“The Unfinished Fight” column runs in Civil War News. A column is not technically a “news article” but it similar to news, specifically in that a column usually answers a particular question through providing the why and how. Otherwise, it is quite a bit like writing an open letter, except it has a title and a by-line at the top. The style aims to be easily understood and the tone inquisitive. It is also important to let others speak for you through the quotes and references.
“The Unfinished Fight” is essentially the continuation of “The Watchdog” column that ran in Civil War News previously, beginning about ten years ago. The Watchdog was a 501 (c)3 non-profit that began in 1993 as an eight-page newsletter for Civil War enthusiasts interested in “getting it right.” All profits from the subsequent publishing of books, pamphlets, magazine articles as well as the Civil War News column went to battlefield preservation. After twenty-five years, “The Watchdog” finally folded the tent. In an attempt to continue the dialog on a wide variety of matters concerning mid-19th century material culture, “The Unfinished Fight” was launched. There is no difference in approach or subject matter between the columns that ran as “The Watchdog” and those that are running as “The Unfinished Fight.” The intended audience is same.
Since a column is a lot like an open letter, there is a time-honored tradition of writing the way that you talk. In this case, that usually means the kind of informal talk that occurs while sitting around a campfire on a Civil War battlefield with a cup of something passing for coffee and a cigar. The column begins with any subject that comes up bantering around the campfire or sometimes a particular question for which there is no immediate answer. That includes but is not limited to such matters as if the coffee was similarly terrible then (it was) and what the cigars were probably like. While you are to be excused if you don’t find the same topics as engaging, the assumption is other hobbyists will have wondered about such matters, too.
Once a topic or question is selected a subject for the column, the next step is to investigate what primary source documentation exists on the matter and what (if any) the original records have to say. This can include things like financial records, government documents and shipping manifests for broader issues but also diaries, letters and memoirs for more personal topics. The small matters that concerned people of the mid-19th century are actually more interesting to research. If the subject matter is broad, it is important try to simplify the story down to the experiences of the people involved at the time. For example, Sam Watkins in his memoirs (Company Aytch) provides insight around both the importance and significance of butter to a 19th century household. It was the intent to go deeper into what he was trying to say and why that was the case.
The subjects that come up and are discussed include items of material culture of civilian as well as items used by soldiers in either the US or CS army. Sometimes the terms used to describe things in the mid-19th century require some explanation in order to be understood.
The column differs from the research done for publication in military journals or books in that there are no footnotes or endnotes found at the bottom of the page. However, the columns are still researched the same as chapters in a book and are also based on facts…as it has often been said “you are entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts.” Hence the source of the factual material is usually referenced by quoting it in the body of the column as opposed to numbered footnotes or endnotes.
Most often, the columns are dedicated to a single subject and attempt to provide enough information to answer the question(s) posed in the heading or the first paragraph. They are not intended to be exhaustive on the subject. Sometimes the facts speak for themselves and other times there is a degree of interpretation necessary to provide clarity and understanding to the topic. If done properly, it is the start of a dialog. The hope is that at the end the reader will want to know more and continue to read and research on their own.