Thursday, January 13, 2011

Interview--Jim Schmidt: Notre Dame and the Civil War

I consider it my pleasure to have Jim Schmidt as my first interview on this blog. Jim is the author or editor of three books and writes two excellent blogs: Civil War Medicine and Notre Dame in the Civil War. Jim's new book Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory is now available and is a must read. Please read my review of it here.

CBR: Jim, I know you will be familiar to most of my readers but can you please fill us in on your background?
Familiar? Yikes! I think you overestimate my notoriety! I appreciate the thought, though.

Well, in the words of Austin Powers: “Allow myself to introduce…myself”:

I was born in Topeka, KS, and grew up there and in Joplin, MO, before moving to Oklahoma City during college. I attended Benedictine College (Atchison, KS) for a couple of years before finishing my studies at the University of Central Oklahoma (Edmond) where I earned a B.S. in Chemistry. I’ve worked in private, government, and industrial laboratories for the past 25 years as a bio-analytical chemist and am currently employed with a biotech firm in The Woodlands, TX, north of Houston, where I support our discovery and development programs as part of the Drug Metabolism department. I’ve been happily married for 25-plus years and have three terrific kids.

 I began writing for publication 12 or so years ago. I’ve been blessed and fortunate to have articles published in great magazines such as North & South, World War II, Learning Through History, Chemical Heritage, and Today’s Chemist, and – since 2000 - a regular column about 19th-century medicine in The Civil War News.

 I am the author, editor, or contributor to three books: “Lincoln’s Labels: America’s Best Known Brands and the Civil War” (Edinborough Press, 2008), “Years of Change and Suffering: Modern Perspectives on Civil War Medicine” (Edinborough Press, 2009), and “Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory” (The History Press, 2010).

CBR: What led to your interest in history and the Civil War in particular?
I’ve always been interested in history since I was a kid, but my interest in the Civil War didn’t blossom until well into adulthood. As a kid, I was an avid reader and soaked up biographies and “Landmark” books. My dad might be surprised when he reads this, but I really owe my general interest in history to him. My ancestors – “Volga-Germans” - arrived in western Kansas in the mid-1870s. My dad is a treasure-trove of information about that heritage: genealogy, traditions, language, etc., and shared it with us as kids. That really made an impression on me, I think, and I’m only just now beginning to appreciate that quiet but important influence.

 As for the Civil War, about 15 years ago I was in Richmond, VA, on business. I had no particular interest in the Civil War at that time, but on a lark I visited the Cold Harbor battlefield. While I was looking at a wayside exhibit, an NPS ranger, Eddie Sanders, came up and asked if I’d like to join a van tour of the field with some senior citizens, which I did. His tour was amazing and I’ve been hooked ever since! I got back in touch with him a few years ago and thanked him for the inspiration.

CBR: Can you provide some insight into your research and writing process? Do you use a professional researcher? What are some of your favorite research tools or websites?
What a GREAT question!

 Generally, I do some background reading first. Then, I begin to “mine” endnotes and bibliographies for other sources…I depend very much on the archives (if they exist) of the institutions about which I am writing. My best contacts are the archivists themselves – as stewards of the material they can really help answer questions about what you are looking for or suggest other material. Most of my archival work is done over “snail mail” and many of the institutions have great online “finding aids” to help find relevant material. I strive to always incorporate previously unpublished material in my work…I don’t just want to be a “compiler”…I want to add something to the existing scholarship on a particular subject so that hopefully other people can learn from it and/or build on it further still. My local library interlibrary loan service is invaluable as are historical societies and other libraries.

 As for professional researchers, I haven’t ever employed someone on a hourly or per diem basis to visit another archive and browse or search on my behalf. That said, I have used some fee-based services such as “” to get quicker access and copies to Compiled Service or Pension records.

 As for websites, a few public domain websites – esp. the “Abraham Lincoln Papers” at the Library of Congress and or Google Books for documents and books – prove especially helpful. Two subscription-only websites have been especially helpful: and

 Once I’ve gathered research I develop an outline…I’m a firm believer in outlines…and then I start writing. Whenever possible, I try to write some shorter articles or columns first, or develop a lecture for the local Civil War Round Table, all of which give me something to build on.

 I try to do some type of writing or research every evening (or at lunch) and a good outline allows me to split a seemingly large project into smaller bits that can be “knocked out” over time…the small “accomplishments” do provide a sense of progress so one doesn’t get discouraged (especially for a procrastinator like me).
 Most institutions have very modest/nominal copying and postage fees. Generally the largest expense is paying for copies, user fees, and permissions for illustration material.

 There is no way I would have been able to write this particular book without the kind, expert, and enthusiastic assistance of the great folks at the University of Notre Dame Archives. Most of them have been there for ten years or more so we had developed a good working relationship. They have great online finding aids and were really supportive when I found material that actually added to their knowledge and collection. I also got great support from the archivists with the priests and sisters of the Holy Cross, each of which maintains additional collections. Genealogists also happily shared information about their own families or local history.

