(part one in a series)
March is Women’s History Month, and as is our custom at Emerging Civil War, we like to highlight the roles women play in Civil War public history. This year, I was privileged to spend some time talking with Carol Reardon, the Grand Dame of Civil War military historians. Of course, she has an extensive background as a military historian in general, too (which we’ll cover in our talk).
Carol had a distinguished career at Penn State University as the George Winfree Professor of American History. She has also served as a visiting professor at the U.S. Military Academy and West Point and has taught at the Army War College. She was also the first woman to serve as the president of the Society of Military History. In her retirement, she serves as an adjunct professor at Gettysburg College.
On a personal note, I’ve spent a lot of time in the field with Carol over the past couple of years doing Facebook LIVE events with her for the American Battlefield Trust, and she is such a tremendous pleasure to work with. She always has the right insight at exactly the right time, and she has a great sense of humor. I daresay there are few Civil War historians I respect more.
Over the next week, I’ll share with you my conversation with Carol. She’s a wonderful role model, not just for young women going into the field but for all of us who are students of Civil War history. What a treat it was to talk with her.
Our conversation has been edited lightly for brevity and clarity.
Chris Mackowski: So maybe if we could just start with your origin story: how did you end up getting into Civil War history?
Carol Reardon: By way of the most indirect path you can imagine. My bachelor’s degree is in biology. I expected to go into the field of ecology, which helps to explain why I like to be out on battlefields and do outdoorsy things—but I had been a Civil War buff since I was a little kid. And I mean that literally. I wrote my first–and I put this in quotation marks all the time– “term paper” in second grade, and it was about Gettysburg. It was all of a page and a half long. But my teacher was so amazed that I had done this that she circulated it among a whole lot of the other faculty members who wrote positive comments on it: “way to go,” “great job.” The positive feedback of that experience, which came quite unexpectedly—and growing up in an army family—just kept me focused on history, and specifically military history. And growing up in Pittsburgh, I was close to Gettysburg, so the pieces just fell together. None of this was part of a plan; that’s just what life had in store for me.
Chris: So you thought you were going to go into ecology, yet you found yourself out on the battlefields? How did that step take place?
Carol: Well, the whole battlefield thing has everything—one hundred percent everything—to do with Dr. Jay Luvaas up at Allegheny College where I did my undergraduate work. Every May, he sponsored something that was always known on campus as simply “Battlefield.” Not “The Battlefield” and not “Battlefields” plural, but “Jay is heading out on battlefield this weekend. Do you want to go?” I might have been a biology major, but my best friends were all history majors, and they figured that maybe it would be useful if I came along as a ringer. But I wanted to go to the battlefields anyway.
Jay was a bit of a practical joker, and he liked to do things like look at a trench line on the Wilderness Battlefield and say, “Hmm, I wonder where that goes?” Then he’d point to a few people—invariably the troublemakers—and say “follow that trench line and see where it goes.” It always ended up in a swamp. People caught on to that pretty quickly–if Jay sent you on a certain path, you probably were in for an adventure.
But it got to the point that when Jay ordered them to follow a certain path, they’d just sneak a look at me, and if I just arched an eyebrow or tugged on my ear or something like that, they were smart enough not to go. Jay began to notice that all of his practical jokes were not quite working out the way he anticipated and figured out he had a ringer in the group. That was me, and once he figured it out, it was war, in the funniest sense, as we each tried to outfox the other.
Jay was the one who got me out on the battlefields. We always left Meadville and made our headquarters at the Sleepy Hollow Motel of Culpeper, Virginia. Then we would spend the next two or three days going around the battlefields that he was most interested in at the time. We always hit Antietam on the way home and returned exhausted and excited at the same time. That’s ultimately, I think, what made the difference for me.
When I was in graduate school, I was doing fine—I wasn’t frustrated or looking for a way out, another way to go or anything like that—but I woke up one morning…. You always hear about moments of clarity, but we don’t always get to enjoy them. Well, I had one. I was as sure as sure could be that, as I was pursuing my work in ecology, I was in the wrong place. It was as simple as that.
