December, 2005

Andy MacIsaac, who apparently indulges my rants regularly, has entered the blogosphere with a new new blog titled “First Maine Forward”. Andy is working on a history of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, and has apparently been inspired to start blogging on his own. I’ve also added a link to Andy’s blog from my list of “Blogs I Like”. Take a look, and welcome, Andy.

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As some of you know, I’ve been working on a new regimental history of the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry, also known as Rush’s Lancers, for more than a decade. The actual writing has taken over six years of working on it on and off, typically more on when the next new batch of information appears. The manuscript is largely complete; all that remains to be done on the manuscript side is to complete the review of a few Record Groups at the National Archives, and incorporate any pertinent material from those Record Groups. The gathering of that material is underway, and should be completed by March 1.

This book was to be a joint project between Ed Longacre and me. I was to do the first half of the war, and Ed the second half. Ed, however, had too much on his plate and was unable to do his half in anything close to a timely fashion for the original contract that we had, which was with Combined Books. Ed backed out of the project, and then Combined was sold to DaCapo. There was no way that I was going to have DaCapo publish this book, so I terminated the contract, repaid the miniscule advance that I had received (a whopping $250.00), and was left to finish it, and find a publisher for it, on my own.

I had always contemplated the inclusion of a roster of the regiment with the new regimental history. However, this particular unit had more than 1500 men pass through its ranks over the course of its service, and compiling a new roster has turned out to be a monumental–and cost prohibitive–task. Given the number of men, it would also add 50-75 pages to the book and would increase the cost significantly. Considering that I already have about 100 illustrations and about 15 maps for this project, adding that much material will significantly increase cost, which, in turn, will significantly increase the retail price.

Just a week ago, after a lot of contemplation and searching for the right publisher for my labor of love, I signed a contract for the book with Westholme Publishing of Yardley, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia, to publish the book. The owner of the company, Bruce Franklin, has impeccable credentials–he is descended from both Benjamin Franklin and Wade Hampton, and has been in university press publishing. Bruce recently published Joe Bilby’s excellent new book on the history of repeating weapons in the Civil War, which really impressed me. I am quite confident that Bruce will do an excellent job on the book, and he’s pretty much given me carte blanche on illustrations and maps. Of the illustrations, I have many that have never been published before, and which come from private collections. After all of these years of work, I’m really excited about it.

Another big selling point for having Westholme publish the book is that Bruce is willing to handle the indexing, meaning that it is not my responsibility in any fashion. Those who read my rants on a regular basis know my feelings on that subject, so it’s a very valuable thing for me to have him handle it. 🙂

I recently introduced regular reader and fellow lawyer Russ Bonds to Bruce, and Bruce has apparently offered Russ a contract for his first book, which is a detailed telling of the story of the Great Locomotive Chase.

The problem, however, is that after much discussion and gnashing of teeth, I have had to abandon the idea of including the roster in the book. It’s just not possible to include the roster, keep the book affordable, and get it out in a timely fashion. Although I would love to include it, it would make it impossible to include everything else that I want, and when push came to shove, the maps and photos were more important to me than was the roster. Bruce came up with a great idea–the roster will be available on his website as a downloadable PDF file, and anyone who wants it will be able to get it for free. That’s a compromise that I can live with.

At the same time, it was an extremely difficult choice, and one that I never expected to have to make. I am comfortable with the choice that I made. In a perfect world, the roster would also be included, but I understand the economics of the thing, and I also understand compromise. When it came down to making a decision, I decided that it was more important to publish the book as I want it to be without the roster than to include the roster and have to compromise on the illustrations and maps.

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I can’t decide whether it’s a good thing or a pathetic thing when one has to move in order to accommodate one’s library. That is, however, precisely the dilemma that Susan and I are facing. And the decision that we ultimately made is not to get rid of books but instead to get rid of the house.

Here’s the situation. We bought our existing home in 1995. It was never our dream house; it was very convenient, and it was what we could afford at the time. Most importantly, it was exactly halfway between Susan’s mother’s place and her grandmother’s place. Both had significant health issues, so accessibility was an important thing. Unfortunately, both women are no longer with us, so that means that the convenience factor has now been removed.

The present house is a five bedroom house with about 2500 square feet. It was built in 1968, and it shows. Aside from its early Brady Bunch decor (most of which has already been replaced, because we just couldn’t stand it), the use of space is not good–we have a formal living room that is 13×28 feet, meaning that it, alone, is 364 square feet, or 14% of the total square footage of the house. You could almost roller skate or bowl in that room, it’s so big. It’s also almost completely wasted space. In order to accommodate our library as it existed in 1995–Susan also collects books in areas that interest her (we have a massive collection of computer books and an even larger collection of vampire and ghost stories that’s all her stuff)–we took one of the bedrooms and had 24 linear feet of floor to ceiling bookcases built in. The entire library–all of it, hers and mine–fit in there then.

