Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Author Q&A: A Connecticut Yankee at War

A Connecticut Yankee at War is Rob Grandchamp's ninth Civil War book.
Thousands of brilliant men served in both armies during the Civil War. One of my favorites is Newton Manross, a captain in the 16th Connecticut from Bristol. Highly educated, he had degrees from Yale and the University of Gottingen in Germany and traveled to Panama, where he predicted the construction of the Panama Canal decades before shovels turned earth. A 37-year-old acting professor of chemistry and philosophy at Amherst (Mass.) College when the war broke out in 1861, Manross was killed at the Battle of Antietam.

Another soldier with Connecticut ties, George Gaskell -- the subject of 29-year-old Rob Grandchamp's ninth Civil War book -- was equally remarkable. In A Connecticut Yankee At War, The Life and Letters of George Lee Gaskell (Pelican Publishing Company), Grandchamp provides context and then steps out of the way to let the soldier's letters to his sister and his hometown newspaper tell a fascinating story.

A farm boy from Sterling, Conn., near the Rhode Island border, Gaskell spoke five languages, traveled the world extensively before the Civil War and wrote eloquently. "In my years studying the Civil War," Grandchamp writes, "I have read many -- perhaps too many -- letters written by soldiers of the period. The ones written by George Gaskell are among the best."

Sergeant James Nichols, George Gaskell's
boyhood friend, was killed at
Salem Church. No photo of Gaskell
is known to exist.
(Courtesy Rob Grandchamp)
A little more than seven months after the Rebels fired on Fort Sumter, Gaskell enlisted as 2nd lieutenant in Battery G of the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery. The unit fought at some of the bloodiest battles of the war, including Malvern Hill, Antietam and Gettysburg.

"God in his great mercy has permitted me to once more write you that I am again spared, spared when thousands as brave and perhaps better men have fell," Gaskell noted in a letter to his sister a week after Antietam. Of the fighting he witnessed in the farm fields near Sharpsburg, Md., he added: "Never in my life have I witnessed such valor as that displayed by the Southern forces who fought with despair driving us several times, but our artillery was too much for them."

By the end of the war, Gaskell had risen to a command of black troops in the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery in the Deep South. After the war, he married a Louisiana woman and briefly served as the mayor of Plaquemine, La. He later moved with his family to Ohio, where he operated a grocery store until his death at 86 in 1926.

An 11th-generation Rhode Islander, Grandchamp, an analyst for the Federal government, lives in "beautiful old farmhouse" filled with Civil War books in a quiet village in the Green Mountains of Vermont. He recently answered questions via e-mail about his 200-page book and more.

What fascinated you so much about George Lee Gaskell?

Grandchamp: My interest in George Gaskell started while I was working on a history of Battery G, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery. I found his letters at the U.S. Army Military History Institute at Carlisle (Pa.) Barracks and without them my book The Boys of Adams’ Battery G would not have been possible. I was amazed by his letters because Gaskell was far from the typical Union soldier. True, he was a farm boy from Sterling, Conn., but he was educated, spoke five languages -- English, French, Arabic, Swahili, and Latin -- and went to Africa on a trading voyage before the Civil War.

His letters are so vivid in their description of Civil War combat, but they also contain details of the flora and fauna of the South, as well as the people and culture he experienced there. It was also interesting to note that he also served in the U.S. Colored Troops and these add another whole layer to his life. He stayed behind in Reconstruction Louisiana, married, and became a successful businessman. I began to do research on his life and all the pieces fell together. The letters are about the best Civil War correspondence I have ever read, and I have read thousands of soldiers' letters! I had to select a topic for my M.A. thesis at Rhode Island College and this is where the project started in 2009-2010. George seemed like an interesting guy to study, and I wrote a much more academic version of A Connecticut Yankee at War as my masters thesis in 2010.

A private in the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, George Gaskell participated in severe
 fighting at Antietam. (Map courtesy Rob Grandchamp)

If you could go back in time and be with George at one event during his service, what would that be and why?

Grandchamp: Tough question. For Civil War combat, it would have to be Antietam to see and experience what he did fighting at Dunker Church. His descriptions of what happened there are some of the best I have ever read. I feel that the most interesting part of his life in the Civil War was his experiences as an officer in the U.S. Colored Troops in Louisiana. His experiences of fighting a guerrilla war in the Southern bayou are almost the same as our troops fighting terrorists overseas today.

Tell us about George's experience at Antietam, the bloodiest day of the war.

Grandchamp: At Antietam, Battery G, First Rhode Island Light Artillery was in the thick of the fight at Dunker Church and Bloody Lane. George wrote vivid descriptions of the battle and his role there as the unit was nearly overrun twice. A row of guns outside the present-day National Park Service visitor center marks their final position. Battery G fought in two parts of the battle, and his letters provide an eyewitness account to the destruction of the Second Corps and the savage fighting around the Dunker Church. Even more harrowing are his post-battle letters from Harpers Ferry in the fall of 1862, telling of the terrible disease that inflicted the command.

Gaskell's Battery G fought near the Dunker Church at Antietam. This Alexander Gardner
image shows the bodies of Confederate artillerymen near the church. (Library of Congress)
George's letters and his newspaper columns in the Windham (Conn.) County newspaper provided you with an excellent window into his life. What didn't you find in your research that you wished you had?

Grandchamp: I would say what I wished I had located was a picture of George or his sister Mary to whom he wrote the majority of the letters. Even if it was him as an old man, I would love to look upon his face.

What was the greatest challenge in researching the book?

Grandchamp: The greatest challenge was chronicling George’s post-war life in Louisiana. Living in Rhode Island at the time I researched the book, I could easily travel to town halls, cemeteries, libraries, etc. in Connecticut, but at the time due to school, work and life, I could not go there. I was very fortunate to befriend a local historian in Plaquemine, La., who happened to work in the mayor’s office (George was mayor of the town for a short time), and she did me yeoman service pulling together material from Louisiana to work with.

My greatest personnel challenge was staying awake during a 10-hour car ride to Ohio. George spent the last 30 years of his life as a grocer in Cincinnati, and while I was working in Luray, Va., in the summer of 2010, I took a very long car ride to do research there. I was very fortunate to visit Spring Grove Cemetery and find the small block of granite that marks his final resting place. I put a small American flag on his grave, saluted, and parted, knowing that I had done my best to tell the story of this remarkable man. The most gratifying aspect of researching the book was getting to visit his final resting spot in Ohio, far from the rolling hills of Windham County that he loved so much.

Finally, you have already written nine books about the Civil War. What's next?

Grandchamp: I am going to be taking a personal break from writing Civil War books for the next few years and focus on family and serving in my community on the local library board. I really enjoy doing book reviews and hope to continue with those and the occasional article. My next book when I get around to it -- the research is done; I just need to write it --  is a history of the 7th Rhode Island Infantry Veterans Association. While there have been some great books on Civil War veterans, no one has chronicled the post-war struggles of a group of men from one regiment.

George Gaskell is buried next to his wife in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati.
(Photo courtesy Rob Grandchamp)

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