Tuesday, May 15, 2007

From Wayside Reader to Writer - Part I

I'm often asked how I became interested in the Civil War and how I got involved in freelance historical writing.

I actually came "late" to the Civil War specifically, but I have always been interested in history, and as a youngster I was especially interested in biography and genealogy. Indeed, it may be because my ancestors - Germans from Russia - didn't settle in America until the mid-1870's that I didn't have an interest in the Civil War. Still, both my parents shared the same heritage of the Volga-Germans who settled in villages in Ellis County, Kansas, I was enthralled by the oral and written tradition they were able to share with me. A very fond memory is my first visit to Fort Hays, established in 1865 to protect railroad workers and travelers on the "Smoky Hill Trail," and more important, a home to cavalrymen I would one day learn more about: Custer, Reno, Sheridan, etc.

In 1992, living in Columbia, Missouri, I attended a local Civil War living history event at the behest of a friend who was becoming interested in the Civil War. It was my first event, so I learned a bit myself, but it didn't exactly set off a "spark" of continued interest.

In the fall of 1993, I was in Richmond, VA, on a week-long business trip. Having flown in a day or two early, I took some time to visit some of the historic sites, including St. John's Church, where Patrick Henry delivered his famous "Give me liberty, or give me death!" speech. On a lark I also visited the Cold Harbor battlefield, more so for my friend in Columbia than for myself. I had pulled into a small parking lot and was reading one of the wayside exhibits when an National Park Service ranger came up to me and asked if I'd be interested in joining a van of senior citizens for a tour of the battlefield. I said yes, and it changed me life. The ranger - Donnie Sanders (I'll nver foregt his name) took us from the Confederate lines to the Union lines to the Old Cold Harbor crossroads, stopping at each point and regaling us with information and stories from the battle.

I was hooked.

Over the next few days I explored more of the Richmond battlefields and area - the National Cemetery, the White House and Museum of the Confederacy, and other spots. I also bought my first Civil War book - Noah Andre Trudeau's Bloody Roads South. I read it in every free moment during the business trip and finished it on the flight home. When I did get back to Columbia, I told my friend with great excitement what it was like to be on a "real" Civil War battlefield. The next few years were spent in constant reading and additional traveling when circumstances allowed - to Vicksburg, the battlefields around Frederickburg, and several trips to Wilson's Creek, which was just a few hours drive from Columbia.

So in the end, it was an attentive and energetic NPS ranger who got me hooked and set me on a course of building a library and becoming a writer...an adventure which I'll cover in "Part II"

I'd really like to hear how others of you became interested in the Civil War!

Jim

4 comments:

Rea Andrew Redd said...

Jim,
Interesting story of 'origins;' it shows the importance of parks and interpreters. I've been reading your Civil War News column for a while now!

Rea Andrew Redd
http://civilwarmed.blogspot.com/

jschmidt said...

Rea,

Thanks for the message and for the kind words about the medical column. As I said, I'll be posting at least one of the older columns each week to build an archive here on my blog. Tomorrow I'll be posting column #2, which was about a new look at Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain's serious groin wound.

I'm an avid reader of your blog as well.

Jim

Don said...

Jim,
I've really enjoyed the posts so far, keep up the good work!
I was introduced to the Civil War by one of my teachers in the 6th grade. We had a 20 page research project to do over the course of a quarter (this was back in the 70s). An avid Civil War buff, he suggested writing a paper on something from the Civil War. The paper was on First Bull Run, but I was hooked as I read of different leaders and other things they'd accomplished after the battle. I've been reading about the Civil War ever since. Kinda surprising, since there wasn't much Civil War action in northern California....
The same teacher awakened my love of history, and I have him to thank for an undergraduate degree in history eventually as well.

bcfears said...

Jim,

I can't wait to hear more about your Civil War adventures. I'll bet you have many more stories to tell.

Curtis