Ron Coddington Interview

I recently reviewed Faces of the Civil War: An Album of Union Soldiers and Their Stories by Ron Coddington.

Ron has placed a really neat timeline of the writing process for the Union book on his web site.  Check it out.

This interview is based on his book focusing on Union soldiers.

Author Ronald S. Coddington

Photo by Denny Gainer

1. What is your favorite 2-3 stories in there and why?

Tough question! I feel as though I’ve come to know each of these men personally, and so find it difficult to pick and choose. The book is filled with stories of courage, endurance, tragedy and transformation that touch me in many ways. The narrative and images reveal human nature and make the 150 years and several generations that separate us from these men disappear. These are the men whose grandfathers fought the Revolution, and whose grandsons became part of what Tom Brokaw labels the “The Greatest Generation.”

One anecdote I like to relate happened after my first copy of Faces of the Civil War arrived in the mail from The Johns Hopkins University Press. At the time I worked at USA TODAY, and brought it into the office to show it off to my co-workers like a proud father with his first child. The first person I shared it with sat in the cube next to mine. I handed her the book and she immediately flipped to the index. Curious I thought, but, as she is a researcher by profession, it seemed to make sense. I watched as she ran her finger down a page. Then her finger stopped and she paused. Then she looked up at me and said, “This is my great-grandfather!” She referred to Pvt. Samuel Noyes of the Twelfth New Hampshire Infantry. Noyes left school to enlist, suffered a wound at Gettysburg, and went on to become an officer in the First U.S. Infantry. He barely survived the war, dying of tuberculosis in 1870. His wife and a child survived him.

What is the chance that one of the 77 soldiers in my book (one of 2.2 million Union volunteers) would be a direct ancestor to the woman who sits next to me? This is one of many unusual connections I’ve made over the years.

2. Which couple stories seem to be favorites of your readers who have communicated to you?

The story most often mentioned by most readers is that of 1st Lt. Amos Rhoads of the Seventh Pennsylvania Cavalry. The extreme effort by his wife to recover her husband’s remains is among the most poignant accounts of the war I’ve ever come across. A number of stories take second place — too many to name.

3. How many Union CDVs did not get in the book?

I included almost every identified image in my collection at the time. Since completing the manuscript in 2003, I’ve collected a number of additional photographs. Many of these are featured in “Faces of War,” a monthly column I research and write for the Civil War News.

A side note: Hundreds of thousands of cartes de visite of soldiers and citizens survive from the Civil War period, an almost infinite source of material for research.

4. Will there be a series for the Union/CSA subjects?

I’ve never thought seriously about the idea of a series, although you might think of both books and my forthcoming volume on African Americans as one. The best outcome I can imagine is that my books (and column) will help raise awareness of the importance of the visual record of the citizen soldiers who volunteered, and that these unique photographs are preserved and documented for future generations in some form.

In context, my work builds on the 1970s and 1980s pioneer efforts of William A. Albaugh’s Confederate Faces and More Confederate Faces, and William A. Turner’s Even More Confederate Faces. These men led the way after the centennial of the Civil War, when little information was available about these images, and perhaps even less value attached to them. Since then, these precious images have become highly sought after and appreciated for their historic value. More and more of these photographs are included in today’s books. I hope other current academic and non-academic historians, and those who follow us, will add to and build the body of scholarship around the role and experience of soldiers below the rank of colonel through the use of period photographs.

Someday, I’d love to see a single database that contains high-resolution scans of all extant wartime cartes de visite, tintypes and ambrotypes of Union and Confederate soldiers.

General questions:

1. How is the African American volume coming?

I am on schedule to complete the manuscript in mid-2011. If all goes according to plan, the book will be released to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the passage of Congressional acts that lead to the formation of the first African American regiments during the war.

This book will follow the same format as my others. However, to accurately capture the African American war experience, this volume departs in two subtle ways from the Union and Confederate books. Because men of color were not legally allowed to be soldiers until almost midway through the war, I am including a small group of those who served as aides and in other support roles, the only serious alternatives for African Americans who wanted to get directly involved in the war effort. Also, for the first time I am including tintypes and ambrotypes. Identified, wartime images of African Americans are the rarest of the rare, so I’ve had to broaden my search beyond the carte de visite format to locate enough photographs to support a book.

By the way, many good people I spoke with early on were skeptical about the possibilities of doing this book because they thought I’d not be able to find enough images, and, if I did, that their stories would not be very interesting because they served primarily behind the front lines. I’m here to tell you that they were wrong on both counts! I currently have enough photographs for the book. And I’ve found that many of these soldiers saw action and participated in some of the most dramatic moments of the war, including the fall of Richmond and other events. These are the transformative stories of the war, from slaves to soldiers to freedmen.

2. Have you been able to find CSA African American soldiers in uniform?

None so far. I have found one wartime image of a white Confederate soldier and his African American servant. Both men are identified. Their stories and the image are scheduled to be included in the book.

3. Do you plan on a future book on women in CDVs?

My editor and I discussed a possible book on wartime civilians, which would include women, men and children, and their direct and indirect role in the war. Definitely could be a future project!

4. Do you own an original copy of all the CDVs in your books?

I own all the cartes de visite in the Union book, but only two in the Confederate volume. To date, I have two identified African American images in my collection, and both will be included.

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