Staunton native brings Civil War heroes to life
Story by Chris Graham
Gregg Clemmer had an idea for a book on a forgotten Civil War general with a classic nom de guerre.
Clemmer knew he had something special going when other historians told him not to waste him time trying to track down Old Alleghany.
“I’m somewhat stubborn like an old bulldog. That was the best thing I could have heard,” said Clemmer, a Staunton native whose 2005 book on Confederate Gen. Ed Johnson, Old Alleghany: The Life and Wars of General Ed Johnson, was the 2005 winner of the prestigious Douglas Southall Freeman History Award.
Clemmer was in Waynesboro on Saturday to talk at Stone Soup Books in Downtown Waynesboro as part of the commemoration of the 1865 Battle of Waynesboro, the final battle in the Valley Campaign in the Civil War.
The day was marked by a ceremony at a Confederate cemetery in the downtown district that was led by members of a local re-enactors group.
Clemmer himself got his start in the Civil War history business as a teen-aged re-enactor who took part in historic 100-year commemorations of battles at Antietam and Gettysburg.
“I was in the 100th anniversary battle at Antietam, Sharpsburg, but I think the big one was Gettysburg the next year, in 1963. And of course there was a lot going on in the country then. And my memory of that is this black car going down Confederate Avenue in Gettysburg, and my parents pointing out, Guess who’s in that car? Guess who’s in that car? Of course, everybody who was anybody was coming to Gettysburg that summer. It was George Wallace,” Clemmer said, referring to the former Alabama governor and later presidential candidate, who is remembered for his infamous “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech at the height of the civil-rights movement.
You might think that getting into Civil War history at the height of the turbulent ’60s would cloud one’s judgment on the war and its relevance today, but Clemmer takes a balanced approach to trying to make sense of what it all means in contemporary U.S. society.
“To reconcile this horrible loss, we’ve got to identify a villain, and that becomes the losing side. But the more you study the war, you realize that serves no purpose,” Clemmer said.
“You talk about the memory of the war and how poignant it remains, those veterans were the first to bring us back together again, and I talk about that a lot. If you look at Reconstruction, we don’t know a lot about Reconstruction, not as much as we know about the war, but it was the veterans 20 years after the fires had died down, after the memories had been, you don’t forget, but they had chilled, you look at these photographs of blue and gray shaking hands across these sunken roads and these stone walls at these battlefields,” Clemmer said.
“That set the example that we needed to scab over what had happened back then. And that resonates to this day. It gave the rest of us coming up – parents and grandparents and whatever; I’m five generations removed from the war – it gave them the reason to go ahead and put it behind us,” Clemmer said.
Clemmer has written one other book on the Civil War, Valor in Gray: The Recipients of the Confederate Medal of Honor, which chronciles 55 men who received the highest military honor from the Confederate States of America.
Both books were labors of love for Clemmer, who traces his interest in Civil War history to fireside chats with his grandfather about relatives who fought in the war.
His Old Alleghany, in particular, comes across like an extended fireside chat in the way Clemmer tells the story of Gen. Johnson.
“I didn’t want Old Alleghany to be a military biography. I’ll get on my soapbox for just a second. So many Civil War books, particularly biographies, are military biographies, in that we get 20 pages on the man’s first 20 years of life, 500 on the War Between the States, and then if he survives, another 15 pages on the last 30 years of his life. Reader, you’re being cheated. You need to know what happened to that man to bring to who he was in 1861. Why did he decide to go South or stay North? I wanted Old Alleghany to be that kind of book,” Clemmer said.
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.