Author Dan Clendaniel, a retired public school teacher from Virginia, was kind enough to agree to an interview with the Siege of Petersburg Online about his new books, Such Hard and Severe Service: The 85th Pennsylvania in the Civil War. Volume I, 1861-1863 and Such Hard and Severe Service: The 85th Pennsylvania in the Civil War. Volume II, 1864-1865, both published by Monongahela Books (https://monongahelabooks.com/).
Brett Schulte, Editor of The Siege of Petersburg Online (BRS): Dan, thanks for taking the time to (virtually) sit down with me and answer some questions regarding your two volume history of the 85th Pennsylvania. Before we dive right into your background and the details of your book, could you take a moment to describe your interest in the 85th Pennsylvania and the Civil War in general? How did it start? Were you interested in Civil War topics prior to your interest in the 85th Pennsylvania, or vice versa?
Dan Clendaniel (DC): I can’t claim to have been a Civil War enthusiast until about 15 years ago. As a history teacher, I had a love of the past but my favorite time period was probably America in the1920’s and 1930’s. In the 1990’s my sister, Nancy, transcribed ten Civil War letters in our family ‘s possession written by brothers John and Stephen Clendaniel. I learned my great grandfather spent six months in a hospital and thought, great, he missed all these great events due to sickness. I thought his time in the hospital was the crux of his war service. I was very wrong. About ten years later, I decided to look for other primary sources about the regiment. My father was in his late 80’s at the time. John Clendaniel, his grandfather, had died nearly 30 years before he was born. So I therefore began to do research to provide information to my father about his grandfather’s war experience. Every week there was something new to tell Dad about. By the time my father passed away in 2011, he knew the highlights of John Clendaniel’s life during the Civil War. This was the genesis of my book project.
BRS: In looking over your web site on the 85th Pennsylvania, I noticed you are a retired public school teacher with 34 years of experience. What topics did you teach? Did teaching prepare you for writing your two volume history of the 85th Pennsylvania? If so, how?
DC: I taught U.S. History for about 27 years and civics for about 6 years. I spent my last year in education as the Teacher-in-Residence at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in nearby Triangle, VA.
As a teacher, my strength is that I knew a little bit about a lot of events. More than my teaching, my part-time job helped prepare me to write a regimental history. For about 25 years, I was a stringer for several local newspapers here in Prince William County, Virginia and wrote hundreds of articles about high school sporting events. I am not a great writer, but learned to how to ask questions and to write under a deadline. This experience gave me the confidence to take on a larger project like the book.
BRS: Could you tell interested parties more about your web site on the 85th Pennsylvania? Why did you create it? When did you create it?
DC: I started the website as a way to promote my book and it took on a life of its own. John Banks, a fine Civil War author and blogger, was invaluable in helping me to set it up. I tried to include stories that did not make it into my book. It started in 2019 and I’ve written almost 70 articles for the blog since then.
BRS: Tell me more about the letters of your ancestor John and his brother Stephen. How did you find them, or were they in your family’s possession for years?
DC: We always had the letters, passed down from John to his son (Daniel) and then to my father (William). But it took my sister’s effort to transcribe them around 1995 that sparked more interest within the family. We knew a fair amount about the Italians on my mother’s side and the Germans on my father’s side, but information about the Clendaniels on my paternal grandfather’s side was sparse. I was a bit disappointed when I first read the letters of John and Stephen Clendaniel. They were brief and did not provide much information about the war. Still, there were names and dates that gave clues as to the brothers’ movements. It made me want to find more accounts from the men of the regiment.
BRS: Let’s talk about the 85th Pennsylvania itself for a bit. Besides the connection with your Great Grandfather, what made you decide to write a modern regimental history of the regiment? Why did you want to tell modern readers their story?
DC: Well, first of all, I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania, the area from which the regiment came. So for me it was a trip in time through my childhood home. Secondly, even though Luther S. Dickey’s original history of the regiment from 1915 is very factual, I felt Dickey left out large parts of their story. Thirdly, my goal was to give the reader a feel for what it was like to be in this regiment from the point of view of the common soldier, not necessarily about troop movements and military strategies. That is why I used so many primary sources to write the book.
BRS: Could you briefly discuss the major leaders in the regiment’s history? They seem to have had fewer regimental commanders than your typical regiment. Joshua B. Howell and Edward C. Campbell figure prominently in the history of the regiment, but they were regarded very differently by the men.
