Throughout the year in this occasional series we’ve sat down with some of our “old head” historians to ask about their ECW stories. This month we have one of our newest members and a rising star in the field, Sheritta Bitikofer. We hope her story inspires you to consider submitting your own content to Emerging Civil War!
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ECW: Tell us about yourself. Where are you from? How did you get interested in the Civil War?
SB: I was raised in the panhandle of Florida, a place that doesn’t have much history to boast about, apart from Pensacola or St. Augustine – if you want to drive seven hours east. Despite my distance from historic locales, I fell in love with the study of history, especially ancient and medieval history. My first exposure to the Civil War came in my middle school history class when our teacher read a series of stories from “The Unknown Civil War” by Webb Garrison. I asked to borrow the book and read voraciously at home until I returned it. Like many, I also watched the Ken Burns documentary, and my fascination only grew over time. I didn’t dive head-long into the war until I set out to research for a historical fiction book I wanted to write that follows a soldier from the 7th Georgia Infantry – a completely random selection. After I published the story, I decided to celebrate by taking my first trip to Virginia and follow in my character’s footsteps across some of the major battlefields (Manassas, Fredericksburg, Antietam, Gettysburg, Appomattox, etc.) My trip lasted a week, but I was irrevocably hooked on everything Civil War from that point forward.
ECW: Many of us take for granted the terrific Civil War history you have in Florida. What’s your favorite Civil War site in the Sunshine State? Which site are you most anxious to visit?
SB: Florida definitely has a few interesting gems. Olustee, Natural Bridge, Marianna, Fort Clinch, Fort Pickens, Fort Barrancas, Key West, the list goes on and on! Tallahassee was the only Confederate capital east of the Mississippi not to be taken during the war and the state’s cattle/beef industry picked up some of the slack after the Mississippi was completely taken in 1863. My favorite site would probably be Natural Bridge. It’s a tiny wayside park with one monument and a couple of informational signs, but they have some great hidden earthworks – something I never expected to see in Florida! I haven’t explored many places in the central-ish part of the state, so that would be exciting to visit outside of tourist season.
ECW: We give Chris Mackowski a hard time about the 4,234 books he’s published, but you may rival his number! Tell us about Sheritta Bitikofer ‘the author’ before coming to ECW.
SB: I think I may be a few books short in the race against Mackowski! I’ve loved writing as much as I’ve loved history for as long as I can remember. I used to make up little stories for my friends and family before setting out to write my first book in high school. Since 2014, I’ve self-published over 30 novels, most of which are paranormal and historical fiction, and they vary in length. I’ve hosted a table at several book signing events and have experimented with different marketing strategies enough to understand the great efforts most publishers and authors go through to promote their books. It’s definitely hard work and requires a great deal of dedication.
ECW: You’re one of our newest historians at Emerging Civil War. How did you find us, and how did you get your foot in the door?
SB: I can’t remember the first article I read on the blog that made me first subscribe, but I know it was during my researching phase. I recognized the great quality of work and wanted to “hang around” to see what else the historians were turning out. Over time, I migrated to the American Battlefield Trust YouTube page and began to hear some names and see some faces I recognized from the blog. That’s when I first realized how “big” the blog was and just how credible their historians were. The deeper I sank into studying the war, the more historians I connected with via Facebook or other social media. I received a heap of encouragement from ECW members, including Chris Mackowski, Meg Groeling, Doug Crenshaw, and Jon-Erik Gilot, to submit guest posts and continue sending submissions to the blog.
ECW: What made you want to contribute to ECW?
SB: My first guest post was about Delity Powell, a young girl who followed her father into service with the Milton’s Light Artillery here in Florida. She was the only woman to receive a soldier’s pension in Florida after the war for her work as a nurse. The more I learned about her, the more I was like, “I have to share about this girl!” By this time, I had already begun my own Civil War travel blog, but its readership was minimal. I knew that ECW accepted guest posts, but I hung onto that article for a long time, battling between “People need to know!” and “I’m not a ‘real’ historian, let someone else do this.” But it was clear that no one else was going to tell her story, so I took a leap of faith and people seemed to like it! My goal has always been to share what I learn and ECW provides the perfect platform for historians to do so.
ECW: You have also been doing some interesting work with the Civil War Round Table of Central Louisiana. Tell us about some of your travels and Facebook Live videos with that organization.
