In August, ECW present its 2019 Emerging Civil War Award for Service in Civil War Public History to John Coski, historian with the American Civil War Museum in Richmond (and, prior to its merger, with the Museum of the Confederacy). John has overseen the museum’s research library, assisted with exhibits, and written several books, most notably a book on the Confederate battle flag. You can ECW’s announcement about the award, and biographical info about John, here.
This week, we’re pleased to present a conversation with John, recorded earlier this fall. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Chris Mackowski: What’s the origin story of John Coski? How did you get interested in the Civil War?
John Coski: Seventh grade history, assignment from my teacher, Mrs. Gallup. I think it was an open-ended assignment, but my best friend in the class and I chose Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign. We were using the much-maligned Francis Butler Simkins’ textbook Virginia History and had just started reading about Jackson’s Valley Campaign. And we were just hooked by that. I went to the naval base library, one of the two libraries to which I had access, and checked out a book on the Valley Campaign, which turned out to be an obscure novel that no one else has ever heard of, part of a series by an author named Joseph A. Altsheler from 1914. (Naval base libraries don’t have the latest fiction.) And I became a Civil War nerd.
CM: And since you were on a Navy base, I’m assuming one of your parents was in the service?
JC: My dad was Navy, yeah. We didn’t live on the base, but yes, he was Navy at the time and lived in Virginia Beach.
CM: So how long did it take before you finally got to your first battlefield, then?
JC: Not long. I was a Boy Scout, and our troop did the 50-miler on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and took a side trip to Antietam. So, we got off the C&O Canal and hiked three or four miles, whatever it is, from the canal up to Sharpsburg. And I remember the first time I saw one of those iron tablets and, of course, took out my little 110 Instamatic to get a picture of this rare thing—before I knew there were hundreds on that battlefield—and then we did Harper’s Ferry at the same time. All part of the 50-miler. It was 1973, I think.
And then my best friend in high school and I took what we called “Operation Battlefield” after our junior year of high school: something not unlike Tony Horwitz and Rob Hodge’s “Civil Wargasm,” a week-long loop tour of eastern theater battlefields from Jackson Shrine and Fredericksburg to Manassas to Harper’s Ferry, Antietam, Gettysburg, and back down – that is up – the Valley before we ran out of time. That same summer I spent in Youth Conservation Corps at the Wilderness Battlefield. We camped right up the hill from Ellwood when Mr. Jones was still alive. (And the make-out spot was Jackson’s arm. This was sixteen guys, sixteen girls between 15 and 18 with a few counselors to keep up honest—or not—and we were steeped in the war.) We built one of the picnic areas that’s right off Hill-Ewell Lane.
It was also the year that the park acquired Chatham. So were among the first people to be there—to scrape and paint and get Chatham ready for park occupation. It was also the summer that I met Bob Krick, the elder.
JC: Yeah, it was as much about independence and being able to drive that distance as it was to do the battlefields. I still have a bunch of silk-finish photographs—bad photographs from a 110 Instamatic—of various grass fields and cannon, indistinguishable one from another.
And we also met on that trip David Lilly, who was the Frank O’Reilly of the time—he was at Jackson Shrine, got off his tractor to take us on a tour, and I kept in touch with Dave over the years. I ended up working there the following summer between freshman and sophomore year of college. And then the following year worked at Antietam for a summer.
CM: What did that involve?
JC: We’d unlock the gates at times in the visitor center. We had visitor center duty and then developing tours at the visitor center and out on the site. It was during the gas crisis—first time I ever paid $1 for a gallon of gas—and so we were riding bikes around the battlefield and developing tours for each of the major segments of the battle and around the visitor center, as well.
CM: There’s Antietam, your first real experience on the front lines, and you’ve essentially been connected to that public history mentality ever since.
JC: Yes and no. I got off that boat—you know, it was a decisive moment in the summer of ’80. I took a chance on filling out my seasonal application form to put Antietam second and Manassas first, and I lost my position to 10-point preference veteran, so I didn’t have a park job that year, and ended up in Williamsburg instead. My fiancé—and then wife—Ruth Ann, was working in Williamsburg. (She had already graduated from college and I was going to my senior year.) And so that kind of got me off the Park Service route.
But the next summer, Dave Lilly offered me a job at Fredericksburg—but I had already committed to William and Mary in the fall and we were living in Williamsburg and I was getting married and didn’t want to live in Fredericksburg. So that was the moment that my Park Service career stopped, and I went the grad school route instead. I more or less went the route of academic history, and in graduate school did not do Civil War.
CM: What did you do?
JC: Foreign policy, for the most part. Of course, William and Mary, as you might imagine, is all about colonial—professors and collections. It would have been a mecca for colonial history with all the resources it had. And not so much for later. There was not anybody who taught later American intellectual history.
I was quite clueless about how one chooses one’s academic career. I just went to the one that gave me money and was where my wife was already living and has a good reputation. So somebody took pity on me and directed my master’s thesis on the cultural history of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “safety valve” thesis. When I got into the doctoral program, they steered me into foreign policy. Sort of American colonial policy, 1880’s, 1930’s. And then I thought at that point I was away from the Civil War.
In tomorrow’s segment, we’ll find out how John made his way back to the Civil War and, eventually, on to the Museum of the Confederacy.