DC: I believe Colonel Joshua B. Howell who created the regiment loved his country and loved his boys. He helped save McClellan’s army from partial destruction at the Battle of Seven Pines. But he was not the same leader after his concussion on Morris Island in August of 1863. He became moody and somewhat manic-depressive. By the time he died in September of 1864, he seems to have lost much good will from his men. Colonel Edward C. Campbell lacked people skills and would have been better suited as an adjutant or in a desk job. He seemed to go out of his way to flaunt his authority and tick off his soldiers. Two leaders whom the regiment respected were Henry A. Purviance and Isaac Abraham. Lieutenant Colonel Purviance was killed in the trenches on Morris Island in 1863 by friendly fire. His cousin, Major Abraham, led the regiment in early 1864. The enlisted men thought so highly of him that they pooled their money to buy him an engraved sword. Many more would have re-enlisted had Abraham been named colonel of the regiment in 1864 instead of Campbell.
BRS: Could you give us a brief overview of the 85th Pennsylvania’s battles and experiences? I’ll ask some more detailed questions following this overview.
DC: The 85th Pennsylvania took part in the Peninsula Campaign (especially the Battle of Seven Pines), the defense of Suffolk, Virginia, the Goldsboro Expedition in North Carolina, the Siege of Charleston in South Carolina, the Bermuda Hundred Campaign in Virginia during May/June of 1864, and siege operations along the Richmond-Petersburg front in 1864. About 125 soldiers from the regiment also participated in the capture of Fort Gregg near Petersburg and played a prominent role in Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865.
BRS: In Volume I of your two-volume set, you go into a lot of detail about the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31-June 1, 1862 and the controversy in which the 85th and Casey’s Division found themselves following the battle. Why was Seven Pines important to the 85th Pennsylvania? What happened to them there? And why do you feel the “standard” account of these men at Seven Pines is wrong?
DC: Actually, I feel that the misperceptions about Casey’s Division at Seven Pines was righted years ago. Even in the days just after the battle, members of the press began questioning McClellan’s stinging and very public criticism of the performance of Casey’s men. My goal was to tell the story of the first day of the battle from the perspective of the 85th Pennsylvania. It was their first battle and they performed with toughness and bravery. The fact that Company D which included my great grandfather’s brother, Stephen Clendaniel, was on picket duty and was one of the first to observe the swarm of Confederates charging towards their encampments only added to the drama.
BRS: After the Peninsula Campaign, the 85th Pennsylvania found themselves in relative backwaters of the war along the Eastern Seaboard in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. What did you find most interesting about their service from the Fall of 1862 to the Spring of 1864 prior to their reinsertion into the main theater around Richmond?
DC: As I wrote on my blog, what stands out is the number of times the 85th Pennsylvania escaped engagements along these fronts that would have led to many more casualties. The 85th Pennsylvania had so many close calls with fate. One was being sent to Suffolk after the Peninsula Campaign instead of north to fight with the Army of the Potomac at Second Manassas and Antietam. Another was not being chosen for the two failed charges upon Battery Wagner near Charleston in 1863. When it was their turn to charge the battery, the 85th Pennsylvania found it had been abandoned. And finally, they stayed in camp at Hilton Head, South Carolina when General Truman Seymour led an ill-fated expedition to Florida that resulted in the lopsided loss at Olustee.
BRS: In the Spring of 1864, the 85th Pennsylvania was sent back to Virginia as part of the Tenth Corps, Army of the James. What were the key parts of their experience in May 1864 at Bermuda Hundred?
DC: There were eight fights on the Bermuda Hundred peninsula between the James and Appomattox Rivers in May and June of 1864. The 85th Pennsylvania took part in two of these fights, both at Ware Bottom Church near the James River. By the end of June, the Confederates built entrenchments from one end of the peninsula to the other. Their landing had been a surprise, but the Union had lost a golden opportunity to capture Richmond or Petersburg or both due to hesitant leadership.
BRS: In mid-June 1864 the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign officially began as Grant moved away from the Cold Harbor Battlefield, crossed the James River, and threatened Petersburg. The second major battle of their experience occurred during the Second Battle of Deep Bottom at Fussell’s Mill on August 14, 1864. Tell us a little about what happened to the 85th and what they accomplished there.
DC: The Battle of Second Deep Bottom was part of Grant’s Fourth Offensive to simultaneously stretch Confederate defenses along the Richmond/Petersburg front. The Union had more success along the Petersburg line with the capture of the Weldon Railroad. Near Richmond, Second Deep Bottom was virtually the lone successful Union action of the campaign. The 85th Pennsylvania and their brigade stormed a Confederate earthwork through a hail of musket fire and captured the position with heavy losses. Two men from the regiment, John Shallenberger and William E. Leonard, were awarded Medals of Honor for the capture of enemy flags. The Confederates sent in re-enforcements (the Union did not) and re-captured the earthwork from other Union forces a few hours later.
