Interview with Carol Reardon, Battlefield Guide and Professor of History

Interviewer: Anna Faktorovich, PhD

Reardon - PhotoCarol Reardon is the George Winfree Professor Emerita of American History at Pennsylvania State University. She has taught at West Point and the U.S. Army War College, and she leads staff rides and tours of Gettysburg for many military and civilian groups.

Reardon - Cover - 9781469633367_jpg

A Field Guide to Gettysburg will lead visitors to every important site across the battlefield and also give them ways to envision the action and empathize with the soldiers involved and the local people into whose lives and lands the battle intruded. Both Carol Reardon and Tom Vossler are themselves experienced guides who understand what visitors to Gettysburg are interested in, but they also bring the unique perspectives of a scholar and a former army officer. Divided into three day-long tours, this newly improved and expanded edition offers important historical background and context for the reader while providing answers to six key questions: What happened here? Who fought here? Who commanded here? Who fell here? Who lived here? And what did the participants have to say about it later?

With new stops, maps, and illustrations, the second edition of A Field Guide to Gettysburg remains the most comprehensive guide to the events and history of this pivotal battle of the Civil War.

Faktorovich: The book is very well designed, and has great images. How did you and your co-author, Tom Vossler, a retired colonel, contribute to this artistic side. Did you take any of the pictures yourself? Did you direct the photographer? Did you give input on how the book should be designed? Did you consider doing a brand-new cover for the second edition? Were there design changes made since the first? Did you assist with the creation of the detailed maps?

Reardon: The design team at the University of North Carolina Press took the lead in crafting the field guide’s unique look, but Tom and I played important roles, as well. We were never passive bystanders in the design process. Tom took all of the modern photographs. As a consequence, there was no need to “direct” the photographer. We already had decided upon our orientation points for each stop, and the photo placed near the start of each orientation section was designed specifically to help the reader find the best place to stand to understand the action. Tom and I had 100% control over the selection of orientation spots and the photos that depict them. We were especially pleased to be the first authors to publish photographs of the battlefield from the Old Dorm’s cupola at the Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary after the removal of tall trees that had obstructed the view for decades. The seminary removed the trees within a week of our press date. I happened to notice the change, made a few phone calls, and we were up in the cupola the next day. We added those photos exactly three days before the first edition of the guide went to press.

We had no input on design changes to the cover for the second edition, and, frankly, making that kind of change did not occur to us. We were glad to go with what worked. The basic cover design, I should note, carries over to our Field Guide to Antietam as well.

As an infantry officer in the U.S. Army for thirty years, Tom had developed a great eye for terrain and a high degree of comfort and confidence with maps and mapmaking. It was natural for him to focus on the maps. He designed each one of them, and then the UNC Press graphics people reformatted them for style. We were delighted with the outcome in the first edition, but we also found some places where the map did not mesh smoothly with the text it was designed to support; Tom revised a number of maps for the second edition to facilitate understanding.

Faktorovich: Why do you think so many books have been written about the Battle of Gettysburg in particular? Why is this battle critical to American history? Are the places where it took place particularly receptive to tourism? Many of the books about the event describe places in the conflict as guides. Why did you decide to write a guide rather than a history? Do you or have you in the past used this guide in the history classes you teach? What do you think is particularly valuable about this genre of non-fiction?

Reardon: Several reasons can help to explain Gettysburg’s high visibility. First, the Battle of Gettysburg still ranks as the costliest battle in North American history. At least 51,000 soldiers of the approximately 160,000 who fought here were killed, wounded, captured, or went missing over the course of this three-day battle; that accounts for almost one of every three combatants who fought there. Second, Gettysburg was the largest battle fought on free soil during the Civil War. Other big battles, such as Antietam in Maryland and Perryville in Kentucky, were fought in states loyal to the Union but slavery still existed there. Third, after a long series of major defeats like Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and unexploited success such as Antietam, Gettysburg became the Union Army of the Potomac’s first major victory over General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Northern newspapers greeted the news of General George G. Meade’s victory with headlines such as “Waterloo Eclipsed!” Fourth, Abraham Lincoln came to Gettysburg to dedicate the soldiers’ cemetery in November 1863, four months after the battle. His Gettysburg Address, of course, has become an iconic bit of American rhetoric, containing sentiments still relevant today.

