Maine at War: A Conversation with Writer Brian Swartz (part four)

Brian Swartz and 96th Penn Inf monument at Gettysburg

Brian Swartz, who writes the Maine at War blog, stands beside the 96th Pennsylvania Infantry monument at Gettysburg in early May 1863. Describing Gettysburg as his “Lourdes Shrine,” Swartz visits the battlefield every year. (Photo and shadow courtesy of Susan Swartz)

conclusion to a four-part series

In wrapping up yesterday’s segment, Brian Swartz, author of the Maine at War blog, mentioned Tom Huntington’s new book, Maine Roads to Gettysburg. “He has done Maine history quite a service in articulating the stories of those particular units,” Brian said. But of course, when people think of “Maine” and “Gettysburg,” there’s generally one figure who comes to mind.

Chris Mackowski: Since you mention Gettysburg, I have to pop the Chamberlain question. Do you have any thoughts about Chamberlain? 

Brian Swartz: He was heroic and a natural-born leader. I think he had the heart of a warrior. Obviously he was at least somewhat of a tactician, and an effective governor, but his ability to write—he was a prodigious writer after the war—is what let him overshadow the tales of other Mainers. Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine saved the left flank of the Union army at Little Roundtop, but there were other Maine units that suffered as bad, if not worse, and other Maine officers who were just as brave, some of them in somewhat more difficult situations.

I’m thinking of Colonel Elijah Walker and his 4th Maine, down on and around Devil’s Den. The 17th Maine was down on the wheat field. I was just there a little bit over a week ago, and if you walk it back and forth, you still can’t really get a sense of the violence of the combat there. There was the 19th Maine over on Cemetery Ridge, plugging the hole with their charge on July 2nd.

And then of course Charles Tilden and the 16th Maine’s sacrifice on Oak Ridge on the afternoon of July 1st. Tilden, to me, of all the Maine officers at Gettysburg, is the one that to this day is the most overlooked. Part of his problem was that he wasn’t a prodigious writer. He was a very enigmatic individual. It’s difficult to find information on him or letters he’s written and other material he’s cited in post-war. Maine at Gettysburg probably contains the most original Tilden-based material there is that I’ve found.

Chris: You mentioned you were just at Gettysburg and went out to Brandy Station. How often are you able to visit the battlefields?

Brian: I try to go to Gettysburg every year. It would be the equivalent of my Lourdes shrine, and to me is an annual pilgrimage.

Chris: Do you have other battlefields that you like particularly?

Brian: Antietam. I love Washington County, Maryland. If you’re heading westbound on I-40, there’s a spot where, just as it crests South Mountain, you can look to the west and see the valley before you with all the farm land with the different colors and such.

Antietam, to me, is a very haunted place, and it’s a very small, compact battlefield. During my research for volume one of my “Maine at War” book series, I spent a considerable time there tracing the movements of the 10th Maine and also the 7th Maine and their advance to the Piper Farm.

I like Brandy Station. Manassas. Shiloh is one that I particularly enjoy of all the battlefields east of the Mississippi. There are only a few minor battlefields that I still need to visit on this side of the river. Shiloh to me is a battlefield where, if you remove the monuments and are there on a fine April morning, it could be the opening moment, the opening volley. It’s so well preserved.

Chris: I feel that way about Spotsylvania. If you take away those few monuments, it feels like a step back in time.

Brian: I just had the pleasure three or four years ago to walk Laurel Hill. I’ve been out to the Mule Shoe over a half-dozen times over the years. This time we stayed in Fredericksburg for a few days, so I parked and followed the trail up to the top of Laurel Hill, which we would not even call a hill here in Maine—it was just a little rise actually.

Fredericksburg, the Slaughter Pen farm, I walk out there and follow the route of the 16th Maine. You’ve got what can be a really noisy airport right next door to you, but it really helps you appreciate what Tilden and all his boys and the other Union troops went through as they were charging out across that farm towards the Confederate-held hills.

Chris: Let me back up to something you said just a second ago just to shine a little light on your “Maine at War” book series. Can you tell me a little bit about it?

Brian: Maine at War, volume one—the book is titled, From Bladensburg to Sharpsburg. It opens with the duel in which Congressman Jonathan Cilley of Thomaston was shot and killed. The reason I open with that is that his young son became Jonathan Prince of the 1st Maine Cavalry. He’s one of my favorite Maine characters out of all of them who served in the Civil War. After the opening chapter, which covers the duel and the aftermath of what that does to the Cilley family, the book covers Maine’s involvement in the war from early April 1861 to November 1862. I take different characters, and I weave their stories in.

It tells the story of particularly the army, because I had great difficulty in finding letters and reports and such of Navy personnel. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places, but I am focused primarily on the Army soldiers and such and their families back home. I cover from basically the first regiments in Maine to the 16th Maine Infantry and their march from Antietam to Fredericksburg, and how they became known as the Blanket Brigade. That’s what ends the book.

That book is due out sometime this fall, I’d say maybe later in the fall. It’s being published by Maine Origins Publishing out of Brewer. Volume II is going to cover Fredericksburg, possibly through Gettysburg. There’s quite a bit of material for me to read through there. That is probably half-written.

I mentioned earlier, I just finished up the battle of Brandy Station. That took quite a bit of research, quite a bit of coordinating and, even though I knew quite a bit about the Civil War campaigns and such, I find that when I try to write up a particular battle chronologically, I have to do additional research to get everything in the correct order. It’s very easy to make a mistake.

Chris: Good luck with that. I look forward to picking up a copy, for sure. Before we wrap up, is there anything I’ve not asked you that I should have?

Brian: I guess I’d just like to say I really enjoyed telling the story of Mainers involved in the Civil War, and in using their stories, educating readers about specific moments or battles in the war.

Gettysburg: it wasn’t just Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine. We have hundreds, if not thousands of acres out there on which Maine soldiers fought: in Spotsylvania, the Wilderness, Appomattox Courthouse. I wrote a series on that, which was very eye-opening for me.

I just like telling the stories, and I always like hearing from readers if they like something, or disagree with it, or whatever, I really like hearing from the readers.

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You can reach out to Brian directly at visionsofmaine@tds.net. And don’t forget to check out his blog, Maine at War.

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