West Virginia Book Festival

Gift books, Dec. 8: Civil War books

John Fox, 2010 West Virginia Book Festival presenter and author of “The Confederate Alamo: Bloodbath at Petersburg’s Fort Gregg on April 2, 1865,” offers a couple of book ideas for the Civil War aficionado in your life:

I am almost finished with an excellent book that just came out called “Valley Thunder: The Battle of New Market and the Opening of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, May 1864” by Charles R. Knight [2010, Savas Beatie]. It is a well researched account of the May 15, 1864 Battle of New Market (just north of Harrisonburg, Va.) chock full of great maps and photos. The battle is best known for the insertion of the Virginia Military Institute corps of cadets into the fight during a driving thunderstorm. Major General John Breckinridge commanded the Confederate troops while German born Major General Franz Sigel commanded the Union forces.

Several of the Confederate units had been recruited from counties that had since seceded from Virginia to form the new pro-Union West Virginia while several West Virginia regiments fought in Sigel’s army [12th West Virginia, 1st West Virginia, and two batteries from the 1st West Virginia Artillery. This was one of those battles where former friends and neighbors were shooting at each other. Sigel and his Union troops were driven off which resulted in Sigel being relieved of command and Major General Phil Sheridan arriving to take over the Union army in the Shenandoah Valley.

Also, another great book on the war that came out several years ago is W. Hunter Lesser’s Rebels at the Gate: Lee and McClellan on the Front Line of a Nation Divided.] This provides much detail on the 1861 clashes in the Allegheny Mountains as both sides tried to control the western Virginia theater of war.

Another Civil War author comes to Charleston

It’s Civil War author season here in Charleston. Stonewall Jackson biographer James Robertson and John Fox, author of “The Confederate Alamo,” were at last weekend’s West Virginia Book Festival, and Kenneth Noe, a history professor at Auburn University, will speak Tuesday night about “The Civil War in Appalachia.”

Charleston Gazette reporter Rick Steelhammer talked with Noe for a story published in Monday’s paper. Noe, who grew up in Blacksburg, Va., says there are many different reasons why people in this region chose to support either the Union or the Confederacy, including religion, class and where their families had lived before they moved to Appalachia.

“We’re so used to thinking about Appalachia as being one place these days, but a common denominator for the region didn’t really exist until the arrival of the coal industry,” Noe said. “Prior to that, there were distinct settlement patterns across the region, and some places had stronger relationships with their state government than others.”

Noe’s visit is part of the Civil War Scholars Lecture Series, funded in part by the West Virginia Humanities Council and the state Division of Culture and History. The lecture is free, and starts at the Culture Center at 7 p.m.

John J. Fox III, author of “The Confederate Alamo: Bloodbath at Petersburg’s Fort Gregg on April 2, 1865,” will be part of the West Virginia Book Festival. He’ll read from his book at the Charleston Civic Center on 11:30 a.m. on Saturday (a full schedule is available on the website).

Fox summarized part of his book for the Sunday Gazette Mail this weekend; you can read it here.

(That fellow up there is Lt. Josiah Curtis, a young Union lieutenant from West Virginia who features in Fox’s story.)

UPDATE: Gazette reporter Rick Steelhammer also discussed Fox’s book in the Arts & Letters section of the Sunday Gazette-Mail.

Hechler, Fox added to Book Festival line-up

West Virginia’s former Secretary of State Ken Hechler and Civil War Historian John J. Fox III have been added to the line-up of the West Virginia Book Festival.

Ken Hechler

Ken Hechler

Before he came home and was elected to public office, a young Ken Hechler interrogated captured Nazi officers prior to the Nuremberg Trials in 1946. Among his subjects was Hermann Göring, Hitler’s second-in-command and head of the Luftwaffe. Hechler will discuss the experience and his manuscript on the subject, “The Enemy Side of the Hill,” at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 16, at the Charleston Civic Center.

Hechler is a former U.S. Congressman, political science educator and an author. His books include: “Insurgency: Personalities and Politics of the Taft Era”; “The Bridge at Remagen”; “West Virginia Memories of President Kennedy”; and “Working With Truman.” He has been a contributor to many state and national newspapers. “The Bridge at Remagen” was made into a motion picture of the same title by United Artists. His latest title is “Super Marine! The Sgt. Orland D. “Buddy” Jones Story.” At 95, Hechler is a current candidate to fill the U.S. Senate seat of Robert Byrd.

John J. Fox III

John J. Fox III

Immediately after Hechler’s talk, Fox will speak at 11:30 a.m. about his new book, “The Confederate Alamo: Bloodbath at Petersburg’s Fort Gregg.” Robert E. Lee faced the most monumental crisis of his military career on the morning of April 2, 1865. By sunrise that morning, the Union 6th Corps had punched a huge hole in Lee’s outer line, southwest of Petersburg, Va. He needed time for reinforcements to arrive from Richmond, but how could his depleted army buy that time? Amidst overwhelming odds, this suicide mission fell to a handful of Confederates who made a desperate last stand at Fort Gregg.

Fox is the author or editor of several books and articles about the Civil War. His first book, “Red Clay to Richmond: Trail of the 35th Georgia Infantry Regiment,” won two awards – the 2005 James I. Robertson Jr. Literary Prize for Confederate History and the 2006 Georgia Historical Records Advisory Board Award given by the Georgia Secretary of State. Fox was born and raised in Richmond, but both his parents are native West Virginians. He earned a degree in U.S. History from Washington & Lee University in 1981 and then served for seven years in the U.S. Army. When he is not writing or editing, he works for American Airlines as a pilot. He lives with his wife and two teenagers in Winchester, Va.

