April, 2006

30 Apr 2006, by

It’s Finished!

I first heard of the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry in 1992. I’ve been drawn to this regiment for years for a variety of reasons. One company of the Lancers–Company G–was raised in my home town, Reading, Pennsylvania. Also known as Rush’s Lancers, the regiment was named for its first commanding officer, Col. Richard H. Rush, a member of the legendary West Point Class of 1846. Rush was the grandson of Dr. Benjamin Rush, the patriot who signed the Declaration of Independence, and who founded Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. When I arrived at Dickinson as a freshman in August 1979, one of the first things I noticed was that the college was split into two campuses, including one named for Dr. Rush. Finally, I am a native Philadelphian, although I grew up in Reading. Many of the names of the men who populated this fine regiment have been familiar to me for most of my life, as many of them went on to become captains of industry in the years after the Civil War.

I encountered this unit while researching John Buford, under whom they served for most of 1863. Buford came to greatly respect the courage and steadfastness of this unit after five companies of Lancers made a magnificent charge into the teeth of an entire battalion of Confederate horse artillery at Brandy Station on June 9, 1863. From that moment forward, Buford referred to the Lancers as his “Seventh Regulars.”

The regimental chaplain of the Lancers, Samuel L. Gracey, wrote a history of the regiment in 1868 that was based on his war-time diary. It was an excellent regimental history for its time, but it was an extremely early one that did not have the benefit of input from his fellow veterans, meaning that there was a tremendous well of untapped primary source material out there that could really flesh out the story of this regiment.

Because the Lancers were a highly educated group of men who thoroughly documented their service, there were at least a dozen sets of letters of members of the unit to be found, several diaries, an other miscellaneous memoirs that had never been used to tell the story of the regiment. Given all of that, I decided to tackle a new regimental history. I had originally intended to write this book alone, and that was the course that I was heading down this road when I learned from Ed Longacre in 1998 or so that he had recently submitted a proposal to Combined Books (now part of DaCapo) for a new history of the Lancers. Realizing that there would not be sufficient demand for two new regimental histories of this unit, I asked Ed if he wanted to do this as a joint venture. We would use my research, and I would take the first half of the war, up to and including Brandy Station. I wrote my half of the book, and then waited for Ed to tell me that he was ready for me to ship my research files to him so he could get started writing. After more than two years of waiting, Ed finally told me that due to his other commitments, he was going to have to back out of the project. So, I now had to go forward with finishing the project alone.

After Combined Books was acquired by DaCapo, I realized that DaCapo was definitely NOT the right press for a history of a Pennsylvania cavalry unit. Combined–a Philadelphia-based company–would have been a perfect outlet for the book, but Combined no longer existed, and that was that. I contacted DaCapo, and told them that I wanted out of the contract. After I repaid the minimal $250 advance I’d been paid, I was released from the contract, and then had to find a new publisher.

Last year, I helped Joe Bilby with the Gettysburg portion of his excellent new book on repeating weapons in the Civil War. Joe sent me a copy of the book as a thank you, and I was very impressed with the quality of the book itself and with the production values that were demonstrated. The book was published by a relatively new publishing company, Westholme Publishing, of Yardley, Pennsylvania, in the Philadelphia suburbs. Bruce Franklin, the publisher, and I had a dialogue about the book, and Bruce expressed interest in the project, so I sent him some sample material from the manuscript. He then offered me a contract to publish the book, and my problem was solved.

It’s taken me thirteen years to research this regiment fully, and to write a new history. It was a long process, and much to my surprise, I found the second half more difficult to do than the first half. I had expected the first half to be the more difficult portion. This week, I finally got the last of the primary source material that I’d been waiting for, which was some material from the National Archives. I incorporated the good stuff into my manuscript tonight, and it suddenly dawned on me–after all of these years, the book is finally finished. It was have nearly 100 illustrations and a full set of maps, and I am really proud of it. I think that I’ve done this unit justice.

The only thing it won’t have is a roster. After discussing it with Bruce, adding a full roster–over 1800 men took the oath as members of this unit–would make the book huge and largely unaffordable. Instead, we’ve decided to make the roster available for free as a download on the company web site. It’s in an Excel spreadsheet, but that spreadsheet will be available for download in PDF format for free. Thus, anyone who wants it will have the roster, too.

After all of these years of laboring away at this, and after all of these years of trying to do the memory of these men justice, it is, at long last, finished. I can only hope that I have succeeded in telling their story fully and that I have documented the trials and tribulations of these men well enough to do them justice.

