April, 2008

Not Every Book Is Worthy of Publication. Writers write. That’s what we do. Some of us do it better than others. That’s not a criticism, it’s a statement of fact. I was blessed with some natural ability that has been honed from years of hard work. My writing has improved greatly from the early days simply because I’ve done so much of it. I still cringe when I read some of my early historical writings because they’re that bad.

On one hand, I’m very fortunate that I have never written anything that was intended for publication which was not accepted for publication. I know for a fact that there are very few people who can say that they’re batting 1.000 when it comes to having everything they’ve ever written published. Some of it is skill. Some of it is good luck in picking the right topic at the right time. Some of it is knowing the right people. I’ve never known the pain of a rejection letter for any of my work, but I know plenty of writers who claim it as a right of passage, sort of like fraternity hazing.

On the other hand, there are lots of people out there who think that they can write but have no business doing so. In my role as a publisher, I’ve had some God-awful manuscripts submitted to me. I can appreciate the effort and dedication that went into them, but it sometimes takes all of my willpower not to want to bash these people over the head and tell them the honest truth about just how terrible their work is. I remember one incident where a guy submitted an unsolicited manuscript of a Civil War novel that was, without doubt, the worst thing I have ever read. His main character was a Union soldier who somehow managed to fight in every single major battle of the war. That’s an interesting trick, swinging from theater to theater. Now, if that wasn’t bad enough, his best friend was a runaway slave who had enlisted in a regiment with the outbreak of the war in 1861. Never mind that blacks weren’t enlisted until the formation of the 54th Massachusetts in 1862. Mix in the fact that the writing was terrible, and you have a recipe for horridness that words almost cannot describe. I spent a week composing a rejection letter that was gentle but honest.

I am often asked to review things for people. Whenever my schedule permits, I try to accommodate those requests in an effort to return the many favors done for me over the years, although I often don’t get to things as quickly as they or I might like. Some of the things I read are quite good, and when that happens, I try to assist in placing it with a publisher. The best example of that I can think of was Russ Bonds’ very excellent Stealing the General. Within a few pages, I knew I was reading something special, and by the time I had finished it, I was determined to see it published. I’m the one who introduced Russ to Bruce Franklin, the publisher at Westholme Publishing, and Bruce saw the same merit in the book that I saw. Russ has hit the motherlode as a result: he’s sold a LOT of books, and he’s even optioned the movie rights. It doesn’t get much better than that. I’ve introduced a few others to Ted Savas in particular when I’ve thought there was merit in the work.

Some of the stuff I read is atrocious. Just a couple of weeks ago, I reviewed a chapter of a regimental history dealing with the 1864 Overland Campaign. It was so full of errors that I ended up largely rewriting it. But for what I did, the book would have been dead wrong, and would have been savaged by reviewers. That goes beyond what I’m normally willing to do, but I like the fellow who sent the chapter, and I wanted it to be correct, so I invested the better part of a day and a half into rewriting his chapter for him.

Here’s another story, and then I will come to my point. Several years ago, I was paid to ghostwrite a book for someone. Even after I did all I could for it short of doing additional research, which was not part of my contract, it’s still a bad book. The author self-published it because the original publisher elected to wash its hands of a bad book after I reported back on just how bad it was. The truth is that it was such a bad book that I didn’t want my name to appear on it, and I’m pleased to say that it doesn’t.

My point is that there are plenty of books in print that shouldn’t be. Self-publishing through venues like Xlibris, Lulu, or IUniverse makes it possible for things that never should/would have been published to find their way into print. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule; Fred Ray’s excellent Shock Troops of the Confederacy and Eric Jacobson’s For Cause & For Country come to mind immediately as self-published works that are quite good and worthwhile. Both had legitimate reasons for going the self-publication route, and I appreciate those reasons.

Don’t get me wrong: the self-publishing venue has some merits, such as providing a means for bringing out of print works back into print. However, it also lends a lot of credibility to works that don’t deserve that credibility. Some argue that self-publishing democratizes the practice, but it also means that a lot of trees get killed to publish awful books that never should have been published in the first place.

My point is that not everything that gets written deserves to be published. If a legitimate publisher tells you that, accept it and move on. Don’t subject the world to an atrocious book that adds nothing to the body of knowledge just to massage your ego.

