Dozens of diaries, manuscripts, and newspapers come to mind when I reflect on my favorite American Civil War primary source. William B. Styple’s Generals in Bronze: Interviewing the Commanders of the Civil War (2005) stands out among them.
In 2003, William Styple first discovered James Edward Kelly’s papers held by the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library (https://www.nyhistory.org/). The most fascinating material Styple found among the twenty-seven boxes in the collection were Kelly’s notebooks. The notebooks were filled with hundreds of pages of interviews Kelly did with Union Civil War generals after the war. Styple knew that he had stumbled across something magnificent.
A talented illustrator and bronze sculptor, James Edward Kelly (1855-1933) interviewed over forty Union generals after being commissioned to sketch their portraits. He interviewed such notable generals as Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, Alexander S. Webb, Philip Sheridan, Joseph L. Chamberlain, Joseph Hooker, Winfield Scott Hancock, and Alfred Pleasonton. Kelly strove to be as accurate as he could in his illustrations and was exhaustive in his historical research. Kelly’s subjects appreciated his persistence and eagerness. In some cases, as with Philip Sheridan, Kelly befriended the generals. Equally as fascinating as his interviews, Kelly took down detailed notes about the physical appearance, demeanor, and character of each subject.
After countless hours transcribing Kelly’s notebooks, Styple published these interviews in 2005. (An excellent interview Styple did with C-SPAN is at this link.) I’ve noticed dozens of Civil War authors have cited the Kelly interviews in their bibliographies and footnotes in recent years. Even though I have never had the chance to meet William Styple, I would like to someday personally thank him for his contribution.
Once I found out there was an audio version of Styple’s book, I knew I had to have it. Fifteen hours of Kelly’s interviews are captured on twelve CDs. The narrator, Patrick Cullen, was praised by the magazine AudioFile for his ability to make each general “lifelike, distinctive, and memorable.” It felt like I was sitting down next to Kelly as these generals told their stories. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. If you are passionate about studying Civil War generals like I am, this book (or audiobook) is a must for your Civil War library.