Join us this Saturday for a Book Talk with Michael Hardy. Mr. Hardy was kind enough to answer a couple questions ahead of this Saturday’s talk.
How did you become interested in your topic and what about your work still fascinates you?
About twenty-five years ago, I really started to look intently at the history of Confederate regimentals. North Carolina sent 72 regiments into Confederate service. In 1995, there were only six histories published as standalone books written by the veterans themselves. Many of these are also just company level. There was only one post-1960 regimental history, plus a dozen collections of letters. Talk about a wide-open field! This led me to research and write a history of the 37th North Carolina Troops. Several books later, and after a conversation with Ted Savas at Savas Beatie Publishing, I decided to tackle a history of the brigade in which the 37th North Carolina fought: the Branch-Lane brigade. What continues to drive me to research and write is how little we really know about the day-to-day life of a regiment or brigade. It’s easy to talk about Chancellorsville or Gettysburg and troop movements, but there are topics that really need to be explored: army-issued food, battalions that served as couriers, and the lives of camp servants, including the enslaved brought from home and the free hired by the troops, among many others.
What was the most significant or surprising find during your research?
Brig. Gen. James H. Lane wrote a great deal about the role of his brigade after the war. The battle of Chancellorsville haunted him: the mortal wounding of Jackson on the night of May 2 and the loss of half his brigade on May 3, including a younger brother serving on his staff, led Lane to write a host of letters about his experiences. Lane also wrote about Gettysburg, Spotsylvania Court House, Battery Gregg, as well as many other events and his war-time experiences. Probably the best find was a short letter he wrote to a North Carolina newspaper in June 1897 about Appomattox. Information on the Confederate side of Appomattox is scarce. Lane’s letter is only a couple of paragraphs long, but he provides incredible details not found in his official report written on April 9, 1865.
Did you discover anything interesting that you did not publish?
When I write regimental histories, I have the room to include various stories and excerpts from letters. In General Lee’s Immortals, I am working with five regiments. There are many places to gather stories regarding views on battles and camp life. Unfortunately, some of that information is left on the cutting- room floor. George Cochran (37th North Carolina) recalled taking ten men across a branch and up a hill to dig new regimental sinks. They used the dirt from the new latrine to fill in the old, located just below. That part of the story makes it into the book. The rest of the story involved some poor soldier, who, on his way to the regimental sinks, not knowing there was a new one, and much to the chagrin of his comrades, fell into the old one. I wish I could have found a place for that part of the story in the book, as those moments of levity often alleviate an otherwise grim account. Also, while the whole episode is minor in comparison to the role of the brigade at Chancellorsville or Spotsylvania Court House, I seldom find accounts of something as mundane, yet essential, as digging regimental sinks recorded in other regimental or brigade histories.
How do you see the topic of your work relating to events or issues in society today?
When I set out to write General Lee’s Immortals, I wanted to craft a book that was more than just a history of the Branch-Labe brigade. I wanted to create a book that showed how a Confederate brigade worked, or at times, did not work. While I follow a chronological history of the brigade, from Lawrence Branch’s time in the US House as the secession debates roiled, to James H. Lane’s post-war engagement in the “battle of the books,” I also constructed chapters on brigade medical care and military discipline. The chapter on Camp Life covers everything from drill to food. In the scholarship surrounding regimental and brigade histories in the 21st century, a reader seldom gets that level of detail.
It seems that in the 21st century, people fall into two camps: either the war was fought over slavery or it was fought over states ‘ rights. Neither of those two ideas was really ever broached in the letters written by the almost 9,000 members of the Branch-Lane brigade as they corresponded with their loved ones back at home. Maybe they assumed everyone back at home knew why they were fighting. Many of them probably didn’t care about the causes of the war. To preserve their ideals of social mobility, they had to enlist and go off and fight. After April 1862, they were forced to go and fight. The same might be said of many issues today. A very vocal group wants Confederate monuments (and at other times, other monuments) to come down. Others want them to stay on the courthouse grounds. The vast majority of people simply do not care. Understanding history is both my goal and my mission, and part of learning and teaching history is seeing how we can build on and move forward from both successes and mistakes of the past.
Again, make plans to join us on Saturday as Mr. Hardy recounts the tale of North Carolina’s Branch-Lane Brigade and their involvement in battles from the Seven Days to Appomattox, based on his book General Lee’s Immortals: The Battles and Campaigns of the Branch-Lane Brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia, 1861-1865.