Communing with the Past: An Interview with Gary Milligan

Gary Milligan is one of those good guys in our hobby/avocation/obsession. Just a pleasure to get to know, filled with good stories, and always willing to share his knowledge and experiences. Several times this year I’ve gone to Gary, hat in hand, looking for a quote or citation from some short run, long out of print, impossible to find book, and damn if he doesn’t always have what I’m looking for. That’s the kind of friend I like to have!

Gary Milligan, communing with the past…

A resident of central Ohio, Gary is well situated to hit the various corners of the Buckeye state, searching out local monuments and forgotten cemeteries. And so it was earlier this year that I picked up on a project that Gary has been sharing on his Facebook feed, highlighting his journeys to various cemeteries and battlefields to search out the final resting place of Civil War veterans and reconnect volumes from his library with their original owner.

I thought our readers would also find his project of interest, and Gary graciously agreed to answer a few questions for us. Thanks, Gary!

JE: Gary, give us some background on yourself. How did you become interested in the Civil War?


A young Gary Milligan reviews the latest in Civil War historiography

GM: I became hooked on studying the Civil War around 1962 when my dad bought me a Time-Life softcover book called “Great Battles of the Civil War.”  I remember spending hours poring over maps of campaigns and incredible color drawings of soldiers such as a Garibaldi Guard and a Clinch Rifleman. What I found most fascinating were the realistic and detailed color drawings of battle scenes.  I can still close my eyes and see the panic of XI Corps troops being swept up by Jackson’s flank attack, the Union assault up Missionary Ridge, and the fear in the Union troops caught in the Crater at Petersburg.  That simple little softcover book started it all for me. 

JE: Our ECW ranks count several authors and many more enthusiasts of the late
Blue & Gray magazine. You had the good fortune to work for the magazine for a number of years.  Tell us about your time there. 

GM: Yes I did work for Blue & Gray for four years. It was a great experience watching Dave and Robin Roth pursue their dream and being successful.  Dave was so meticulous about every little detail in each issue that it was no surprise that all the readers appreciated his hard work.  I was fortunate to go with Dave on one of his “General’s Tours” when he did the Grierson Raid issue.  I was manager of The General’s Books at B&G, and I was involved with book sales, shipping, inventory, and catalog design. When called upon, I assisted in proof reading the issue before it went to press.  You could never proof read enough with Dave as Editor. 

JE: Book sales and inventory, ‘eh? That explains a lot! My wife would recognize you as one of my ‘drug’ (read: book) dealers. We recently ran a series here on the blog highlighting Civil War home libraries, and I understand yours is especially impressive. Tell us about your collection. 

GM: First of all I appreciate being one of your dealers.  Believe me, I have many cartel dealers who feed my habit.  I have always had a Civil War library since the 1970s, but it was only one bookcase.  I would buy books off and on since then, but since I retired in 2015, I have (how do you say?) expanded. I have probably over 350 ‘modern’ titles, which is a paltry amount compared to most Civil War libraries.  I used to buy every Civil War title that would come out, but my collection tastes have changed to a different Civil War book genre.  I have become specific on what I buy.

JE: Let’s talk about what you buy. I understand you place an emphasis on first edition regimental histories, particularly those volumes inscribed by or to soldiers of the various regiments.  How many first edition, inscribed volumes do you have?

One of nine (nine!) bookcases with all first edition regimentals

GM: This is where I have shifted my emphasis in collecting: The provenance.  I have 58 veteran-signed books. This collection includes regimentals and MOLLUS books.  My total first editions are around 333.  In addition to Civil War books, I also have close to 400 first edition divisional, regimental, and memoirs on the A.E.F. (American Expeditionary Force) in World War I.  I have to give them some “props.”

JE: I know it’s like asking a parent to pick their favorite child, but do you have a particular favorite volume? One that you’d run back inside to grab if your house was on fire? 

GM: That is a good question, and for me an almost impossible one to answer.  I guess I would burn with my books.  However, I will try to answer your question by choosing a couple of favorite books.

