In the spring and summer of 2016 I contributed two articles to Civil War News. After the second one Jack Melton called to ascertain my interest in contributing monthly. I hesitated. Could I find something of value to write about every month? Jack said he was looking for material on subjects not well-covered elsewhere. That too gave me cause to pause. What aspect of the war is not already explored and re-explored?
My hesitation was brief. The stories are there, in virtually limitless quantity, waiting to be told and practically writing themselves. Finding them would be easy. Every column I have written has generated ideas for two more.
My book on Georgia’s Confederate monuments has three entries on memorials to the women who operated wayside homes in three Georgia communities during the war. I took the pictures and copied the inscriptions, but in fact I did not know a great deal about these wartime institutions. I figured most CWN readers didn’t either, so I did some reading. My first column, entitled “A Wholesome Meal and a Night’s Repose,” told the story of these facilities which aided the weary men, often sick or wounded as well, traveling by rail to one part of the Confederacy to another. (Or mainly by rail, I should say: Texas was different.) This led to a second idea, the Confederate soldiers’ homes, which provided care for many of these same men years later, when they were “Old Men Facing to the West.”
Jack gave me the leeway to write about any topic that struck my fancy, but he may have though the carte was a tad too blanche when I submitted an article about the odd names of many of the characters that appeared on the Civil War stage. Still, he did run it, and readers who were interested could learn something about Prince Felix Constantin Alexander Johann Nepomuk zu Salm-Salm and Galusha Pennypacker.
A while back I read a review of a new book on the Indian wars, written by Peter Cozzens. It sounded interesting so I got a copy. Many of the army officers appearing in this book were old friends from my Civil War library. “I didn’t know that!” I would say to myself again and again as I read about the wars on the Great Plains and in the Southwest. I figured the adventures of O.O. Howard, Jefferson C. Davis, Edward Canby and others would be of interest, and did a short series on the Union officers’ post-Civil War adventures in the West.
One column was personal. I felt obliged to correct the record about an ancestor, who, contrary to the accounts written by three modern writers, was not accused of mistreating POWs at the Florence Stockade. He wasn’t there. He was an ordnance officer. This project, and the ensuing column, led to some interesting reading about the effort to evacuate this prison when Sherman began his move through South Carolina. This was a compelling story of men trying to do their duty in extremely difficult—indeed impossible—circumstances.
Over a million people a year visit Gettysburg. Huge numbers also go to Petersburg, Shiloh, Chickamauga, Bull Run and Antietam. In contrast, a relative few visit state-run battlefield parks preserving sites of significance. I thought readers would be interested in learning something about these facilities. I interviewed Dillon Lee at Pickett’s Mill, Donny Taylor at Bentonville and Chris Calkins at Sailor’s Creek, and in three columns relayed their stories to CWN readers. Recently I went to Davis Bridge. Judging from the looks of the place I figured I was the first visitor in a while. I may get emails from a bunch of readers saying “Of course I have been to Davis Bridge! Everybody knows about that engagement.” If not, this will probably be the subject of a future column.
Popping down to Columbus, Ga., I learned something about the National Civil War Naval Museum and wrote a piece on that excellent institution. At some point I will seek out other museums that focus on different aspects of the Civil War and write about their collections and their contributions to our understanding of the conflict.
Sometimes there are lesser known things about very well-known people that can be of interest. For instance, the Hargrett Library at the University of Georgia has a letter written by Abraham Lincoln to Alexander Hamilton Stephens in the winter of 1865, and delivered to Stephens by his nephew, a Confederate officer released from Johnson’s Island. The November 2018 edition has the story of this letter and a picture of the document with Judge Lawton Stephens, the officer’s great grandson.
On the other side of the coin, there are sometimes regular people connected with extraordinary events. I interrupted my work on this article to meet with a man named Wes Freeman to return some photos I borrowed from him. Wes is the last man living who worked on the Stone Mountain carving and is the subject of an upcoming column.
When I visited the Hargrett Library to do the story on the Lincoln letter a volunteer noticed my copy of the Civil War News. He told Judge Stephens and the library’s communications director that the publication is the “gold standard.” I agree. It is an honor to have the opportunity to contribute each month. If subscribers enjoy reading my columns half as much as I enjoy writing them I will consider my work to be a success.