A Postscript to a Conversation with Hallowed Ground‘s Mary Koik


(a postscript to a four-part series)

As a follow-up to my interview with Hallowed Ground editor Mary Koik earlier this month, I asked her, “If a young woman wanted to get into Civil War-related publishing, as a writer or author, what advice would you offer? In other words, if she wanted to follow in your footsteps, what should she do?”

Here’s Mary’s answer, applicable for aspiring writers—female and male, alike! 

Mary Koik: The best way to start a journey to being a competent writer and editor in ANY subject area is to become, first and foremost, a reader.

Not just that, be a voracious reader. Consume fiction of all genres and formats, paying attention to the way language can be used to convey tone, convey subtlety, convey gravitas. Read nonfiction on many subjects—and not just because you may not start off working in your dream field. You’ll be amazed at how good writing can be compelling regardless of what it covers. Plus, knowing a little about a lot of things gives you a better sense of what you DON’T know and need to query authors on. And, as a bonus, it makes you very good company at cocktail parties. Read essays and opinion pieces to discover the many ways that an argument can be structured to persuade.

Be a critical reader, as well. See if you can identify and articulate why you like or dislike something. This applies to both the macro and micro levels—how the history is presented and how paragraphs or even sentences are structured. Are you a sucker for a non-linear or chronological presentation? Do you think multiple transitions between areas of focus and perspective should be left to novels? Does it bug you when an author hides behind the use of qualifiers rather than boldly stating a fact? Are you known to soliloquize on your belief that too many historians insist on torturously using the conditional in the belief that it creates suspense, even when we’re talking about Pickett’s Charge and we all know how that ends up? (That one might just be me…)

If that last example left you scratching your head, then heed my next point: Pay attention in English class, because grammar truly does matter. I’m not saying you need to be the Grammar Police at all times, because different venues allow and even require different tones. But you need to know the rules to know when to bend them. Nor am I saying that you should endeavor to be the walking index of a reference book. Heck, for many years, my personal copy of the AP Style Guide naturally fell open to the entry on possessives because I always questioned myself on instances of joint ownership. But you need to know what you’re talking about if you’re going to rewrite someone else’s work, and calling it a tense, when you really mean the mood (conditional versus indicative or subjunctive or imperative) or even the voice (active versus passive) really undermines your authority.

Cultivate an eye for detail: and not just typos. Ensuring parallel structure across all your headings or uniform information in photo captions and credits fall into this category, too. And depending on the product, you may be looking for alignment between columns or color matches. And recognize that different publications have different style guides and consistency is the goal.

Learn to be flexible. Editing isn’t like a math problem where there is only one correct answer. Sure, there are things that are outright wrong, but there are probably multiple way to fix the problem, any of which could work. And just because you have a preferred way of doing something doesn’t mean that it is what will sound most natural among that author’s prose.

Know your strengths. There is a world of difference between substantive editing and copyediting and proofreading. I would never dream of billing myself as the latter—but I’m much more comfortable indicating significant rewrites than my friends that would place themselves in that category.

Strive for excellence but realize perfection is elusive. I hate making mistakes and I can beat myself up over particularly bad ones—I doubt most people have a persona list of their five lifetime-worst typos! But every issue of Hallowed Ground runs close to 25,000 words, and with the staff and resources at my disposal, expecting zero errors in every piece of that length just isn’t reasonable. Frankly, by the end of a production cycle, I’m sure I could make two passes and find one new thing to change each time. But there comes a point when you need to ask yourself—and maybe others—“Is this ‘Stop the presses!’ worthy?” And, more often than not, the answer is no. That said, always triple check your headlines. When you’re using capital letters and fancy fonts, your eye just glosses over problems. The instances I can remember of pulling a page as we approach the very last moment have all been headlines/titles.

“The Women Who Went To The Field”

In 1892, Clara Barton shared a poem she had written about women during the Civil War when she spoke at a meeting of the National Woman’s Relief Corps. She paid tribute to the women who came alongside the soldiers and surgeons in a traditional and non-traditional way to make an unforgettable impact.

Today – as part of Women’s History Month – I’m sharing a transcription of Barton’s poem with Civil War era photographs and illustrations. Be inspired!

The women who went to the field, you say,

The women who went to the field; and pray

What did they go for? just to be in the way!-

They’d not know the difference betwixt work and play,

What did they know about war anyway?

What could they do? – of what use could they be?

They would scream at the sight of a gun, don’t you see?

Unknown Lady – Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-31119

Just fancy them round where the bugle notes play,

And the long roll is bidding us on to the fray.

Imagine their skirts ‘mong artillery wheels,

And watch for their flutter as they flee ‘cross the fields

When the charge is rammed home and the fire belches hot;-

They never will wait for the answering shot.

They would faint at the first drop of blood, in their sight.