 In short, the Preface to this book is a single paragraph about me and more than two pages about the people who helped me, and with good reason.

CBR: In the preface to Notre Dame and the Civil War you mention that the book has been the product of more than a decades research. Why the interest in Notre Dame?
When I first became interested in the Civil War and began reading about it in earnest I was quickly introduced to the Irish Brigade and thus to Fr. William Corby. I wanted to learn more about him – and in Catholic military chaplains in general - and in doing so learned more about the bigger picture of Notre Dame’s participation in the war. The interest in Notre Dame goes back farther, though, and like many people can be traced to their personal faith tradition, an interest in “Fighting Irish” sports and personalities, or – as in my case – a combination of the two.

 I hope that other people who are more familiar with Notre Dame’s heroes of the gridiron, basketball court and other playing fields will also become familiar with – and admire – her heroes of the battlefield.

CBR: With your scientific background and being known to many as a medical/science writer what did you find that would tie this interest to your interest in Notre Dame?
The easy answer is that the Holy Cross sister-nurses have a good medical angle for this project, but I think the book is actually independent of my interests in science and medicine.

 In addition to the interests in Notre Dame, specifically, that I mentioned earlier, I also have an interest in “institutional history.” My first book, “Lincoln’s Labels,” was very much along this line, as I studied how well-known companies participated in, affected, and were affected by the Civil War. The same holds true for an article I wrote a few years back for World War II magazine describing the role of the Squibb drug company in the war.

 Such it is, then, with this book about Notre Dame in the Civil War: certainly at its heart the book is about people – and as much as possible in their own words – but it also follows my interest in how institutions are affected by war.

CBR: In your book you touch on South Bend, Indiana having been a prominent stop on the Underground Railroad. Did you find South Bend to have been a vocal abolitionist area?
This is a great question, but – for better or worse – my research on the book did not include a lot of reading on the Underground Railroad in Indiana or abolitionist sentiment in the state. I think, like Illinois, the northern part of the state was fiercely abolitionist but the southern part of the state included immigrants from slave-holding states and thus had a different outlook.

CBR: With Notre Dame having contributed so much to the Union war effort it begs the question...Do you feel the men and women sent to be chaplains and nurses go willingly or was it because it was their religious duty?
Oh, absolutely they went willingly; in almost all cases, Notre Dame’s priests volunteered to go; the same held true for the first cadre of sister-nurses that went to the front. Certainly it’s true for the rush of students who volunteered at the outbreak of the war. In any event, the vows that the Holy Cross priests, sisters, and brothers took (in addition to poverty and chastity) as part of their profession to the order included one of “obedience” or submission to legitimate superiors such as Fr. Sorin or Mother Angela. Even so, I don’t think their duty of obedience or their personal willingness are mutually exclusive.

CBR: If you were able to meet with any of the men or women from your research who would it be and why?
That’s a good question...there are so many to choose from, but I think I’d want to meet Fr. Joseph Carrier, a chaplain attached to Grant’s army around Vicksburg, who – like me – was a scientist.

 What I’m most proud of about this book – and these are fellows I’d like to meet as well – is the attention I was able to give to Notre Dame’s student-soldiers, who aren’t mentioned much in the Notre Dame historical literature. I am trying to build a database of the young men from the school who enlisted, fought, and sometimes died.

CBR: Can you briefly describe William T. Sherman's association with Notre Dame and the value of his papers to your research?
On his own, General Sherman might never have been connected with Notre Dame. Sherman's wife, Ellen Ewing, was related to the Gillespie and Phelan families, both of which had strong connections to the university and her sister school, St. Mary's…the Shermans sent their children Willy, Minnie, and Tommy to Notre Dame and St. Mary's during the war…Ellen Sherman arranged for Notre Dame to send one of its priests – the aforementioned Fr. Joseph Carrier - as a chaplain to Grant's army at Vicksburg…Fr. Carrier was at the bedside of the Sherman's young son Willy when he died of "camp fever" at Memphis in 1863…General Sherman gave the commencement address at Notre Dame in 1865.

1959, Miss Eleanor Sherman Fitch, the granddaughter of General Sherman, deposited the “William Tecumseh Sherman Family Papers,” in the University of Notre Dame Archives. The university archives has an excellent online finding aid for the Papers, including hyperlinks to actual images and/or transcripts of material.

 The Papers were especially helpful in yielding correspondence between Ellen and the general about sending their children to Notre Dame and St. Mary’s and between the general and his children while they were at school.

 *Any* serious scholarship about Sherman or his family begins with the Papers at Notre Dame.

CBR: You compiled some interesting enrollment data regarding Notre Dame during the war. Can you describe what you found?
The University of Notre Dame archives has a great online database, “Index of Early Notre Dame Students, 1849 – 1912,” which is searchable by a number of “strings.” Admittedly, mine was not a “scientific” survey, and I had to make some compromises. For example, each student was counted for each year they were enrolled; for some students this was a single year (they counted once), and for others it could be as many as five terms (they were counted five times). Also – for simplicity – I counted all the students: college students, “minims” (in the elementary/prep school program) and “Manual Labor” students (generally destitute or orphans who were learning a trade).

