(part two of two)
I’m talking with historian Brian Steel Wills, author of one of my favorite Civil War books from last year, Inglorious Passages: Noncombat Deaths in the American Civil War. Inglorious Passages received the Harwell Award at the Atlanta Civil War Roundtable for the best book of 2017, and it was a finalist for the 2017 Emerging Civil War Book Award.
Yesterday, we talked about the sheer quantity of information Wills had to manage as he compiled the book. There were other research challenges, too.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Chris Mackowski: You’d mentioned in the book that there’s just sort of a fundamental problem with the record keeping that made it impossible to compare apples to apples when you were trying to track down causes of death and the stories behind them.
Brian Steel Wills: We all know that the records are very sporadic. You might have some records that give you far more information, you might have some that only give you this very cursory view, and you may have no ability to know anything with precision at all. If the records were never taken, or kept, or destroyed, or lost, there may be no way to take the full picture and have precise numbers to go with it. That’s always been a difficulty, with the Confederates especially, on all the sides, the civilian side, the North and the South.
CM: Because the book is in many ways a collection of mishaps and accidents and random occurrences, what kind of challenges were there to create order out of that chaos?
BSW: Stitching it together was difficult because I didn’t know how I wanted to do that. I had all these different elements, and I was trying to figure out how I want to tell that story. Initially, I thought I’d do it purely chronologically, so I would just go through the war. In some ways, the first big chapter deals with the first six months or so of the war and does it that way. It says what the incident was and tried to lay it out more or less chronologically.
Then I thought that there were so many things that would make more sense if they were put together thematically rather than trying to jump from point to point simply because something happened in April 1862 and then something else happened in May 1862. What I did was I started to think, “How do you put together these elements?”
Then I thought that we all know the traditional, great volume Camp and Battle and Camp and Battle, and I thought of all of the ways in which putting these men together was going to create circumstances that would create enormous fatalities, largely due to disease, but also through accident.
I grew up on a farm, so I was also used to the farm life and the kind of things that happen in the course of living life on a farm with the animals. I tried to include animals in the book, too, because they paid such a heavy price. Some of their own devotion led to their demise.
The problem became sort of cross-referencing, in a way. If something was an accident in camp, it was a sort of indication of friendly fire—in other words, someone doing something to a fellow comrade through their own foolishness or lack of attention, or whatever the case may be. So in some cases, I had to make a decision whether something would fit in one category even if it technically fit in another one, too, and just let it stand where it was.
I had to make those types of decisions but others were clearer. Horseback accidents, I thought, needed to be in a chapter related to that. Blue-water Navy-type accidents, brown-water Navy-type accidents, civilian and industrial. The stresses of suicide and all of those other aspects, I felt like those were stories that called to be told.
One of the people I had studied was John Keegan, and he talked about how there were so many ways someone could go on a battlefield and meet death by sometimes doing something as simple as being in the wrong place at the wrong time, like not being able to avoid a wheeled vehicle that is coming in your path, and horses falling on individuals and crushing them.
One officer was trying to cross a river and the planking on the bridge had been disrupted and he and his horse both plunged through a gap in the bridge. When he approached that bridge, I’m sure the last thing on his mind was that there would be something other than enemy fire that would cause his demise as he crossed this bridge.
How many of those types of confrontations in life and death occurred in the war—that’s what I was really trying to get at. So many troops said that these men died as soldiers, even if they drowned or where struck by lightning or some other terrible accident occurred. One soldier was on fatigue duty while trees were coming down, and he managed to avoid one, only to dodge into the path of another and be killed that way.
I tried to think of how to bring these things together thematically, and then somewhat chronologically in each chapter.
CM: Some people might think that a book about death might be a dark topic to read. What is it you hope readers take away as they look through your volume?
BSW: My wife says that when she first heard me talk about this project, she wasn’t certain it would be a very good book and sensed that it would be so dark and depressing, etc. It is dark, it is depressing. It is sometimes morbidly humorous, so it has all sorts of qualities. But when she read it, she said it’s one of the best books—in fact, the best book, but I don’t know that I agree with that. You can always argue that each of your children—and our books are like our children—have their own personalities and qualities and you love them all, but she said that I really pulled it off and in some ways was surprised I was really able to do it.
There really is no other book like it that I’m aware of. I think that, in part, that was why I wanted to write it, and I think it was an important book to do and I’m proud of having done it. My wife didn’t think it fell short like she was fearful it might, so I’m grateful for that, too.
CM: I think it hits the mark because it feels so authentic.
BSW: I think that’s because I was letting these people tell their stories. It was letting these moments be uncovered, and they’re not all depressing. Some are, but they’re poignant, they’re emotional, they’re sometimes uplifting. The fact that you could have someone just be in a circumstance where you can watch something unfold, and you can feel the full emotion of what their own comrades or family members back home might feel, and share that viscerally with them from a distance.
CM: Are there any particular stories that stand out for you that way?
BSW: A few stories do. There’s one of a young man who’d been in the cavalry service for a year in Virginia that simply wants to go home to visit his family. He’s crossed the same river probably as a young person numerous times without a thought or a concern, and yet on this particular occasion, he’s going to come home and crosses the river swollen with heavy rains. He plunges the horse in, and he doesn’t come out. Just the notion that all he wanted to do was “see the home folks,” and then go back to service, and yet he’s not going to be given that opportunity, even though he was on the doorstep of his home. I think that those kinds of things are sad and depressing and poignant, but they’re also part of the full story of what this war wrought and what it meant to the individuals who went off and had these experiences.
I think that in many ways, those stories allowed you to get past the sense that it was dark or depressing, even if there are elements of that in it. One of my friends sent me a story of a man that was just sleepwalking and fell off a steamer he was supposedly traveling on.
CM: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that I should have?
BSW: Let me throw one last thing at you. You talk about poignancy, and I tried to do bookends, in the sense that one of the men that I talk about is a chaplain that goes off to see soldiers, even before they went off to war, and he slips off a plank and drowns in the river. Contrasted against that is the terrible Sultana disaster. Those poor men had survived prison in South Carolina and Andersonville, Georgia, and yet they were killed in that terrible steamboat disaster in the Mississippi River on the Sultana, with a death toll that even surpasses the Titanic.
There was so much tragedy that there is probably another whole volume waiting to be told, like something that a handful of people have already tackled, which is men surviving the war only to perish from the effects of the war in the months and years after the war is over.
Even though I tried to do as much service as I could to the individuals in combat, there are so many more stories that you can’t know that are out there waiting to be told.