An Interview with Plenty of Blame to Go Around authors Eric J. Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi
June 1863. The Gettysburg Campaign is in its opening hours as Confederate cavalryman James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart leads his three brigades of veteran troopers on a ride that triggers one of the Civil War's most bitter and enduring controversies. In Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart's Controversial Ride to Gettysburg, authors Eric J. Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi objectively investigate the role Stuart's horsemen played in the disastrous campaign. Wittenberg and Petruzzi recently spoke with Sarah Stephan of Savas Beatie LLC about their book.
: Plenty of Blame to Go Around begins with a narrative of Stuart's long ride to Gettysburg, and then details the controversy surrounding the ride. In the Preface, you mention that when you began researching, you didn't intend to write a book that included both the narrative of the ride and the controversy. Why did you widen your focus?
JDP: Like the development of most books, this project took on a life of its own! (Laughing) The basis for the book began as a long chapter I wrote on the fights at Hanover (June 30) and Hunterstown (July 2). I was uncovering so much material that I decided to turn my work into a full book, and partnered up with Eric as co-author. We quickly decided to morph the project again, this time into a book covering Stuart's entire ride to Pennsylvania.
EJW: I actually had been toying with the idea of doing this study myself, and had started gathering material. I realized it would work better if I collaborated with J.D., as doing so would permit us to go into greater depth. Plus, J.D. and I have virtually identical writing styles and I knew that it would be easy to blend our work together.
JDP: However, once we decided to work together, we were still adjusting our focus. Our editor suggested we include a full discussion of the controversy resulting from Stuart's ride and his performance, and the impact on the campaign. Eric and I discussed it for some time, and as we shoveled deeper and deeper into the subject, found that we couldn't stay away from the lure and sheer importance of the arguments among the participants. We decided to go expand the manuscript, and and now have the book in its present form-the most detailed narrative of the ride, AND the fullest discussion of the controversy ever written by anyone.
: The result is a great package I think readers will really enjoy. What were the benefits of co-writing the book?
JDP: Thank you, we hope so. Eric and I both will readily admit that neither of us could have done such a book separately, at least not in this much detail in so short a time span. But the greatest benefit was our ability to bounce ideas and theories off of each other. Eric and I have discussed these actions and this topic many times over the years, and have crawled over every inch of the ground numerous times. It was just natural that we undertake such a project together. In addition, each of us has a large collection of unique sources, and we think the book benefits from the combination of them.
: Can you provide an example, Eric?
EJW: Sure. Stuart's shelling of Carlisle has always been of great interest to me. I went to Dickinson College in Carlisle, and the college suffered damage that awful night. I spent years gathering material on this episode because it interested me. I wasn't sure what I was going to do with it, but I had primary source material that no other author had ever used. Writing this book with J.D. permitted me to use that material to develop the most detailed treatment of that night ever written.
: Did your long-time interest in the shelling of Carlisle fuel your desire to study Stuart's entire ride to Gettysburg and the surrounding controversy in more depth?
EJW: As a lifelong student of the Gettysburg Campaign, I've been listening to the debate over the propriety of the ride rage for most of my life. I wanted to take a hard look at the events that triggered the controversy. Once we started examining the strategy and tactics, we believed that the only way to address the subject fully and completely was to tackle the controversy, too.
JDP: I agree. Too many people casually dismiss Stuart's Ride as a "joyriding" affair that contributed substantially to Lee's loss at Gettysburg. The sources we gathered over the years helped us understand that there was much more to the story that had not yet been explored.
: When did you begin your research?
JDP: We collected many of the sources together and separately over the past 15 years or so. Eric and I have a neat little knack for uncovering obscure sources, the discovery of which is always a time for celebration. Sounds nerdy, I know, but it's the little things that excite us! Many of the participant letters we use come from private collections of descendants and collectors. A perusal of our bibliography reveals that many of these sources are previously unpublished, which makes them all the more special and revealing.
: Many of the primary sources you draw from provide fascinating accounts of the ride. I imagine that this is the first time many readers will have access to a lot of this information.
EJW: J.D.'s right. It's in these obscure primary sources that we find things that help to change the interpretation of these events. Here's an example. Years ago, I found a little book on Andrew J. Alexander. He served on Alfred Pleasonton's staff during the Gettysburg Campaign. It interested me because Alexander was the officer who presented John Buford with his major general's commission a scant hour or two before Buford's death. When I read the book, I discovered that Alexander had led a detachment of U.S. Regular cavalry in the Battle of Hanover. No interpretation of the battle had ever picked this up, but we did. This obscure source changed the interpretation of this small but important cavalry action.