What fun for us boys,-(ere we enter the fight;)

Two ladies and a soldier, probably all relatives. Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-31460

They might pick some lint, and tear up some sheets,

And make us some jellies, and send on their sweets,

And knit some soft socks for Uncle Sam’s shoes,

And write us some letters, and tell us the news.

And thus it was settled by common consent,

That husbands, or brothers, or whoever went,

That the place for the women was in their own homes,

There to patiently wait until victory comes.

Unidentified Civilian Women (probably mother and daughter) Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-36461

But later, it chanced, just how no one knew,

That the lines slipped a bit, and some ‘gan to crowd through;

And they went, – where did they go? – Ah; where did they not?

Show us the battle, – the field, – or the spot

Where the groans of the wounded rang out on the air

That her ear caught it not, and her hand was not there,

Who wiped the death sweat from the cold, clammy brow,

And sent home the message; – “‘T is well with him now”?

Mary A.E. Keen, Union nurse (Library of Congress – LC-DIG-ppmsca-50627)

Who watched in the tents, whilst the fever fires burned,

And the pain-tossing limbs in agony turned,

And wet the parched tongue, calmed delirium’s strife

Till the dying lips murmured, ” My Mother,” ” My Wife”!

And who were they all? – They were many, my men:

Their record was kept by no tabular pen:

They exist in traditions from father to son.

Who recalls, in dim memory, now here and there one.-

A few names where writ, and by chance live to-day;

But’s a perishing record fast fading away.

Debbie A. Hughes, Union nurse (Library of Congress – LC-DIG-ppmsca-53416)

Of those we recall, there are scarcely a score,

Dix, Dame, Bickerdyke, – Edson, Harvey and Moore,

Fales, Wittenmeyer, Gilson, Safford and Lee,

And poor Cutter dead in the sands of the sea;

And Frances D. Gage, our “Aunt Fanny” of old,

Whose voice rang for freedom when freedom was sold.

And Husband, and Etheridge, and Harlan and Case,

Livermore, Alcott, Hancock and Chase,

And Turner, and Hawley, and Potter and Hall,

Ah! the list grows apace, as they come at the call:

Mary Ann Bickerdyke, Union nurse and hospital matron (public domain image)

Did these women quail at the sight of a gun?

Will some soldier tell us of one he saw run?

Will he glance at the boats on the great western flood,

At Pittsburgh and Shiloh, did they faint at the blood?

And the brave wife of Grant stood there with them then,

And her calm, stately presence gave strength to his men.

Julia Grant

And Marie of Logan; she went with them too;

A bride, scarcely more than a sweetheart, ’tis true.

Her young cheek grows pale when the bold troopers ride.

Where the “Black Eagle” soars, she is close at his side,

She staunches his blood, cools the fever-burnt breath,

And the wave of her hand stays the Angle of Death;

She nurses him back, and restores once again

To both army and state the brave leader of men.

She has smoothed his black plumes and laid them to sleep,

Whilst the angels above them their high vigils keep:

And she sits here alone, with the snow on her brow –

Unidentified woman in mourning dress at Lookout Mountain, Tennessee (Library of Congress – LC-DIG-ppmsca-40617)

Your cheers for her comrades! Three cheers for her now.

And these were the women who went to the war:

The women of question; what did they go for?

Because in their hearts God had planted the seed

Of pity for woe, and help for its need;

They saw, in high purpose, a duty to do,

And the armor of right broke the barriers through.

Uninvited, unaided, unsanctioned ofttimes,

With pass, or without it, they pressed on the lines;

They pressed, they implored, till they ran the lines through,

And this was the “running” the men saw them do.

Miss E.A. Marsh, “The Daughter of the Regiment,” in uniform with flag (Library of Congress – LC-DIG-ppmsca-40628)

‘T was a hampered work, its worth largely lost;

‘T was hindrance, and pain, and effort, and cost:

But through these came knowledge, – knowledge is power.-

And never again in the deadliest hour

Of war or of peace shall we be so beset

To accomplish the purpose our spirits have met.

Louisa May Alcott, Union nurse (Library of Congress – LC-DIG-ppmsca-53264)

And what would they do if war came again?

The scarlet cross floats where all was blank then.

They would bind on their “brassards” and march to the fray,

And the man liveth not who could say to them nay;

They would stand with you now, as they stood with you then,

The nurses, consolers, and saviours of men.

Unidentified Union soldier and lady, probably a couple (Library of Congress – LC-DIG-ppmsca-52251)

A Conversation with Emma Murphy (part five)


Andrew Johnson’s grave

(part five of five)

For Women’s History Month, we’ve been talking with women who work in Civil War public history. This week, we’ve been sharing a conversation with Emma Murphy, park guide at Andrew Johnson National Historic Site. While earning her undergraduate and graduate degrees, Emma did stints as a seasonal ranger at Richmond, Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania, and Gettysburg before arriving in Greenveville, Tennessee earlier this year for her first full-time permanent position with the Park Service.

