Monday, July 28, 2014

Dear diary

Many Civil War historians begin their journeys the way I did, thinking that getting their hands on soldiers’ diaries is the key to learning what the war was really like. With few exceptions in my experience, this proves to be a false notion. Most Civil War diarists wrote sparsely and sporadically. Some, especially those who had grown up on farms, simply recorded the weather. Others made regular entries consisting of observations like “On guard duty” or “Drill and dress parade.”

Rev. Elias Nason
The real grist of human history about the Civil War is to be found in soldiers’ letters home. These tend to be candid, personal and expansive. Before Grant’s Overland Campaign in the spring of 1864, for example, Union soldiers often rested after battle. They wanted their relatives and friends at home to know precisely what they had gone through, and their letters often show this in detail.

There are exceptions – diaries written during the war that add real flavor to the daily life of military service or record the experiences, opinions, reflections and impressions of their keepers. For this blog I have condensed two such diaries into multi-part series that are among the most frequently read posts on In case you’ve missed them, here are brief introductions to them with links.

The first is a home-front diary, written by the Rev. Elias Nason of Exeter, a highly political southern New Hampshire private-school town of 3,000 at the time of the war.  This diary is interesting in its own right, but it has anothe distinction: It was published during the war. Nason, who turned 50 years old in 1861, had each year’s work bound and issued shortly after he finished it. The first volume was titled Brief Record of Events on Exeter, N.H., during the Year 1861 Together with the Names of the Soldiers of this Town in the War.

Nason introduced the diary by writing that the year would always be remembered for the “most stupendous and wickedest rebellion the world has ever known; and as every correct history of the country must devise its sources in a measure from the current events of the individual towns which make up its sovereignty," he offered “this little brochure” – his first volume – “as a New Year’s Offering to our patriotic and worthy citizens.”

Here are links to the posts from Nason’s diary: 1861, 1862 and 1863.


The diary of Capt. Robert Emory Park of the 12th Alabama Infantry is different from Nason’s but equally rich. What I have condensed in three parts is the portion of the diary covering Park’s time in captivity after his capture at the third battle of Winchester on Sept. 19, 1864. I added a fourth post giving his account of the 1863 invasion of Pennsylvania and the battle of of Gettysburg.

Only 17 when the war broke out, Park remained a Confederate diehard till the war’s end. In his diary he was candid and expansive about his views of slavery, the American flag, the nation’s history, the 1864 election, Sherman’s March, the taking of Richmond, Lee’s surrender, the Lincoln assassination and the capture of Jefferson Davis. He also records his uneasiness at having to take the oath of allegiance to the United States required of prisoners for a ticket home.

The three posts on Park’s diary are here, here and here. His Gettysburg experience is chronicled here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A swerve, and a new adventure

My life has taken another swerve, which accounts for the slowdown in posting on this blog. Earlier this month I was hired as administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes with a Sept. 1 start date.

Given the responsibilities of this job, chances I can continue blogging about the Civil War seem slight. But I hope you’ll bear with me a bit longer and maybe check out some of the posts you've missed during the last 20 months. There are now more than 250 posts in all.

Perhaps a new blog will emerge with the new job, or maybe I will find a way to keep delving into Civil War subjects.

Meanwhile, here are the top 10 posts in hit count from the last two months – and below the top 25 all-time.

              To Richmond at last (part one)

Readership has continued at a good clip, for which I thank you. The top 25 posts now range in hits from 1,030 to 208. One post – Why couldn’t Franklin Pierce keep his mouth shut? – zoomed up in the rankings during the last month, moving all the way to fourth place.

              History’s touch (20)

23 (tie). A Gettysburg photo album (new to list)

           A Gettysburg Journal, part 4 (23t)

           Together again: They rode with Cross at Gettysburg (new to list)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The story behind M*A*S*H

On a cold, crisp winter’s day nine years ago, Eric Moskowitz and I went to a nursing home in Bennington, Vt., to meet W.C. Heinz, the writer. We both admired Heinz’s boxing writing and World War II reporting. We hoped to pick up some tips at the feet of a master.

Moskowitz, now an ace reporter for the Boston Globe, recorded the interview and transcribed it. We were both disappointed that Heinz had dementia and often lost his way answering questions, but I am glad Eric preserved what he did say that day. One of his best stories was about the writing of M*A*S*H, a minor work in a life of gems but the one that made Heinz rich.

