The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 20, Number 4-5
Sep 1996


A Tribute to Those Who Preserve Original Sources

by Frank E. Vandiver

The author is a military historian and president emeritus of Texas A&M University. This paper, originally titled "Some Libraries I Have Known," was delivered at SMU in Dallas, April 29, 1993, at a symposium entitled "Rescuing Our Heritage: Policies for Preservation in the Southwest."

My plan for this symposium is to tell some stories about a historian's wanderings in pursuit of original sources-a kind of personal "thank you" to people and institutions who preserve documents, books, and now, taped interviews.

My earliest debt dates back to the 1940s, when I was working on a biography of the Confederate Chief of Ordnance, General Josiah Gorgas. Bits and pieces of a diary were known; one piece touched on his experiences in the Mexican War, another on a trip he made to Europe in the 1840s. Rumor had it that he had continued the journal through his lifetime. I went looking for the rest of his diary. He died in Tuscaloosa, Ala. in the 1880s. Three of his daughters still lived in his old home there-the youngest was 84! So I camped on their doorstep for two weeks-two weeks of gracious and strange entertaining. Each afternoon I was treated to a different "delicacy"-ice cream drenched in sherry, ice cream and tomatoes, watermelon and wine.

Apparently I passed the stomaching, for at last I was sent upstairs to a round-top trunk crammed with Gorgas's letters. They were in folders and the first one was from General Lee concerning ordnance needs following Gettysburg. Letters from every Confederate army commander were in files; copies of Gorgas' replies were often attached. Correspondence and official documents to and from arsenals, armories, armies, the Bureau of Foreign Supplies, Jefferson Davis-were there in a trove to dazzle anyone. But I was disappointed-no diary. I had taken all the papers out and stacked them on the floor by the trunk; as I started to put them back in, I noticed a small piece of paper sticking up from the trunk bottom. I picked at it and a false bottom came up. There, spread out on the real bottom of the trunk were four volumes of Gorgas's diary, including the war years.

His daughters did not know of the diary; they, too, were thrilled. I later published an edited version of the war diary.

Working on Gorgas led me to the whole matter of blockade running, since the Ordnance Bureau relied heavily on England and Europe for arms, munitions and all kinds of stores which were shipped to Bermuda, Nassau, and Cuba for transshipment to the Confederate States. A good deal of material on blockade running was available in the remarkable collection of Civil War documents, The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies and the Official Records of the Union and the Confederate Navies. Vital gaps remained , especially accurate statistics on transshipment.

My mother and her family had often visited Bermuda when she was young and she encouraged me to try to find some material there. In 1946 she and I went to Bermuda and through a series of happy accidents, I found a man who had been a collector of the port of St. George's, where most of the blockade runners were based. He had found the cargo manifest of these fast, light draft vessels who dared the Union blockading fleets and had, at his own expense, built a bookcase to preserve them. He and the then collector of the port made the whole collection available and a bank in Hamilton made their microfilm machine available.

While working on the manifests, I was directed to a Bermuda historian, William E.S. Zuill. He had done some kindesses to a small shopkeeper in St. George's who at last sold him some old ledgers long kept on a store shelf. They were the letter books of John Tory Bourne, Confederate Agent in St. George's, who did most of his business with the Ordnance Bureau. He also had a letter book from Major Smith Stansbury, who ran the Confederate Ordnance Office in St. Georges's. These, too, were microfilmed.

None of these essential records would have survived without the concerned interest of a few people with a sense of history. I am happy to say that these records are now preserved in a Confederate Museum in that old Bermuda town.

Some of those records directed me to England and the Greenwood and Batley Iron Works in Leeds. That company had made ordnance machinery for Gorgas-and kept its archives carefully preserved, even against Nazi bombers. They made copies of the correspondence and even provided pictures of the machines shipped to various Confederate arsenals and shops.

In Nassau, the Governor's office opened an old, locked bookcase, where rumor had placed some records from the Civil War. The governor's official letter books were there, along with records of the Nassau Admiralty Court which disposed of many blockade running cases. There, too, were records of several merchant companies doing business with various Confederate supply bureaus, including ordnance.