Chris Mackowski: So you mentioned that you’ve been there for two weeks, so you’re still learning your park. What do you love about the park so far?

Emma Murphy: There’s a lot to love. I think that I love the fact there’s room for the park to grow through more planning and community outreach. There’s a lot we can do with the national cemetery. The national cemetery not only has President Johnson and his family, but has veterans from decades all the way up to modern day. The cemetery is something we can still talk about up through the modern day because these veterans want to be buried in the same cemetery as President Johnson. That’s saying something about his place in the community, his place in Tennessee, and the legacy that he leaves. It’s a huge honor to be able to be buried alongside a president of the United States. 

I also love the ability to grow and to find new ways of interpretation and challenging the visitor, whether they just came for a homestead tour or something else. Many people come in for a furniture tour, or they’re presidential junkies, but there is a lot of context to work with. Johnson and his story basically sit right in the center of Reconstruction. Not many people know about Reconstruction, so I like to fill in that whole a little more.

Johnson’s trunk, on display at his homestead

I also hope to have more community outreach to bring in the neighboring communities, to be able to partner, to try new programs. It’s basically like what we did with History at Sunset [evening programs at various National Parks that expand the story beyond typical park resources.] Rangers would go and make a relationship with either a family or a community and make that connection work alongside their programming. I love how Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg did that.

The Park Service is well known in this community, and if we start showing ourselves, going out and building that community outreach, I think we could really make the park on the map. That’s what I really love about it: the ability to grow and to reach out.

CM: I was wondering, as I got off the exit from the interstate, what I was going to find out there. I was so pleasantly surprised and delighted to see all the stuff there was in Greeneville and at the park to look around and see and learn about.

EM: There’s so much to learn about, and there’s a local history museum right across the street from the homestead and a college that basically has a whole Johnson library. We have programs that are at the local state campground, Davey Crockett State Campground. I haven’t been out there yet because they haven’t started their programs yet since that’s usually more of a summertime thing. That’s a huge partnership because not only are they short-staffed, but they want to have something that engages the visitors of the local history and history as a whole. That gives us a great opportunity for community outreach that grows, because they can’t stay there forever, they travel. Word of mouth is sometimes the best way to get visitors to come to your site. That is so relevant right now that it’s important to help put us on the map.

CM: It sounds like there’s plenty of opportunity for a young professional who is just getting her foot in the door of the park service.

Johnson’s room

EM: I’m excited. I have so many ideas, and I’m writing them all down because my brain moves a mile a minute, and something I have to understand that this park is very small compared to other parks I’ve worked at. The staff total is nine people—but the nine people we have do so much, and they are truly incredible rangers that are multifaceted and multitalented because they do everything. They organize the functions of the park like a well-oiled machine. The ability to have that structure already there means we have the ability to branch out and try new things without risking that something else will crumble or be forgotten about or let go. We have the ability to all work together. It’s obvious they’ve worked together a lot. They work hard to keep the park functioning and clean and acceptable. I’m a fresh pair of eyes and someone who is all geared up and ready to go. I would be more than happy to come up with new ideas and new programs and, if they like them and want to use them, I’m absolutely ready for it. It is a great creative ground on which to build—a foundation and a base that hopefully leads to a wonderful NPS career.

CM: The other day, [a mutual friend, ECW author] Doug Crenshaw, said, “I’m so glad you got to talk with Emma. She tried real hard to get the job out there.”

EM: Doug was on one of my programs at Cold Harbor in 2013 where we had a couple that had no concept of the Civil War, and asking if Grant was in the trenches at Cold Harbor, and if Cold Harbor was the beginning of the Civil War. They had no idea, so I was trying to give the Battle of Cold Harbor tour and it just kind of turned into a basic Civil War explanation: this is the Confederate side, this is the Union side. Doug said, “This isn’t your normal tour.” I said, “No, it’s not, but don’t worry about it—they’re trying really hard.” He was just enamored that I brought it down to their level, and he said he’d never seen a ranger do that. But they’re visitors, too, and I wanted to make it as accessible to them as possible, even if it meant I had to sacrifice all of the details of the battle of Cold Harbor. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that they walked home with an idea of the significance of the Civil War and what that significance means. Maybe Cold Harbor is tucked in there somewhere, but not the main focus, because if it had been, they would’ve been confused and unhappy.

CM: Good luck as you get settled in at ANJO!


From the ECW Archives: Queen of Delphine, Part II

Lillias Nichols

(Continuing the story from Part I of Lillias Nichols as prisoner of war and her captors aboard the CSS Shenandoah.)

New Year’s Day 1865 continued clear and balmy. All sails were set with just enough breeze to fill them, the first really fine weather they had experienced since entering the Indian Ocean.

Mrs. Nichols’s canaries sang delightfully all day. New Year’s dinner in the wardroom included two splendid hams adorned with Confederate flags.