: So material like this makes your book stand out from previous books and articles written about Stuart's ride and the resulting controversy...
JDP: We think so, yes. Now, we freely admit the topic has received some good treatment. Nothing, however, has been solely devoted to a narrative of the ride and a full disclosure of the resulting controversy. Our narrative of the ride is not only the first to discuss it in its entirety, but is the fullest, most detailed, most extravagantly sourced treatment. I am not bragging. It is just a fact. Our discussion of the controversy could indeed be a book by itself-we are the first to fully quote comments by participants (some nearly otherwise unobtainable for the average reader), with our analysis and a discussion of the atmosphere in which they were made. We also include a full discussion of how postwar scholars and commentators have treated the controversy, and we believe our conclusion is the fairest, most-balanced, and substantiated analysis of the impact of the ride and controversy thus far offered.
EJW: I agree with J.D.'s assessment. The biggest benefit of this book is that it provides the most detailed tactical treatment of the ride yet tackled, then puts the entire controversy together in a single volume, gives our analysis, and ultimately allows the reader to draw his own conclusion about these events.
: What would you say to people who assert that Gettysburg is now an over-done topic in Civil War literature?
EJW: While it's probably true that portions of the Battle of Gettysburg-such as Pickett's Charge or Little Round Top-have been beaten to death, there is plenty that remains to be discussed. This book is but one example. There are others that come to mind, such as the fight of the Eleventh Corps on July 1. However, the work needs to be judicious, well researched, and worthwhile. We hope that this book is judicious and worthy.
JDP: I often hear that Gettysburg is overdone, and I've probably said it a few times myself. One wonders how many more books involving Gettysburg can appear. How microscopic can treatments become and still find a willing and large enough audience to make them worthwhile?. In the past decade or so, we've seen entire books devoted not only to one day of the battle, but to just a couple hours of the action! But in the case of Stuart's Ride, Eric and I have long recognized that no one has gathered such an enormous amount of material on the topic, or treated the resulting controversy in such detail all in one book. Plus, the ride had such an enormous impact on the battle and campaign. We knew it needed to be explored much more fully than any existing book or article had.
: If you delved into the study with any predetermined conclusions, did they change by the time you finished your work?
JDP: That's a good question. No one can study this subject for as long as we have and not have an opinion on the role and impact of Stuart's Ride. However, I will admit that mine did adapt a little as the project unfolded-as we dug deeper into the primary sources and constructed the full story.
: One of the topics I know you discuss is the role of the infamous wagon train. Can you extrapolate on how your opinion of the wagon train may have changed with your research?
JDP: Yes, that's a good example! The impact of the long Federal wagon train that Stuart captured at Rockville and dragged along always comes up in any discussion of the ride. It significantly slowed down the progress of his column. We uncovered a previously unused reminiscence by one of Stuart's troopers that appeared in Confederate Veteran magazine. The trooper details that Stuart detached two mules from each of the wagons' four-mule teams. This was done, he stated, to shorten the train's length and speed it up. Stuart took the detached mules along to trade them off as the hitched animals tired out. You will not find this little tidbit mentioned anywhere else but our book. I have always been a bit less critical of Stuart's performance than many historians have, but these types of "research finds" solidified some of my opinions and caused me to ponder more fully others. Another example: I often hear the claim that General Lee had no cavalry on the Gettysburg field on July 1; nothing is further from the truth. We discussion this in depth in our conclusion. Hopefully, readers will find it interesting and helpful as they assess Stuart's role.
: And what about you, Eric. Can you provide another example?
EJW: My opinions definitely changed as a result. While I had concluded years ago that there was plenty of blame to go around, I had not fully fleshed out the scope of just how far that blame should be spread. As an example, I now place a significant portion of the blame for the delay of Stuart's arrival at Gettysburg upon Jubal Early, who was only five miles or so from Hanover on June 30, heard the guns roaring in his rear, and took no steps to find out what the cause of the heavy firing was. Had Early done so, he could have brought Stuart's tired column with him, and it would have arrived at Gettysburg with the rest of Early's division early on the morning of July 1. However, Early ignored the fighting in his rear and didn't even send out a scout! I was not aware of this until we got deep into the project, and it caused me to reassess my position on the matter.
