Frequently Asked Questions of Author, Jennifer Cain Bohrnstedt on While Father is Away
What prompted you to begin researching William H. Bradbury? What surprising discoveries did you make once you became involved in the project?
When I was finishing the research on my previous Civil War book, Soldiering with Sherman, I was very eager to identify other soldiers' perspectives about the role of place history of some relatively obscure geographic regions in the study of the war. While I looked at archival collections of George F. Cram and other members of the 105th IL Inf. regiment, I broadened my search to include those with whom they were brigaded, including the 129th IL Inf.
Through research, I learned that a letter collection of a brigade comrade from the 129th, William H. Bradbury, existed in the Manuscript division of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and so I went there to primarily read the portion of Bradbury's collection that pertained to Bowling Green and Scottsville Kentucky, and South Tunnel, Gallatin, and Nashville, Tennessee. Bradbury's story became a small but significant footnote in Soldiering with Sherman, adding valuable color and insight to the region.
However, Bradbury's story haunted me from the beginning especially because of the length and style of this British immigrant's writing and the subset of the war letters to his children. When I had time and the first book was done, I returned to read Bradbury's entire collection and appreciated the breadth of subjects he discussed with his wife, children, and other family extended well beyond those of the war. I was surprised to learn that Bradbury was a prolific newspaper correspondent during the war years including newspapers in Cincinnati, Chicago, Pontiac, Illinois, and England.
However, his paid correspondence for the Chicago Tribune and the Manchester Guardian provided choice insights to the leaders of the western campaigns. Many of these were generals who he supported directly as a clerk. His descriptions for readers back 'home' [the Manchester/Yorkshire region was his native home] of places like Knoxville and Atlanta and of the role of Africa American troops are illuminating for their social commentary.
I was also surprised to learn about the small group dynamics of teams of men at work, whether in documenting the war, accounting for and distributing supplies, or in catering to social events that prevailed even during wartime. Posturing, observing rank and privilege, social status, educational background among group members were easy observations through Bradbury's writings.
I had not expected to learn of his view of what we would now call public assistance or welfare. Bradbury's aristocratic background dominated his behavior during the years at war when his family would likely have benefited greatly from county aid and charity from friends.
As a private, Bradbury also uniquely introduced two new social issues to the writings of Civil War soldiers - family planning and a concern for female social- psychological welfare. As his family grew, both planned and unplanned, his reactions to the news of growth were surprisingly articulate if not blunt. And the sole daughter who seemed to share a spirit of sorts with her father, was pre- adolescent which worried Bradbury. Jane's development as a scholar, as a young and vital woman, and as a member of the community-at-large often dominated his concerns in letters home. We do not have mid-19th century letters, let alone Civil War letters, in which a father writes of his concern for a daughter's self-esteem. Whether he was a forerunner of his time or simply better at expressing what others may have identified in decades ahead remains unclear.
What did you like about Bradbury as a Civil war character?
I appreciated his humanity, simply put. So many stories of Civil War soldiers are based on near gothic or mythic proportions; their heroism in all manners often borders on stretching the core of historical nonfiction, or so it seems to me! I appreciated and liked the diverse qualities of Bradbury, the man, warts and all! He was not a perfect man; he was just another mere mortal like one of us. His flaws, his unbridled ego at times, and his dedication to his family and duty made for an interesting mixture of characteristics which for me were consistent with real life people I've known. His passion about all sorts of issues coupled with his capacity for Expressiveness set the stage for a character study like none I've seen among Civil War soldiers' accounts.
How does Bradbury's story diverge from the typical American success story?
I'm not sure that there is a typical American success story, but if there is, Bradbury's was not one of them. His measure of success can't be summed by great riches nor public status. He would have likely expected both of those goals, though, coming from such a prominent British family. His own family, on the Illinois prairie during the war, struggled but remained sufficiently comfortable. Yet his own hunger for land before, during, and after the war affected all of them. They too craved that illusive intangible - the West. However, their West' became rooted, finally, in the settling of Kansas.
Throughout his Civil War letters, Bradbury crafted colorful descriptions of the flora and fauna he encountered. He cherished gardens and sought them in communities under Union occupation. The gardens he grew up with in the Saddleworth region of England, were transformed to familiar, painted backdrops in his writing, but instead in Knoxville, Atlanta, and Nashville. The beauty of the raw land, of gardens and of acres of heritage plants captivated his attention during the war. He sent many specimens of flora and fauna home.
What makes this correspondence so unusual and illuminating?
Private Bradbury might have been one of the best educated privates in the Union army! Struggling to obtain a commission as an officer, unsuccessfully, Bradbury seemed to channel unspent energy into prolific, expository writing. He had much to say; perhaps his lack of commission culminated in serving both his family and history itself by providing him the opportunity to write with incredible venues for the writing.
As an attorney and as a soldier-clerk who called himself a "privileged private,"
Bradbury could have been a perfunctory writer. However his style was very thoughtful, descriptive, and often opinionated so that we know far more about the reflective thoughts of a soldier than those depicting the misery of muddy marches, dismal camp life, and homesickness. His education in private academies and later in the administration and practice of law shaped him as a colorful, creative, and sometimes shrewd soldier-clerk.
Bradbury's correspondence is an in-depth look into the Civil War by a soldier whose ease in writing led to extensive paid correspondence with domestic and foreign newspapers as well. There is no single model for newspaper correspondents during the war; a few were professional journalists, but most were writings that were deduced from officers' reports and letters home.
Bradbury's writings permit us to know something about what British readers were learning about the war that also affected them. The disruption of the cotton trade as a world commodity had severe repercussions on workers in cotton mills and finishing manufacturing. Bradbury's own family included mill owners, however, they were on the other side of the fence from mill operatives like the laborers of Manchester and the dockworkers of Liverpool.