In some ways, Gettysburg has become a tourist destination by design. Soon after the battle ended, a man named John Bachelder arrived at Gettysburg and began interviewing as many participants as he could, including the wounded and even some prisoners. He turned his interest in the battle into a variety of historical and entrepreneurial ventures. While he was not the first to apply the phrase “the high water mark” to Gettysburg—a contention that many modern historians challenge today—he certainly used it to lure visitors to fill the hotel he built, to buy his maps and guidebooks, and more. But he was not entirely mercenary. From the late 1860s until his death in 1894, he invited both Union and Confederate veterans to return to Gettysburg to help him mark their commands’ positions on the battlefield. The Pennsylvania department of the Grand Army of the Republic, the major Union veterans organization after the war, frequently held its annual encampment there. In time, the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, the organization that oversaw the battlefield before the War Department took over in 1895, named him the supervisor of monuments; based on his veterans interviews and deep knowledge, Bachelder became the man who approved the design, text, and location of monuments on the battlefield. The monument at the “high water mark” where Pickett’s Charge was stopped on July 3—it looks like a large, open bronze book—was Bachelder’s idea, and it brought together both his love of the battle’s history and his business savvy.

Tom and I never considered writing a traditional history of the battle. Indeed, we did not plan to take on this project at all. David Perry, the former editor in chief at the University of North Carolina Press, had come along on one of my battlefield tours and decided that he had to find a way to “package” my narrative and stories into book form. As the Civil War sesquicentennial neared, he pushed me pretty relentlessly to do this. Tom and I had done many field programs, separately and together, and we decided this would be an interesting joint project to take on.   So this was always a guide in our minds. It became a “field guide” in large part because, in talking about how we hoped readers would use it, I cited the example of Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds that used readily observable field marks to facilitate bird identification. We wanted a book that a reader could learn from while sitting at home, but we hoped the book’s greatest utility would come when the reader took it out onto the battlefield and became an active learner, forcing him or her to follow the visual cues in the text to locate exactly where specific actions took place.

I have not used the book in my classroom, mostly because I didn’t teach a course where it made sense to do so. I have heard, however, that it has been used in several classrooms. To be honest, that surprised me. I had not viewed the field guide as a classroom text. But I will give my colleagues credit for being more creative on this score than I was. One professor used the book to support a service-learning course he offered; his students used the field guide to understand the battle and the physical environment in which it was fought as a prelude to a project to help rehabilitate a barn and other farm buildings on a property just outside the Gettysburg National Military Park’s boundary. Another professor used the field guide for a Civil War leadership course that included a significant component of field work on various battlefields where rival generals made important decisions, both good and bad. I know the book is also recommended reading for candidates desiring to become Licensed Battlefield Guides at Gettysburg.

I think this particular genre of non-fiction is important because, for a reader to make the most of it, he or she cannot simply read it passively in information-reception mode. It needs to engage your mind, yes, but since many of us are visual learners and reach comprehension through seeing and doing, adding a physical element to an intellectual endeavor increases understanding and retention.

Faktorovich: How did you split tasks with Tom Vossler as you worked on this book? Did you split chapters, or were there types of writing or editing activities that one of you dominated in? Do you have any advice on how best to work with a co-author?

Reardon: During the research phase, we divided the six questions between us. Since I am the more experienced writer and researcher, I took the lead on “what happened here?” “who fought here?” “who fell here?” and “what did they say about it later?” These questions required the professional historian’s eye for detail and deep research, and the last question bounced off my earlier work in memory studies, most apparent in my Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory. As a professional soldier, Tom had a natural affinity for “who commanded here?” As a breeder of Simmental beef cattle on his Gettysburg farm, he developed a great deal of empathy with the landowners around the town who suffered so badly with the passage of the armies over their acreage. As a consequence, he took the research lead on “who lived here?”

That said, we understood from the start that the text had to be written in one “voice,” and since I am the more experienced writer, that “voice” is mine. I simply took Tom’s drafts and tweaked them for style, content, and tone for the sake of consistency. So, while the words might largely be mine, as noted above, much of the visual power of the books comes from Tom.

How best to work with a co-author? In our case, we already had worked together on various projects for over fifteen years, sometimes with Tom in the lead and other times with me out front. We come from different worlds, so to speak, so we are not in direct competition with each other; we each play to our different strengths. It helped, though, that when it comes to Gettysburg, we largely share a common vision. And it helped that we are good friends, too. The main stressors we had to work through rarely came from different visions of what we were trying to accomplish; the pressure of publisher deadlines to get the first edition of the book out by the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and the unpredictability of the cattle business had far greater impact on us.

