Constance Hall Jones
The latest book is out in ECW’s “Engaging the Civil War” Series, published by Southern Illinois University Press:
The Sprits of Bad Man Made Perfect:
The Life and Diary of Confederate Artillerist William Ellis Jones
by Constance Hall Jones. This month, we direct our “10 Questions” to Connie. You can
read more about the book and Connie here
And, yes, we have 11 questions this month instead of 10!
Can you explain your relationship to William Ellis Jones for us?
William Ellis Jones (b. 1838) is my paternal great-great grandfather. Interestingly, his name is a very common one in our family. He was named after his uncle (the poet, b. 1785), who was named after
uncle (b. 1757). My grandfather (b. 1899) was named after the subject of the book, and my brother (b. 1959) was named after
(our grandfather). Doing genealogy in this family is challenging, as cousins in Wales, Nebraska, and Alabama have all graced their offspring with this name over the generations.
How did you get his diary?
The diary was passed down from its author to his son, F. Ellis Jones, who died not long after inheriting it. It then (along with the entire W.E. Jones library) passed into the possession of my grandfather (also named William Ellis Jones), who was then a boy of just ten years old. My grandfather grew up to become an author, a playwright, and a dedicated family historian. By 1940 he had completed a rather comprehensive family history, with a transcription of the diary included within it. Upon completing the book (an unpublished manuscript), he sold and or gifted a number of historically important documents and artifacts to various museums and private collections. When he died, no one recalled where he placed these items, and he neglected to record the information. I had the transcript of the diary and had known about it for many years, but I considered the original MS lost. I discovered it (in the Schoff Civil War collection at Ann Arbor) when doing online research on William. I went to Ann Arbor to compare the two documents to make sure the transcription was true and accurate to the original. Once that was confirmed, I knew I had to do the book.
What did you learn about him after working on this project?
I learned too much to do justice to in this format. If I had to speak to things about the man that I found genuinely surprising, I think I would have to note two characteristics. The first is just how intelligent and well-educated the 22-year-old who began this diary was. He never attended a day of school. He was educated at home until the age of about thirteen, then he was apprenticed to William H. Clemmitt at the print shop in Shockoe. Yet, this young man had a good command of Latin, was fluent in the mythology of the Greeks and the Romans, could convincingly sneer at Voltaire, was a vicious wit, a gifted writer, and he could (as all compositors in the era had to do), read upside down and backwards
in several languages
. William was an intimidating character to take on in many respects; his intelligence humbled me.
The next characteristic that still surprises me when I think of it is his irrepressible loyalty to those he cared for. The younger William showed almost no loyalty to his officers and questionable dedication to some of his comrades, but to William H. Clemmitt, the Smith family, Robert Brock, and later in his life, to men like T. Grayson Dashiel, he was absolutely unwavering. He forged bonds in early childhood that persisted as the most important relationships—both personally and professionall— throughout his long life. That, to me, is remarkable, especially in a city like post-war Richmond, with its transient population and boom-bust commerce cycles. William’s circle was possibly one of the most consistent in the city at that time, and I believe that consistency is what helped him achieve the success and excellent reputation he eventually enjoyed.
What have people told you about the diary, as far as its historical importance?
John Hennessy, National Parks Service chief historian for the Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg National Military Park, has said William Ellis Jones’s diary is one of the most important first-person primary sources for the 1862 campaigns. He relied on it for his second Manassas book, which is the definitive history of that battle. I consider this extremely high praise from one of the most eminent historians working in the field today.
You made an important discovery when you realized Jones-the-diarist was the same person as Jones-the-postwar-publisher. How did you make that connection?
I was raised with a family recollection of William Ellis Jones as a printer and publisher, who amassed a remarkable library, who was also—early in his life—a veteran of the American Civil War. What I wasn’t aware of until later (in my adulthood, as I became in involved in collecting antiquarian books), is that many of William’s imprints were rare, quite valuable, and considered important in the genres of Virginiana and Civil War history. I began to study and catalogue his work, and that led me back to the Civil War diary I’d always known about, but never really investigated. Once I got into the diary, I realized it was also an extremely important document, and that it had never been published. That sent me down the rabbit hole of learning all I could about William by investigating his 1862 experience. That research led me to John Hennessy’s Second Manassas book, and it was there that I discovered that he—at least—had used the diary. Conversations with him led me to other works which referenced the diary. I realized that no one who had used the diary had made the connection between the diary and William, the publisher of the
Southern Historical Society Papers
, which also references the diary liberally in several works recollecting various battles or events of 1862 (without crediting the diary, however). Initially, I found it difficult to believe that no one had put it together, but in time I realized this was the case.
This was the first book you’ve written. What was that experience like for you?
In truth it isn’t the first book I have written. I’ve been a writer in one form or another most of my life and have completed several book-length works.
