Thursday, September 25, 2014

150 Years Ago Today, Everyday - Interview with Rudi Keller of the Columbia Daily Tribune

As a Civil War enthusiast, one of the great joys I've had in the six-plus months I've lived here in central Missouri is reading the daily "Life During War Time" column in the Columbia Daily Tribune.  It's right there on page 2 everyday: a few hundred words chronicling a variety of topics about the Civil War in the area, by date, in the words of the people who lived it.

The column from Tuesday of this week was a perfect example: a report of a guerrilla raid in the nearby river town of Rocheport; a successful capture of other bushwackers by Union militia in Fayette; a report on the vanguard of Confederate Major General Sterling Price's 1864 Missouri raid; fights over party nominations for the upcoming Congressional elections; and calls for the investigation of possible treason by a Union garrison in Keytesville that quickly surrendered to another band of guerrillas.

Rich material, that! And: every day!

We have Tribune writer Rudi Keller to thank for the daily recap and he was kind enough to answer some questions about his wonderful column!

Jim Schmidt (JS): Please tell us a bit about yourself, including your career as a journalist and your interest in history

Rudi Keller - Columbia Tribune
Rudi Keller (RK): I am a native of Louisville, Ky., who came to Columbia in 1983 to attend the Journalism School, graduating in December 1986. I have worked for UPI, the Tribune, the Albuquerque Journal and the Cape Girardeau Southeast Missourian. I returned to Columbia to take a job again with the Tribune in August 2010.

I have always been an avid reader of history and biography, preferring that to all other reading. It is a very general interest, from the Angevin Empire period of English history to ancient Greece and Rome to the Napoleonic era, etc.

JS: What was the genesis of "Life During Wartime"? Was the challenge of writing something every day daunting?  How far in advance is each column written?

RK: Life During Wartime began as an idea to recognize the sesquicentennial of the Civil War that I developed in November 2010. I wrote an article at the beginning of that month to note the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s election (he got 12 votes in Boone County) and decided we should provide our readers with a highly localized history.

I was not sure whether a day-by-day look back at the war was possible when I had the idea, but a little bit of research showed that there was plenty to write about and it could start before Fort Sumter with articles about the politics of secession in Missouri. It has been a daunting job, consuming almost all my free time to the point that I am jealous of any other thing that takes me away from it when I am not working on current news.

My goal is to write each column 3 to 10 days before it is published, with research into my main sources extended three weeks beyond the date of each column so I don’t miss things appearing in weekly newspapers, especially reprints of articles from papers that have not survived to be part of the State Historical Society collection.

JS: Can you describe the geographical area of MO to which you generally limit yourself, and why this is such fertile ground for exploring daily life in wartime Missouri.

RK: Once I had the idea for a day-by-day format, I had to decide the area I would cover. Boone County alone was too small, so I added the seven surrounding counties – Audrain, Callaway, Cole, Cooper, Howard, Moniteau and Randolph. By adding Cole, for example, I opened up all the activities of the General Assembly, state government and the State Conventions to the basic elements I would research.

Central Missouri is exceptionally fertile ground. In 1861, the first battle of the war in Missouri occurred at Boonville and in October, Secretary of War Simon Cameron visited Fremont near Tipton in Moniteau County to tell him to get after Gen. Price or lose his command.

With a large slave population, deeply divided populace, men joining both armies and guerrilla raids, plus heavy enforcement of martial law I have not lacked for material. Often, the question is what to exclude to keep the account limited to the space allocated by the Tribune.

JS: You use a wide variety of sources - Official Records, period newspapers, county histories, biographies, and - my favorite - the State Historical Society of MO.  What have been some of your favorite manuscript collections you've come across?

RK: Probably my favorite source is the Provost Marshal Papers available from the Missouri State Archives. Every aspect of life during the war is on display here – politicians seeking to help free friends from prison or banishment, widows complaining that troops were stealing corn and testimony from the prisoners themselves explaining their actions or seeking mercy.

However, I have found so many interesting items in so many places, I could not say what has provided the most.

JS: What historical events or people have made the biggest impression on you so far in writing this column?

RK: This is the toughest question because I have learned so much about so many people, some well known and some obscure. My estimation of Ulysses Grant, for example, has grown because he was so different from so many Union generals – he acted with what he had, didn’t complain about what he did not have and was almost always victorious. Grant was briefly a part of the series in 1861, when he was a colonel with only a suspected reputation as a drunk.

Odon Guitar
Odon Guitar, the Columbia attorney-turned soldier, is someone I knew little about. He was a hard-fighting cavalry leader who tried to make both sides in the civilian population behave, and he was successful as an administrator in that regard. When he was replaced in North Missouri, within a few months the worst and longest guerrilla insurgency of the war began and ended only when Price was defeated at Westport.

There are too many others to go on.

JS: What events and personalities can readers look forward to in the coming months as we approach the end of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War?

RK: The final months of the war will include election of a new Radical governor, emancipation of Missouri slaves and the writing of a new Constitution that includes the “Iron Clad Oath” of loyalty to prevent people from voting, teaching, preaching or working as a professional such as attorney or doctor unless they can prove they were loyal from the beginning of the war.

We will also see the last convulsions of the guerrilla war, with the murder of freed slaves, Union atrocities against civilians, and the return of Confederates following the various surrenders.

JS: Is there a good way for non-subscrbers to read some of the previous columns (they've been collected in books, by year, is that correct?)

RK: The columns for each year will eventually appear in a five-volume series of hardcover books, supplemented by photos and extra materials to explain and provide in-depth study of particular issues. So far, we have Volume I, covering 1861, and Volume II, covering 1862, available at the Tribune offices.

Thank you Mr. Keller!  Keep Up the Great Work and Best Wishes for Continued Success and Inspiration!

1 comment:

Mark said...

Wow, that is pretty rad! It's like you get to relive the experience, because people back then certainly read about the war every day as well. Very neat:)