It seemed a pity to cut them, wrote Lieutenant Chew, “however, looking at them was not sufficient for the voracious appetites of some of my messmates.” Hopes for the future were tempered by thoughts of home. “What a waste of waters between me and the shores of my country!”[i]

They had a nice dinner, noted Lieutenant Whittle. “This is a day upon which all persons however separated think of their absent dear ones more than on any other. Oh! How my heart feels for my dear ones.” He invoked God’s blessing and wished for a better and happier new year. “My constant prayer is that a merciful God will guard, protect and cherish our dear country. That he will open the eyes of our enemies to the cruelty of the war they are waging against us and that he may teach them that they are wrong.”[ii]

With the dawn, the near-barren volcanic island of St. Paul rose above the horizon. Masters Mate Hunt claimed to have observed Mrs. Nichols in some distress over the prospect of being marooned there, and to have comforted her. (Hunt had a tendency to embellish his memoirs.)

She told him of stories in the Northern press describing outrages committed upon defenseless men and women by Rebel cruisers, and produced a sample from an illustrated New York publication. The article compared the men of the infamous CSS Alabama with dastardly pirates and renegades, but was, according to Hunt, full of blunders and absurdities that provided amusement in the wardroom for days.[iii]

They dropped anchor at the southern end of the island while eight officers rowed to the beach for a day of exploration and fishing, returning in the evening loaded with fish and in the best of spirits. But they paid dearly, recalled Hunt, with bright sunburns and hands blistered at the oars.

They had hoped to capture a seal or two but failing this, found a penguin and, “brought his aquatic fowlship off in triumph.” The penguin had the bray of an ass, was covered by gray down, and walked with military erectness. Someone pinned a rag around its neck resembling a shawl like an old lady, which amused them all, including Mrs. Nichols. Waddell shaped course for Cape Leeuwin at the southwestern tip of Australia.[iv]

CSS Shenandoah

The men (and woman) of Shenandoah settled into underway routine for the next three weeks with everyone anxious to get ashore. Friday, January 6, 1865, was Surgeon Lining’s thirty-first birthday. He enjoyed conversing with Mrs. Nichols and viewing her family photographs, but Captain Nichols got jealous and came poking around whenever the doctor was with her. “The fool and ass…. I shall now go on talking to her to plague him, if nothing else.”

Nichols frequently walked the quarterdeck with his wife, a privilege extended to no other prisoners. According to Hunt, “the old fellow made himself so continually and unmitigatedly disagreeable that our officers perforce avoided him.” They were as anxious to be rid of him as he was to be elsewhere.[v]

Lieutenant Chew noted the crossing of the meridian exactly opposite his home on the globe and was amazed to find himself in such a far off place. He calculated that Melbourne, Australia, and Lexington, Missouri were distant from each other by the Cape of Good Hope 238 degrees of longitude, equal to 12,600 miles.

They had enjoyed summer and fall in Europe and now in the southern hemisphere were having summer over again. “I suppose by the coming of the winter months, we will have [re-]crossed the line, thus having continual summer.”[vi]

Lieutenant William Whittle reported an uncomfortable encounter with Mrs. Nichols one morning in the wardroom:

“Well Mr. Whittle, I trust that we may soon have peace,” she said, a sentiment to which he concurred.

“Do you think we can ever be friends?”

“No Madam, never,” he responded.

“But Mr. Whittle, if after the peace was made you were to meet me, would you speak to me?”

“Certainly, Madam, I would speak at any time to a female.”

“But would you not speak to my husband?”

“I might do so as he has never served against us.”

The lady expressed admiration for the Confederate Navy uniform cap and asked if she could have one. Whittle felt bound as a gentleman to acquiesce; he could say no to men but not to a woman. But they were Yankees, and their motives could only be mercenary. Whittle had no doubt she would hand the cap, if provided, over to her husband and he would sell it.

He thought no woman with so little delicacy as to place a gentleman in such a fix should expect him to comply, “and on this principle I will let the cap alone.” Mrs. Nichols apparently developed a grudging fondness for some of the officers, but never took to the somewhat stuffy Virginian. She undoubtedly enjoyed teasing him.[vii]

Shenandoah in Hobson’s Bay, February 1865 (State Library of Victoria, Melbourne)

A new parole form was prepared for signature by the prisoners before release upon arrival in Melbourne, in which they promised not to serve against the Confederacy, and not to provide information tending to the detriment of the Shenandoah. Captain Nichols signed the form without protest, but not his wife.

Dr. Charles Lining

“She let loose with her tongue, pitching directly into her husband for telling her to sign it & say nothing,” reported Lining. The lady would not feel bound by parole given under duress and would pass on whatever information she pleased (which she subsequently did to the U.S. Consul in Melbourne).