The Spirits of Bad Men Made Perfect
is the first history work I’ve published under my own name through an academic press: the University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale. That experience was simply amazing. The press, by putting the MS in the hands of eminently qualified peer reviewers who staunchly refused to allow me to take shortcuts, skip steps, or gloss over difficult or controversial material, made this book what it is. It was often frustrating but always worthwhile. At times I was convinced I was so far beyond my depth I would never be able to produce a draft the peer reviewers could accept. At every turn their advice for additional inquiry or insistence that I dig deeper on some detail I initially felt was minor, produced an epiphany, altering the course of the work. The conclusions I began with are not the conclusions I wound up with. In fact, I am still revising conclusions in my head, based on the challenges they tasked me with. Publishing with an academic press isn’t for everyone. For me, as an avid reader of history books, as an antiquarian collector and seller, there was never any other option. For this work I wanted the gravitas that comes with a respected academic press, and SIUP did not disappoint.
Lightning Round: (short answers)
What’s the favorite place you’ve visited in the footsteps of your ancestor?
Sorry, I can’t do a short answer here. It’s too good to abbreviate.
My favorite place was William’s residence at the time of his death, at 1006 West Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. I went there with no other expectation than to snap a quick photograph of the façade. What happened when I got there can only be described as surreal. I was compelled to knock on the door. A young woman answered, and I stumbled out an explanation for my appearance on her doorstep on a Tuesday afternoon in April. After hearing me babble something about a man a hundred years ago who was a printer who once lived here, she got an odd expression on her face, and then said, “Oh, you have to come in!”
I walked into the front room of the house, and my jaw hit the floor. Placed directly in the middle of the main room of this very nicely restored old house was a gorgeous 19
century platen printing press—a press probably very similar to the ones William used at his printing company. I couldn’t believe it. The walls were adored with letterpress broadsides. Prints hung drying from wire lines strung from the crown molding.
To make a long, unlikely story short, the couple (and I met them both) who owned the house were craft letterpress printers, employing 19
century technology to 21
century design projects. They had several antique platen presses operating in their home, which also doubled as an art studio and print shop. In addition to all that, they had a rather nice stone lithography studio (something else William would have done in his shop).
They were thrilled to learn about William and discover their home had genuine letterpress provenance. They said they “felt” approval for their work from the first moment they walked into the place, and with my visit they understood why. I felt like William was alive and well in that home.
What’s your favorite episode or passage from the diary?
Two of them:
1] “The spirits of bad men made perfect,” as a metaphor for alcohol and/or getting drunk. William gave me the title of the book with that, as it is also a perfect metaphor for devotees to the Lost Cause.
2] “We were then ordered to pitch the hospital tent, and just as we finished the task the captain came down and let out his hypocritical cant, much to my disgust and wound up by making us promise not to run the blockade any more, or he would continue the punishment until he thought proper to cease, pusillanimous tyrant.”
The fact that William managed to get “hypocritical cant” and “pusillanimous tyrant” into a single sentence is talent, but just coming up with “pusillanimous” on the fly is exceptional—and he spelled it correctly! I still can’t spell it correctly!
What’s your favorite sentence or passage you wrote?
It’s at the end of the book:
“He is, in his own words, ‘the spirit of bad men made perfect.’ That perfection, however, is a fiction. Getting to truth is a more complicated process than creating fiction, yet its results are far more instructive. To not repeat the mistakes of history, we must first know what they are and acknowledge the true cost of them. That accounting is something William never attempted, leaving the job for his children and grandchildren. Perhaps it was just too much to take on after the war, after losing so many friends and so many family members, after the devastation of the evacuation fire, after rebuilding everything from the ground up. Perhaps he and his generation needed to retreat into the comfort of a fictionalized past.
Throughout the war, William Ellis Jones faced incredible challenges and threats to his very survival. Despite it all, he persevered. His legacy is the diary he left to our consideration. His words, his accomplishments, and the facts of his life, will survive long after the fiction he helped create and proliferate has faded from memory.”
What’s a question you’d have liked to have been able to ask your ancestor?
Why did you stop writing on 12/31/1862? What happened?
What’s a question no one has asked you yet about this project that you wish someone would?
What do you have in common with William Ellis Jones?
- A father who left me at too early an age to the care of others, who then died before we could quite reconcile our differences.
- Who also provided me with a vast library of books for my early education.
- A childhood fascination with archeology and Egyptian (as opposed to Greek) mythology.
- My first job (I was fourteen) was with a newspaper as a layout artist/compositor (employed by Bill Adler, who is noted in the acknowledgements in the book).
- I was trained (at East Carolina University) as a graphic artist/designer and worked in the printing and publishing world for the first fifteen years of my post-university, professional career.
- I started keeping a daily journal at the age of ten, and have journaled on and off throughout my entire life. (I understand the compulsion of journaling, as well as the compulsion to stop recording when things gets too difficult to document.)
- Like William, I began collecting books in my teens. Today my personal library numbers about 4000 volumes, and my day job is handling books, especially the antiquarian variety. I collect letterpress Virginia histories and 18th and 19th century Welsh language imprints. (I began doing this before I knew much about William Ellis Jones. It’s just in my DNA.)