Sunday, November 5, 2023
An Interview with Ohio Civil War Author & Historian T.W. Harvey
An Interview with Ohio Civil War Author & Historian T.W. Harvey
Award-winning Author and Historian, Dr. T.W. Harvey, announces the release of his third book, From Vicksburg to Bennett Place: The Long March to Victory. Harvey’s Civil War trilogy is based upon ancestral letters found in his parent’s basement. Through extraordinary penmanship and detailed information about the Civil War, the letters enabled Harvey to capture the essence of life during the war – both to civilians and the enlisted.
GM: What's the premise for your new book?
TWH: From Vicksburg to Bennett Place: The Long March to Victory is the final book in my trilogy about the experiences of my great-grandfather, Thomas S. Armstrong, and his best friend and soon-to-be brother-in-law, George W. Porter. I learned of those experiences in 250 letters they wrote home that we discovered, read, and transcribed some thirty years ago.
As was the case with the first two, this book is a true story, one about George Porter from the siege of Vicksburg in the spring of 1962, the turning point in the war, to the surrender of the Confederate Army in April 1865 at Bennett Place in Durham Station, North Carolina. He was an ordinary young man from Muskingum County, Ohio who enlisted with Armstrong and other friends to fight for the Union much like boys from the southern states did to fight for the Confederacy.
GM: How can readers view the original letters written by your ancestors? What is important for readers to know about these letters?
TWH: We donated the letters to Ohio Wesleyan University since my great grandfather matriculated there in 1859 while my wife and brother enrolled in 1959 with most everyone in the family going there except my wife’s sister, our dads, and me. The letters themselves are in the archives at Beeghly Library at OWU, and they were digitized for anyone to see. Interested readers can go to…www.owu.edu/academics/libraries/about the libraries/digital collections/the Paula B. and Thomas W. Harvey collection of civil war letters.
They were written between 1859 and 1866, and we found them in perfect condition in 1992. I preserved, transcribed, and catalogued them; thus, they became the basis for Answering Lincoln’s Call, Seeing the Elephant, and now From Vicksburg to Bennett Place, beginning with the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861 and ending with both George and Tom safely at home in July 1865, having survived the horrors of the war that changed America forever.
This is a unique and rare collection of historical documents as they provide a first-hand look at events of the Civil War. It may be the only one of this magnitude and goes to this depth.
Not only did the letters provide extraordinary detail about the war in the Western theater, but they also provide insight into what life at home was like, back in the 1860s, and how different it was from today. Back then, America was an agrarian society, and life was based on working on the farm, going to church every Sunday, and making sure your children went to the closest school and were educated properly.
GM: Do you have a favorite character in your current novel?
TWH: Yes, I do. George Porter, my great grandmother’s brother. He enlisted in the army in 1862, just a young man of a farming family in east central Ohio. He went in as a sergeant but was promoted to lieutenant and then captain based on his performance. He was also aide-de-camp to Brigadier General Mortimer Leggett and Major General John Logan. In that capacity, he assisted them in a variety of ways, notably carrying orders to brigade commanders in terms of what they wanted them to do and when he wanted them to do it, whether that was on the march from Vicksburg to Holly Springs, ordering an assault at Kennesaw Mountain, or having them find a suitable place to rest and relax after the Battle of Champion Hill.
Porter also communicated directly with commanders such as generals Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Francis Blair, and James McPherson. His is an amazing story, for a young farm boy to rise through the ranks of the army and serve men like this. He survived the horrendous fighting at Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Atlanta, marched to the sea with Sherman, and was present at the surrender of the Confederate army of General Joseph Johnston at Bennett Place. There are few, if any, stories like this and the letters made it possible for me to write it.
GM: What are your methods for writing fictional scenarios that tie-in with real-life events?
TWH: As I was wondering how I should tell the story, an accomplished Civil War author, Jeff Shaara, told me one day, that I should make readers feel like they were actually in the events that took place, i.e. listening to conversations between the characters, watching battles, thinking about what it was like to march fifty miles in a driving rain or bitter snowstorm, and always wondering what was going to happen next, etc.