BRS: There was a controversy over the unit’s muster out date in the Fall of 1864, resulting in the unit serving a month longer than they expected. What happened there? Why was there a disagreement, and how was it finally resolved?
DC: The dispute was caused by two events. The regiment was organized in September and October of 1861 in Pennsylvania. Most of the men were mustered in at this time. However, due to smallish numbers in several of the companies, a reorganization took place. Twelve companies were reconstituted into ten and new muster rolls were recorded just before the regiment left for Washington, D.C. in November. Many of their muster records and payrolls were lost at the Battle of Seven Pines in 1862. They men felt as though their three-year enlistments were up in October of 1864. The government felt they should stay until November. Eventually, a compromise was reached. The men were taken from the front lines in October and sent to Gloucester, Virginia for one month of relatively light duties before mustering out.
BRS: As the original members of the regiment were sent home to be mustered out, 55 members of the 85th Pennsylvania were in many cases “forcibly volunteered” for a large prisoner exchange mission to the South. You dedicate a significant number of pages to this exchange. Could you tell us more about it? Why did you choose to focus on this event as much as you did?
DC: Part of my reason for writing extensively writing about this event was personal. One of the men who “volunteered” for this duty was my great uncle, Stephen Clendaniel. Another reason was that a few members of the regiment were prisoners in the exchange and came home with their comrades who were guards. Finally, I felt it was an interesting topic that had not been written about very much by historians.
BRS: Dyer’s Compendium will (somewhat misleadingly) tell you the members of the 85th Pennsylvania who did not muster out with the original members were transferred to the 188th Pennsylvania. But this didn’t happen during the actual fighting. And in fact, the remaining men were “attached” to the 199th Pennsylvania through Appomattox. Could you tell us more about this? Your book allowed me to change my unit page on the 85th Pennsylvania to reflect the reality of this arrangement, and I found the circumstances of this attachment to be interesting. Could you tell us a little about what happened there?
DC: John J. Fox, in his excellent 2011 work about Fort Gregg called “Confederate Alamo,” included the lesser numbered 85th as a distinct unit at this state of the war and I decided to follow suit. Some accounts lump their casualty numbers in with the 199th Pennsylvania, which made it challenging to delineate the actual 85th losses. When the war ended, these men of the 85th still had some time to serve. They were “transferred” to the 188th Pennsylvania to perform guard and provost duties, first in Richmond and then in the Lynchburg area. Some were mustered out and went home in June of 1865 and the rest later that December.
BRS: If you had to sum up the 85th Pennsylvania’s service in a paragraph of three sentences or less, what would you write?
DC: I would say that 85th Pennsylvania is part of a tradition which has seen western Pennsylvania proudly contributed manpower to every military engagement in which the United States has fought. Due mainly to poor leadership, the 85th Pennsylvania fought gallantly but was on the losing side of nearly every battle or campaign in which they toiled, from Seven Pines to the Bermuda Hundred. It is sadly ironic that only a fraction of the men who stayed in the service after 1864, including my great grandfather, were able to experience the successes at Fort Gregg and Appomattox.
BRS: I found your utilization of primary sources to be the very strongest part of your books. How did you go about collecting them? Did you have help from others? What did you enjoy the most about the process? What was difficult?
DC: My intention was to have the men from the regiment, as much as possible, tell their own story. I was advised that short quotations are standard when writing history, but I chose to use the words of the men in longer quotes, sometimes a paragraph of the two. Historian Patrick Schroeder was big help, both with his own book (written with Richard Sauers and Ronn Palm) called “The Bloody 85th: Letters of Milton McJunkin, A Pennsylvania Farmer in the Civil War.” He also directed me to Corporal William E. Finley’s 1867 memoir. I wrote to many other 85th descendants on ancestry.com to try to come up with more personal accounts. Libraries were very helpful, especially with the diaries of Richard Dawson and Samuel Marshall.
BRS: What were your best sources within the regiment? What happened to the men who wrote them? And what sources outside the 85th Pennsylvania did you find most useful?
DC: The best regimental sources were the family letters of Corporal Davis Himmeger (provided by Ryan Berley), the family letters of Captain John E. Michener (provided by Margaret Thompson), the online memoir of Sergeant M.L. Gordon, and the diary of Captain Richard Dawson (courtesy of the Rubinstein Library of Duke University). Two great sources for the first two years of the war were Lieutenant Colonel Henry A. Purviance and Private Robert R. Roddy. Both were newspapermen by trade. Unfortunately, Purviance was killed and Roddy received a medical discharge. The best outside source would have to be the Homer Plimpton of the 39th Illinois, whose words I was able to use with the help of Plimpton’s grandson, John L. Dodson.
