I had the pleasure of meeting John Hoptak on his regular stomping ground: the Antietam National Battlefield. My wife and I had a battlefield tour scheduled with him until a freak October snow storm wiped that out. Fortunately I was able to hear him give a presentation the next day and I learned a lot from it. John is also the author of two books published by The History Press. Please see my reviews here and here. In addition John writes the blog The 48th Pennsylvania Infantry.
CBR-Hi John. Thanks so much for taking the time to answer a few questions for readers. First off can you tell us little about yourself?
JH-Sure, Robert, it will be my pleasure. First, though, I want to thank you for this invitation for this interview to talk about my two books with the History Press, published as part of their Civil War Sesquicentennial Series. I grew up in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, studying history, and the Civil War in particular, for as long as I can remember. Of special interest to me was (and remains) the Civil War history of my home region, which is why I spend so much time studying the First Defenders, 48th Pennsylvania and other units recruited largely from Schuylkill County, such as the 96th PA and 50th PA. I earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Kutztown University and a master’s degree in history from Lehigh University. I have been working for the Park Service since 2006 when I was hired on seasonally at Antietam National Battlefield. Last year, I worked a three-month detail at Gettysburg National Military Park, and will be doing so again this year. I consider myself one lucky guy to work at these two battlefield parks, alongside the best Park Rangers in the business. In addition to this, I also teach courses part-time for American Military University; courses in American history, Civil War history, and Mexican-American War history.
CBR-Can you remember what sparked your interest in the Civil War?
JH-This is a question I have been asked for the past thirty years and even so, I have never been able to develop a good answer. The short answer is, “I don’t know.” I remember visiting Gettysburg when I was very young and something just clicked. I got hooked, or bit, as some say, by that Civil War bug at a very young age. And my family has always been most supportive. Every year would include several trips to Gettysburg or other battlefields and even from a young age I thought how great it would be to one day work on a battlefield as a Park Ranger. Every trip included coming home with more books, more plastic toy soldiers. . .and a greater interest in the story of the war. The interest I have in the war has been there, always present, for as long as I can remember.
CBR-As a park ranger at Antietam National Battlefield can you tell us what a typical day is like for you at work?
JH-Well, it depends on the season. In the spring, summer, and fall, it is quite busy and typically you can find me working at the information desk, orienting visitors to the battlefield, or providing interpretative programs, such as half-hour long Overview and Aftermath of Battle talks, or a two-hour-long battlefield tour. When not working the desk or presenting programs, I do research, learning more about the battle and the history of the Park.
CBR-Your two most recent books have been published by The History Press. What has it been like to work with them?
JH-Overall, very, very good. I missed a few deadlines with the Gettysburg title and went way over my word count, which they originally set at just 50,000 words, and each time I missed a deadline the editors there were most accommodating, allowing me some extra time to get it done. Their art direction and the layouts of the books are also superb; they really make an eye-appealing product. I was hoping they would have gone with a different title for the Gettysburg book, though, either, simply, The Battle of Gettysburg, or, as I suggested, Gettysburg: A Perfect Hell on Earth. But, other than this, they have been great to work with.
CBR-Your first book with The History Press, The Battle of South Mountain (MD) , would seem like an obvious choice to write about seeing where you work. Did this book come about because of your work and what were the advantages and, if any, disadvantages of writing about something that took place in your back yard so to speak?
JH-I was first put in touch with Doug Bostick, editor of the Sesquicentennial Series, by friend Eric Wittenberg, who has also done a number of excellent titles for this series. When I spoke with Doug initially, I thought he was inquiring about me doing the Antietam title, but at that time, the History Press was focused more on examining the smaller, or lesser known battles of the war and not the big ones, so we discussed South Mountain. I have long had an interest in the Battle of South Mountain, for as long as I can remember. My birthday just so happens to fall on September 14 so, growing up, I would always associate my birthday with the Battle of South Mountain. In addition, the 48th Pennsylvania fought there. And for years the Battle of South Mountain has languished in the larger shadows cast by Antietam and all too often, you hear South Mountain referred to as a either a skirmish or a prelude, when, in fact, it was in its own right a major battle (with casualties equaling those sustained at First Bull Run), and a battle of vast consequence. I was thus hoping to bring the story of the battle from out of those shadows as best I could. With that said, the contract I signed gave me just one year to complete the manuscript, so I had to undergo a crash course, so to speak, in the records, the letters, the diaries, and the terrain.
