From the Desk of Robert Plumb: When History Grabs You by the Arm

Robert C. Plumb is a writer, marketing consultant, and former marketing executive for two Fortune 500 companies. He is the author of Your Brother in Arms: A Union Soldier’s Odyssey and has written for the Montgomery County Historical Society’s journal, the Washington Post, and the Washington Post Magazine. He is the author of The Better Angels: Five Women Who Changed Civil War America (Potomac Books, March 2020).

Plumb author photo for blog

History. After working in the turbulent, fast-paced corporate world for over thirty years, how could I possibly spend my following days writing about history, that seemingly esoteric and unhurried of subjects? It is a question not dissimilar to one my father asked me after the end of my sophomore year in college when I decided to abandon my pre-dental courses and focus on being a history major in the liberal arts college of my university. What can history majors do to earn a living? In other words, what are the lucrative employment opportunities once one has received a BA in history?

History, not just its employment opportunities, was part of me from the time I was a young boy and visited Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York with relatives. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by history and objects from the past that helped me visualize the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. I could see, touch, and even smell history in the cluttered rooms of this 18th century fort that overlooked Lake Champlain. I could imagine the presence of Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold, and a host of Iroquois warriors around every corner.

Later, as a freshman in college, my inaugural class (8:00 a.m.!) was English History, taught by the formidable Professor John Theodore Horton, a scholar of the old school, who brought history alive with his stirring lectures delivered with enthusiasm and conviction. We freshmen in the class were almost certain that Horton was present during the Battle of Agincourt.

My love of history continued to simmer in me during my military service and subsequent life in the corporate world. That interest could be assuaged by reading European, American, and Asian history at every free opportunity. A resurgence occurred in the late 1990s when I inherited forty-two letters written by a Union infantry soldier from Pennsylvania who served in the Army of the Potomac from 1862 to 1865. As I transcribed these letters, they yielded a compelling narrative written by a young soldier who fought in many of the major engagements of the American Civil War. His beautiful hand-written letters gave me a tangible sense of the young man’s experience and what he faced on a daily basis as a soldier in what Lincoln called the “fiery trial.” I worked to turn the letters into a book that coupled the personal observations of one soldier with the context of the war that surrounded him (Your Brother in Arms: A Union Soldier’s Odyssey in the Shades of Blue and Gray Series from University of Missouri Press).

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As I conducted my extensive research for Your Brother in Arms, I discovered examples of women who had made extraordinary contributions to the Civil War. Contributions that were often overshadowed by the military exploits of men. The resulting book, The Better Angels: Five Women Who Changed Civil War America, looked at an area of American history frequently given inadequate representation in the Civil War historical canon.

One evening, while poring over research materials for the Better Angels manuscript, I came across a quote from Gertrude Stein: “There never will be anything more interesting than that American Civil War.” Stein was Ernest Hemingway’s important muse and mentor in the 1920s. It was as if Stein had reached out over the ninety-five years following her time spent in Paris to inspire and encourage me. Here message was clear. There is a story to tell about women in the Civil War. Who were they? What did they do? And how do their contributions fit in the Civil War narrative?

History has had a way of grabbing me by the arm and leading me to write about people who have lived unique lives in the American past. I have heard and written about the “varied carols” that Whitman identifies in his iconic poem:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear …. Each singing what belongs to him or her and none else.”

Walt Whitman, 1860

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