We’re looking forward to Michael K. Shaffer speaking at both Appomattox and Richmond later this month. Make plans to come out on October 26th in Richmond and October 27th in Appomattox. Dr. Shaffer was kind enough to answer a couple questions before this talk to give you some insight into his topic and process.
How did you become interested in your topic and what about your work still fascinates you?
In July 2016, I received an invitation to speak at a church in Washington County, Virginia. The church, celebrating their 150th anniversary, wanted me to talk about life in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War. A very nice lady approached me before the program and said she and her family had something, which I may have an interest in seeing. After the program, she invited me to her car, where she went to the trunk and proceeded to hand me bound-volumes…hand-written accounts of the wartime service, and postwar life of her great-grandfather Thomas Wallace Colley. She asked me if I had an interest in possibly taking the journals and getting the work published in Colley’s memory. Of course, I said yes!
After “living” with this trooper for the past two years, I remain fascinated in not only his account of service with the 1st Virginia Cavalry, but uniquely his detailed, and often heartfelt recollections of struggling to support his growing family financially. His grappling with what we now know as PTSD-like symptoms magnified his attempt to acclimate into society. Only through his religious faith, did Colley overcome all obstacles, including the loss of his left foot, amputated after a wound at the Battle of Haw’s Shop in May 1864.
What was the most significant or surprising find during your research?
The archives, at Virginia Tech, house a collection of several wartime letters from Colley. Visiting Tech, and spending a day reading his various dispatches to family members on the home front, enhanced my understanding of this man, and the difficulties he faced in a time of war.
Did you discover anything interesting that you did not publish?
As most historians will relate, one frequently encounters specific finds too late to include in the book. Another Colley descendant sent me a photograph of Colley, along with his father, his son, and a couple of other family members. Unfortunately, I received this image too late for inclusion in the book.
How do you see the topic of your work relating to events or issues in society today?
Perhaps the most significant value in reading this account – especially amid today’s struggles over memory, and commemoration of this period in our nation’s history – rest in learning of the postwar life of this former Confederate cavalryman. If readers will “listen” to his observations, they may have a better understanding of, and appreciation for, the struggles of all who wore the gray after the final stacking of arms. This former Confederate, now a United States citizen, wrote as a man wishing to remember his comrades, but also willing to adapt to a new society without lingering hatred. As Colley said of his reason for developing a love of writing, he did so “In Memory of Self and Comrade.”