Civil War Adventures with Mom

When the call went out for blog posts on “a woman who’s had an important impact on you and your development as a Civil War historian,” I jumped at the chance. The answer is easy: my mom, Barbara.

My mom (and dad) encouraged my love of history. She never discouraged me or said “Girls don’t read military history.” She bought me Civil War books and magazines, and she was my travel mate.  She took me to Gettysburg countless times, countless. We went to Harpers Ferry, Williamsburg, Shenandoah Valley Campaigns, etc. We even got the giggles together while watching one National Park’s battlefield documentary in the 1980s. Before you start throwing rotten tomatoes, let me explain. Whoever put this documentary together had a low budget and thought it would be more dramatic just showing a Confederate battle flag, rather than ranks of soldiers following the color guard. The idea may have sounded good in theory but on screen not so much. In one scene, there was a flag bobbing up and down behind a rock wall ostensibly running into battle, and in another scene, the Confederate battle flag lay next to the campfire. I leaned over to mom and whispered, “Maybe this is why the Confederates lost the war; they only had flags.”  Well, that was it. We couldn’t help but quietly giggle. The theater fortunately had just a few visitors, and we quietly made our way out after the docudrama ended. I’m pretty sure the documentary has been re-done by now.

Now, once I started driving and began doing field studies (studying the battlefields on foot) for my books, I took mom on my road trips. She traveled with me to Manassas National Battlefield several times, where I trekked the Battle of 1st Manassas/Bull Run with Jim Burgess as my tutor. Mom, though, couldn’t hike long distances due to back problems so she brought along a good mystery and read in the car—don’t worry, I made sure she had water, and I rolled down the windows for her. I also took her to Gettysburg countless times. There, we’d go to lunch at our favorite place, Dobbin House (their French onion soup is renowned). We would then drive around part of the battlefield or go for a small walk near Devil’s Den. Sometimes, I dropped her off at an antique store while I went to investigate a piece of the battlefield a little more closely. She is still game to come for rides with me to historic sites so we can bird watch. These sites are great for spotting many interesting birds.

Mom has not just been a supplier of books, fellow documentary critic and traveler, but also my general public, first line editor for all 11 of my books and some of my blogs. She worked for 30+ years as an administrator for Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She is a self-taught woman and has a firm grasp of English grammar and punctuation. She corrected many professors’ books and articles. Yes, she can be hyper-critical and brutally honest; she’s Welsh, Irish, German, and a splash of Italian. She is like a drill instructor-editor, and the editing process is sometimes quite painful. That is the idea. I do not want the reader to struggle to understand what I am discussing. It is my job to wrestle with the grammar, punctuation, transitions, and topic sentences.

So, once I have my research completed, and have written several draft versions on my own, it’s time to let another set of critical eyes look at it. Mom will start reading, and if she gets stuck she says: “I don’t understand. What are trying to say here?” I try not to respond, “Ugh! What do you mean, you don’t understand?  I worked on that for hours!” After I take a deep breath, we then discuss the problem sentence or paragraph. It may take a few minutes, and we may go round and round before she gets it, light-bulb. That’s when she says “write that.” Turns out it’s what I meant to say in the first place.

Besides talking about what I am trying to convey, mom and I adopted some strategies to alleviate the pain of an editing session. For long-term, large-scale projects, we actually have to turn to prayer before we start editing. Converting a dissertation into a manuscript that the general public will want to read is a difficult process. During the fifth, or so, round of re-working my R. E. Lee book, my nerves were frazzled, and I was mentally exhausted.  Prayer helped us to be kind to each other with little or no strangling. Other strategies that we practice all the time to ease the stress include patience, humility, and humor. Your editor is helping you; take a step back and breathe. Mom’s advice: laugh, laugh a lot. Laugh at Microsoft grammar/spelling software’s suggestions or at the thesaurus word choices. Most especially, you should laugh at yourself, your bad sentences and re-work as many times as it takes.

Other editing tips mom and I have found helpful: don’t edit while sleepy and make sure you and your editor have eaten a high protein meal. Protein will balance your blood sugar and make both of you less punchy and tired. Don’t over indulge in alcohol, and don’t give your editor too much either. I’m not a teetotaler. I do have the tolerance of a flea, but that’s beside the point. Copious amounts of  say, “Writer’s Tear” whiskey, for instance, will do just what the bottle says; make you blubber because your editor walked out cause you weren’t making sense. I think my mom walked out of at least one editing session; she always came back.

Mom and I have been through thick and thin in my development as a Civil War historian.  She’s been there when publishers rejected a book query, and she’s “comforted” me in her own way by saying “you know you aren’t going to find a publisher for your book.” Told you she was tough; she says she’s a realist. Either way, I just react, “oh yeah?!” Her words give me more drive to keep pushing. In fact, she said to me a couple of weeks ago: “You get disappointed, but you just bounce back. You are the most determined of my children.”

Mom’s pretty determined herself. Some of our adventures were on hold last year when she got sick, but on the days she felt strong enough she was game for ride-alongs. She was also still there to share my ups and downs. So, mom, thank you for everything, for your continued assistance, friendship, and love. Can’t wait for our next Civil War/history adventure and for you to see where all this takes your daughter’s career.

3 Responses to Civil War Adventures with Mom

  1. That is an awesome tribute to your mom! She’s a great one! I have had fun, laugh-out-loud Civil War “hystorical” moments with my daughter, who inherited my love of history, and they make for great lifelong memories! And I totally understand the grammar thing!

  2. A wonderful piece. I too benefited in my early interest in history from my Mom. And she remains one of my biggest fans, and was so supportive when I published my own first book, “No Flinching From Fire” (on the 65th NY Volunteers, my great-great grandfather’s unit) last year. A great tribute.

  3. My dad ignited my life long interest in the Civil War when traveling to drop off my brother at college in Dayton,Ohio we stopped by Gettysburg.I have passed my interest in American History to my children too and have learned so much more myself!

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