Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Interview--Jim and Suzanne Gindlesperger

James and Suzanne Gindlesperger have written a couple of very interesting books dealing with the monuments on the Gettysburg and Antietam battlefields. On his own Jim has written several highly acclaimed books and has been nominated for the prestigious Lincoln Prize. Suzanne is a co founder of a very successful writing group. I am honored that they have agreed to answer some questions for us. Links to my reviews of their books and also a link to their website may be found at the end of the interview. If you haven't seen their books yet I highly recommend them!
CBR--Jim and Suzanne, Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions. First off, can you tell readers a little bit about yourselves?

Thanks for asking us, Robert.  Well, we’ve been married for 42 years and we live in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.  We have two children and two rescue dogs.  We both enjoy the same things, especially tramping over Civil War battlefields, so it makes it easy to do projects like our books together.  Jim works at Carnegie Mellon University, and Sue is a Travel Consultant for AAA.

CBR--What led to your interest in the Civil War? Was it a particular book or visit to a battlefield?

It really wasn’t anything specific that we can recall.  We both have always enjoyed history, and with both of us having ancestors who fought in the Civil War it was a natural progression.  Because Antietam and Gettysburg are the two closest major battlefields to where we live, we just seemed to gravitate to them at first, and from there we just expanded our interests to the point now where most of our vacations seem to center around battlefield visits.

CBR--You've co-authored two books in the So You Think You Know... series, one dealing with Gettysburg and your recent book dealing with Antietam. Can you please describe your books and also what was the inspiration behind them?

Both books are similar.  We have always enjoyed learning some of the “behind the scenes” stories that you don’t often read about in the usual books about the battles.  We find them fascinating, and they give a truer picture of the men who fought.  Both books include photos of many of the monuments and locations on the battlefields, along with maps and GPS coordinates so people can locate them easily.  Then, we added stories about each one, trying to focus on the things we are often asked, such as why the monument sits where it does, what does it represent, who designed it, and, of course, the human interest stories.  Some of these stories are humorous, some are sad, but they all tell the story of the men who fought.  In a way, it’s kind of our own little tribute to them, hoping that people who read about them will not forget what they did.

Both battlefields, but especially Gettysburg, have been written about extensively.  But we haven’t found many books that tell the stories behind the men who fought, or the monuments that they built.  We wanted to stay away from the battle details, the tactics, and the strategies, because they had been done so well by so many others that we didn’t see any way we could add anything.  But the approach we have taken seems to have taken hold with many readers who tell us that they enjoy both the photography and the stories that they hadn’t heard before.

CBR--What has been the most interesting thing you have learned while researching these two battlefields?

One of the things we quickly picked up on in our early battlefield visits was the significance of the monuments.  Each one tells a story, and we’ve tried to pass that along in our books.  We tell people to take a few extra minutes to study the monuments, to look at the inscriptions, or focus on the figures shown and what they are doing.  In nearly every instance the monument depicts some significant event that the regiment or individual was involved in.  That is really what got us interested in the behind-the-scenes stories we referred to.  We wanted to find out what the men who fought were trying to tell us with their monument, and we learned that the scenes shown weren’t just something general but were actually testimonies to someone who did something outstanding in the battle, or to honor the entire regiment for some stand they took or some charge they were involved in.  Too often these monuments are taken for granted.  We look at them for a moment and move on to the next,  and people would be surprised at how interesting their stories really are.  It might take a little digging when you get back home, but it will add to anyone’s appreciation of the battle and is well worth the time. 

CBR--How have the books been received by readers?

They have been received extremely well.  The Gettysburg book won the bronze award for the ForeWord Review’s Book of the Year in 2010, and that really seemed to trigger a lot of interest.  In fact, the reception the Gettysburg book got was the real reason we decided to do the one on Antietam.

It’s really gratifying to have strangers come up to us at a book signing or after one of our lectures and tell us that they didn’t have much of an interest in the Civil War until they read our books.  And how flattering is it when a licensed battlefield guide tells us he uses some of our stories in his tours?  It doesn’t get much better than that.

CBR--Many writing partnerships are done long distance but the two of you are married. Can you describe how you do your research and who is responsible for what? Does one of you do the writing and the other the photography or is the writing more collaborative?

Our research techniques are really pretty hard to describe.  Maybe because we really don’t have a specific procedure.  One of us can be taking a picture and the other will say, “Here, let me have the camera a minute,” and then take a photo of something that the other didn’t see.  As a result, we have a lot of photos of the same thing that we can choose from, with different angles or lighting effects.  And we often look at the pictures later and truly don’t remember which one of us took some of them. 

We don’t have a set pattern, where one takes the pictures and the other writes the stories.  While one of us is talking about something we learned about an individual or a regiment, it may remind the other of something that seems totally unrelated, and we write it down so we can try to work it in somewhere later.  It sounds pretty haphazard, and maybe it is, but it seems to work for us.

Our work really is a joint effort, and we’ve always had the luxury that we don’t take our writing too seriously.  We do it because we enjoy it, and we don’t put any pressure on ourselves to get something done by a certain time.  We don’t even submit it to our agent until it is finished, so we don’t have to rush to meet any contract deadlines.  That keeps it fun. 

CBR--Time to put you on the spot. Of these two battlefields do you have a favorite? Also, any particular monuments that stick out as being your favorites and why?

Jim;  For me, each battlefield has its own strong points.  Gettysburg is a treasure trove of stories, simply because it is so large and so many troops were involved.  But Antietam is such an easy battle to follow, and the field itself is small enough that it can easily be covered in a weekend.  So I guess I would have to say I don’t have a clear cut favorite.

