Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Interview with Civil War Author

Michael Peake, a resident of Corydon, Indiana, is an author and historian specializing in Indiana German genealogy and history as related to the American Civil War. Since retiring from federal service in 1996, Peake has devoted his time to researching Union and Confederate German-American military organizations.

Peake is the author of the new IHS Press book Blood Shed in this War: Civil War Illustrations by Captain Adolph Metzner, 32nd Indiana. Here he talks about his new book on Metzner's stunning visual diary of sketches, drawings, and watercolors from the Civil War.

How long have you been interested in the Civil War?

My interest in the Civil War evolved from a lifelong passion for military history, and history in general. Since the early 1990s, I have been drawn to Germans in the American Civil War after discovering the nation’s oldest surviving Civil War monument dedicated to casualties of the First German, Thirty-second Regiment Indiana Volunteer Infantry. I had intended only to write a brief article about the condition of the monument, but after learning details of the Thirty-second Indiana, and how little had been done on the regiment's history, I determined to tell the story of the sacrifice offered by these Germans who served to prove themselves worthy of citizenship. My extensive research into Indiana’s first ethnic Civil War infantry regiment is the cornerstone of a project that grew into an investigation of America’s largest ethnic bloc, and the numerous German military organizations that served on both sides during the war.

How did you learn about Metzner and his artwork?

Soon after beginning research into the regiment I developed a detailed genealogical database on all those who served with the Thirty-second Indiana. It was through this venue that I discovered Adolph Metzner’s activities during and after the war. My first encounter with his artwork, in 1994, consisted of a thirteen-image spread in the August 1974 issue ofCivil War Times Illustrated. The article provided limited information on the regiment, the artist, his work and the current owner of the collection. Fortunately, an ad on page 23 of the same issue offered two prints from the collection for sale, and identified Mr. E. Burns Apfeld as living in Rockford, Illinois. Realizing the importance of this art to my project, I attempted to locate Mr. Apfeld only to discover the family had relocated without leaving a forwarding address, and my search for the collection owner came to a frustrating halt.

Several years later, Time/Life published a multi-volume set titled Voices of the Civil War in which seven Metzner images were utilized in two volumes. The picture credits provided Mr. Apfeld’s location as Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and the hunt was on! I managed to contact Mr. Apfeld by phone and during a lengthy conversation I explained what I had in mind, and how important this collection could be to the regiment history. We had an extremely amiable talk, but several months passed, leading me to believe that nothing would come from my effort. One day, out of the blue, a disk arrived by mail from Mr. Apfeld that contained thirty of the Metzner images. I was baffled that no correspondence was included, not even a title on the disk. Undeterred, I immediately set about marrying these images into a booklet with photographs from a second Metzner collection (Adolph G. Metzner Collection, Lot #8751, Library Of Congress) and wrote a condensed history related to those art images. This was accomplished within a week of receiving the disk, and a short time later, I mailed the product back to Mr. Apfeld. My efforts were rewarded by the arrival of a disk containing nearly the entire collection, again accompanied with no correspondence. Mr. Apfled’s faith in me has bound us together in a lasting friendship, and I am honored to tell his ancestor’s story.

What makes Metzner’s work unique?

Any Civil War art created by a soldier is unique in itself and there are numerous extraordinary aspects to Metzner’s artwork. I believe that, foremost, this collection, created in the field by an exceptionally talented soldier, provides a rare view of the terrible struggle men encountered in the Western Theater. When arranged chronologically, Metzner’s work becomes a visual diary of what his regiment experienced during three years of combat in battles from Kentucky to the severe contest for Atlanta. Images from this collection will be important to more than a dozen communities across five states due to the historic content portrayed. Less than 20 percent of Metzner’s art has been utilized in publication, and when it has been used the information provided was limited, or incorrect.

Why do you think the subject of the Civil War still fascinates so many people?

As the Metzner art collection exemplifies, after 150 years there is still fresh and exciting material to be discovered by serious research. As another example, in recent years, Joseph Reinhart of Louisville, Kentucky has uncovered a treasure trove of Civil War material hidden in German-language newspapers that remain largely untranslated. His translations of soldiers’ letters sent home to the editors of these newspapers provide accounts not to be found in any other source. But another reason for this fascination becomes a bit more personal when considering family links that many have to a war that forever marked a nation. During my years of researching the Thirty-second Indiana, I have met dozens of proud regiment descendants who have provided encouragement, support and friendship as I strive to gather their ancestors’ stories.

Are you working on any other projects relating to the Civil War?

Blood Shed In This War was an absolutely necessary sidestep I took away from the larger project of creating the regiment history of the Thirty-second Indiana. The regiment history endeavor spawned several sidebar projects, such as the Metzner book. Those sidebars include what is likely the most extensive genealogical Civil War regiment database in existence and a substantial newspaper history volume of transcribed articles taken from over sixty war-era newspapers printed across the country. Among other projects, I plan to write a final report on the First German, Thirty-second Indiana monument now that the nine year preservation effort to save the nation’s oldest surviving Civil War monument has reached a successful conclusion. After I began researching the Thirty-second Indiana, I set aside two projects I was working on that I intend to return to eventually. One covers two of my ancestors, brothers from Nelson County, Kentucky, who enlisted in the Confederate Ninth Kentucky Infantry at Munfordville, Kentucky in October 1861, while the Thirty-second Indiana was at New Haven, not far from the brothers’ home. The other project relates to the Seventieth Ohio Regiment, a mostly green organization that underwent their baptism at Shiloh under Sherman and served in his command all the way through the March to the Sea. On returning to Cincinnati following the war, the regiment was involved in a steamboat disaster on the Ohio River downstream from Brandenburg, Kentucky resulting in the loss of several veterans killed and injured. I have now expanded my research to cover all ethnic German military organizations serving both sides during the war that I plan on examining in detail on my web site, germanmansons.com, now in development.

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