At the end of the semester, I went back to Allegheny and sat down with Jay Luvaas on his back porch and we had a long conversation. I spilled my guts about how I thought I was misplaced and all that. And he never said a word. He let me vent completely, and then I looked at him and he’s sitting there with a look on his face that’s completely unreadable. I could not tell what was going to come out next, except I knew it was going to be awfully important. I was fully prepared for him to say, “You’re just going through a phase, everybody has doubts, you’re a good scientist, stay the course,” and all that, but he didn’t. He sat back, and he said, “It’s about time you figured all this out. Now let’s make a plan.” Just like that. It was like somebody had just thrown open the door for me—and I walked through. And that’s why I’m here today.
Chris: What did that plan look like?
Carol: Once we got past all that initial discussion, I took a job back at Allegheny working in the biology lab while he put me on a reading program and a writing program completely between him and me. I mean, no academic credit involved. To this day, I’m pretty sure he was testing both skill and will to see if I really wanted to do it. He never once said a word about, “You know, women don’t do military history.” He didn’t do anything like that—but I think he was just testing skill and will to see if I had the chops to actually shift academic gears and go into a completely different field.
Along the way—I think it was all part of the test—he would point out that “it’s not easy, the academic road is full of potholes and obstacles, and there’s no guarantees at the end,” and I think he offered as many opportunities as he could for me to just turn around and go back where I’d come from. But I didn’t, and it turned out fine.
Chris: I’m sure you’ve had the opportunity to be in Jay’s shoes as a faculty member and offer that kind of advice and counsel to students. What’s it like having that experience come full circle for you in your own career?
Carol: I’ve smiled more than once as I clearly ripped off everything Jay told me. (she chuckles) Yes, I’ve had this conversation.
After two years at Allegheny, as I was heading off to graduate school, he gave me two pieces of advice, and I still use them all the time. The first one was simply, “Do not become a one-war wonder.” He said “I know you love the Civil War, and you’ll turn out to be a good Civil War historian, but the Civil War is just one point on the timeline of all military history, and you’ll be able to do far more with your interest in Civil War if you develop depth, breadth and context for that study. So, do not become a one-war wonder.” I’ve followed that advice, I’ve stolen it, I’ve used it repeatedly, and I still think it’s a very sound piece of advice.
The second piece of advice—well, it wasn’t a piece of advice, it was a demand. It was a promise that he extracted from me. He said, “To prove to me that you are not a one-war wonder, you have to do one major project somewhere along the line during your career that has absolutely nothing to do with the Civil War.” And I looked at him and thought, “What in the world would that possibly be?” At the time, I really did not have any extensive interest in any other part of military history other than the Civil War. Well, certainly I promised him, but I walked out of there thinking, “Geez, how am I going to do that?”
But, a number of years later, actually out on the Gettysburg Battlefield with a group of individuals, somebody asked me what I taught at Penn State. I mentioned the military history course and that I had begun to teach the Vietnam course. One of the attendees comes up to me and started asking why I would be qualified to teach the Vietnam course—and you could tell he had a vested interest in my getting it right. He came out, more or less, with the sentiment, “I’ll bet you’re one of those liberal college professors who always hated everybody who wore the uniform.” I remember looking back at him to say, “Clearly, you’ve never met my dad, the colonel.” It became more of a dialog after that.
But what that conversation did was to begin the very long process that led to Launch the Intruders, my book about an A-6 naval aviation squadron in Vietnam in 1972. That pretty much satisfied the “not Civil War” requirement. But there was no way, way back then, that I could ever have foreseen what that fulfillment of that promise was going to look like.
In tomorrow’s segment, we’ll talk with Carol about how her experience writing about Vietnam shaped her work writing about the Civil War. “I hope it made me a better historian,” she says. We’ll find out how.