Scratchin’ fleas

Reader Richard Williams posted a comment to my “Army of Amateurs” post from A.E. Housman.  It’s his definition of a historian, and I really like it:

A historian is not like a scientist looking through a microscope, but more like a dog searching for fleas. You can never be sure you have got them all.

How apropos.  No matter how exhaustively you think you’ve researched a topic, something new always turns up.  Researching the Civil War is no different.  There’s always another diary or letter lurking there in Grandma’s attic for the last 100 years, or a rare book that hasn’t seen the light of day for generations.  It’s indeed like scratching fleas, and thank goodness there’s always the possibility of discovering more.  If we no longer had unknown and yet-undiscovered source material out there, modern scholarship would simply be repetitive and rehashing.

After releasing my book and most of my articles, something new had a habit of turning up.  That’s frustrating, yet exciting.  Sometimes, though, you catch it just in the nick of time.  I’ve posted examples of that regarding the Stuart book here.  But late last year I completed an article on the cavalry battle at Fairfield, PA, which took place on July 3, 1863 concurrently with Pickett’s Charge at nearby Gettysburg.  The article will be published in the July issue of America’s Civil War magazine this year.  It contained the most up to date scholarship when I completed it, and I was very satisfied with it.

Then, I discovered a letter written after the battle by Maj. Samuel H. Starr, the commander of the 6th US Cavalry detachment that was all but decimated by Brig. Gen. William E. “Grumble” Jones’ Confederate cavalry brigade that day at Fairfield.  No accounting of the fight has ever used anything written by Starr before.  Starr was desperately wounded that day (an arm was amputated) and his letter contains much about the local citizens who nursed him back to health.  The letter was so good, that rather than quoting a few lines from it, I composed a sidebar piece for the article that contains the entirety of the letter.  I believe it will be printed alongside the article.  In addition, I also discovered a private letter written by a 6th US trooper who witnessed the saving of the regiment’s colors, and for which a Medal of Honor was issued after the war.  There has never been a lot of detail about the event until now, since I was able to weave in great details from the letter.  Neither letter has been used in any accounting of the battle before.  Now I’m really proud of the article, and it contributes a lot more scholarship to this relatively obscure fight than I had previously hoped.

I also received an email recently from a reader and fellow author regarding how I find my sources.  I do get this question quite often, in fact.  The questioner wondered where I go, and whether I procure material myself or use a hired researcher.

As to the latter, I do both.  My researcher gets half or more of my sources for me.  He’s in Washington DC, and it’s worth it to me to pay someone hourly rather than do it all myself – which would be much more expensive in lost work time and other expenses.

As to where I get my material, that’s a much broader answer.  Besides the obvious places like the Military History Institute holdings at Carlisle, PA, and the Library of Congress and National Archives, there are all sorts of terrific libraries around the country that have vast historical collections.  State museums and archives have a wealth of material.  And because of my website, this blog, and my public activities, an enormous amount of material in private hands comes to me.  This is probably the most rewarding.  I get emails such as, “Hey, my great-great grandfather was in the Xth cavalry regiment, was at such-and-such a battle, and I have all his letters here…. would you be interested in seeing them?”  My heart jumps at such emails and letters. 

Yep, it’s sure like scratching fleas.  My trusty dog probably wouldn’t appreciate the analogy, but I hope there continues to be lots more fleas out there to go after.  It’s what keep me going as a student and historian.  Just the thought that there’s one more letter, diary, or book out there I haven’t seen yet, just one more from some guy who wrote about his experience never knowing what it would mean to the future, keeps me going onward.  Even with all the material we have now, there may be just as much lurking out there somewhere waiting to be used and appreciated.

Thank (scratch) goodness.

Published in: on January 29, 2007 at 3:06 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I wish I had your problem! Since I started researching the life of Everton Conger, I’ve found few “fleas” in the story. Most of the family letters were apparently lost or destroyed when Conger moved from Montana to Honolulu in 1917. So far, I’ve found about five or six letters I can confirm were written by Conger and a few more written to him by family members. While I’m just starting to scratch the surface here, I can’t foresee a wealth of letters coming in. That still isn’t going to stop me from trying to write a book about him–it’s just going to make it that much harder.


  2. Hi Rob,

    That’s the other side of the coin – sometimes there just isn’t much. But maybe, just maybe, there’s something more out there. Keep looking.

    By the way, I had no idea Conger went to Hawaii… interesting.


  3. J.D.,

    He went to Hawaii in 1917 after his son-in-law, Joseph Poindexter, was appointed to the territorial bench there (much like EJC was appointed to the Montana bench in 1880 by Rutheford B. Hayes). While there, his daughter, Daisy, died from pernicious anemia. According to Conger’s granddaughter, whom I interviewed in 1995 (when she was 97!) that broke his spirit and in a few months he suffered a massive stroke that killed him. Poindexter accompanied Conger’s body back to Montana, where he was buried in Dillon.


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