The problem is that both of us have added books exponentially since then. Her stuff gradually got squeezed out of there as my collection grew–I now own about 1500 Civil War books alone–and it had to go somewhere. Consequently, we now have at least one bookcase in every room in the house, except for the kitchen and the formal dining room (only because there simply is no room for one with the dining room furniture, or there would be). Those bookcases are now full, and because our basement is damp, we are completely out of room for additional books. There is just no shelf space left. New books–I bought two on Sunday–are now beginning to just pile up on the floor in my library because there simply is nowhere to put them.

This summer, a year after Susan’s mother died, we came to the inevitable conclusion that it was time to look into moving. We quickly realized that unless we built a home, we were going to have an extremely difficult time finding something that would reasonably accommodate the books. So, we set out to find a builder that had a workable floor plan that would also work with us to give us what we want/need. Fortunately, we found just that, and we’re about to break ground on a new house. The new house will have two offices–mine and Susan’s. Mine will have approximately 45 linear feet of 9-foot tall floor to ceiling bookcases, which will not only accommodate my collection but also leave room to grow. Susan’s office will have another 16 or so linear feet of floor to ceiling bookcases, which will accommodate her stuff. The builder says it’s six months from breaking ground to closing, so we’re looking at moving into the new place some time around July 4 or so. I can’t wait. I’ve never particularly liked our current house, and I am frankly tired of pouring money into a bottomless pit. At nearly 40 years old, stuff is dying or wearing out. In the last 18 months, we’ve put on a new roof, had both chimneys re-bricked, replaced the central air conditioning unit, and replaced the main sewer line, since the roots of the 40-foot-tall silver maple tree in the front yard smashed up the existing masonry pipeline. And there’s plenty more where that ugly little list came from…..

So, when push comes to shove, the simple truth is that we’re moving because we need more space for books. And I can’t decide whether that’s a good thing or a really pathetic thing.

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Russ Bonds, fellow lawyer and Civil War historian, has been working on his first book. I’ve been trying to give Russ tidbits of guidance along the way. Today, I got the following question from Russ: “As a writer, what do you do about asking others to read and comment on your manuscript? I often see authors thanking colleagues, professors, friends, etc. in their acknowledgements for reading the manuscript and ‘saving them from many errors.’ To me, there are two issues here–seeking expert advice on your manuscript to be sure it’s technically, militarily and factually accurate; and seeking the opinions of ‘lay’ readers (i.e., wives, friends, non-Civil War types) to be sure the thing is readable and interesting. However, I believe that you can get into trouble letting people shape what you’re trying to do; and/or letting too many cooks stir the pot, as it were. So, how do you approach getting comments on your manuscripts? Any thoughts?” I answered Russ privately, and then thought that this might be a good topic for a blog entry.

The answer to these questions is really quite important to understanding part of the process that goes into the creation of a book. As I told Russ, the process of having somebody else review a manuscript is absolutely essential to any book manuscript. There are lots of reasons why.

As the author, I know what it’s supposed to say, but by the time that I’ve finished writing the thing and then revising it, I’ve read it so many times that I just can’t see anything anymore. You begin to see what it’s supposed to say, not what it really says. Consequently, there will inevitably be things wrong with it that I just can’t see or find anymore because I’m too close to the manuscript. Therefore, having an independent reader review the manuscript for me is important for two primary reasons.

First, an independent reader can catch factual errors–we all make them, often stupid, careless, and terribly embarrassing. If they get caught, then I only have to be embarrassed that I made a stupid mistake with one person instead of with a book that can’t be easily changed. I wish I could remember just how many of these stupid mistakes I’ve made–and have had friends catch–over the years. I do know this–I would be terribly embarrassed if any of them ever made it into print.

Second, an independent reader, and especially an independent reader with some good writing skills, can point out the massive, Faulknerian run-on sentences that look great to me, but which really need to be broken up into three or four different sentences that are not Faulknerian in nature. Again, I’ve had lots of instances where readers have saved me from serious grammatical faux pas.

I’m very fortunate that I have five or six people who regularly read my work for me and give me lots of good input, helping with the factual glitches and with the ugly passive constructions that need to be livened up. We all regularly pass work between us, reading and reviewing each other’s work, and giving each other good feedback that ultimately makes our work better.