Faktorovich: Have you participated in Civil War re-enactments? If so, what was the most dramatic or surprising part of your experience(s)? If not, why not?

Reardon: No, I have not. Tom has not, either. Serious re-enactors must make a significant commitment in time and money to develop their soldier persona. Uniforms and weapons cost good money, and the costs involved to support travel to re-enactments are not inexpensive. I’ve always been far too committed to writing or buying books to get involved in something like this.

Faktorovich: What is the most surprising, shocking or dangerous thing that has ever happened to you while you were giving a guided tour?

Reardon: No two tours are exactly alike. There’s always a surprise around the corner. I was once asked to bring to Gettysburg a group of international educators who were spending an entire year at Penn State completing a graduate program. On the bus on the way down, I asked them what they knew about Gettysburg. Most came from eastern Europe or the Middle East, but every one of them responded, “The Gettysburg Address!” They showed little understanding of—or interest in—the battle that set the stage for the speech. But they sure knew that speech—indeed, many of them knew large parts of it by heart. So, I turned my usual tour on its head, and we started in the National Cemetery near the site of Lincoln’s address. Once we talked about that, their eyes went to the curved rows of graves. THEN they wanted to know about those soldiers and what they endured. On another tour, I met a group of European school teachers coming from Washington on their way to Penn State. About halfway through the tour, I noticed that most of them were not listening and had begun to huddle in small groups around someone with a cell phone or tablet. They were watching soccer or something else rather than listening to me. I asked once for their attention, and was really rather shocked when one teacher basically told me I was interrupting them, and they were not at all interested in my “glorification of war.” I have no idea what I said to give them that impression, but we terminated the tour shortly thereafter, and I doubt either they or I really regretted it. But after a tour like that, my faith is easily restored when I recall my Gettysburg prep session with a group of State College-area fifth graders who were getting ready to visit the battlefield. They really had done their homework. I thought I’d be able to build a foundation for discussion with them by introducing several young people who wrote accounts of what they saw during and after the battle, but as soon as I put up a photo of the first young woman, the class yelled in unison, “Tillie.” Tillie Pierce was a teenager whose parents sent her south of the town for safety at the start of the battle, and the friend’s house where she went turned into a hospital on the second day of the fight—she found herself in the middle of things. So, I really had to try hard to find something these fifth graders hadn’t already anticipated! That was great fun—the answer was to help them realize how many State College area street names linked directly to Civil War personages. Beyond that, Tom and I would agree that most of our challenges have been environmental in nature. Summer thunderstorms that cause flooding of battlefield roads, early sleet storms, swarms of bees, threats of lightning just as we planned to walk across the open fields of Pickett’s Charge, and even the occasional copperhead always make the days interesting!

Faktorovich: Why have you been dedicated to giving tours all these years? What do you enjoy about them the most? If you have seen the sites so many times, what keeps you interested in coming back and talking about them?

Reardon: We often do not define what we do as “tours.” Tom does lead tours in his role as a Licensed Battlefield Guide. But much of what we do, separately and individually, falls into other categories.   For instance, we both do field programs called “staff rides.” A staff ride is a recognized professional military education exercise that uses the battlefield as an open-air classroom. We take groups from ROTC cadets up through senior leaders from the Pentagon on staff rides to use Gettysburg as a kind of case study to discuss leadership, decision-making, risk assessment, adaptability, innovation, logistics, team- and morale-building and sustaining efforts, communication, and other essential elements of responsible command. On occasion, we take the lead and use each stop as a tutorial to ask questions about important issues—what could General Buford do on July 1 to prove he was an effective leader? How did he succeed? How did he fail? What could he have done better?—Rather than simply narrate what General Buford did and move on.   On other occasions, the participants themselves prepared comments on various preassigned topics, each to be followed by group analysis. In these cases, we can act more as facilitators and arbiters, to make sure that all relevant information is in play, that all important questions come up for consideration, and to encourage active participation from the whole group. In these ways, we may be going back to the same places, but we are not always “talking about them.” We are often seeing them through others’ eyes; sometimes we’re quite impressed by what they see, and other times we have to help them focus! Both of us also have become involved in a variety of leadership programs for non-military visitors. An army is a large, complex, hierarchical organization, working at high risk in a limited-resource environment. That is not unlike a corporation, a government agency, even a university. Gettysburg offers lessons about leadership and decision-making and team-building that cross over into non-military situations quite nicely, and many such organizations have found value in coming to the battlefield as a professional development exercise. We love to work with groups like that. They are all so different and see different things—thus, it does not get old for us.

