Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate

Robert

Safe and sound at home again, let the waters roar Jack

Safe and sound at home again, let the waters roar Jack

Long we’ve tossed on the rolling main, now we’re safe ashore Jack

Faldee raldee raldee raldee rye eye ‘O

We are coming up on the end of another semester, a particularly trying one at that as I spent the first three weeks in the hospital after an emergency surgery, another week in the hospital in March, and I face another larger surgery as soon as it ends, but it is nearly over. I close my 1301 classes covering the Civil War which is something I sincerely enjoy teaching about, but it always makes me a bit melancholy now. In 2014 I lost one of my oldest and best friends unexpectedly. You can read what I wrote an hour or so after learning of his death here. I miss him quite a bit, more so when I’m covering our favorite subject in class.

Robert was my friend and comrade for neigh on 17 years. We met when I was in college and I became a Civil War reenactor. We served in the same unit during all that time and for a good chunk of it, we were the entire unit. Our impression was that of Union sailors during the War. He portrayed a grizzled petty officer and I the Master at Arms and later Ship’s Surgeon. (I also doubled dipped as an Army surgeon.) We traveled thousands of miles together, marched God only knows how many more, stood side by side in the ranks, worked artillery pieces, and shivered in tents while a cold rain fell outside. I never got much sleep as Robert snored loud enough to summon the dead.

But the best of friends must part, fair or foul the weather

Hand your flipper for a shake, now a drink together

Long we’ve tossed on the rolling main, now we’re safe ashore Jack

Faldee raldee raldee raldee rye eye ‘O

I know he’s up there in Valhalla right now, no doubt enjoying a tin cup of grog around the campfire. I suppose I’ll join him when it’s my time, which is seemingly going to be sooner rather than later at the rate my body is falling apart. Last Monday when I received a phone call offering me a regular full time position as a professor, my first thought was “I can’t wait to call Robert.” And then it hit me. He isn’t here. But he knows, that I’m sure of. Time doesn’t heal the hurt that comes with the loss of a family member or friend, but it does make it more manageable. By teaching, I am helping keep his legacy alive as he touched thousands of lives over the years by sharing his knowledge and damaged a few ears playing the concertina.

So I won’t forget my old shipmate. Not ever.

L.H.

A Reader’s Life

RRWW2

Dear Readers,

As I was contemplating my personal library today, I began to ponder the influential books I’ve read in my life; books that have changed the way I see the world around me. Now, my own books number around 2,000 physical volumes with several hundred more on the Kindle. I’ve read them all, and I’ve read many more that I don’t have personal copies of. Some have been good, some have been bad, some have been ugly, and some have been in between. That said, a select handful have had such an impact on me that I still think of them and the lessons they taught me.

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The first great book I remember reading when I was in 4th grade was the award winning young adult classic Rifles For Watie by Harold Keith. It is an excellent Civil War story set in the Trans-Mississippi Theater. Though I was already a Civil War enthusiast by this point in my life, this was the first Civil War novel that I remember reading. It taught me how a novelist can teach you as much as a historian can. I found myself drawn into the story and though I’ve read the book many times since then, I’ll never forget the first reading.

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When I was in tenth grade, I came across a copy of Piece of Cake by Derek Robinson in my high school library. In my opinion, it is one of the greatest World War Two novels ever written. What I like about it is how he manages to capture but the humorous and the tragic scenes that war brings. The back and forth banter between the young RAF pilots is so skillfully done that you don’t catch all of it the first time you read the book. It takes a second or even third reading to pick up on all the one liners. If I had to pick a writer who has influenced my own writing the most, I’d probably say it is Derek Robinson, not just because of this book, which I consider his best, but because of all the books in his RAF and also his RFC series.

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In college, I first read the three volume Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote. Yes, I know that Civil War historians take great issue with much of what you can find inside these volumes, but as a freshman in college, that was far from my mind as I read through Foote’s weighty tomes. Foote was a novelist writing history, and in his hands, the lives, loves, tragedies, and triumphs of those who lived through this tumultuous era in American history leapt from the pages and came to live within my head. Foote once said that historians can learn a lot from novelists. I took this to heart. Yes, I have a graduate degree in history and I guess technically I’m a historian (though I consider myself first and foremost to be a storyteller), I am first and foremost, a writer. As such, Foote’s ability to bring these long dead individuals to life had an impact not just on my own writing, but on my teaching as well.

