Those of us who write about the Civil War for fun (rarely for profit) get our ideas from any number of sources. One never knows when or how some inspiration will occur. Driving to the store recently, I heard Leslie Gore’s great song from 1963, “She’s a Fool,” with that male background chorus chanting, “shag-a-doo-la.”
Hmmmm…wonder how the lyricist or studio producer thought of that? I mused, pulling into my driveway. See how one’s curiosity can be so easily piqued?
This random, most unscientific “process” is how I come up with the monthly bibliographic column I write for Jack and Peggy Melton’s national newspaper, Civil War News.
I had been a regular book reviewer for Civil War News since 2010, when Kay Jorgenson owned the paper and Ed Bonekemper served as Book Review Editor. Every now and then I had written a book-related article, such as my piece on recent studies in the western theater (CWN, November 2013). Jack Melton bought the paper from Kay in January 2016. The next month I saw the new proprietor at the Dalton Civil War Show and boldly asked him if he would consider letting me write a monthly column for Civil War News on my favorite Civil War books. He agreed.
So, why bibliography? When I was a student of his at Emory, the late great Bell Wiley taught me an appreciation for Civil War books. Dr. Wiley would give us his typewritten list of favored titles on various subjects, and for years I used it as a guide for what to look for in bookstores as I built my library.
Years later, I still remember the Sunday night when the publisher of Blue & Gray Magazine, Dave Roth, called me to say that his Book Review Editor, Rowena Reed, had left, and would I consider replacing her? Of course I said yes.
Then began two decades of bibliophilia as Dave’s BRE. My stint began with the July 1985 issue of Blue & Gray; over the years I had more than three score reviews published in the magazine.
Back in the ‘80s the local newspaper, the Journal-Constitution, actually had a good Sunday book section; sometimes I got assignments for it. My review of Tidwell, Hall and Gaddy’s Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, printed in January 1989, led me to revisit it in my “Critic’s” page in September 2017.
In 1996, my good friend Bob Maher invited me to speak at his Civil War Education Association seminar in St. Louis. I told him that I’d like to speak about books, and he agreed. I tossed around various titles for my talk: “The Civil War’s Best Books: God Knows What They Are”; “The Kodachrome Bookshelf: Snapshots of Civil War Classics”; and “100 Best Books on the Civil War: Yeah, Sez Who?” I finally settled on “From Cooke’s Books to Krick’s Licks: A Century of Reading on the Army of Northern Virginia.” My choices ranged from John Esten Cooke to Robert K. Krick (Bob was in the audience, and loved it).
Some of the works I mentioned in St. Louis have become “Critic’s Choices,” such as Cooke’s Wearing of the Gray (1867), to which I devoted my very first column in April 2016. I was thrilled when Jack told me that a reader in Alaska so liked my article that she was trying to find a copy of Cooke’s Wearing.
Another of my faves is J. William Jones’ Personal Reminiscences of General Robert E. Lee (1875). At St. Louis, my text (this was before everyone used PowerPoint) included the story Jones tells from Lee’s years as president of Washington College. Lee frequently called students into his office for misbehaving, and talked to them so tenderly, in a fatherly way, that the boys almost always ended up crying. One brash young lad, however, bragged to his friends that when he was called in, old man Lee would never get him to show such weakness, saying, “I will talk back at him, and get him to laughing the first thing he knows.” Not long afterward, this young student was indeed summoned to the president’s office, and some of his friends gathered outside to hear what happened. When he came out, sure enough there were traces of tears on his cheeks. They all asked why: “How did you come out?” “Did he scold you severely?” The lad replied, “No, I wish he had. I wish he had whipped me. I could have stood it better. But he talked to me so kindly, and so tenderly, about my mother, and the sacrifices which she, a widow, is making to send me to college, and of how I ought to appreciate her love, and do credit to her, by diligence in my studies, and correct deportment—that the first thing I knew I was blubbering like a baby. I promised him that I would do better hereafter, and I tell you, boys, I mean to do it.” (I wrote on Jones’ Reminiscences in April 2017.)
I like bringing back into currency these old chestnuts. It’s gratifying to learn that our readers like it too. Michael Harrington of Houston sent me an e-mail awhile back. “I’ve thought for years we should review occasionally some select older books as well as new publications,” he wrote; “it is a real service to our readers, not all of whom are deep readers of CW historiography.” More recently, John Sinclair of Baltimore wrote Jack, “Steve Davis’ fascinating essay on Richard Harwell’s In Tall Cotton [about which I wrote last March] breathed life into an overlooked classic that might cause some to give it a second look rather than write it off as ‘outdated.’”
It’s even finer when the author of one of these “overlooked classics” learns of my selection of his work for my page. After I wrote about John Hennessy’s Return to Bull Run (1993) in May 2016, John e-mailed me a word of thanks. “It’s been 23 years since I wrote the thing,” he added, “and yours is probably the first review of it in15 years.”
Breathing youthfulness into old books kind of reminds me of Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages”: “Ah, but I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.”