At the same time, it’s very important to make sure that the readers understand that I, as the author, retain the discretion to decide which suggested revisions actually get made and which don’t. Sometimes, a suggestion is just plain wrong, or I don’t like it, and I always retain the discretion to decide which to use.

Finally, it’s critical that the writer not have an ego about this stuff. You are going to make mistakes. We all do, and it is inevitable. Not one of us writes perfect, completely publishable work without the benefit of an editor. You’ve asked that person to give their time and effort to reviewing your work. You’ve obviously done so for a reason–you respect that person, and you WANTED that person to give you input into your manuscript. Therefore, when you get that feedback, you’d better be prepared for it, and you’d better not blow a gasket if that feedback suggests a lot of revisions, and that feedback points out errors. Just suck it up, make the changes, and be grateful to the person who read it for you.

So, Russ, the answer is yes, having others review my work for accuracy and to avoid those ugly Faulknerian constructions is an absolutely crucial part of the process. Embrace it. Live it. Love it.

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9 Dec 2005, by

Why Do I Write?

In response to yesterday’s bout of shameless self-promotion, I was led to ponder once again a question that I get asked often–why do I write?

The answer is simple–because I need to do so. It’s no secret that I don’t much like my job–I’ve bored all of you to death with that already, and won’t beat that poor dead horse any more than it’s already been beaten. However, my dissatisfaction with my employment leaves me with a need to find an outlet. I have always found the writer’s art–finding ways to put words together in a fashion that tells a story–absolutely fascinating. One thing about how I make my livelihood–you quickly learn the power of words and you quickly learn that how you put words together can have a tremendous impact on people’s lives. Consequently, I’m on a never-ending journey to find the perfect way to tell a story. While I know that there is no such thing as the “perfet way to tell a story,” the fun lies in the attempt. As I go back and read things that I wrote early on, I can see a dramatic change in the quality of what I write from even 1998 or 1999. Like anything, writing is one of those things where the more you do, the better you get.

Writing has always been good therapy for me. Since I got serious about writing history about a dozen years ago, I have found that losing myself completely in events that happened 140 years ago is incredibly liberating. It removes me from the stresses of everyday life, and is so far removed from what I do professionally that a couple of hours spent writing completely recharges my batteries. It energizes me and it enables me to be able to refocus my admittedly short attention span on my professional responsibilities. Losing myself in events of the past allows me to forget about the war in Iraq, or terrorism, or any of the other things that cause day-to-day stress in our lives. For me, it’s an ideal way of getting a couple of hours entirely for myself.

I also find that the best way for me to really learn about a battle or an action is for me to research it and write about it. Doing so forces me to really learn and understand it–how can I explain it clearly in words if I don’t understand it? It’s a good tool for forcing me to focus and learn. So, that’s yet another reason for why I do what I do–to educate myself.

Further, I get an enormous kick out of the process of researching an event or a person and then in pulling all of the disparate threads of the story together to weave them into a cohesive narrative that makes sense. For me, that is not only the true challenge, but also the the true reward. It’s like doing detective work. Half the fun of tackling obscure, unknown events is figuring out what really happened and then crafting a narrative that follows that interpretation of events. Part of the fun of that is finding and reviewing the participant accounts and then trying to figure out what’s reliable and what isn’t.

It’s important to remember that when I–or any other historian, for that matter–write an account of something, it’s just that: MY account, MY interpretation. We were not there, so we have no first-hand knowledge. Rather, what we do is figure out how we THINK event occurred, put those events together using the available evidence, and then present the story of those events in a fashion that’s consistent with our interpretation. I fully understand that there are other interpretations out there and that not everyone will agree with my interpretations about things. That’s okay with me; I have no urge to be absolutely right about everything.

Sometimes, the interpretation changes as the narrative is forged. There are times when I set out to write something and the evidence leads in such a different or unexpected direction that it deviates completely from what I originally had in mind, and my interpretation ends up changing. It’s all about flexibility and going where the evidence leads you, not drawing a desired conclusion and then manipulating the evidence to support that conclusion, whether warranted or not.

Finally, there’s an intangible reason. Buried deep inside me is my true calling, which is to have been a teacher of some sort. Since I don’t get to stand in front of a classroom and pontificate, doing so in writing is my way of teaching and sharing my knowledge. When I write, with the knowledge that something will be published, I do so knowing that it will help to scratch my teaching itch. That’s an entirely selfish reason.

So, the short answer is: I write because I have to. It’s how I keep my sanity, it’s how I learn, and it’s become an integral part of who and what I am.

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Today, I’d like to engage in a bit of shameless self-promotion….

I’m pleased to announce the release date of my new book, which is the first detailed tactical study of the March 10, 1865 Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads, fought on the grounds of what is today Fort Bragg, near Fayetteville, NC. In this important action, Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton, commanding Wheeler’s Cavalry Corps and Maj. Gen. Matthew C. Butler’s cavalry division from the Army of Northern Virginia, launched a stunning dawn surprise attack on Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick’s sleeping camp. Kilpatrick was nearly captured, and had to beat feet to safety in swamp, clad in only his nightshirt in what has become known as “Kilpatrick’s Shirt-Tail Skedaddle”. Kilpatrick rallied his troops and eventually recaptured his camp. After four hours of brutal fighting and heavy losses on both sides, Hampton broke off and withdrew.

However, the importance of this battle does not end there. As a result of the near catastrophic drubbing that he took, Kilpatrick’s advance was halted for an entire day. This extra day permitted Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee to evacuate his infantry corps from Fayetteville unmolested and to burn the important Clarendon Bridge over the Cape Fear River. That act, in turn, halted Sherman’s army in Fayetteville for several days until pontoons could be brought up and the river spanned.

Hardee then conducted a brilliant defense at depth at Averasboro on March 16, again halting Sherman, and then slipped away. These events gave Joseph E. Johnston just enough time to cobble together an army at Smithfield. Implementing a terrific battle plan by Hampton, Johnston attacked Sherman at Bentonville on March 19, and nearly defeated half of Sherman’s army in detail.

The importance of Monroe’s Crossroads has never really been placed in its proper context before. Given that the battlefield itself is nestled squarely in the middle of the 82nd Airborne’s drop zones at Fort Bragg, only a handful of folks get to see this pristine little gem per year. I spent about 3 years pulling the research together, stomping the ground, and developing my interpretation of these events. There are four appendices, including a listing of all identified casualties of the battle.

The book is titled _The Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads and the Civil War’s Last Campaign_. The book features about 50 illustrations, including several that have never been published before, and about 25 excellent maps. The book also includes a foreword by Mark L. Bradley, the foremost scholar of Sherman’s Carolinas Campaign. It’s being published by Savas-Beatie, LLC and should be available on January 31, 2006. The book will be approximately 325 pages long, and will retail for $32.95.

Those interested in reserving a signed copy can do so on the Savas-Beatie web site.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming….

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Today is December 7, 2005, the sixty-fourth anniversary of the Japanese sneak attack on the U. S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii. The next day, when he addressed Congress to ask for a declaration of war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said:

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its Government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to the Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese Government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. Very many American lives have been lost. In addition American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.

Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya. Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong. Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam. Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands. Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island. This morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense.

Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces – with the unbounded determination of our people – we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December seventh, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”

And with that, World War II officially began for the United States.

What astounds me is that a scant sixty-four years later, with plenty of veterans still around–my friend J. D. Petruzzi’s father survived the attacks at Pearl Harbor as a very young sailor–there has been nary a word of the significance of this date on the news or in the media. Has this date really become so insignificant as to not warrant even a glimmer of attention?

Apparently, President Roosevelt was wrong. The day no longer does live in infamy. Our lives are so focused on the here and now that we have forgotten about the sacrifices made for us by what Tom Brokaw calls “the greatest generation.” My father is 85 years old, and is a member of that generation. That’s my nexus to it, and at 85, I’m not foolish enough not to realize that he won’t be with us too much longer.

2,388 American soldiers and sailors were killed that day, with nearly half of them on the U.S.S. Arizona alone. Another 1,178 were wounded in the Japanese attacks that day. It is certainly tragic and wrong that more than 2,000 Americans have died in Iraq in a war that we had no business starting. I don’t mean to downplay their sacrifices at all. At the same time, in more than three and a half years of war, our losses in Iraq are still less than they were in that single day at Pearl Harbor. We can’t have tunnel vision and simply forget about the generation that won World War II in order to pay tribute to the sacrifices of our honored dead in Iraq, even if they died fighting a war based on a lie. There is room for both.

If you see a World War II veteran, please take a moment and thank him or her for what they did for us. They deserve nothing less.

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Today, an article appeared on Yahoo. European book publishers take their arguments against Google even farther than I do. They claim that search engines that bring up even so much as a word of a copyrighted work constitutes a violation of the author’s copyright. “The new models of Google and others reverse the traditional permission-based copyright model of content trading that we have built up over the years,” said Francisco Pinto Balsemao, the head of the European Publishers Council, in prepared remarks for a speech at a Brussels conference.” He continued, “”It is fascinating to see how these companies ‘help themselves’ to copyright-protected material, build up their own business models around what they have collected, and parasitically, earn advertising revenue off the back of other people’s content,” he said. “This is unlikely to be sustainable for publishers in the longer term.”

