with JoAnna McDonald
JoAnna McDonald is the latest historian to join the stable of Emerging Civil War writers and historians. You can
read her full bio here
Your work for ECW thus far has focused on some of the challenges and unique aspects of leadership. What got you interested in that area?
Leadership has always been one of my interests. When I was a young lass, I read
I Rode With Stonewall
, Grant’s and Sherman’s
, and many more books in the same genre.
In the last fifteen years, there were two events that specifically triggered my interest in leadership. I had a supervisor who was a toxic leader—think Captain Bligh. Up until then, I did not understand how significant a leader was to the organization. How the leader’s mood influenced the team. Yes, it stank to be on the receiving end of this individual, but after many years of discussing the situation, I understand her lack of leadership had nothing to do with her being a woman. It had to do with her not being trained, probably having one or more not so nice mentors, and then her being a miserable persona. The second incident that influenced my interest in leadership occurred when I was deciding the subject for my Ph.D. dissertation. I thought I would research Human Intelligence and Technology, but I had no contacts with the U.S. Army’s intelligence community. So, I had already been researching Lee, and I went to Dr. Richard Sommers to discuss my idea of writing a dissertation on his grand strategy and strategic leadership. The rest is history (pun intended).
You have described yourself as a “hybrid historian.” What do you mean by that?
My blogs are written using a pedagogical (analytical) voice and a narrative voice. Usually, historians write either/or. I also combine history with the study of military theory and leadership. This allows me to place military theory concepts and leadership mechanics into historical context. It’s a unique approach, and some academics out there downright wouldn’t like it. In fact, I read a book on the Iraq War by a military theorist/strategist and he said in his introduction “I am not a historian.” I laughed. I wanted to ask this author: how do you know your theories work without historical context. I didn’t do it. Unlike this author, I’m not writing for the academics. My audience is the general public. When you see specific military theory or leadership concepts in a historical arena, you get a better sense at how winning a war or leadership works or doesn’t work.
So, analytical historian is the canary in a coal mine in me; explaining military theorist/leadership principles for the general public is the instructor in me, and a narrative historian is the bard in me: Hybrid Historian
Two of your mentors were Jay Luvaas and Richard Sommers—two great military historians. What’s one lesson each of them passed on to you?
Foremost, Luvaas taught me humility. He taught me that this (the writing, instructing, and speaking) is not about the individual historian; it is about helping to light the path ahead for the present and future generations. I also learned the importance of mentoring the younger generations.
Sommers taught me the importance of work ethic, although I don’t try to compete with his at all. I think the only one who would come close to having the same work ethic as him is Robert E. Lee.
Sommers also taught me patience, understanding, and forgiveness. My 130-pound German Shepherd, “Sherman”—named for the major general—almost attacked one of Dick’s little Boston Terriers. It was horrifying. I love animals. Fortunately, I had learned to do rodeo tackles with my Sherman and got him under control. Phew!
Military history tends to be a male-dominated field. Is there anything particularly challenging about being a woman in that field?
At 5’ nothing, I can’t see over the podiums.
No, I don’t really think about challenges or that I’m a woman in a male-dominated field. Luvaas and Sommers always, from day one, treated me as a “fellow student” of military history/Civil War/military studies.
When Dr. Luvaas signed his Staff Ride to Gettysburg book, co-authored with Hal Nelson (Brig. Gen. USA Ret), Luvaas wrote, “to a fellow student of the Civil War.” I just happened to be a woman.
You’ve got a great sense of humor (which we get to see a bit more behind the scenes than readers might otherwise get to see). How does that inform your work as a historian?
The study of human conflict is downright depressing, especially if you think about it too much. Combat is gross. Warfare, though, has to be studied. It’s like cancer. You have to understand it. My humor allows my brain to go into a horrible dimension and come out without going insane.
I will probably reveal more of my sense of humor in the special blogs you ask for from time to time. Like the one I am finishing up on
“a woman who's had an important impact on you and your development as a Civil War historian.”
Favorite primary source?
Favorite Civil War-related monument?
Irish Brigade 63rd, 69th and 88th New York Infantry 14th New York Independent Battery, Sickles Ave, Gettysburg, PA 17325. It is a Celtic cross with an Irish wolf hound mourning the brigade’s dead.
Favorite unsung hero of the Civil War era?
Henry Hunt for Union and Fitzhugh Lee for the Confederates
What’s a bucket-list Civil War site you’ve not yet visited?
Chattanooga (technically any western battlefield; grew up in the east. just have not taken the time to stop and visit them).
Favorite ECWS book?
A Season of Slaughter
by Mackowski and White (and Mackowski didn’t pay me to put his book down). It was informative, without being overwhelming, well written, easy to read and quick paced.