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October 25, 2012

Remembering Antietam, with civil War expert John Michael Priest

John Michael Priest is a well respected author of the American civil war, especially the battle of Antietam.

Notice we didn’t say War Between the States or Sharpsburg.  Some of you might accuse us of bias. Well, that’s nothing new.

Priest has been the subject of attacks from the bickering end of the stick, especially when he stated facts that went against deeply loved urban legends. But the speaker, teacher, tour guide, and author of numerous books, including three books around the battle of Antietam, (Antietam, Before Antietam, and After Antietam) has not sought controversy, nor even to bust myths. He’s just interesting in uncovering the past, and telling a good story.

When we asked about these kinds of reactions to his books, Priest told us he has no favorite “busted myth.”

“In the Civil War community, if an author breaks ranks by verifying something “new”, he finds himself the victim of character assassination. When I wrote that Reno was shot by a man in the 35th Massachusetts, that many Confederates refused to participate in Pickett’s charge, that I disagreed with a now forgotten Park Service interpretation of an incident in the Wilderness I found myself being accused of shoddy research, deliberately using only the information which supported my argument, and misinterpreting research to confirm my conclusions. Their arguments were unfounded and petty.”

Indeed, history can be a touchy subject for some. But Mr. Priest affirms that he doesn’t go out seeking this kind of controversy.

“I have been referred to as a “renegade historian” by Scott Hartwig, historian at Gettysburg National Battlefield Park which is laughable. My wife said that if I was stuck on a street corner with the “Don’t Walk” sign flashing, I would still be there waiting for it to change.”

Communicating to John Michael Priest confirms that he is not the kind of person to pick a fight, he’s simply there to share the knowledge of history that he has.

Mr. Priest is a very busy person, so we were unable to get this interview until after the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam.

However, we were able to find an excellent book of his “before Antietam: the Battle for South Mountain”.  One person who stood out was a young girl named Virgi Quantrell (or Quantrill).

Virgi lived in Frederick, in Maryland.  The Confederate soldiers had entered that state, hoping to perhaps find some support and “liberate” it from the North.  As we learned in history class, Maryland was eventually put under martial law because Lincoln (or his advisers) suspected it might join the Confederacy.

Well, this march of liberation was not without its drawbacks.  Stonewall Jackson opened his mouth a few too many times, asking for maps out in the open, maps of the place he was planning to attack in the future, where civilians could hear him.  Perhaps Stonewall thought everyone was a supporter of the Confederacy, and perhaps it seemed like that to some of his troops too.  But others were worried.

When the Confederate troops marched into Frederick, they initially thought they were met with supporters.  Some women flew southern flags at the soldiers.  But not  little Virgi Quantrell.

“Virgi Quantrell was William Quantrill’s niece.” explains John Michael Priest.  As we may know, William Quantrill was one of the most vicious Civil War Generals out there.

Now, if Priest wanted to stir up controversy, he could have wrote a bit more about Quantrill.

In 1962, Albert E. Castell used rumor to entertain his readers, “The meager records which have come down to us concerning Quantrill’s childhood depict a juvenile monster. He is supposed to have delighted in shooting pigs through the ears, nailing live snakes to trees, stabbing horses and cows, and other equally sadistic sports.  Moreover his favorite passtime allegedly was wondering through the woods alone, shooting small game, and he is described as having few friends and no close ones.”

Priest, by contrast, relies more on contemporary documents than more recent rumors.  All Priest told us about Quantrill was a simple answer to our question, that he was related to Virgi.  His simple answers are hardly the kind of tales you’d expect from a “renegade” historian.

That’s not to say that Quantrill was nice.  He used vicious guerrilla tactics against civilians and military alike.  Whether a zealot for the cause of the South, or a sadistic lunatic, there’s no denying what Quantrill was remembered for.

Anyway, Priest used a lot of letters from Confederate soldiers as a great source for Before Antietam.  “The Confederates – like so many soldiers on both sides – wrote about the weather, the food, and the women. ”

And, in Frederick, they met some interesting women, and they saw a little girl named Virgi Quantrill.  Now, Virgi was no ordinary little girl.  She wasn’t found torturing snakes or game hunting or even giving a grandiose speech.  Instead, she had a small streak of courage in the face of an army that seemed to have more men than many of Frederick’s residents thought existed in the entire world.

Virgi merely picked up a union flag, and raised it in front of the Confederate soldiers.  A Confederate grabbed the flag, and broke the staff.  Virgi picked it up again, and continued to wave the flag with a broken staff.

The Confederate soldiers, in general were gentlemanly to Virgi and her family.  Her mother received a salute from one. “To you ma’am, not your flag.” he assured.

The disappointment at not being met with open arms by the whole town, seems to have pushed that one soldier to break the staff the flag was on.

But Virgi was not alone. “Frederick was a divided town. ” Priest says, outside of the book. “I have heard it referred to as being very pro-Union from men in McClellan’s army.  Being the gateway to Western Maryland, it makes sense because that part of the state was very pro-Union.”

The Confederate soldiers were also divided.  Many realized that they were not a liberating army.  “A lot of Lee’s men did not cross the Potomac because they were either sick, wounded or shoeless.  Hundreds threw their shoes into the river because they were not going to conduct a war of aggression.”

Priest’s book has humorous accounts of pro-union women flying (or wearing) the flag in other ways, and I won’t spoil them all here.

I asked him why the Confederates seemed so tolerant of the Union flag.  “The rebs did fly American flags in battle, not because of free speech but to get an advantage over the enemy.  I have a letter from the 49th NY on the Peninsula in early 1862 complaining about the rebs wearing blue uniforms and flying U.S. flags again.”

But, despite using the standard “Northern” terms for the battle and the war, Priest does not appear to be completely biased against the “rebs.”

“The Confederates were more democratic in their approach to the army then the Federals.  They still elected regimental and brigade officers as late as 1864.”