Tom Clemens edits second volume of work of Civil War general Ezra Carman
Tom Clemens edited two books about the Maryland Campaign at Antietam, "The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, Vol. I & II," written by Ezra A. Carman. (By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer / February 18, 2013)
Carman wasn't just a historian, he was an actual witness and participant in the war. What unique aspect did that give Carman in not only collecting the information, but deciphering it as well?
Every history student in college will hear about Thuycidides, an ancient Greek general from Athens who fought in, and wrote about,the war with Sparta. He is frequently credited as the "father" of history due to his emphasis on gathering facts and avoiding bias, even while writing about his enemies. Carman was like a modern Thuycidides in that he wrote about his own war, but did so without bias or prejudice, usually. There are a few people he clearly did not like, but they were not Confederates. In fact, he sometimes praised Confederate generals and criticized Union generals, a remarkable attitude considering his service and his many close calls with death at the hands of Confederates. I think because of his experience and reputation for fairness many veterans trusted him to tell their story fairly and completely. Several letters in the National Archives from Confederate veterans attest to his objectivity and character, and encourage their comrades to send their comments to Carman. As an experienced officer and soldier, he also had a good sense of how combat can be a confusing and terrifying experience and seldom critiqued those who fell short of expectations.
In the book it said that Carman often didn't note where he received his information. Explain the process of editing this book. How much additional research was needed to verify Carman's work?
(Chuckling) A lot! Carman did sometimes note where he got his information, but other times did not. In 1,800 pages, there were quite a few mysteries to solve as I tried to determine who or where he might have obtained certain information. When you become accustomed to someone's style of writing, i.e. their "voice," it is possible to recognize when they are quoting someone else. Carman did that frequently. I was able to find many of his sources from researching the regiment, or person, he was writing about. To do this research I developed a database cataloging the veteran accounts, mostly letters and marked maps, available to him, with more than 2,800 entries. This involved locating, copying, sorting and reading all of these letters. I also accumulated copies of personal memoirs, regimental histories and other published works that he might have used. Sometimes it took hours, even days, for one footnote, but I could usually find his source. Some friends helped along the way. Local author Tim Snyder furnished some sources I didn't have and which solved a few mysteries. Other people since then have identified a few places I missed, and the corrections went into the second printing of Vol. I. Many, many, nights I sat scratching my head and saying out loud, "OK, Ezra, where the heck did you get that?!" You won't be surprised to learn that I have been working on this project for well over 10 years.
Was there anything you uncovered about Carman that surprised or intrigued you during this process?
Quite a bit. Carman's papers and the veteran's letters are somewhat scattered, some residing in the National Archives, others in the Library of Congress, etc. I knew some were in the New York Public Library, but when researching there I discovered a large cache of letters that were unfiled and no Antietam historians had found. Evidently when Carman died his son gathered up a lot of material in Carman's possession and donated it to NYPL. This new discovery was a huge help and resolved a number of questions arising from the manuscript. I was also surprised and sort of amused at some of the "gossip' that emerged in Carman's notes and letters. Not everyone in either army got along with everyone else, and some of the "sniping" that went on in the postwar years was pretty lively.
You said Carman was known as the "historical expert" at Antietam and knew many significant commanders on both sides of the war. Of the Civil War commanders Carman knew, who would you have wanted to meet?
He did know a lot of the generals, on both sides.
He was very close to a couple of Union generals, among them Joe Hooker and Alpheus Williams. Both played significant roles in the war, especially at Antietam. Carman corresponded with them both, and both died long before he became Antietam's official historian, which shows how strong his interest in Antietam was even before the battlefield existed. Joe Hooker's letters and newspaper interviews are especially entertaining, sometimes even outrageous. He was quite a character, and I would like to have met him. On the other hand James Longstreet, the famous Confederate general, wrote to Carman several times, at a point in his life where he was under severe criticism by his former comrades, and he got in his licks, too.
Was there a question you wish Carman would have answered in his manuscript about the battles, or the war as a whole, in his work?
A question? Several, at least! There are several mysteries remaining; things like the identity of the civilian in Frederick who observed Gen. McClellan's receiving the famous Lost Order of Gen. Lee. He sometimes overlooks shortcomings of valor in several officers on both sides — why? One of the famous quotes in the manuscript is from Union Gen. Sumner, who saw a regiment with their flags encased in weather-proof sleeves, and roared out "In God's name, what are your men fighting for? Unfurl those colors!" I cannot find where he learned of that quote, and would love to know. And most importantly, why didn't he publish this manuscript himself?
What should Carman's role be when professors teach Civil War history?
Most Civil War students will not get so far into the details as Carman takes us, but they will benefit from reading it. I think there are few examples similar to Carman's work, even beyond Civil War history, and as a historical work it needs to be acknowledged as nearly unique. His is still the most authoritative study of what happened at Sharpsburg, and in Western Maryland, in September of 1862. But I would suggest these are not just books for history professors and students. Many Civil War enthusiasts and Antietam fans have eagerly embraced this work because it makes material available that is interesting, some of it direct from the survivors, and, as you noted, quite readable. Carman was a good story-teller, and I like to look at successful historians as good storytellers.
What is the biggest lesson you hope readers will take away from "The Maryland Campaign"?
I learned that hugely important events took place here in western Maryland in September 1862, that thousands of people, soldiers and civilians, endured terrible hardships, and that through all the misconceptions and confusion, just about everybody did the best they could. Reading his manuscript made it clear that many opportunities evident to us today went unrecognized at the time, and some great things; such as the critical turning point in the war, and the preliminary announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, came out of it. These were major points in our country's greatest conflict, and worthy of recognition.
Is your book available in bookstores in our area? Where?
It is. The Antietam Museum store at the battlefield carries it, as do some local bookstores, such as Turn the Page in Boonsboro. It can also be purchased from the Savas-Beatie website. Both books are available on sites like Amazon, and it is available in e-book format as well.
— By Crystal Schelle, Lifestyle editor
If you go ...
What: Book signing with Tom Clemens
When: 6 to 7 p.m. Saturday, March 16; dinner to follow
Where: War Memorial Building, Shepherdtown, W.Va.
Cost: $45 per plate
MORE: To make a reservation, go to www.battleofshepherdstown.org. Reservation deadline is Wednesday, March 13.
Or call Carol at 732-930-3132.