Faktorovich: You have been a Scholar-in-Residence at the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State University since 1999. These programs are usually advertised as one-year stints. How have you been able to maintain this position? Did you work on the Gettysburg guide as part of your research at the Center? What would you recommend scholars do to gain an upper hand in competition for similar residencies?

Reardon: The name “scholar-in-residence” in this case doesn’t mean what it usually means. When the Richards Center was created, it had a director who was not me. It had a newly-named chaired professor who was not me. But I was a known Civil War scholar, too, and to an outsider looking in, I had no apparent formal affiliation with the Richards Center. It was just the title given to me to give me a clear place in the Center.

Faktorovich: You became an Associate Editor of The Papers of Henry Clay at the University of Kentucky upon finishing your PhD there. What were the skills, experiences or other qualities that made you the best candidate for this job? What would you recommend for others just finishing their PhD, if they are interested in following a similar path?

Reardon: I was fortunate in that, during my MA program at the University of South Carolina, I was given an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of documentary editing. I spent approximately eighteen months working under the strict tutelage of Professor Clyde N. Wilson, then the editor of The Papers of John C. Calhoun. I became part of the team for the publication of a volume of Calhoun’s papers from selection of documents to final proof reading, so I gained experience in every element of the editorial and publication process. I then moved on to the University of Kentucky for my doctoral program. For several years, based on this editorial experience, I became the editorial assistant and then assistant editor for Diplomatic History, the professional journal of the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations, then edited by Professors George C. Herring and Robert Seager II. Seager also served as editor of The Papers of Henry Clay. When he retired at the same time I received my PhD, it was easy for him to promote the Associate Editor, Dr. Melba Porter Hay, to take over the editorship of the Clay Papers as well as to suggest that I move my office to the library and become the new associate editor, since I could bring plenty of relevant experience to the position and required no extended breaking-in period.

I am not certain that I have much advice to offer anyone interested in following a similar path. Documentary editing projects have changed dramatically since I worked on the Calhoun and Clay Papers in the 1980s. Digitization has become a far greater factor in such work now, and that requires far different skill sets than those I had to apply. Moreover, funding for such projects is becoming increasingly difficult to find, so I am not sure I would encourage new PhDs to design their programs to go after such a position. Still, since many graduate programs include opportunities to work with a faculty member who might edit a journal, or perhaps the graduate program issues its own publication, take advantage of opportunities to learn more about the publication process through active involvement. Then, if a slot opens up on a documentary editing project, they would have the skills sets needed to qualify for consideration.

Faktorovich: A few years later you started as an Assistant Professor at Penn State, and you have been working there ever since. You have done some visiting professorships to change up your environment, but you have remained stationed and on track. As I am considering settling down myself to focus on my publishing company (after moving annually since 1993), I wonder how you have managed to keep from itching for a bit more climbing up other trees. You obviously have a passion for Civil War and military history. Is Penn State a better place for you than a military college or a university amidst the sites you write about? What do you like best about working at Penn State and continuing your tenure there?

Reardon: I just retired from Penn State on June 30, 2017, so I have been reviewing my career a lot lately! I was hired as a military historian and began my tenure at Penn State at the start of the fall semester in 1991. I was delighted to be located there because it was close to my family in Pittsburgh and because it was situated fairly close to my research resources at West Point, the National Archives, and the US Army Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks (now the US Army Heritage and Education Center). When I first started, I knew nothing about visiting professorships or how to go after them, so I simply focused on my own professional development. Part of that included joining and then taking increasingly more active roles in the Society for Military History, the senior scholarly organization for my specialty. But, again, that’s what we all do.