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This is a quick follow-up to Wednesday’s post about plagiarism by the Harvard undergrad. It bears noting that her publisher, Little Brown, has done the right thing, and has pulled the book off the shelves until a revised edition can be brought out. Although Little Brown will take a bath on this, it did the honorable and correct thing, and I tip my hat to the people there who made this difficult decision. Megan McCafferty, the author whose work was plagiarized, has apparently decided that that is a sufficient remedy, and has elected not pursue further action against the plagiarist.

While I can certainly understand and appreciate that, I do wish that she had decided to pursue further action against the plagiarist, if for no other reason than to send a clear and unambiguous message that plagiarism is not acceptable, and that there is a severe penalty to be paid for plagiarism. Perhaps then, we might see some headway being made toward making this problem a bit less commonplace and a bit less acceptable.

Kevin Levin noted in his blog today that even he, as a high school teacher, sees this problem with his students. As Kevin properly points out, ultimately, freely stealing someone else’s intellectual property is, in fact, a reflection on the character of the plagiarist.

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Thanks to Andy MacIsaac for bringing this to my attention with the post on his blog today.

Apparently, a blogger in Maine has been served with a multimillion dollar Federal law suit for stating his personal opinion on his blog. The blogger criticized certain spending policies of the State of Maine in posts on his blog, and was sued for copyright infringement and for defamation. Fortunately, there are some talented lawyers out there who are going to defend him pro bono, as this sort of thing absolutely terrifies me.

It terrifies me on several levels.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution creates and protects the right of freedom of speech. Opinion has traditionally been protected pursuant to the First Amendment, since the failure to protect the free expression of opinion will chill the free exchange of ideas and discourse. Traditionally, Americans have been free to express their opinions about the government freely and without fear of retribution. That’s always been part of the American way. The State of Maine, using some exceptionally heavy-handed tactics, has decided that the suppression of political dissent and the suppression of the free flow of ideas, is more important than the First Amendment. The State of Maine wants to quash the dissent by hitting the blogger with a sledgehammer. This is, in my humble opinion, governmental bullying in its worst form. Has Maine turned into the Third Reich? That it is occurring in a traditionally liberal state such as Maine makes it all the more reprehensible.

The other reason why this horrifies me is that as a blogger, I will now have to be worried about anything that I write. Andy MacIsaac put it quite well when he wrote: “If the Maine Department of Tourism can do this then what is to keep Pulitzer Prize winning authors from aiming their sights at the ACW Blogging community.” What comes next? Suing someone for writing an unfavorable book review?

Thus, I am deeply worried about this turn of events both as a lawyer who occasionally works in the arena of media law, and also as a blogger who takes pride in expressing my opinion freely in this blog. I think I might offer my services to the defense of this law suit on a pro bono basis. I normally would never consider such a thing–I have enough demands on my time–but this one REALLY bothers me a great deal, and I feel compelled to try to do something about it.

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27 Apr 2006, by

Nothing to Say

Sometimes, a writer has to know when to keep his or her mouth shut. In those instances, it’s better to stay silent and be mysterious.

Today is one of those days……

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26 Apr 2006, by


In case anyone has been living under a stone the past few days, a nineteen-year-old Harvard student named Kaavya Viswanathan, who published her first novel–with a half million dollar advance– a few weeks ago. It turns out that she plagiarized quite a bit of it from two books by another author named Megan McCafferty. According to one article I read, there were nearly forty passages of her novel that were too close for comfort, and some that were verbatim.

Viswanathan appeared on Today this morning and claimed that it was unintentional, that she had read the two books several times in high school and that McCafferty’s words had imprinted themselves on her photographic memory. She claims that she was unaware that it had happened and that she had not intended to do so. As Colonel Potter used to say, “Horse hockey!” I’m sorry. There’s just no way that somebody could quote chapter and verse as often as this young woman did without trying very hard to do so.

Thus, we come to the fundamental question: is plagiarism unethical (never mind the illegal copyright infringement aspect of this)? Of course it is. It is taking someone else’s words, their intellectual property, and claiming it as your own without so much as crediting the author. That’s unethical, and my humble opinion is that Visnawathan should be required to pay back the advance she received as well as any future royalties, too.

Every publishing contract includes a representation and warranty that the work is original to the author. By submitting something that contained so many episodes of plagiarism, Visnawathan has breached her contract. As such, the publisher would be perfectly within its rights to demand a refund of the advance paid. Whether it will do so remains to be seen; so far, they have been supportive of her. McCafferty clearly has a copyright infringement suit if she chooses to pursue it. She has remained silent so far, so nobody knows where she stands on this issue.

If I was a customer who spent good money on a plagiarized work like this, I would feel defrauded, and I would definitely demand my money back.

