November, 2005

This review of Tom Carhart’s crappy book appears in the current issue of Civil War News:

“Several authors have recently ‘discovered’ the horse soldiers who clashed at Gettysburg’s East Cavalry Field. Most of them assert that J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry endeavored to strike the Union rear in conjunction with Pickett’s Charge on July 3, or at the very least cause havoc if the Confederate infantry assault was successful.

Dr. Tom Carhart vociferously argues the former case. Forty percent of the book is devoted to causes of the war, the formative years of Robert E. Lee, Jeb Stuart and George A. Custer, battles in history that inspired this trio of generals, and the Civil War in the Eastern Theater. The remainder is devoted to Gettysburg, with about 40 percent of the tale devoted to the final day.

The text is peppered with errors, ranging from the dates of the Louisiana Purchase, South Carolina’s secession and Custer’s birth, to the location of John Buford’s cavalry on July 3. Endnotes are meager, and serious omissions of sources include cavalry accounts by Eric Wittenberg and Pickett’s Charge narratives by Earl Hess and George Stewart.

Meade — erroneously cited as George ‘C.’ Meade — is lambasted for taking the defensive and using interior lines to his advantage. Contradictorily, Lee is praised for employing the same tactics at Antietam.

Readers are asked to believe that Lee, Stuart and Custer virtually conducted world history seminars prior to battles, reminiscing about wars studied in their West Point days. In the same spirit, there are battle maps of Cannae, Leuthen and Austerlitz, but only one concerning Gettysburg.

Even more perplexing are the conspiracy theories. David Gregg, believing he was in a hopeless situation against Stuart, delegated Custer (who was not in his division) to repel Stuart’s attacks, thereby sparing his own command the ignominy of defeat. Lee, meanwhile, shared his plan of a coordinated attack between Stuart and Pickett with almost no one, and was reticent afterward to protect Stuart’s sparkling reputation.

There’s inadequate space in a book review to cite each factual error, contradiction and unsupported theory. Suffice to say, this reads more like a novel than historical analysis.”

The author of this review is David F. Riggs, a National Park Service historian who is the curator of the museum at Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown. He has a BA in history from Lock Haven University and an MA in history from Penn State. His publications include Embattled Shrine: Jamestown in the Civil War and Vicksburg Battlefield Monuments.

David’s first book, which was actually his master’s thesis, was titled East of Gettysburg: Custer vs. Stuart, so he knows a bit about the fight on East Cavalry Field and is qualified to render an objective opinion of just how awful Carhart’s book is. I might also point out that David’s book was the first modern, book-length treatment of this action, and he led the way for those of us who have followed, me included.

It’s quite gratifying to know that I’m not the only one who sees this festering pile of garbage for what it really is.

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As promised, I am today addressing the issue of the recent U. S. Supreme Court decision on eminent domain. Before I do, though, I thought I would complete the airport saga. Our plane did not push back from the gate at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Parking Lot until 2:05 AM this morning, meaning we did not get to Columbus until almost 3:30. Until we got to the car and drove home, it was 4:00, and until we got the dogs settled down and we got to bed, it was 4:30. Needless to say, I am fading fast as the afternoon drags on. At least I’m home.

Now to the topic at hand.

The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The final clause is the so-called “takings clause”, which makes it illegal for government entities to take private property for public use without compensating the owner of the property. The power to take private property for public use is called the power of eminent domain.

On June 23, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Kelo v. City of New London. The issue in this case was whether the City of New London, Connecticut could use the power of eminent domain for use of the land by a commercial developer in a for-profit venture intended to stimulate the local economy. A severely divided court found that the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment in fact permitted this outcome: “In affirming the City’s authority to take petitioners’ properties, we do not minimize the hardship that condemnations may entail, notwithstanding the payment of just compensation. We emphasize that nothing in our opinion precludes any State from placing further restrictions on its exercise of the takings power. Indeed, many States already impose ‘public use’ requirements that are stricter than the federal baseline. Some of these requirements have been established as a matter of state constitutional law, while others are expressed in state eminent domain statutes that carefully limit the grounds upon which takings may be exercised. As the submissions of the parties and their amici make clear, the necessity and wisdom of using eminent domain to promote economic development are certainly matters of legitimate public debate. This Court’s authority, however, extends only to determining whether the City’s proposed condemnations are for a ‘public use’ within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment to the Federal Constitution. Because over a century of our case law interpreting that provision dictates an affirmative answer to that question, we may not grant petitioners the relief that they seek.”