After finishing the Gorgas biography, I turned to a life of General Thomas J. ("Stonewall") Jackson. So prominent a figure generated all kinds of archival trails-I was almost buried in material. But there were gaps, as always. A visit to the Henry E. Huntington Library in Pasadena, California in the early 1950s gave me an insight into how a splendidly managed book and archives collection can save history and historians.

There they let searchers use both books and documents at the same desk and time-a great convenience and one that led to another library connection, which I'll mention momentarily. First, though, let me say that one of the gaps in Jackson's career centered on a strange delay of his troops at a place called Grapevine Bridge in the Seven Days battles around Richmond. Tucked away in the Jeb Stuart papers I found a note from Stuart to Jackson, conveying an order from Lee's Headquarters directing Stuart and Jackson to stay at the Bridge for a day until Union intentions had been fully developed.

While looking for Jackson material in the Jefferson Davis collection at the Huntington, I looked at original letters at the same time I looked at an early published edition of some of the letters. There were large gaps and distortions in print-and I took books and papers up to Allen Nevins' office (he was the scholar in residence). From that moment a new Papers of Jefferson Davis project began. This project, centered at Rice University, has published nine volumes of Davis letters and papers and has reached the year 1863. Huntington's liberality in usage deserves wide emulation.

Jackson finished, I turned to a study of Confederate General Jubal Early's famous raid on Washington in 1864. Two sources were essential in making Early's activities both understandable and interesting. One was the diary of Major Jedediah Hotchkiss, who had been Jackson's Chief Topographical Engineer and who went with Early on the campaign to Washington. His daily entries located campsites, actions, people and places with uncanny accuracy and his sense of ground lent reality to reconstructed events. The other source, a manuscript reminiscence kept by Lucius Chittenden of Washington, provided an eye-witness view of the Confederate attack on Fort Stevens in rich detail. That source came to me through the eagle-eyed kindness of the late Professor Bell Wiley, who spotted it in a bookseller's catalogue. I bought it, deposited a copy in the Rice Library and have made it available to others. Again, book-sellers and prospective buyers collaborated in important preservation.

My next project was a biography of General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. Now truly inundated in all kinds of new materials-news reels, photos of all times and places in his life, audio records-I still found gaps. Always interested in personal vignettes, I looked for letters or journals of his staff-men who could give a close insight into the way he worked and lived. And I had a chance to talk to his son, Warren, and several other men and women who had known him.

Pershing had published his memoirs of the war in 1931 and won the Pulitzer Prize for history that year. But Warren directed me to a journal of his father's early life which provided splendid data on his Cuban and Philippine experiences and his service as military observer in the Russo-Japanese War. A chance conversation in Houston led to hearing a personal account of the fire that claimed Pershing's wife and three daughters at the San Francisco Presidio in 1915; another chance conversation with Gen. S.L.A. Marshall produced an account of how Marshall, then a newsman, had accidentally told Pershing the story of the fire-thinking he was telling an aide.

But the main archival discovery came with a tip from a Mississippi archivist that sent me to Yazoo City to the home of a Mrs. Quekemeyer. She had all the letters and memorabilia of her son, George, who had been on Pershing's personal staff in France and who wrote her several letters a week, filled with the daily details of headquarters life and the general's doings. These letters were the best source I found on Pershing's direct actions and thoughts during the war. They were in a cedar trunk, carefully wrapped with medals and bits of uniforms. I urged George's mother to put the whole collection in a library or the state archives-she promised to do so.

At the moment I'm involved in a book on Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, tentatively titled The Commander-in-Chief: LBJ and Vietnam. Again inundated with material, I'm still finding gaps. This time, aided by the marvelous people and resources of the LBJ Library, I'm well into the new business (for me) of oral history accounts. But an old friend made available a diary and letters from her husband who was killed in Vietnam. They were wonderful-love letters, a warrior's letters, the diary of a compassionate man who cared for the villagers he went to help. I've seen no other source as poignant or as graphic-they will give the LBJ book an immediacy all its own.

All my research stories aim to make a point-I'm one who is permanently indebted to archivists, librarians, and all who save documents, newspapers, books, tapes, videos, films, records, memorabilia-all the grist of history. And recent service on the National Historical Publication and Records Commission has etched in my mind the need for greater resources to go to such organizations as that-the NHPRC is taking a heavy whack in its budget and all students of history should raise an outcry.

When the past is lost, so is part of human memory.

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