Although Ernest B. Furgurson grew up on a street named after Robert E. Lee in Danville, Virginia—the last capital of the Confederacy—in a home filled with reminders of great-grandfathers who fought in the Civil War, it was not until he studied tactics as a young Marine officer that his interest ignited. “I remember we did Chancellorsville, and I said, ‘God, this is interesting, I am going to write about this some day.’” Prophetic words. After retiring as a columnist for the Baltimore Sun in 1992, he wrote Chancellorsville 1863, the first of his four books about the Civil War. (Freedom Rising, about Washington, D.C. during the war, is his most recent.)
But Furgurson had never written extensively about the war’s early fighting until we asked him to recreate the Battle of Bull Run for Smithsonian (“The End of Illusions,”).
“Perhaps aside from the crucial two or three greatest battles later in the war, these early months were the most important,” Furgurson says. “All the huffing and puffing was over, and we were getting down to serious war for the first time. Many of the people who were subordinate commanders at Bull Run became senior commanders as the war went on. They were tested for the first time at Bull Run. The most prominent, probably, was ‘Stonewall’ Jackson—he won his nickname there. But others around him at approximately the same level—colonels and brigadier generals who later would be leading armies—got their first real head-to-head collision between the blue and gray at that time.”
And what would Furgurson like readers to take away from the Bull Run story? “I think simply to be reminded of how important all this was. And the courage that went into the battles, from top to bottom, is something I’m struck by every time I work on one of these projects.”
Michelle Nijhuis was a field biologist before she became a journalist, but nothing in her experience prepared her for the plight of American bats, which are dying in unprecedented numbers in one of the most alarming animal epidemics in history (“Crisis in the Caves,”). In a cave in Pennsylvania, she was profoundly moved, she says, by the sight of “bats that were obviously struggling, that were obviously infected with white-nose syndrome and didn’t have long to live. It was striking to see this decline that some people have described as being on the scale of the decline of the American bison or the decline of the passenger pigeon, and to realize that it was happening in our time, and so close to so many of us geographically, but out of sight.”