 Nevertheless, some definite rends emerged: increasing enrollment over the course of the war (when other schools were losing students or closing their doors) and an increase in students from Confederate states (esp. Tennessee) and Border states (esp. Kentucky) as the war progressed. Just as interesting was the pre-war enrollment data allowed me to identify and follow up a few students from the South who left school and joined the Confederate army. Due to the “compromises mentioned above, I almost certainly underestimated the proportion of students who came from the South.

 In addition to the online database, wartime Notre Dame catalogs also proved very helpful.

CBR: In your book you mention issues that many colleges had during the war. Can you discuss this and also why you feel Notre Dame was not affected to the same degree as others?
Actually, for my part, this was one of the most interesting parts of researching the book! One of the best books I read in my background research was “The Campus and a Nation in Crisis: from the American Revolution to Vietnam” by Dr. Willis Rudy (1993). I highly recommend it to everyone.

 Indeed, the Civil War had significant effects on colleges and universities across the country: declining enrollments due to student and faculty enlistments in the Union and Confederate armies; fiscal problems brought on by declining enrollment and exacerbated by wartime inflation; concerted enemy movements in or around campuses; and inflamed partisan and sectional passions among the students. At the least, these challenges could disrupt the order of campus life; at worst, they could result in the institution closing its doors.
 Student unrest on American college campuses—while more famous and familiar in Vietnam-era protests—can actually be traced as far back as the American Revolution. Likewise, students in the Civil War era demonstrated their feelings and opinions—pro-Union, anti-administration or (very suspicious to some) apparent indifference—through patriotic meetings, mock funerals, commencement exercises, student literary magazines, visiting speakers and other events and outlets. Not surprisingly, some of these turned quite violent.

 Notre Dame did not face all of these challenges but they faced several. Despite the increasing enrollment at the school, wartime inflation caused price increases and so the university had to rely on stricter budgets. There were some tussles and fistfights on campus but – fortunately - not the “town vs. gown” riots that plagued other schools.

 In spite of the challenges – or because of them – Fr. Sorin felt that morale at the school among students and faculty was higher than it might have been. The bottom line for me is that he was an extremely able and savvy administrator; the school might have not have been as successful under a less steady hand.

CBR: How has Notre Dame and the Civil War been received?
Well, the reviews are starting to “roll in” and they have have been very positive so far, which I appreciate very much. The interesting thing about this book is that it has (at least) two distinct audiences: Civil War enthusiasts and Notre Dame alumni (“bona fide” *and* “subway”), and whatever overlap there is between the two. I had a great Skype video chat with the “Notre Dame Club of Topeka” (my hometown!) and they asked some great questions. The newspaper and radio stations in South Bend, IN, have given some press to the book as well.

 People who are interested in Irish-American history and/or the history of the Catholic Church in America have also expressed interest and good words.

 I have to give thanks to The History Press: they have a wonderful Marketing and Publicity department which has really helped get the word out. The rest is up to me!

 In any event, my goal in all my writing is to produce original and “readable” material backed by equally original and solid scholarship. Hopefully I’ve done that in this case.

CBR: So what's next for you? Rumor has it you already have your next book project!
I’ve been fortunate enough to secure another contract from The History Press for a book on Galveston (TX) and the Civil War, tentatively entitled: “Galveston and the Civil War: An Island People in the Maelstrom.” Many people know of the “Battle of Galveston” and Edward Cotham, Jr., has a really great and fairly recent (1998, I think) book on the subject: “Battle on the Bay,” which is one of my favorites. My goal is to complement and build on the Cotham book by emphasizing the wartime experience of the island’s civilians – including enslaved African-Americans – and to take advantage of The History Press’s own emphasis on well-illustrated books tailored to community history. It is due to the publisher in mid-2012.
 I’m really looking forward to digging into primary material at the “Galveston and Texas History Center” at the Rosenberg Library in Galveston. It’s not a long drive from here so I expect to visit it several times over the next year-and-a-half.

 I have some other projects/proposals I am working on, including the possibility of offering some 19th-century material – some of it rare - in my collection as affordable “e-books.” I also have an increasing interest in the Spiritualist movement during the war years.

I also want to complete some feature articles I’ve started for some of the popular Civil War magazines, keep up better with my regular column on medicine in the Civil War News, and also with my blogs.

CBR: Jim, thank you for your time and I wish you continued success with your book
Thank me? Thank You! It’s been a pleasure! I really appreciate your interest and support. I love interacting with other readers and Civil War enthusiasts – especially ones with shared interests – so they should feel free to contact me through my blogs or Facebook!


  1. I'm more impressed than ever with James Schmidt as he expands into a future force in Civil War scholarship. Bob McKissick

  2. David--Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate it.

    Bob--I agree completely. Jim's books are well researched and highly readable.