SB: You have been researching and writing about the Iron Brigade for decades. What is your fascination with this organization?
LH: I think it is
because many of the soldiers were just regular folks from my home state who
played such a key role in the Civil War. I can drive past their old farms and
homesteads and through their hometowns on the same roads they traveled. I can
stand at their gravesides. At speaking engagements in Michigan, Indiana, and
Wisconsin, their great-grandsons and great-granddaughters and other relatives
come up to say hello. Often they know only a little of what their ancestors did
between 1861 and 1865 and I have the wonderful opportunity to share information
I have uncovered. The Black Hats left a remarkable record of service and
patriotism at a critical time in American history and they deserve to be
SB: Why did you decide to write The Iron Brigade in Civil War
LH: I had been thinking about a new and complete history of
the Iron Brigade for many years. I was finishing a journalism degree at
Marquette University when Alan Nolan was writing his excellent The Iron Brigade:
A Military History. He published it in 1961 and it was a huge success. I had
provided some minor information to him at the time and we became lifelong
friends and walked a lot of the battlefields together. It is difficult to grow
up in Wisconsin and not be drawn to the story of the Iron Brigade, which
included three Wisconsin regiments in addition to one from Michigan and one from
Indiana. Over the years, I wrote a couple of books on the Black Hats that
covered only a narrow portion of the story and expanded on Nolan's work with
information that has come to light since 1961. Alan pretty much ended his book
after the Iron Brigade lost its all-Western makeup in 1863, and included only a
few pages on the rest of the war. I began thinking seriously about completing
the story about five years ago under the persistent badgering of my publisher,
Ted Savas. So much new information had become available and I wanted as well to
take a long and hard look at the 1864 and 1865 role of the brigade in the
closing days of the Civil War.
SB: Let's step back a moment. How did you
become interested in the Civil War?
LH: I blame my father. When I was
about 12, he brought home an 1864 rifle-musket and cavalry sword he found while
helping a neighbor clean out an old shed. I was totally entranced and I began to
read everything I could find on the Civil War. I also became interested in
shooting small arms and artillery of the era and was soon active in competitive
shooting with the North-South Skirmish Association. My team was Company F, the
Citizens Corps, 6th Wisconsin, of the famous Iron Brigade. I still shoot a
little even today and I think being familiar with the weaponry helps you better
understand--if even on a small scale--battle and the reality of executing
tactics under fire.
SB: You were in the news business most of your life.
Did that influence your take on history and the Civil War?
LH: It surely
did. I was a reporter for the United Press International (UPI) news wire service
for most of my adult life. As a reporter, I am a product of the Vietnam era and
I tend to be generally distrustful of official materials. I am not interested in
looking at events from the top down. I am interested in looking at events from
the ranks up because it is a very different view. A generic report that the Army
of the Potomac was "short on supplies" does not match in hard reality an account
of a hungry private soldier chasing a cow across a field in an effort to get a
canteen full of milk. A professor of mine at Marquette University, Dr. Frank
Klement, who wrote four good books on the Civil War, said reporters always have
the first chance to write history. He liked to add with a smile, however, that
most reporters got it wrong. I guess what I am doing now is just an extension of
my UPI days. When I start writing about a battle or incident from the Civil War,
I pretty much let the actual sources take me where they will. I like to say my
coverage zone just slipped from the 1960s to the 1860s.
SB: What makes
The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory unique?
LH: First, there is no
other book at all like it on the Iron Brigade. And my UPI experience, as I
mentioned a moment ago, gives me a different perspective. I like to write about
how people are affected by history, both good and bad. And when you do that, and
work from the bottom up, these men flesh out into individuals with feelings,
thoughts, emotions, families, pain, suffering. They bleed, cry, are footsore,
hungry, tired, cold--just like all the rest of us.
SB: You bring them
alive. . .
LH: I try to do that, yes. I want readers to identify with
them and think about them when they close the book. I covered several presidents
and dozens of political campaigns as well as much of the civil rights and
anti-Vietnam war movement for UPI. It taught me about the complexity of the
world around you and how unexpected violence can be, and how difficult it is to
deal with it emotionally. One of my first jobs at UPI's Milwaukee bureau was
contacting the families of Wisconsin soldiers killed in Vietnam. Each Friday
afternoon for two years, when the lists were released, I would call the families
to get the details of the lives of their fallen sons and brothers. At first I
was horrified at the thought of such an intrusion, but I soon discovered the
families were more than willing to talk to me . . .
SB: Why was
LH: I think they needed to have someone recognize the sacrifice of
their loved ones and to make sure everyone knew what they were all about before
they were killed. I think about that sometimes while writing about some Black
Hat killed at Gettysburg and or elsewhere. He is obscure to us today. Odds are
we don't have his photo and know very little about him. But he was someone's
son, father, husband, brother, uncle. Someone knew him back then, and someone
grieved when they learned of his fate.
SB: What is it about this study of
the Iron Brigade that you think will interest readers who have read your other
books on the same unit?
LH: That's a good question and I actually address
that in the Introduction. I get asked that a lot, too. Where to begin. First, as
I noted earlier, no other study goes past Gettysburg in any depth. I think there
are something like 150 pages just on 1864 and 1865. All of the attention has
been the early part of the war, and especially their stand at Gettysburg. How
the survivors reacted and performed in the 1864 and early 1865 fighting is a
completely different story of a different kind of courage. The idealistic young
men of 1861 are hardened combat veterans fighting a different kind of war. So I
think this new book offers a conclusion--a final ending--to the endlessly
interesting and revealing story of the Black Hats.
SB: That sounds
interesting. I take it there are several other aspects to your new work. .
LH: Yes, there are. Next, I think the book develops the changing
understanding of the war by the soldiers and then, long after the fighting, how
they dealt with what they saw and how it changed their lives. The question they
tried to understand and answer was whether the result of the long war was worth
the cost in deaths, suffering, destruction, and loss. It is easy to forget in
writing military history the soldiers were real people. I finally had enough
material to really root out answers to those questions.
SB: Did they
conclude it was worth the terrible cost?
LH: Yes, as a whole I think so,
but some of these men really suffered emotionally after the war. I am not sure
they were completely convinced.
SB: Does an example jump readily to
LH: Yes. Rufus Dawes. He was an officer, fought through the entire
war, and afterward was elected to Congress. When he was leaving Washington, he
wrote a moving letter to his wife about spending two days search through Arlington
to find the graves of those who died under his command and as a result of
executing his orders. And then he described many of them. Dawes was never
wounded. I think he had what we call today "Survivor's Guilt." I think he was
really torn up inside. It is not hard to understand why. That story, in much
greater detail, is in the book.
SB: What else do you think readers will
enjoy about this study?
LH: Over the years, descendants have given me
letters, diaries, photos, journals, and such. It was all this new material, plus
some wonderful newspaper articles most historians have ignored, that made this
book possible. The book also includes previously unpublished photos.
Taken as a whole, these men finally come alive in a way that was simply
impossible to create in the past.
SB: Thank you for your time, we
LH: You're welcome.