Derek Maxfield: Thankful for . . .

This is the time of the year for reflecting on our blessings, so in a Civil War context, my mind turns to my mentors—men who changed my life and to whom I owe a world of gratitude.

My first Civil War mentor was a professor at SUNY Cortland when I was an undergraduate: Ellis “Doc” Johnson. A veteran of nearly forty years’ experience by the time I met him, Doc was in his seventies and showed no sign of ever wanting to retire (sadly the college “persuaded” him). Just as passionate about history then as I suspect he was decades earlier, I was fired by his love of history and the Civil War. To be frank, I was terrified of him when I first met him. He was intense and spoke of history in a way that you were convinced he had witnessed the events of which he spoke. His Civil War course was legendary and had a long wait list to get into. The class featured a dual-slideshow, crates of books, sometimes live music that he performed on guitar or banjo, and endless enthusiasm.

I had the good fortune to be asked to work one-on-one with Doc on a special Civil War project. It was a multi-year tutorial on the Civil War and an experience you cannot put a price on. By the time I graduated with my B.A., I already had a graduate-level knowledge of the war. Better yet, I had made an incredible friend who treated me like family. Doc died during my senior year at Cortland.

It was many years later when I met Dr. Chris Mackowski when I invited him, on the advice of a colleague, to speak at Genesee Community College. After much chatting, Chris invited me to write up a post for the Emerging Civil War blog. At that stage of my career, I had not written seriously for many years. My love of the Civil War was still there, but my love of writing had nearly died away—which is remarkable when you consider I began my career as a journalist writing for newspaper and radio.

Chris’s advice was to start simply, writing about the things I knew or were especially interested in. Getting too ambitious could lead to frustration and might dissuade me from writing. I remember it was over the holiday break between semesters. I ended up writing six posts in four weeks and was back in the groove. It felt great.

Chris also knew it was my dearest wish to write a book—as I suspect is the wish of most professional historians. But finding a publisher is often the greatest hurdle. Once again, it was Chris who gave me the opportunity as part of the ECW book series. After writing a post about the POW camp in Elmira, NY, which isn’t too far from me, Chris invited me to write a book about the camp, which after a few years became Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp – Elmira, NY. 

I suspect there are many folks at Emerging Civil War who see Chris as a mentor and have become published authors because he gave them the opportunity, though no one appreciates it more than me. He made my dreams come true. I could not ask for a more patient (mostly) editor, and I know that I could not ask for a kinder friend.

1 Response to Derek Maxfield: Thankful for . . .

  1. A lovely post. At Centre, in Kentucky, I was fortunate enough to fall under the wing of several brilliant teachers. We had Dr Frank Heck, a noted expert on the career of John Breckinridge, do our CW course, and take us hiking all over the fields of the Perryville Battlefield, then almost entirely in private hands.

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