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June will mark the tenth anniversary of the publication of my first book, Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions. Over the course of those ten years, I’ve published a total of 13 books, and the 14th is due out at the end of May. Consequently, I’ve learned a few things over the course of that decade. Many of them are things that I wish that I knew ten years ago, but didn’t. In the hope that some of you might be able to benefit from my mistakes, or my learning curve, I’ve decided to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Gettysburg’s Forgotten Cavalry Actions by sharing some of those hard lessons in a series of posts that will follow. Each post will deal with a different lesson.

I know that there are a number of my readers who are published authors, including some who have been published more than once. I would like to invite you to pitch in, including guest posts, if any of you would like to volunteer to write a guest post for inclusion in the series.

So, with no further ado, here’s the first entry in the list, which will be presented in no particular order…..

Don’t Give Up Your Day Job. Like it or not, I’m a lawyer first and a historian second. There’s a reason for that. Unless you’re a college professor, the likelihood of your making much money as a consequence of your studies of the Civil War is quite small. Further, the odds of making much money from publishing a Civil War book are even smaller. Only a tiny handful of Civil War books ever hit it big, and unless your name is Doris Kearns Goodwin or James McPherson, you probably should not expect to make much money. Further, only a handful of Civil War publishers pay advances, and most don’t. Academic presses definitely don’t. The largest advance I’ve ever been paid was $4,000 for Little Phil: A Reassessment of the Civil War Generalship of Philip H. Sheridan, paid in two installments. One of those installments went to purchase a new laptop computer that I wrote a couple of books on.

Ted Savas recently had a post on his blog that indicated that a new imprint being launched by HarperCollins will not pay any advances at all to authors, so it doesn’t sound like advances will be much of an option at all moving forward. Your only means of making money will be from sales of your book, either royalties or copies that you sell yourself.

In order to illustrate my point, the most copies of any one of my titles I have ever sold is about 4500. Ted Savas told me last week that the average Civil War book sells about 1500 copies. Nobody ever got rich on selling 1500 copies of a book. The most money I have ever made in a single year on my historical work has been approximately $10,000. That includes an advance on a book, profits from my own book sales, royalties, and payment for leading tours. Clearly, nobody’s living large on that kind of money.

I got my royalty statement from the LSU Press a couple of weeks ago. LSU published my With Sheridan in the Last Campaign Against Lee in 2002. In 2007, they sold 4 copies of the book. My royalty check was for $5.15. Woo hoo!

It’s worth noting that I spend a lot of money each year on researching these books. I use the services of a professional researcher, and I buy a lot of books. I also firmly believe in seeing and learning the terrain, which also costs money. So, the net is much less.

Unless you manage to pen one of those very rare Civil War books that breaks through and reaches the New York Times bestseller list, don’t give up your day job, because you’re going to need it. That is, you’re going to need it if you’re one of those people who enjoys living indoors and eating.

UPDATE, MAY 1, 2008:

I got my royalty statement from Potomac Books today. Not surprisingly, there was no check in there. And it would take a CPA to figure out their accounting. I’m no CPA, and I don’t believe their numbers as far as I can throw the Washington Monument. However, it’s not worth the expenditure to pay for an audit of their books.

Potomac has published four of my books. Two of them have been fully remaindered and are out of print. In another one, they remaindered the hardcover out, although the softcover remains in print. The fourth has an edition still in print.

In employing the same sort of fuzzy math that Congress seems to use, the numbers of the deficits of what needs to be sold in order for me to make up the remaining balances of the advances and actually receive royalty payments are actually INCREASING, not getting smaller, even with the books that are out of print. It is now painfully clear that the advances that I was paid are all that I will ever be paid by this publisher.

Their marketing has always been abysmal–I have complained about it numerous times–and I haven’t agreed with their business decisions about remaindering my work, particularly with Glory Enough for All: Sheridan’s Second Raid and the Battle of Trevilian Station. I cannot imagine ever doing business with them again.

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We’re now moving into my busy season. I have six upcoming events in the next ninety days, and I figured I would share information about them here in case anyone has any interest in attending any of them.

June 6-7: J. D., Mike Nugent and I have a bunch of book signings (something close to 6) scheduled in Gettysburg that weekend. The annual spring muster of the Gettysburg Discussion Group is also that weekend. Once our final schedule is pinned down, I will post it here.

June 13-15: This is the weekend of my 25th reunion at my alma mater, Dickinson College. Normally, I wouldn’t even mention this, but the College is having me do a book signing from 9:00-10:30 on the morning of Saturday, June 14, in the College Store, located on the lower level of the Holland Union Building.