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Several years ago, I came across Bomber by Len Deighton. I was already familiar with both he and his work, but I had not read this particular book. It takes place in a 24 hour time frame as pilots prepare to bomb a German town. The town and its inhabitants also factor into the story and it builds to a terrifying crescendo. This novel taught me quite a bit about pacing and how to create and build suspense, even in novels that are not mysteries or thrillers. It also taught me the importance of careful research. Deighton made sure to get his facts right, and as a writer of historical fiction, I strive to do the same in my own work.

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I first read Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry when I was in junior high. This book taught me how to create characters that appear real. When we think of Augustus McRae and Woodrow F. Call, we think of them as real people, not fictional characters. McMurtry was a master of creating a world and inhabiting it with realistic, believable characters. Far from being “just a western”, as my creative writing professor dismissed it as being, this Pulitzer Prize winner shows us that a book about a simple journey from Point A to Point B can be a masterpiece, which Lonesome Dove definitely is.

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The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War by Peter Englund serves as a vivid reminder that history happens to real people, just like us. Also like us, they share all of the same emotions that we do. Though times may chance, human emotions do not and they are the link between us and those who came before. This book paints a portrait of ordinary lives disrupted by the Great War and does so on a broad canvas. The author also uses, whenever possible, the words of the individuals themselves to tell their stories. From this book, I learned the importance of letting the participants speak for themselves as they saw the events, I did not.

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Payback by Gert Ledig is a long out of print novel by a German veteran of the Second World War. The book begins like this: “When the first bomb fell, the blast hurled the dead children against the wall.” It takes place over the space of an hour in a nameless German town and consists of very short chapters, each a vignette, of how a resident experiences an Allied air attack. It is at times humorous, but more often tragic and stomach churning. This book taught me the importance of not shying away from the more horrific aspects of writing about warfare. By sanitizing our history or cleaning it up, we do absolutely no justice to those who lived through the events.

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Antietam: The Soldier’s Battle by John Michael Priest is, in my humble opinion, the best book written about a Civil War battle. The author delved deep into many an archive and though the book may appear disjointed to those who are not already familiar with the ebb and flow of the fighting around Antietam Creek, the reader experiences the battle in “real time” from the standpoint of the soldiers on both sides. If it is confusing at times, well, so was the battle. This book provides a valuable view from the ground, as it were. It is chock full of great quotes such as the Confederate artillery officer who, while under heavy fire, said to his aid “If I am killed, tell my wife I’ve never been happier in my life!” With this book, you really get a glimpse at the chaos and carnage of the Civil War battlefield.

This is not an all inclusive list, Dear Reader, as there are many others, but the above list are the best of the best. As you can see, some are fiction and some are not. So I ask you this: What books have influenced you as a writer, a reader, or as a person?

L.H.

City of Fire

CIty of Fire

Dear Readers,

For those who have been following me for the past year, you no doubt know of my novel which was recently completed. For those of you who are new to the site, you can read an excerpt from it here.  So what is next on the agenda for me? Writing wise, that is. Well, the completed novel will go on a shelf for four to six months, long enough for me to basically forget about it. After enough time passes, I’ll re-visit it and read through it with fresh eyes so that I can correct the myriad of mistakes it no doubt contains, some plot, some continuity, some character development, and far more grammatical ones. This does not mean I will do no writing in between now and then. Nay! Quite the contrary! I’m now at work on another novel, this one set in New York City during the Civil War.

Here is the teaser:

A story ripped from the headlines……….from 1864.

Eight men, including Captain Thomas Fitzgerald, slip across the US border with Canada and make their way to New York City. Their goal? To create a wave of destruction that will interrupt the upcoming presidential election.  Michael, a New York City detective desperately tries to ascertain their identities and their plan while Patrick, a firefighter, stands on the front lines of the city’s defense against an attack. Maggie, a fiery redheaded prostitute, is the link between the attackers and the defenders, but while one man holds the key  to her escape from her life and from the city, another holds the key to her heart. She must chose between them as chaos erupts throughout the city. From the squalor of the Five Points, to opulent mansions on Fifth Avenue, New York City is a City of Fire.

I have my character sketches done along with a 10,000 word outline. Plus, I have all of my scene cards mapped out on a storyboard. I’m not sure how long this one will take to write. It might be a while as it is plotted to be roughly 100,000 words, which is 4K longer than the one I just completed. It is nice to revisit the Civil War from a writing standpoint, but I wanted to focus more on the untold stories rather than a traditional military action novel. The Confederate Plot to Burn New York City is known by some, but not many. It does touch on many modern themes, though. The Confederates involved in this plot believed themselves to be soldiers conducting a military operation while the Northern authorities believed them to be terrorists.

