The “Emerging Civil War Series” Series: Hellmira

Making of Hellmira not so Hellish

Having grown up just thirty miles from Elmira, it is easy for me to sympathize with John R. King—a Confederate prisoner of war who was incarcerated at the POW camp along the banks of the Chemung River—when he wrote that Elmira “was a pleasant summer prisoner for the Southern soldier, but an excellent place for them to find their graves in the winter.”

Winter in New York’s Southern Tier can be unforgiving indeed. I cannot imagine shivering through such a season with but two blankets, lying in uninsulated barracks and bunking on plain pine berths as the wind whistled through the hastily constructed buildings. I don’t think I would have survived such a torment.

Identifying and empathizing with the rebels penned up in the Elmira stockade was, perhaps, the hardest part about researching and writing my book, Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp – Elmira, NY, for the Emerging Civil War Series. The accounts written by former Confederate prisoners were filled with anger, vitriol, and memories of intense suffering. Sometimes it was agonizing to read—especially when I could reflect on the fact that much of the suffering was avoidable.

Hellmira was my first book. And while there were many challenges in the course of bringing the manuscript to publication, the origins of the project were decidedly unchallenging. I was extraordinarily fortunate. I have known many people who have spent their whole careers trying to find a publisher for their monograph or novel, only to fail. The Hellmira book was a project unsought by me. It originated with an e-mail from Chris Mackowski, editor-in-chief of the Emerging Civil War Series, who asked if I would be interested in writing a book about the Elmira POW camp for the series—with the promise of publication. Of course, it was an opportunity of a lifetime, and I was incredulous. I accepted immediately.

With so many of my sources readily available, gathering the research materials was not too bad. But finding the time to write was more difficult. As a college professor with a full course load, finding the time for serious writing meant waiting for summer. But when I was ready to write, the manuscript came together in less than six weeks—writing about eight hours a day for more than a month. Once I found my rhythm, things progressed quickly. The bigger challenges were to come.

Because Hellmira was my first book, I did not know what to expect with the process of bringing a manuscript to publication. I asked many questions and tried the patience of Chris along the way but tried to be patient and let the process play out at its own pace. I think the waiting was the worst part. Weeks would go by without any word or progress that I could discern, and then there would be a flurry of activity—revisions, revamping endnotes, captioning photos, etc. Then the waiting would begin again.

One memorable moment along the way was seeing the cover art for the book. It arrived as a digital file in an e-mail. I opened it and there was my name on the cover! It was so well done and I was very excited. Given the go-ahead, I shared the cover widely like a proud father disseminating photos of his newborn baby. I was shameless.

In circulating the cover art for Hellmira, I thought that I could not only brag, but would also build anticipation of the publication of the book and thus promote sales. However, in the end it also led to confusion when the title of the book was changed at the last minute. In fact, I did not even know the title had been changed until the book was at the printer.

Hellmira‘s original cover and subtitle

I learned, much to my surprise, that authors in many cases do not get to choose the title of their book. This is determined by the publisher, with input from the author. So, in theory, I knew the title could change, although the timing took me by surprise. The result of the change is that two different covers of the book have circulated—with two different titles. This has meant that organizations that have hosted me for book talks have sometimes used the wrong cover and book title to promote the event.

Despite this confusion, I could not be more happy with my place in the Emerging Civil War Series canon, my editor Chris Mackowski, or the good folks at Savas Beatie in California. The support I have received has been gratifying and I am deeply grateful.

In fact, my experience with Hellmira led me to write a second title for the series which is due out in Spring 2022. A biography, my new work is entitled Man of Fire: William Tecumseh Sherman in the Civil War – I think.

About Derek Maxfield

Associate Professor of History Genesee Community College
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