June 19-22: With J.D.’s help, I’m leading a program titled “The Clash of Cavalry in Virginia” for the Civil War Education Association. The program is based in Culpeper, and will feature tours of the Kelly’s Ford, Brandy Station, and Trevilian Station battlefields, as well as a visit to downtown Culpeper and its National Cemetery. The link provides the weekend’s schedule as well as information on how to sign up.*

June 26-29: I’m the primary tour guide for this year’s summer seminar for the Shepherd University George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War. The program focuses on the retreat from Gettysburg. While Kent Masterson Brown will be the scholar-in-residence, I’m in charge of leading the tours. There will be a half-day tour of the route of the Wagon Train of Wounded, and a full day’s tour of the fighting that took place during the retreat from Gettysburg and the pursuit of Lee’s army. The link provides the schedule and information about signing up.

July 16-19: The annual conference for The Little Big Horn Associates will be held at the Four Points by Sheraton Hagerstown hotel. This year’s conference focuses on George Armstrong Custer’s role in the 1862 Maryland Campaign. The link provides a registration form and the schedule of events. I’m no expert on the Maryland Campaign, but I will be giving a talk at the conference.

July 23-27: It’s back to Chambersburg for another of Ted Alexander’s events. This one is called “The Gettysburg Experience,” and features four very packed days of lectures and touring. The schedule for this weekend has not yet been pinned down, as Ted is still working on it. However, he asked if J. D. and I would lead a full-day tour of spots on Stuart’s Ride for him, and he’s also asked me to lead a tour of Farnsworth’s Charge, Merritt’s Fight on South Cavalry Field, and the Battle of Fairfield for him for half a day. He also asked me if I would give a talk and participate in a panel discussion or two, and I agreed. Check back for the schedule and for information on how to register.

* Some of you have probably seen the advertisement in this month’s Civil War News indicating that I wold be participating in the annual spring conference/battlefield tour for the Shenandoah Civil War Associates. Here’s a link to the program’s schedule. I actually was really looking forward to being part of this program, since I have never visited some of the battlefields being covered, and was looking forward to touring them with Chris Calkins. However, when Bob Maher, the director of the Civil War Education Association, scheduled the cavalry program for Culpeper, he didn’t check dates with me, and I found myself with an irreconcilable scheduling conflict. The CWEA program cannot proceed without me, whereas I am dispensable in the Shenandoah Civil War Associates event. Consequently, it left me with no choice but to back out of the Shenandoah Civil War Associates program. I regret the scheduling conflict, and I regret having to back out of the event more than I can describe, as I always enjoy that program as well as the interactions with the regulars who attend it each year. I apologize if anyone intended to attend the event based on my participation in it.

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27 Apr 2008, by

Back Home Again

I apologize for the lack of posts over the last few days. As I hadn’t been to see my parents since Thanksgiving, it was time for a quick visit. I left Thursday and got back this afternoon, which included 14 hours of driving time out and back. Because I am stuck with dial-up Internet access there, and there are software glitches with the USB modem that Apple sells for its MacBook computers that caused my computer to lock up each time I tried to dial in, posting from there really wasn’t an option.

Those of you who read this blog regularly are aware that my father had a major stroke last July. I can report that he is physically doing remarkably well. He’s walking well, and is able to use his right hand reasonably well. He can even walk a bit without his cane, although my mother won’t permit him to leave the house without it. His speech remains a mess, but I was able to understand most of what he was saying. It was good just to sit and watch a few Phillies games with him, which is precisely what I did.

Then, when I got back this afternoon, I had to go through the final page galleys for our retreat book. Once we sign off on them, and Ted Savas fixes the last batch of typos, etc., he will have the thing indexed, which will take a week or so. Once that’s done, it’s time for printing. For those who’ve been eagerly awaiting the publication of the retreat book, please be patient just a little longer–we’re nearly there. I just sent my list of corrections to J.D., who’s serving as coordinator, and have finished my review of the thing. Without index, the work is 528 pages in length.

Now that I’m back, I will resume posting regularly again. Tomorrow, I will post some upcoming appearances/events for those who might be interested.

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Hat tip to Rea Andrew Redd for first bringing this article to my attention:

Civil War Buffs Couldn’t See History For The Trees: National Parks Clear Trees From Original Battlefield ‘Sight lines,’ Delighting (And Appalling)Students Of History, Randy Dotinga, The Christian Science Monitor, April 23, 2008.