I strongly encourage scholars to take advantage of change-of-pace opportunities such as my visiting appointments to West Point and the Army War College. These specific appointments are different from most visiting professorships in that one does not apply for them. They reach out and tap you. For instance, I was sitting in my office at Penn State in 1997 when I received a call from the head of the History Department at West Point, extending me an invitation to join them for Academic Year 1999-2000. The Army War College appointments also did not result from a traditional application process. But no one gets one of those invitations without being fully vetted and deemed a good fit for these schools and their curricula. If I had not been prepared and deemed appropriate for the positions, the invitations would not have come. The different kinds of students, the different kinds of source materials they used, the different environment in which I worked, all made me a better-informed instructor with new skill sets to share with my Penn State students when I returned. I met military professionals from around the globe during my two Army War College stints, I had to train cross-discipline into political science and international relations to fulfill all the duties of a War College seminar “historian,” and met many people with life patterns far different from my own. In addition, these experiences led to other opportunities, such as service on the Department of the Army Historical Advisory Committee, the Marine Corps University Board of Visitors, and more.

These experiences, however, also convinced me that I did not want to shift from traditional academia to a military school. The military school system does not really have a reliable summer period for undisturbed research. Funding support for individual scholarship rarely is available. Department of Defense regulations sometimes make it difficult for civilian scholars working at military education institutions to attend and participate in scholarly conferences, to host professional meetings, or to hold elected offices in academic organizations. All personal research not connected to curricular support must be done on one’s own time and on one’s own personal computer. Probably most bothersome to me was the requirement to teach to a common curriculum and, at West Point, to a common exam. In the required History of the Military Art course, I had to teach the same content all eighteen other instructors taught, whether or not I thought it was the most effective or most important lesson of the period under study, because that was the material on which the cadets would be tested. I loved the freedom to design one’s own courses of study that came in the civilian academic world. Thus, to the extent I ever gave thought to leaving Penn State for another institution—and that rarely occurred—I never considered seriously leaving for a military school of any kind.

Faktorovich: Back in 1997, when you had just become an associate professor, you published a monogram with UNC, Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory. This book examines the impact Pickett’s Charge has had and why it has remained an integral part of American history, and has been alluded to by so many great artists, politicians and scholars. Do you think about critical historical battles as dramatic events that make for not only great fiction, but especially for great non-fiction? Is it particularly interesting to write about war and conflict because of the looming threat of death that hangs over the heroes? What elements did you carry over from this early exercise into your recent Guide?

Reardon: I’ve been asked a number of times if I ever contemplated writing a historical novel about Gettysburg or the like. The answer is no. I find that one of the historian’s greatest challenges is to research and write about the past in ways that draw that line clearly between what is known—i.e., what is backed by incontrovertible evidence—and what is not known. In that latter category, there is the big gray area of “might be true, but the evidence is not conclusive” and then the far more substantiated body of conjecture that is “most assuredly false and/or misleading.” Indeed, being willing to draw those lines may well be one of the greatest challenges to our intellectual integrity. It’s soooooooo easy to work toward a solution, think you are about there, and then you find a piece or two missing or pieces that don’t quite fit. It’s easier to suggest that there might be a relationship, speculate that there is one, but we just can’t quite prove it unequivocally, and press on, than it is to admit that the pieces don’t quite fit and specify why they don’t, and be willing to say that it’s not right to bring closure to the argument prematurely. For me, any big slip of that sort takes my work from non-fiction to fiction in a hurry, and I don’t want that to happen.

In some ways that was what Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory was all about. I’ve listened quietly as visitors to Gettysburg tell their friends that they know EVERYTHING about Pickett’s Charge and then lay out one version of it as absolute truth, never suggesting that there are other versions of the same event that contradict it or any awareness that they might be dead wrong. They’ve lapsed into fiction, and they don’t even know it.   My mother has a saying: “There are those who don’t know, and then there are those who don’t know they don’t know.” It’s the latter—especially those propounding to tell the truth in a public forum in the name of education (even if just to family and friends)—who really concern me. If I could get just a few folks to consider the source of their stories, think about alternative interpretations and how they fit, alter, or contradict their own version, and be open to revision as evidence forces it, I’d be happy. But that does not happen much. The only thing harder than revising a familiar story is getting rid of the original version.

It’s this notion, as I noted earlier, that led to the “what did they say about it later” question in the field guide. If there is a common interpretation of a topic that we tend to emphasize today, but the war generation held to a different notion, I think there’s value in knowing about it so we can consider which (if either) is right or why the interpretation changed so dramatically in the first place. If I can demonstrate that there are at least eight different variations of a well-known event—such as the death of General Reynolds at Gettysburg—that appeared in Northern newspapers in the week after the Battle, how do historians at this late date deal with contradictory information to determine the truth? If some historians say a Gettysburg battle episode occurred—say the meeting between rival generals Barlow and Gordon on July 1—and others do not, how does each side make its case and how can the historian’s critical skills help us decide who is right—if either side can be deemed “right”?