SB: Yes! It’s been fun and frightening all at the same time. Richard Holloway is the president of the Civil War Roundtable of Central Louisiana, and a fantastic historian in his own right. We met via social media, and he’s been a huge encouragement in “getting myself out there”. We met in-person at Historic Blakely State Park earlier this year because he happened to be speaking at the Mobile Civil War Roundtable and asked for some help doing a video on the battlefield. Mike Bunn, the director of the park, had a conflict of scheduling at the last minute, so Richard asked if I’d be willing to step out from behind the camera to share a bit about the battle. I’ve never been the best at public speaking or multitasking (staring at a camera and talking), so I really didn’t know how it was going to go. Apparently not that bad, because he asked if I’d be willing to come on the Facebook page once a month and film from various Civil War sites – since I travel so much anyway. I’ve gone live from seven major locations so far (Camp Walton, Natural Bridge, the Carter House at Franklin, Camp Saxton in Beaufort, Citronelle Alabama, Vicksburg and most recently Andersonville) and given brief talks about the location and its significance in the war. I had some excellent help at Camp Saxton from Olivia Williams at the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park in Beaufort, and I’ve found it’s more engaging when there’s another historian doing the presentation with me. Doing these videos has given me a great opportunity to work on my public speaking skills and share about some places that others may not be able to visit.
ECW: You were an ECW symposium attendee even before you began writing for us. How many have you been to, and why would you encourage our readers to attend?
SB: I’ve only been to two so far, one as a regular attendee and the second as a contributor. The symposiums are a great place to meet the historians behind the computer screens, spend far too much money on books, and get the chance to take a battlefield tour with some of the best. The guests and ECW team have always been so friendly and welcoming, which is key for someone like me who really needs that “push” to network. The content presented at the symposiums has always been top-notch and engaging. It’s not like sitting through a long, droning history lecture. Even if I thought I knew everything about a certain topic, I come away with a greater understanding of the finer details. All around, symposiums are a great place to learn and socialize with other history nerds.
ECW: In conjunction with our recent symposium you recently wrapped up an incredible multi-week, multi-state battlefield tour, which included stops at some fairly obscure battlefields. Which battlefield or historic site surprised you the most, or have inspired further research following your visit?
SB: Yes, we decided to make the most of the trip and spent nearly three weeks going on a huge tour to Virginia and back. Some places were pretty mainstream like Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia, a few places in Franklin, Tennessee, Perryville in Kentucky, Fort Pulaski, and Colonial Williamsburg (my husband’s personal favorite of the trip). The place that surprised me the most was the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park in Beaufort. I walked in knowing nothing about why on earth they chose to put this park in South Carolina, but it made sense after I learned that Beaufort was essential “ground zero” for reconstruction efforts as early as 1862. The wealth of history in the area blew me away. Close runners-up would be the various battlefields in West Virginia that are surprisingly well preserved and seem marginalized in modern studies. One place I want to do more reading/researching on is Historic Stagville in North Carolina. It was recommended by Joanna McDonald during a Zoom chat with some of the other ECW ladies. It’s one of the few plantations I’ve visited outside of the deep south and the stories that come from the area are fascinating. I purchased a couple of books from their giftshop that I hope to read soon.
ECW: What do you find most fulfilling about your work with ECW?
SB: I love that I’ve found a place where I can share about my experiences as an emerging historian and plug-in with a community that is always so willing and available to answer my questions (no matter how trivial) and give great feedback that has helped me grow as a writer and researcher. It’s only been a few months, but I feel I am leagues ahead of where I was before coming onboard. And I’m grateful for the opportunity to help out the blog in any way, be it updating pages or adding content.
ECW: How has your involvement with ECW made a difference in your professional life? Has ECW furthered your interest, or opened up any new avenues of research/writing/work for you?
SB: Since getting involved with ECW, I’ve had some interesting and exciting opportunities cross my desk. Some I had to pass on, others I’ve latched onto with both hands. I’ve made connections with readers and other historians that have been truly enriching and inspiring. Being part of the ECW team has driven me to uphold a standard of scholarship in my work across the board and given me a much-needed boost of confidence as I continue on this journey.
ECW: What advice would you give to someone who might be thinking about submitting their work to ECW?
SB: One of the best bits of advice I received early in my writing career (before ECW) is that no story theme or trope is ever “over done” because each author who tackles it comes at it from a different angle and uses a different voice. The same can be said for writing about the Civil War. Yes, Gettysburg has been written about a thousand times, but not by YOU. Each author puts their own flavor in their work and comes at it from a different perspective, so don’t be concerned that it’s not unique or groundbreaking. If it is, that’s an even better reason to write for ECW so everyone can learn. Every voice matters and if you want to be heard, you’ve got to speak up. I’ll plagiarize off Shia LaBeouf for a second, “Just DO IT!”