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the TMCWRT's exclusive interview with       historian-author
 steven e. woodworth!
            

TMCWRT President Reggie Gatewood was honored to  interview  historian-author Steven Woodworth about his recently released book A Scythe of Fire.   This is Dr. Woodworth's first interview regarding his most recent work  which he co-authored with the late Warren Wilkinson.  The book is  available in book stores now.   

A Scythe of Fire is the story of the trials and tribulations of the Eighth Georgia Infantry regiment during the Civil War.  

Enjoy!



RG:       What makes A Scythe of Fire different from other regimental writings?


SW:       I feel strongly about this. What makes A Scythe of Fire different from most other
              regimental writings is that it is not merely a genealogical reference. Most Civil  
              War regimental histories, it seems to me, are intended primarily for the
              descendents of that regiment's soldiers. I wanted A Scythe of Fire to be a story that
              every human being, especially every American, could identify with and find
              compelling. I wanted it to be a story not so much about somebody's great-great-
              grandfather (although if your ancestor was in the regiment, that's great), but
              rather about human beings not so very different than ourselves. In keeping with
              these goals, I did not include a roster of the regiment's members, because rosters
              are, for the most part, interesting only to those who had ancestors in the regiment.
              I've been criticized for this, but I don't regret it a bit. If I had it to do over again, I'd
              do the same thing.


RG:       Why the Eighth Georgia?


SW:       Well, in a way that's a question for the late Warren Wilkinson to answer, since he
              chose that regiment before his death. It's not hard to guess why, though. The 8th
              got into the heart of many of the largest and most famous battles of the war. Its           
              companies
              came from all regions of the state of Georgia, and its members left behind a fairly    
              generous amount of information about their service.


RG:       How were you involved in this work that was originally started by Mr.          
             Wilkinson?


SW:       Back in the mid-'90s I got a phone call from Buz Wyeth, then an editor for
              HarperCollins. He asked if I would be willing to finish out a book that Warren              
              Wilkinson had researched. As I understand it, my friend Rod Gragg, had  
              recommended me to him. The project sounded interesting, so I agreed to do it.


RG:        In light of your collective works on the various levels of command during the
              Civil War, did this regimental work affect your perspective on the conflict?


SW:         I wouldn't say it affected my perspective. I knew about this angle already.
               However, this was certainly a different sort of story to tell, a different type of        
               narrative to write. I enjoyed it very much, and I hope to do more of the sort of  
               writing that tells the stories of the common soldiers.


RG:        The reader is thrown into battle at the outset of the first chapter...why?


SW:        I thought that would get your attention!


RG:        Your description of Rome, Georgia in 1860 almost seems utopian. Is this the
               South the men of what was soon to be the Eighth Georgia went off to fight for?


SW:         About 75% of the description of Rome, in chapter 1, represents one of the two
                actual passages of Warren Wilkinson's prose in the whole manuscript. The other  
                is the description of the Shenandoah Valley at the beginning of chapter 2.   I  
                altered them somewhat, but those few pages are more or less as he wrote them  
                before his death.  My view of this is as I stated in the closing paragraphs of the
                book. The idyllic view of the South was not reality...it may have only been a dream...
                but  it was a dream that men were willing to fight for.


RG:        When they arrived on the plains of Manassas on the morning of July 21, 1861, was
               their “giddiness for battle” satisfied?


SW:        It was certainly satisfied by that evening!


RG:        The Eighth had a knack for finding the “hot” fight, didn’t they?


SW:         They sure did. There were a number of regiments like that on both sides, and the
                8th was one of them. In their case, they enlisted early and wound up in Hood's                                  
                division, one of the real workhorse formations in the Army of Northern Virginia.


RG:          Did war make men of these boys from Georgia?


SW:          I'd be reluctant to say it did. After all, they would have become men if peace had
                 continued. A lot more of them would have lived to become men! But there's no                        
                 denying that war changed them--for the better in some ways, for the worse in                          
                 others. For example, I'm haunted and perplexed by the fact that John C. Reed
                 wound up getting a divorce from his wife within a year after returning from the
                 war. He had married her just before going off to fight. What changed between  
                 Reed and his wife during those terrible four years?


RG:          Throughout the book you effectively use descriptive phrases to describe the
                 battle experience. For example, you liken the sound of a shell passing overhead  
                 to “..a noise something like the whickering of a frightened horse”. Even with                 
                 such imaginative descriptions, did you find it difficult to relay the battle sights
                 and sounds as described by the diarists of the Eighth Georgia?


SW:          Most of the time those descriptive phrases are right from the words of the eye-
                 witnesses themselves. But, yes, even then I know I'll never be able to convey
                 with complete vividness and reality just what combat was like. Not just in the                       
                 8th Georgia but across the armies of both North and South soldiers again and
                 again expressed their own inability to communicate adequately what they had
                 actually experienced themselves. Many despaired so much of describing it that
                 they didn't even try. All we can do is take the few descriptions they've left us and  
                 try to piece together the most realistic picture we can.


RG:           As these Georgians marched in to Pennsylvania in June 1863, was there an
                 overall feeling of invincibility?


SW:           Absolutely! It never entered their minds that they could be defeated by the
                 Yankees.


RG:           A member of the Eighth Georgia described the wheat field at Gettysburg as “the
                  hottest fight of our lives”. Was it hotter than they anticipated?


SW:           I believe it probably was, though I don't recall any of them expressing it in
                  those terms. They had been in some pretty hot places before that.


RG:           Following Gettysburg, was the regiment ever quite the same?

SW:          Not really. The book's not the same after Gettysburg either--too many of our
                 sources got shot!


RG:          Why was desertion suddenly a problem following the fall campaign in East
                 Tennessee, 1863?


SW:          What really made desertion a problem was not so much the fall campaign in East
                 Tennessee but rather the operations that began the following spring, just a few                        
                 months later--Sherman's advance into Georgia. While the majority of the 8th's
                 soldiers...those who were still alive and healthy... stayed to the end, a significant  
                 number of men found that once the Yankees had reached their home counties  
                 they had no further motivation to go on fighting.


RG:           When the regiment returned to the Army of Northern Virginia in the spring of
                  1864 had the face of the war changed?


SW:           Yes, but I don't believe the men of the 8th realized it. They knew they would
                  be facing very hard fighting, but they didn't believe they would be driven back
                  to Richmond.


RG:           What impact did Sherman’s presence in Georgia have on the regiment while
                  they were fighting in Virginia?


SW:           Sherman's presence, not the destruction, just his presence in Georgia was
                  tremendously demoralizing.


RG:           Describe the scene at Appomattox from the men of the Eighth Georgia
                  regiment’s perspective.


SW:           Well, I don't know that I can do any better job of describing it than I did in the
                  book. The factors that stand out to me are their intense hunger and fatigue
                  and, what is most amazing, their apparent surprise at the surrender.


RG:           What are we to learn from the extraordinary experiences of the Eighth
                  Georgia?


SW:            That may be the biggest question of all. This isn't one of those books that you
                   can finish up with a tidy little "lessons learned" section. I recall that Robert E.             
                   Lee once said, "A foe can give lessons in fighting, but life teaches learning." If
                   the story of the Eighth Georgia can teach us anything, it would, I think, be the
                   wisdom that comes from experience of lives lived in difficult times--not our
                   own, but theirs.


The TMCWRT is profoundly grateful to Dr. Woodworth not only for the time he set aside for the interview, but especially for his contributions to history and a subject so near and dear to our hearts!!