After signing the document, Mrs. Nichols turned to Lieutenant Lee and pointedly inquired: “Is there anything you want [my son] Phiny to sign?” Lee replied: “No, Madame, we are much more afraid of you than we are of him.” Dr. Lining: “She went out in a towering rage. Not to get the vials of her wrath poured out on me, I kept quiet.”[viii]

On the morning after arrival, Captain Waddell was awakened by voices in the adjoining cabin. Mrs. Nichols was preparing for departure and loudly demanding restitution of every book taken from her ship Delphine. All were returned except Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which Lieutenant Whittle threw overboard.

The lady thanked them for their kindness, declaring she liked all the officers except Doctor Lining and Lieutenant Whittle. “I thought I was a kind of chicken of hers,” concluded the embarrassed lieutenant, “anyhow I was very kind to her.” The Nichols family loaded their luggage into boats and shoved clear of Shenandoah. Her parting shot: “I wish that steamer may be burned.”[ix]

(Extracted from A Confederate Biography: The Cruise of the CSS Shenandoah (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015) by Dwight Sturtevant Hughes)

[i] Francis Thornton Chew, “Reminiscences and Journal of Francis Thornton Chew, Lieutenant, C.S.N.,” Chew Papers #148, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina Library (not paginated), 1 January 1865.

[ii] William C. Whittle, Jr., The Voyage of the CSS Shenandoah: A Memorable Cruise (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 99.

[iii] Cornelius E. Hunt, The Shenandoah; Or, The Last Confederate Cruiser (New York: G.W. Carelton, 1867), 87-89.

[iv] Ibid., 84-86.

[v] Charles E. Lining, Journal, Eleanor S. Brokenbrough Library, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA. (not paginated), 6 January 1865; Hunt, Shenandoah, 91.

[vi] Chew, “Reminiscences and Journal,” 12 January 1865.

[vii] Whittle, Voyage, 105-06.

[viii] Lining, Journal, 23 January 1865.

[ix] Whittle, Voyage, 106; James I. Waddell, “Extracts from notes on the C.S.S. Shenandoah by her commander, James Iredell Waddell, C.S. Navy,” in The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1896), 1, 3:809.

A Conversation with Emma Murphy (part two)


Emma Murphy at Gettysburg

Emma Murphy during her days at Gettysburg

(part two of five)

As we continue our Women’s History Month commemoration, we’re talking his week with Emma Murphy, a park guide at Andrew Johnson National Historic Site. Prior to landing her full-time permanent position there, she’d been working most recently as a seasonal ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park. Yesterday, she explained a bit about the complexities of getting a full-time permanent position with the Park Service.


Chris Mackowski: You mentioned to me the other day that there were a number of other people at Gettysburg, where you’d previously been stationed, that were in the system and waiting for a position to open up, and you had equated the situation to loving your troops enough but then having to send them into combat, because a supervisor ultimately has to make some hard choice about which one of those people to hire if a position does open up. What do you think about all those folks that are like airplanes circling the airport, waiting for their chance to land? 

Emma Murphy: I think that’s very risky. I fully admit that you can fall in love with the park and want to stay there because you love it so much, and your goal is to be there for the rest of your career—but that’s not how the Park Service is designed. It was for a little while, where families could stay there and settle, but we’re starting to see a shift. There are a lot of people who want to move up in the Park Service, but you have to be willing to move and be willing to sacrifice your time to come circle back. It’s almost like the plane landing: to get there, your goal might have to change along the way.

That’s something I’ve noticed with people who are very successful in the Park Service and move up: they have a goal in mind, but they don’t necessarily have a location in mind of where that goal will be. There’s a piece of advice that I got when I was trying to get in to the Park Service, and that was to not settle for a Civil War park, because landing at one is almost impossible. Everybody wants to work at a battlefield, and I don’t blame them because it’s one of the most fun things to do—which sounds terrible because there was so much bloodshed—but the effect you have on visitors is almost intoxicating and thrilling at the same time.

As Ernie Price at Appomattox told me one time, it almost becomes an addiction where you have to get your NPS fix, and no matter how much you try to step back, that nag is constantly there.

So all of the NPSers that are out there with me—I don’t want to say I feel bad for them, because I understand and don’t pity them for wanting to stay at a spot, but I also feel bad about the fact that they may be worried or scared to be adventurous and get out and try something new. And if you don’t have the means to be able to pick up and move across the country to another state, you may be stuck in this vicious cycle that the park has, and it can turn into years and years and years of waiting. I’ve seen a lot of people that have had their mental and physical health deteriorate because of that, and I didn’t want to do that. It does make me feel terrible to watch people physically and mentally and emotionally deteriorate. It’s something that shouldn’t happen, but it’s a reality that some people face when you’re unable to breach the wall of permanent position. It’s almost like a taboo to say that you want to be a permanent, but that small chance of getting in is enough for some people to keep going until someone finally asks themselves, “When is enough enough?”

