Very Distressing

Last night, Eric Wittenberg put a post up on his blog about the most recent case of an archivist getting pinched for stealing (and then selling) historic documents.  In this case, an New York employee is charged with stealing several hundred documents – including the Davy Crockett almanacs, a Poor Richard’s Almanac, and an 1823 letter written by US Vice President John C. Calhoun.  Authorities found some 400 items in his home, and some have already been sold through eBay.

Reading this made me think of the past couple of similar stories – researchers/archivists at the National Archives stealing and selling items, other state facilities, and so on.  Usually, they seem to get caught either by the oft-described “alert history buff” seeing a questionable item on eBay (“Um, why does Joe Schmoe of Possum Hollow, Kentucky have George Washington’s commission in the Continental Army in his possession?”) or someone questions the propriety of a private sale. 

Such thefts are thefts from each of us.  These documents and items are sacred possessions of the American people.  They are our history, they are Americana.  Folks who get convicted of these thefts should be treated no less harshly than, say, some bozo who would cause damage to the Declaration of Independence.  They should see the inside of a prison, and spend a few years being the toy of some 7-foot weightlifting lifer name Bubba.

Tough if that sounds harsh.  These thefts of our history are inexcusable.  Draw and quarter them, and shoot the pieces.  These items are retained by the public trust so that the people – you and I – can go and see them.  No one individual should have the audacity to stick them in their socks, take them home, and – here’s the really stupid part I guess – put them up on eBay or sell them through another venue.

When someone takes a shot at the White House, for example, they get thrown to the ground and get a boot in the back of their head.  They don’t walk away, they’re dragged.  Stealing a part of our history is no less hienous.

Thankfully, most repositories are tightening security because of the past actions of these low-lifes.  It used to be that nearly any pre-approved individual could go into any of these places and literally hold history in their hands.  Want to hold a Civil War soldier’s diary in your fingers?  Just go to the US Army History and Education Center (formerly MHI) at Carlisle, Pa.  Or Revolutionary War documents?  Same thing.  But now, thankfully, many documents are look-only, and the staff handles them to either make copies or allow you to transcribe stuff. 

It’s also helping to alleviate the wear and tear on such important items.  It used to be, at the old War College facility at Carlisle, that you could just go through the books stacks, pull out a first edition of a rare Civil War book, and shove it into the copier machine to make copies.  I recall, years ago, taking several of those books up to the staff desk and showing them the damage being caused by that.  Pages were cracking, missing, falling out.  Access to these items was simply too easy and it was irreparably damaging them.

Now, if you’re allowed to page through a particularly rare book, for instance, the staff will make copies.  Or, if it’s already too damaged, you’re left to transcribe what you want.  Thank goodness – because I saw dozens of books that were turning to dust years ago.

Here in America, we have a very open society because of our liberties, and it used to be that way with much of our Americana.  Access was very open for these items.  That’s changing, and it’s necessary to save them for future generations, and not see them on eBay.  It’s too bad that we have to tighten up such access because of a few rotten apples, but if it saves these pieces of history then it’s worth it.  Strange how it reflects the rest of what goes on in the world today, and how some people are more than willing to walk through that open door and do harm to the rest of us who appreciate it.

Shame on them.  Lock ’em up.

And sell the key on eBay.

Published in: on January 30, 2008 at 11:20 am  Comments (3)  

Logistical fun

With the release of our book on the Gettysburg Retreat just around the corner (May 1) now is the time when the logistical proceedings go forward for both publisher and author.  Ted Savas and his crew at Savas Beatie LLC are putting together what are called the “galleys” of the book – soft-cover printed versions of the book that are used to make final edits.  To that end, the past couple weeks we’ve been making sure that the book itself (chapters, sections, bibliography, notes, etc.) is laid out correctly in the computer files.  I did, in fact, catch one major boo-boo last week – somehow, we had gotten the footnotes doubled up for one chapter.  There were two sets of Chapter 4 footnotes for both 4 and 5.  Chapter 5’s notes were missing.


How does that happen?  Well, when we write the manuscript originally in Word, the footnotes are printed at the end of each chapter.  Then, the publisher has us create a separate file of just the footnotes, divided by each chapter and, of course, in proper order.  It’s basically a cut and paste job.  But if you make a brain fart somewhere between cutting and pasting, a mistake can happen.  Good thing we caught that early enough.  (All of which makes me wonder that if we wrote a manuscript in the same software that is used for publishing, the chance of similar oopsies might be reduced – but what author is going to spend that kind of coin for the software!)

