Harry Smeltzer Interview
Battle of First Manassas / Bull Run Battle
We are honored to bring you the Harry Smeltzer interview. Harry is a well-respected member of the Civil War community and his highly-successful blog called Bull Runnings (named for the First Battle of Bull Run) sets the mark for the study of the first major conflict of the Civil War.
Harry's work has been published in Civil War Times, Civil War History and America's Civil War magazines and he handles book reviews for the latter. He is much sought-after for Civil War presentations and roundtables, and can be booked for future events.
1) Hi Harry, thanks for joining us today. Please take this opportunity to briefly tell us about yourself, your largely-popular blog Bull Runnings, and anything else you'd like to mention.
HJS: Thanks for this opportunity, Scott. I should lead off by saying I’m not a historian, professional or otherwise. My rule is that a historian is someone who has achieved some minimum level of training in the field, demonstrated proficiency before his peers, and adheres to a code of conduct. Just like a doctor, a lawyer, a plumber, or a real estate appraiser. For more on that, go here. I was born and raised and still live in Southwest PA, outside of Pittsburgh, and received my BS at Penn State and my MBA at Pitt. The American Civil War is my hobby. I’ve had the good fortune to host my blog, serve on the board of the Save Historic Antietam Foundation, and do a little writing on the side for “America’s Civil War”, “Civil War Times”, and “Civil War History”.
This past year, the perfect storm of the Civil War Sesquicentennial and my particular interest in the First Bull Run campaign kept me busy with roundtable presentations, conducting a tour of First Bull Run for The Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, and speaking as part of the Battle of Gettysburg anniversary programs put on by The Gettysburg Foundation. I plan to continue with my writing both in print and on the web, and I have a book project I’ve been working on: a non-conventional alternative to typical narrative campaign studies. Couple that concept with the fact it’s a Bull Run project and the odds of it ever being published commercially are pretty slim. But that doesn’t make it any less cool, if you ask me. All-in-all, as far as this hobby is concerned, I’ve been very lucky - I guess you could say blessed.
2) Your blog is largely devoted to the First Battle of Bull Run. What made you choose this particular battle to write about?
HJS: That’s usually the first question anyone asks me about Bull Runnings, and you’d think by now I’d have a better answer. The long and the short of it is I was looking for something on which to focus, because I was simply spending way too much money on Civil War books – everything interests me. Except cavalry, of course – that bores me to tears (just kidding). I started by trying to compile data on the operations of the Army of the Potomac from after Gettysburg until Grant joined the army in the field – I called it “After an Exchange of Punts: From Gettysburg to Grant”. But that proved to be a pretty big undertaking, which I guess explains why no one has undertaken it yet. I’d always been curious why so little had been published on First Bull Run, and why so much of what had been published focused more on the outbreak of the war than it did on the campaign itself.
At the same time I was getting very interested in primary source materials and the possibilities of the web in making them easily available. The blog was just supposed to be a place where I discussed my process of digitizing these materials. But after discussing the mechanics with Brian Downey of the groundbreaking site “Antietam on the Web", I quickly realized my limitations. It became obvious to me that I didn’t have the patience to learn what was necessary to build a database website. Wordpress, my blogging software, has a “page” feature that allows me to organize material. The next thing I knew, I was posting what I call “resources” to the blog: after action reports from the Official Records, Orders of Battle, Memoirs, letters, diaries, Congressional testimony. Lots and lots of stuff, more all the time, and I doubt I’ll ever be finished adding to it. It’s all available as “Bull Run Resources”. So Bull Runnings is more than a traditional blog. In fact the blogging function, the original content that I put up, is secondary to the resources section. I’m proud to say that a surprising number of real historians have told me that they use the site for research.
3) Having studied the battle extensively, is there anything that resonates with you about the battle that may not be common knowledge?
