Jim Schmidt Interview
Civil War Doctors / Abraham Lincoln Presidency
Welcome to the Jim Schmidt interview. He is well-respected in the Civil War community for his blog on Civil War medicine which is very well presented and should be perused by anyone with an interest in the American Civil War.
Jim is also a well-established author and has written on varying subjects including Abraham Lincoln, Notre Dame and the Civil War, and Civil War Medicine.
It is our pleasure to bring you the Jim Schmidt interview.
1) Hi Jim, thanks for joining us today. Please take this opportunity to briefly tell us about yourself,your blog at http://civilwarmed.blogspot.com, and anything else you'd like to mention.
JS: Thanks, Scott! It’s my pleasure!
Well, in the words of Austin Powers: “Allow myself to introduce…myself”!
I was born in Topeka, KS, and grew up there and in Joplin, MO, before moving to Oklahoma City during college. I attended Benedictine College (Atchison, KS) for a couple of years before finishing my studies at the University of Central Oklahoma (Edmond) where I earned a B.S. in Chemistry. I’ve worked inprivate, government, and industrial laboratories for the past 25 years as a bio-analytical chemist and am currently employed with a biotech firm in The Woodlands, TX, north of Houston, where I support our pharmaceutical discovery and development programs as part of the Drug Metabolism department. I’m married and have three terrific kids.
I began writing for publication 12 or so years ago. I’ve been fortunate to have articles published in great magazines such as World War II, The Artilleryman, Learning Through History, Chemical Heritage, Dartmouth Medicine, North & South, and others; since 2000, I’ve had a regular column about 19th-century medicine in Civil War News.
I am the author, editor, or contributor to three books: Lincoln’s Labels: America’s Best Known Brands and the Civil War (Edinborough Press, 2008), Years of Change and Suffering: Modern Perspectives on Civil War Medicine (Edinborough Press, 2009), and Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory (The History Press, 2010).
Presently, I’m under contract to write a book about Galveston (TX) and the Civil War, also for The History Press; it will be out in mid- to late-2012.
As you said, I have a blog at http://civilwarmed.blogspot.com; I’m also fortunate to have been asked to join a great group of bloggers for the online site of the great new magazine, The Civil War Monitor.
I’ve also had the great pleasure and privilege of giving presentations to Civil War Round Tables and other groups in IL, MO, TX, MN, OH, MD, TN, and LA. I really enjoy doing that.
I’m blessed, to be sure.
2) Much of your forum is dedicated to the study of Civil War medicine. What made you decide to devote your time to this particular subject?
JS: I started my “Civil War Medicine (and Writing)” blog a few years back as a more flexible – and hopefully interactive - alternative to a traditional website. It serves as an easy means to post and archive the “Medical Department” columns that I write for The Civil War News and especially too include supplemental hyperlinks and material that does not appear in the printed column; provide updates on my other research, writing, and speaking projects; post book reviews and interviews; share items from my collection of 19th-century correspondence and medicines; and more. I passed 300 posts a couple months ago so I hope I can keep up the momentum!
I don’t have an ancestor that fought in the war (mine arrived in America in the mid-1870s), so I have found other ways to make a connection. The medical aspects of the Civil War have a special appeal to me, of course, because it’s closely associated with my “day job.” As a chemist, I also have an interest in the scientific and technological aspects of the war, especially invention, and one of my favorite resources are wartime issues of Scientific American magazine, a topic on which I’ve written about in two of my books and in other articles. I also have an interest in “institutional history” and the war: thus my first book about how well-known corporations affected (and were affected by) the war and my most recent book about how a well-known university participated in the war and how the war impacted the school.
My interests are pretty wide-ranging…sometimes I just grab a thread and follow! If anything I have become more and more interested in the home front and social movements during the war, rather than the battlefield, although I certainly enjoy visiting historic sites.
3) Your latest book, 'Notre Dame and the Civil War' tells an amazing story of sacrifice and courage. Please tell us a bit about the book and what inspired you to tell this story?
JS: Although I happily attended Catholic schools most of my life, I didn’t attend Notre Dame. Nevertheless, I guess I’ve always been among what they refer to as “subway alumni”; that is, folks who didn’t attend but do have an affinity for the university, either because of sports or tradition or both.
As for the Civil War connection, like most people I became acquainted with the school’s role in the war through personalities like the justly celebrated Fr. Corby, chaplain to the Irish Brigade (who has – as you know – a great Gettysburg connection!).