Justice John Paul Stevens, the Supreme Court Justice with the longest tenure of the present roster, and the author of the Kelo opinion, later said it was one of the most difficult decisions he’s ever had to make, and also indicated that he felt it was consistent with settled law. However, it has generated a blizzard of criticism, and for good reason. Even the likes of Tom DeLay, with whom I virtually never agree on anything, has called it a dreadful decision, and it is certainly that.

Many states have already taken Justice Stevens’ invitation to enact legislation to limit this power, and the House of Representatives has passed a bill to limit funding to states that permit this sort of atrocity to occur. Interestingly, the City of New London, responding to the firestorm of criticism, has apparently even shelved the project that spawned this litigation in the first place.

Having set the stage, we now turn to the issue of battlefield preservation and the implications of the Kelo decision. Unfortunately, as pointed out last night, there is a developer in Georgia who intends to develop the Lovejoy Station battlefield using Kelo as his weapon. If this occurs, then the U. S. Supreme Court’s decision, which most people believe is one of the worst it’s ever made, will serve as a tool for taking even more battlefield land instead of protecting it–it would take private land and use it for commercial development.

Traditionally, it worked the other way around. Congress used its power of eminent domain to acquire the Stuart’s Hill parcel at Second Manassas, albeit at great cost. However, it was a way to take threatened land, and turn it into national park land, something that is clearly a “public use”. The problem here is that Kelo gives developers a tool to do just the opposite. And that scares the daylights out of me. What about land owned by, say, the Save Historic Antietam Foundation? What if a developer wanted to build a big Wal-Mart right next to the Antietam battlefield? Under Kelo, if the local government went along with it, it could happen. Irreplaceable battlefield land would be lost forever.

Therefore, please write your Senators and ask them to support legislation to roll back Kelo. Do the same with your state legislators. We, as people interested in battlefield preservation, have only one chance to do this, and we have to do this right. Help stop anyone else from having their property seized by eminent domain for commercial development.

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I’m sitting in the airport in Atlanta as I write this, waiting for my connecting flight on the way home to Columbus. Due to weather, our flight is delayed about three hours, and I am now looking at not getting off the plane in Columbus until 2:30 AM. Sound like fun?

There are few things in life that I despise more than sitting in airports. It’s lost time, time that cannot ever be recaptured. I’ve often thought about sending the airlines bills for my time at my normal hourly billing rate. I know the bills would never get paid, but it surely would make me feel better. Call it civil disobedience if you like.

Of course, wasting time in airports lends itself well to all sorts of random thoughts, a few of which are worthy of including here.

Although it’s not a Civil War book, I’m reading a really fascinating book at the moment. It’s a joint biography of George S. Patton, Jr. and Erwin Rommel by a fellow named Dennis Showalter. It’s really an interesting study–Showalter points out that Patton and Rommel both took different courses to become brilliant armored commanders, both of whom left a tremendous thumbprint on modern warfare. Patton, of course, was an old horse cavalryman who saw the parallels between horse cavalry and modern armor, which Rommel made his fame as a hard-charging infantry officer in the mountains of Italy during World War I. I’m just over halfway through the book–I expect to make a lot more progress on it tonight as I kill time here in this miserable airport. However, of what I’ve seen so far of this book, I can recommend it without hesitation to anyone with an interest in military history.

Being in Atlanta also reminds me of the fragile and terribly delicate nature of Civil War battlefields. Some of the most ferocious fighting of the Civil War took place in and around Atlanta, but with a few notable exceptions, such as Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, precious little has been preserved. In fact, the vast majority of the battlefields here have been developed and no vestiges of them even remain to give a clue as to how to interpret the fighting that took place there. Pine Mountain–where Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk was blown to bits by Union artillery–is the home to multi-million dollar houses, and very little survives, other than an obelisk to Polk that is difficult to find and really requires trespassing to reach.