This is a tale of heroes, villains, and the line between the two that often blurs in time of conflict. Every man can be a sinner. And every man can be a saint. This is, perhaps, my most ambitious project yet and it is a book I’ve wanted to write since I first got the idea in 2004.  So we’ll see how long it takes, and I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Hutch

Me

Me as a young firefighter with my son who is now 15. I was much younger and better looking back in those days…….

 

Last Harvest of the Death Angel: 5 Hours of Horror, Franklin, TN

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Dear Readers,

November 30 marked the anniversary of one of the most horrific battles ever fought in North America. Some call the Battle of Franklin the Pickett’s Charge of the West. That is incorrect. Pickett’s Charge was the Franklin of the East. At Gettysburg, 14,000 men crossed a mile of open ground after a two hour artillery bombardment. The charge lasted around 50-55 minutes. At Franklin, 19,000 men crossed two miles of open ground straight into three levels of entrenchments. And it wasn’t just one charge, it was more like 15-17 and it lasted four five brutal hours.

Over night on November 29/30, 1991 when I was thirteen years old, I had a very graphic dream about the battle of Franklin from the point of view of one of the soldiers. In the dream, I knew it was Franklin because of what someone said. At that point in my life, I was a student of the Civil War, but my knowledge, though more than most 13 year olds (or adults for that matter) was still very general in nature. I started reading Bruce Catton when I was 8, for example. I’d never heard of the battle before this dream. Dear Readers, I’ve had the dream every year on the night before the battle since 1991. I’m 39 now and just a few days ago, I had the dream yet again. You can read my written description of it here

I have visited Franklin and when I close my eyes, I see the whole thing played out in front of me again. I do not know why I have this dream. I had several brave ancestors who fought in this battle. Do they have the ability to pass on their memories to us via DNA? Or is it something else? One thing it is not, Dear Reader, is a figment of an overactive imagination because I wrote down the dream at age 13 and it has never changed. And remember, I didn’t know a d–n thing about this battle when I had the dream. But I digress. On my Facebook page on November 30th, I posted firsthand quotes from participants in the battle and probably drove my non-history friends crazy. I set out to do that again here, for those who know me not on Facebook. I’ll also throw in some more that I did not put on Facebook as I didn’t have to time post non-stop all afternoon, though I really wanted to.

I do not propose to describe the tactical decisions, etc, that led up to this battle. I only want you to read the words of the participants and understand this battle for what it was…..obscene and vile. No words of mine could EVER do justice to those brave souls who bled and died here.

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The Carter Cotton Gin. The Confederate attack in this sector was described as “Glorified suicide”. 

“The men seemed to realize that our charge on the enemy’s works would be attended with heavy slaughter, and several of them came to me bringing watches, jewelry, letters, and photographs, asking me to take charge of them and send them to their families if they were killed. I had to decline as I was going with them and would be exposed to the same danger.” Chaplain M’Neilly, Quarles’ Brigade

“It is ominous, and I fear our men are going to be annihilated. Our bands played ‘Dixie’, ‘The Bonnie Blue Flag’, and ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’. This was the first and only time I ever heard our bands playing on the battlefield and at the beginning of a charge.” — Dr. Phillips, Surgeon, 22nd MS Infantry

“Then the order rings out against the din ‘Fire left oblique boys! Fire left oblique! They are bearing down on our left!There is now a wall of blazing guns all along our front. Men are dropping all along the line. Every second someone is killed. We are loading and firing until the gun barrels burn our hands.” — W.A Keesy, 64th Ohio, Conrad’s Brigade

“My color bearer was shot and the flag dropped. Colonel V.P. Greene grasped the flag staff and said ‘Damn! I’ll carry the flag. Look to your own company.’ Colonel Greene carried the flag through the fight without a scratch. They were killing and wounding our men so fast the order ‘Charge!’ was given. We raised the Rebel Yell and moved in double quick time.” — Lt. Mintz, 5th Arkansas Infantry, Govan’s Brigade

“We ran about 50 yards back and were reforming when a cannon ball took off my right foot. The same ball passed through two other men and wounded Beaumont and myself. We were in a very exposed place and could not move, the dead and wounded were all around us.” Joseph Thompson, 35th Alabama Infantry, Scott’s Brigade

