Excitement. I remember the very moment I received the call that Dan Davis and I had the green-light from Ted Savas to tackle the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864 as one of the first volumes in the Emerging Civil War Series. My name was going to be on the front cover of a book. The excitement, the exhilaration, the thousand thoughts of how to whittle all the stories, themes, research into a readable overview of the campaign. Then the next thought hit me: “My name was actually going to be on a book!” The anxiety of doing a great job, of being a perfectionist, of ensuring that I am not the proverbial weak link in the author duo or slip up on some factual account and bring discredit to Emerging Civil War. The seriousness of the project weighed on me.
Ever have that happen? The euphoria of having a contract and writing on a topic you’ve studied and read about for years mixed with the sense of responsibility? If not, well now you can read about it. If you have, here is how I worked through writing my first co-authored publication.
First, I took a breath. Chris Mackowski and Kristopher White trusted me to be part of the series. They were also going to be the layout/grammar editor and historical content editor, respectively, so there was a safety net and another two sets of eyes for anything I wrote. Dan Davis and I had also talked, visited, shared resources, scoped out the work, and split the assignments: I was tackling the Confederate part and he’d tackle the Federal. (Ironically, our ancestors fought on the opposite sides: Dan’s for the south, mine for the north).
Secondly, I remembered an anecdote from a historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park when I was an intern. He was in the process of his own writing assignment, a more in-depth micro tactical study of an engagement. While working in the same visitor center, we discussed research, and he said that for everything he wrote, he looked for two sources, primary and a secondary. Or at least two secondary, so there was back-up for anything he wrote. I remembered that as I drafted my parts of the various chapter of the book.
Third, I planned, along with Dan, various trips to the Shenandoah Valley, which was only a two-hour-ish drive from where I was working at the time. As a historian tasked with providing that first book someone should pick-up to emerge themselves into the history of the American Civil War, there is nothing more important than connecting person to place. Walking the fields, understanding the topography, capturing the direction of movement, and putting the reader in the shoes of those soldiers who left accounts. Talking to local historians and rangers and site workers for their insight was a bonus, as well. Seeing their enthusiasm for the stories these hallowed grounds hold was and remains infectious.
Fourth, just word vomit if you need to. (Hopefully you are not reading this in the morning or after you ate!) I just had a running Word document on various points, stories, maneuvers, quotes that I kept adding too. I then sifted through them to align them into what chapters they would match up with and then pulled from that document and filled in the story around those points.
Fifth, I was lucky to have a great co-author—and that text and phone minutes were free on my cellular plan. Dan and I bounced ideas off each other, talked through the chapters, discussed what images to use, nailed down the navigation, and worked on the transitions of how our parts fit together. Was a great experience to work on my first book with a long-time friend and great historian.
That excitement, which turned to anxiety, turned to productivity and purpose as I worked through the points above and realized the opportunity I had. How many people get to write and publish on a topic that they’ve had an intense interest in for as long as they can remember? I kept that in mind as I wrote my parts.
The opening part about Stephen Dodson Ramseur and where the summons to a council of war found him in mid-October 1864 was a great way to open the book and provide an emotional connection to the tragedy this campaign wrought, not only on the hopes of the Confederacy but the men, in both armies, who fought, bled, and sacrificed during those months.
I am very proud of the book I co-wrote, Bloody Autumn: The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864.
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Editor’s Note (from Chris):
Bloody Autumn originally had a different color scheme for its cover. Here’s a look:
Bloody Autumn: The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864
by Daniel T. Davis and Phillip Greenwalt
Savas Beatie, 2013
Click here for more about the book, including a book description, reviews, and author bios.
Click here for the audiobook, read by Mike Scott.