Even though he spends his time guiding tourists through the nooks and crannies of a Civil War-era house, retired librarian Harry Conay believes that nature can trump history. He’s watched in horror as the National Park Service has tried to make the Gettysburg National Military Park look more like it did on three July days in 1863. Officials are nearly a third of the way through cutting down 576 acres of trees that didn’t exist back then.

Another 275 acres will be replanted with trees and orchards that disappeared over the past 15 decades. But it’s not enough to please Mr. Conay, who says the battlefield’s history is partly told through the healing of the earth. After all, the trees managed to thrive on land ravaged by a deadly struggle between two immense armies.

“During those 140 years, this has become something more than a battlefield lesson,” Conay says from behind the gift-shop counter at the historic house where he serves as a guide. But the trees continue to fall, despite a flurry of protests amid preparations for this month’s opening of a $103 million visitors center and museum. And as the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaches, at least one other battlefield is poised to restore history by chopping down countless trees.

To supporters, including park officials and amateur historians, the Gettysburg project makes perfect sense because it allows visitors to better understand the past. The enormous challenges facing generals and soldiers, they say, will finally be clear. “It’s not just about trying to create a postcard picture to make something look like it did 150 years ago,” says Don Barger, a regional director with the National Parks Service, which runs the military park. “It’s about protecting the elements necessary to tell the story.”

The park, in southern Pennsylvania, draws about 2 million visitors each year to marvel at a crucial and bloody battle. The South, which had come close to forcing the North to the bargaining table, lost the battle and never recovered. Dozens of tour buses traverse the 6,000-acre military park each day, bringing visitors to admire hundreds of statues and monuments and view battle landmarks such as Little Round Top and the Peach Orchard.

As part of the restoration project, park officials digitized 19th-century maps and conducted “terrain analysis” – a military strategy taught at West Point – to figure out which features of the landscape affected the battle. Then the officials made choices about adding or removing everything from trees and fences to roads and orchards.

The “rehabilitation” project – about halfway completed – will eliminate 576 acres of trees while adding 115 acres of trees and 160 acres of orchards. Thirty-nine miles of “historic” fencing will be erected, too. In addition, power poles have been removed along with a car dealership and a motel.

Among other things, the park service has cut down a stand of trees at Devil’s Den, uncovering more of the rocky patch where Civil War photographers captured stunning images of the carnage. Elsewhere, fences will be built to show the challenges facing Confederate troops who tried to ambush Union soldiers by crossing a wide field. According to the park’s plan, the fences will allow visitors to see that the soldiers in the famous Pickett’s Charge had to pick their way through: 12 small fields instead of one big one.

William G. Jeff Davis, an amateur historian in Gettysburg, says the restoration project has allowed him and others to better understand the maneuvers of the armies. “It’s forcing historians to take another look and perhaps even rewrite their histories to an extent. To me, that’s exciting,” says Mr. Davis (no relation to Confederate President Jefferson Davis).

Mr. Barger, the park service regional director, says battlefield restoration allows visitors to fully understand moments of history. At Stones River National Battlefield in Tennessee, for instance, a cotton field still stands where it did at the end of 1862. “There are records about the cotton flying in the air because of all the bullets going every which way,” Barger says. “It’s part of telling the story to say, ‘That’s where it was,’ and there it is.”

But critics of the Gettysburg project are unimpressed and have made their views known in letters to the editor and online comments. “If you’re a true preservationist, then all the monuments and access roads need to go because they weren’t there in 1863,” wrote a Gettysburg native to an Illinois paper. “For that matter, most of the population, infrastructure, and business wasn’t there either. If you are a true preservationist, then get rid of it all.”

Barger acknowledges that cutting down trees seems an unusual thing for the park service to do. “It is one of those things which seems like a contradiction at first, but only if you have a narrow scope of what the national park system protects.” The park service preserves history in addition to nature, Barger says. Indeed, 60 percent of sites preserved by the park service are historic, not natural treasures such as Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, he says.

More battlefields will be spiffed up themselves as the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaches in 2011, and controversies over restoration projects may be inevitable. A debate is already under way at Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi, where Union and Confederate troops battled over access to the Mississippi River.

Under one proposal, the park would cut down stands of oak and hickory trees to allow visitors to better understand the Confederate defenses. The key to battlefield rehabilitation, Barger says, is to create spots where visitors can “almost feel the bullets.” “That,” he says, “is what you want to have happen in a battlefield.”

Several U.S. historic sites are being given new looks. A few notable examples:

• The Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania unveiled a $103 million museum and visitors center in a “soft opening” earlier this month. A grand opening will be held in September, when visitors will be able to see the famous cyclorama painting of the pivotal battle, restored to the way it looked in 1884.