The Nevada after being hit at Pearl Harbor.
I pulled the transcript out recently because of the hubbub surrounding the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Heinz was off Normandy that day on the Nevada, which had been repaired after nearly sinking at Pearl Harbor.

He told us how World War II correspondents sent their stories home from ships or from the field. At sea, they placed stories in synthetic waterproof bags with lead weights in them. When a courier came alongside, they tossed the bags in the water, where the courier fetched them with a hook. Should the bags escape the hook, one purpose of the weights was to sink the newspaper copy, keeping it from the enemy. Heinz did not recall losing a story using this method.

Transmitting from a moving army on land had no such perils, other than the obvious one that the best correspondents were those who worked nearest the front. “Eisenhower had a great idea,” Heinz said. “They moved the transmitter right up with the press – one in every army.” The military used encryption to transmit the stories so that the Germans could neither interrupt nor intercept them.

Heinz dedicated his first book to George Hicks, a well-known radio broadcaster who was on the USS Ancon, the communications command ship during the landings on Omaha Beach. On that day Hicks’s “report went out first and was heard all over the world,” Heinz said. After the two of them became buddies, Hicks told Heinz, “Your stuff is so good, you know, you’ll be a very successful writer.”

Time proved Hicks right. The proof is in two anthologies: What A Time It Was: The Best of W.C. Heinz on Sports and When We Were Young, Heinz’s best stories from World War II.

Yet even Hicks could never have predicted the source of his friend Willie’s greatest success. Heinz wrote two books about doctors and ghosted an autobiography of Vince Lombardi, the Green Bay Packers’ football coach. He found Lombardi obtuse. When Moskowitz asked him what Lombardi was like, Heinz said: “Lombardi was easy to work with for one day. After the first day, he said, ‘How long is this going to take?’ ”

The book, Run to Daylight, sold well, but Heinz was still working up to his breakthrough.
J. Maxwell Chamberlain, a cardiac surgeon, had helped him write his first novel, The Surgeon, Chamberlain introduced him to Richard  Hornberger, a doctor from Maine who had written a novel about his experiences at army field hospitals in Korea.

Heinz with his typewriter.
Heinz showed the manuscript to his wife Betty, who was from Montpelier and had a strong sense of propriety. When she laughed at certain passages, Heinz decided to take on the project. He wrote Hornberger, and soon they were working together.

Heinz described Hornberger as  a “shy man.  . . . He said, ‘I want to get this goddamn book published.’ ” He told Heinz he didn’t care about the money – Heinz could have it all. Heinz wouldn’t hear of it and offered Hornberger the better portion of a 60-40 split.

Heinz drafted three chapters and showed them to an editor at William E. Morrow, who offered an advance of less than $5,000 – “not very much but you take it,” Heinz said.  It took about a year to finish the manuscript. The two men worked under the joint pseudonym Robert Hooker. Hornberger’s “characters were all what I call ‘stick people’ – you know, they had no dimensions to them. He wanted to be a writer, but he wasn’t, really.” Heinz turned the characters into “living human beings.” He also did what he could to provide Hornberger’s episodic story with structure.

M*A*S*H came out in 1968. The film appeared in 1970, its screenplay written by Ring Lardner Jr., and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.The television series ran from 1972 to 1983.

M*A*S*H: Bill Heinz's goldmine
For Heinz the popularity of book, film and TV show meant royalties, royalties, royalties. “The money started to grow very rapidly,” he said. He described the weekly checks as “ridiculous . . . enormous . . . It was a hell of a lot.”

Heinz’s career as a sports writer had ended by then. He was in Miami in 1964 to cover Cassius Clay’s challenge of Sonny Liston for his heavyweight boxing title. When he heard after the fight that a serious infection had hospitalized his daughter Barbara, he rushed to her side. But the infection killed her at age 16.

Bill and Betty Heinz moved to Dorset, Vt., with their younger daughter, Gayl. In time the Heinzes used the M*A*S*H windfall to establish the Heinz Family Trust to support the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. It is now known as the Barbara Bailey Heinz and Gayl Bailey Heinz Fund.

I asked Heinz, who died in 2008 at the age of 93, whether he didn’t find it ironic that after all the stirring reporting and writing he had done from battlefields and sporting arenas , it was a rewrite job that had made him rich.

“I suppose so, but it doesn’t bother me,” he said. “Heh heh heh. Oh no, I don’t want to go around saying, ‘Hey, I wrote this or that.’ But I do get trapped all the time into the M*A*S*H thing.”

Whenever he gave a talk about his career, people asked, “Where did M*A*S*H come from?”