: Did anything you discovered while writing Plenty of Blame to Go Around surprise you?
JDP: Beside the number of untapped primary resources we uncovered, two things stand out in my mind. The first involves the issue of whether Stuart actually made an effort to keep contact with Lee and inform him of Hooker's/Meade's movements. The second was the discovery of an item that could have, but for fate intervening, completely changed the way the Battle of Hanover unfolded on June 30. I will resist the temptation to reveal the nature of these surprises here-I think readers need to read the book in order to discover what they are! Suffice it to say, each of these items turned out to be blockbusters regarding the larger questions involving Stuart's ride.
: What other "hot issues" surrounding Stuart's performance do you think readers will enjoy?
JDP: Some of the other hot issues include our detailed narratives of each skirmish and battle that unfolded along the way-Fairfax Courthouse, Westminster, Hanover, Hunterstown-as well as the bombardment of Carlisle. Readers will find good detail and tactical analysis like never before, all of it designed to help them better appreciate the role the cavalry played on both sides. They will also see a bit of myth-busting along the way, which came about through the discovery of primary sources that contradict some legends and conventional interpretations.
EJW: J.D. has touched on some of these issues. For me, one of the major hot issues was what alternatives Stuart had and the implications of the choices he made. I think that drives the entire discussion, and I kept it in mind at all times as we worked our way through this project.
: I liked the way you presented the material - detailing the ride to Gettysburg in the bulk of the book, and then following up with the criticisms and defenses of Stuart offered by participants and scholars after the war. Why did you decide to quote so heavily directly from these sources?
EJW: Thank you. We felt it was critical for our readers to be able to read the words of the participants in the controversy precisely as they were written, and we could not come up with a better way to present them other than to include them in this manner. By doing it this way, we managed to compile all the material into one place for the reader.
: As you are no doubt aware, it is common to avoid using block quotes.
JDP: You're right, and this is something Eric and I talked about at length. We are both known for our penchant of letting the participants tell their story themselves. In the controversy section of the book, we wanted the reader to hear the "whole story" from the participants, as well as the early commentators and modern scholars. In previous treatments, most authors use only snippets of quotes and summarize the bulk of the comments. We didn't want to do that. We think readers should devour everything that Mosby, or Marshall, or McClellan, had to say about it. Throughout, we string accounts together with our commentary (which is also substantial), offering analysis where warranted because reader need to know why certain comments were made and the atmosphere in which they were recorded.
: Do you think readers might change their opinions of Start's ride after reading the book?
EJW: In many instances, I write with the hope my work will give people an incentive to reconsider opinions they have harbored for years. We hope this book will provide them with fodder to do just that. We hope that by reading the synthesis of the tactics with the discussion of the controversy, our readers will reassess their own opinions of these events and perhaps come to different conclusions as a result. If they do, then we will have accomplished our objective.
: In the end, what do you think readers will gain from reading your account and assessment of Stuart's Ride?
JDP: An appreciation for the tribulations of Stuart's Ride for one, its overall place in the battle and campaign for another, and a full accounting of the historiography of it all. We fully appreciate the fact that many of our readers will go into this book with some die-hard opinions of the subject. We're not out to change them, or to convince anyone that any opinions are wrong. The title of the book, of course, hints at general direction our conclusions, but it is intended also to convey that there is much to be considered, much more than has been considered to date. Our goal is to tell the story of Stuart's "grand adventure" as fully as possible. After the Gettysburg Campaign, some of Stuart's comrades revered him even more, and others wanted him shot. We hope our work will evoke half that much passion in this subject, and if it does that will mean we are satisfied students indeed.
EJW: Ultimately, we set out to challenge the reader, and we can only hope that we have managed to do so. Also, understanding the magnitude of Stuart's magnificent service during the retreat from Gettysburg depends on understanding the ordeal that he and his men faced on the way to Gettysburg. Only when you understand that ordeal can you really appreciate what these men accomplished in the ten days after the end of the battle. Again, if just one reader comes away with a different understanding and appreciation of this, then we will have accomplished our goal.
: I am sure many more than one reader will appreciate your careful assessment of Stuart's ride to Gettysburg. Thank you both for your insight.
JDP: You're welcome. It's been a pleasure.
EJW: Thank you.
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