• As part of a $110 million restoration project, a new visitors center and museum opened at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estates and Gardens in 2006. Visitors to the Virginia estates can watch documentary films, wander through galleries, and look at three life-sized models of America’s first president, each created with the assistance of a forensic anthropologist.

• Ellis Island, where millions of immigrants first encountered New York City and America, opened a newly restored ferry building on its south side to visitors last year and is raising money to restore more buildings.

• At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia, construction has begun on a $55 million visitors center and museum that will include hands-on activities for children.

• A $14 million visitors center opened in 2005 at Fort Necessity, the Pennsylvania site of the first battle of the French and Indian War. It draws about 90,000 visitors a year.


Count me among the enthusiastic supporters of this program. First, and foremost, it should be noted that I am no fan of John Latschar, the superintendent of the Gettysburg National Military Park. In my world, there are two unforgivable sins: lying to me and wasting my time, and he’s done both. Having said that, though, I must give the devil his due. This was a brilliant plan and one that has been incredibly successful in operation.

By opening up sight lines, it makes it possible to see things as the soldiers did, rather than having to say, “imagine if these trees weren’t here”, which is what I often had to do. Try as I might, it’s not possible to imagine the trees not being there. I remember the first time that I saw the clearing from the perspective of the lower end of the center of the Union line, where McGilvery’s artillery was. For the first time, you could see the Longstreet tower, meaning that for the first time, you could truly appreciate the view that the Federals had.

Or the clearing of the trees between the Peach Orchard and the Triangular Field/Devil’s Den area at Gettysburg. It used to be that finding the ruins of the Timbers farm was a real challenge, and if you weren’t with someone who knew where they were, good luck finding them. Now, they’re out in the open, easily found, and you can appreciate the ordeal faced by the Confederate infantry trying to attack Devil’s Den.

Or the clearing of Munshower’s Knoll. I never knew that there were monuments there until the trees were cut down. Or that there was such a prominent and important knoll there that made for a perfect artillery platform. But for the tree cutting, one would never get that appreciation for the role of that particular terrain feature.

I understand the objections. However, I happen to think that getting it right is more important than non-historic tree lots.

A similar program has been very successful in restoring the West Woods at Antietam, and I am aware that a tree-cutting program has been instituted at the Bull Run battlefields in Virginia. I support those efforts just as enthusiastically as I do the ones at Gettysburg.

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22 Apr 2008, by


Several years ago, I won a new blue baseball cap from the Civil War Preservation Trust. It’s one of my favorite hats; I can be seen wearing it here.

A couple of years ago, I decided to do something special with the hat. I decided to start collecting pins from Civil War battlefields and to display them on the hat. I’ve always liked the pins, but I couldn’t figure out what to do with them. Finally, I stumbled on the idea of wearing them on the hat, and a new tradition was born. It seems like a good way to honor the wonderful preservation work done by the CWPT, particularly since so many battlefields have benefited from the good work being done by the CWPT.

At the moment, I have the following pins on the hat:

1. Gettysburg National Military Park
2. Antietam National Battlefield
3. Monocacy National Battlefield
4. Richmond National Battlefields
5. Petersburg National Battlefields
6. Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania National Military Park
7. Fredericksburg Battlefield
8. Chancellorsville Battlefield
9. Spotsylvania Battlefield
10. Pamplin Park
11. Museum of the Confederacy
12. Bentonville Battleground
13. Averasboro Battlefield (thanks, Wade Sokolosky)
14. United States of America

Michael Aubrecht, who lives in Fredericksburg, has agreed to get me a Wilderness Battlefield pin (they were out last June when I purchased the other Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania pins at the Chancellorsville VC). There are obviously many more that I need; I have none at all from the Western Theater. The fun will be visiting the battlefields to collect the pins.

I’ve started doing the same thing for Revolutionary War battlefields with a hat that I bought at Valley Forge last year. So far, I only have two pins: Valley Forge and Guilford Court House. I have a VERY long way to go with the Revolutionary War pins.

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This is another post that has nothing to do with the Civil War, so for those who only read this blog for historical content, you may want to skip this post.

We saw our second of four old geezer band concerts last night. Billy Joel came to town.

The show last night was fabulous. The old guy is still a consummate entertainer. He joked about his lack of hair and the fact that’s he’s now 58 years old. Given that he has not released a new album of pop music since 1993, his continuing appeal is a testimony to his ongoing popularity. His first album was released in 1971, so he’s been around for nearly 40 years now. Nationwide Arena was sold out–20,000 people on their feet singing and dancing the whole 21 song show.

He opened with “Angry Young Man” from Turnstiles, which has long been one of my favorite songs of his. The second song was 1974’s “The Entertainer” from Streetlife Serenade. He also did “Summer, Highland Falls”, from Turnstiles. There was at least one song from every one of his albums, except for the first one, Cold Spring Harbor.

What particularly impressed me was that instead of using someone else to hit the high notes in “An Innocent Man” like he did the last time we saw him, he hit them himself. And he nailed them. Not bad for an old guy. Not bad at all. He then did “Keeping the Faith”, the final song from 1983’s terrific An Innocent Man album.

He was backed by a very tight and very professional band, featuring the terribly talented Crystal Taliefero on percussion, saxophone, and backing vocals. They did two fun things during the course of the show. He did the gospelly “In the Middle of the Night” from his last pop album, River of Dreams, about mid-set. Midway through the song, the band stopped dead in their tracks for a second, and then the lead guitar player broke into “Hang on Sloopy”, which is one of the Ohio State University sports anthems. The faithful of Buckeye Nation went bonkers. After a chorus of “Sloopy”, the band then shifted right back into “In the Middle of the Night”. Talk about pandering to the crowd.

And then, Billy brought out his guitar tech, nicknamed Chainsaw. Billy announced that Chainsaw was going to do lead vocals on the next song, which was a religious song appropriate for a Sunday night. That religious song was AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell”, with Billy on lead guitar. Too funny.

Of the 21 songs played (counting “Highway to Hell”), five of them came from 1977’s The Stranger: the sappy “Just the Way You Are”, which is still his biggest selling single, “Anthony’s Song (Moving Out)”, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” (always a favorite of mine), “She’s Always a Woman to Me”, and, of course, the crowd favorite, “Only the Good Die Young”. “Scenes” and “Only the Good Die Young” were encores. He performed over half the album. He didn’t do more than two songs from any other album, so I guess that says a lot about The Stranger. The night’s final song was his legendary signature song, “Piano Man”, from the classic 1973 album of the same name. With Billy on piano and harmonica, he let the crowd sing the final chorus–it’s always an amazing thing to hear 20,000 people singing in unison, and he was obviously loving it.

One of the evening’s more interesting numbers was “Zanzibar”, from 52nd Street. It’s an experimental jazz fusion piece, and he did some very cool trading of riffs with one of his horn players, who switched from flugelhorn to trumpet mid-song and played them both extremely well. Nifty stuff that shows off Billy’s still keen piano skills.

There was only one song that he didn’t do that I wanted to hear. Although he did “Allentown” from 1982’s The Nylon Curtain, I hoped he would also do “Goodnight, Saigon,” his wonderful tribute to Vietnam War vets. When we saw him last time, he not only did that song, he brought out a group of actual Vietnam vets to sing the chorus, “And we all went down together,” with him. I’ve long believed that he got “Goodnight Saigon” right, that it is the last musical word on its subject, and that, as a consequence, it’s one of my favorite and most moving songs of all time. Sadly, he didn’t do it this time. I wonder if that isn’t a result of the current war in Iraq.

As he left the stage for the last time, he made a comment that sums him up nicely. “Don’t take no shit from nobody,” he called out. What more needed to be said?

It was a great evening with a consummate showman and a great entertainer. Next up, Elvis Costello and the Impostors warming up for The Police on May 4.

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Fred Ray was kind enough to send along a review copy of his excellent book Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooter Battalions of the Army of Northern Virginia. Fred is the descendant of one of those sharpshooters, which is what got him interested in the subject.

To be candid, before Fred’s book was published, I was not aware that such special duty battalions even existed in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, other than references to Eugene Blackford’s sharpshooters in the first day’s fighting at Gettysburg. The book has changed that misperception of mine.

Fred Ray has written an exceptional book. It’s a comprehensive tour de force of its subject, and one that should probably stand as the definitive word on its subject for a very long time. It’s an extremely valuable and useful addition to the existing body of knowledge about the Civil War that was probably long overdue. The book is thoroughly researched and well-written. From my perspective one of the book’s best features is the abundance of detailed, useful, and quality maps. Those maps address actions that have not been previously mapped. Fred drew the maps himself, and he did an excellent job it.

Of most value to the book for is its emphasis on the critical role played by the Confederate sharpshooters on many battlefields of the Eastern Theatre of the Civil War. Of particular value to me was the focus on the role played by the Confederate sharpshooters during the fighting for the Jug Bridge during the July 9, 1864 Battle of Monocacy. Before reading Fred’s work on the subject, I had never seen any discussion of the role played by the sharpshooters in the fighting for the stone bridge on the National Road. Fred’s analysis is detailed and comprehensive, and helps us to fill a big hole in our study of Jubal Early’s raid on Washington.

I can’t say enough good things about Fred Ray’s book and can highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the subject. I guarantee you that you will learn something new. I certainly did.

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Last week, I was contacted by a staff researcher at a TV production company that is producing shows for The Weather Channel. The concept for the series is intriguing. They’re producing shows to explore how the weather impacted certain major historic events. And one of the episodes will focus on how the weather impacted the retreat from Gettysburg. The researcher had contacted me to request a copy of One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, July 4-14, 1863.

Not only does the series sound intriguing, the prospect of having our work mentioned in a major television production makes it all the more cool. Sarah Keeney, the marketing director for Savas-Beatie, shipped a copy of the bound galleys for the book to the research assistant, so we will see where it goes from here.

I’ve been a talking head once, in a production on John Buford in 1999, back in the days when The History Channel actually showed programs on history. That was great fun. I’d love to do it again. Who knows…maybe this program for the Weather Channel will present the opportunity to do so.

I will keep you advised as to the progress of the project as I know more.

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For nearly as long as I’ve been fascinated by the Civil War, I’ve likewise held a fascination for the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. Today is the 96th anniversary of the sinking of Titanic. The following article appeared in today’s issue of the New York Times. If true, it explains why she sunk so quickly and finally solves the ultimate riddle associated with the sinking of the great Cunard Line ship.

In Weak Rivets, a Possible Key to Titanic’s Doom

Published: April 15, 2008

For a decade, metallurgists studying the hulk of the Titanic have argued that the storied liner went
down fast after hitting the iceberg because the ship’s builder used substandard rivets that popped their heads and let tons of icy seawater rush in. More than 1,500 people died.

Now, a team of scientists has moved into deeper waters, uncovering evidence in the builder’s own archives of a deadly mix of great ambition and low quality iron that doomed the ship, which sank 96 years ago Tuesday. Historians say the riddle of the disaster has finally been solved.

The scientists found that the ship’s builder, Harland & Wolff, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, struggled for years to obtain adequate supplies of rivets and riveters to build the world’s three biggest ships at once — the Titanic and two sisters, Olympic and Britannic.

Each required three million rivets, and shortages peaked during Titanic’s construction.

“The board was in crisis mode,” Jennifer Hooper McCarty, a team member who studied the archive, said in an interview. “It was constant stress. Every meeting it was, ‘There’s problems with the rivets and we need to hire more people.’ ”

The team collected other clues from 48 Titanic rivets, modern tests, computer simulations, comparisons to century-old metals as well as careful documentation of what engineers and shipbuilders of that era considered state of the art.

The scientists say the troubles all began when the colossal plans forced Harland & Wolff to reach beyond its usual suppliers of rivet iron and include smaller forges, as disclosed in company and British government papers. Small forges tended to have less skill and experience.

Adding to the threat, the company, in buying iron for Titanic’s rivets, ordered No. 3 bar, known as “best” — not No. 4, known as “best-best,” the scientists found. They also discovered that shipbuilders of the day typically used No. 4 iron for anchors, chains and rivets.

So the liner, whose name was meant to be synonymous with opulence, in at least one instance relied on cheap materials.

The scientists studied 48 rivets that divers recovered over two decades from the Titanic’s resting place — two miles down in the North Atlantic — and found many riddled with high concentrations of slag. A glassy residue of smelting, slag can make rivets brittle and prone to fracture.

“Some material the company bought was not rivet quality,” said Timothy Foecke, a team member at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal agency in Gaithersburg, Md.

The company also faced shortages of skilled riveters, according to archive papers. Dr. McCarty said that for a half year, from late 1911 to April 1912, when Titanic set sail, the company’s board addressed the shortfalls at every meeting.

For instance, on October 28, 1911, Lord William Pirrie, the company’s chairman, expressed concern over the lack of riveters and called for new hiring efforts.

In their research, the scientists found that good riveting took great skill. The iron had to be heated to a precise cherry red color and beaten by the right combination of hammer blows. Mediocre work could hide problems.