In addition to Hechler and Fox, the West Virginia Book Festival line-up includes, among others: New York Times best-selling authors Nicholas Sparks and Diana Gabaldon; Civil War historian James Robertson; children’s author Carmen Deedy; and E. Lockhart, author of books for teens.

The West Virginia Book Festival, scheduled for Oct. 16 and 17, is an annual, two-day event celebrating books and reading presented by The Library Foundation of Kanawha County, Inc., Kanawha County Public Library, the West Virginia Humanities Council, The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail. For more information, visit www.wvbookfestival.org.

Every West Virginia kid learns that Gen. Thomas Jackson and his men were observed standing like a stone wall at the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas 149 years ago today (July 21, 1861).

Stonewall Jackson’s nickname stuck. He achieved celebrity status in his lifetime, and he became one of those famous western Virginians, passed down through the generations like a treasured quilt, an acre or a name. For West Virginians since his time, Stonewall Jackson is a claim to fame, a source of pride, proof of importance and accomplishment.

After someone becomes a household name, it is easy to forget, or never learn, what caused the person to be elevated in the first place.

In the case of Thomas Jonathan Jackson, he was brilliant at leading and inspiring his relatively small group of soldiers. They harassed a bigger army, picked off its weakest segments and unnerved the larger force. He drew intelligence from the surrounding countryside and transmitted it up to his superiors. He was also deeply Christian and quirky, even to his contemporaries.

This Jackson comes through clearly in James I. Robertson Jr.’s very readable “Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend,” published by MacMillan back in 1997.

Robertson, a history professor at Virginia Tech, will speak at the West Virginia Book Festival. His talk “Quicksand and Land Mines: Writing Civil War History,” will be at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2010 in WV Room 105 at the Charleston Civic Center. The Book Festival is free and open to the public.

Robertson undoubtedly admires his subject. But the details of Jackson’s life are difficult not to admire. Jackson’s grandparents were convicted of grand theft in a London court in the 1740s and banished to America for seven years of forced labor. They married and settled near Buckhannon. The grandfather, along with his sons, fought in the American Revolution.

The story of young Thomas Jackson’s life is a tour of what is now West Virginia. After the death of his father, his impoverished mother remarried, left Jackson’s Mill and moved to Ansted. His sister was sent to live with relatives in Parkersburg. Tom and his brother Warren set out for the Ohio River, where they heard a relative was making good money selling wood to steam boats. The trip was a miserable, literally sickening, dangerous failure.

At age 15, Jackson started having stomach problems, then called dyspepsia. By 18, the only surviving member of his immediate family was his sister Laura in Parkersburg.

Continue reading…

Civil War history: A blend of old and new

Plenty of images from the time, such as this print of a Civil War balloon, help to make “Mr. Lincoln’s High-Tech War” a book that enables young people to discover knowledge of history on their own.

From my earliest discoveries about American Civil War history, I have been fascinated by the overlap of old and new technologies — new rifled gun barrels that spun bullets straighter and farther than the old West Point generals anticipated, armored ships, submarines, “high-speed” telegraph communications and mass troop and supply transport by rail, for example.

At the same time, Civil War soldiers were still facing each other in the kind of formations Napoleon used, and dying in the face of these more deadly weapons. Medical care had not advanced as far as gun technology, so soldiers died of disease or infection, if not directly from their wounds.

In “Mr. Lincoln’s High-Tech War,” Thomas B. Allen and his son Roger MacBride Allen expertly explain these contrasts for young readers, although grown readers will find plenty here to expand their own understanding.

The book tracks technological developments throughout the war and their effects on the fighting armies and navies. It starts with the years of scientific discovery leading up to Civil War and follows innovations as the war drags on to involve the total population.

As you might expect from a National Geographic book, it not only reads well, it looks great. Designers set aside from the main text relevant chronologies and brief backgrounds on specific topics, such as photography and habeas corpus. This makes the book easier to browse, particularly for young readers. Almost every page contains an image from the time that allows readers to “discover” historical knowledge on their own. For example, you can see cannon dents in the sides of the U.S.S. Monitor, bent railroad ties that had been wrapped around trees and the columns of the White House wrapped in black after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

Thomas B. Allen has won a number of commendations for his earlier young adult non-fiction, including “George Washington, Spymaster,” and “Harriet Tubman, Secret Agent.” His son has written science fiction in the past. This is their first book together.

I found this book on the new shelf at the Kanawha County Public Library. It deserves a place in every elementary and middle school collection. It is exactly the type of book young, curious readers can browse again and again, picking up new details and understanding each time.  Though it is easy to follow, it is not dumbed down. It has a complete bibliography and list of works cited, a good index and a substantial page of online resources.

Civil War expert James Robertson coming this year

JamesRobertsonsmJames Robertson, author of the biography “Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend” will appear at the 10th annual West Virginia Book Festival on Oct. 16, 2010. Robertson was also chief historical consultant on the film “Gods and Generals” from Ted Turner/Warner Bros. [edited to correct details]

Book Festival organizers received confirmation this morning. Robertson will give a talk called  “Quicksand and Land Mines: Writing Civil War History,” at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 16, in WV Room 105 at the Charleston Civic Center. Here’s the rest of his official bio:

gods_and_generalsThe Danville, Va., native is the author or editor of more than 20 books that include such award-winning studies as “Civil War! America Becomes One Nation;” “General A.P. Hill;” and “Soldiers Blue and Gray.”

The recipient of every major award given in the Civil War field, Robertson is frequently asked to appear in Civil War programs on the Arts & Entertainment Network, the History Channel, C-SPAN and public television. He is presently an Alumni Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech and Executive Director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. Robertson is also a charter member (by Senate appointment) of Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission.