An Interview with author John F. Schmutz
: Tell us a little bit about yourself, and your background so readers can get a better sense about you, John.
JS: Sure. I am originally from Oneida, New York, and my wife and I are long-time residents of San Antonio, Texas. We have three adult children located in various parts of the US. I hold a B.A. from Canisius College, and law degrees from both The University of Notre Dame and George Washington University. Following a tour as a lawyer in the US Army, I enjoyed a rewarding career as a corporate attorney, initially in private practice, and then as general counsel and a member of the executive management team for several public companies.
: This is not your first rodeo when it comes to publishing . . .
JS: My first book was The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History , published in 2009. It enjoyed considerable success and got positive reviews from most readers and historians. I recall that Civil War Times magazine noted that "[f]or anyone who sees the Crater as the decisive battle that could and should have been, this book will provide the long-awaited answer to prayers." Another important outlet, Civil War News, wrote that the book "has set the standard for a study of this period of Civil War history." As you can imagine, that was very pleasing.
In addition to researching and writing about Civil War history, I enjoy genealogical research, and reading (particularly history). I still do pro bono legal work for charitable organizations, and I sit on several boards. I am an avid golfer and sports fan (especially the San Antonio Spurs) and enjoy international travel, which my wife and I indulge in whenever we can.
: What started you along on the path of researching the Civil War?
JS: I have always maintained a deep-seated interest in all aspects of the Civil War. I attribute this particular trait partially to my father and grandfather, both of whom were Civil War enthusiasts. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of trekking around the battlefields at Antietam and Gettysburg. In my formative years, I was fascinated by Bruce Catton's easily readable works, and later by Shelby Foote's magnificently written The Civil War: A Narrative.
Upon becoming a parent myself, family trips would often include at least one stop at a Civil War battlefield, regardless of the ultimate destination. While serving in the Army in Washington, DC, I was part of a group of Civil War enthusiasts that routinely walked the battlefields of Virginia, and legally hunted for relics. Those finds remain among my most prized possessions.
Throughout my career, I remained an avid reader of Civil War history, dreaming of the day I might find ample time to research and write for myself. In this regard, I was inspired early on by the example of a senior partner in the first law firm for which I worked, Alan Nolan, who published the influential book The Iron Brigade while still immersed in the practice of law. This encouraged me that choosing the law as a career did not preclude one from becoming a Civil War author.
: How did you become interested in the 5th Texas?
JS: The exploits of Hood's Texas Brigade-Lee's shock troops, if you will-have always fascinated me. Douglas Southall Freeman referred to that unit as "perhaps the most renowned of all" of Lee's army. (I generally refer to it as "Hood's" Texas Brigade, as this is a commonly utilized designation. However, the brigade had a number of commanders throughout the war, and is sometimes recognized by the names of other commanders.) Over the years, there have been a significant number of books on Hood's Texas Brigade as a whole, including Harold B. Simpson's seminal four-volume work from the 1970s. However, until The Bloody Fifth, there has never been a comprehensive, all-inclusive study of the 5th Texas Infantry Regiment, one of the units of that brigade. After considerable research on a number of the brave men who were a part of the 5th Texas Infantry, I made a decision to focus my efforts on a comprehensive book of the fabled unit.
: And yours is the first in-depth treatment of that organization?
JS: A number of authors, including members of the regiment, have written abbreviated works either about one of its companies, or personal memoirs of individual experiences during the war. However, there was no detailed history of this regiment as a whole, which was an integral part of Lee's most reliable, and I would argue favorite, brigade. Given the unprecedented contributions this entity made to Hood's Texas Brigade, I came to realize that a book devoted to this remarkable unit was long overdue.
: The were few Texas troops in the Army of Northern Virginia, and its record of service was amazing . . .
JS: The story of the 5th Texas and its soldiers is a testament to brave Texans who always gave their all and never lost faith, despite overwhelming adversity and hardships. The 5th was one of only three Texas regiments to leave the state to fight in the East with Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.
: The first volume carried the regiment through the Suffolk Campaign, and the second from Gettysburg through the end of the war. Talk about that coverage a bit for us.
JS: Sure. Volume 1 follows the unit from the secession of the Lone Star State and the organization of ten independent companies from various counties of East/Central Texas through Suffolk-a fascinating and overlooked campaign, frankly. The entire work covers years of arduous fighting before culminating with Lee's surrender at Appomattox. The unit took part in 38 major engagements, including almost every significant battle in the East, in addition to a trip West to fight at Chickamauga, and elsewhere. The Bloody Fifth provides a detailed accounting of these conflicts, but pays special attention to the lives of the Texas soldiers themselves as they struggled through the war more than 1,300 miles from home. I included as much personal information about the men as possible to help readers feel close and familiar with these men.
: What does your book contribute to the literature on the 5th Texas Infantry?
JS: As I previously indicated, there has not been a full-length book on the 5th Texas Infantry covering the entire Civil War. Books such asThe Men of the Bayou City Guards, by James Orville Moore (1988),Lone Star Confederate, edited by George Skoch (2003),Rebel Private, Front and Rear, by William A. Fletcher (1995),A Texan in Search of a Fight, by John C. West (1901), and Reminiscences of the Civil War, by John W. Stevens (1902) deal with a particular company, or one soldier's involvement in the unit, and are generally abbreviated accounts. The Bloody Fifth presents the entire scope of that regiment's experiences through almost four years of war. In my study, the main actor is the regiment. In dealing with a single regiment, The Bloody Fifth delves more deeply into the experiences of the battles, marches, encampments, hardships, and pastimes of one regiment of Hood's Texas Brigade than a brigade history could achieve. Similarly, it facilitates a study into the personal lives of the men as they struggled to survive a vicious war so far from home. The Fifth Texas established an exceptional combat record in an army known for its fighting capabilities.
: Let's talk more about Volume 1 for a moment. Takes us more in-depth there.
JS: Sure. As I noted earlier, Volume I commences with the secession of Texas and the organization of the various companies. It follows their training in Texas and Virginia, where they finally become the 5th Texas. The experiences of life that first winter are detailed, including encounters with the enemy and the horrific struggles with disease. The book thereafter follows the 5th Texas through the Peninsula Campaign, where it received its first real taste of fighting, and then the Seven Days' Battles, where the men gained real renown for their accomplishments at Gaines' Mill.
I go on to explore the breaking of John Pope's Union army before it could be reinforced and the resultant Battle at Second Manassas, where the regiment received its sobriquet "The Bloody Fifth." The march into Maryland is handled in detail, culminating in the bloody fighting at Sharpsburg, where the unit once again distinguished itself.
The volume covers the march to Fredericksburg at length, as it does the 5th Texas's involvement, and the soldiers' winter encampment thereafter. Next the reader follows the regiment as it leaves what it believed was to be its winter quarters for a movement to the Blackwater area of Virginia, near Suffolk. There, as part of Longstreet's corps, it was charged with gathering forage for Lee's army, which was nearly starving in the war-ravished portions of Virginia. In addition to foraging activities, several minor engagements took place. Rising star Major Isaac Newton "Ike" Turner was killed there in the final weeks of occupation in an effort to take some Federal works. The volume ends in April 1863, with Lee reuniting his army to fend off a Federal spring offensive.
: Throughout you focus on the men . . .
JS: I was cognizant that the history was about more than battles, and tried hard to describe camp life, an individual soldier's thoughts regarding the war, home and loved ones, relationships, and so forth.
: Volume 2 picks up in the same vein from Gettysburg through the end . . .
JS: It does. Gettysburg was especially hard on the regiment, as you can imagine, and the journey west on the rails to fight at Chickamauga, and then Chattanooga and the Eastern Tennessee operations was grueling as well. Retuning to Lee's army in the spring of 1864, the 5th served with distinction at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, the North Anna, Cold Harbor, throughout the horrific siege of Petersburg, and finally during the retreat to Appomattox, where it surrendered 161 men.
: You make a number of references to the flags of the 5th Texas and those who carried them. Do any of the banners, in particular, stand out for you, and why?
JS: That's an interesting question. I think the regimental flag commissioned by the men early in the war patterned after the National colors, but with one large star replacing the circle of eleven smaller stars in its canton stands out. It was beloved by the men, who referred to it as the "Lone Star and Bars." Once Richmond disallowed the use of state flags, and the St. Andrews cross design was adopted as the exclusive Confederate battle flag, the men were rather disconsolate about it. After Longstreet rejected their entreaties to carry the "Lone Star and Bars," they surreptitiously switched flags at the last minute and carried only the Lone Star and Bars into the campaign of August 1862. Thus, that flag served as the regimental banner at Second Manassas and Sharpsburg. Seven color bearers fell carrying the flag at Second Manassas alone.
: What did you turn up in the process of researching your book that particularly struck you?
JS: As I mentioned, I was quite familiar with the history of Hood's Texas Brigade prior to my involvement with this work. Thus, I was cognizant of its exploits and achievements, and where it fought. However, in writing about the 5th Texas, I gained a deep seated appreciation for the individual fighting men of the unit. These men, from east central Texas, joined an army fighting for "independence" and their state's right to control its own destiny. They believed deeply in a cause for which they were willing to die to preserve (as many did). Rather than remain in Texas or its environs, they instead chose an opportunity to serve in Virginia, because they believed that was "where the heavy fighting would be." And weren't wrong.
: Why was it hard to fight so far from home?
