Former Rectory Headmaster Publishes Civil War Book
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“He was a passionate historian, who was very knowledgeable about current events, and who also had a terrific sense of humor. He was innovative and instrumental in bringing female boarders to Rectory. And, of course, he was a good friend. ” — Mr. Ames
On October 26, 2016, Mr. Thomas Army, the former headmaster of Rectory School who held that office just before Mr. Williams came aboard, returned to campus to visit and talk about his newly-published book Engineering Victory: How Technology Won the Civil War. While he was the Headmaster, it was Mr. Army’s progressive decision to bring the first group of female boarders to Rectory. The female students at Rectory gradually had an increasing number of privileges during his time in office. After his career at Rectory, Mr. Army started to pursue his great zeal for history and engineering.
According to Mrs. Bastow, a faculty member who has worked at Rectory for many years, “Mr. Army is a kind-hearted and gracious man; he is deeply passionate about all aspects of American history and most especially the Civil War. His greatest desire is to share this passion with others and help them understand the events and people who have been most instrumental in the formation of this nation.” As a professional non-fiction writer and historian, Mr. Army talked with us about his experience of publishing a book during his visit. He gave the Rectory students useful advice about how to be a strong writer.
The DiRectory: Why did you write a book about engineering in the Civil War?
Mr. Army: The Civil War has always been an interesting topic to me. When I went back to get my PhD, I thought long and hard about what I should write about, and as I looked at Civil War scholarship, I realized there hadn’t been much written on this topic. So, after I did a lot of research, I discovered that this would be an area that the historical community would need to hear about. Then I developed a thesis, and I wrote the book. For professional historians, we don’t just pick a topic and write on it; we talk about contributing to the conversation. So, what that means is, when a historian writes a book, we are not only writing it for the general public, but also for each other. Therefore, in the future, if any of the Rectory students wants to write a history book, it is always a good idea to write on a new topic or a new interpretation of an old topic.
The DiRectory: We heard from other faculty members that you are a history buff. So what makes you love history so much?
Mr. Army: I started to like it when I was a little boy; my grandparents lived near us, and we used to go to their house. We liked to go up in their attic and just talking about the past, asking my grandfather what it was like in the 1920s; so that got me interested. Also, my parents liked to travel in the summer and look at historical sites. I had really good history teachers, people that I admired, people that I thought were engaging; that kind of all rubbed off on me. So, over a period of time, I came to love the study of history, and I have continued that love through my adult life.
The DiRectory: Where did you get the information to write the book?
Mr. Army: The information comes from everywhere. It’s like being a detective. You have to go and track it down. For example, I had to go to the National Archives located in Washington, D.C., and I spent my time there, going through old records and letters. I had to look at engineering documents. I also went to state libraries in several different states. Once I collected the information, I began to put it together and form the story.
The DiRectory: How long did it take for you to complete the entire project?
Mr. Army: It took me about four years. After I retired, I went to get my PhD, and I met some practicing historians. They helped me to focus my ideas and work through the outlines. And from that point, the book started to come together.
The DiRectory: When you wrote your book, did you write the first draft on paper, by hand, or did you type it on a computer?
Mr. Army: I typed it on the computer. It’s so much easier today because I can do multiple drafts, change sentences, move paragraphs, and make footnotes. I keep up with these new technologies because it keeps me young, and young people have taught me a lot!
The DiRectory: Are you interested in writing another book?
Mr. Army: Yes, I am planning to write another book, maybe on another topic.
The DiRectory: We think it would be helpful for Rectory students to learn the process a writer must go through to write a nonfiction book. Could you please tell us the steps you took to write your book? And could you tell us which part of the process was the most difficult for you?
Mr. Army: One important thing about the process is that you do the research first, and then come up with a thesis because if you didn’t, the danger is that you would only pick research materials that fit with your thesis. The benefit of “research first, and then thesis” is that you don’t get a biased, one-sided view of that topic. I think the most difficult part is sitting down every day and doing some writing. You have to be disciplined. You don’t have to sit down and write for eight hours a day, but you do have to sit down and do some writing every day.
The DiRectory staff enjoyed talking to Mr. Army and learned a lot from his advice. We hope that after reading this article, you have a better idea of how to be a good writer. If you are a passionate historian or enthusiastic writer, check out Mr. Army’s book, Engineering Victory: How Technology Won the Civil War. Better yet, if you are a passionate historian or enthusiastic writer, we hope to read the book that you have published one day!