by ECW Correspondent Sarah Waychoff
Jay Jorgensen spends his days as a judge on the Vicinage 8 Superior Court in New Jersey and his evenings—and every other chance he can get—as a Civil War history enthusiast. That includes not only reading and battlefielding but also writing.
For Jorgensen, the calling for Civil War involvement didn’t emerge immediately. “I didn’t like the Civil War at all,” he admits. “I took a class in college, and it was taught by one of those boring professors who just say ‘Read pages 25-45’—that kind of thing.”
As his education ramped up, particularly with law school, Jorgensen lost the leisure time to read and truly enjoy it. Jorgensen received his undergraduate degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University in 1978, and his Juris Doctor from Villanova University Law School in 1981.
Once finished with law school, he read the book R.E. Lee by Douglas Southall Freeman. It piqued Jorgensen’s interest.
Jorgensen’s mother also reminded him of his family history. His great-grandfather fought with the 5th Ohio Cavalry back in the Civil War. From there Jorgensen decided to delve into the history of the war at full speed.
By 1999, he went back to school—while still practicing law—and added a graduate degree in military history from American Military University.
Jorgensen also extended his Civil War education by joining a roundtable, first attending one in Northern New Jersey. “Which wasn’t all that conducive to me,” he concedes. He stopped attending the meetings—but then had an idea about a year later.
“I thought, ‘Let me see if I can start a Civil War Roundtable,’” he says. Jorgensen hoped to find like-minded people that shared a passion for the Civil War. “The desire to just get people together to talk about the Civil War is what prompted me,” he says.
On September 17, 1990, Jorgensen held the first meeting of the Robert E. Lee Civil War Roundtable of Central New Jersey. “Twelve people showed up,” he laughs. Not exactly the numbers he was hoping for.
Luck was on his side, though. A nine-part television series on the Civil War by Ken Burns aired. This created a frenzy of enthusiasts to pop up. By the time the second meeting of the Robert E. Lee Civil War Roundtable came the following month, three dozen people showed up.
Since then, the average monthly attendance brings 55 to 70 people together to discuss Civil War topics.
Jorgensen’s favorite aspect of the meetings?
“The ability to bring in some knowledgeable speakers,” he says. “We’ve been very fortunate in that. For the most part they are excellent speakers. They’re able to bring to life whatever topic they may be speaking about at any given meeting.”
Jorgensen himself speaks on certain topics, including his own Civil War books. He has written several books on topics ranging from the battle of the Wheatfield at Gettysburg to a walking tour of the Wheatfield.
He wrote Gettysburg’s Bloody Wheatfield, his first book, after five years of research. At first, Jorgensen was slightly reluctant to write on the subject that had already been fleshed out time and time again. He knew that it would be a challenge, but eventually decided he was up for the task. “I like to roll up my sleeves and put together something that would have an impact on the general body of knowledge about the Battle of Gettysburg,” he says.
Another favorite project of his involved mixing work with play. Gettysburg’s Leadership Lessons for Lawyers (and Non-Lawyers too!) dovetails from Jorgensen’s daytime profession. The book recounts more than 150 stories from the battle of Gettysburg and provides leaderships lessons particularly germane for lawyers but which also “covered everyone else in the world,” too.
In 2016, as he drove home with his wife from Gettysburg after she had run a half-marathon, an idea dawned upon Jorgensen: he thought about using a David Letterman approach to write the top ten things for Gettysburg. Jorgensen gathered a group of Civil War writers and assigned each five topics with ten items in each, a la a Lettermen-esque “Top Ten” list. All together, they created the Top Ten at Gettysburg. “It was another effort for me to enjoy the Gettysburg experience,” he says of the distinctive approach. “So far it’s been pretty popular.”
When it comes to the actual writing, Jorgensen says he’s somewhat of a dinosaur. “I don’t write on the computer. I put pen to paper,” he explains. He thoroughly enjoys the research component, as well. “The responses are heartwarming because they take such an interest in what you’re trying to do and are more than happy to share information,” he says of his experience working with libraries and historical societies.
Jorgensen’s hard work in research and writing has not gone unnoticed. In 2002, he received the Bachelder-Coddington Award for the best new book on Gettysburg that year. The award is named after two prominent historians, John Bachelder, an 19th century historian, and Edward Coddington a 20th century historian, who both made significant contributions to the study of Gettysburg.
“Getting the award was particularly a happy event for me because it was kind of a recognition that I was right, that there hadn’t been much written about the Wheatfield, and it was something that came out that people can rely upon when they’re looking to get into that part of the battlefield,” Jorgensen says.
Jorgensen will continue his writings with a “Biking Gettysburg” book that he’s co-authoring with his wife.
For more information about Jorgensen’s books, or to order, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.