“The ditch was full of men…..dead, dying, and wounded. If I ever prayed earnestly in my life, it was then.” Capt. Rea, 29th Alabama Infantry, Sears’ Brigade

“Go back and tell them to fight! Fight like hell!” General Wagner, 2nd Division 4th Corps, US. (Reported to be “vaingloriously drunk at the battle)

“The force and wind of the grape and canister would lift us clear off the ground at every discharge. As the great clouds of smoke had to some extent vanished, I could look around me and saw to my surprise, I was left alone in the ditch within a few feet of the battery which was still pouring forth it’s messenger of death, and not a living man could be seen standing on my right, nor could one be seen for some distance on my left. They had all been swept away by that mighty tempest of grape, canister, and rolling waves of lead and fire.” John M. Copley, 49th TN Infantry, Quarles’ Brigade

“The ravings of the maimed and mangled were heart rending. Crazed with pain, many knew not what they said or did. Some pleadingly cried out ‘Cease fire! Cease fire!’ while others agonizingly were shouting ‘We surrender! We surrender!'” Sgt. Banks, 29th AL Infantry, Shelly’s Brigade

“We charged up to the works. We used bayonets, butts of guns, axes, picks, shovels, and even…. [Colonel] Opdycke picked up a gun and clubbed with it.’ J.K. Merrifield, 88th IL Infantry, Opdycke’s Brigade

“About 9pm, a large body of the enemy in our front who were lying low and did not dare to go back begged for quarter and were allowed to come in. The only instance when I heard Johnnies beg for mercy.” Lt. Mohrmann, 72nd IL Infantry, Strickland’s Brigade

“Kind reader, right here my pen and courage and ability fail me. I shrink from the butchery.” Sam Watkins, 1st TN Infantry (writing in his 1882 memoir Co. Aytch.

“Call it glorious to die a horrible death, surrounded by an awful butchery, a scanty burial by enemy hands, and then total oblivion, name blotted out and forever forgotten—where is the glory?” Capt. James A. Sexton, Illinois Infantry

So there you have it, Dear Readers, a few quotes from a few brave men from both sides who fought at Franklin, only to have their memory and sacrifices largely forgotten as the battle faded into memory, known only today by true Civil War enthusiasts. Part of that is because the veterans, especially the Confederate veterans, did not wish to speak of the horrors they witnessed here. My great-grandmother’s grandfather fought at Franklin. He lived well into his 80s and so she knew him quite well as a girl. She said he could talk about “stacking Yankees up like cordwood” at Kennesaw Mountain and the first day at Shiloh where they overran Federal positions and “smote them hip and thigh.” But when asked about Franklin, which lay only about twelve miles from his home, all he could do was weep.

I’ll stop there, Dear Reader. I do not know why I have such a strong, visceral connection to this battle. Or why I can see it unfold in my head. Or why each year on the eve of the anniversary, my mind dredges it up in the wee hours of the morning. Bruce Catton once said that “We are the people for whom the past is forever speaking.” Mr. Catton is right on that point. The quotes above come from a few places, Eyewitnesses to the Battle of FranklinThe Confederacy’s Last Hurrah, and Co. Aytch. Though I close here, below I will list my family’s Roll of Honor from this battle.

Hutch

Roll of Honor

19th TN Cavalry

Buford Hanks Fitzgerald

48th TN Infantry

Daniel Fitzgerald

Francis Marion Fitzgerald

Uriah Galloway

Aaron Thomas Vestal

Charles W. Vestal

James Vestal

Josiah Franklin Dugger

William L. Dugger

1st TN Infantry

Haywood Taylor

John L. Jacobs

Thomas Henry Jacobs

33rd AL Infantry

Elisha Potts

George W. Potts

14th TX Cavalry (Dismounted)

Hewitt Rather

Nathaniel Houston Rather

2nd TN Infantry

Thomas Fleming

 

The Sound of Distant Cannons

 

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“Are you hot in that uniform?” “Well, some women think so…..”

Dear Readers,

Whenever I teach about the Civil War in class, it makes me a bit nostalgic. Not for the war, but of the sixteen years I spent as a Civil War reenactor. Yes, I spent four times as long reenacting the war than the war itself was. I guess my reason for getting this way is because I was younger then, of course. And it was before I suffered a serious injury which ended my public safety career and left me in constant pain. Also, I miss my friend and comrade of all those years, Robert, who passed away unexpectedly a few years ago. The laughs we shared, the funny incidents we witnessed, the people we met and the places we saw are just as fresh in my mind today as they were back then. You can see the post I wrote upon learning of his passing here.