Obviously, there’s a difference between fiction, which is supposed to be entirely made up by the author, and the sort of non-fiction that I write. By definition, I am required to use other people’s words in my work, since I’m telling stories of events that actually occurred. I prefer to permit the soldiers to tell their own stories in their own words wherever and whenever possible, which means lots of quotations. However, I am fanatical about footnoting and sourcing what I write. There’s no doubt about where I get the material I quote–I am fanatical about footnoting my work. Even a cursory review of the footnotes/endnotes of my books will demonstrate this fact. My The Union Cavalry Comes of Age contains well over 1,000 notes.

My point is that while I do make use of other people’s words, I am fanatical about being sure to credit those words to their authors. I doubt anyone could ever accuse me of plagiarism as a result. I am at peace with that.

That is, however, not to say that there isn’t plagiarism in non-fiction work, too. Pulitzer Prize winning historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose both were found to have plagiarized important works. Astonishingly, Goodwin–who continues to deny that she plagiarized–made it to the New York Times best seller list with her most recent book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and it has been showered with awards, as if the plagiarism never occurred. In short, it says that it’s not only okay to be unethical, you will be rewarded for it. I would prefer to be poor and maintain my integrity than to be accused of plagiarizing someone else’s work.

For her sake, I can only hope that Ms. Visnawathan is able to find some peace with her intellectual dishonesty. Because that’s what it is, pure and simple.

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25 Apr 2006, by

The First Review

I saw the first review of my Monroe’s Crossroads book today. Because Savas-Beatie prepared bound galleys of the book for review purposes, the review actually was written before the book was released, as it was written for inclusion in the monthly mailer for the History Book Club. The book was chosen as an alternate selection of the month for the Club. William C. “Jack” Davis wrote it, and it was extremely flattering. In fact, I couldn’t have been more pleased with it if I had written it myself. That it came from someone of the stature of Jack Davis made it all the more exciting for me.

Im not a member of the HBC, so I had to work my network today to track it down. It took a bunch of e-mails and several hours, but I did get it. A couple of people were kind enough to get a copy of it for me from the HBC web site. A couple of others are also sending me the published version of it so I have it as included in the packets that were sent out to Club members.

It also carried me back to the publication of my first book in 1998. The book, Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions, was published in June of that year, and the first review did not appear until October. I remember waiting for it with a combination of great impatience but tremendous fear, all at the same time. I had no idea how it would be received by the reviewing public. So, when the issue of Civil War News arrived that contained the review of my book, my hands were literally shaking. I finally got to it, and my heart felt like it stopped.

And then I read it.

When it was a good review, I let out a whoop of joy. It felt like a ten thousand pound weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I still get excited when I see good reviews of my work, but nothing will ever feel like that first one did. There’s only one first time for anything.

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Chris Wehner has a new blog, called Blog4 History, which features a Civil War component. Welcome to the blogosphere, Chris.

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23 Apr 2006, by

Signing Books

As the author of eleven books, I’ve signed a lot of books in my life. As an example, the Civil War Preservation Trust purchased 2,200 copies of my book on the Battle of Trevilian Station, to be given away as a premium for a fundraiser to purchase battlefield land at Trevilians. I signed and numbered 2,000 book plates and 200 actual books, usually 200 per day, for eleven days. By the end of it, I thought I had perpetual writer’s cramp.

It happened again with my book on East Cavalry Field. CWPT was in the process of raising funds to pay for a preservation easement for a parcel of land across the street from the battlefield. This time, it was another 2,000 book plates, signed and numbered. I did the same thing again–200 per day until finished. Once again, I had what seemed to be a permanent case of writer’s cramp.

I just got done signing a bunch of copies of my new book for some of Ted’s customers. This is the first time that I’ve done this–Ted shipped me several cases of books and then forwards to me the invoices. I sign them, pack them, and then mail them. Ted will reimburse me for the postage and for the mailers once this is all said and done. However, this is the first time that I’ve ever done it this way. Hopefully, the four boxes that Ted sent won’t last very long, and he will have to send more. 🙂

I like signing books (within reason, that is). People seem to really enjoy having their book personalized–it makes something that is inherently impersonal and makes it their own. Some folks just want the signature. Others want date and signature. Still others want it truly personalized by including their name, and I usually try to do some sort of an inscription when I do that. I will, however, do it any way that the customer wants. The customer is always right, after all. And it’s all about making sure that the customer is happy. Happy customers are repeat customers.

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The Stuart’s Ride project is finished, but for the index. I’ve already made my misery with the subject of indexes known here.

The Stuart’s Ride book is the second book I’ve done with Savas-Beatie Publishing. These two books are also the only two books I’ve done of the twelve where I’ve been forced to go out of pocket to pay for the index myself. Typically, I have either been asked to pay for them by deductions from royalties (the usual method), or in recent contracts, I have specifically negotiated this issue in the contracts, and specifically, making this a strictly publisher cost. None of the other accomplished and well-respected Civil War authors I know are asked to pay for indexes, and I have to admit that it REALLY irks me that I have to go out of pocket to pay for this.

