Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from the Introduction
Here's our premise: History can be told in little bits and pieces as well as in heavyweight and multi-volume tomes.
All too often, even the best recitals of great events can overlook the basic human story lurking behind those same great events. And that's where our series of Best Little Stories historical books comes into the picture. That's us-history as short, narrative bits.
But...can that work?
Reviewer Craig. K. Allen seemed to think so, seemed to catch both the intent and flavor of our approach in the Macon (Georgia) Telegraph when he described our Best Little Stories from the White House as "a genre not quite practiced by anyone else" and said the book's stories "possess the immediacy of a front-page newspaper article."
Also gratifying was the reaction of Bill Ruelhmann, Books columnist at the Norfolk (Virginia) Virginian Pilot, back in 2002 to our newly published Best Little Stories from the Wild West. Our digging for "historical gold" in "mundane earth," he wrote at that time, had enabled us to "prise forth glittering nuggets of nifty narrative that, packed tight in the thick treasure boxes of their paperbound anthologies, make for truly priceless reading."
Thanks of course to Craig and Bill. But how does it work, you may be asking. Best Little Stories, we say? Exactly what does that mean? Well, as I wrote in an earlier edition of this, the first of our three Best Little Stories Civil War books, I once was a newspaperman. I always looked for the good, i.e., the best, story. Be it cheerful, light and frothy, or hard-hitting, sad, poignant-it didn't matter. Just the good story. The kind the reader would read. No "message," just the unusual, the obscure, the fascinating...the gripping, the touching human story. When I turned to history as the first editor of Military History and World War II magazines, I was inclined from the start to treat history as journalism-to look for the little nuggets gleaming with pathos, cheer, tragedy, irony-the human-interest stories in history.
Together with my wife and book collaborator Ingrid, I came to call them Best Little Stories in this and our companion historical books (there are nine total as of this writing). Little in part because, yes, the stories may be shorter than historical accounts. But also because in most cases, they focus more on the individual person at, say, Gettysburg, rather than simply report the size of the armies, who won the battle and how they did so.
Rather than write a straightforward, fact-filled-but potentially dull-short biography of U. S. Grant as the Union general who finally won the Civil War for Abraham Lincoln, it's far more interesting to recall the little moment when he led his troops toward his first conflict of the entire Civil War with very human fear and trepidation: "[M]y heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything then to have been back in Illinois."
And then, delicious irony, the enemy he expected to meet just over the brow of the next hill was gone, decamped.
In like fashion, it's one thing to take note that the landscape of the Civil War was often peopled by black slaves (keyword: peopled), but it's important also to cite their own individual experiences, whether it's Booker T. Washington recalling his first moments of freedom, Frederick Douglass reciting his brutal treatment before escaping to freedom, or other, far lesser-known slaves telling their own stories. Or, for that matter, the tale of how the young, newly freed black youth named Booker finally acquired a last name.
But this isn't a book all about soldiers and slaves, which, to judge by many historical accounts, were the principal parties of the Civil War. Instead, our Civil War stories often are about the average civilian, sometimes even special groups. For instance: Congress.
Or, more precisely, read in the pages to follow about a member of Congress who had to ride to his nation's capital in an unheated freight car, then had to wear unlaundered shirts and socks for many days at a time, while his wife and children remained at home under constant threat of invasion. Such was life, not all that unusual a case, actually, for a member of Congress from Georgia-the Confederate Congress meeting in Richmond, that is.
Were conditions that much better in Washington, D.C., the Union capital and home to the United States Congress? Undoubtedly, yes. But it's easy for us to forget that the Federal capital was an incomplete, even primitive urban center by modern standards. "Not a sewer blessed the town, nor off of Pennsylvania Avenue was there a paved gutter," wrote Ohio Congressman Albert G. Riddle, albeit with perhaps some exaggeration.
Meanwhile, First Bull Run in the first July of the Civil War was a rout of the Federal forces defending the same Washington, D.C., correct? Quite so, and so easy to recite today as part of any listing of the major battles of the Civil War. But the real sense of the panic among the retreating Union forces comes through from the onlooking Congressman Riddle's own eyewitness account of the retreat.
As he later recalled, "The poor, demented, exhausted wretches, who could not climb into the high, closed baggage wagons, made frantic efforts to get onto and into our carriage."
The same terrified soldiers grabbed at every handhold they could find, he added with little apparent sympathy. "We had to be rough with them and thrust them out and off." Even so, one of the fleeing "wretches"-a Union major at that-managed to pull himself aboard the congressman's carriage, "and we lugged the pitiful coward a mile or so." And then? "Finally I opened the door, and he tumbled-or was tumbled out."
Women, too, make up the annals of history, along with history's best little stories, to be sure. So it is that my wife and collaborator Ingrid has written the twin biographies appearing at the end herein of the Civil War's twin First Ladies, Mrs. Jefferson Davis (Varina: Forgotten First Lady, page 266) and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln (Mary Todd Lincoln: Troubled First Lady, page 279). As indicated a few lines ago, this is not the first edition of Best Little Stories from the Civil War but rather the third-with brand new material added-thanks to a kind reception by the reading public for which we, the authors, are exceedingly grateful.
While hoping our latest set of readers will enjoy our approach to history, I can still wonder, as I did in the introduction to our 1998 edition: Is journalism but a facet of history, or is history but another form of journalism?
C. Brian Kelly
Charlottesville, Virginia, 2010