The one regimental that I would grab is the 42nd Ohio, the Garfield Regiment (named after President James A. Garfield, its first colonel). The book is signed by a lieutenant in the regiment and has a photo card of Garfield’s wife, Lucretia, with her signature on it.  But it gets better. The veteran who owned the book had 55 handwritten pages of his service “tipped” into the book.  A lot of the information recounted  his action early in the war, but it also covers the regiment’s fight on Chickasaw Bluffs. He wrote a couple of the pages, but (because of age and shaky handwriting) he had his son transcribe the rest of his experiences.  The penmanship is worth the cost of the book.  It is beautiful and, more importantly, readable.

The second book I would take is the regimental on my favorite regiment, the 55th Ohio. The veteran penned a beautiful inscription to his son, listing his service and dates.

In all honesty, I would be trying to grab all the books and a lot has to do with my process in buying first editions.  The following is my thought process when considering a first edition.

  • Non-ex-library (unless the library has provenance. I have a couple from Bowdoin College)
  • Fox’s Fighting 300 Regimentals, quality written 
  • Good review in Civil War Books: A Critical Bibliography
  • Prefer tight spine and clean text
  • Ohio
  • Signed or inscribed by a veteran is a BIG bonus

So, I probably did not answer your question, but I think you can see my dilemma in a pick-and-choose scenario.

JE: In recent years the American Battlefield Trust has partnered with several archives and museums to reunite Civil War artifacts to their associated battlefields during their popular Facebook Live videos. Where battlefields offer visitors the power of place, marrying the artifacts back to the field adds a physical, visceral connection to the events that transpired there. Earlier this year I noticed on Facebook that you had undertaken a similar project, in reuniting volumes from your collection to the Civil War veterans to whom they had previously belonged. Explain to our readers what you’ve been up to…

David A. Bishop’s (3rd Ohio Volunteer Cavalry) is reunited with his regimental history

GM: Thank you for asking that question because this is a special project for me.  My purpose is to reconnect a veteran with a book that he owned or inscribed by visiting the veteran’s grave site. This all got started when I would prepare Gettysburg walks with my Living History Mess Mates.  In my research, I would find information from a book about a soldier who was killed and was buried at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.  After we finished our walk following a regiment’s march to Gettysburg and their action, I would take them to the Cemetery and talk about one of the soldiers from the regiment at his grave.  If possible, I would lay the soldier’s photograph on his stone. I remember my first commemorated soldier was Corporal James Kelly of the 6th Wisconsin.  I enjoyed making that connection to my Mess and to people who had joined me in the past on walks.  More importantly, they enjoyed it. The inclusion of Corporal Kelly made the talk more personal.

In time, as I started collecting first editions with provenance, I felt like doing the same thing with their signatures. Why not visit the grave and “reintroduce” the veteran with the book he proudly owned or inscribed to a good friend?  I’m starting with my signed Ohio regimentals and MOLLUS books and checking each on  I had amazing success with this technique as I have been able to identify all 18 burial sites of Ohio Civil War veterans.  Next, I broke each grave site down into a geographical section of the state; i.e., central Ohio, northeast, southwest, etc.. As expected, some grave sites are in beautiful well-kept cemeteries, while others are in the middle of nowhere.  Some graves have been easy to find, while some have been frustratingly difficult.  It is like collecting first editions; the excitement is all in the hunt, and when you find it, it is pure joy and satisfaction.

JE: How many veterans and books have you reconnected thus far? 

GM: I have reconnected 11 of 19 Ohio veterans. 

JE: What is the farthest you’ve traveled to stand at the grave or monument of a veteran and reconnect him with his book?

Last month Gary visited the monument of the 13th Massachusetts to reconnect a volume

GM: It would have to be Gettysburg.  I have the 13th Massachusetts regimental signed by its colonel who was wounded on the first day’s action.  I also have the regimental of the 2nd New Hampshire that was owned and signed by one of the sergeants who was wounded at the Peach Orchard.  It was great to have their books at the regiments’ monuments. 

As far as Ohio regimentals are concerned, the farthest I have travelled is to Chardon, Ohio, which about a 2 ½ hour drive.

JE: As a Civil War enthusiast and book collector myself, I can appreciate why these books are so desirable, but explain to our readers why it is particularly meaningful for you to travel several hours – and then sometimes spend hours searching for the individual – to stand for a few moments at their grave and reconnect them with their book.