Faktorovich: Your BS was in biology, but then you switched to history for your MA. Was there a natural progression from studying the bodies of animals and the natural world to studying destruction on the battlefield? Why did you make the switch?

Reardon: When I was in high school, I liked both fields. I probably liked history more even then, actually. When I declared my future plans for my high school yearbook, I wrote “history teacher.” But I had a great high school biology teacher and was active in our biology research club. When I was accepted at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, my high school biology teacher contacted one of his college classmates, who was a biology professor there and asked him to have me assigned to him as an advisee. My high school teacher warned him that I’d always be keeping one eye on the History Department, so if he saw any promise in me as a biologist, he’d have to keep me away from the history folks. And so it went. Every time I tried to take a history course during the freshman and sophomore years, my biology advisor found another “useful” science course I should take that happened to be scheduled at exactly the same time as the history class I wanted to take. Allegheny offered double majors but did not have a minor program at the time. Thus, by the start of my junior year, when there was not nearly enough time to start a second major from scratch, I was allowed to take history courses. I took five over my junior and senior years.

It was not any history class that ultimately forced the switch, however. I was fortunate in that Professor Jay Luvaas taught military history while I was at Allegheny. Every May, he organized an event known across the campus simply as “Battlefield.” Anyone from the greater Allegheny community could go with him to Virginia for a long weekend and tromp battlefields with him. Those trips hooked me. Even though I graduated with a biology degree and started a graduate program in ecology, I quite suddenly felt I was on the wrong path for me. I returned to Allegheny to talk to Jay about retooling myself as a historian. I thought he’d just laugh and tell me I had a great hobby to enjoy for the rest of my life, but he did not. I got a job running the biology lab at Allegheny and he put me on an informal reading and writing program. When the time was right, he helped me get into graduate school in history. He asked only two things of me: 1) “do not become a one-war wonder” and study military history in its depth and breadth, and 2) do one project during your career that has nothing to do at all with the Civil War. I fulfilled both promises. There was no deep intellectual transformation. I simply followed my bliss.

Faktorovich: Are you at least partially a pacifist, or do you think all of America’s wars have been for the best? If you have a pacifist side, how do you reconcile it with writing graphic or intense descriptions of war? Are you detached from the history you teach, lead tours on, or write about—viewing it as an external story?

Reardon: I find your first question to be an odd dichotomy. I can’t either/or it. I do not consider myself a pacifist. Given the state-based global system in which we live, I believe that armed forces serve a purpose and exist to serve national interest when required. But I also believe that military force is just one of any country’s “elements of national power,” and that it can and most often should be used in concert with economic, diplomatic, social, political pressures or coercion to protect or achieve national goals. So, while I do not like to think about having no option but armed hostilities—most military historians quail at the thought, mostly because we’ve studied the impact of war far more deeply than most and are more aware of just how much and in how many ways war can change a nation’s (or a family’s) future—but also because we’ve likely made friends with many in uniform who now find themselves closer and closer to the pointy end of the spear. That makes “war” very personal in a hurry.

I don’t think one must love/like/support war to write about it, and do it well. Part of honing one’s own critical analysis skills requires us to know ourselves and our biases. If we are honest with ourselves and remain aware of the possibility that our personal biases might slip into our professional work and affect what we write, then we can push on with our intellectual integrity intact. That’s not always easy to do.

I also believe that if my source material permits me to write solid military history in particularly graphic terms, then it is my obligation as a historian to do so, regardless of my personal opinions. It serves no good purpose to sugar coat death, destruction, bad decisions, atrocities, and any other horrific element of war. It is what it is, and that’s what we should explain.

I never feel too detached from what I write. I have not worn the uniform, but I come from a military family. I lost an uncle I never knew in World War II and I still see the impact of that event on my mother’s face every Memorial Day. My dad was a World War II veteran and became active in the VFW. Involvement in VFW public service events became a family affair, and I got to know veterans from the Spanish-American War through Vietnam while I was growing up. I’ve sent my own students to war, and not all of them have returned. I still remind ROTC cadets that they represent us in uniform. Soldiers engage in combat, but entire nations and peoples engage in war. To that extent, none of us are really detached from a responsibility to understand something about the reality of what and how war can affect all of us.

