10 Questions with . . . Frank Jastrzembski
Because our two Polish Chrises (Mackowski and Kolakowski) weren’t enough, ECW has bolstered its Polish Pride with the addition of Frank
Jastrzembski to the ranks this year. Frank came to ECW as a contributor to our Mexican-American War Series, but he has wide-ranging and eclectic interests that have added a rich diversity to the blog.
read his full bio here
What’s your Civil War “origin story”? In other words, how did you get hooked on the war?
My obsession for the Civil War really started from a fifth-grade book report. Each student in my class had to write a report on one of the U.S. Presidents. I chose to do mine on President Ulysses S. Grant.
I became fascinated with Grant’s role in the American Civil War. I found it remarkable how a seemingly average, ill-fated man rose to be, next to President Abraham Lincoln, the most important man in the United States in 1864-65. Grant should be an inspiration to anyone who has ever been depressed, felt self-conscious, or repeatedly failed at something in their lives. When I think of Grant, I think of resilience.
Studying Grant naturally led to an interest in the war. I found it so strange that a civil war was fought in this country. I also really liked Civil War uniforms, especially the French-inspired kepi. Besides reading everything I could get my hand on about the Civil War, for countless hours I played the PC games
Robert E. Lee: Civil War General (1996) and
Grant, Lee, Sherman: Civil War Generals 2 (1997),
Sid Meier’s Gettysburg! (1997) and
Sid Meier’s Antietam! (1999). I am a visual learner, and these games, while they entertained me, helped me learn about the different commanders, campaigns, battles, and the organization of the Union and Confederate armies.
I soon turned my attention to studying the lesser-known generals of the war. I have continued to study and write about them to this day. There are so many generals who have played important roles in the war that are overshadowed by the big three (Grant, Lee, and Sherman).
You first came to ECW via our Mexican-American War Series, where you wrote some fantastic pieces. What are some of the connections between that war and the Civil War that fascinate you most?
Are there connections between the two conflicts that Civil War buffs should be more aware of?
I wrote my graduate thesis on the psychological experiences of American volunteers who fought in the Mexican War. I was stunned by how many names of future Union and Confederate generals popped up in my research (regular and volunteer).
I was fascinated by the friendships these men maintained from their days at West Point or that they forged during the war. They formed bonds while collectively dealing with hardships, the enemy, or the dullness of camp life. You start to realize that these men were not that much different than 20 and 30-year-olds today.
Tragically, these relationships were broken when these officers were forced to choose sides in 1861. Some resumed their friendships after the war, like Heth and Burnside, while others could not, like Hancock or Armistead, or chose not to. I sometimes try to imagine what I would have done if I had to go to war against my best friends.
I am interested in their experiences and how they were shaped by the war in Mexico. I see so much of General Zachary Taylor in Grant (hopefully a future ECW piece). Each of them took away new experiences from the war—meeting the elephant, directing men in combat, learning new strategies or tactics, suffering wounds, or witnessing the death of a friend or comrade.
All experienced the loss of a friend or relative in the war. Two Grant’s his messmates died during the war (Lieutenants Jenks Beaman and Sidney Smith) and he lost one his best friends, Lieutenant Robert Hazlitt, when he was killed at the Battle of Monterrey. “I have just been walking through camp,” Grant wrote home to Julia, “and how many faces that were dear to most of us are missing now.” Others, like Richard S. Ewell and Edmund Kirby Smith, lost siblings in battle. Ewell had to bury his brother. Robert E. Lee sent his cousin-in-law’s sword a letter home attempting to console his favorite cousin.
I am currently working on a book dedicated to the officers killed in the Mexican War. I plan to look at how some of their deaths emotionally affected future Civil War generals like Grant, Lee, and others.
You’ve also done work on the history of cemeteries in America. What got you interested in that?
Besides studying the Mexican War, another part of my graduate research focused on the history of cemeteries in North America. I discovered that a tombstone is just as valuable as a letter or journal found in an archival collection. It can tell you so much about a person just by its epitaph and iconography.
When one of my graduate classes was canceled at Cleveland State University due to the professor taking a job at another school, I pitched a cemetery internship to my advisor. I volunteered with Chris Garrett, a local historian, engineer, and founder of Adopt-A-Tombstone. I worked with her on a local cemetery in Fairview Park, Ohio, learning the dos and don’ts of cemetery preservation and restoration.
The first part of my project entailed writing a research paper examining the social and cultural attitudes towards death in the nineteenth century reflected through evidence of cemetery iconography, epitaphs, and architecture of tombstones in Northeast Ohio (published in the
Northeast Ohio Journal of History). The other half of the project consisted of actual fieldwork. I cleaned tombstones in a neglected cemetery and wrote a report on the proper preservation and restoration methods of tombstones.
I have retained this passion and appreciation for cemeteries. I am always visiting them when I have a chance or when I am on vacation (I must thank my wife for putting up with it).
You’re working on a certificate in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), with an eye on applying geographic technologies to historical research. What connection have you discovered so far?
I am still early in the process of learning to use the software (ArcGIS), but I have already seen the potential of GIS for historians. It is an excellent tool to present a large amount of spatial data visually that may be hard to express in writing. I have seen it used by historians to look at migration, religion, and fatalities, such as cholera outbreaks in cities. It can be used to look at anything dealing with location.
I have even seen it used for studying military history. One of its most famous samples is Charles Minard’s Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812. Six different sets of data are all displayed in one map: the size of Napoleon’s army, location, temperature, distance, the direction of travel, and location relative to specific dates. What you get is a map looking at the decay of Napoleon’s army over time taking all these factors into consideration. A map like this could easily be adapted for use of any Civil War campaigns. If you have the data, the possibilities are limitless.
Two terrific books I recommend to anyone interested in learning how historical technologies can be applied to history are
Mapping Time: Illustrated by Minard’s Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 by Menno-Jan Kraak (2014) and
Toward Spatial Humanities: Historical GIS and Spatial History edited by Ian N. Gregory and Alistair Geddes.
Lightning-Round (short answers):
Most overrated person of the Civil War? No one specific person comes to my mind as being overrated. There are many more that I feel are underrated or underappreciated (such as Richard Taylor, Slocum, Kearny, Richardson, and Ord). The list goes on. I have a fair share of generals that I don’t like (McClernand, Banks, and Butler).
Favorite Trans-Mississippi site? I haven’t had the chance to visit the site yet, but it would have to be Mansfield. I will get there one day. This was the Waterloo of the Trans-Mississippi.
Favorite Regiment? 20th Maine or any of the Iron Brigade regiments.
What one Civil War book do you consider to be essential? There are so many. I don’t know where to begin. If I had to choose only one Civil War book to read for the rest of my life, it would be a tie between Bruce Catton’s
Grant Takes Command or Ezra J. Warner’s
Generals in Blue.
What’s one question no one has ever asked you that you wish someone would? Well, it would have to be more of a dream: “How would you like your own TV series visiting historic cemeteries?”