Henry Moore Neil (11th Ohio Light Artillery) and his copy of the battery’s history

GM: All of my first editions are special to me because each book was once held by a veteran.  Period.  How thrilling is that! Post war regimentals were not mass printed like todays books.  They were printed for the veterans and their families.  You can tell by some of the inscriptions by the vets, especially to a son or daughter, just how proud they were of their service.  That is a special connection to me. The provenance touches me like nothing else. When I visited the grave of a 64th Ohio vet with the book he authored, I sat by his grave and read his account of his sprint from the skirmish line to the main trench with “Johnnies” at the heels at Franklin.  He put me there with him. Probably a lot of people “don’t get it,” but I do.  These are special moments for me, and I am blessed to have an opportunity to hold a veteran’s book at his grave.  Each time, I hope that the vet is looking down, smiling, and thanking me. The way I see it, I do not own the books.  I am merely a custodian for them.  Hopefully, they will be passed to another generation that “gets it.”

JE: What’s so impressed me with your cemetery visits is how often they produce ‘value added’ results. You’ve worked with cemeteries and local veteran’s offices to address damaged or overgrown headstones, and missing flags or flag holders. This isn’t so much a question, I more just wanted to say Thank You for quite literally going the extra mile to see these sites not only remembered, but properly cared for. Good on you. 

GM: Thank you very much.  I appreciate it.  These men deserve all the respect we can give them. I would like to relate two quick stories on graves where I contacted authorities to correct a problem, and they were within 30 feet of one another.  Second Lieutenant Henry Moore commanded the 11th Ohio Battery at Iuka after 1st Lieutenant Cyrus Sears was wounded.  Sears would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery that day.  Moore would also be wounded four times in the battery’s exposed position. My friend, Mike Peters, and I could not locate his grave due to overgrown trees and shrubs. In addition, we could not find the grave for Colonel Orland Smith, a very prominent brigade commander in the XI and XX Corps because the lawn mower knocked his headstone over. Requests were submitted to the cemetery to fix the two sites.  I guess what I am saying is that anybody can get involved in honoring veterans of any war by bringing attention to the cemetery if something needs to be repaired, pruned, or otherwise fixed.

JE: Where will your travels take you next? How many more volumes to go? 

GM: I have eight more Ohio veterans to visit, and they are scattered all over the state. After I finish the Ohio veterans, then I will sit down and look at the other states.  I know off the top of my head there are sites in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. I also have World War I veteran books from Ohio to New York City.  To go to New England would be a long haul, but (again) it would be special.

JE: Finally, and this is entirely off topic, but I understand you were a reenactor for the filming of the movie Gettysburg. Please share with our readers some of your favorite memories of the filming…

Gary & Jeff Daniels on the set of Gettysburg

GM: It was one of the best weeks of my life. What a great experience! I was in the filming that involved the 20th Maine, and you can see me several times, especially in the scene in the 20th Maine’s camp before the battle.  Chamberlain is talking to the cook, who is wearing a butcher apron and walking toward the camera.  Behind them and walking away from the camera is me.  My back is to the camera, and I’m carrying a barrel.  I guess my backside is the best side. I also remember Jeff Daniels kneeling by himself for about 15 minutes going over his lines portraying Chamberlain’s speech to the men of the 2nd Maine.  I also remember having Makeup dirty us up, the Confederate assaults up “Little Round Top,” and our charge down the hill.  Lastly, I remember watching “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” for the first time. Oh, and how can I forget the ubiquitous phrase “BACK TO ONE!” followed by a groan of the men.

7 Responses to Communing with the Past: An Interview with Gary Milligan

  1. Truly amazing story. It is this kind of passion that inspires and to remember the deeds of brave men.
    Never forget. Thanks for sharing this story.
    Thank you Gary. Til our next adventure. S.Lewis

    1. Thank you, Steve. You and Adam were part of my first “reconnects” at the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. I know your passion for remembering veterans is just as strong if not stronger. Thank you accompanying me the other day in honoring William Ross of the 133rd Ohio. It was great to see you again.

    1. It is in good hands, and it is enjoying quality time with the other signed regimentals.
      Thank you again for the great addition.

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