Friday, December 02, 2005

W W A B D?

Precisely. I woke up this morning and asked myself the same question: “what would Ambrose Bierce do?” He’d start a Civil War blog, of course. Sure, there are already some fine blogs out there oriented toward the "late unpleasantness." Each brings a different perspective or emphasis to the online proceedings. Most internet-savvy Civil War buffs (certainly those with debilitating internet addictions) have long since discovered Dimitri Rotov’s two venues, the Civil War Book News site, and the Bookshelf blog with its penetrating insights, carefully culled news items, and curiously personal denigration of the so-called “Centennial” school of Civil War historiography. Apart from the increasingly distracting anti-McPherson fetish, when Dimitri hits his stride his blog frequently tops the charts in the Civil War arena for entertaining editorializing and meaningful musings. And boldly going where few academics dare to tread, Mark Grimsley -- he of The Hard Hand of War -- holds forth in his web log with well considered & authoritative opinions. Kevin Levin, too, supplies exceptionally thoughtful commentary with a decidedly academic slant. Other rewarding stops on the Civil War blog circuit include author Eric Wittenberg’s candid rants, Drew Wagenhoffer’s welcome focus on short-shrifted books, small presses and West/Trans-Mississippi topics (a man after my own heart), and Brett Schulte’s site. My regular circuit also takes in Mike Koepke's musings.

Still, there’s room for more. A blog is an ideal, informal medium to tout the good and trounce the bad in Civil War publishing. For my part, I’ll also be using this site as a portal to the goings-on in The Civil War Forum, one of the oldest, best informed, and most cordial on-line Civil War discussions groups around. The Forum will serve as a mirror site for many of the posts here, and that’s where you can go to post replies, should the spirit move you. You'll have to choose a screen name and password if you feel compelled to respond.

The initial OB&B entries will include lots of gratuitous background info, but this blog won't devolve into a public diary. Who really cares, after all? Let us agree to maintain the illusion that we're not all wasting time in front of our computers. I will never tell you what I had for breakfast. Unless it was really, really satisfying, in which case I'll post a recipe and you can print it out as proof to your spouse that reading this blog was time well spent. Mmmm, breakfast.

Who Died and Put Me in Charge of Praising or Disparaging the Hard Work of Earnest Authors?

Glad you asked. Someone's got to do it. I'm as qualified as the next guy (though you may want to reserve judgment), having nurtured a years-long obsession with the subject, and having edited, contributed to, and published some worthwhile Civil War books. More importantly, I've bought Civil War books (when absolutely necessary) and invested precious hours reading them. Let's be frank -- some of those authors didn't work as hard on their books as you did earning the money to buy them. And for that, they must be called out.

I will not be selling books, promoting authors, or seeking tenure with this blog. I’ll strive to avoid personal potshots in my reviews -- and in the reviews of others that I publish here -- any scorn heaped upon the work of Civil War authors will hopefully be in direct proportion to the number of hours lost pouring over their texts. Damn, I wish I could get back some of those hours.

Back when the (legendary) William Miller was editor of Civil War magazine, and hired me as book review editor, back before North and South bought out the magazine and divested itself of all animate assets on CWM's masthead, Bill had an unofficial motto for the book review section: “we kill bad books.” The proposed logo included a pirate-like reviewer replete with eye patch, and a dagger buried deep into an overpriced casebound travesty. It was about being honest with the subscribers. We were not actively on the lookout for books to trash, but the explosion of Civil War publishing in the last decade or two -- the rapid rise of self-publishing, and the appearance of innumerable small presses that directed nary a dime to editing -- fairly ensured that after the wheat was meticulously separated, the office was awash in chaff. I hasten to add that some of those small presses, like the one I started out with, arose strictly in response to that very problem, and produced several useful and lasting volumes. I'll talk about good books, too.

But Wait -- Doesn't the Name of the Blog Include "Battlefields" Too?

