There’s been a steady interest in John C. Mitchell’s book, “Grand Traverse The Civil War Era,” since it was published in 2011 but that interest has only picked up with the popularity of the movie “Lincoln” and renewed interest in the Civil War as events from that era celebrate 150 year anniversaries.
Mitchell sat down with the Express to talk about his book and his lifelong friendship with Peter Leonard, son of Detroit crime author Elmore Leonard.
Northern Express: Your book, “Grand Traverse The Civil War Era,” was published in 2011 but it’s got traction; it’s still a bestseller in Northern Michigan.
John C. Mitchell: Amy Reynolds wrote me a Christmas card, she said, “Your book has legs,” which was a great thing to hear from her. She is the manager, of course, of Horizon Books.
NE: The book is an interesting look at the Civil War. It’s a look at the war through the lens of Northern Michigan.
JM: The great war scenes have been done. It wasn’t an attempt to rethink or re-capture the big epic battles from any other perspective than how Northern Michigan young men were involved in them. I follow that all the way through, both in view of the home front and it follows the war. We did have a tremendous representation from this area during the Civil War.
The young men from this area that fought in the Civil War were generally good hunters. They could load and fire a rifle fast. That was different from a lot of the immigrant soldiers that were being drafted out of the city. Not only did Northern Michigan send a lot of both Native American and Euro American soldiers to fight in that war, they were often sent to the front lines because of the marksmanship and stealth they had learned in the woods.
NE: There are two great parallel narratives going on in the book, the lives of frontier settlers, which are fascinating, and the events going on in the country at the time, which kind of intrude upon people’s lives in Northern Michigan whether they liked it or not.
JM: I had a number of tremendous main sources in this book, (the diary of George Smith and early editions of the Grand Traverse Herald). I knew I was privileged once I had found them. They were first-hand accounts of the Civil War. The early part of this book deals with the life of the Reverend George Smith, who came from Vermont in 1833, founded a mission in the Kalamazoo valley and then when that mission became surrounded by farmers by the year 1849, he loaded the Indian mission up in a boat and came to Northport. So you see the struggles of just trying to settle in the wilderness. That was the background of these kids that became soldiers from Northern Michigan, and I think it helps you understand that they were tough to begin with.
For the most part, these were young people that were going through the Erie Canal and settling this area, because you had to be young and tough to make it in Northern Michigan, and then of course to make it through the war; and many of them did, and many of them did not.
NE: How did you find out about the George Smith diary and how did it manage to survive all these years?
JM: I was director of the Leelanau Historical Society for four years so I had a good feel for what was out there. I had found some small family diaries and I knew the Smith diary was out there. In fact, it had been years in the Bentley Museum, lying there, untranscribed. George Smith was a terrible hand writer and you’ve got to remember, his diary went on for 40 years.
It stood in scribbled handwriting, essentially in a banana box with folders in it, for years, and finally one of Smith’s great granddaughters by marriage, a woman named Avis Wolfe from Northport, transcribed the entire document and released it to the Northport Area Heritage Association in 2008, just when I was really getting into this book.
When I first saw that diary, I can remember very distinctly when it was given to me. I was looking for a source by that time, a nice local source to ground the work, and within a half hour I saw not only that I had the privilege of this great document but probably two or three years of my life were gone now, too.
NE: Your book won the state history award in 2011, and last year you won a national award, a contest of regional histories from throughout the country. What did it mean to get that honor?
JM: The Independent Publisher’s Book Award, it won a silver medal for best nonfiction in the Great Lakes, and that’s one of the reasons that as we speak, I’m having this book, which is just about done with its first edition, I’m having it converted to an ebook and I’m going after the national market.
This is my sixth book, most of them regional Great Lakes books. This one I think has a good chance of transcending this Great Lakes market, just because it’s such an unusual story, an epic story.
Here we are: we’re isolated by water, there isn’t a road to this area until late 1863, and almost everybody that was up here came by steamship or schooner. And that whole backdrop, the big ships stopping in places like Northport to fuel up, really lends an unusual aspect to this Grand Traverse perspective of the Civil War. Again, it’s my sixth history book. I’ve loved history all my life. It’s a great story, and I say that from a person who considers himself lucky to have come across it.
NE: You’ve lived in Leelanau County for 40 years…
JM: I came up here during summers in high school. I’m a Detroit kid, but I worked on cherry shaking crews starting in 1967, one of the very first cherry shaking crews in the county. They were just experimenting with those shakers that looked like a big pipe wrench that enclosed on the tree.
NE: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Northern Michigan during your research for this book?
JM: Boy that book was full of surprises, honestly. I sat down to write maybe a hundred-page sort of pamphlet, that’s what kind of book I thought I’d turn up with on this area and the Civil War, because I think being an experienced historian, again I’d been the director of the Leelanau Historical Society, I thought this area really started to be heavily settled during the resort era, the later 1870s and 1880s.
I guess I was surprised to see how thick and rich and epic the history from this area was. So I can’t put a finger on this because every morning I got up anxious to keep following the leads on this story, because every day was brand new. I am not professorial in the way I write a book. I didn’t know where this book would lead when I started. Most historians have a pretty good idea of the scope of the project they are getting into.
So this was two-and-a-half, three years of daily surprises, I have to say that. It’s very difficult for me to put a finger on them. I had to cut a hundred pages from this book, of what normally would have been a pretty good book in itself, just because there were so many good stories in this book.
NE: Now that you’ve finished your epic Civil War book you are writing a novel. Can you tell me about that?
JM: I’m a Detroit boy. I went to Brother Rice High School in Birmingham, Michigan, and one of my best friends, still is, from that time, is a guy named Peter Leonard, himself a rising novelist right now, a crime fiction novelist. It does run in the family in Peter’s case. Peter is the son of Elmore Leonard, the world famous crime fiction novelist.
While I’ve been in the history business for most of my life, for 20 years I owned an architectural antique business in Suttons Bay, a place called Leelanau Architectural Antiques. Pete has been encouraging me for 30 years to use that character. And indeed that business brought me to tough inner cities. I saw that gritty element to the city for 20 years as I did that business.
And it’s been fun. It’s translating pretty good into a crime fiction book, the one I’m working on. It doesn’t have the gravitas of a historical work, and in some ways I don’t ever think I’ll write a book that affects people like “Grand Traverse The Civil War Era.” That’s why I’m having fun with this new genre.
For one, there are five hundred footnotes in “Grand Traverse The Civil War Era.” There ain’t going to be one in this crime fiction novel. I met with Pete and Elmore Leonard for dinner last month, in mid December. Actually, I’ve been writing a lot of this book down at the Detroit Institute of Art, where I spent last week, just to get a feel for Detroit as I’m writing it.
And Elmore and Pete are pushing me to understand that writing history is sort of a slave to chronological order and the truth, whereas writing fiction is putting together one good scene at a time, and hoping that conglomerations of scenes that you put together work for other people.
I’m having a lot of fun with it, I have to say that. It’s different. I may have to change to a pseudonym for it to keep my conservative historical reputation from being tarnished.