A Conversation with John Coski (part five)

Part five of six

I’m talking this week with John Coski, recipient of the 2019 Emerging Civil War Award for Service in Public History. John might be best known to the public for his work on the history of the Confederate battle flag, but he’s also had a huge impact on the field through his work with the Eleanor S. Brockenbrough Library at the former Museum of the Confederacy (now the American Civil War Museum).

At the end of yesterday’s segment, John spoke about “the kind of things that interest me intellectually and get me excited intellectually.”

Chris Mackowski: That taps into another thing I wanted to ask you. When you talk about things that get you excited—and having spoken to you about the library you have overseen at the museum, that always seems to get you excited. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

John Coski: Sure. I spent some time with it today. I’m working part-time at what is now the Virginia Museum of History and Culture—we know it as the VHS [Virginia Historical Society]—which is now the repository for the Museum of the Confederacy manuscript collection. We own it, but the VMHC serves it to the public. I’m working under a very good archivist, and we’re processing it in the VHS style—more description and cataloging—and getting it up and running. It’s a wonderful collection.

I took over the Eleanor S. Brockenbrough Library in 1996 and kind of added it to my portfolio as historian. And really until about 2008, I was in charge. For the ten years from 1996 to 2006, Ruth Ann and I worked together in the same library. She had kind of morphed over, she had moved over from the White House, was ready for a change. So we ended up July 1, 1996, in the library together.

And I felt, during those ten years in particular—not only that my wife and I were working in the same room, and contrary to my boss’s expectation that we were gonna be at each other’s throats, we learned anew while we were married that we just really enjoyed working together and made a really good team, so that had something to do with it—but it was also such a wonderful combination of jobs, to be in there trying to organize the library, meet scholars who were using the library. They would come right into my office space, what it amounted to, because the office and the library reading room were one and the same. And I was in charge of the programs that brought in our scholars, and also in charge of the museum’s book award.

So anything with sort of a scholarship angle was my job: doing exhibits and those specific programs and assisting researchers and answering research requests. It all sort of related to using the library collection. And it was a lot of work, more than I—in retrospect, can’t believe that I did it all, but there was a synergy among all those jobs that had the library and the collection in common.

And just getting to know it and organizing it and trying to make sense of it, making mistakes, making decisions that I’m now party to undoing, reversing. I ran it like a historian running a library rather than an archivist running a library, which had created some, not big problems, but small problems down the road. But I still think that it was the way to go. Our job is to be able to share the riches of the library with our researchers, and we organized it and created finding and using inventories in ways that let us do that—me and long-time National Archives Civil War specialist Mike Musick of the Museum of the Confederacy—because we did know the collection inside and out.

But I was also editing the magazine, which I continue to do—the newsletter and then the magazine, using the library collection for a lot of the articles and doing a lot of letter transcripts. I would have my interns do these transcripts that we would put on the web for more web content, for exhibits and magazine articles, and then have them available for people. We’d send them to researchers: “Here are the letters. Do you want to see the originals? We can make copies for you.” So we created all kinds of content and distributed it and broadcasted it in any number of ways.

And as I say, it was all sort of synergetic. And it was a wonderful time. And it evolved from the richness of that collection, which goes back to the 1890s. We felt like we knew Eleanor Brockenbrough, after whom the library was named. We felt like we knew Susie Harrison, the first professionally trained of the regents, the house regent—she was there from 1907 to 1939, I think. And we just felt like we knew these women.

Meanwhile, of course, I had written the history of the museum for the museum’s centennial in the 1990s. So I really got to know the ladies well. So really immersed in the history of the institution and in the library, you literally saw the handwriting.

I knew it was a rich collection when I was historian working in there on occasion between ‘90 and ‘96, but not until I got transferred there to work did I know just how rich it was. And then in doing more inventories and unlocking its secrets and making more of it more accessible, I got to know it even better.

It was always accessible. You can go back to the books in the thirties and forties and see it being used. Oh heck, you can go back to Douglas Southall Freeman’s calendar in 1907 and see it being used. So it’s not exactly a hidden secret. But we think we advanced the cause greatly by not only doing more inventories and more exhibits, but by doing more transcripts, which made it easier to send content out, and publishing more in our own magazine, in North and South, in America’s Civil War, with Ted Savas (the special issue for Civil War Regiments). We were always trying to share more of it and, in a sense, model how it could be used for publications and exhibits and sharing it in the sense that, “This is what the collection can do for you.” And there are all these wonderful stories t here that can be unlocked.

And I was like you would be, like anybody who was interested in this subject, opening up a box and saying, “Holy, what is this? Oh, neat!” And I was keeping incredible hours, early and late, working on the collection, but also reading some of this stuff. I’m reading now more than I ever did before.

CM: Do you have a particular holding in the library that is a favorite?

JC: Oh, so many. And I’m getting re-acquainted with them.

The one that I wrote on most recently for Civil War Monitor a couple of years ago, and I think it’s getting into a book phase, although unfortunately I won’t be involved in it, are the diaries of James Thomas Petty of the 17th Virginia, who served as a commissary clerk. We had his three diaries. I was familiar with those, and Joe Glatthaar used them a lot in General Lee’s Army. In fact, I think he starts with an anecdote from Thomas Petty’s diary. They’re not unknown.

But they came into the collections in the 1940’s, and this guy’s just a beautifully articulate, smart guy. Funny. A joy to read. Just wonderful stories. Microscopic, but perfect handwriting. I mean, just incredible that he was able to write that small and that neatly. So it’s that joy of reading cursive writing that modern students won’t get.

Well, a couple of years ago, a descendant of his brother, who fought for the North—they were from Stafford County, and the parents moved to Front Royal, the brother moved to a married sister’s in Pennsylvania and Ohio and ended up fighting, I think, for the 123rd, enlisted later in the war—this descendant, Mr. Robinson down in Texas, found out about the James Thomas’s diary in the MOC—“Uncle Thomas” as he calls him—so he said wouldn’t it be cool to give them the diary of his brother, the Federal, to the museum? So we’ve done a lot with those. You saw the two of their diaries, one each, and their pictures in the new exhibit at the American Civil War Museum. And I did an article for both our magazine as well as for Civil War Monitor about them. And, it’s just a classic Civil War story, a brother against brother—they never were in the same theatre, but two articulate men who described what they saw and who each also grieved for the other. But, just human interest stories. That’s really more than military.

Military history, per se, it’s familiar to me, I know it, but I don’t write about it much because I’ve never been in the military and I don’t really feel qualified. I don’t know what it’s like to lead men in battle. How am I gonna judge what Stonewall Jackson did and did not do? I don’t know. I don’t know these things. But the human experience that you get through letters and diaries is what I find most fascinating.

I mean, it’s kind of cheap in that sense. It’s the novel, you know, the novel and the drama. I’m a big classic movie buff, as well. So the human quality also comes through fiction and literature and film, too. But it’s reading the words and the very pages of civilians and soldiers, these captured letters that we have, which I tried to promote during the Sesquicentennial of 1865, again, in the Civil War Monitor and our own magazine. These letters that were never delivered. All the stories in that. I just, I get emotionally engaged with it mostly, I mean, get darn right invested in some of these things, or in people’s lives. So, what has engaged me the most over the years and more as I grow older is the human character of it all.


Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up our conversation with John, who calls for greater understanding from all parties when it comes to Civil War studies. “We feel we get put on the defensive,” he says, “and around and around we go.”

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