Good catch. You're just the kind of alert reader I was hoping to attract. Yes, OB&B is not just about books, and not just about the Civil War, for that matter. I’ll also post regular commentary on America’s battlefields -- the landscape that is the very foundation of many of the books under discussion here. Battlefield commentary will span the continent, with early posts on Appomattox, where the Civil War Forum will gather with Ed Bearss in 2007, all the way to Captain Jack’s stronghold, and the beautifully desolate spot amidst the lava flows where poor Canby met his demise.

Photo: Site of Peace Tent where Modoc Chief Captain Jack shot and killed E.R.S. Canby. Cross reads, "Gen Canby USA was murdered here by the Modocs April 11, 1873." Lava Beds National Monument, Northern California.

One thing you won’t read about here is reenacting, or “living history.” With all due respect to good-intentioned hobbyists, and to top-flight historians like the greatly-missed Brian Pohanka, reenacting has always struck me as a profoundly odd pastime. I have little to say about it mainly because I do not pay attention to it. I will mention, however, that Ted Turner’s Gettysburg movie was ruined for me about three minutes in, when the scout looking for General Longstreet encountered a morbidly obese Confederate picket. How am I supposed to suspend my disbelief when the first ragtag, starving Rebel I see – a Rebel who presumably spent the previous two years relentlessly marching all over creation – reminds me less of Johnny Reb than of Jeremy Newberry, stalwart center for the San Francisco 49ers?

Gratuitous Background Department: My Life in Publishing, So Far

I worked at Stanford University Press for 9 years, from 1995-2004, one of the highlights of which was convincing SUP to publish Eicher & Eicher's Civil War High Commands, an astonishingly useful reference work that will languish in near-obscurity due to the meager marketing budgets typical of small academic presses (much as Frank Welcher’s brilliant two-volume reference on Union armies, put out by Indiana, lies largely forgotten). I'm a big fan of all of David Eicher's Civil War publications, and was honored to contribute an essay to his Gettysburg Battlefield volume. Who doesn't love a ground-breaking reference work? Well, no need to name names. You know who you are. David Eicher is a Civil War prodigy. Gettysburg battlefield tour guide? Check. Collection of all known images of R. E. Lee? Check. Biographical register of over 3,000 officers and important political figures? Check. Detailed analytical bibliography of the 1,100 most important books on the Civil War? Check. Massive single volume history of the war? Check. And all this on the side of his career as managing editor of Astronomy magazine. Some of us have trouble getting an essay written in our spare time.

Another Stanford Press highlight, for me, was working with William B. Gould IV on his great-grandfather's diary, for which I drew the maps (Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor). The 1st WBG in this line, the author of the diary, was an escaped slave who joined the Union navy. His great-grandson became Chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, and a Stanford Law Professor. An American story if ever there was one.

My fascination with the literature of the Civil War reached full blossom in a years-long collaboration with Ted Savas, a fellow Iowan I met at one of Jerry Russell's conferences in San Diego sometime in the late 80s (more on Jerry Russell later). With Ted as the indefatigable catalyst, we founded the South Bay Civil War Round Table in San Jose, and breathed life into the moribund West Coast Civil War Round Table Conference by hosting a spectacular weekend event at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco (1990). Bob Krick flew in to be our keynote speaker in exchange for two tickets to the following Sunday's 9ers game [let me pause for a moment to clutch my chest and wince, recalling the Roger Craig fumble and Lawrence Taylor recovery that squelched SF’s last, best chance for a Super Bowl three-peat]. Arrgh.

It was at that San Francisco conference that we debuted the quarterly journal Civil War Regiments, which was our grand dream to "provide a serial outlet for the research of historians, both professional and amateur" -- an outlet for lengthy, footnoted articles that were outside the scope of the glossy periodicals, or academic journals. We rounded each issue out with lots of maps and a handful of what we insisted would be seriously useful book critiques.

CWR was a good ride. I got to meet and work with many of the best historians in the field, and some brilliant newcomers. Ted concentrated on CS manuscripts, and I took the US subjects. It strikes me as I write this that two of the contributors to that first issue passed away before their time -- Michael Mullins, who was then book review editor of Civil War News and wrote the article on the 37th Illinois, and Rich Rollins, who went on to gain some recognition for his Rank and File publications, and work on Gettysburg.