Let me explain why.

Over a period of about twelve years, I have probably invested four or five thousand dollars in researching the materials that ultimately led to the publication of this book. The maps cost us another thousand dollars or so, as the maps are usually author expenses (although I’m going to start trying to get the publishers to absorb those costs, too–neither Jeff Wert nor Gordon Rhea are asked to pay for their maps). That means that I’ve got even more money tied up in this project, and I now have to go out of pocket to pay for the damned index. It galls me. To a very great extent. We’re going to have to sell a hell of a lot of copies of this book just to break even.

I might also add that these two books are the first two that I’ve had published by commercial publishing houses since my first book where I haven’t been paid some sort of an advance to help defray some of the expenses I incur in doing these projects. Some have been decent ($4,000) and some miniscule (one was $250), but there has been something. There are no advances with Savas-Beatie, AND I now have to dig into my pocket to pay for this damned index. Part of me would be perfectly content to see the book go to press without an index if I have to pay for it, but I know that it would be savaged by reviewers without one. Thus, as much as it galls me, I have very little choice but to suck it up and dig into my pocket yet again.

I went with Savas-Beatie for a couple of reasons. First, and foremost, Ted Savas is an old friend of mine, and I know that he creates terrific books. His track record bears that out, and the final product of my Monroe’s Crossroads book is first-rate. Second, Ted does a good job of marketing his books and does a good job of getting his books out there for the public to see and buy. As an example, Ted does a great job of getting the book clubs to pick up his titles (Monroe’s Crossroads is an alternate selection of the month for the History Book Club, and we’re hoping that Stuart’s Ride will be chosen as a main selection; it’s about to be submitted), which is an entirely new market sector for my work. Thus, I made the decision to have him publish those two books even though there were to be no advances coming for either book. What I didn’t know, though–and shame on me for not asking–was that I would end up being responsible for paying for the indexing. So, I guess it’s my cross to bear, even though it galls me almost beyond words’ ability to describe to have to pay for this.

I can only hope that these two books will sell well enough to allow me to recoup the extra $1000 or so that I will end up investing in the indexes for the two books. At least with the Stuart’s Ride book, I have JD to share this miserable expense with.

I know one thing: this is the last time I will ever go out of pocket to pay for an index, even if that means not signing a contract with a given publisher. I think I’ve earned the right to be treated like my peers Gordon Rhea, Jeff Wert, and Andy Trudeau.

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19 Apr 2006, by

This Will Be Fun

Lt. Edward B. Williston was an 1856 alumnus of Norwich University, Vermont’s version of VMI. Williston was one of those superb career Regular Army artillerists that made his mark on the American Civil War. He had a thirty-plus year career in the Regular Army and retired as a colonel with a Medal of Honor. He was awarded his Medal of Honor for his magnificent performance on the second day of the Battle of Trevilian Station, June 12, 1864.

Williston’s battery of Union horse artillery typically served with the Reserve Brigade of the 1st Division, Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac. On June 12, after repulsing seven determined Union attacks, Wade Hampton unleashed a savage counterattack that rolled up the Union flank and drove the Federal cavalry from the field in a wild rout. Williston actually advanced one of his guns in front of the Federal main line of battle and personally pulled the lanyard, at point blank range. In his report of the battle, Merritt wrote, “The light 12’s were magnificent,” and lavished praise on Williston and his men. Consequently, Williston was awarded the Medal of Honor without much resistance or fanfare in the 1890’s.

Norwich has commissioned Dale Gallon to depict the scene of Williston manning his guns that afternoon. I had a chat with Dale today, and offered my assistance. I will be showing him the battlefield in June, and will be providing him with most of his research material to depict the scene. My price for all of this: a copy of the print, personally signed to me. My old friend Wayne Motts was Dale’s primary research assistant for years, and knowing how thorough Wayne is, I’m sure that Dale will take pains to get every detail right. Unlike Mort Kunstler, who obviously never visited the battlefield before painting his scene, I expect Dale will get the terrain right. Kunstler, on the other hand, got the terrain all wrong in his depiction of the charge of the Citadel Rangers company of cadets of the 4th South Carolina Cavalry, led personally by Wade Hampton, on June 11.

Having worked with both Don Troiani and Don Stivers (on a depiction of the climax of Farnsworth’s Charge), I’m now very much looking forward to working with Dale to get this done as well and as accurately as possible. I think it’s going to be fun, and I think it’s going to be fascinating to compare the experience of working with him with my past two experiences working with Civil War artists.

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