HJS: I’m not sure what you mean by “resonates”. Certain things get my goat, like when someone says they have no interest in Bull Run because “there’s no there there”, that is, no strategy, no real tactics, no planning, just two mobs. But I try not to get upset, because it’s an attitude born of ignorance resulting from underexposure. In my mind there are more practical and important misconceptions about the campaign, particularly the planning of the operation from the Union’s perspective, what McDowell was trying to accomplish, his expectations, and the reasons for his failure. I wrote a feature article about that for “America’s Civil War”, and took part in a forum with John Hennessy and Ethan Rafuse in Civil War History in which we discussed misconceptions about the battle in general – you can read that here. And I believe I’m going to explore the issue further in a guest post on the new “Civil War Monitor” blog, “The Front Line”.
4) You have written articles for many well-known magazines, have reviewed many books and conduct battlefield tours at Bull Run. Which of these do you enjoy the most and why?
HJS: Writing for me is a gut-wrenching process. I think a lot, which leads to worrying, which leads to procrastination, which leads to a lot of last minute rushing about. The thought of writing petrifies me. I almost never hit a deadline, which drives my editors nuts. Book reviews are tough because what I write about a book can help or hurt the author, who has put a lot more time and effort into producing the thing than I’ve spent going over it and writing 150 words about it. Sometimes it’s easy to praise a book, sometimes it’s next to impossible – there’s a lot of crap out there, much more these days, it seems. I prefer to follow mom’s advice about what to say when you don’t have anything good to say, so I really haven’t hammered too many. When I have I think the consensus has been I didn’t swing hard enough.
I enjoyed a fairly long-running gig at “Civil War Times” with a regular column called “Collateral Damage”, which featured prominent Civil War homes and the stories of their owners. Those were fun, and I was sad to see them come to an end – I was hoping to do about 25-30 of them. But the publisher decided that the column didn’t fit with their redesign, and they’ve been very successful for 50 years in a very tough business so I trust they know what’s best. The column taught me how to not just make my point, but to construct a story in a limited number of words. My recent feature for “America’s Civil War” was a real learning experience, because I was writing for an editor with whom I hadn’t worked before. I came out the other side a much better writer, I think. A feature is really satisfying because it’s yours; you’re laying it out there for everyone to see and criticize and you have more space to lay things out. It’s an accomplishment, or at least it feels like one. But let me tell ya, it’s a lot easier to be a good writer when you have a good editor, and with my feature, my column, and my reviews I’ve had great ones in Dana Shoaf, Tamela Baker, and Chris Howland. And Lesley Gordon at “Civil War History” was a pleasure to work with as well.
I’ve been on a lot of organized battlefield tours. When I decided to get back into the hobby in a big way, I started taking tours conducted by Penn State’s Dr. Carol Reardon. Right off I think I knew that I wanted to be facing the tourists eventually. This past summer, after 13 years, I finally got my chance, courtesy of Dr. Peter Carmichael of Gettysburg College. Pete was a guide on a Dr. Reardon led tour of Fredericksburg I once attended, strangely enough. I over-prepared, of course, but I think things went pretty well. I really enjoyed the interaction and the chance to discuss the battle and, more important, the personalities with folks of varying levels of expertise, from first-timers to history professors. I think I managed to construct a tour in a way that was different than what folks usually see – for one thing I consciously tried to avoid speaking in the future tense! (Your readers who have taken a lot of tours know what I’m talking about.) If anyone’s interested, I’m available to guide you around the sites of the First Bull Run campaign, and I’ll even tailor the tour to your interests. Drop me a note here.
5) Thanks Harry for taking the time to speak with us and we'd like to wrap it up with one more question. If you could go back in time and meet any individual from the Civil War, who would it be and what would you discuss?
HJS: Well, Irvin McDowell left no personal papers behind, at least none that we’ve found. So of course I’d like to pick his brain about Bull Run (conversely, Joe Johnston and G. T. Beauregard had diarrhea of the pen).
But the most intriguing conversations would have to be a two-fer: George McClellan and Abraham Lincoln. That would make for a fascinating lunch – likely a history re-writing lunch.
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