An Interview with Robert E. Lee in War and Peace author Donald A. Hopkins
: Why did you decide to write your book about Robert E. Lee?
DAH: I have had a lifelong interest in Southern history, the American Civil War, and historical research in general. Naturally, I began to accumulate related artifacts, documents, and photographs of the period for my own collection. As years went by I began to buy and sell such items at collector’s shows and antique shops. Two facts began to stand out:
1. The “go to” source, or bible if you will, relating to photographs of Robert E. Lee is a well-known book first published in 1947. If I wanted to know who made a photograph of Lee or when it was made, I was directed to check it out in Roy Meredith’s, The Face of Robert E. Lee in Life and Legend.
2. When I began seriously studying Lee photographs, I noted that many inaccuracies and omissions of this book have simply been carried forward by later authors without the benefit of more research. Therefore, many of the period photographs found on the tables at shows and in the showcases of well-known dealers were improperly described with respect to date and photographer.
It appeared to me that an updated reference on photographs of Robert E. Lee would be timely, as well as an interesting research project.
: What makes Robert E. Lee in War and Peace unique from other books on the same topic?
DAH: It is a more complete atlas of Robert E. Lee photographs than any other. All currently known life images of the General are presented, many more than in any other volume. Also, for the first time, a book on Lee photographs discusses in some detail the photographic techniques used. You see, Lee’s adult life paralleled the development of photography in America; therefore you see photographs of him using the different techniques available at the time. Much more information on his photographers, both northern and southern, is presented than in other books on this topic as well.
: What are some features of your book that you think readers will really enjoy?
DAH: In general, I believe they will like my chronological arrangement photographs, from the earliest known to the last photograph taken in his life, each discussed in detail as to who took it and when, as well as a discussion which outlines how I reached my conclusions. Furthermore, it is readily apparent that Savas Beatie LLC spared no expense in producing beautiful images for the book.
: Is there anything controversial in your book?
DAH: Yes. There are always naysayers and doubters when their ingrained beliefs are challenged, especially if their treasured photograph is not what they thought as reflected in their asking price. The most controversial topic relates to exactly what is a “from life photograph” of Lee (or anyone else). Of the many hundreds of Lee photographs available from dealers, collectors, and auction houses described as, or insinuated to be, “from life,” only a handful were truly made from the negative produced as the General sat in front of the camera. Most by far are copies made later by one technique or another.
: Where did you find the photographs for your book?
DAH: Over the years I have accumulated for my own collection several Robert E. Lee photographs. In fact, detailed study of these photographs is what generated the spark of an idea for this book. Afterwards, I searched the well-known national repositories for Lee photographs as well as archival collections in museums, university libraries, and historical societies, copying photographs and noting their source. I also found a few in private collections but one of the more productive areas was in the catalogs of auction houses. A few photographs of Lee, unknown to me at the time, were found on internet sites. One of my more startling discoveries was on the wall of my own study. I had a framed photograph that I had owned for some time thinking it was simply a copy of a well-known image of Lee. As I studied its details, I learned that it was a virtually unknown photograph that had never been published! I wrote an article about it for The North South Trader magazine.
: Where did you conduct your research?
DAH: Much of my research was on site in Virginia at places like VMI, Washington and Lee University, The Museum of the Confederacy, The Virginia Historical Society, and The Valentine History Center. Other research was accomplished at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and the Alabama Department of Archives and History. However, there is no question that most of my research hours were spent in front of my computer at home looking at websites, auction catalog archives, current auctions, and dealer catalogs. I also learned a great deal in my email communications with interested scholars, dealers, and collectors.
: What qualifies you to write, basically a reference book, on Robert E. Lee photographs?
DAH: It is certainly not that I have any significant literary qualifications. I have written a couple of books including The Little Jeff: Jeff Davis Legion, Cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia and Horsemen of the Jeff Davis Legion. I have written magazine articles, one about a Lee photograph and others medically related. I believe my best qualification for this project was that I recognized the inaccuracies and omissions throughout the available sources related to Robert E. Lee photographs and felt compelled to “set the record straight” to the best of my ability. My professional background as a physician who must pay attention to tiny details to be successful was also helpful. I consider myself an historical researcher first and a writer second.
: What makes Robert E. Lee in War and Peace Who will find your book most useful?
DAH: When considering such a narrow subject as photographs of Robert E. Lee one instinctively assumes that it will appeal only to serious students of the subject, and certainly I expect this relatively small group to appreciate (and criticize) my book. I tried to broaden the interest by discussing photographic techniques of the period as well as photographers both north and south who took photographs of Lee or sold copies of his image. Those interested in 19th century photography and photographers should find it interesting and useful from this aspect. Those collectors and dealers who want accurate and up-to-date information about their Lee photographs as well as Civil War photographs in general should enjoy it. Finally, the layout and presentation of this book as done by Savas Beatie LLC would grace the library or coffee table of anyone interested in the history of the South.
: What makes Do you consider your book to be the final word on Robert E. Lee photographs?
DAH: Absolutely not. I do consider it the most complete and accurate study of the subject available today. I even have a chapter near the end which discusses four or five photographic sittings of Lee that at this time cannot definitively be placed as to time or place they were made; and there remains uncertainty as to the original photographer. This small collection discussed in the chapter entitled “Mysteries of Time and Place” will most certainly generate differing opinions among those interested in the topic and, as time goes by and with further study, concrete facts about these photographs will emerge.
: Thank you for your time, we appreciate it.
DAH: You're welcome.
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