Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Missed Materials

Eric Wittenburg wrote on June 3:

The primary source material from the Civil War that continues to surface never ceases to amaze me. It also makes me wonder what else like it remains out there, unknown and languishing…. He goes on to detail the mostly unpublished materials of Pennock Huey, a federal cavalry officer.

That has led me to this line of thinking for aspiring authors.

When Bob Krick reviewed my first book, on the 37th North Carolina Troops, he wrote
Michael C. Hardy's The Thirty-seventh North Carolina Troops: Tar Heels in the Army of Northern Virginia (McFarland & Company, Jefferson, N.C., 2003, $45) mines such hidden riches in gratifying detail. The author unearthed dozens of accounts, from a wide range of locations, by the soldiers in a regiment that fought steadily at center stage throughout America's Civil War. He also constructed a first-rate roster of the 37th by scouting cemeteries, digging out obituaries and tracking down descendants.

Finding those primary sources is an uphill battle. As most of you know, I’ve been working on a regimental history of the 58th North Carolina. They were one of just four North Carolina Infantry regiments that fought with the Army of Tennessee. While I have been collecting information for the past ten years, the real hunt has been on for the past couple of months. This hunt has led me to read/browse dozens of family histories and county heritage books for the little details that I want to make the project as complete as possible.

Also, I’ve started to post the names of the hundreds of men who served in the 58th North Carolina on online family discussion groups. This gives me access to an untold amount of materials, like photographs, documents, and stories, that are not in books or public repositories.

I once got an email from someone writing a book on a particular North Carolina regiment - a project that I myself had hoped to eventually undertake. This author has written several books on the war, most of which have not garnered positive reviews. I prepared a list of sources and dissertations and people to contact in response to this author’s request for information. This author basically responded, "I do not have time to go through all of this material." Instead, this author is willing to write a book with only a few easily accessible sources. Why bother writing something about the war if you are not willing to go through every possible source or at least make the effort to find material? This is not to say that my research methods are perfect, but I do make the effort to run down as much information as I can to give readers and scholars the most complete text possible.

The sad thing is that no publisher will be willing to tackle a new history of this regiment for quite some time, and readers and scholars will be stuck with a less-than-thorough resource.

My advice - go through everything: archives, newspapers, family histories, county histories, everything. And even when you think that you have been through it all, there will be items that have been missed.

As historians, we have a responsibility to leave behind us the best tools possible for others.

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