Tell us a little about yourself and how you became interested in the Civil War?
Having grown up in Virginia I was in the midst of many of the Eastern Theater battlefields. My Dad and I visited Fredericksburg, Manassas, Antietam, Gettysburg, and the many battlefields around Richmond. At a young age it was all very exciting to me. When I got older and went in the Army myself I appreciated the military aspects of those battles. Still later, I learned to appreciate them as a historian. The Army took me to quite a few different places and everywhere I went I became interested in the aspect of the Civil War relevant to that particular location.
What are your areas of expertise?
I’m most interested in the strategic and operational levels of the Civil War, as well as the role played by leadership. I especially try to draw lessons and threads of continuity between these past actions and the present.
Did you discover anything surprising while researching your books?
Both Gettysburg and Ships of the Civil War reinforced for me important notions of leadership. Although I’m a big fan of Robert E. Lee, he was vexed by several leadership challenges at Gettysburg. He had difficult moments with Stuart, Ewell, and Longstreet, and obviously missed his synergistic relationship with Stonewall Jackson who had been killed at Chancellorsville. In researching Civil War ships, the overwhelming advantage of the Federal Navy was unmistakable, but the Confederate leadership effort to offset it asymmetrically with such things as submarines and torpedoes interested me. Also the revolution in naval affairs wrought by steam engines and ironclads also illustrated the impact of technology on warfare.
Which parts did you particularly enjoy writing and why?
I learned much as I wrote these books. I consulted many sources, gathered a huge amount of material, and then tried to distil what I learned into something readable. At the end of the process, I had two books that I like to think are concise and informative, and the most enjoyable part of that effort is imagining someone reading them and thinking they were worth their while.
What were the challenges of writing these books?
In a way, the two books are kind of at the opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of breadth of subject. Gettysburg was a three day battle. On the other hand, the subject of ships was much broader in terms of time period. The Gettysburg book focuses on the human dimension of combat. The ships book focuses on the technological aspect of the machine of war. To switch gears as an author so quickly between two such different topics was a fun but challenging experience.
What do you feel you are bringing to the subject area with your books?
There are numerous excellent books already available on both these subjects. Some are very academically detailed. Others are fairly superficial. I hope mine combine sufficient scholarship and readability to make them interesting to a general audience.
Did you have a particular readership in mind when writing your books?
I tried to reach as many types of people as possible in the Gettysburg book. I’d like to think it’s a good introduction to the battle for novices and an easy-to-read summary with the occasional new twist for the seasoned history buff. I hope Ships of the Civil War is a good browsing book. It’s organized so you can fairly leisurely flip through the pages, put in down for some time, and come back to it later without missing a beat.
Is there a particular message you would like your reader to take away from the books?
I hope it’s something about leadership. Even as great a leader as Lee had a hard time getting his lieutenants to accomplish his will at Gettysburg. This is no easy thing. As far as the ships go, technology is of little value without the leadership to use it. It took men like Du Pont, Porter, and Farragut to exploit the Federal naval advantage, as well as men like Hunley, Maury, Tattnal, and Rains to try to counter it as best the meagre Confederate resources could.
What advice would you give a reader wanting to find more out about the subject area of your books?
Hopefully the books give the reader enough background to visit the actually battlefields if they haven’t already. Gettysburg National Military Park is a fascinating venue and I tried to include enough information about it in the book to entice the reader to visit. In Ships of the Civil War, I tried to note where some of the ships are on display today such as the Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Georgia. Also visits to the national parks that involved the ships in action such as Vicksburg and Fort Sumter would be a great way to learn more.