“Hand riveting was tricky,” said Dr. McCarty, whose doctoral thesis at Johns Hopkins University analyzed Titanic’s rivets.

Steel beckoned as a solution. Shipbuilders of the day were moving from iron to steel rivets, which were stronger. And machines could install them, improving workmanship and avoiding labor problems.

The rival Cunard line, the scientists found, had switched to steel rivets years before, using them, for instance, throughout the Lusitania.

The scientists discovered that Harland & Wolff also used steel rivets — but only on Titanic’s central hull, where stresses were expected to be greatest. Iron rivets were chosen for the ship’s stern and bow.

And the bow, as fate would have it, is where the iceberg struck. Studies of the wreck show that six seams opened up in the ship’s bow plates. And the damage, Dr. Foecke noted, “ends close to where the rivets transition from iron to steel.”

The scientists argue that better rivets would have probably kept the Titanic afloat long enough for rescuers to have arrived before the icy plunge, saving hundreds of lives.

The two metallurgists make their case, and detail their archive findings, in “What Really Sank the Titanic,” a new book by Citadel Press.

Reactions run from anger to admiration. James Alexander Carlisle, whose grandfather was a Titanic riveter, has bluntly denounced the rivet theory on his Web site. “NO WAY!”

For its part, Harland & Wolff, after long silence, now rejects the charge. “There was nothing wrong with the materials,” Joris Minne, a company spokesman, said last week. He noted that Olympic sailed without incident for 24 years, until retirement.

David Livingstone, a former Harland & Wolff official, called the book’s main points misleading. He said big shipyards often had to scramble. On a recent job, he noted, Harland & Wolff had to look to Romania to find welders.

And Mr. Livingstone called the slag evidence painfully circumstantial, saying no real proof linked the hull opening to bad rivets. “It’s only waffle,” he said of the team’s arguments.

But a naval historian praised the book as solving a mystery that has baffled investigators for nearly a century.

“It’s fascinating,” said Tim Trower, who reviews books for the Titanic Historical Society, a private group in Indian Orchard, Mass. “This puts in the final nail in the arguments and explains why the incident was so dramatically bad.”

The new disclosures, he added, cast Harland & Wolff as “responsible for the severity of the damage.”

Titanic had every conceivable luxury: cafes, squash courts, a swimming pool, Turkish baths, a barbershop and three libraries.

The lavish air extended to safety. The White Star Line, in a brochure, described the ship as “designed to be unsinkable.”

During her inaugural voyage, on the night of April 14, 1912, the ship hit the iceberg around 11:40 p.m. and sank in a little more than two and a half hours. Most everyone assumed the iceberg had torn a huge gash in the ship’s starboard hull.

The discovery in 1985 of Titanic’s resting place began many new inquiries. In 1996, an expedition found, beneath obscuring mud, not a large gash but six narrow slits where bow plates appeared to have parted.

Naval experts suspected that rivets had popped along the seams, letting seawater rush in under high pressure.

A specialist in metal fracture, Dr. Foecke got involved in 1997, analyzing two salvaged rivets. He was astonished to find about three times more slag than occurs in modern wrought iron.

In early 1998, he and a team of marine forensic experts announced their rivet findings, calling them tentative.

Dr. Foecke, in addition to working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, also taught and lectured part time at Johns Hopkins. There he met Dr. McCarty, who got hooked on the riddle, as did her thesis advisor.

The team acquired many rivets from salvors who pulled up hundreds of artifacts from the sunken liner. The two scientists also collected old iron of the era — including some from the Brooklyn Bridge — to make comparisons. The new work seemed to only bolster the bad-rivet theory.

In 2003, after graduating from Johns Hopkins, Dr. McCarty traveled to England and located the Harland & Wolff archives at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, in Belfast.

She also explored the archives of the British Board of Trade, which regulated shipping and set material standards, and of Lloyd’s of London, which set shipbuilding standards. And she worked at Oxford University and obtained access to its libraries.

What emerged was a picture of a company stretched to the limit as it struggled to build the world’s three biggest ships simultaneously. She also found complacency. For instance, the Board of Trade gave up testing iron for shipbuilding in 1901 because it saw iron metallurgy as a mature field, unlike the burgeoning world of steel.

Dr. McCarty said she enjoyed telling middle and high school students about the decade of rivet forensics, as well as the revelations from the British archives.

“They get really excited,” she said. “That’s why I love the story. People see it and get mesmerized.”

Looks like another book on the “to buy” list….

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