We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
- T.S. Eliot

Welcome to Ten Roads! This blog is intended to be a place for me to share my (generally Civil War-related) thoughts and experiences. I try to update once a week at the very least. All comments and readers are greatly appreciated!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Interview with Zack Fry

Zack Fry is a history student at Kent State University who has studied the Civil War for most of his life. He has been published in Gettysburg Magazine, The Ohio Civil War Genealogy Journal, and other periodicals. Among the groups he has led on battlefield tours are the Civil War Education Association, Military History Online, and the Gettysburg Discussion Group. He also regularly gives presentations at local libraries and historical societies. Most importantly, he's also a good friend of mine.

Sarah Adler (SA): How did you first become interested in the 59th New York?
Zack Fry (ZF): My fascination started when I realized that much of the regiment was actually from my area of Ohio. I learned the story of their horrific experiences at Antietam, and I soon found that a man from nearby Bellville won the Medal of Honor at Gettysburg. Early in the project, I received copies of the Jacob L. Bechtel letters, an invaluable first-hand account of day-to-day life in the regiment. Bechtel wrote the letters to his sweetheart in Bellville. They really put a human face on the story. From there, my interest grew to include the entire regiment and all their experiences, from Antietam to Gettysburg to the end of the war.

SA: What would you say is the biggest obstacle you've needed to overcome as a young historian?
ZF: That's a tough question. In a strictly practical sense, it's realizing you don't have the means yet to do some of the more detailed research at distant facilities like the NARA in Washington. That day will come, and hopefully very soon. My initial interest was mainly the Ohioans in the 59th, and, unfortunately, just about all the records for their involvement are indeed in New York or Washington. I've made indispensable connections in some very fine historians who have helped me along the way, though, and I'm thankful for that every day.

SA: I know that you have faced some sporadic opposition to your findings. Would you say that this has actually helped you in some ways?
ZF: Nobody who puts his findings on the line escapes some mild criticism. Fortunately, the vast (and I mean nearly unanimous) majority of feedback I've received on my 59th research and interpretation has been complimentary and supportive. Of course criticism makes you a better historian - it keeps you focused, keeps you alert, and keeps you careful in what you say and how you say it. It sounds trite, but the true key to accepting criticism is to learn from it. Where the criticism is correct, vow to avoid that fault in the future. If it is scurrilous or destructive, look past it, and hope others do the same when they witness it happening. That's how I see it right now.

SA: You took the Gettysburg battlefield guide written exam when you were sixteen, right?
ZF: Fourteen, actually. It was in 2002. I remember it well. I think there were about 200 participants, and I wasn't in the top twenty, of course. Unfortunately, I learned the most about the Battle of Gettysburg in the following two years!

SA: So you were the youngest ever to take the exam?
ZF: I have no idea. I think someone at the site said I was, but that would be a difficult thing to determine, and I suppose it wouldn't mean much even if I were. Doing things because you'll be "the youngest" is a bad inspiration, I think; doing them because you believe you can succeed or because you enjoy them is better. Going back to the previous topic - if you're serious about studying history, and especially about being published, you should be willing to accept criticism in whatever fashion it is presented to you. Age must necessarily be immaterial at that point if you hope to be taken seriously.

SA: What would you say is your dream job?
ZF: Any occupation where I can tell others about the historical topics I love and be in the company of those who share my interest. I'd particularly like to teach. One thing is for sure - I hope I never stop learning. I love to research.

SA: You do a lot of your own artwork when you write. How did you get the idea to start sketching to accompany your articles?
ZF: I've always enjoyed portrait sketching, and many friends suggested I use that to my advantage in my writings. When I was just beginning serious research on the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Assault several years ago, I read Kathy Georg Harrison's "Nothing But Glory," wherein the author included her own excellent sketches of key participants. I thought that really gave the piece a personal touch, so it kind of inspired me to do the same. Sketch art for me is a hobby, but it's a very convenient and enjoyable one.

SA: You lead the occasional battlefield tour. Would you say you prefer giving tours to writing?
ZF: Both are incredibly rewarding, I think. Writing and speaking both involve a great deal of research, which I enjoy to no end. Of course, I can amass more detail in the story when I write, but that venue also lacks the face-to-face interaction that makes battlefield tours remarkable. I'm thankful to have had ample opportunities for both. A historian must be able to argue his case effectively in writing and in person. It's satisfying to be part of a published piece, but it's also very rewarding to be on the battlefield and see firsthand that your point is getting through to someone. I've also made great friends in some truly wonderful people on tours, such as fellow Gettysburg aficionado Lew Gage and the late historian Keith Snipes.

Who would you say has been most influential in your studies?
ZF: On a personal level, my family has provided great support and encouragement. I'd be remiss not to thank professionals such as Bob Krick, Gary Kross, Bob Maher, Dan Reigle, and a host of others for the opportunities and the guidance they've given me. I had the good fortune to learn from some excellent high school history teachers, especially my good friend, the authoritative Mr. Conry. He continues to teach me the historian's craft with a bluntness that only decades of insight can afford, and I'm looking forward to walking the fields of Waterloo and Ypres with him in a couple months. My very inspirational philosophy professor, Dr. Wattles, teaches me at every turn to seek the greater historical truth. As far as Civil War history is concerned, I'm a great admirer of the work of Dr. Gary Gallagher, especially his efforts to connect the battlefield to the home front. Several classics gripped me in my childhood, including the staples of any Civil War bookshelf - Catton, Freeman, and some well-known Gettysburg-specific classics such as Frank Haskell's narrative and George Stewart's "Pickett's Charge." I've also gained a great deal from reading other military history writers such as John Keegan, David Chandler, Mark Grimsley, and Victor Davis Hanson. I'll leave it there for now.

SA: This is a question that has plagued many for ages; Guelzo and Prokopowicz disagree on the answer. So I ask you, do you think Lincoln would have been able to dunk a basketball?
ZF: Let's just say I think he would have had a much better chance of success than Little Mac would have.

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