My answer was, after 3 seasons at Gettysburg, I had to find somewhere that had a position open—I had to be willing to leave. A lot of that had to do with my contract, because my contract didn’t allow me to up and leave and become a permanent; I had to work the system and get in through the Pathways system. Had that not happened, I don’t know if I could’ve financially and emotionally kept going through season after season as a regular seasonal because of the qualifications: you have to beat veteran preference, and you have to try and push through different qualifications at each regional level.

So in 2017, that reality became a purpose: to find the answer within myself as to whether I wanted to just work for Gettysburg or for the Park Service—and it was the Park Service. So, knowing that at the regional level I wouldn’t get a regular seasonal position, I had to find another way in. It’s unfortunate that the question you have to ask yourself is “When is enough enough?”

CM: You said you’re now basically doing what you’ve always wanted to do. What is your Civil War origin story? How did you fall in love with the Civil War and decide that this is what you wanted to do with your life?

EM: That’s a funny story because everyone always assumes it was my fiancée or my dad, but it was actually my mom that got me into it. She wanted to be a Civil War reenactor.

We were from Illinois in south Chicago, and there’s not much Civil War stuff out there. You have Lincoln and you have a little Grant, and that’s it for out in the middle of nowhere in a cornfield. My mom wanted to Civil War reenact, and by the time she started, she’d made her own clothes and she’d started the hobby with my dad. After her second or third reenactment, she was obviously pregnant with twins: myself and my sister, Rachel.

So, growing up, being engulfed in the Civil War was normal. It was something that was just normal on a Saturday after soccer practice, and it became part of my life as something that I didn’t even think about—until a family movie night when I was about eleven years old. My mom was going through the tapes of movies she wanted us to watch, and she found one, and when she put it in the VHS slot, it was a recording of Starman and Glory. They accidentally cut off the beginning of Glory, so I didn’t get to see the start of it, but when we played it, I was so upset and disturbed at the end because basically everyone dies. I was just appalled and wondered how it could happen. They had been so dedicated and worked so hard, and it was ridiculous, and I never wanted to watch that movie again.

That didn’t last very long. It turned into this huge obsession with the 54th Massachusetts and Robert Shaw. I was in love with him and the unit and the movie. I was so obsessed; it wasn’t a normal thing for a 6th grader to be liking. I tried to buy the movie at Wal-Mart when I was 11 and couldn’t do it because it was rated R—they wouldn’t let me buy it, so my father had to take my $20 that I got for my allowance and purchase my copy of Glory and hand it to me.

It turned into an obsession there, but where it became a part of who I am is something that I’m very proud of: I don’t stop. I fight like hell, which is kind of the theme of Glory. In 6th grade, we had a research project, and I wanted to do it on the 54th Massachusetts, and it was pretty much a paper on Glory because I basically regurgitated what happened in the movie, and I made a poster that had all the pictures of stills from the movie and actual pictures of the unit, and Robert Gould Shaw, and I made it into the collage. I was horribly bullied and called a freak because “the Civil War is over and it’s not that cool and nobody likes that.” They used to shove my books off of my desk because I carried around the letters from Robert G. Shaw—that was my everyday reading for reading time.

So, anyways, I had to put the poster on the windowsill because it was too big, but coming back from recess, I found my poster completely crumpled and stomped on and in pieces. Everybody was like, “Oh no, it looks like you can’t do it. I guess you have to pick another normal topic.” So I stood there and had a moment where I had to either admit defeat or fight like hell. So I took it home—and I didn’t realize that laminating was an actual machine; I thought teachers just put packing tape on something until it became a solid sheet of plastic—so I taped my poster up with clear packing tape, and it was crumpled so you couldn’t really see it, but it was clear as day for me and, damn it, I still went up at the end of the year and gave my presentation and everybody was silent because I did it. That was kind of the moment where I realized this was going to be a lifelong thing.

But that was in 6th grade, and obviously there is a lot of time left before you decide what you want to do with your life, so I didn’t realize that this could be a part of an education and part of my own research and my career until I was about to go off for college. Originally, I was going to be a professional French horn player in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra was looking into having me audition and be one of their French horn players before going into the official CSO, but I had two facial surgeries in high school, and the last one had my mouth wired shut for nine months, so I figured it probably wasn’t a good idea to put my entire career on my facial muscles when they didn’t really work properly—and it was just a birth defect that I had to work with, everything’s fine now and has been since then, about 8 years ago, but I panicked. I was a junior in high school—I was 17—and I didn’t know what to do.

