Marching Masters: Thoughts on Writing a First Book, Part I (Grad School)


By Colin Woodward

My book has been out for more than two months now. It’s hard to resist checking its progress on, which seems to be about the only place people buy books these days. And it’s amazing how quickly your book can jump from being ranked #83,000 to #500,000 in a matter of a day or two. I think when you’re ranked that low, the selling of one or two books makes a big difference.

Sometimes, I will find Marching Masters in the top 50 of books about abolition or the Confederacy. And when it comes to books about “abolition,” it’s hard to compete with four different paperback editions of Twelve Years a Slave, especially when that book was the basis for a film that won best picture and best supporting actress. But, I’m not too worried about sales. When you’ve written an academic book, about the best you can hope for is to sell enough copies for your publisher to issue a paperback. And you won’t see a dime until that happens.

There are prizes to be won, I guess. The competition is stiff for prizes. Many are in the $1,000 range, hardly enough to make up for the thousands of hours you spend writing a book. Still, it’s nice to receive any kind of recognition. In this day of history books being written by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, let it be known that real historians don’t write for money (not that Limbaugh or O’Reilly actually write their history books by themselves). You might write for tenure, or recognition, or the sheer joy of getting something significant published by a peer-reviewed press. You’d be foolish to expect much money, though.

My book took more than ten years to research, write, and edit. It began as a doctoral dissertation at LSU, which I began in the late fall of 2000, just after I had passed my general exams. I will speak for many graduate students in saying that being ABD (All But Dissertation) is the best time you will ever spend in an academic environment. Course work is over. You have perhaps more time per day than you ever will to read, write, and research a topic of your own choosing. The lucky ones get some research money or a fellowship that allows for a year in which you don’t have to teach or assist a professor in class.

95% of getting through grad school is persistence. The other half is talent.

And on that note, it’s best to not teach in the early stages of being ABD. In general, teaching one class in grad school is enough. Save that drudgery for after you have the degree in hand. I’ve known people that have almost taught their way out of a Ph.D. program. Get the damn dissertation written. Don’t pull a Jack Burden. Don’t be one of those grad students who just disappears one day.

I spent a year and half doing research before I wrote a thing. This meant many, many trips to the LSU main library and the special collections reading room. Doing a fairly general Civil War topic as I did–the attitudes and policies of the Confederate army–was a blessing and curse. It was great that I had so much source material. It was also overwhelming that I had so much material to plow through.

I never had much travel money as a graduate student, so most of my research was done within a two minute walk of my window-less office on campus. I made use of every printed source I could find. Finding sources on race and slavery in Civil War letters and diaries was no easy task. Pretty quickly, I exhausted the published letters and diaries in the library’s “Confederate section” (for you bibliophiles, it’s somewhere between E440 and E620 in the Library of Congress schema). I then moved on to the various journals published in states that had been part of the Confederacy–the Virginia Magazine, the Alabama Review, the Florida Historical Quarterly, and so on.

The intellectual environment at LSU is second to none.

I had the time and energy to look through every issue of every one of these types of journals. And there really was no other way to get at the information I needed. In any collection of Confederate letters, you never know when a Rebel is going to spout off about a slave or race or the abolitionists. And indexes are usually worthless. I even looked through the journals of non-Confederate states like Kentucky and Maryland. The Southern Historical Society Papers and Confederate Veteran were also helpful.

Some days of research yielded nothing. On others, I might fill ten note cards. But I realized looking through library sources would not be enough. I would also have to look through the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (120+ volumes).

This was another labor-intensive undertaking. There was no other way to find what Confederate officers had to say about slavery than look through every single volume of Confederate reports. And most of what I found important in these volumes was about impressment, which became its own chapter in the book. The Official Records were housed in the special collections library of LSU, which meant I became a fixture there. It took me an entire summer to get what I needed from the Official Records.

I think the OR might have already been online when I was doing research at LSU. But searching online in the OR didn’t help me except when I was looking something up that I had already come across. Perhaps there was a better way for me to find information than scanning reports looking for the word “slave” or “negroes.” But my method, flawed as it might have been, filled many note cards. My final dissertation was more than 400 pages. But it could have been easily 100 pages longer than that.

I’m somewhat ashamed to say that it was not until I had been ABD that I did archival research. It was then that I started reading unpublished letters and diaries by the score. I was so naïve that I assumed all letters in an archive were transcribed. Sometimes they were. But I quickly realized that the problem of finding useful information became even more difficult when you are trying to decipher nineteenth century handwriting. Men generally have worse handwriting than women. The men I were looking at were often writing not on desks, but saddles or knapsacks. And age had not been kind to many of these manuscripts.

Still, archival research is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a historian. Luckily, while ABD, I was able to get a two week stipend from the VA Historical Society to do research there. What an experience! I found Richmond far more exciting than Baton Rouge. And the facilities at the VHS were first-rate. The staff wore ties! I liked it so much I later worked there for three years.

My first trip to Richmond was in my high bachelor days. And if you are lucky, your friends will be similarly unfettered. If you are ABD, chances are all your friends are, too. They have a lot of time on their hands, or think they do. You might find yourself eventually spending as much time drinking pints of cheap beer and talking about class rock albums as you do on your dissertation. And In Baton Rouge, the beer can be cheap, indeed.

You might find yourself sleeping until eleven in the morning and not getting much done until 3 in the after noon. By then, happy hour has started at the Chimes, and it’s easy to say “screw it” and promise yourself that you’ll get some real work done tomorrow. The wisest or perhaps luckiest of graduate students live in something of a state of nature. Man was probably not meant to work more than 5 or 6 hours a day, especially in warmer climes. Ideally, you should be able to quit when you feel you’ve done enough. And I never kept a 9-5 schedule while I was ABD.

Grad students are intellectuals, dammit. Artists, even. Or so they have convinced themselves. They have the minds of old men but the emotional stability of children. Let them think their thoughts and write their words while they can. There’s plenty of time for the reality beatdown of post-ABD life.

Yes, grad school at its best is an intellectual Eden. Five or six house on the dissertation per day is okay, not enough surely. But that leaves more time for the important things like reading, drinking, and fornicating. Sometimes, the poorer you are, the better you live.

The French Quarter: where the Protestant work ethic goes to die, courtesy of Louisiana Catholics.

Who knows that tomorrow will bring? Tomorrow you have to work 5 hours at your part-time job, but after that, you might bump into a drinking buddy outside the library, who says “hey, let’s hit New Orleans,” and the next thing you know you’re on Bourbon Street talking talking about Jethro Tull in a seedy bar while a stripper bums a smoke off one of your cronies.

LSU can be like that.

Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (UVA Press, 2014). He is writing a book on Johnny Cash.

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