29 July 2008 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 6 comments

Hat tip to Kevin Levin for bringing this to my attention (please be sure to read the interesting tributes to Alan in the comments to Kevin’s post).

I had an opportunity to meet Alan and spend some time with him over the years. We did several programs together over the years, and he was a regular attendee at Gabor Borit’s annual Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. A number of years ago, Alan had a devastating stroke that left him largely wheelchair bound. Although his body had failed him, his mind remained active and he retained a keen interest in the Civil War. Even after the stroke, he continued to come to CWI, sitting on the aisle in a special spot reserved just for him. Alan passed away on July 27 at age 85.

I particularly enjoyed talking with him. For one thing, he was an attorney with decades of experience, so we spoke the same professional language. Alan was an NLRB arbitrator, and he thoroughly enjoyed that role. In addition, he was an accomplished and universally respected Civil War historian. His history of the Iron Brigade is considered to be one of the great classics of Civil War literature, and for good reason. It was a great book that helped to pave the way for contemporary unit historians; many still use its approach as a model for the modern unit histories. And, most importantly, Alan was always willing to chat with anyone who came by, and he was unfailingly kind and generous to all. Through it all, he remained humble, friendly, and always approachable, even as his illness sapped his productivity as a Civil War historian.

Lee ConsideredAs for me, his work had a profound impact on me. In 1991, his seminal work, Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History. This book, which has spurred vast amounts of controversy since the day it was published, broke new ground: it contradicted the Lost Cause mythology and instead argued that Robert E. Lee was a human being filled with ordinary foibles who was not perfect. Writing a brilliant legal brief, Alan argued that Lee was not a god, but just a man, imperfect and eminently human, and prone to mistakes and even to some unpleasant and not altogether likable personality traits. In short, the book was a brilliant and ultimately revolutionary work that had a great impact on the world of Civil War history.

I read the book when it first came out and was blown away by it. And I remembered it.

Years later, when I decided to assess Phil Sheridan’s role in the Civil War, I used Alan’s Lee Considered as the model for my book Little Phil: A Reassessment of the Civil War Leadership of Gen. Philip H. Sheridan. I very much modeled my approach on Alan’s and I was unabashed about saying so in the introduction to the book. In a lot of ways, Little Phil was my personal tribute to Alan and his work, and like Lee Considered, it’s generated a great deal of controversy. Like Alan’s book, readers either love it or they hate it; I frankly don’t care whether they love it or hate it. If readers reassess their opinions about Sheridan, then I will have accomplished what I set out to do. Alan took very much the same approach to his work, and to the same effect.

I owe Alan Nolan a great debt, and I will miss him. Rest in peace, Alan. While your presence will be missed, your legacy will live on.

They say that bad things come in threes. Our little Civil War community has lost Deborah Fitts, Prof. John Y. Simon and now Alan Nolan in a period of just three weeks or so. Let’s hope that there will be no more losses for a while. Our ranks are thin enough.

Scridb filter


  1. Steve Victor
    Wed 30th Jul 2008 at 5:28 pm

    Approximately 12 years ago, I began researching my family’s ancestral history.
    In my research, I came upon Alan Nolan’s book, “The Iron Brigade.”
    In the book was mention of my GGG Grandfather, William Wallace Robinson, Colonel of the Seventh Wisconsin Infantry Volunteers.
    Nolan mentions that Robinson may have a connection to the Mayflower.
    I pursued this lead, and was able to confirm that Robinson did indeed descend from Mayflower passengers Edward Fuller, and wife.
    Without Nolan’s “tip,” I may never have been able to prove this lineage.
    Years later, I was able to personally thank Alan.
    Thank you again Alan Nolan. Rest in peace.
    Steve Victor

  2. Donna Marie Schmink
    Mon 04th Aug 2008 at 4:32 pm

    Alan Nolan forgot more about the Civil War than I will ever know. About 20 years ago I called him on the phone to come teach a class on the Civil War to my civil war honors history class of 7th and 8th graders at Our Lady of Lourdes in Indianapolis, Indiana. He came and sat in a circle with the students at a student’s desk and discussed the issues of the American Civil War with very engaged 7th and 8th graders. He loved it so much he came back for several years. What a scholar and a gentleman he was!!! One year he told the students about the Indiana Civil War battle flags and their plight. They took up the cause and worked with then Governor Bayh, state legislators, citizens to preserve the Indiana Battle Flags! This all came about because Alan was willing to spend time with students and share his knowledge and time. God speed dear friend!!!

  3. Joe Farrell
    Tue 05th Aug 2008 at 9:47 pm

    I didn’t know Alan long and can’t claim to have known him more than casually as I only saw him at the Civil War Institute. He was congenial and approachable and always made me feel he was engaged in what I was saying . I can’t say more than what has been said already. He was a genleman,

  4. Patrick King
    Wed 06th Jan 2010 at 11:33 am

    I met Alan at The Civil War Institute meeting in 1998 at Campbellsville University, KY. I had read his book on the Iron Brigade and was greatly impressed. He was not well at that time. However, he was gracious and open. We talked for twenty minutes or so and I left feeling his contributions to Civil War history were a gift to all of us who study that dark night of American history. God rest you Alan.

    Patrick J. King Ph.D.

  5. sierra
    Tue 08th Dec 2015 at 2:21 pm

    this was my grategrampa he died when my papa was 3

  6. Michael Strong
    Fri 12th Feb 2016 at 10:25 pm

    What is great about these sites is that the comments live on. I’m just now reading the tributes to Mr. Nolan. I had the great privilege yrs ago to conduct a Friends of the Nationsl Parks Seminar tour on the topic of Archer’s Brigade. Alan Nolan was on the tour as a participant. Needless to say, it was very unnerving. He was wheelchair bound, and despite the time off the bus to discuss troop movements he let me know “it’s ok.”
    After the tour he graciously thanked me and said “good job, always nice to learn something new.”
    It was the most valued compliment in 20+ yrs of guiding that I’ve ever received. RIP Alan Nolan.

Comments are closed.

Copyright © Eric Wittenberg 2011, All Rights Reserved
Powered by WordPress