CBR-For many, if not most, people interested in the Civil War Gettysburg is the turning point, if you will, of the war. To be chosen to write the Gettysburg volume for The History Press’s sesquicentennial series, Confrontation at Gettysburg: A Nation Saved, a Cause Lost (Civil War Sesquicentennial), is certainly an honor. How did you end up being selected to write this volume?
JH-Well, I sometimes think because no one else wanted to! This was a tough, tough challenge; to condense so critical a campaign and so important a battle into a single volume is almost impossible. And as the old saying goes, it is always more difficult to write less than to write more. I am reminded of that quote, and I can’t remember now off the top of my head who said it, but at the end of a lengthy letter, many pages long, the man who wrote it apologized for the length of the letter, stating the letter “would have been shorter had I had more time.” Most of the other books on the campaign that are currently still in print and on the shelves are 400-500 pages in length; to try and condense it all into 200 was tough. I was literally up all night some nights wondering why I ever agreed to write the book. But, you are right, I do consider it an honor and I was floored when Doug Bostick, the managing editor of the History Press’ Sesquicentennial Series, asked if I would be interested in writing it since there are so many others out there just as capable of writing it. I debated it in my head over and over again for days, before finally accepting.
CBR-Please describe for readers your goal in writing this book and what you hope they take away from it.
JH-As stated in my introduction, I wrote this with the general, interested public in mind, setting out neither to pave new ground in the interpretation of the battle nor to mine new, previously unused sources. From the get-go, I wanted to synthesize the most recent scholarship into an easily digestible, single volume. Throughout the writing of the book, I imagined myself providing a tour to a family visiting the battlefield for the first time. I attempted to explain why the battle was fought, how it unfolded, and what happened as a result. My hope is that readers are inspired to learn more after reading this introductory volume.
CBR-It seemed that for the most part you didn’t take any views that would be seen as controversial (some may not like your thoughts on the 20th Maine however). In fact I felt your view was more that the generals on the field really seemed to do the best they could under the circumstances. Do you feel this is a fair assessment?
JH-Yes. I always try to give these generals the benefit of the doubt. All too often, traditional interpretations of the major battles of the war imply that their outcomes were based solely and entirely on the generals at the top; their personalities, their whims, and so on, when we know there were so many more factors were involved. Again, as I stated in my introduction, I tried to approach this book more as a storyteller than historian. I did try to present both sides of a controversial issue and let the reader decide, but even so, I do think that all generals did the best they could under the circumstances. At Antietam, for example, one of the most frequently stated thoughts involve Burnside and his bridge; the thought being that he could have easily waded the creek. I remind people that Burnside was a trained, professional soldier and if we can think of different options or possibilities today then, rest assured, he thought about them, too. There then must have been reasons why he did not—or could not—wade the creek near the bridge. And for Sickles, too, at Gettysburg. Even though he was not a soldier, I do think he was doing what he thought was best for his men at that moment—all the back-biting and wars in the newspaper came later. There are times when I let my own thoughts known in the Gettysburg book, so I guess I was not entirely successful at remaining neutral.
CBR-It’s time to put you on the spot just a bit. Did the Union army and George Meade win the battle or did Robert E. Lee and Confederate army lose? In your mind is there a key moment or decision that led to this victory or loss?
JH-A great question and I am not sure if there is a correct answer to this. While one can argue either side, if I was forced to choose a side, then I would have to say that the Union army won this fight. The soldiers in blue demonstrated a remarkable tenacity and doggedness during those three days; even after the First and Eleventh Corps were smashed to pieces on July 1. On Day Two as well, with Greene holding on firmly to Culp’s Hill, with the Fifth Corps racing to the assistance of the Third and in holding the Union left, and the 1st Minnesota with their dramatic charge, there was certainly no quit in the Union. This is not to say that that Confederate soldiers were any less brave or heroic, and it must also be mentioned that the Union army held a good defensible position, overall, and especially on Culp’s and Cemetery Hill. But, then again, it was the Union officers selecting this ground. I do think Robert E. Lee expected far too much of his men; as I noted in the book, the thought that his army could, indeed, be defeated never seemed to have crossed Lee’s mind. But it was the tough, determined stance of the Federals, along with the generalship of such soldiers as Meade, Hancock, Howard, and a host of other officers of lower rank—such as Strong Vincent, George Greene, etc, that more “won” the battle than Lee “lost” it. I am reminded of the famous line Pickett allegedly spoke. Supposedly when asked why his charge had been repulsed, he said “The Yankees had something to do with it.” Again, just my thoughts here; not sure if there is a correct answer to this.