Tremendous candor, if not intimacy, existed in the letters between William and Mary. Because of William's expressiveness readers can add more substance to the form, character, and personage of an amazing wife and partner during the war. Mary's 'voice,' while limited by the number of preserved pages, came to life abundantly through the deductive process in William's letters.
What is new and important about this book?
While Father Is Away is both the title and a quotation from letters to Bradbury's children. His relationship with his children while he was distant from them geographically provides a unique look at the role of parents, fathers in this case, during the time of war. We know precious little about long-distance parenting, its aims, style, messages, and accomplishment. While some Civil War letters to children of soldiers exist, they tend to express longing and devotion as primary themes.
With Bradbury's writings we learn more about the efforts toward continuing his place in of parenting, thanks to successful mail delivery. How many other soldiers, like Bradbury, concerned themselves with educating their children in the 1860's about African Americans as participants in society, education, and in military service? Long-distance parenting during a time of war remains as an important subject to understand today as it did more than one hundred years ago.
Because of Bradbury we know more about a father's expectations of his children, problem-solving at school or home, and standards for children's deportment or personal conduct. He was a candid father with his children; he shared his dreams and plans for the future, never doubting that he would survive the war to return to them and their Illinois home.
Bradbury's letters provide us with some inside looks at Civil War generals who are less known in existing volumes such as Manson, Judah, Butterfield, and Harrison, a future president. His associations with high-ranking officers are comfortable and useful to his position power, rather than power by formal rank.
Perhaps a letter collection's vista of Nashville, Tennessee has never materialized so descriptively as Bradbury's. The months at the end of the war as well as the first months of reconstruction were especially colorful in Nashville. The demeanor of local women, the return of society, the press, the surrender of Confederate soldiers, and the emergence of the Freedmen's Bureau are part of Bradbury's purview.
His assignments as court reporter for the Judge Advocate at Nashville and as a citizen clerk to the army permitted him to come to know important war-era characters such as Champ Ferguson and important court martial cases. Through the latter, Bradbury opened peeks into the political machinations of Tennessee during late 1865 after the ascendancy of Andrew Johnson to the presidency.
Places, and battles such as the siege of Knoxville were richly discussed in Bradbury's letters. In places like Knoxville, we learn more about the fairly routine fraternization of Union soldiers in the local community of Confederate supporters. The Civil War, much like any war, is rarely so black and white when viewed among people. Rules, protocol, and passion often gave way to the human need to share a meal or news in the absence of either.
The book does not end abruptly with the close of the war; the rest of Bradbury's story and those of his extended community are integrated into the story of While Father Is Away. The dreams they sought and shared versus the lives they realized bring a broad community of family, friends, neighbors, and comrades to the apex of their destinies because of our knowing the British-American immigrant, William H. Bradbury.
How would you characterize the Civil War history and contributions of the lead characters of each book - Sergeant George F. Cram [Soldiering with Sherman] and Private William H. Bradbury [While Father Is Away]?
I think that this is a good question for readers to address! But, my take on this subject is that they were both very passionate writers and similarly well-educated, even literary, you might say. Yet Cram's is a look at a younger soldier's 'coming of age' account, as a former college student turned soldier who wrote to his mother and friends. Bradbury was, by contrast, a mature businessman, from an aristocratic background, and possessed a type of interpersonal demeanor that made him highly valued by the senior commanders for both technical reasons and sheer companionship. Bradbury's responsibilities for his wife, growing family, and steadily increasing business affairs were different from that of a single soldier, Cram, some fifteen years younger.
Describe the research process of each book.
Both books required several years of research although Bradbury's took much longer due to the geographic span of his life. Each work was meticulously researched in the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the US Army Military History Institute, the Illinois State Historical Library, the Indiana State Historical Library, and the Atlanta Historical Society's Library.
Soldiering with Sherman also took my research to the Chicago Historical Society, the Newberry Library, the DuPage County Historical Society, archives in Lowell, Massachusetts, a cemetery in Lyndeborough, New Hampshire, various Tennessee sites, and those in Savannah, and trips through the Carolinas as he had done. I was fortunate to have three descendants of George F. Cram to draw from which made his Civil War account very personal, while concurrently a piece of our country's history.
In each case I tried to reproduce my own personal visit to each site where the soldiers and their ancestors lived, and the 'journey' of war as well.
The sheer magnitude of the research on Bradbury was so great that I tapped private researchers for help, something that I normally try to do by myself, and an international, volunteer team of researchers, readers, and reviewers to insure the integrity of the work as a 'whole.' This provided for greater leads to more research sites such as the Atchison Topeka Santa Fe Railway, the development of the prairies of Kansas, and the innate 'draw' to his homeland, to Saddleworth region of England, near Manchester.
A 'routine' stop at the University of Kansas, Spencer Research Library, provided an unprecedented richness of discovery thanks to one of Bradbury's descendants, Professor Mary Grant, who donated carts of materials to their Kansas Collection. How blessed I was to come to know a few of Professor Grant's closest friends and former colleagues who shared their knowledge and the joy of discovery of the history of one of their own, a 'Jayhawk' professor who was quite reserved and private about her ancestors. And as one clue led to another, my research was further enriched by the Tennessee State Library & Archives, the Filson Club Historical Society (Louisville, KY).
The 'making of the book [While Father Is Away],' as I tell my personal experience to friends and family, is one that I'll try to better document someday - it was an experience of teamwork, perseverance, and great, simply great epiphanies.
© 2003 Jennifer Cain Bohrnstedt
Reproduction of any portion requires permission in advance.
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