During the Atlanta Campaign, the chief engineer of the Army of Tennessee, a man named Shoupe, designed arrow-shaped redoubts for the defenses of the river crossings. They were unique, groundbreaking designs, and were really novel. They had 18-foot-high walls, and covered the river crossing sites. I am not aware of them being used anywhere else before or since. The remaining shoupades are under dire threat of development, but apparently a recent deal with the developer has been struck to preserve the last two remaining shoupades. Of the original 36 shoupades, only two remain. All in the interest of progress.

Quite coincidentally, Mike Koepke has a post on his blog today about the imminent destruction of another battlefield from the Atlanta Campaign, the Battle of Lovejoy Station. It really is very sad indeed to see the wholesale destruction of these important sites. The post on Mike’s blog indicates that the developer is relying upon the U. S. Supreme Court’s horrific ruling of earlier this year permitting the seizing of private property by eminent domain for commercial development. I will do an entire post on this Supreme Court decision later this week.

Now, I’m all for development and progress, but as I have said here before, there has to be a way for developers and preservationists to work together, and any effort that leads to the voluntary preservation of any historically critical piece of ground is one that I support wholeheartedly. As Rodney King so famously said, “Can’t we all just get along?”

I hope to be able to post again tomorrow, but with as late as we’re going to get home, I don’t know if I will make it. Stay tuned. My own bed is going to look awfully good tonight……

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Susan and I are headed to her brother’s home in California for Thanksgiving, so I will be gone for a few days.

To everyone who gives a little piece of their day to indulge my rantings, I am both flattered and humbled all at the same time. The reaction to this site has been remarkable, and it never fails to humble me that there are people out there who find what I have to say worth their time. To all of you who do so, I am grateful.

And to all who come here, Susan and I hope that each and every one of you has a happy and healthy Thanksgiving. And please keep those good men and women who are defending this great country of ours around the globe in mind as you do.

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Reenactors and Living Historians – Definition?

Eric has asked me to write a little piece concerning the definitions of “reenactor” and “living historian.” For the most part, the public doesn’t see much of a difference between the terms, and uses them interchangeably in a generic sense. There are, however, several important differences. Since “reenactor” is a more specific term, I’ll define it first.

A reenactor is one who does a military impression and participates in battles and the resulting “camping” scenario. To put it plainly, these are the soldiers that one sees at battle reenactments. Reenactors are typically members of particular units, and there is a structure to the rank system, just as there is in modern military units. Most often a captain commands the unit, but ranks can be higher. New recruits start at the rank of private and can work their way higher to non-commissioned and commissioned levels.

The term living historian applies to a much broader group. Simply, a living historian is any individual who portrays a historical person – and it can be a military or civilian impression. A reenactor is a living historian, but not all living historians are reenactors. There are many types of living historians, portraying a variety of historical personalities, including but not limited to:

• Military – common soldier, non-commissioned and commissioned officers
• Civilian – common citizen of the period, medical personnel, musical, religious, sutler, wife of a soldier, etc.
• Political – politically significant historical figures (one example would be an impression of Abraham Lincoln)

Therefore, one can see that all reenactors are indeed living historians, but not the other way around. But because the term “reenactor” seems like a general term, the public often applies it to everyone mentioned above.

The term “living historian” is different, by definition, than simply a “historian.” Anyone, such as an author of historical works, a teacher, a researcher etc., is a historian, but a “living historian” presents their avocation by portraying an individual from history. This can be a specific individual, such as Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Clara Barton, etc., or simply a non-specific person of the period.

All of these terms, incidentally, apply to any period of history. There are many WWII reenactors who dress in the uniform of the period and reenact battles and camp life of the time. If someone resembles, and dresses like, for instance Dwight D. Eisenhower, and only speaks to the public as that persona without actually participating in battles and encampments, then that person is a living historian.