To do that, I had to have a mental picture of how the characters might fit into the history. Now, the letters told me a great deal of what Porter and Armstrong were thinking, feeling, and doing, so I conducted meticulous research to find the circumstances they were talking about in the minutest detail. For example, I read a letter from George about sleeping standing up in a cold rain, leaning on his rifle, and hearing the screams of young men on both sides who had been wounded in assault on the Confederates at Atlanta, hoping they would die and being afraid they wouldn’t. That meant I had to know everything about the troop movements on the attack and retreat in that horrible fight to make sure I had the history correct.
GM: What was the most difficult scene to write in this book?
TWH: Once again, the Battle of Atlanta. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman had 100,000 men under his command, with Confederate General Joseph Johnston having 65,000. With that many men and with the description of the battle in one of George’s letters and my research, there were so many moving parts with regiments and brigades changing places, with orders to go charging up a hill at one moment, then perhaps an hour later being ordered to retreat and attack again half a mile away. It was difficult to keep everything straight, so I developed a timeline to identify what was happening, when the events happened and the characters who were involved.
Basically, it was who was doing what, why they were doing it, and when were they doing it. And, to make it even a little more complicated, I had to follow who was where and why were they there. With that done, I double checked with books on the subject such as Albert Castel’s Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864 to make sure I had it right.
GM: What would you like readers to take away from your new novel and how can they apply it to current events?
TWH: What affected me most was that here we had young men, in their 20s, both from the North and the South, who willingly went into harm’s way, risking the possibility of being killed, wounded, or taken prisoner for the love of their country, with very strong family ties, and a love of, and trust in, God. Most of these men knew that regardless of what happened, it was God’s will being done and they might not ever see their families and friends again, something that soldiers in wars ever since then also know.
But as I look at where we are now, I do not see patriotism of George Porter and Tom Armstrong, people loving these United States and our being committed to its best interest. Two million men rushed to join the forces of the North and South in 1861 – 1862 with 750,000 not coming home. Now, however, our military has suffered in that there has been a decline in enlistments in all our armed forces.
Education was important to the Porters and Armstrongs, but we see public schools teaching critical race theory, gender preferences, cancel culture, etc. and limited emphasis on the three R’s, foreign language, math, and history, subjects that Tom Armstrong and Francis Porter, George’s sister, taught.
And then there was religion as the Porters and Armstrongs went to church every Sunday for three services. Attendance and membership in Protestant denominations has been, and is, declining where religion was a critical element of life of all in the mid-1800s.
What is troubling is there does not appear to be a remedy for all of this.
GM: When writing fictional characters, do you use traits/habits of family and/or friends for your characters?
TWH: No. The letters revealed the character and personalities of Tom and George and the other members of their families. Thus, it was easy to portray them in the books, and I was able to create supporting characters to go along with them. I had to put all of them in situations the letters and the research presented and then to use some common sense as to what actions and reactions might have occurred. We must remember From Vicksburg to Bennett Place took place from 1863 through 1865, and life was different than it is now. For example, as I said before, people went to three services at church every Sunday. They had to go to town to get the mail and a newspaper. The only places they got any news were from letters friends and relations wrote or the paper. And, they wrote those letters in cursive.
So, I had to transport my thinking back to 1860 and life back then with the letters that Tom and George wrote home. Thankfully, Tom saved all of them. One other thing, war was fought hand to hand with no air raids or missiles being fired.
GM: What are you currently writing?
TWH: I’m taking a break. However, I am conducting further research on my family through 750 additional letters we found that were written anywhere from 1836 through 1888. These letters and more research on such topics as slavery both prior to and after the Emancipation Proclamation and reconstruction during the Grant presidency will result in books to be undertaken in 2023 going forward. In reading these letters and transcribing them, I have discovered they will be entirely different than the trilogy that only describes the experiences of Tom Armstrong and George Porter in the American Civil War.
GM: List 10 things your fans may not know about you...
TWH: 1. I have written two boring books on banking
2. I have a doctorate in Management and Financial Strategy
3. Running is my passion; I’ve ran 27 marathons
4. I spent 20 years in banking
5. I taught finance for 14 years at the college level
6. Play a lot of golf as a hobby
7. Am a member of the Zanesville, Ohio and Northeast Ohio Civil War Roundtables
8. My wife and I have six grandchildren
9. I coached baseball and soccer
10. I donated 61 books on the Civil War to my local library and two related paintings to Muskingum County History in Zanesville, Ohio
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