Interview with Randol B. Fletcher, Author of Hidden History of Civil War Oregon

When did you first become interested in the events of the Civil War?

I have had a life-long interest in history and majored in history when I went to college. I became particularly interested in the Civil War era when I was on a camping trip with my wife and children at Fort Stevens State Park and a group of Civil War reenactors marched through the campground. The next day I watched the reenactment, and although I did not join then, the experience stayed in the back of my mind. Several years later, I finally took the plunge and started Civil War reenacting.

Was there a particular story that piqued your interest in Oregon’s Civil War history?

As a youth I read a book about the 20th Maine, and when I decided to get involved in reenacting, I remembered that book and the movie Gettysburg and joined the 20th Maine reenactors in Oregon. Through reenacting I met members of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and got involved in locating and restoring the graves of Civil War veterans. I became aware that General Thomas Thorp was buried in an unmarked grave in Corvallis, and as I researched the information needed to obtain a government headstone, I learned about Thorp’s remarkable life. I said to myself, someone needs to tell this man’s story and that was my first biography of an Oregon Civil War veteran: “The Minister and the General.”

 

How did your family history impact your desire to write this book?

My father’s family were Oregon pioneers while my mother came to Oregon as an adult, she was a fusion of western and southern heritage. Because I lived in Oregon, I always had more of an interest in that part of the family history, and my first published piece was a history of my great-great grandfather’s adventures on the Oregon Trail. Once I began to write about the Civil War, I did more research on my mother’s ancestors who had fought in that war. My grandfather lived with us, and he had known his Civil War veteran grandfather very well. I wish I had asked more questions about him before my grandfather passed away.

 

What was your research process like?

I wanted to write about forgotten soldiers so I had to find stories that were interesting but that had not been overdone so the research was a balancing act. Many times I started with an obituary and blended in unit histories and facts from the war. I would use census records to track veteran’s movements west as well as their changing occupations. I would then weave all the different pieces of information into a cohesive narrative.

 

How did you select which stories to include in the collection?

I really tried to find veterans that had photographs because the faces added so much to the human aspect of the stories. I think I did a good job of touching on the Civil War but really telling about how these veterans coped after the war. The four Medal of Honor recipients were natural choices as were the last Union and Confederate veterans. Some chapters just sort of came to me by luck. I was looking through a GAR book from the 1920’s which had portraits of all the Oregon officers, among all the white men was one proud African American portrait. I wanted to find out more about that man and it led to my chapter “From Plantation to the Pulpit.”

 

Did visiting Civil War battlefields or memorials change your view of any stories told in this collection?

Visiting Gettysburg had a major impact on me. Standing on Little Round Top you can see the whole landscape where so many people fought for their very lives. Standing on hallowed ground where brave men died sends chills down your spine.

 

What was the social impact of Civil War veterans settling in Oregon?

It was the policies of the Lincoln administration that had the greatest impact on Oregon after the Civil War: The Donation Land Claim Act, the transcontinental railroad, support for public colleges, all massively changed the Oregon landscape. The Union veterans themselves formed the Grand Army of the Republic which became a powerful political force for 50 years.

 

What is your favorite part of attending, or participating in, a reenactment?

The camaraderie is the best. My favorite part of the day is sitting around the campfire with the guys and talking about the events of the day. In my reenactment group we try and stay in period even after the public leaves.

For more about the book, visit the Hidden History of Civil War Oregon Facebook page.

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