Q&A: Elizabeth Leonard


Historian Elizabeth Leonard discusses her new book about America's Buffalo Soldiers

By David Eaton
Photography by Jeff Pouland

Men of Color to Arms! Black Soldiers, Indian Wars, and the Quest for Equality is Professor Elizabeth Leonard’s fourth book on the Civil War.

Gibson Professor of History Elizabeth Leonard, who plumbed archives to tell the the story of African-American soldiers after the Civil War, stands in front of the Lion of Lucerne, a sculpture commissioned by Colby in honor of the 20 Colby men who died while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War.
So much has been written about the Civil War. How do you find new things to look at?
I think there are two ways to do it. One is that you have to use a different set of eyes. You have to not be looking over and over again at the same stuff. In my early work on the Civil War I looked exclusively at women. So I was just looking for something that wasn’t part of the standard. The other thing is you look for questions that have not been asked. I think you have to look for the missing pieces, ask what questions haven’t been asked yet, and try to make connections that haven’t been made.

As you were looking with this different set of eyes, how did you settle on this topic?
My son asked me this question and it really was fascinating to me. This is years ago now. Probably as a seven-year-old, he said, “Is it true the Union Army freed the slaves and then went out and killed the Indians?” I said, “Yes, that’s true. Why do you ask? Was that something that came up at school?” And he goes, “No, I was looking in my Lego catalog and I was noticing there were pictures of blue soldiers and gray soldiers, and then there are these blue soldiers and little Indians.” So then we were talking about that and he said, “Why would they do that?” And I thought, that is a really interesting question. I hadn’t really given much thought to what does the Union Army do after the war? Where does it go? Did it all just go home? I started thinking about what happens with those emancipated people, and I found that they too were filtering into the Army. And so the whole story got tangled up together.

What’s your process for writing something like this?
I do a lot of research, and I love to do the research. It’s really such a joy to me to be in the archives, so I do a lot of that. I have a question I’m asking and trying to answer. I can identify where some of the most important archival materials are. Then I just go and plunge myself into those and I just keep track of everything that seems salient and I follow these leads as I understand them. I don’t preplan a lot and I never use any note-card programs. I take notes. Then I print everything up, and then I have to go through everything a million times to find what I am looking for. And I’ll sometimes write chunks of things. I’ve come to believe that for me to predetermine which way I’m going to go too much restricts my ability to see connections that I otherwise can see. So it seems very chaotic but it works very well for me because when I start to write I’m constantly going back over everything and back over everything and back over everything.

And when you start, is there an outline or do you just start writing?
This was probably the book that was the hardest in that sense. I’m writing this biography now. What outline? It’s his life. So that’s easy. In my two books I wrote on women, they were very easily categorized. In the first book there was a woman nurse, there was a woman in ladies aid, and there was a woman doctor, and I could sort of use them as a way to organize material on people who did similar kinds of things. This book was a little bit harder to bring together because there were so many threads. So I would say that I did not have an outline but I had a really terrible first draft. Thank God I have a very good and rigorous editor.

men of color to arms
But you turned it into a very interesting  book.

It comes together ... it’s a lot of redoing and redoing and redoing and it’s sort of like a big pile. I think it’s hard because I was dealing with such snippets of information on a lot of these people. I had to develop larger points using little bits of information that I could get hold of. It would have been great to have several people who were like the West Point guys about whom I could actually learn quite a bit. The Indian Wars guys, they’re really hard. It’s literally a paragraph here or a few bits of information there.

Where and how do you find them?
For those guys out in the West, they didn’t have journals, they didn’t write a lot of letters. At most there were sometimes letters to the editors of newspapers. I was able—thank goodness for databases like historical newspapers—I could find bits and pieces there by searching very meticulously. There are some wonderful people out there who haven’t written synthetic monographs about this but who have compiled some works where they say, “Here’s some poetry of Buffalo Soldiers or a story about this.” There are little bits and pieces of things and you lean on them. That stuff is a little more challenging.

You’ve got this core group [Buffalo Soldiers] that is not capable of documenting itself ...
Right. And they’re not writing letters. Generally you mostly have other people talking about them. Probably one of the best places I went was Fort Davis, Texas—I spent a week down there—which is a wonderful historic site where most of the Buffalo Soldier regiments spent at least some of their time. It’s an absolutely beautiful place. It has a wonderful National Park Service historian who helped me tremendously, and just to be there actually was very, very important for me. To walk on that ground and see where they had been and see what they had seen and feel the isolation they must have felt. You know, I had a modern car that could get me to El Paso in three hours if I had to go, but I thought about what it would be like to be black and have a horse as the fastest way you could get out of there if you wanted to get away.

And where would you get away to?
Nowhere. Mexico I suppose. That was probably closest and you really couldn’t. White commanders often commented on how rare it was for black soldiers to desert. And, to their credit, they were nice. They said they’re so faithful and so on. But some of the reasons black soldiers didn’t desert had to do with the fact that it would be obvious you didn’t belong there. You know, what was a black person doing in this area if he wasn’t in the Army? He’s a deserter.

What makes a good history book?
I think it should be a topic that would be of interest to people and I think it should be written clearly and the goal should be to communicate with more than just three friends who are specialists in your field. I think it needs to be very carefully researched and I guess I am the historian who believes that historians have a social responsibility. I think every book I have written was not written just to tell the story but because I feel that understanding and discussing history has meaning for us in our present and our future. I think there are probably a lot of historians who think you really should just be telling about the past. I do it because I feel like it matters. We need to know.

Colby’s John J. and Cornelia V. Gibson Professor of History, Leonard is currently at work on a biography of Joseph Holt, who served as Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Army from 1862 to 1875. Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in the fall.

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  • On February 16, 2011, David G. DiCola wrote:
    I was in class of '74 so I had the wonderful opportunity to take courses with Jack Foner, whose extended family has been teaching and writing that era of American history. From the above interview, it sounds like she is a worthy successor. With people especially in the South busily trying to rewrite history for their convenience, historians like Ms. Leonard are so important.