I recently had the opportunity to ask a few questions to John Michael Priest, one of the historical consultants on Grant vs. Lee. He is considered one of the leading experts on the history of the 1862 Maryland Campaign, and the Battle of Antietam, as well as a specialist in small unit tactics. Ed Bearss has called Mr. Priest the “Ernie Pyle of the Civil War soldier.” He has written several books on the subject, including Antietam: The Soldiers’ Battle, Before Antietam: The Battle of South Mountain, and Into the Fight: Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. It was an honor to ask him questions for the blog.
Steven Hancock: When did you first become interested in American history?
John Michael Priest: I became interested in American History, in particular, Civil War History, as a boy living in Fairfax, Virginia. Nearly everyone in our development, my father included, had served in World War II. I learned history from men and women who lived through it. It was not the history taught in textbooks. My father served as a battalion wire runner, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines on Guadalcanal. A very good family friend in the 82nd Airborne jumped at Sicily, D-Day, and Arnhem, another received the Silver Star for rescuing a downed flier in the Pacific. I grew up on Ernie Pyle and Bill Mauldin.
I learned that the real heroes never bragged about themselves, that the scars of the war haunted them to varying degrees throughout their lives. I got into writing Civil War history because of them and the thousands who preceded them, to illustrate how the common experience of the military and war transcend the ages. To never forget that wars do not end just because the shooting stops.
SH: You are considered a leading expert on the Maryland Campaign and the Battle of Antietam. What is it about this campaign and battle that interests you the most?
JMP: The individual stories of the men and women who endured those times drew me into the Maryland Campaign. No one had written about Antietam or South Mountain from the soldiers’ perspective before. Their remembrances, their untold stories drew me into researching a battle and a campaign about which I knew so little. When I stand on the ridge behind the Visitors’ Center, and gaze across the verdant, pristine fields around me, I remember what they saw, and it shakes me to my core. The inscription on the Georgia monument says it best: “We sleep here in obedience to law. When duty called we came. When country called we died.”
SH: What does your role as historical adviser on the miniseries “Grant vs. Lee” currently entail?
JMP: Currently, I am in a hiatus of sorts. Beginning in January 2011, right after I retired, I contacted Michael Frost Beckner to volunteer my services, should he need them. To my surprise he enthusiastically responded. I edited the Antietam Episode first then proceeded to work on the rest of the script. The edit concentrated upon historical accuracy in dialogue, mannerisms, tying actual regiments accurately into the narrative and generally trying to make the work less susceptible to criticism from the Civil War community. No work will ever be 100% perfect. I merely tried to eliminate some of the minor errors which the “experts” tend to deliberately ferret out. This mini-series, if Mr. Beckner is allowed to pull it off, will surpass anything produced to date. I found the script riveting, down to earth, and uncontrived. Terrific work.
SH: When the series goes into production, what will your primary duties be on the film shoot?
JMP: As of this time, I do not know what role I will play during the shoot. I think it would be a great opportunity and a terrific learning experience but that is not a decision for me to make. I appreciate having been involved in it.
SH: Why do you feel it is important for Americans to remember this part of our history?
JMP: From an academic perspective, the American Civil War changed the way we perceived ourselves as a nation in that, in general, we stopped seeing the country as a confederacy of individual states but as a Union under a central government. It created such a deep scar in our psyche that the concept of a civil war ever occurring again seems impossible to many today. The War spawned the first systematic evaluation of combat and military medicine in the superb Medical and Surgical History of the war. The overwhelming wartime and postwar writings of the veterans vividly brought the conflict home to the civilian population and their descendants like no conflict which preceded it. It was the last major war fought on the North American continent. The list could go on ad infinatum.
I have been studying the Civil War for so long that I do not know if I can verbalize why it fascinates me so much. The mystic bonds of the past have never released their grip upon me. Perhaps, remembering how my father could not forget his experiences as a Marine on Guadalcanal, impressed upon me at an early age that while we cannot fully understand how war affects real people, we cannot forget it either. The more I delve into how the soldiers lived and survived, the more I believe that the humans involved an inhumane, often senseless, existence of conflict need to be understood and above all, not forgotten.
I want to thank Mr. Priest for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer these questions. His passion for the subject is truly telling in the answers, and shows how important it is to him that the history of the Maryland Campaign is depicted on screen as accurately as possible.