For the past several years, historian Cary Eberly has been writing for the very popular, and award-winning website, ExplorePAHistory, and if he was not busy during that time, he surely is busy now! The accomplished writer is currently working on three books; one on the American Civil War, one on George Washington, and the other on Indian chiefs Cochise and Geronimo. These books, however, will be a little bit different, as they are photographic narratives, which will attempt to illustrate the history and bring it alive, either inspiring an interest in those new to the field we love so much, or enhancing it for those who have already immersed themselves in the subject. While I have known Cary only briefly, I can confidently say that if his kindness is indicative of his writing, than we are all in for a treat.
I had contacted him last week, and he told me that he was going to Antietam for a photo-shoot for his book on Grant and Lee, and would do the interview when he returned. Sure enough, he did not forget, and I now have him to thank for these wonderful and informative answers below. Cary is also serving as a historical adviser to the upcoming television mini-series To Appomattox, which was the main subject of our discussion. I also want to point out something he says in his second answer, about wanting this series to appeal to all ages, and consideration being made to create companion lesson plans for the series to be used in schools. This is probably the most important aspect, aside from the entertainment factor in this show, and that is the education of our youth. As someone who will be teaching a class on the Civil War this fall, as part of a special weekly elective program at a nearby middle school, this will be my chance to do my part and drum up interest to those still in school. Please enjoy the conversation below:
CE: My involvement with To Appomattox began with a suggestion from my friend, author Thomas Fleming, to contact documentary filmmakers about making my George Washington book into a film. I had developed a friendship with him over the previous two years, as he was quite impressed with my photo narrative format in the George Washington book, and offered to help me, as well as write the introduction for it. By the way, his next books will be his 51st and 52nd , and will be with Da Capo Press; one on the Civil War and the other on the Revolution. So as I began to contact documentary filmmakers, I saw comments about the upcoming To Appomattox on various reenactor chat rooms, and contacted Michael Beckner with a photo narrative book I was working on about all the battles of Robert E. Lee. Like Tom, he also liked the format, and after reading his script, I decided to combine a Grant and Lee battle narrative into a single book in the hope that he would use it as a companion volume to his film. As for the production itself, I don’t see myself having a role in that. At one point, we discussed another photographic book that would present my photographs of the actual battlefields to the sets that they will create, and I suggested we ask each actor the same three questions about the Civil War, and sprinkle their answers throughout the book. [People love celebrity quotes!] Maybe something to add to the DVD boxed set.
GC: This is something I asked J.D: what are your hopes for what this series will accomplish?
CE: My hope for the series is that it will reach a whole new generation who are not being taught the central role that the Civil War played in making Americans who we are. The American Revolution set us free, but the Civil War was the white-hot cauldron that forged what it would mean to be an “American.” That war decided what kind of country we would be, with freedom for all, regardless of race, creed, or religion. It settled issue of slavery once and for all, something that had been a stain on America’s character since the first slaves arrived. And I think this series has a unique opportunity to reach people across a wide spectrum of age, interest and education, as a result of the script that Michael Beckner has crafted. Not only is it extremely accurate, but he weaves the drama of the war into his story while capturing the relationships between so many of these generals who shape the way this war was fought. These men had bonded together like brothers during their years together at West Point, and in so many life and death battles during the Mexican-American War. By placing these deep relationships at the very heart of the story, he paints a compelling and accurate picture of the gut-wrenching human drama that tore so deep into American families. I think when the final episode airs, the viewer will come away with a very accurate picture of who these principle characters were; flawed human beings who often did unbelievably heroic deeds. And this series can be a jumping off spot for people who want to learn more about the Civil War, and that includes schools. We have spoken of creating a lesson plan for all levels in the educational system, starting with middle school, all the way up to college level courses. Everything in this film reflects the most recent scholarship, and all my books are designed to appeal to a more visual generation who will see elegant photographs of the battlefield itself, what the soldiers looked like, opposite a thrilling narrative designed to spark a deeper interest in these stories that every American should know by heart.
GC: What event or character are you most excited to see portrayed on-screen?