Anyway, at the moment I’m engrossed in one of the final logistical exercises that we do – setting the placements of both the illustrations (photos) and the maps for the book.  Ted knows that no one knows a book like the author, so he leaves it up to us to place them.  Many publishers do that themselves, but I like Ted’s thinking that only we really know where they should be.  Then, when the final book is printed, the author won’t be questioning why such-and-such a map appears on page 100 instead of page 90 (where the author would have preferred it, for example).

And a lot of thought goes into it.  For instance, in such a book as this one on the Gettysburg retreat, Union General George Meade is mentioned throughout it.  Should his picture appear at the beginning of the book – alongside Lee’s picture?  Or, should it appear after the first chapter – wherein we discuss in detail the Confederate wagon train retreat – and be placed in a later chapter wherein we introduce Meade’s actual pursuit?  Same with other major players.  Pleasonton, the commander of the Federal cavalry, could simply appear up in front of the book.  Or, he could appear several chapters later when he and his decisions are actually discussed in detail.  Do we want to place maps of actions right at the beginning of texts when that action is first mentioned, or a couple pages later when we get into the heart of the action?

All of these are the questions that an author has to ask himself when doing these placements.  Most readers of a book probably don’t give them much thought, but they’re just as important as the printed word on each page.  Subconsciously, the photo and map placements admittedly make an impact on the reader’s experience.  If it’s better that a map appear 3 pages earlier than it actually does – so the reader gets an earlier visual of an action being described – it can make the reading experience a bit less pleasurable.  Some publishers probably don’t appreciate these kinds of nuances like writers and readers do, so I think it’s very important that the author be involved in the process. 

We will be seeing the galleys soon, so that I, Eric, and Mike Nugent can comb through them for any mistakes or any last-minute important adjustments.  Then, boo-boos or no boo-boos, it’s off to the printer!

Published in: on January 30, 2008 at 10:33 am  Leave a Comment  

Savas Beatie’s “Gettysburg Encyclopedia”

Over the past few weeks I’ve been collating the cavalry portion of this project by Savas Beatie.  As the Cavalry Editor of the book, I’ve been putting together entries for cavalrymen biographies, weapons, actions, etc.  I’m really looking forward to seeing this one in print, and frankly I’m surprised that no one took it on before Savas – what a great idea.  You’ll be able, just like any encyclopedia volume, to look up individuals, particular weapons, pertinent battlefield locations, farms, civilians – you name it.  Overall editor Brad Gottfried has truly taken on a massive undertaking, but when this one appears I believe it will become a standard desk reference for Gettysburg.  The average student and scholars alike will clamor for this book.

I’m not sure when the projected publication date is – perhaps later this year.  Watch Savas’ website for further details.

Published in: on January 28, 2008 at 12:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

Battle of Monocacy project

As Eric posted recently on his blog, the two of us have formally decided to tackle the July 9, 1864 Battle of Monocacy with our trademark brand of detailed narrative and driving tour.  The format of this work will mirror our book on Stuart’s Ride to Gettysburg and the soon-to-be-released book of the Gettysburg Retreat.

Last summer, after attending a Gettysburg event, Eric and I drove to the Monocacy Battlefield since we had previously discussed the idea of doing a work on it.  Marc Leepson’s book on the battle, Desperate Engagement: How a Little-Known Civil War Battle Saved Washington, DC and Changed American History had just been released.  I hadn’t yet read it, but picked up a copy at the Monocacy Visitor Center – which had just been built and completed.

I had only visited the battlefield once previously – back when I was a teenager.  When it came out in the mid-90s, I picked up Ben Cooling’s book on the fight, Jubal Early’s Raid on WashingtonOld Jubilee has long been a favorite character of mine, and I was decently familiar with the battle and its place in the war, but 20-odd years between battlefield visits makes the recent visit seem brand-new.  It indeed was.  As I mentioned, the new Park Service Visitor Center was beautiful and impressive, and Eric and I had a great time driving around the field and then spending a couple hours walking much of it.  We also spent considerable time orienting ourselves to the maps of the fight, plotting out Federal and Confederate attack movements for ourselves.  The day was pretty hot, as I recall, and we worked up quite a sweat out there.

We continued to talk more about doing a book on Early’s advance, the battle, and also about Fort Stevens.  Since Leepson’s book had just appeared, that was a consideration for us.  When we got back to the Visitor Center, we spoke to the Rangers there about the possibility of doing such a work – and they were actually quite receptive, Leepson’s book notwithstanding.  We learned that one of the Rangers was also doing some research and preparing some sort of manuscript of his own, but no one was sure of its scope.  Or if it were ever going to be published.  Eric was later able to have an email exchange with this Ranger, but it didn’t appear that any type of book was imminent.