The more I looked, though, I realized there was a LOT more to the story: other chaplains every bit as brave as Fr. Corby (they sent seven in all), more than sixty sister-nurses sent to the hospitals, the fact that the Sherman family sent their kids there during the war and had a special connection to theuniversity, wartime fisticuffs and political pressure on campus, a unique Grand Army of the Republic chapter, and some real heroes among her dozens of student-soldiers, including two brevet generals and a Medal of Honor recipient! Among the chaplains, sister-nurses, and student-soldiers were men andwomen who made the ultimate sacrifice. I think it makes a pretty good story!
I got some great assistance from the archivists at Notre Dame and it would have been impossible to research and write this book without them.
It also led me into some general reading on the challenges that all of America’s institutions of higher education faced during the war: declining enrollments due to student and faculty enlistments in the Union and Confederate armies; fiscal problems brought on by declining enrollment and exacerbated by wartime inflation; concerted enemy movements and battles in or around campuses (including Gettysburg, right?!); and inflamed partisan and sectional passions among the students. At the least, these challenges could disrupt the order of campus life; at worst, they could result in the institution closing its doors, and many did.
Apart from the book, I also have a longer-term project of cataloging and documenting Notre Dame’s student-soldiers. Your readers can learn more at my “Notre Dame/Civil War” blog at: http://civilwarmed.blogspot.com
4) As we've learned, you've written books and also pieces for multiple magazines. What body of work are you most connected to?
JS: That’s a good question…I’m not sure I have an equally good (or coherent) answer, but I’ll try…
The fact there are so many publications that rely on freelance writers, means that I was able to write about a lot of different interests, yet all connected with history somehow. My first articles were for general interest magazines in my own industry: I wrote about the early history of the chemistry department at West Point, the history of chemistry sets, and other topics. That gave me the confidence to branch out into popular Civil War publications. Once you get that first article accepted and build a relationship with the editor(s), the next assignments come more easily.
Most important: starting my writing career, such as it is, by first writing articles and columns really helped me in writing books, I think. Most magazines have strict word limits, especially for “department” articles if not for “feature” articles, so it really trained me to have an “economy with words” while not skimping on the overall theme of the article. That has carried over into my books. I really don’t thinkquantity is equal to quality. All book proposals and most contracts have some word count consideration (usually shorter than you want) and so my experience in writing articles has made me more disciplined I think, yet without skimping on the scholarship or the story.
The three books I have under my belt are each different in their own way: Lincoln’s Labels has chapters that can be read on their own but stick to a similar convention and match an overall theme of the role of business in the war; Years of Change and Suffering is an edited collection of invited expert essays…mygood friend and co-editor Guy Hasegawa and I had the task of soliciting contributions, editing them, and organizing them in a manner that made some sense…it was made easier by some great contributions; Notre Dame and the Civil War is a (mostly) chronological work in the genre of “local history,” but withwider appeal since Notre Dame has a national rather than a regional following.
Fortunately (I think, anyway), writing is not my day job and doesn’t need to pay the bills, so I don’t have so much pressure on myself; still, a writer makes commitments to delivering on a certain time. I try and combat my habit of procrastination by making reasonable commitments, being a dedicated outliner(which helps chop a big project into smaller pieces), and pacing myself.
Mostly, though, I love talking to people who are also interested in history and I love the question-and-answer and show-and-tell sessions more than just giving a lecture.
That said, I do this type of stuff as humbly as possible: I know from whence my inspiration and talent, such as it is, comes (“the Big Guy upstairs”) and I’ve been extremely blessed in the number of people who have taken the time to offer research assistance, critique my writing before I send it out, offeradvice on the writing and publishing processes, and more. It’s a real privilege when a group contacts you to give a talk, etc., and I appreciate it so much. I only hope I can somehow repay all of that kindness and generosity.
If people have questions, they can always contact me by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
5) Thanks Jim 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 one person from the Civil War who would it beand why?
JS: You are welcome and thank you!
Wow, that’s a tough one.
Well, if I could choose someone on the home front it would be Lammot du Pont. He was the chief chemist at his family’s gunpowder works during the war, which supplied the better part of the gunpowder that the Union used. I think we’d have a lot in common and I know I’d learn a lot from him. He was a real innovator. He had a dangerous job: he died in an explosion when he was still a relatively young man. Norman B. Wilkinson’s Lammot du Pont and the American Explosives Industry, 1850-1884(Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984) is one of my favorite books.
If I could have seen one particular battle in person, it would be at Gettysburg on Culp’s Hill with Gen. George S. Greene and his brigade of New Yorkers.
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