20 April 2010

Author Interview - Rusty Williams (No Relation)

I recently received an email from author Rusty Williams informing me of his new blog which promotes his latest book, My Old Confederate Home - A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans - (University Press of Kentucky, May 21, 2010). In my research for my own book, I came across some information surrounding the Lee Camp Home in Richmond where Jackson's horse, Little Sorrel, spent his final days. The subject matter fascinated me then, as it does now. I asked Rusty if he'd agree to a brief interview about his book. He graciously agreed.

OVB: Tell us a little about your background – where you’re from, your family, your education.

RW: I grew up in Dallas, Texas, but my family originally came from Virginia. They were the tobacco Blairs and Williams from down in Pittsylvania County, and they came to North Texas as part of the Great Southern Migration in the years just before the Civil War.
I grew up hearing those old family stories, and I think that led to my desire to write stories for newspapers. I studied journalism and wrote for a number of newspapers before moving into management. Those family stories led me to research and write my first book, Scatterlings: Blair Williams and Turner to Texas, 1858 to 1873 (Aventine Press, 2003).  Most of the family tales I heard as a kid seemed a little too pat, and I really wanted to understand why a half million Virginians and Georgians and Kentuckians and Tennesseans would relocate to a little strip of Texas south of the Red River in a period of less than a decade. Several years of research and writing led to Scatterlings.

OVB: What inspired or first gave you the idea for My Old Kentucky Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans?

RW: I came across a historical marker for the Kentucky Confederate Home. There was nothing left of the building itself, but I was fascinated that, well into the twentieth century, these old veterans of a war that had ended sixty years before still lived together, still saluted the old flags, still wore the old uniforms. After a digging around in some newspaper archives I became intrigued by the contrast of these old Rebels living in an age of radio and passenger airplanes, and I was struck by the poignancy of men in their seventies and eighties returning to a quasi-military lifestyle in the Home.
Most of all, though, I was surprised that this final chapter of Civil War history had never been told at length, and I determined to tell it.

OVB: How long did it take you to write the book?

RW: I actually wrote the book proposal first and shopped it around to several publishers. Once University Press of Kentucky expressed an interest, I completed the manuscript in about nine months.

OVB: As an author myself, I’m always interested in this question: Did you get any rejections and, if so, how many?

RW: Two publishers turned it down and two publishers offered contracts. The editor at University Press of Kentucky, though, really understood that this was going to be a book for general readers, not just academics. We both wanted a well-researched and documented book that was lively and entertaining for armchair historians and buffs, not just academics.

OVB:Tell us, briefly, about the content of the book.

RW: This is the institutional history of the Kentucky Confederate Home, one of fifteen lasting Confederate soldiers’ homes financed and built by Confederate veterans in the Southern and Border states between 1887 and 1929. In many ways the Kentucky home was typical of the others, and I discuss the homes in other states throughout the book. My Old Confederate Home tells this history through stories of the individuals who built the institution, supported it, operated it, lived in it and tried to close it. It includes the stories of a cavalryman-turned-bank-robber-turned-attorney, a senile ship captain, a prosperous former madam, and a small-town clergyman whose concern for the veterans cost him his pastorate. Most of all, though, the story of the Home is the story of the hundreds of men who lived out their final days there. The stories of an old man who loses his burial fund when the banks fail, a prisoner who trades one institution for another, and a black Confederate, among others, illustrate the unique lives and special needs of the veterans sheltered in the Home.

OVB: Tell us a little about the day to day routine in the Confederate Home, i.e., activities, meals, medical care, etc.

RW: For most of the men in the Confederate soldiers’ homes, their military service was forty years behind them. But when they entered the home they voluntarily returned to a quasi-military way of life. At the Kentucky Confederate Home the day started at 6 a.m. with a cannon shot from a field artillery piece on the front lawn, and a color guard would raise the U. S. and Confederate flags over the building. The men would fall in for roll call and uniform inspection, then march off to breakfast. (Breakfast might include sliced ham, gravy, fried potatoes, biscuits, fruit preserves and coffee.) If the weather was good, they might stroll the grounds after breakfast or find a chair on one of the galleries, but the rules prohibited them from leaving the Home’s grounds without the commandant’s permission and a written furlough slip. (Some of the homes required men to perform several hours of “productive work” every day—farming, building repair, painting—unless they were on sick call.) Dinner, served at midday, was the heaviest meal of the day, more suited to a farmer than a sedentary seventy-year-old. Afterwards, they might nap or pursue a hobby (like whittling, gardening or photography).

There were always games of checkers going on.
The special days, though, were when they had some kind of entertainment. Ladies from the United Daughters of the Confederacy would often organize parties or recitals for the old vets. Religious services were held on Sundays and Wednesday night, usually conducted by a local preacher or traveling evangelist. The real treat was when touring vaudeville groups would stop in at the homes to perform for the old men. By the 1920s, most homes had movie projectors, and local theaters would loan out prints of popular movies.

Misbehavior wasn’t tolerated, and most homes had a procedure much like a courts-martial that could lead to confinement or discharge from the home. The Confederate soldiers’ homes were respectable places, providing shelter, clothing, food, and care, but they required that men live up to standards never required of them in civilian life. Some thrived in the environment, others resisted to the point of expulsion.

OVB:During your research, did anything surprise you? If so, what?

RW: The biggest chill-down-the-back-of-the-neck moment came well into my research, when I was plowing through speeches given by officials at the dedication of the Kentucky Confederate Home in 1902.  One of the orators paused, looked down at his audience, and said: “It is not mere sentiment to predict that when another century has ebbed and flowed, some enterprising journalist or student of history searching amongst quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore will resurrect the very act which authorizes the purchase and maintenance of the home we are today dedicating.” The hair on my arms stood up! The story of the Confederate soldiers’ homes, he continued, “will go to the credit of ex-Confederate soldiers and furnish material for an additional appendix to their faultless record.” I hope My Old Confederate Home goes to the credit of men who took care of their invalid and needful comrades.

OVB: What do you hope the book will accomplish?

RW: I think the lesson of the Confederate soldiers’ homes is that all of us owe a debt to the men and women who take up arms on our nation’s behalf. We may hate the war, but we can care for and respect the warriors. Americans did that a century ago; we can do the same today.

OVB: Any other books in the works?

RW: There are always more stories to tell. I just hope they’re as interesting and compelling as the stories of the ex-Confederates who organized, built and lived in the Confederate soldiers’ homes.

OVB: Thanks Rusty. This is a fascinating subject to me. As I mentioned earlier, I've always been much more interested in some of the nuances and "byway" stories involving the war - the personal stories, the oddities, the forgotten. That interest is part of what led me to write the story of Stonewall Jackson's black Sunday school class. Thanks for writing this book about a forgotten and overlooked aspect of the WBTS. I can't wait to get a copy and review it here.

You can visit Rusty's blog here and read more about his book. 


Mike Simons said...

It is great to see scholars finally covering this era of Confederate Vets life; so many of the Confederate Veterans Homes have been torn down that this history is being lost to the wrecking ball.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hey Mike. Yes, as I noted, I find the subject quite fascinating. As a result of this interview, I've been contacted by someone in Richmond about the old Lee Camp home. I hope to post something on that soon.