JS: Most people don't stop to think about that. Being more than 1,300 miles from home created particular hardships that were not experienced at all, or in the same degree, by other troops. This was particularly true after the Mississippi River was firmly in Federal hands, and southern ports effectively blockaded. Food, clothing, sundries and even letters from home were hard to come by, which often left the men in worse shape than their neighbors. While the men grumbled, as all soldiers are prone to do, they remained a well-oiled fighting machine. They were always prepared to fight to the last measure, leading Lee to proudly proclaim that "the Texans are always ready."
: What particular exploits stand out?
JS: There were many. Three stand out more than others in my mind that demonstrate the mettle of the men. At Second Manassas, the Texans broke open the Federal left wing on Chinn Ridge and Bald Hill, opening the way for a devastating Federal defeat. Flushed with victory, they pressed through the disintegrating Federal lines and outdistanced not only the remainder of the brigade, but the rest of Lee's army. When wing commander (there were not yet formal "corps") James Longstreet questioned Hood as to the whereabouts of the 5th Texas, Hood replied that they had "slipped the bridle" and were "on their way to Washington." Longstreet nodded and replied, "If any men in the world can get there, those are the men." Their actions that day earned the regiment the sobriquet "the Bloody Fifth."
The regiment's victory there came with a frightening butcher's bill, however. The 5th Texas, the most engaged in the fighting, lost some 260 men, more than any other regiment in Lee's army. At the end of the fight, three of its companies had not a single officer remaining, and all field grade officers were casualties. Seven color bearers fell carrying the regiment's "Lone Star and Bars" that day, as I noted earlier.
Another exploit that stands out took place at Gettysburg, where the regiment faced the next-to-impossible task of taking Little Round Top. Venturing across a rocky field for a mile and then climbing a boulder-studded hill while being pummeled by shot and grape from cannon positioned to the left, sharpshooters to the immediate front, and Union troops protected by the steep heights, was more than anyone could stand.
: The losses must have been horrific . . .
JS: They were. The 5th Texas entered the battle with 409 men and lost 211 or 52 percent, including 112 men captured. The regiment never fully recovered from that slaughter.
: And the final exploit of the three?
JS: The Wilderness. Lee's army had its back to the wall on May 6, 1864, and was about to be hopelessly overrun. Longstreet's Corps, with the Texas Brigade in the lead, was desperately rushing toward the fighting to stem the tide. At the last moment, the Texans broke into the clearing in front of the oncoming Federals. A highly agitated Lee ordered the Texans forward, and to give the enemy "cold steel." As the men advanced, Lee attempted to lead them, shouting "Texans always move them." The men of the 5th Texas surrounded Lee and grasped the bridle of his mount, shouting "Lee to the rear!" Only after they pledged "to drive the enemy back," did Lee finally agree to retire.
: That is one of the legendary moments in Lee's entire career . . .
JS: And the 5th was in the thick of it. With Lee safely behind the lines, the Texans charged down the Plank Road, sweeping the enemy before them in a savage hail of lead and grape. The advance changed the tide of the battle. The regiment entered the combat with 180 officers and men, 111 of whom fell in 25 minutes. The 5th Texas lost its commander, along with every one of the regimental officers. Every officer but two had their horses shot out from under them.
: What were the total losses for the regiment in the war?
JS: It finally surrendered at Appomattox with 13 officers and 148 men. During the war, it suffered 303 men killed in battle, 506 wounded once, 138 wounded twice, and at least 19 hit three times. More than 140 died of disease.
: Can you describe your research and writing process, and the sources you consulted?
JS: Regarding research, there many valuable resources. I obviously went to the published accounts of members of the 5th Texas, some of which were mentioned earlier, as well as Harold Simpson, the trailblazer for any research project involving Hood's Texas Brigade. Articles contained in the Confederate Veteran, the Southern Historical Society Papers, MOLLUS, and of course the Official Records were invaluable. Beyond this, I refer you to the bibliography in Volume 2 of The Bloody Fifth. In delving into journals, letters, and miscellaneous unpublished papers, I obviously had to go to the source-the repository holding the particular collection of papers. As you can imagine, I traveled extensively, and of course, walked the ground where this fighting took place.
: What is your next project?
JS: My first book, The Battle of the Crater, covered a one-day battle. The Bloody Fifth took one regiment and followed it through the entire war. I am now going to attempt something a little different. I have done considerable research on the "Immortal Six Hundred," a group of Confederate officer-prisoners who were placed in front of the Federal batteries on Morris Island in Charleston harbor, effectively acting as human shields. I intend to tell the story of their imprisonment from Fort Delaware to their ultimate release, which will include their mistreatment at the hands of their Federal captors. Using their experiences as a starting point, I also intend to delve in some depth into the prisoner of war exchange process, and the prison systems of both sides.
: Thank you very much.
JS: You're welcome.
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