I hope this helps clear up the similarities and differences in the two terms. Once again, “living historian” is the broader term of the two, encompassing military reenactors and those who portray individuals of a particular period in history, and present themselves as such. “Reenactor” is much more specific, applying only to those soldiers who participate in battle reenactments and encampments that the public identifies with particular events throughout the year.

J. D. Petruzzi

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22 Nov 2005, by

Making a Living

There’s my job, which is how I support myself and my family. And then there’s my avocation, which is researching, writing, and publishing books. The two things are, for the most, not terribly consistent with each other.

My job: I’m a partner in a law firm with a pretty busy practice. I’ve made a career of avoiding domestic relations work, which is all about emotions and almost never about what makes business sense, and criminal defense work, with which I have fundamental philosophical issues. My bent is, and always has been, what makes business sense? The legal issues are what they are, and they have to be factored into the process of making decisions, but my fundamental issue has always been doing things that make business sense. If the legal implications are equal, I will always advise the client to do the thing that makes the most business sense for them.

There are some things about my job that I have always found rewarding. I have always enjoyed the intellectual challenge. I’m a good strategist and a decent tactician, and I love developing and implementing strategies. I enjoy creative solutions to problems. And I do find helping people to be rewarding. At the same time, there’s lots about my job that I absolutely despise. I hate chasing people to get paid. I hate feeling taken advantage of, and that happens much more often than I might otherwise like. It frustrates me to no end and really sours me toward the field. There are too many lawyers who decide that every case is worth fighting to the death over–even if it doesn’t make economic sense to do so–and they make life miserable for all of us. There are way too many lawyers and not enough good work, so a lot of bad lawsuits get filed. It makes all of us look bad, and it means that legitimate claims are often swept under the rug. It’s a very stressful existence, and I don’t bounce back from it the way I did when I was younger.

On the whole, after 18+ years of doing this for a living, I’m soon going to reach the burn-out point. The problem is that it pays well, and we have become accustomed to a nice standard of living. The term for my situation is “golden handcuffs”, and I wear them. Until I can figure out how to support myself at something close to the accustomed standard of living, I’m stuck here, and I’m stuck practicing law.

Which brings me to the point of this post–which is NOT looking for sympathy. Unlike the likes of J. K. Rowling, the most I have ever made in a given year from all of my historical work combined is about $10,000, which is certainly nothing even remotely close for a family to live on. If only there was a way that I could make a decent living with my historical work, I would certainly be a much happier guy. I really love the publishing business. The work we do at Ironclad is some of the most rewarding work I do. However, it’s the same story….we simply don’t make enough money to be able to take a dime out of the company. So, what we have is a company that does really good work–we publish some real quality works–but that is severely limited in what we as a company can do, and whatever we accomplish with it is basically a labor of love, because we certainly haven’t ever gotten paid a dime for anything any of us has done on behalf of the company. And, the trend in the publishing industry is shrinking sales–which will probably shrink even more if Google’s reprehensible copyright infringement scheme is permitted to proceed–meaning that there’s not a lot of opportunities for Ironclad to really expand or take on a really significant place in the market. So, as much as I love the process of giving birth to a book, both as author and as publisher, the money’s just not there for it to be financially viable.

However, it is what it is–history is something that gets short shrift in this society, which is much more interested in bling and in pop culture than learning from the lessons of history. I personally find it appalling that an airheaded bimbo whose sole claim to fame is genetics such as that moron Paris Hilton sells hundreds of thousands of copies of the crap that is ghostwritten for her, but people don’t buy history books except every great once in a while when the likes of David McCullough turns out a great book, but that’s definitely the exception and not the rule. Jessica Simpson’s marital issues and Britney Spears’ baby are far more important to the vast majority of Americans than understanding our historical heritage and what that means to the rest of us. Until that changes, it means that guys like me will continue to have to be amateurs who work at history as an avocation and not a vocation. And that’s sad.

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Today is November 19, the 142nd anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. The anniversary has really taken on a life of its own in Gettysburg.

Every year on Remembrance Day, as the anniversary is known, there is a parade of reenactors honoring the soldiers who fought at Gettysburg. I have never been there for the Remembrance Day parade, nor does the event hold even the slightest, tiniest little bit of interest for me.

