Thursday, November 11, 2004
Book on Civil War letters is unexpected hit
A computer that "died and it took everything with it" almost kept the book from publication.
But that turned out to be the right place. The first 100 copies of "Soldier of Southwestern Virginia: The Civil War Letters of Captain John Preston Sheffey" sold out within minutes and the Smyth County Historical Society was taking additional orders for copies to be mailed to buyers. Nearly 450 people filled Marion's Lincoln Theatre on Tuesday night to hear Robertson, a history professor renowned for his Civil War research, talk about the book before it went on sale. Robertson told how the collection of letters from Sheffey - a Confederate cavalry captain from Marion who would become a prominent lawyer, judge and legislator - were uncovered by some of his descendants, Betty Blair Stewart, Martha Hull Copenhaver and the late Caroline Parrish Seager.
Robertson, who edited the book and put the letters in historical perspective, said that Sheffey's accounts open a door on the Civil War in Southwest Virginia closed to historians until now. "Southwest Virginia at last has an articulate spokesman for the Civil War history," he said.
But the book almost did not happen. The publisher lost the first disk Robertson sent in with the text, and Robertson's computer "died and it took everything with it." He reconstituted the entire book from his single surviving hard copy. "It came that close to not being a book at all."
Officials at Louisiana State University Press, one of the country's largest publishers of Civil War books, thought that 20 to 40 copies would be plenty for a first-night event in Marion. Don Francis of the historical society persuaded them to send at least 100.
They were all gone within about five minutes, with many people buying multiple copies to take advantage of the $30 first-night price (the regular price is $39.95) and to have Robertson sign them.
"It just overwhelmed us, for which we're very grateful," Francis said Wednesday. "They went like hotcakes."
The book is available at online stores. Robertson is taking no royalties, with all profits going to the John Preston Sheffey Academic Scholarship in Civil War History at Tech, where the letters are housed.