I will give full credit to Pete on this one that—thank God he did this—when I walked into my first internship interview in 2011, I was very nervous, although I thought it went really well. But because I was the younger of two freshmen to apply, the Park Service representative said he wanted the other student—but she wanted to go to a specific spot, not necessarily the one she was going to be offered—so he didn’t know who he should pick. Pete flat-out said that he should pick me. Coming straight out of that person’s mouth after the 150th of Fredericksburg event, he said the best decision he made in 2012 was to hire me as one of the interns even though he originally hadn’t want to. I appeared too young and didn’t have any experience, but Pete had told him he was making one of the biggest mistakes if he didn’t pick me. Even now, 6 years later, anytime I talk to him, he says, “So are you still talking really fast or have you learned to slow down?” [laughs]

So that’s basically my Civil War lifestyle all the way up to my Civil War career. It was a long road, but it was really worth it and really fun.


In tomorrow’s segment of the interview, Emma will talk about finding her way at her new park and what she’s discovering about Andrew Johnson.

From the ECW Archives: Queen of the Delphine, Part I

Lilias Nichols

A warship at sea was an exclusively male domain and sailors were a superstitious lot. Having a woman on board was unlucky as well as a confounded nuisance.

In December 1864, one New England lady found herself a prisoner of war in the Indian Ocean—about as far from familiar battlefields as it is possible to be.

Her captors, Southern gentlemen all, were befuddled by an enemy female in their midst. She, like so many courageous, strong-willed women on both sides in the Civil War, fought back.  This is their story.

The CSS Shenandoah was enjoying fine weather and fresh breezes, skipping along close hauled on the starboard tack when a cry of “Sail ho!” interrupted the monotony of sea life. The Confederate banner ran aloft; the signal gun barked, and the stranger hove to for inspection.

Captain James I. Waddell. Naval History and Heritage Command.

James I. Waddell (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Under command of Captain James I. Waddell, a North Carolinian, Shenandoah was on her way to Melbourne, eventually to the Bering Straits, and on around the globe flying the last Confederate banner. She had destroyed seven Yankee vessels on the trip down the Atlantic, and would take thirty more—most of them weeks after Appomattox.

Sailing Master Irving S. Bulloch, a son of Georgia, rowed across with an armed crew to take charge. She was the bark Delphine of Bangor, Maine on her maiden voyage with Captain William Green Nichols in charge, accompanied by his wife, Lilias, and six-year-old son, Phineas.

When Bulloch boarded, Mrs. Nichols confronted him: “I suppose you are going to steal my Canary birds, so you had better take them at once!” Her father was primary owner of the vessel with her husband having a third share.[i]

Delphine was seventy days from London in ballast bound for Burma to load rice, which Waddell assumed would be supplied to Federal armies. Once aboard Shenandoah, Nichols pleaded his wife’s health, saying with tears in his eyes that it would be the death of her if she were moved in such a delicate state. Waddell sought the opinion of South Carolinian and Ship’s Surgeon, Dr. Charles Lining. The doctor thought it sounded like an excuse to get away: “I told the Captain so & he rather reluctantly, I think, determined to burn her….”[ii]

The boats returned about 6:00 p.m. with all Delphine prisoners and baggage. As they rocked and bounced in the choppy seas, in danger of being crushed against the ship’s hull, the crew rigged a sling from the main yard and hauled the lady and boy aboard. “The Captain’s wife, woman like, brought with her a canary bird in its cage,” recalled Master’s Mate Hunt, “and if a bandbox containing her best bonnet had been added to her baggage, it would have been complete.”[iii]

The prize was raided for sheep and pigs. Waddell regretted not recovering additional stores, furniture, and other useful items that could not be brought over in the high winds and heavy seas. Night descended as Delphine was fired.

“Rapidly the flames gathered headway, casting a fierce, lurid glow over the heaving bosom of the ocean,” wrote Hunt. “From doors, windows, and hatchways they burst forth like the vengeful spirit of destruction, wound up the spars, stretched out upon the yards, swiftly enveloping shrouds, sails, and halyards in one splendid, fiery ruin ; and standing out, strongly revealed against the darkening sky, the burning vessel surged and tossed, a holocaust to the God of War.”[iv]

As Shenandoah sailed away, Hunt observed Captain Nichols pacing the deck with his wife, watching their vessel burn. “He probably had there invested the savings of half a lifetime of patient toil. To see the fruits of so many years swept away in an hour, might well try the philosophy of the best of men.” The fiery glow in the sky dropped below the horizon around three o’clock in the morning.[v]

Among the officers, reactions to their female guest were nearly unanimous. “A finer looking woman I have seldom seen, physically,” wrote Dr. Lining. Midshipman John Mason of Virginia: “The Captain’s wife is quite a pretty woman but rather a strong minded one…. I rather think she wears the breeches.”

From left: Midshipman John T. Mason, Midshipman O.A. Browne, Lieutenant William Whittle, Lieutenant Sidney Smith Lee. Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond Va.(Picture from left: Midshipman John T. Mason, Midshipman O.A. Browne, Lieutenant William Whittle, Lieutenant Sidney Smith Lee, nephew of R.E. Lee. (Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA))

Another Virginian, First Lieutenant William Whittle, agreed, adding that she was anything but an invalid. “At first she is a little frightened but we can soon drive fear away by proving by kindness that we are gentlemen.”[vi]

Lilias Nichols was a down-easter from Searsport, Maine where almost ten percent of the 1,700 inhabitants were ship captains, including five uncles.