I’m not a “living historian,” whatever that means (I say “whatever that means” because I have yet to come up with a definition of the term that more that two people agree with). Three very close friends of mine portray individuals who were at Gettysburg. One portrays Lt. Gen. James Longstreet. One portrays Col. Thomas C. Devin, and the third portrays Col. William Gamble. All three were there today, although I doubt that the fellows who portray Devin and Gamble participated in the parade–they usually set up shop on McPherson’s Ridge and educate people about John Buford’s stand on July 1. I’m not sure about General Longstreet. Because they do first-person impressions of figures who played significant roles in the Battle of Gettysburg, this is understandably an important event for them.

I’m also not a reenactor. I won’t get into the issue of farbs and realism. Suffice it to say that I am 6’3″+, I weigh more than 275 pounds, and I’m generally a big guy. I’m also 44 years old and have more gray hair than brown at this point in my life. Your average Civil War cavalryman was 5’3″, weighed 130 pounds, and was in his 20’s. I can’t even remember the last time I weighed 130 pounds, but it was probably in middle school. I also haven’t been on a horse since I was a child. Yet, my primary interest is Civil War cavalry. Given my own limitations, I would be one of the guys that people laugh at as reenactors. Hence, being painfully aware of my own limitations, I choose to avoid the issue. ‘Nuff said about reenacting.

I’m a guy who researches and writes, and who studies the war and the men who fought for something that they believed in. Consequently, the anniversary of Lincoln’s great speech–arguably THE greatest speech ever given by a politician–has never held much interest for me, even though the speech itself is compelling and fascinating. I absolutely hate being in Gettysburg when there are huge crowds there, and this, along with the anniversary of the battle, is one of two times per year when the crowds are immense. I get very uncomfortable in those kinds of crowds there, simply because the town does not have the infrastructure to handle it. You can’t park your car. You can’t get a table in a restaurant. The sidewalks are jammed. I could go on, but you get the idea. For me, it’s not a pleasant place to be at those times, and I try to avoid it all costs. That especially includes the anniversary fo the battle. So, I’ve just never had any interest in being there for Remembrance Day, and this year was certainly no exception.

To my friends who were there–I hope you had a great time. I know it’s an event that’s important to you, and I’m glad you were there enjoying camaraderie at an event you particularly enjoy. I hope it–and the parade–was terrific. To Mike and J. D., I hope you had LOTS of interested visitors out there on McPherson’s Ridge.

Having said that, I do regret not being there last year. Last year was the final time that my friend and mentor Brian Pohanka proudly led his Zouaves in the parade. Brian was already terribly ill, and he knew his days were numbered. He told me that he knew it would be his last parade, and that he was going to go and do it, no matter what, and he did. After the parade, he gathered his men around him on Little Round Top and told them that it would be his last time, and that he didn’t think he would be around this year at this time. He encouraged his men to carry the flame and to continue his work, even if he wouldn’t be there with them. I’m told that there was not a dry eye in the crowd, which doesn’t surprise me a bit.

Sadly, Brian was correct. He left us in June, and for those who regularly attend the parade, I’m sure it was strange not seeing him leading his beloved Zouaves down the parade route. I’m sure he was missed, and I hope someone sang “The Vacant Chair” for him this weekend. This was an event that meant a lot to him, and I’m sure he was watching over the parade from a better place, proudly cheering his Zouaves on. Rest well, Brian. You’re missed.


We shall meet but we shall miss him.
There will be one vacant chair.
We shall linger to caress him,
While we breathe our ev’ning prayer.
When a year ago we gathered,
Joy was in his mild blue eye.
But a golden cord is severed.
And our hopes in ruin lie.

We shall meet, but we shall miss him.
There will be one vacant chair.
We shall linger to caress him,
While we breathe our ev’ning prayer.

At our fireside, sad and lonely,
Often will the bosom swell,
At remembrance of the story,
How our noble Willie fell.
How he strove to bear our banner,
Thro’ the thickest of the fight,
And uphold our country’s honor
In the strength of manhood’s might.

