Civil War author J. Keith Jones discusses his latest book, Echoes From Gettysburg

September 4, 2016

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Book summary:

South Carolina contributed two brigades of infantry, two regiments of cavalry and several artillery batteries to the Battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863. Their veterans related accounts of heroism and fear, triumph and loss for the remainder of their lives. These are their stories.

Kathleen: At what age did you proclaim, “I am a writer?”

Keith: Ha! I’m not sure I’ve proclaimed it yet. Seriously, I suppose mentally it would have been somewhere in my early thirties. Of course it can be tough keeping yourself convinced during all the starts and stops you encounter in the early stages until your first big break. Then you realize that this supposed break is just the camel’s nose under the tent. That is followed by years where you sometimes believe that this is all of the camel you will ever manage to infiltrate into the vaunted big tent. I am far from having “arrived,” but there does come a day when things start falling into place and you have the feeling that there are serious people who know who you are and take you seriously. So who knows, maybe my camel might find his way into the tent after all.

KMR: Please describe your journey as an author and your road to publication. Take us from those early days of your first efforts to “award-winning author.”

JKJ: Great question. I have a page on my website, called “My Journey” in which I make the statement, “I dreamed about writing even before I realized that was my dream.” I have wondered where this desire actually comes from, and I think that it relates back to my childhood as an introverted farm boy who spent hours playing alone. To entertain myself, I would spend long periods playing alone in the yard, the cotton fields or the woods. To pass the time, I would make up stories to tell myself. This evolved into writing the stories down. Writing is a wonderful form of expression because it is about the only one where you can take the time to shape it into exactly what you are trying to say and don’t have to get it right the first time, but more than anything, it is about the only way to say these things without interruption.

KMR: What fascinates you about the Civil War and how do you approach your research?

JKJ: It is hard to put my finger on exactly why I have this fascination. I have always had a strong interest in genealogy, and it’s interesting the historically significant things that one runs across while researching that. In school you get the quick over with the basic facts, dates, people and places. In my day you got between one and two weeks for this. Now I understand high schoolers get less than two days. So, kids today spend less than 90 minutes of class time studying one of the most devastating and profound periods of our history. That said, even in my student days, it was not really enough to make it interesting, so I dug deeper on my own and that is when the more personal stories began to emerge.

When you can connect these events to real people and you can begin to understand the relationships they had with one another and the ties they had to the places they lived and the ties they formed with the places they fought, that is when it all begins to come alive. That is when you begin to understand that these were real people who lived real lives, experienced real joy, suffered real pain and grappled with real fear. In most cases, depending on whether they survived the war, they lived anywhere from eighteen to eighty years, but what happened during those four years defined their whole lives. Reading the stories told by the common soldier about his family back home, about the men he served with and those times he had to push down his fear and go forward, because that is what was expected of him, makes me all the more aware that these were real people just like me. They had mothers, wives and sisters back home who worried about them and in all too many cases grieved over them. Past wars are so often both glorified and trivialized to the point that we forget the humanity of those who did their duty and suffered the consequences.

KMR: How did you find your subjects for Echoes From Gettysburg?

JKJ: Good old-fashioned leg work. Various online newspaper archives and archives of public domain books – memoirs mainly. There are hardbound copies of the old Confederate Veteran Magazine in libraries. This was the official magazine of the United Confederate Veterans.

KMR: What do you want the reader to take away from reading this story?

JKJ: Good question. I guess mainly that these were real people with real lives. Had it not been for the upheaval of war, they would have been tending their farms, minding their stores or working at their law practices. There are any number of things these men would have rather been doing and they frequently said so in their letters and diaries. Every life is a story. History class teaches us about dates, places and names. These things are the metadata of life, but they are not really what we live. People live relationships and interactions. These are the things that make up the stories that are our lives. No one lives life alone and these real people who witnessed history were no different.

KMR: If you’d been alive during the Civil War, would you have kept a diary?

JKJ: You know, keeping a diary and journaling are things I always mean to do, but don’t. If I were alive at that time, and so far away from my loved ones, I expect I would have. In those days the soldiers didn’t have Skype or email, so letter writing was their only means of communicating with home. Along with letter writing, many soldiers kept diaries, something that is not only frowned upon today, but is usually forbidden due to security concerns. I believe there were two primary reasons they did this. One was boredom. Except for the times they were in battle, they mostly drilled or pulled guard duty, then they had long hours with little to do. The other was therapy. They needed a way to sort out the things they had seen and done. These men were forced to witness things that no person should ever have to see and worse, do things to their fellow human beings that we as a species are not wired to find acceptable.

So, I imagine given the same landscape, I would do much the same.

KMR: Can you recall the first story or book you read as a child that had an impact on your life?

JKJ: Probably Baa, Baa, Black Sheep by Colonel Gregory Boyington. Pappy Boyington has been criticized for self-aggrandizement, and I have little doubt that he was guilty of that, but the first person perspective of a man who had a front row seat to history and the plainspoken way he had of relating these events really grabbed me.

KMR: How do you juggle your day job with research, writing, and marketing and promoting your work?

JKJ: Probably not very well. I do have an advantage of living and working close to some good research libraries. That said, sometimes I will research at lunch or after work in the library. Most every evening I am trying to do something toward the cause of advancing my writing. I speak a lot before history and heritage groups. Some large, but many small. The fact is that you have to put yourself out there and you can’t be too picky. I have learned that the help you seek comes from the most unexpected places and frequently, the places you expect help from never materialize.

KMR: With your busy schedule, when do you find time to read for pleasure? Do you think we writers can ever really read for pleasure or are you always studying the writing?

JKJ: I usually read just before bed. I am a lifelong insomniac, so reading is about the only way to calm my mind to allow sleep to come easy. Being a writer does make you a bit of an automatic critic. I have learned to turn loose of some of the overly judgmental side and lose myself in the story. There really are two parts to writing, one is the mechanical side of writing where you allow your inner Grammar-Nazi to run free and you beat people over the head every time you run across a sentence with passive voice. Making writing as tight as you can and avoiding passive voice is important, but I believe that if you never take any liberties with language, then every book will read like a technical manual and the imagination will never come out to play and let the real story emerge.

KMR: What are you working on now?

JKJ: Well, for one thing I am updating Georgia Remembers Gettysburg with additional material, maps and photos to become Echoes From Gettysburg: Georgia’s Memories and Images. Also on the history front, I am gathering material for books on the Battle of Gaines Mill and for Alamance County, North Carolina in the Civil War.

On the fiction front, I continue writing short stories, and I am about to start work on revising a political thriller that I wrote the first draft of several years ago.


Keith Jones is the author of four books, one novel and three histories. He is a two-time winner of the Gold Medal for History from the Military Writers Society of America. His articles have been published in Georgia Magazine and Gettysburg Magazine. He also has short stories in journals and anthologies. To read more about his work, visit his website.



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Author of the novels The Final Salute, Johnnie Come Lately & Seven Wings to Glory. Former contributor to Family Circle Magazine and Military Times. Future work represented by agent Diane Nine, Nine Speakers Inc.

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