Faktorovich: Back in 1993, you worked as a consultant for A&E’s “The Great Commanders: U.S. Grant” six-episode series. You have held similar positions in several international programs. How did you find out about the first opportunity at A&E? Were you connected via an agent? Did you solicit them yourself? Why do you think they chose to work with you for this monumental project?

Reardon: Frankly, I have no idea how I got involved with “The Great Commanders” series. I did not seek it. I’ve never worked with an agent. I have no idea why I was picked. I suspect that they wanted a bit of diversity in the voices they used, and there were just not that many women in the military history field at the time. They did much of their filming near the Army War College; I do recall taping my part of it in a hotel room on the outskirts of Carlisle. It was an odd experience, as I recall, since they didn’t quite interview me so much as they fed me lines or stories they wanted me to tell in my own words. Subsequent programs followed after I became more established. I never sought any of the appearances. The networks or the producers came to me. I still can’t watch anything I’ve done on film or on the air.

Faktorovich: Can you tell an interesting story or two about your service on the Department of the Army Historical Advisory Committee in the 1990s? What is it like to work on a government committee?

Reardon: I spent much of the 1990s on this committee, usually just abbreviated as DAHAC (pronounced DAY-hack). The purpose of the committee—composed mostly of civilian history professors, faculty in history departments at the various Army officer education schools, and government historians from the National Archives and similar organizations with a historical mission—was to both advise and evaluate the multifaceted Army History Program.   The Army History Program included its vast museum system, its history teams deployed in the field, the army art program, and the writing/research effort to produce the US Army’s official histories of its past military efforts. We met in Washington DC annually, and occasionally more often if circumstances required it. Usually we reported to the Chief of Military History, who sent our assessments and recommendations up his chain of his command. We knew that the chief was expected to respond in some way to our recommendations, and that if we thought that necessary changes were not being made, we could essentially go over his head and ask for a meeting with the appropriate office at the Pentagon. In the mid-1990s, such a crisis arose. In the drawdown of the armed forces after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was much talk about the “peace dividend.” All the armed services were expected to cut their budgets deeply, and the Army History Program was targeted for closing as a money-saving measure. Naturally, we on the DAHAC were appalled by the prospect. We considered the Army History Program to act essentially as the army’s collective memory, and its closure struck us as giving the army a lobotomy. We simply could not let this go unchallenged. We presumed that the chief of military history was making a case for the retention of his office, but when we found little activity along those lines, we felt we had to step up, use the option to go over his head, and make the case to the Pentagon senior leadership ourselves. None of us on the DAHAC had ever thought about taking such a step. I daresay the folks in the Pentagon never thought the DAHAC would put up such a fight. But we did. We learned that the person we’d have to visit was The Honorable Sarah Lister, Assistant Secretary of the Army of Manpower and Reserve Affairs. We did our research on her—a supportive lobbyist helped a great deal—and learned that she liked to read historical fiction and to deal with other women with authority. In that moment, every head turned toward me, the only woman on the DAHAC. I was far from the most senior person on that committee, but I was probably the first person, other than the chairman, to be selected to go to the Pentagon to try to save the Army History Program. Ultimately five of us went to the Pentagon, and we actually felt like we were making good progress—time is valuable in Washington, and when our 30-minute meeting went for 90 minutes, we felt we had it made. And then I mentioned the value of staff rides. In that moment, Lister’s entire demeanor changed, and not for the good. She made it clear that she deemed staff rides to be boondoggles, a walk in the sunshine, a day out of the office. At that point, I stood up to her, almost dared her to shut down her office for a day and bring her staff to Gettysburg, where I would lead a staff ride for her. After that, if she thought it was a waste of time, well… I’m not certain I’ve ever felt so much pressure to make sure everything went perfectly. I had the support of the entire Army History Program behind me, and that included Colonel Tom Vossler, then director of the US Army Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks. Well, the weather was perfect, my talking points went beautifully, small groups of officers occasionally pulled away from the group—not from boredom, as I first feared, but to apply my information to issues they actually had been considering back in the office—and I could not have asked for a better day. Secretary Lister went away with a much better view of how staff rides could enhance professional development and how history could inform current doctrinal and personnel issues. The Army History Program thrives today, at least in part because the DAHAC of the mid-1990s made sure it did not disappear. Yes, civilians can have an impact on governmental proceedings!

Faktorovich: Thank you for participating in this interview. Is there anything you would like to add?

Reardon: Nope. I’ve probably overdone it anyway.


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