Apparently, a French news agency is suing Google for copyright infringement for using photos and story excerpts from countless web sites without paying royalties for it.

This, I think, goes a lot farther than even my outrage with Google’s arrogance. I don’t have a big issue with Google mining web sites for information and for including tiny snippets in search results. However, providing entire copyrighted books without the author’s permission and without paying royalties clearly goes far beyond the pale.

Clearly, existing copyright law NEVER anticipated these issues, and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act provides no help of guidance. Congress needs to address these issues, and it needs to do so soon. The litigation has probably only just begun.

Until the issue is resolved, I will continue to vigorously support the lawsuits hoping to prevent Google from infringing upon my copyrights and the copyrights of every other author who stands to lose if the Google program goes forward.

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Today at lunch, I was talking with a friend. She raised a question about some of the things that go into the drafting of a business plan, and I was describing some of the elements of a well-written business plan. Somehow, the issue of the difference between strategy and tactics came up, and I asked her if she knew the difference between strategy and tactics. She did, which surprised me a little bit. However, it got me thinking about those differences and how they play into the effectiveness of a battlefield commander.

Strategy is the “game plan”, if you will. It’s the grand scheme that sets out the final goal of a particular campaign or movement. Tactics, on the other hand, are the means by which the strategy is implemented. Here’s an analogy from my professional life. Coming up with a means of presenting a case to a jury is the strategy. Identifying the witnesses, choosing the exhibits, and coming up with the list of questions to ask that witness are the tactics by which that strategy is implemented. It is possible to be a great strategist and a lousy tactician. It’s also possible to be an excellent tactician but not a good strategist. Those differences become really critical the higher the rank that an officer possesses.

Here’s what I mean by that. An officer may be truly great at designing a grand strategy, but be really bad at making tactical decisions on the battlefield. Here’s a great example of an officer who was a great strategist but who was never known as being much of a tactician–William T. Sherman. Sherman, for instance, designed and implemented the strategy for taking the war to civilians and sapping their will to continue the war. At the same time, Sherman was never considered to be much of a battlefield tactician. In fact, he was generally known as being somewhat cautious and tentative on the battlefield.

William S. Rosecrans is another example of a brilliant strategist who was not great on the battlefield. Rosecrans designed one of the most brilliant campaigns in modern military history in the Tullahoma Campaign, when he, through a series of flanking maneuvers, pushed Braxton Bragg’s army all the way across the State of Tennessee and back to Chattanooga with almost no bloodshed. It covered nearly the entire state and was accomplished without a major battle being fought. However, as plainly demonstrated at Chickamauga, Rosecrans was no battlefield genius. In fact, his battlefield performance often left a LOT to be desired, and his fleeing from the field at Chickamauga and running all the way back to Chattanooga pretty much put the nail in the coffin of Rosecrans’ career as a battlefield commander.

The converse is also true. A guy like John Bell Hood was a truly great tactician on the battlefield at the divisional level, but once he was promoted to corps command and then to army command, he demonstrated no gift for much of anything other than attacking straight ahead. “All of the lion and none of the fox,” Robert E. Lee reportedly said when he learned that Hood had been given command of the Army of Tennessee, and Lee was absolutely correct. In a series of head-long attacks that took little or no account of terrain, strategy, or anything else, Hood pretty much sacrificed an entire army between Atlanta and Nashville.

The truly great captain is the one who has mastered both strategy AND tactics. Those generals are few and far between for what ought to be obvious reasons. The American Civil War produced two such men–Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. Grant demonstrated his tactical brilliance again and again, but in no instance no more so than at Vicksburg. Lee’s remarkable string of battlefield victories is proof positive of his tactical genius, and he had a real gift for strategy–look at how he drove McClellan’s much larger army back from the outskirts of Richmond in the summer of 1862.

The distinction between strategy and tactics is an easy one to confuse, but it’s important never to lose sight of that difference. It’s the difference between a truly great commander and a mediocre one.

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Let’s extend a big welcome to the blogosphere to David Woodbury. For those who don’t know David, he’s one of the founders of Savas-Woodbury Publishing, and was with the Stanford University Press for nine years. David’s been involved in the study of the Civil War for many years, and he brings some very welcome insights to the blogosphere. David’s first post is terrific. Please check it out.

Welcome aboard, David.

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