Since I now dwell in an academic world and not one filled with fires and arsonists, I have come to understand that many (I dare say, most) academic historians look on living historians (my preferred term for what I did) with barely disguised and often open disdain. I’ve heard them claim that all reenactors are racist, Lost Cause types. I’ve heard them claim that reenactors are all gun freaks or super right wing nut jobs. People who proudly boast of how “open” and “tolerant” they are quickly lump all reenactors into one category. Are there people within the ranks who are all those things? Of course! But most are not. They are men and women who love what they do and try to bring history to a wider audience.

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The 13th US Infantry on the field at Liendo. 

Apart from those criticisms, the other major one I’ve heard over the years is that “Reenactors get too bogged down in details and don’t care enough about the big picture.” Maybe that is a valid criticism. However, the majority of them portray humble privates in the ranks and NEWSFLASH: they didn’t know much about the big picture either. Grant and Lee were not in the habit of discussing grand strategy with enlisted men. Does it really matter in the grand scheme of things what the specific thread count of a Union sack coat was? Probably not. Another criticism is that reenactors don’t care enough about the cause of the war. Honestly, I’m not quite sure why professional historians often fixate on this. Reenactors are not reenacting the secession crisis. I think this might touch on why it seems like over the past several years, academic historians have all but removed the battlefield from the teaching of the Civil War, preferring to talk of other things. Which, by the way, need to be discussed, but the question of slavery was decided ON THE BATTLEFIELD.

How did my time as a reenactor help me become a better teacher? At most events, there would be a school day on the Friday before the reenactment opened to the public. Schools would bus in students who frequently had to complete a scavenger hunt. They’d come by in groups of 10-15 or so and we’d talk to them and answer their questions. Some reenactors looked on this as a bit of a bother and would show up after the kids left, but I came to enjoy it. I was talking to students long before I ever thought of being a teacher myself. It gave me better insight which helped explain the decision making process on Civil War battlefields. I’ve marched ten miles (which was nothing for a Civil War soldier) as part of a preservation march and did it barefoot and on an empty stomach just to try and see what it was like for the men who did it for real. Yes, I can load and fire a rifle, work a cannon, and explain how to perform “by files right into line”. None of that really helps in the classroom, but one of the things my students enjoy the most is when I teach them how to move from a column of fours to a line of battle and back. I’m enthusiastic when teaching about the Civil War and I hope that transfers over to my performance in the classroom.

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We ran a Civil War “boot camp” for high school and junior high teachers. Here I am performing a cursory examination to declare them medically fit for service.

Now, I want to tackle one subject which was kind of the reason for my post to being with. As a Southern boy who wore “the blue suit”, I want to address a statement that people (other reenactors too) frequently made. Yes, most (though not all) of my family who was in the United States at the time fought in the Confederate Army. I don’t apologize for that, nor do I feel the need to. I’m proud of the bravery they exhibited on many a field. I’m also glad they lost. Anyway, the one thing that people said to me all the time was “Your ancestors are turning over in their graves seeing you dressed as a Damn Yankee.” Here is my answer to that. First of all, I think our ancestors would be a little amused that we dress up like them and reenact something as horrific as the Civil War. Second, assuming our ancestors approved of what we do, I would think they’d want us to get it right and in the South, Rebel reenactors outnumber Yanks by 4-5 to one at most events. Since when did the odds ever favor the Confederacy that way? Third, I would occasionally switch over and portray a Confederate surgeon rather than a Union surgeon every now and then. Fourth, and most important, if you don’t like my choice of impressions, you can kiss my Irish a$$. Truthfully though, at events in the South, the Yankees are the “bad guys” and sometimes people boo as you march out to the battlefield. To be honest, it was kind of nice to be the bad guy.

So there you have it. My humble musings on my time as a reenactor. Here are some of the regiments that my ancestors served in (all Irish immigrants, by the way).

8th Ohio Infantry

160th New York Infantry

1st Tennessee Infantry (CSA)

48th Tennessee Infantry (CSA)

6th Louisiana Infantry (CSA)

4th Texas Infantry (CSA)

Hutch

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A Union Surgeon treats a wounded Confederate drummer boy.