Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Author Q & A #2: John J. Fox III (Part 1)

DW: Exceptionalism in regimental histories (in this case I mean the tendency authors have of excessively lauding the individual fighting prowess and accomplishments of their units, especially at the expense of the reputation of other units from either side) is one of the genre's troubling elements. It seems to me that in no other popular Civil War genre, except perhaps biography, is there a deeper emotional connection between writer and subject than with unit histories. However, you inject a healthy dose of balance by including in your narrative vast numbers of first person accounts written by the regiment’s Union opponents (far more than any other unit history I’ve come across). What else aided your construction of a balanced retelling of the 35th Georgia’s wartime odyssey?

JJF: Thanks for recognizing my attempts to achieve balance in my book although I have to admit that I did not initially write Red Clay to Richmond with that in mind. I had pretty much finished the manuscript and realized that something was missing. A war is not a vacuum although the soldiers who fight at the small unit level probably feel like the only thing that is going on in their world is the dirt and bullets being kicked up on the ground right around them. Those bullets and shells are obviously coming from the enemy and the story is not whole until you give their perspective too. It took a bunch of extra work to scour reports and maps to figure out which Union regiments fought against the 35th Georgia in all of their engagements. I then pulled the pertinent reports out of the Official Records of the War of Rebellion and located letters and books written by the Union veterans from those units. I plugged the Federal information into the manuscript and then sent the various chapters to seven noted Civil War historians for their critiques. These gentlemen all took of their time to aid me - an unknown historian. They each provided the quality control that a project like this needed to keep me from making some embarrassing errors.

DW: Your numerous maps really help the reader place the 35th on the battlefield and the numerous photographs depicting the regiment’s viewpoint at various stages of the battles is another nice touch. Really, the visual aids are one of your book’s great strengths. Would you care to comment on them?

JJF: I am a visual person. When I read a book about the Civil War or WWII, my two favorite subjects, I constantly am paging back and forth between the narrative and the maps trying to picture in my mind how the terrain affects what is going on with the tactical and strategic situation. However, I frequently find myself frustrated because too many books don’t have enough maps or the maps are worthless. I did not want to do a book like that. At some point in my project I realized that a book is forever and it is worth doing right the first time. Unfortunately, some of the larger publishing houses don’t understand this and they are trying to put out a cheaper book by cutting out maps and photos. When I finished the final revisions on the manuscript I had not planned to take any battlefield photos. I realized that driving to all those sites would take a lot of time and I played a mental tug of war with doing it or not. Then fate stepped in. I received an email from an archeologist who had discovered Camp French, the 35th Georgia’s 1861-1862 winter camp near the Potomac River at what is now Quantico Marine Corps Base. He offered to give me a tour of the site. I about fell off of my computer chair. I was literally in the process of packing up the manuscript to send to the printer. Obviously, the printer would have to wait. I took the tour and it was a moving experience to stand along a wooded ridge and see more than one hundred depressions in the ground where the 35th Georgians had dug out the foundations for their crude winter huts. To be able to stand in the exact spot where these men slept, ate and shivered added an element of realism to my picture of their sacrifices. As I walked along the hillside I even kicked up shards from an old 19th century liquor bottle one of these soldiers no doubt imbibed from. Another historian had joined us for this tour and he asked me about my research and then fired a laser question at me. “Your book will have current battlefield photos where the 35th Georgia fought won’t it?” When I meekly answered that I had not done that because of the time and cost involved he replied, “Well, you’ve got to do that.” As he described this need, a timer in my mind ticked off the ever increasing delays on this book project. However, I realized that this made my decision. So two weeks later, in mid-November 2003 after all the leaves in Virginia had hit the ground, I started off on a six-day 750 mile journey to find the exact spots where my Georgians had fought and died. The car was loaded with my trusty 35 mm camera, battle books, current topographic maps, Civil War era maps, my maps, binoculars, compass, lots of chewing gum, cokes, and even an orange vest and hat because deer season had just opened. You see using all of these sources, I had to find on the battlefield where the 35th Georgia actually stood in the battle lines. I visited all the famous bloody spots in Virginia and West Virginia that had not been rudely invaded by a bulldozer blade. Six rolls of film later, and I was very thankful that I had taken the time to visit and get pictures of these spots. I also paid a visit to a northern Virginia gentleman who allowed us to take pictures of the numerous Georgia relics he had unearthed at the Camp French winter camp during the past 20 years. A number of photos in the back of the book highlight these items.

DW: Many modern unit histories attempt to analyze member demographic factors such as age, occupation, religious affiliation, class, etc. etc. You chose to forgo this exercise, although you do include a nicely detailed roster. Was that kind of analysis outside of your area of interest?

JJF: I decided early on that I was not trying to do a genealogy type of book. I wanted my focus to be on the day to day experiences of the lowliest mud-encrusted private down in the trenches. If I happened to find out the ages and occupations of these guys then I included it in the roster. Doing a census search for the names of the 1,330 Georgia soldiers in the 35th Georgia and then recording all their demographic info would have caused me the loss of what few hairs I still have on top of my head.

Comment: There certainly doesn't appear to be a widely accepted model for CW regimental histories. Some focus on genealogy. Some do not include a roster, but perhaps might add a list of casualties. Others have detailed rosters, yet include only the most generalized military history of the unit (one that could just as easily be a history of any other regiment in a particular brigade). There's surely room for all kinds.

(Please check back over the next few days for the part-2 conclusion of this interview)


  1. Drew, -- Great job with the interview. You've created a nice niche for your blog with this feature. -- Kevin

  2. Thanks Kevin. It feels like it's been months between this one and the first. I really should try to include them more often.


  3. I realize that Mr. Fox was not doing a genealogy book, but with the aid of his book, I was able to discover five brothers-in-law to my ancester, John W. Smith. They were all in Co E, 35th Ga. It would be interesting to learn of the relationships in this Co.

    Barney Smith


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