CE: I think I’m most excited to see Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman portrayed accurately on the screen. So many films have painted both men as a caricature of who history and their own private letters teach us they really were. The truth is always more interesting than fiction, and in the case of these two men, it could not be more applicable. Like all of us, both men were flawed human beings who overcame a whole range of human hardships, to contribute and shape America in positive ways that still reverberate in our culture today. I also look forward to seeing the relationships develop between the young boys who arrived at West Point, and would someday lead these immense armies against each other. Men who had been like brothers; West Point roommates, Mexican War tent mates, the best-man at each other’s weddings, many married each other’s sisters, etc. The story Michael Beckner will bring to the screen, will really show the bond that developed between the men, North and South, who would lead these armies in a war that cost more than 620,000 American lives, and another 500,000 wounded.
GC: You just got back from a photo shoot for a book you are working on. Can you tell us about that?
CE: The photo shoot was at Antietam. It was for my Civil War book, On to Appomattox: Grant & Lee, Following the Warrior’s Trail. Early in the summer, I met a number of young, lean reenactors, mostly from the 63rd Virginia. In this case, two of men are park rangers at Antietam National Battlefield, and were able to secure permission for a few of them to sleep on the battlefield last Saturday night. While I already have more than enough photographs to complete this book right now, I keep getting better and better reenactor photographs, so it’s very hard to stop at this point! Ha! These are all young, lean men of the right age and weight to reflect the kinds of men who actually fought the Civil War, so I plan to get a few thousand more images so that I can operate from abundance when it’s time to put the book together. I’ve posted a few of the new ones on my Facebook page, but I always keep the majority offline, and save them for the book.
GC: Do you have a favorite battlefield you like to visit? How about a favorite General? And why?
CE: I don’t really have a favorite battlefield or general, per se. Like so many stories from history, there is always something new to discover. At any given time, there are usually eight to ten books on my nightstand that span anywhere from the Roman Empire to the Afghanistan war. I sometimes read two or three books on the French & Indian War, before choosing a different era and immersing myself into that. So there is always something new to read and learn about. When I tire of a certain subject for a while, I simply go to a new subject and my interest is renewed.
GC: Lastly, if you had a time machine and could travel back to any period in history (aside from the Civil War), where would you go and why?
CE: Great question! And that reminds me of a movie that must have had a great deal to do with deepening my interest in history at a young age. The 1960 movie Time Machine with Rod Taylor, was an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ famous novel. While the 1960-era special effects left allot to be desired, like the body-builders who played mutants, painted blue with really bad, long-haired white wigs, it was that time machine itself that really intrigued me. The machine itself could never move off of its specific patch of earth, but could go backwards or forwards in time, according to the date you set on the “dashboard” of what looked like a stripped-down Model A. As Rod set the machine to go backwards, the time-lapse of his neighborhood would be visible in all directions, until the buildings were long-gone and dinosaurs were roaming the neighborhood. When he went forward in time [if memory serves], nuclear war had left the landscape with very few humans who were working as slaves underground and being rounded up by the blue mutants! Now I grew up about two miles from Valley Forge, and during our winter sledding of the hills below where Anthony Wayne’s men were stationed, I would try to imagine what had happened in specific spots around the park like Washington’s headquarters, the river crossings, etc. Ever since that movie, I often make history a little more real when I am standing where it happened, by pausing for a few minutes, and quietly reflecting on what happened there right where I am standing. I have a Twitter account approaching 20,000 followers, and a post a few stories each day from the History Channel about what happened “This Day in History.” Knowing that something happened on this day, so many years ago, makes it a little more real to me to stop and imagine it occurring “on this very day!” Now, if I had that time machine you’ve so graciously brought to me, I would have a virtually endless list of where I would like to go. But if you would make me choose a single place and time, this week I would travel back to the Battle of Long Island which will take place this Saturday, 235 years ago, August 27, 1776. It was the first major battle of the American Revolution after the Declaration of Independence, and the beginning of a brutal series of losses for our young Continental army that would test George Washington’s resolve all the way until he turned the table on the Hessians at Trenton on Christmas night. Exactly how long can I stay?
I would like to thank Cary, not only for this interview, but for his kind words. When he sent me the responses to my questions, he noted, “First, I wanted to compliment you on your blog site. It’s really impressive to see how you are crafting this site into something really special! And I am honored that you have asked me to be a part of it.” This really means a lot to me, and hope to keep interviews such as these coming as many times as I can! And please click here to visit Cary’s official website.