“When she came off she looked mad as a bull, but it only amused us,” recalled Lieutenant Grimball. The lady accosted the captain in the wardroom, demanding in a stentorian voice to know where they would be landed. “On St. Paul, madam, if you like,” said Waddell, referring to an isolated desolate island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. “Oh, no; never,” she responded. “I would rather remain with you.”[vii]

Waddell was surprised to see standing before him a tall, finely proportioned woman of twenty-six in robust health. “It soon became palpable she would be the one for me to manage, and not the husband. A refractory lady can be controlled by a quiet courtesy, but no flattery.” Lieutenant Chew’s only comment: “We have the trouble of another woman onboard.” [viii]

CSS Shenandoah

Shenandoah once again stretched her wings, all sail set and close hauled to the wind. December 30 was one of the most beautiful days they had seen. The heavy sea exhausted its mad passion and died away into long undulating swells. Captain Nichols confessed to Waddell his shame for having pleaded his wife’s alleged illness as an excuse to save the ship, but did not feel that the lie was wrong under the circumstances.

Mrs. Nichols seemed to get over her feelings and appeared a ladylike person, noted Grimball. “She is treated with every consideration. I suppose she will abuse us in inverse proportion.” The new goat with kid provided milk for tea every morning, during which the lady laughed and talked; her anger surfaced only when someone asserted her husband had been weak in his duty. The little boy ran about the decks playing with the goats.[ix]

It was the last of the old year, wrote Dr. Lining, “and a pleasant year it has been to me, taken all in all…. But where will I be a year hence from today? Echo can only answer, where? Nothing of any interest going on….” He had been suffering from a headache and would see the old year out with another drink to his little darling whom he longed to see.

Whittle agreed that their lady passenger was becoming more sociable, and, “really seems to think that we are not all a parcel of piratical barbarians.” He too would sit up to welcome in the new year.[x]

Captain Waddell resumed evening games of whist in his cabin. Midshipman Mason enjoyed a rubber with him, the first lieutenant, and assistant surgeon before retiring to the steerage where someone brought out a brandy bottle and proposed a toast to sweethearts and wives followed by “success to the cause.”

The midshipman hurried to finish the day’s journal entry before the master-at-arms could poke his nose in the door to say it is ten o’clock and lights out, but messmates made so much noise, he couldn’t concentrate. Thoughts wandered to Mrs. Nichols, her beauty and gentility. “But occasionally she brings out some ungrammatical expression which dispels the illusion; fortunately she seldom says much & the illusion lasts the longer….”[xi]

Master’s Mate Hunt was on watch at midnight when the new year, “wearing all the languid beauty of a Southern clime,” opened. The wind was light and variable; the stars threw their silvery shimmer over the quiet water. Everyone but the officer of the deck, quartermaster, lookout, and the man at the wheel were wrapped in slumber. “Such were my surroundings when the ship’s bell, striking the hour of twelve, announced the death of eighteen hundred sixty-four and the birth of eighteen hundred sixty-five.”[xii]

(Extracted from A Confederate Biography: The Cruise of the CSS Shenandoah (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015) by Dwight Sturtevant Hughes)

[i] John T. Mason, Journal, Eleanor S. Brokenbrough Library, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA. (not paginated), 29 December 1864.

[ii] Charles E. Lining, Journal, Eleanor S. Brokenbrough Library, Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA. (not paginated), 29 December 1864.

[iii] Cornelius E. Hunt, The Shenandoah; Or, The Last Confederate Cruiser (New York: G.W. Carelton, 1867), 74.

[iv] Ibid., 75.

[v] Ibid., 78.

[vi] Lining, Journal, 29 December 1864; Mason, Journal, 30 December 1864; William C. Whittle, Jr., The Voyage of the CSS Shenandoah: A Memorable Cruise (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 98.

[vii] Grimball to Father, 23 December 1864, John Berkley Grimball Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University; James I. Waddell, “Extracts from notes on the C.S.S. Shenandoah by her commander, James Iredell Waddell, C.S. Navy,” in The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1896), 1, 3:807.

[viii] Waddell, “Extracts,” 807; Francis Thornton Chew, “Reminiscences and Journal of Francis Thornton Chew, Lieutenant, C.S.N.,” Chew Papers #148, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina Library (not paginated), 29 December 1864.

[ix] Grimball to Father, 23 December 1864

[x] Lining, Journal, 30-31 December 1864; Whittle, Voyage, 98.

[xi] Mason, Journal, 31 December 1864.

[xii] Hunt, Shenandoah, 79.