July 9, 1864. General Lew Wallace stands in a field at the 40 miles west of the District of Columbia with approximately 5,800 Union troops, many untested or severely battle-worn, against General Jubal Early, General Lee's “Bad Old Man,” and 12,000 of his battle-hardened Confederate troops. At the end of the battle, General Wallace retreated; 1,300 Union troops were dead, wounded, missing or taken prisoner. General Wallace lost the Battle of Monocacy but did he save Washington, D.C. from an attack by Early?
Historian and author Marc Leepson will discuss his latest book “Desperate Engagement: How a Little-Known Civil War Battle Saved Washington, D.C., and Changed American History,” as part of the College of Southern Maryland's “Connections” Literary Series beginning at 7:30 p.m., April 11, at the Leonardtown Campus, Building A, Auditorium.
Leepson is the author of six books including, “Desperate Engagement,” “Saving Monticello: The Levy Family's Epic Quest to Rescue the House That Jefferson Built” and “Flag: An American Biography”. He is a former staff writer for “Congressional Quarterly” in Washington, D.C., and has written extensively for many newspapers and magazines, including “Smithsonian,” “Christian Science Monitor,” USA Today,” “The New York Times,” “Washington Post,” and “Preservation.” He is arts editor and a columnist for “The VVA Veteran,” the newspaper published by Vietnam Veterans of America. Leepson also teaches U.S. history at Lord Fairfax Community College in Warrenton, Va.
In preparation for CSM's “Connections” program, Leepson discussed freelancing, how to sort fact from fiction and how to make history come alive.
CSM: How did you choose writing about history as an occupation?
Path of least resistance [laughs]. In college, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I chose history initially because I liked one of my history professors. Following my bachelor's, I served in the U.S. Army (1967- 69), including a year in Vietnam, and then returned to George Washington University to get my master's in history. I worked for the U.S. Postal Service and in several bookstores following graduation and even applied to law school, but I didn't get in, so I thought that might be a sign. I always liked writing and history, so I started to write freelance book reviews. In 1974, I got my first real journalism job as a proofreader and that led to more positions including being a staff writer for “Congressional Quarterly.” In 1986, I left to freelance. I thought I would give myself a year to make it. Magazines were big in the late '80s so there was lots of work. It may have been a strange way to go about it, but I love my job.
CSM: In your books and magazine articles, you have written on a wide variety of topics. Could you describe your topic selection process and how you approach research?
I write mostly about American history and specialize in topics that deal with the Vietnam War and Vietnam veterans, the Civil War and World War II. I get most of the ideas for my magazine articles from things I come across in books and documents while doing the research for my books. Then I contact what I feel would be the appropriate magazine and propose the article. If it's accepted, I block out a period of time and do the research. I always try to use as many primary sources as possible–diaries, letters, journals, newspaper articles, official documents.
CSM: There is a real conversational tone to “Desperate Engagement” that is different froma lot of Civil War books on the market. Could you describe your approach to writing about history?
I try to write for a general audience, although I am very happy when people who have a strong interest and knowledge of the topic I'm writing about appreciate what I am doing. So one thing I do is focus on personalities. I find people fascinating and I know most readers do as well. I am also interested, in this case, in strategy more than tactics. For the most part, I leave the minute details of battles to others and concentrate on what, in “Desperate Engagement,” Robert E. Lee, U.S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln were thinking. I find that makes the narrative flow more smoothly.
CSM: With so many different accounts of historical events, how do you sort through the varying perspectives of an event to give an accurate account? Are you sometimes forced to give the reader all of the accounts and let them decide for themselves?
What you do is read as much as possible, concentrating on the primary sources. At some point, a broader picture becomes clear. So you amass the evidence, and then decide. If things are unclear, you give the strongest evidence and let the reader decide.
CSM: You went through hundreds of documents and sources to put “Desperate Engagement” “together; do you have a favorite person or fact from your research?
I enjoyed learning about John Brown Gordon, the Confederate general from Georgia who was a brave warrior and a leading voice for reconciliation in the South after the war. Jubal Early and Lew Wallace were also fascinating characters.
CSM: You are very careful at the end of the book not to pass a judgment on the Battle of Monocacy, but personally, do you think Wallace's stand saved Washington, D.C.?
I certainly do. Grant relieved Wallace of his command after Monocacy fell, but two weeks later re-instated him. And in his memoirs, Grant writes that had Wallace not held up Early for an entire day, he (Grant) would not have had time to get troops up to Washington to stave off a Confederate invasion.
CSM Connections: Civil War Historian Marc Leepson. April 11, 7:30 p.m.,
College of Southern Maryland, Leonardtown Campus, Building A, Auditorium, 22950 Hollywood Road, Leonardtown, MD
Civil War historian Marc Leepson will give a presentation on his newest book, “Desperate Engagement: How a Little Known Civil War Battle Saved Washington, D.C. and Changed American History,” the story of the 1864 Battle of Monocacy Junction. Part of CSM's “Connections” Literary Series. $2. 301-934-7864 or 301-870-2309, Ext. 7864 for Charles County; 240-725-5499, Ext. 7864 for St. Mary's County or 443-550-6199, Ext. 7864 for Calvert County or http://www.csmd.edu/Connections/