Eventually we came to feel constrained by CWR’s focus on unit histories, and so liberalized the journal’s mission to take in command issues and campaign studies in various theme issues. There will be more posts later on the experience of trying to start a quarterly journal from scratch, securing funding, establishing a subscriber base, cultivating a stable of respected contributors, all in our "spare" time, evenings and weekends, with weary wives and little babies adding to the equation. In spite of early problems with marketing and distribution, the journal filled a niche. Authors and subscribers alike were enthusiastic and supportive.

Assembling 17 issues of Civil War Regiments was an education, and I'm proud of what we produced (that marked the end of my participation — Ted put out another 8 issues, I think). It was gratifying to bring out new information on topics outside the more famous campaigns, and readers — judging by their mail — were eager to see fresh research on things like the Red River Campaign, Steele’s Camden Expedition, and the midnight battle at Wauhatchie.

Back then, there was no North & South, which now fills some of the gaps we were trying to plug (maps! footnotes! substance!). Blue & Gray magazine and Kent State's Civil War History were as good as it got, and Bob Younger's Gettysburg Magazine. Later, when (the inimitable) Bill Miller took the reins, Civil War magazine reclaimed its importance. But America's Civil War and CWTI, for the most part, ruled the roost with their mind-numbingly tedious "All Pickett's Charge, All the Time" formats.

Under the imprint of Savas Woodbury, Ted and I also began publishing collections of essays on major campaigns more deserving of attention. We started with two volumes on the Atlanta Campaign, using the best authors on the subject. At a time when some publishers were cutting back on graphics, we included fold-out maps, and pocket maps (at least with the Atlanta series). The aforementioned (über editor) Bill Miller put together three stellar volumes for us on The Peninsula Campaign of 1862. What a treasure trove. Along the way we started drafting our own maps, the better to tailor them to specific articles. For me, that led to my contributing 30 or so maps to the Library of Congress Civil War Desk Reference, a torturous project that seems better in memory.

The last book I delivered to the printer under the old Savas Woodbury imprint was Mark Bradley’s Last Stand in the Carolinas, the Battle of Bentonville. Mark was a talented writer, making the editing mercifully painless. His entire manuscript, if memory serves, was stored in an old Brother electronic typewriter, and so could not simply be submitted on a disk our computers would read. Fortunately, the Brother did have an option for transmitting via modem, so I sent Mark an old 2800 baud unit and he sent the whole book from North Carolina to California through a series of long distance phone calls. I typeset the book in the dining room of my apartment in Santa Clara, and eventually submitted the files electronically to our printer in Ann Arbor – it was our first trans-continental, all-digital book. Nowadays, of course, books, jackets, and artwork are all routinely moved via ftp, on DVD, or even as email attachments.

I left CWR after finishing volume 5:1, Treasures from the Archives: Select Holdings from the Museum of the Confederacy. What a pleasure to work with John Coski, the historian there, whose new book on the battleflag is getting so much attention today. When the CW Forum held its annual gathering at Petersburg in 1999, we made a special visit to the Museum, where John gave us a private viewing of some of their most prized items.

Later, I did the stint as book editor for Civil War, based in Berryville, Virginia, concurrent with Stanford Press, and a year ago moved to Thomson Learning (Wadsworth), where I now work with college textbooks. CWR eventually came to a halt, though inventory for some issues can still be had. Savas Woodbury became Savas Publishing, and eventually
Savas Beatie. All the while I’ve kept involved with the Civil War Forum, organizing annual battlefield conferences, setting up live author Q&A's, and other fun stuff. Through all those publishing permutations these last 15 years, a couple of things have remained constant: I still religiously monitor the literature of the Civil War, and still board an airplane every spring for a few intensive days of talks and tours with the most authoritative guides we can enlist. Hence, the launch Of Battlefields & Bibliophiles. Stay tuned for more on the CW Forum’s annual gathering in subsequent posts.

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