Lost papers of Civil War veteran yield book for Roanoke College history professor
Roanoke College history professor John G. Selby has co-edited a book containing a treasure trove of lost papers of a Civil War veteran.
The book, "Civil War Talks: Further Reminiscences of George S. Bernard and His Fellow Veterans," was published in May by the University of Virginia Press, in conjunction with the Historical Society of Western Virginia in Roanoke.
Bernard was a Petersburg lawyer and member of the 12th Virginia Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. He participated in almost every major campaign fought by the Army of Northern Virginia. In 1892, Bernard published firsthand war accounts, maps, speeches, newspaper clippings and other papers he had collected from other soldiers in the book "War Talks of Confederate Veterans." He had written a second volume, which he was never able to publish.
Much of the content of that book was lost, and after Bernard's death in 1912, his collection of papers became scattered. Some were acquired by the University of Virginia, Duke University and the University of North Carolina; others were bequeathed to family members.
Yet some were discovered in 2004 at an estate sale in Roanoke and purchased by an individual who then offered them to the historical society. A historical society foundation - established by George Kegley, a historian, long-time newspaperman and Roanoke College alumnus - purchased those papers.
The collection of papers, housed at the History Museum of Western Virginia, "was a highly significant find," Kegley said. "Bernard had collected firsthand accounts from men who fought in the thick of the Civil War. Such recollections are valuable."
The historical society - interested in publishing the papers as a book, as Bernard intended - asked Selby to help edit the book. Shortly after, Selby's work was combined with that of Hampton Newsome and John Horn, two attorneys (Newsome in Washington, D.C., Horn in Illinois) who were editing a manuscript that had been written by Bernard as a memoir.
The result of their combined efforts was a manuscript that drew the interest of the University of Virginia Press. The historical society has "produced a half-dozen or more books but never before by a university press," Kegley said. "John Selby and [Newsome and Horn] have done a fine job of editing."
So said James I. "Bud" Robertson Jr., retired Virginia Tech history professor and Civil War expert, who wrote in a June 24 review of the book in The Roanoke Times: "Roanoke College's John Selby has done a masterful job of organizing and introducing the material. His annotations are as detailed as a reader could wish."
Selby said he and his co-editors conducted meticulous research to provide context for readers. Bernard's papers include the names of many people, sometimes as many as 30 to 40 in a 10-page speech.
"Part of our job was to find out a little bit of information about people mentioned in the book," Selby said. "The book has over 700 footnotes. It required a lot of digging, but it is information that would help a reader."
Selby said it was eye-opening to learn what the papers reflect - not blow-by-blow accounts of particular battles, but recollections of personal relationships and the daily tedium of a soldier's life.
"Most of the stories that the veterans tell each other are not strictly about combat," he said. "They are about events in camp, relationships with other people, impressions they had. Generally, what it reflects is that the stories veterans tell one another are not stories of gore. What they want to remember is the camaraderie, the sense of togetherness. That really comes through."
The book's index was done by Linda Miller, Roanoke College archivist - work funded by the endowed professorship Selby holds, the John R. Turbyfill Professor of History.
Professorships "give professors more time to work on projects like this," Selby said. "It was of great help in that respect."
The book already has attracted media attention; it was the subject of a front-page story in the Aug. 5 edition of The Roanoke Times. And on Monday, Aug. 22 at 7 p.m. at the Salem Museum, Selby will tell the story behind "Civil War Talks."
"A popular criticism in historical circles is that nothing useful on the Civil War can be uncovered because of the 70,000-plus books and pamphlets already in print," Bud Robertson wrote in his Roanoke Times review of the book. "The Historical Society of Western Virginia has squelched that belief with the publication of a volume assuredly to become a 'must-have' for any student of the Army of Northern Virginia."
Hear Dr. John Selby discuss the story behind "Civil War Talks: Further Reminiscences of George S. Bernard & His Fellow Veterans," at 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 20 at the Salem Museum, 801 East Main St., Salem, Va. For more information, call 389-6760. The papers of George S. Bernard can be viewed on the History Museum of Western Virginia website, www.vahistorymuseum.org/.
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