About Book Kvetch
Publisher: BookSurge, LLC
Publication date: 9/17/2009
The Chatfield Story: The Civil War Letters and Diaries of Private Edward L. Chatfield of the 113th Illinois Volunteers by Terry M. McCarty with Margaret Ann Chatfield McCarty is a painstakingly researched biography and remarkable account of a Union soldier on the battlefield and as a prisoner of war. The authors talk with Book Kvetch about family lore, the Western Theater of the Civil War and the legacy of the Chatfields in Littleton, Colorado.
This biographical history is based on the letters and diaries of 20-year old Union infantry soldier, Edward L. Chatfield. Tell us about your connections to Chatfield.
Chatfield is Peg’s great granduncle—her great grandfather’s brother. Upon the 1964 death of his daughter, Edaline Chatfield Rhea, the duty of safeguarding Chatfield’s Civil War letters and relics moved on to Peg, a U.S. history teacher at the time, loved and trusted to protect the treasures. And she did! We hauled those priceless items all over the country under lock and key while finding time, now and then, to read a fascinating letter or two. When it came right down to it, we always felt too busy to transcribe the letters; there was always that host of tasks and chores that somehow loomed more important. We saw ourselves as world-traveling educator/parents on a budget, hungry to satisfy our curiosity and appetite for adventure. Upon our 1998 relocation from Hawaii to Florida, we savored 34 years of life-travel memories behind us and looked forward to a huge store of unfinished business in front of us. Our knowledge of (Uncle Edward) Chatfield was still limited to family lore: he was a soldier during the Civil War; he escaped from Andersonville Prison with six silver dollars; and he was associated with Chatfield Dam near Denver, Colorado. That’s about all we thought we knew about Chatfield. We were finally in the South—sufficiently close to Georgia and Mississippi to visit some of ground scarred by his boots. When the summer of 2000 arrived, the beckoning family lore plus an old converted van were enough to propel us to Andersonville, the infamous Confederate stockade from which Chatfield was said to have escaped “by tunneling out with six silver dollars.”
Excitement marshaled our hearts as we imagined turning up some written account of his escape. Far from it! We discovered enough, however, for our interests to smolder to flames. We retired from the workforce in 2005 and moved again—this time to central Texas—where we immediately began our long overdue transcription of Chatfield’s letters. It was the transcription process itself that deepened our connection to Chatfield allowing our book to take form: a detailed personal history of the Western Theater of the Civil War, and the story of the man and family honored today in Littleton, Colorado.
You have said that the Western Theater of the Civil War and the decisive battles that took place there are often overlooked by historians. Is this what prompted you to write The Chatfield Story?
Although the dearth of material on the Western Theater is notable, it wasn’t the paucity of information that pushed us. Rather, it was Chatfield’s penchant for detail that moved us forward—his habit of pairing specific events with their corresponding dates and places that helped us immensely. He supplied the clues we needed to investigate and write our various narratives. The fact is that Chatfield produced such fine accounts that his letters and diaries would probably stand on their own if published; nowhere else have we found such a complete and detailed history of the 113th Illinois Infantry as in his hand-penned letters and diaries. His was good history and it thrills us to have been the ones who pieced it all together and tell his amazing story of family, loyalty, courage, fortitude and survival in the face of war.
What kinds of challenges did you come across in your research of the Civil War battlefields at Arkansas Post, Vicksburg, Corinth or Brice’s Cross Roads?
This was our first book; we certainly were not seasoned authors. For purposes of research, we knew how to use the card catalogue and the Readers Guide—our tried and true points of departure for a research mission. There were multiple ways of gathering information back in 2006 and some that we discovered with the help of the Internet. One of our first challenges involved locating Chatfield’s diaries. We didn’t have his diaries in 2006 and we had no idea as to where they were. They certainly weren’t with the stack of materials we inherited from Cousin Edaline. Had not Chatfield commented upon the diaries in his letters, we would have known nothing about their existence. Once we read that he had written them, we knew that we needed them. But, where were they? For all we knew, the diaries might have been destroyed. Since Edaline didn’t have them, who did, and how could we find them? Should we Google the question? “Where are Edward Chatfield’s diaries?” That works today; but that wouldn’t have back in 2005. It was the circa 1900 research device that saved us: the telephone. It was a hunch that prompted us to use it—putting a call through to the Littleton Historical Museum. After all, the Chatfields pioneered Littleton and perhaps Edaline had donated the diaries to the museum before she died. Indeed she had. Thank you, Mr. Bell. We scheduled an appointment, drove to Littleton, transcribed five hours daily for a week and then spent a second week researching the county archives to document the historic footprint of Chatfield’s ranch.
Thus, travel became one of our most important research strategies, Civil War historic sites beckoning us—vital information sources that only being there could satisfy. There was so much that we needed to physically experience: the weather, the trees, the soil, the climate, the cultural remnants and the smell of the very land walked by Chatfield. We needed all of this, plus the written site-specific information not available anywhere else. We visited the information centers and the grounds of Vicksburg, Brice’s Crossroads, Arkansas Post, Andersonville, Millen, Florence, Savannah and Burgaw, North Carolina—where he escaped. We photographed Chatfield’s stone house, still standing, in Kankakee. We followed the railroad stretching through the rolling hills, farmlands, pastures and settlements from Memphis, Tennessee to Corinth, Mississippi. We traveled and visited these places and many more. We interviewed local townspeople. We gained the enriched sensory experiences required to write what we hoped would be a lasting and memorable tribute to Chatfield’s place in history.
This is not to suggest that the Internet was not important. It very much was! We located all sorts of information through electronic searches: details about the 113th Illinois and its various companies, searchable copies of the Official Records of the Civil War (OR), the recollections of Sherman and Grant, battle summaries, maps, pictures, definitions. The Internet became our one stop Reader’s Guide, leading us to an entire industry—the network of Civil War publications: The Civil War News, Blue and Grey, Civil War Times, to name just three, all serving the population most likely to read our book. We could not have written this book without the Internet. It helped us with our research, it helped us find our market and it helps sell our book today—benefits that we could not have imagined when leaving college in the early sixties. Yet, all told, it was the combination of research strategies that worked: travel, Internet and the underrated phone call.
So, what you knew about Private Chatfield came from family lore until you delved into his letters, visited historical sites and read his diaries at the Littleton Historical Museum. Were there any gems mined from interviews with his daughter Edaline Chatfield Rhea?
We find it remarkable—but on the tragic side of that spectrum—that the stories Edaline told about her father prior to her 1964 death were so meager in content. They were more like references. She clearly loved her dad, but her remarks were generalities tagging him rather than explaining him. “My dad fought in the Civil War, you know. He was a prisoner in Andersonville. He escaped with six silver dollars.” Our sense of it is that her dad didn’t talk much about his war experiences—as if he had boxed up all of his memories and hidden them away—out of sight, yet never quite forgotten. It was like the letters themselves; we found them inside an old shoe box, tied with yarn, beneath the bed, hidden from view! That old box held the mystery that we yearned to solve.
Do you plan to donate the letters to the Littleton Historical Museum? Have you become aware of the importance of the archival value of the letters to other researchers? Or of safeguarding their legacy?
Edaline donated the diaries to Littleton’s museum at some point prior to her death—her way of archiving them, but she kept the letters, and that’s significant; they were far more detailed and personal. The letters remain with us today; we have yet to decide where to archive them; we sense that their historical, biographical and literary importance is significant, so our decision as to when and where to place them remains open.
For more information about The Chatfield Story, please visit http://www.chatfieldstory.com.
Category: Nonfiction, Biography