Saturday, July 16, 2011

"My Old Confederate Home" - Book Review and Author Interview!

Below is my review of My Old Confederate Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans (University Press of Kentucky, 2010) and an interview with author Mr. Rusty Williams.

You can read some of my other author interviews here:

Patriotic Envelopes of the Civil War: The Iconography of Union and Confederate Covers (LSU Press, 2010) - Steven R. Boyd (interview here)

Flora and Fauna of the Civil War: An Environmental Reference Guide (LSU Press, 2010) - Kelby Ouchley
(interview here)

My Name is Mary Sutter
(Viking) - Robin Oliveira (interview here)

To the Ends of the Earth: The Last Journey of Lewis & Clark
(Blind Rabbit Press, 2006) - Frances Hunter (Mary and Liz Clare) (interview here)

And now, on to My Old Confederate Home!

I want to thank the author, Mr. Rusty Williams, and the publisher, the University Press of Kentucky, for arranging for a review copy.

From the publisher's website:

In the wake of America’s Civil War, hundreds of thousands of men who fought for the Confederacy trudged back to their homes in the Southland. Some—due to lingering effects from war wounds, other disabilities, or the horrors of combat—were unable to care for themselves. Homeless, disabled, and destitute veterans began appearing on the sidewalks of southern cities and towns. In 1902 Kentucky’s Confederate veterans organized and built the Kentucky Confederate Home, a luxurious refuge in Pewee Valley for their unfortunate comrades. Until it closed in 1934, the Home was a respectable— if not always idyllic—place where disabled and impoverished veterans could spend their last days in comfort and free from want. In My Old Confederate Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans, Rusty Williams frames the lively history of the Kentucky Confederate Home with the stories of those who built, supported, and managed it: a daring cavalryman-turned-bank-robber, a senile ship captain, a prosperous former madam, and a small-town clergyman whose concern for the veterans cost him his pastorate. Each chapter is peppered with the poignant stories of men who spent their final years as voluntary wards of an institution that required residents to live in a manner which reinforced the mythology of a noble Johnny Reb and a tragic Lost Cause. Based on thorough research utilizing a range of valuable resources, including the Kentucky Confederate Home’s operational documents, contemporary accounts, unpublished letters, and family stories, My Old Confederate Home reveals the final, untold chapter of Kentucky’s Civil War history.

I was immediately interested in the book, in no small part due to my interest in the post-war lives of Civil War veterans (especially as regards pensions and disability...see a recent post here) and my abiding interest in Civil War-related medical care (before, during, and after the war).

I enjoyed the book very much indeed, and am so pleased that Mr. Williams agreed to an interview.

And - some great recent news for Mr. Williams and the book: it was awarded the Douglass Southall Freeman History Award for 2010 (see news here). Congratulations!

Q. Can you tell me a little about yourself, your education, your career, and the inspiration for the book

Storytelling has always been an important part of my life. I studied and trained as a newsman, and I fully intended to be a working journalist all my life. Early on, however, I got sidetracked into corporate management, and I spent most of my career in the operation and marketing management end of the publishing business instead of at a typewriter. Eight years ago, while posted in Louisville, Kentucky, I became aware of the Kentucky Confederate Home and I felt compelled to tell the story of that special institution and the people who lived there.

[Note: He has written for the Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, San Antonio Express-News and the Associated Press. He lives in Dallas, Texas.]

Below, Mr. Williams has some great advice for aspiring writers...

Q. What were some challenges in researching, writing, and publishing the book? Any advice for other aspiring writers?

I meet a lot of people—smart, well-educated people—who tell me they’ve been working on their book for years. They have a great idea, a lot of notes, and not much down on paper. If they ask my advice, I tell them, “Know what you want to write, then write it.” My corporate experience led me to start with a mission statement: “I intend to write an institutional history of the Kentucky Confederate Home through the stories of the people who built it, the people who managed it, the people who lived in it, and the people who tried to shut it down.” This mission statement helped focus my research and led to a formal 68-page book proposal. The proposal helped University Press of Kentucky understand the type of book I wanted to write, and they encouraged me to write it.

The heart of the book is about the men who were "inmates" at the Home (though it might seem alarming, that's what they were referred as). I was so impressed - and surprised - that Mr. Williams was able to flesh out the life stories of some of the men, esp. the poorer or more obscure ones. He describes the process below:

Texas writer John Graves said, “Poor men don’t waste much ink.” It’s true that many of the inmates didn’t leave much of a paper trail (and many were unable to write), but it’s surprising how much information was collected and published about people in a pre-digital world. The combination of census records, service records, admission applications, hometown newspapers and even documents from the Home itself provided a pretty good picture of many of the inmates. Wherever I could, I supplemented those sources with personal letters, interviews with descendants, photographs, contextual information, and more.