BRS: Another strength of your book was your coverage of the Bermuda Hundred and Richmond-Petersburg Campaigns. Many regimental histories tend to gloss over the Siege, but you spent a great many pages on the topic, including the down times in between battles. Did you find the research for this portion of the book to be more difficult in terms of numbers of sources? How about when many men of the regiment were mustered out?
DC: I’d say my biggest concern was that available primary source material for the 85th Pennsylvania was dwindling because so many men had died or left the regiment due to illness. I therefore relied more heavily on sources from the other regiments in their brigade – the 39th Illinois, 62nd Ohio and 67th Ohio. Another valuable source was the old National Tribune newspaper from Washington, D.C. It was sort of a 19th century version of a chat room. Veterans would write letters of their war experiences, and other veterans often responded with their version of the event. One example was the capture of General William S. Walker, which was a particularly proud moment for the 62nd Ohio. Telling the story of Fort Gregg and Lee’s Retreat was very challenging from the point of the view of the 85th Pennsylvania since so many potential sources had gone home. The diary of Sergeant James E. Sayers was a huge help here, courtesy of Margaret Sayers Upshaw and Margaret Vaughan. For both events, I used brigade sources as well as more Confederate sources than in previous chapters to tell the story. I hope that my book adds to the role played by the Army of the James in the Appomattox Campaign. It has been rather overlooked by historians.
BRS: In my review of your books, I give you a minor deduction for maps. How did you make the decisions on which maps to use and where? Did you consider hiring out a mapmaker? And did you consider creating maps yourself? As someone without an artistic bone in my body, I empathize with every aspiring regimental historian on the subject of maps, and I almost never give glowing remarks. It’s a difficult thing to do extremely well.
DC: I scoured histories for other regiments written in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s for maps and graphics. I also searched for maps at the Library of Congress website. Hal Jespersen’s modern maps of the Peninsula Campaign and Lee’s Retreat were valuable (and free with citations). I paid for a few modern maps in terms of donations to historical societies, but to do that throughout the book would have been too costly. And like you I have absolutely no artistic ability of my own. Finally, the 85th Pennsylvania did not fight in the major battles of 1863 and 1864 like Gettysburg, Vicksburg, or the Overland Campaign. It made finding appropriate maps a bit more difficult.
BRS: The number of appendices was a very nice surprise at the end of the book. I give a detailed list of what these contain in my review, but could you tell us what your favorite appendices were and why? How did you obtain the information for them?
DC: My favorite appendix is the chronological list of postwar deaths. I scoured many newspapers for obituaries (I have an extensive collection on my computer). Findagrave.com, where I created a virtual cemetery for the members of the regiment was a big help as well. Finally, I walked around in many cemeteries in western Pennsylvania to find headstones of the veterans.
BRS: Your web site notes you are open to speaking engagements about the 85th Pennsylvania. Is this still true given COVID? If not, do you plan to start up again in the future?
DC: I had done about ten speaking engagements prior to Covid. The last was at the Palm Coast Civil War Roundtable in Florida in early 2020. I have been recently making contacts to do more speaking engagements. One that was cancelled due to Covid, to the Cornerstone Genealogical Society in Waynesburg, PA, was postponed but it looks as though it will be rescheduled for this June. I also have a tentative engagement to speak in June at the town of Amity in Washington County. Two others in western Pennsylvania are in the works.
BRS: Now that you’ve completed a fine two-volume work on the 85th Pennsylvania, do you have plans for any other books? If so, what are they? If not, do you have plans to continue expanding your web site on the 85th Pennsylvania?
DC: In the works is a Volume 3 which will be an alphabetical listing of every man in the regiment with biographical details. This will include their war service as well as information about their pre- and postwar lives. Secondly, I have an 85th Pennsylvania Facebook Page that follows the 85th regiment on a day-to-day basis. I have maintained this for the last 2 ½ years and plan to continue for another year or so until I reach the end of the war. I may explore turning this into a book. Finally, I have toyed with the idea of writing a modern history of the 100th New York. They were from the Buffalo area (where my wife is from) and fought near the 85th PA throughout the war. They had some amazing experiences, both positive and negative.
BRS: Thanks for taking the time to chat, Mr. Clendaniel. I enjoyed your unit history and I welcome it as another worthy addition to the Civil War Siege of Petersburg literature. For my readers, if you are interested in buying Dan’s two volume history of the 85th Pennsylvania, Such Hard and Severe Service: The 85th Pennsylvania in the Civil War, here’s a link to Dan’s author page at Lulu.com and also to the publisher, Monongahela Books. Readers should also check out my detailed review of Volume II, and by all means check out Dan’s web site on the 85th Pennsylvania. It contains even more information on this southwestern Pennsylvania regiment.