the TMCWRT's exclusive interview with historian-author
steven e. woodworth!
TMCWRT President Reggie Gatewood was honored to interview historian-author Steven Woodworth about his recently released book A Scythe of Fire. This is Dr. Woodworth's first interview regarding his most recent work which he co-authored with the late Warren Wilkinson. The book is available in book stores now.
A Scythe of Fire is the story of the trials and tribulations of the Eighth Georgia Infantry regiment during the Civil War.
RG: What makes A Scythe of Fire different from other regimental writings?
SW: I feel strongly about this. What makes A Scythe of Fire different from most other
regimental writings is that it is not merely a genealogical reference. Most Civil
War regimental histories, it seems to me, are intended primarily for the
descendents of that regiment's soldiers. I wanted A Scythe of Fire to be a story that
every human being, especially every American, could identify with and find
compelling. I wanted it to be a story not so much about somebody's great-great-
grandfather (although if your ancestor was in the regiment, that's great), but
rather about human beings not so very different than ourselves. In keeping with
these goals, I did not include a roster of the regiment's members, because rosters
are, for the most part, interesting only to those who had ancestors in the regiment.
I've been criticized for this, but I don't regret it a bit. If I had it to do over again, I'd
do the same thing.
RG: Why the Eighth Georgia?
SW: Well, in a way that's a question for the late Warren Wilkinson to answer, since he
chose that regiment before his death. It's not hard to guess why, though. The 8th
got into the heart of many of the largest and most famous battles of the war. Its
came from all regions of the state of Georgia, and its members left behind a fairly
generous amount of information about their service.
RG: How were you involved in this work that was originally started by Mr.
SW: Back in the mid-'90s I got a phone call from Buz Wyeth, then an editor for
HarperCollins. He asked if I would be willing to finish out a book that Warren
Wilkinson had researched. As I understand it, my friend Rod Gragg, had
recommended me to him. The project sounded interesting, so I agreed to do it.
RG: In light of your collective works on the various levels of command during the
Civil War, did this regimental work affect your perspective on the conflict?
SW: I wouldn't say it affected my perspective. I knew about this angle already.
However, this was certainly a different sort of story to tell, a different type of
narrative to write. I enjoyed it very much, and I hope to do more of the sort of
writing that tells the stories of the common soldiers.
RG: The reader is thrown into battle at the outset of the first chapter...why?
SW: I thought that would get your attention!
RG: Your description of Rome, Georgia in 1860 almost seems utopian. Is this the
South the men of what was soon to be the Eighth Georgia went off to fight for?
SW: About 75% of the description of Rome, in chapter 1, represents one of the two
actual passages of Warren Wilkinson's prose in the whole manuscript. The other
is the description of the Shenandoah Valley at the beginning of chapter 2. I
altered them somewhat, but those few pages are more or less as he wrote them
before his death. My view of this is as I stated in the closing paragraphs of the
book. The idyllic view of the South was not reality...it may have only been a dream...
but it was a dream that men were willing to fight for.
RG: When they arrived on the plains of Manassas on the morning of July 21, 1861, was
their “giddiness for battle” satisfied?
SW: It was certainly satisfied by that evening!
RG: The Eighth had a knack for finding the “hot” fight, didn’t they?
SW: They sure did. There were a number of regiments like that on both sides, and the
8th was one of them. In their case, they enlisted early and wound up in Hood's
division, one of the real workhorse formations in the Army of Northern Virginia.
RG: Did war make men of these boys from Georgia?
SW: I'd be reluctant to say it did. After all, they would have become men if peace had
continued. A lot more of them would have lived to become men! But there's no
denying that war changed them--for the better in some ways, for the worse in
others. For example, I'm haunted and perplexed by the fact that John C. Reed
wound up getting a divorce from his wife within a year after returning from the
war. He had married her just before going off to fight. What changed between
Reed and his wife during those terrible four years?
RG: Throughout the book you effectively use descriptive phrases to describe the
battle experience. For example, you liken the sound of a shell passing overhead
to “..a noise something like the whickering of a frightened horse”. Even with
such imaginative descriptions, did you find it difficult to relay the battle sights
and sounds as described by the diarists of the Eighth Georgia?
SW: Most of the time those descriptive phrases are right from the words of the eye-
witnesses themselves. But, yes, even then I know I'll never be able to convey
with complete vividness and reality just what combat was like. Not just in the
8th Georgia but across the armies of both North and South soldiers again and
again expressed their own inability to communicate adequately what they had
actually experienced themselves. Many despaired so much of describing it that
they didn't even try. All we can do is take the few descriptions they've left us and
try to piece together the most realistic picture we can.
RG: As these Georgians marched in to Pennsylvania in June 1863, was there an
overall feeling of invincibility?
SW: Absolutely! It never entered their minds that they could be defeated by the
RG: A member of the Eighth Georgia described the wheat field at Gettysburg as “the
hottest fight of our lives”. Was it hotter than they anticipated?
SW: I believe it probably was, though I don't recall any of them expressing it in
those terms. They had been in some pretty hot places before that.
RG: Following Gettysburg, was the regiment ever quite the same?
SW: Not really. The book's not the same after Gettysburg either--too many of our
sources got shot!
RG: Why was desertion suddenly a problem following the fall campaign in East
SW: What really made desertion a problem was not so much the fall campaign in East
Tennessee but rather the operations that began the following spring, just a few
months later--Sherman's advance into Georgia. While the majority of the 8th's
soldiers...those who were still alive and healthy... stayed to the end, a significant
number of men found that once the Yankees had reached their home counties
they had no further motivation to go on fighting.
RG: When the regiment returned to the Army of Northern Virginia in the spring of
1864 had the face of the war changed?
SW: Yes, but I don't believe the men of the 8th realized it. They knew they would
be facing very hard fighting, but they didn't believe they would be driven back
RG: What impact did Sherman’s presence in Georgia have on the regiment while
they were fighting in Virginia?
SW: Sherman's presence, not the destruction, just his presence in Georgia was
RG: Describe the scene at Appomattox from the men of the Eighth Georgia
SW: Well, I don't know that I can do any better job of describing it than I did in the
book. The factors that stand out to me are their intense hunger and fatigue
and, what is most amazing, their apparent surprise at the surrender.
RG: What are we to learn from the extraordinary experiences of the Eighth
SW: That may be the biggest question of all. This isn't one of those books that you
can finish up with a tidy little "lessons learned" section. I recall that Robert E.
Lee once said, "A foe can give lessons in fighting, but life teaches learning." If
the story of the Eighth Georgia can teach us anything, it would, I think, be the
wisdom that comes from experience of lives lived in difficult times--not our
own, but theirs.
The TMCWRT is profoundly grateful to Dr. Woodworth not only for the time he set aside for the interview, but especially for his contributions to history and a subject so near and dear to our hearts!!