1. Your Northern ancestors fought against the Louisiana Tigers at Gettysburg. Why have you chosen to write books about Confederate outfits such as the Tigers and Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon’s Georgia Infantry (the subject of another book) rather than about Northern outfits such as your ancestors’ Gibraltar Brigade?
My ancestors indeed fought in the Union Army, including several relatives who were in the 7th West Virginia that attacked the Louisiana Tigers on July 2, 1863, on Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg. I moved from my native Ohio in 2001 to York County, Pa., where I quickly became immersed in the local Civil War history, much of which had not been retold to a national audience. Jubal Early's division occupied York, the largest Northern town to fall to the Confederates in the entire war, and John B. Gordon's Georgia brigade played a critical role in that expedition, marching on to the Susquehanna River before being denied access by state militia to the river crossing. The La. Tigers camped in York, and there are so many stories about them locally that they were a natural extension of my book on Gordon (coupled with the fact that my ancestors fought against them). Perhaps someday I will finish Early's division by writing books on Avery's and Smith's brigades in the Gettysburg Campaign.
2. You live in York, Pa., 30 miles from Gettysburg and visited by the Tigers during the Gettysburg Campaign. How was it growing up and living in a place, especially in a Union state, so steeped in Civil War history?
I grew up in southeastern Ohio, an area also rich in Civil War history. Phil Sheridan was born less than 10 miles from my hometown, and I frequently passed by the impressive equestrian statue of “Little Phil” in Somerset, Ohio. William T. Sherman was born and raised another 20 miles west on U.S. Route 22, and Morgan's Raiders passed through my home area south of Zanesville, Ohio, in their July 1863 raid. Custer, Grant, and so many other prominent Union generals came from Ohio, so the state is steeped in Civil War history. Moving to York in 2001 gave me the opportunity to learn more about Pennsylvania's history, and I found out that it's far more than just Gettysburg. Chambersburg, Carlisle, Hanover, York ‑ all played key roles in the campaign. Recently I have been collecting the oral traditions and verbal memories from the senior citizens of the county, those who remember what their grandparents told them about the Rebel occupation. These will form a new book.
3. Out of all the Civil War battles, why is Gettysburg the most fascinating and interesting for succeeding generations?
The fact that it was the closest major battlefield to the Northern population centers made it readily accessible, and the early monumentation cemented it as a tourist attraction. History books of the late 19th century and early 20th century often made Gettysburg a focal point of the Civil War sections, so succeeding generations from their youth were made aware of the place's historical importance. Throw in the monuments, the sweeping vistas, the awesomeness of Devil's Den, Little Round Top and Culp's Hill, and there's a special aura that the battlefield has that is hard to duplicate. The rise of tourism and good transportation routes perpetuated the popularity of Gettysburg, and then of course in the 1990s came the movie “Gettysburg,” which exposed an entire new generation to the battle and battlefield.
4. I have read a number of big, sweeping histories of Gettysburg , but I learned a lot that was new from your examination of one brigade’s experience. Why have you been drawn to a smaller focus? Do you ever see yourself writing a broad, comprehensive examination of Gettysburg?
5. Your book raised many of the kind of intriguing questions that historians love to argue about. A couple of related ones stand out. First, why weren’t the Tigers and the unused brigades of Rodes and Gordon used in the third day of the battle, in tandem with Pickett’s Charge? You point out that the Tigers suffered serious casualties on their attack on Cemetery Ridge, but still seemed ready for more action. And, Rodes and Gordon’s units didn’t back them up and were not used the second day and could have been ready for action. And, why did Lee feel it necessary to retreat, and not try yet another attack?
There are so many books on the battle itself (by some estimates more than a thousand) that I doubt if I will ever write a broader book on the entire battle. In the business world, there is a sage old saying that you should "find a need, and fill it." What was missing from the Gettysburg lineup was a comprehensive look at how the Rebels got there. My two books on Early's division fill some of that gap, as well as recent books on Rodes' division and Jenkins' brigade (upcoming). Other popular books recently have also focused on particular brigades or actions (for example, Lance J. Herdegen's excellent book on the Iron Brigade and Ironclad Publishing's book on Hancock saving the Union center). These "microhistories" fill a niche and enrich the general understanding of the Battle of Gettysburg in a way that the sweeping general commentaries cannot.
While the Louisiana Tigers emotionally were ready for another go at the Yanks, they were down nearly a third of their number and frankly were played out. Rodes and Gordon were in much better shape, but should have been better used on the night of July 2. Lee gambled to take the Union center on July 3, but he kept much of the II Corps out of the action to follow up on any successful breakthrough, and to counter any unexpected Yankee movements. At times I have wargamed an all-out CSA assault, and the results get much bloodier, but do not often translate into driving Meade back into Maryland. By July 4, I think Lee realized that he did not have enough fresh firepower to risk yet another assault without destroying his army's ability to prolong the war. Retreat was his best option, because keep in mind the War Department in Richmond was concerned about protecting the capital in the event of a Union counterstrike if Lee's army was rendered impotent. Meade does not often get enough credit. I think Lee was hoping on July 2, 3, and 4 that like some previous commanders, Meade would withdraw to preserve his forces. Instead, he stayed put, and it was Lee that had to marshal and conserve his army during a retreat.
Interest in the Civil War blossomed in our generation. Do you believe young people today have the same interest in the war, especially since the teaching of American history is reportedly declining in our high schools?
I think that the interest may have declined somewhat in recent years, because less history is taught in some school districts and there are more diverse interests. That being said, WWII video games sell extremely well (Call of Duty, etc.) to the under-30 crowd, visitation to Gettysburg remains strong despite the recession, and enrollment in history classes at many colleges remains strong. My oldest son is a college history professor and has close ties to the education community in south-central Pennsylvania. There are a lot of activities aimed at school kids (field trips, hands-on learning experiences, etc.). One of the local high schools has a weekend-long Civil War encampment every spring where the students wear blue or gray T-shirts, listen to Civil War lectures and music, camp outside with uniformed re-enactors, and then participate in strategy sessions that culminate in the kids doing a largescale sham battle on Sunday to wrap up the weekend. We need much more of this kind of learning experiences, however, as the average school has cut back the history of the United States prior to the 20th century.
What’s your next project?
Ohio soldier for future publication. Another of my wargaming scenario books comes out this autumn, so gaming, book writing, and my work as an executive in the global papermaking industry keep me hopping.
I have another book of human interest stories coming out this year from Ten Roads Publishing (“Gettysburg Glimpses II: More True Stories from the Battlefield”). I am also co-writing a historical novel on the Gettysburg Campaign that should be quite popular, we believe, and am editing a diary of an