True they tell us wreaths of glory,
Evermore will deck his brow,
But this soothes the anguish only,
Sweeping o’er our heartstrings now.
Sleep today o’ early fallen,
In thy green and narrow bed.
Dirges from the pine and cypress
Mingle with the tears we shed.

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17 Nov 2005, by

Making Stuff Up

Dimitri Rotov had a fascinating round-up of the reviews of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book on his blog yesterday. One, in particular, jumped off the page at me.

“Goodwin and company have little new to tell us and stick to the standard fare. Most of the familiar Lincoln stories are here — from the suggestion from a young girl that he grow a beard to his attitude about Ulysses Grant’s drinking.” She does introduce this novelty, the reviewer says: “Goodwin describes the scene when an aide to Stanton visits Lincoln’s office to ask a question: Lincoln greeted him. ‘What’s up?’ Really? What’s up with that?” This review came from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which is a pretty decent newspaper.

This brings me back full circle to an issue I have addressed at some length: the propensity for some historians to just make stuff up when it suits them to do so. Clearly Doris Kearns Goodwin, who used to have a great deal of credibility as an historian, has taken such liberties here. I can imagine a lot of things that Abe Lincoln might have said. “What’s up?” is definitely NOT one of them. I’ve already addressed the issue of Tom Carhart simply making up conversations in one of my very first posts on this blog and don’t see the need to beat that poor dead horse here again. I’ve also addressed the issue of intellectual dishonesty here as well, and won’t repeat that, eiher.

Suffice it to say that what Goodwin did here, while perhaps pleasant reading, is just as intellectually dishonest as plagiarism, which, by the way, she’s also been accused of. That matter was recently settled by her. Call me a purist, but I simply cannot fathom holding these sorts of authors in high esteem, but it happens. I just don’t get it.

For a really interesting perspective on these issues, I recommend Prof. Thomas Mallon’s excellent book Stolen Words, which is sort of a history of plagiarism from the perspective of a fiction writer who has obviously spent a lot of time considering this issue. Read that, and then consider the writings of Joseph Ellis, Stephen Ambrose, Tom Carhart, and Doris Kearns Goodwin and see what you think then.

I’ve always tended to lean in precisely the opposite direction. This is undoubtedly my legal training coming through, but I was taught to footnote anything that is not an original thought, and that’s precisely what I do. My book The Union Comes of Age has well over 1,000 endnotes in it. Why? Because I am fanatical about giving credit where it’s due. And, if I speculate about something–make something up, if you will–I always come right out and say that I am speculating.

Otherwise, I would be guilty of precisely the same intellectual dishonesty that I have lambasted so loudly here.

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16 Nov 2005, by


I have incredibly mixed feelings about indexes. On one hand, they’re absolutely critical to making a Civil War book useful. As a general rule, I won’t buy a book if it doesn’t include an index. At the same time, indexes are the bane of my existence.

As a general rule of thumb, authors are required to provide their own indexes to books. All but one of the publishing contracts that I have ever signed have said that the index is the author’s responsibility. This creates real problems for me. As someone who admittedly has a short attention span and who also has too much on his plate, the thought of being forced to do my own index turns me into a quivering pile of jelly. I simply don’t have the time, attention span, or inclination to do indexes myself. I tried once, and I almost went insane within a matter of hours of beginning. It was hideous, and I had so much stress and so much anxiety over it that I vowed I would never, ever do one again.

I know, for instance, that Ed Longacre does his own indexes. I know this because he has told me so, and I’ve actually seen the enormous collection of index cards that he uses to do it. To Ed and any other author that has the wherewithal to do their own indexes, my hat’s off to you. You’re a better man than I am, because this is something that I just cannot bring myself to do.

I realize that this is a bit of an oxymoron. I’m a lawyer, and I spend my days either drafting contracts, or evaluating and presenting evidence. It’s all about attention to detail. I’ve never had a problem with that, provided that I have sufficient time to take breaks and refocus myself. I can spend hours and hours poring over boxes of documents produced in discovery, but I just can’t do an index. Perhaps it’s that I have to be so focused at work all day that I can’t force myself to do this. Perhaps it’s that I use up my quota of concentration on minute details at the office and simply don’t have enough left at the end of the day to come home and force myself to do an index. I honestly don’t know. I just know that I can’t do it.

