I recently sat down with author James W. Erwin whose new book ST. CHARLES MISSOURI – A Brief History by History Press is a great read on the city of St. Charles Missouri. It is nice to see our local history so well written, with clarity and facts. Erwin does a great job of sharing the stories that make the City of St. Charles Missouri so fascinating and rich in great history! I want to share our discussion about the book and hope that you might find the book as interesting and fun to read as I did….
- How did your writing this book come about?
I previously wrote three books for History Press on the Civil War in Missouri. My editor was aware that Vicki and I owned Main Street Books in St. Charles for eight years. He asked if I would be interested in writing a book for History Press about the first one hundred years of St. Charles history. I agreed. Arcadia has published three books on St. Charles history (one by Vicki – St. Charles Then and Now), but these were primarily books of photographs. (Arcadia and History Press merged a few years ago.) The publisher then said they wanted the book to cover not just the first one hundred years, but up to the present day. We agreed to cut it off at 2006, after some negotiation about book length.
- Is there any character in St. Charles History that you especially like?
I think Rufus Easton was an interesting fellow. He clashed with the French elite in Missouri, not to mention President Thomas Jefferson. His daughter Mary and her husband George Sibley were also interesting characters. Because of my interest in the Civil War, I also became interested in the life of Charles Bentzoni, an officer of the 11th Infantry in the Regular Army assigned during the war as the commander of the 56th USCI (many of its soldiers came from St. Charles and surrounding areas). Steven Clay, president of the 16th Infantry Association (the successor to Bentzoni’s Regular Army regiment) was very helpful in finding information and photographs of a lesser-known soldier of the war who led a life that ranged from being a member of the Prussian Army to the social elite of Los Angeles.
- What is your favorite era?
By far, the first one hundred years – as I originally agreed to write about. Within that, I must confess it is the Civil War.
- How difficult do you feel it is to research the history? Anything special you want to share about how you go about it?
With the advent of the Internet, it is so much easier to do historical research than ever. I recall from my graduate student days that doing research in primary documents located anywhere other than the University was nearly impossible unless you had a grant or fellowship because you had to go where the document were. I remember getting an interlibrary loan of a government report from the Truman Library being like getting an unexpected dream Christmas present.
Now, many primary documents – either images of the originals or transcriptions, or both – are available with the click of a computer key. You still must dig, but a lot of what you are looking for is there.
Local historical societies are also valuable sources of information on virtually any era. We have many in this area – the Missouri Historical Society, the Mercantile Library, Western Historical Manuscripts, the State Historical Society, National and State Parks like Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, and the Ulysses S. Grant site at Whitehaven. For this book, the folks at the St. Charles Historical Society were especially helpful. They helped me find documents, books, articles and photographs that were indispensable.
- Are there any events or stories that you feel might be new to readers of St. Charles?
For aficionados of St. Charles history, there probably isn’t much new in the book. I relied heavily on prior works. I do think there are a few stories that readers might not be familiar with or ones that I can provide some additional details. For example, the relationship between Zaidee Bagwell and W.F. Luckett is a story that I don’t think has previously been pointed out. I also tried to provide some details about the 56th USCI’s service that aren’t well-known. Also, I’m not sure how many people are familiar with the history of the Montana, the steamboat that makes a ghostly appearance rising out the river during very low water.
- What other books have you written?
My other books are Guerrillas in Civil War Missouri (History Press, 2012), Guerrilla Hunters in Civil War Missouri (History Press, 2013), and the Homefront in Civil War Missouri (History Press, 2014).
- Anything else you would like to share about this one?
This book provides what I hope is a readable introduction to the history of St. Charles. Its primary audience are visitors and residents who want to learn more about the history of this fascinating area. As with most History Press books, there is a lengthy bibliography to provide anyone interested in finding out more details.
- What projects are you working on now?
My major work in progress is a history of the Missouri State Militia, several regiments of cavalry organized under a special agreement between Missouri’s Provisional Governor Hamilton Gamble and President Abraham Lincoln to specifically to fight Confederate guerrillas in the state. I am also interested in the Enrolled Missouri Militia, a state-controlled force that was called in emergencies to fight guerrillas or invading raiders.
If any of your readers have letters, diaries, memoirs, or photographs related to either of these organizations, I would love to hear from them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Many members of the Missouri State Militia were second generation Germans. And so, your readers might very well have had ancestors who were members of these regiments.
I have also been working on article-length essays about several Civil War topics, including Frances Louisa Clayton (said to have fought in a Missouri regiment disguised as a man), and the only two men awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery in action during the Missouri-Kansas guerrilla fighting.
Book is available through History Press at https://www.arcadiapublishing.com/Products/9781467136198