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Monday, July 24, 2006

About a month ago I was reading various Civil War news stories when I came across one talking about the book "A Rough Introduction to This Sunny Land: The Civil War Diary of Private Henry A. Strong, Co. K, Twelfth Kansas Infantry”. This book is an edited diary of a Civil War soldier assigned to the Western Theater.

The next day I went about getting myself a copy and later posted a review of this strangely compelling book. Since it’s a diary, there is no plot - just statements of what Strong went through and that was a lot of marching. But among all the marching, one sees what an average soldier in the Western Theater went through and how the civil war affected the soldiers and the areas they marched through.

I thought it would be interesting to go one step further and have an interview with the editor, Tom Wing, and he graciously agreed to put up with me asking some questions and not make fun of me not knowing what (e)Uchre was.

Mr. Wing currently teaches at the University of Arkansas, is a former National Park Service Ranger, and a pretty good editor.
“A Rough Introduction to This Sunny Land: The Civil War Diary of Private Henry A. Strong, Co. K, Twelfth Kansas Infantry” is available from the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies and can be purchased from the website. – something I would encourage you to do so.

Without further ado, here is the interview

To begin with, I thought I would give you a chance to talk about the review, especially if you felt that I was wrong on any point.

I enjoyed your review, I was particularly interested in perspective of the work from outside the Transmississippi…your comments have been valuable.

I understand you recently received an award from the Kansas National Guard, could you tell us a bit about it and how it came about?

Brigadier General Jonathan P. Small, Assistant Adjutant General of the State of Kansas gave me a small award for excellence for my work on the book. He came to the book signing at Mine Creek Battlefield July 8. It was an honor to meet him and tell him about Private Henry Strong. General Small and his staff flew in on a Blackhawk helicopter and also conducted a staff ride of the battlefield with Arnold Schofield, the Superintendent. It was great to meet the modern Assistant Adjutant General because much of the information on the Kansas soldiers in the book came for the Adjutant General’s Report of the State of Kansas and was written immediately after the war.

I heard you had an awesome reception at the Fort Smith public library where 50 books were bought outright and another 40 had to be ordered – can you tell us about the experience?

Over 80 people attended and according to the library staff is was one of the largest signings they had hosted. Old friends, colleagues, family, and even my 10th grade English teacher came to the talk. It was humbling to have so many people interested in the book. We sold out and took orders for more. My wife Renee’, our four sons, Jerry Allen, Justin, Jake, and Jackson as well as my parents Joe and Shirley Wing were present. It was a special night, one I will never forget.

Have you had any other encounters as cool as that?

No, I would say I haven’t…the only one that would compare was my going away party when I left the National Park Service to come to the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith. The support and expressions of friendship that day were equally humbling for me. It is a wonderful feeling to be appreciated for your work.

Realistically, how did you expect the book to be received and compare it to how it has been received?

The book has been received somewhat better than I expected. Mainly by the general publics interest has been a little surprising. I felt the Civil War readers would find it significant but it has been exciting to see the interest in others outside the Civil War community.

One of the things mentioned in the introduction of the book is the lack of Western Theater History in the modern Civil War Scholarly world – what are your thoughts on the cause of this?

This topic would make a good dissertation. I think that over the years, the scholarship on the war has focused on the East mostly from a perception of significance. As general histories have covered the war, sometimes hitting only the major battles, most of which are in the east, the war in the west has taken a back seat. I believe we are at a crossroads of understanding where we can gain insight to the big picture of the war by continuing to add western theater scholarship to the large body of eastern oriented work. As a western theater scholar, my desire is to show that we have an equally compelling story west of the Mississippi River, than we do east of it. Ed Bearss has researched and written on the war for years, he and I have had this conversation that usually ends with the statement along the lines: “the war in the west is a diamond waiting to be discovered.”

And how about on why complete diaries seem to be as "scarce as hen's teeth?"

In this case, an enlisted diary of a federal soldier in Arkansas, full of description and detail makes this a unique document. Written without agenda, the diary is an important record that adds to the primary source material on the war in Arkansas. Some diaries have not survived and the simple fact that few have come to light from the western theater speaks to scarcity.

Many people have made fun of my lack of knowledge on Euchre, or Uchre as Henry calls it. Was there anything else interesting that you discovered while researching?

The James Montgomery connection, especially with him being portrayed in the movie “Glory” was exciting for me. The incident where the girl from Arkansas offers Strong a chew of tobacco at a dance was fun as well. The photos of Fort Smith and the troops on Garrison Avenue for inspection came about in an interesting way. I received a call from Jules Martino, a retired policeman in Oregon who had acquired the photos in an estate sale. After verifying they were in Fort Smith, he mentioned they were dated November 12, 1864. He asked if I knew what was happening that day to require troops on parade. A quick look in Henry Strong’s diary discussed the inspection by General Frances Herron that day.

Henry mentions going to Catholic Mass in two of his entries – do you feel this was out of inquisitiveness or boredom?

I think it was a combination of both, Strong seems to be very curious as he writes about his experiences and he mentions the monotony of camp life often. Church services were important diversions for the soldiers and a connection to homelife.

Was there anything that popped out that you weren't expecting and just amazed at what you had in your hands?

The Strong Diary has answered a number of questions concerning the war in Arkansas. One thing in particular we verified from the narrative was the attack on the garrison of Fort Smith in 1864. The official records account is sketchy and the local newspaper unclear as to the event. Strong however describes in detail, the confederate artillery fire from across the river, doing no damage but creating a nuisance. The confederates hid behind the trees and changed locations numerous times. Strong’s company was later detailed to go across the river and clear the trees to keep the rebels from returning and causing more problems.

So what's next for you?

I have a chapter in a book entitled “The Earth Reeled and the Trees Trembled”
Civil War Arkansas, 1863-6 The chapter is titled: “The Sink of Iniquity and Corruption”: The Civil War in Fort Smith and Indian Territory The book is due out this fall.

Finally questions that you wish I had asked but did not?

I really can't think of any…


What outfit is publishing the book mentioned there at the end?

Posted by Drew W. at Wednesday, July 26, 2006 01:56:16

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