]

I don’t know if you recall Andie Custer and Eric Wittenberg and their disagreement about Farnsworth’s Charge?

CHRIS: I sure do. I hear about it from one of them every once in a while.

DAVE: I’ll bet you do. I was in the middle of it there for a while because I’m friends with both of them.

That was good juicy controversy, well presented. We even did a follow-up after that. When Eric was in Gettysburg, I took him and said, “I want you to stand right where you say Farnsworth was, and I want to get your picture there.” So then I did the same thing with Andie Custer.

[I hear Dave again shuffling his notes.]

The issue on the Little Bighorn was a different direction—and it did not piss off our readers the way I thought it might.

CHRIS: Why did you think it would get them angry?

DAVE: Because it’s 1876, not 1864. But I played it up on the cover: “Civil War veterans die on the Plains.” Someone called me on that, but a nice try. It’s Indian Wars. But they let us get away with it because it was well done and it was Custer.

Now, our Rosebud issue—we did the battle of Rosebud [June 17, 1876]—some people didn’t approve of that one.

But compared to the Little Big Horn, it was some of the same guys—Crazy Horse is there, Custer is part of the story—and you have the added element of Crook, Custer’s rival. Crook got the crap scared out of him so bad at the Rosebud that he went up in the Big Horn Mountains and went hunting, and left Custer hanging out to dry.

Author Bob O’Neill did a great job with the Rosebud, which also shed light on the Custer-Crook rivalry from the Civil War, and I don’t regret for a second publishing it.

Some of my other favorite issues were the five superb issues William Glenn Robertson did on Chickamauga. And, also during the Sesquicentennial, the two issues on Chancellorsville by Frank O’Reilly. I thought those were superb. Besides being written by two well known authorities on those battles and campaigns, as commemorative Sesquicentennial issues, I thought the time spent by the authors meticulously tweaking the maps to portray the action in the most accurate and detailed fashion was an outstanding effort. They will stand the test of time.

Vicksburg park historian Terry Winschel on Chickasaw Bayou was an interesting one. When we got down close to the bayou, and Terry was with me and one of his rangers, we were walking through the swampy area there, near the bank, where it’s really dense with undergrowth. And I said, “You know, I have always wanted to see a cottonmouth, but never have.” And his buddy said, “You almost stepped on one about four steps back. I saw it slither away.”

We got up to Chickasaw Bayou, and Terry had a look on his face like, “No, what the hell?” Chickasaw Bayou was dry! He had never seen it dry.

So, that made that issue kind of interesting because Chickasaw Bayou is supposed to have water in it, and the time I was there, it was dry.

I don’t know if you’ve ever gotten much into Stoneman in North Carolina [March 23-April 26, 1865]. That, to me, is underrated. That issue, I thought, was unique and interesting. Appomattox steals the show, but I think Stoneman’s raid is underrated, not so much strategically, but for general and human interest.

I have a couple more favorite issues I can share if you’d like. . . .

CM: Please! I’m delighted to listen to you tell some war stories.


Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up Chris’s conversation with Dave as he shares one final set of war stories for us and then looks ahead toward life after Blue & Gray.

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