Over the couple months after my return home I was able to read Leepson’s book.  I was duly impressed – he’s a terrific writer, the book was well-organized, and the story is well-told and the context of Early’s raid in the events of 1864 is well-done.  I recommend the book to anyone interested in this battle.

Those familiar with the work that Eric and I do, or more specifically, the way we treat a battle/campaign in our writings, know that we really enjoy going into our research head-first.  Beyond Cooling’s work, or Leepson’s book, and the several other treatments done on the battle or segments of it, Eric and I knew that there was still a wealth of primary source that no one had used yet.  Especially when it came to the resulting events at Fort Stevens on July 12.  We have been finding a truckload of primary material on Fort Stevens, and there hasn’t been a single modern treatment of it yet. 

Like our other two books, we enjoy plotting out and including a driving/walking tour that allows the reader to become a student of the terrain and see all there is to see for himself/herself. 

After we recently began compiling a ponderous amount of material of Early’s advance, Eric contacted our publisher, Ted Savas, about our doing this as our next narrative project.  Ted agreed to have us proceed.  We recognize that the door is still wide open to fully tell the story of this infinitely interesting little fight outside Washington with some of the most interesting figures of the war – Early, Lew Wallace, John B. Gordon, and… oh yeah, there’s a bit of cavalry involved, too.

Lots of work to do.  Watch for this one, hopefully, sometime next year.

Published in: on January 16, 2008 at 11:29 am  Comments (8)  

Best military sentiment heard

For all the hot air and silliness that accompanies such Presidential campaigns like the one we’re suffering through now, once in a while a gem is heard.  I caught this one during a Mike Huckabee (Rep-Arkansas) speech, and it’s one of the best I’ve heard in a long time (I’m going by memory since I don’t have the text of the speech on hand):

“A good soldier doesn’t fight because he hates those in front of him… he fights because he loves the ones behind him.”

Well said. 

Published in: on January 10, 2008 at 5:38 pm  Comments (3)  

The Joy of Mapmaking!

The past couple of weeks, my co-authors on our book on the Gettysburg Retreat (Eric Wittenberg and Mike Nugent) and I have been working with our cartographer pretty steadily.  Our mapmaker is Ed Coleman, who is actually a woodworker by trade.  His website for Coleman Woodworking gives all the details.

Ed does beautiful work.  His maps are going to send the scholarship of our book through the roof, in my opinion.  What’s been keeping us all busy finishing the maps lately is that much of what we’re charting hasn’t really been done before.  Not in such great detail, anyway.  For instance, we have mapped a very obscure, little-known skirmish that took place on July 5 during the retreat, one that has never been mapped before.  We’ve been able to narrate the action and map it out for the first time based solely on rare first-hand accounts.  Up to now, most folks have confused this skirmish with some fighting that took place later in the day, and most aren’t even aware that this particular skirmishing was a separate fight altogether.

And some additional primary source came in to us literally in just the last week or so, allowing us to work even great detail into the map.  We now have actually been able to identify every single unit that took part in this skirmish, and get it on the map – including the locations and movements of their skirmish lines.  We’re extremely proud of the narrative and the map on this one, to say the least.

For several other actions during the retreat (some better known by students of the Campaign) such as the fights at Funkstown, Boonsboro, Monterey Pass, Williamsport, etc., we’ve worked some amazing detail into the maps.  Again, detail that hasn’t been done before.  So our maps have gone through several changes since we first submitted them to Ted Savas, our publisher, about a month ago.

But I’ve also been learning about the process of attaining uniformity in maps lately.  Besides creating maps from scratch and working in such detail,  Ted has been giving all of us and Ed great guidance in what makes for an attractive user-friendly map.  The last couple of revisions of the maps have entailed font changes, shading, and uniformity issues.  Basically mostly technical issues.  But the end product is a full set of whiz-bang maps that look wonderful, are very easy for the reader to follow and use, and contain enormous detail.

Ted has told us that he recognizes the potential for this book, so we’ve all been very motivated to make the maps the best they can be.  Maps can make or break a book, so Ted has taken a very active role in the revisions and updates.  Fortunately, Ed Coleman has impressive talent, his mapmaking software produces beautiful maps, and he’s quick to make suggested changes and revisions.

This book has really been a team effort.  I just wish folks could see the amount of cooperative effort that has been going on behind the scenes – well, maybe it will be evident once the book is released.  We expect to get the page proofs sometime over the next month or so, and I personally can’t wait to see how this one looks.

Published in: on January 3, 2008 at 11:09 am  Leave a Comment