CBR-I mentioned in my review your lack of end notes but rather the use of a “chapter notes” section. Was this your decision or something you and your editor came up with due to the large volume of literature available on the battle? With the book now being available do you still think this was the way to go?
JH-This was a difficult decision to reach, and it was reached as an agreement between myself and my editors for a number of reasons. First, and simply practically speaking, I had already far exceeded my word limit and adding notes would have multiplied that number by many more thousands. Secondly, since the book was a synthesis of the recent scholarship, and an overview of the campaign, I thought it would be better to point the reader in the direction of the works published in the past few decades, those I referenced most when preparing for this volume, with the hope that they would next pick up those works for their future study. Again keeping the purpose of the book—a concise, narrative summary of the campaign and battle—and the intended audience in mind—the first time student of Gettysburg—we thought this would be the way to go.
CBR-Your book also employs two distinct styles of maps. Would you describe for readers the different styles of maps and the reason for including both?
JH-The maps prepared by Mannie Gentile I consider more works of art than precision-maps. Mannie worked with me in the South Mountain book as well, and what were trying to do here was harken back to the types of maps one might find in late-19th Century works; thus, I was going more for the imagery and artistic value here. Hal Jaspersen’s maps are much more precise, detailed and necessary for understanding the sometimes confusing battle sequences. Both Hal and Mannie are incredibly gifted at their crafts and their maps, I believe, work well together.
CBR-What kind of feedback has your book received so far?
JH-So far the feedback has been positive, and I thank you for your kind and favorable review posted a few weeks back. There is no doubt that I made a few mistakes or that others will disagree with some of my assessments (such as my look at the 20th Maine on Little Round Top), so I am sure criticisms will come, but that’s to be expected. So far, though, the book has been well-received.
CBR-The literature on Gettysburg is so vast and continuing to grow that the new student can easily be overwhelmed and that is where your book is really a Godsend. It seems almost every regiment at the battle has a book detailing the tiniest of movements. There are discussion forums where only the Gettysburg campaign is discussed. The battle has a magazine devoted to it. Is there really anything new left to be said about Gettysburg? Are we in danger of missing the forest for the trees at this point?
JH-It is true the literature is vast and the interest immense, but this is a good thing. As long as we continue to study the battle and the war, we ensure what Lincoln prophesied in his famed Address comes to his fruition, that we will never forget both the cost and the meaning of this fratricidal war. I am not sure if anything “new” can be said, for I am confident that others in years past have thought certain ways about certain things. But I am most certain that we need to continue to write those books, to study the regimental or individual actions, and to keep publishing those magazines, for they can only help us better understand the battle, the soldiers who fought it, the reasons why, and the war itself. As long as there is interest, then there should be books. We cannot and can never know everything—even though sometimes I encounter people who think they do—but this is not the point. The point is only to learn more. So while I can see how new students to the war and to Gettysburg in particular can easily get overwhelmed, this does not mean that the historiography should end or that we should stop studying. I can only hope that if they do pick up my book as an introduction, they then move on and dive deeper and deeper in those vast annals of Gettysburg historiography, continuing to study and to read all those books, and perhaps someday adding to it as well.
CBR-I know you are extremely busy and have a lot on your plate. Do you have any thoughts on what your next book will be about?
JH-I am still exhaling from the Gettysburg book, so I think it will be a while before I begin working on a new project. I promised myself, though, well before Gettysburg was completed that I would go back to my roots, so to speak, and do something with the 48th, or with General James Nagle, of whom I have long wanted to write a biography. But again it might be awhile. I got something much more important coming up in the immediate future: fatherhood; my first baby is on her way, due to arrive in mid-May. I have a feeling she will be taking up most of my time.
CBR-John, I want to thank you for taking the time to open up and answer my questions for readers. I truly enjoyed your book and hope you have much success with it.
Many, many thanks, Robert, I am glad you enjoyed it and I thank you again for the opportunity to answer these questions.