One Answer to Two Frequently Asked Questions

A year does not pass before I am asked what books, other than the Bible, most influenced me in my early years. Another interesting question I also am called upon to answer, especially at this time of year — what was my favorite Christmas present? My family always celebrated Christmas and it was certainly a highlight of the year for me and my siblings. The answer to both questions above happily intersected on December 25th, 1962. It was on that day, after I had recently turned ten years old, I received under the tree The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War.

The American Heritage Picture History of The Civil War.png

The Centennial commemoration of the War Between the States was in its second year. I, as a ten year old, had gotten a “whiff of the powder” in second grade when a classmate showed me some postcards he had gotten from his grandmother who lived near Gettysburg. My first exposure to the existence of the war had come a year earlier when my grandfather showed me a daguerreotype image of one of my ancestors in his uniform, taken in 1864. I read a few age-appropriate books on the Civil War for a couple years, played army, wore kepis, and began collecting toy soldiers; I also tried to persuade my friends to wear gray instead of blue (still do). But after getting the American Heritage book for Christmas, I was hooked for the rest of my life on the study of history, especially Civil War history. I have not sought a cure.

The book fell under the editorship of Richard Ketchum who is best known for writing good books on the War for Independence — Saratoga, Yorktown, Bunker Hill, Trenton and Princeton — writing till he died in 2012 at the age of eighty nine. The actual narrative text of the American Heritage book came from the pen of Bruce Catton, who became the best-selling author of Civil War books of the 1950s and 60s. Of course now I know about his effusive Northern biases with which I occasionally take issue, but his writing style, as a professional journalist, at times took my breath away and seized my imagination. The real clinchers for me, however, were the illustrations and maps. I scoured every page till I could identify every image, many of which have reappeared over the years in other media contexts. The original photos, political cartoons, broadsides, and paintings suffused the text with a sense of the reality of the past. The colorful maps of the battles, from a bird’s eye perspective, brought about my Christmas, 1963 collection of toy soldiers (ever after known as “the Civil War Set”), arranged in similar formation on the bedroom floor.  

Why bore you with these reminiscences? Just this — you never know when providence will cause a book to so animate your consciousness and desires so as to define the direction of your life and lead to your future calling. Some pastors are called to Gospel ministry through the reading of the Bible. Novelists and writers of various kinds have been inspired at a young age by a book they read, motivating them to become literary men or women. Most historians can name the book that fired their imagination and desire. Not every calling begins this way, but some do. The books we put in the hands of young people really can have an impact for the rest of their lives, sometimes from an early age, some not till they are in college. I know of certain deplorable and anti-Christian books, that I will not name here, that have led young people into lifelong writers of novels and stories of like kind, or have inspired them to abandon the teachings of their family and church to pursue goals unworthy of Christians. I wonder what the five racks of books at Barnes and Noble, labeled “teenage paranormal romance,” are inspiring today’s teenagers to become? I am glad my parents had already taught me that “whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God,” before they wrote “to Billy, from Mommy and Daddy, on December 25th, 1962.”

26 December, 2013

Gettysburg Sesquicentennial

The Battle of Gettysburg is in my DNA. About the age of eight my best friend brought to school a handful of postcards which his parents had bought him on a visit to his grandparents. The images were of men dressed in blue and gray uniforms and carrying muzzle-loading rifles at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Little did I realize that my instant attraction to those Civil War Centennial reenactors, however inauthentic (“farbs”) their impressions were, had set me on the course that my life would follow.

As my interest in history grew, Gettysburg always loomed in the background—the subject of hundreds of books, many of which I read, the place we went on family vacations, the streets where my great grandfather had been captured on the first day of the battle, the location of the overwhelming Pennsylvania Monument where another grandfather and several uncle’s names were inscribed. It is a place where I camped as a reenactor on the 125th anniversary and where I was in the line of battle behind General Garnett in the movie Gettysburg.

Men from all the states came in their serried ranks—from Minnesota to Florida, from Maine to Texas—more than 150,000 bent on killing one another in a fury of combat lasting three long and bloody days. At stake was nothing less than the South seeking to “dissolve the political bonds and  . . .initiate a new government” and the North willing to die in the hundreds of thousands to prevent that independence. The cost in this battle eventually reached about 46,000 casualties, leaving hundreds of widows across both nations and countless thousands of grieving kinsmen and friends.

It is no wonder the battlefield today is a place of remembrance and memorial stones where the descendants and others come to pay homage to the men who sacrificed for their two countries and to study the detailed minutiae of the grand military display that Providence brought to pass on three July days one hundred fifty years ago.

I have always identified with William Faulkner’s evocative paragraph in the novel “Intruder in the Dust:”

For every Southern boy 14 years old, not once, but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when its still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the wood and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the   other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armisted and  Wilcox look grave yet its going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a 14 year old boy to think “this time, maybe this time,” with all this much to lose and all this much to   gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago. . .

Originally posted July 20, 2013 at The American History Guild

The Starkville Civil War Arsenal

Not all national treasures have slick brochures, National Park Service employees, or state of the art interactive electronic entertainments. While there is nothing wrong with those appurtenances, occasionally a private collection of unique and significant value springs up, or in this case, evolves, into something that is so educational, so entertaining, so unbelievably valuable to understanding a part of our history, that leaving the beaten path to see and experience it seems a tiny price to pay for the value.

We recently had the privalege to visit just such a place: the Civil War Aresenal of owner and creator Duffy Neubauer, in Starkville, Mississippi. His private collection includes a Civil War artillery battery, and the rolling stock that moved the guns, supplied the troops, and made it necessary for hundreds of thousands of horses and mules to be fed, watered, and disposed of during the War Between the States.

The real treasure of the museum is Duffy himself whose passion for the War and especially the use of artillery, exceeds anything in my previous fifty or so years of studying the Civil War. He is not just a reenactor extraorindaire, but a polymath on all things artillery. His talks and teaching engage the student constantly as his no nonsense but friendly presentations shock and amaze even the most experienced Civil War buff. There is no admission fee, but you must call ahead for a tour. He has several different presentations, including one just on bugle calls or another just on the types of shells, cannon balls, or to other related ordinance.

On your next visit to Mississippi, stop by Starkville, visit the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library, the Mississiippi State University campus, and the Starkville Civil War Arsenal for the tour of a lifetime with Duffy Neubauer.

His contact information is 662-323-2606. You won’t need earphones, cell phones, or ipads. It is okay to wear a blue or gray uniform, but be prepared to be dragooned into a cannon crew and be taught more pertinent and interesting Civil War information than you thought possible.

Originally posted June, 2013 at The American History Guild