Q. Do you have a favorite among the personalities in the book?

Rev. A. N. White was a well-educated Baptist minister preaching in Carlisle, Kentucky, in 1902 when his hipbone crumbled like chalk, the result of a bullet that lodged there thirty-five years earlier. His congregation delivered him to the Kentucky Confederate Home on a pallet, and most of them thought he’d die in bed. Instead, Rev. White found himself a new ministry.

The Home physician provided medical care and a new oak-and-wicker wheelchair, allowing White to roll around the Home. For thirty years he did his best to force the Gospel on employees and fellow inmates, whether they wanted to hear it or not. He was an arrogant gadfly, constantly in trouble with the management of the Home, but he provided a lot of comfort to a lot of men in their last years.

The stories of the veterans are interesting and very well-told...But, in fact, the book is about much more than just the veterans at the home, and that's what makes it all the more interesting: there was a significant amount of social change going on at the time – especially as regards woman's suffrage, integration of free blacks, etc. – which is covered in the book - and Mr. Williams ably describes how those forces affected the founding and administration of the home. He explains below:

The three decades during which the Kentucky Confederate Home operated, 1902 to 1934, brought some incredible changes: automobiles, flight, candlelight to electricity, medical care, and more. Can you imagine what it must have been like for these veterans of the Civil War to enter a movie theater to watch “Birth of a Nation”? Or to listen to a live radio broadcast of the dedication of a statue in Richmond?

Q: Geriatric care did not become a specialty until the late 1800s/early 1900s…do you think the doctors in the home infirmary were prepared to meet the special medical needs of elderly men?

I’m convinced that the quality of medical care provided to inmates of the Kentucky Confederate Home exceeded the quality of care provided to all but the wealthiest residents of urban areas of the time. Diagnostics, surgery, dentistry, ophthalmology, cardiac care, nutrition—all helped extend the lives of these men in ways not available to men who remained at home on the farm to live in the care of their families.

The “godfathers” of geriatrics point to four important conditions of older people: immobility, instability, incontinence, and impaired intellect. Mr. Williams comments on the presence of the "four i's" in the Home.

Those four words go a long way toward describing the populations of the Confederate soldier’s homes. But there was more to it. These were men who had spent four years as participants in America’s bloodiest and most brutal war. Many of the inmates were living with amputated limbs, the affects of disease, poorly-healed war wounds, and what we now know as PTSD.

Nursing homes did not become popular (such as they are, anyway) in America until the mid-20th century...Mr. Williams offers his opinions on whether they learned lessons from the early experiments in veterans’ homes?

I found it interesting that the men of the Kentucky Confederate Home would simply refuse to accept nursing care from women. Their nineteenth-century modesty meant that the infirmary wards were staffed only by male nurses (working under the supervision of a female matron).

I won’t give away the ending, but this book is one of the most “personal” Civil War books that I have read in a long time. Mr. Williams comments on that point - and especially - what descendants of the “inmates” have told him about the book.

America’s Civil War is close enough in time, I think, that we believe we can still reach out and touch it. Maybe that accounts for the widespread genealogical interest in veterans of that war. Family historians helped me write this book by sharing their letters, old documents and family stories with me. I think I’ve helped them come to a better understanding of that ancestor.

Q: Can you recommend your favorite books on other veterans’ homes?

Only one (relatively) recent book treats the story of Confederate soldiers’ homes. Living Monuments: Confederate Soldiers’ Homes in the New South (R. B. Rosenberg, University of North Carolina Press, 1993, and reissued in paper in 2001) is a book I referred to often when researching My Old Confederate Home. It’s a more scholarly work, however, offering concise institutional histories of the homes and statistical analyses of inmates.

Mr. Williams has a TERRIFIC website and blog (
here) to accompany the book. He tells us what he hopes to accomplish through that venue:

I’m using the blog to share stories about all sixteen Confederate soldiers’ homes and the people who lived in them.

Q: Are you working on any other projects now (that you can tell us about?)?

My wife once asked me why I focused all my writing attention on historical subjects. “Everyone always ends up dead in the end,” she said. The thing that keeps me writing about history is that there are always new stories to tell and people interested in hearing them.

Thank you, Jim, for letting me introduce your readers to
My Old Confederate Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans!

Thank me? Thank you for the terrific book and for the thoughtful and insightful replies to my questions! And many thanks to University Press of Kentucky!


1 comment:

Richard said...

Good review and interview. I read the book a few months ago and enjoyed it tremendously.

I actually read it right after reading "Creating a Confederate Kentucky" by Anne Marshall - it was pure luck, but reading those books back-to-back was fascinating for someone interested in Kentucky history. Doing that helped me understand more why a state that stayed in the Union would use state funds for a home for Confederates. Mr. Williams discussed that, but those 2 books are a great, if accidental, fit with each other.

I share your recommendation of My Old Confederate Home. It's very good