But I do have some favorite monuments.  At Antietam I like the 90th Pennsylvania monument, mostly because it is so unique.  The fact that Gary Casteel, a friend of ours, sculpted it, helps, too.  And I like the story behind the 51st Pennsylvania at the Burnside Bridge.  They had their whiskey ration taken from them as punishment for some infraction, and when their colonel asked them if they thought they could capture the bridge, they immediately saw a chance to negotiate.  They said they could take the bridge if he gave them back their whiskey.  Both got what they wanted.

One of my favorite spots at Gettysburg isn’t even a monument.  It’s a rock on Culp’s Hill where Private Augustus Coble of the 1st North Carolina left his mark.  He was so proud of his participation in the battle that he found a way to go back to Gettysburg many years later and find the boulder where he fought, somehow carving his name and regiment into it.  It shows how important the battle was to those who fought there.

And because I enjoy irony, I also like the Excelsior Brigade monument in the Wheatfield.  It was supposed to include a bust of General Daniel Sickles, but when the time came for the bust to be sculpted, an audit revealed that the money to pay for it was missing.  Turns out that the good general was responsible for the missing money, so he never got his bust on the monument.  A fitting end to the story, I think.  Although later, as a Congressman, he was responsible for the act that established the battlefield as a national park, so in some respects, he got his recognition anyway.

Suzanne:  Like Jim, I can’t pick one battlefield over the other.  Each holds a special place for me.  Gettysburg has the most spectacular sunsets and watching them from Little Round Top is an experience everyone should enjoy.

I do have a special place, though, along Wheatfield Road.  There’s a marker for Captain Jedidiah Chapman of Connecticut who died while leading his company towards the Rose Woods.  I came across this marker several years before the naturalization project began in Gettysburg.  When I found it, it was hidden in overgrown weeds and seemed forgotten.  I wondered who he was.  Since that time I’ve learned a bit about him and his family.  Sadly, he was so young when he died, leaving a wife and children.  Whenever we’re in Gettysburg, I try to visit his marker to thank him for his sacrifice.

I have two favorites at Antietam.  The first is the Dunker Church.  It’s plain and simple and so quiet  whenever you enter, so unlike that day in September 150 years ago.  I like to sit in one of the pews and listen to the silence and offer a prayer  not only for  those who fought there, but for my loved ones as well.

The second place is unique, and as Jim mentioned, it’s one of his favorites, too.  It’s the monument to the Ninetieth Pennsylvania Infantry and is three fixed bayonets and a hanging cook pot.  It sits along Cornfield Avenue and is shaded by the tree line.  On one visit, it was covered with bright orange Monarch butterflies.  What a treat that was!  

CBR--Jim, you've written several other Civil War related books. Would you care to let readers know about your earlier works?

My first book, Escape from Libby Prison, documents the famous tunnel escape.  This was the largest Prisoner of War escape in American military history, and according to the National Park Service, my book was the first in-depth account published.  Escape from Libby Prison won the George Washington Honor Medal for Excellence from the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge.  It was also featured in a Discovery Channel documentary, and Warner Brothers purchased the film rights.  Tom Hanks and Dylan Sellers were to be the producers, but unfortunately, after a few years, Warner Brothers decided not to follow through with it.

My second book followed the cadets of Virginia Military Institute in the Battle of New Market.  It was titled Seed Corn of the Confederacy, a title that Jefferson Davis gave the cadets.  It was the first book about New Market that was devoted exclusively to the participation of the VMI cadets, and the director of the VMI museum wrote that the story had never been told better.

My third book, Fire on the Water, focused on the voyages of the CSS Alabama and the USS Kearsarge.  The Alabama accounted for nearly one of every four Union merchant ships lost during the entire Civil War, with more than 60 ships destroyed.  The Kearsarge was one of the Union ships charged with finding and sinking the Alabama.  The two finally met in an epic battle off the coast of France on June 19, 1864.   I used ship logs and diaries to document the words and lives of the participants and was able to offer a look into life at sea during the Civil War.  I also examined and discussed the many controversies surrounding the battle.  Fire on the Water also won the George Washington Honor Medal for Excellence and was nominated for the Lincoln Prize.

CBR--Suzanne, you are a co founder of Pennwriters. Can you let readers know about this  organization?

What began as a brainstorm of five people, Pennwriters has grown as a not-for-profit organization of more than 450 members from Pennsylvania and beyond.  It was established in 1988 to be a network for published and aspiring writers of all genres.   We offer a three-day writers conference each year as well as area events, email groups, online classes and social networking.  I encourage any writer who needs help and encouragement to visit

CBR--So what is up next for the two of you? Any books in the future for readers to be on the lookout for?

We have a couple of projects in the works.  We are working together on a second volume of So You Think You Know Gettysburg? that we are kind of excited about.  There were so many pictures and stories that we wanted to include that we couldn’t fit them all into one book, so that is something that we definitely want to do.  And Jim has had a long time interest in the trial and hanging of Henry Wirz, the Commandant of Andersonville Prison.  He is actively gathering information on that and plans to do an objective study of Wirz and the trial.  Sue has an idea for a book on field hospitals that is just starting to take shape, so she hopes to pursue that at some point.  All in all, it looks like we have enough ideas that we should be busy for a while.

Thanks so much for allowing us to be a part of this interview, Robert.  We really appreciate it.

CBR--And thank you for taking the time to participate. I really appreciate your time and highly suggest readers purchase your  books. They are both entertaining and informative!
Please see my review of So You Think You Know Antietam here.
Please see my review of So You Think You Know Gettysburg here.
Please visit James and Suzanne's website here.

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