Most of my publishers have offered me the opportunity of having them prepare the index at my expense–typically $600 or so, which is deducted from royalties. I have eagerly and joyously leaped at those opportunities and have gladly said yes every time that it’s been offered to me. My new book is in final preparation and not far from being ready to go to the printer, and Ted Savas, my publisher, informed me the other day that his preparing the index is not an option, that Savas Beatie does not get involved, and that it’s my responsibility. This quite literally sent shivers of fear up my spine. This was my worst nightmare about to come true.

Fortunately, Ted put me in touch with Lee Merideth, who does lots of indexes for lots of authors. I’ve gladly and enthusiastically turned the project over to Lee to prepare the index for me, and I will happily write that check to avoid having to do it myself. Lee, my hat’s off to you. You’re a better man than I am to want to spend your evenings voluntarily plowing through this level of minutae. 🙂

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Yesterday, I discussed the process by which I find the material that goes into my work. Today, I will discuss what happens to it once I’ve got it.

As a lawyer, I’ve been trained in evaluating evidence. Evaluating and presenting evidence is my job. With experience, you learn what’s credible and what’s not. You learn when something can be relied upon and when it can’t. A key, of course, is whether something can be corroborated. If it can be corroborated by an independent source, then it’s reliable. So, the key for me is to evaluate the sources and then to determine what’s reliable and what isn’t.

I always look for things to corroborate my sources, or, as an old friend likes to say, calibrate my sources. If there is a second account that says basically the same thing, then it’s a reliable source and I will use it. Conversely, if it can’t be corroborated, odds are that it won’t be used at all. If I do use it, it will be with a caveat, usually stated in a footnote, that the source cannot be corroborated and hence is not entirely reliable. That happens only rarely.

I also talked about the timing of the account yesterday. A good of rule of thumb is: the closer in time to the event that the account is written, the more reliable it’s likely to be. Consequently, things written right away get a lot of leeway with me, because they’re so fresh, while accounts written forty years after the fact typically don’t, simply because we have no idea what factored into the writing of that account. So, if someone writes within a couple of days of the event, it’s likely to be defendable because it’s fresh. So, I always look at the timing of the recording of the account.

Another factor to consider is where it came from. If it’s a letter, it’s probably more reliable than a memoir written years later, since memoirs typically have some agenda in mind when they’re being written (if you need an example of this, see James Longstreet’s memoirs, From Manassas to Appomattox, which were written as an opportunity for Pete Longstreet to defend himself from the Lost Causers who blamed him for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg). Diaries tend to be very reliable, since they weren’t written for anyone to read but the diarist, meaning that there was no incentive to spin things. I tend to find that items from the Southern Historical Society Papers are not terribly reliable since they were written with a clear agenda, the Lost Cause. Consequently, I tend not to use them unless I’m addressing a controversy or I want spin.

Finally, there’s what one of my old law school professors used to describe as the judicious use of gastronomical jurisprudence. In other words, does this pass the smell test? Sometimes, you read something, and you just know it’s made up or badly puffed, and not reliable. You can just tell. You get a gut reaction that says “nope, this dog don’t hunt.” With a gut as ample as mine, it’s usually pretty reliable. I’ve discarded a lot of accounts because they don’t make sense or they are questionable on their face. As a result, I tend to ruminate a bit on each one before I decide to use it in a work.

Finally, it’s been my experience that no matter how hard I might try, I will never be able to tell these stories as well as the soldiers themselves. Consequently, whenever possible, I try to let the participants tell their own stories in their own words. That means being extremely careful in selecting the accounts and quotations to use. If it makes it into one of my works, you can pretty well conclude that it’s there because it passed the various tests set forth herein.

To conclude, it’s about experience, it’s about knowing when and how to sniff out BS, it’s about being able to evaluate and corroborate evidence, and it’s about being careful.

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