Originally created 05/17/98

Civil War buff opens personal library for research



ROCKMART, Ga. -- First, his guys lost the war.

Then, his efforts to preserve some of their battlefields were beaten back.

Now, Civil War lay historian Don Wesley-Brown has a cause he vows will not be lost: to build his personal collection of books, magazines and artifacts into a widely used repository of that most powerful weapon of all -- knowledge.

"The Truth Library" is his nickname for the ever-expanding storehouse that's already attracted researchers from as far away as Texas. He plans for it to cover all American wars, but his base is the Civil War -- or the War of Northern Aggression, as some Confederate defenders call it.

The Civil War was fought over "the same stuff we have today in Washington," Wesley-Brown said. "It was all about who's going to run the country."

One of his uses for his library is to rebut "Yankee propaganda." He and other Southern diehards argue that the victors wrote a misleading history.

"We've about created the impression that we won the war, but we just signed the wrong papers at Appomattox," Nash Boney, a retired University of Georgia professor who's written extensively about the Civil War, said with a chuckle about Southern revisionism.

Wesley-Brown also has considerable material about Northern misdeeds, such as books that say Union commanders' hard-line strategy against prisoner exchanges helped lead to the horrific overcrowding at the Andersonville, Ga., prison camp where nearly 13,000 Union soldiers died.

But a key mission is preserving the accounts of the valor and sacrifices of the soldiers, "the poor fellows who had to go out and fight the wars that are usually caused by the ineptness of the politicians," he said.

The 62-year-old Korean War veteran's voice chokes as he reads the story of Confederate troops presenting arms and giving a rebel yell in tribute to a cheerfully gallant youth who lost both legs in battle.

"I can't fight with them, but I can fight for them," he said.

Wesley-Brown once served on the Georgia Civil War Commission. But he found its battlefield preservation efforts underfinanced and frustrating, particularly when he saw development of lands he fought to preserve in Paulding County, where he once lived.

So he decided he could make a lasting contribution by building and opening his library.

He has officially named it the Triplett Memorial Military History Library after his mother's family, which fought in virtually every U.S. war and had a large presence in the Confederate army.

The collection has more than 4,000 books and Wesley-Brown spends as much as $500 a month adding to it. He often finds bargains in antique stores, flea markets and library discards.

Boney, a native of Richmond, Va., said such strong interest in accumulating Civil War material "is really not that unusual."

"In my hometown, and in Athens, Ga., and all through the South, you find a lot of people who have this as an interest, a hobby," he said. "...I think it's a very healthy interest."

Wesley-Brown wants to use his library to spark the same interest in others. And if he doesn't have the definitive Civil War library, he certainly has an eclectic one.

Many people interested in the Civil War have biographies of Grant, Sherman and Lee. But how about the story of Maj. Gen. John Stevens Bowen, a Confederate commander on the western front who died of disease in 1863?

And many have read books about the epic battle of Gettysburg. But how about a book on the first day of the battle? Or a book about the Battle of New Market, which was fought in Virginia?

Also in this library are books on Illinois in the Civil War and on Iowa soldiers. You can read about how eastern Tennessee fared in the war, then about Henry County, Tenn., and then a whole book about life in Decatur, Ga.

There are memoirs of generals, politicians, soldiers, nurses, spies and war widows. There are Civil War cookbooks and songbooks; books about flags, uniforms and weapons; sets of official battlefield reports; and stacks of magazines, including one series devoted to the writings of Confederate veterans in the late 19th century.

Wesley-Brown has set up two rooms of his home in Rockmart, 50 miles northwest of Atlanta, as a library and research area. Besides books and magazines, he's accumulating compact discs for computer research. Eventually, he plans to use a digital camera and video to create "living history" accounts from veterans of World War II and the wars since.

"Slowly but surely, we're building it up," he said. "I'm like a retail clerk. The customers tell me what they want and I try to get it."

So far, most of his "customers" have been people interested in tracing their ancestors, historical societies and Sons of Confederate Veterans groups. But the collection is open to students, writers and fellow buffs.

"A library's not any good unless somebody's using it," said Wesley-Brown.

Excerpts

  • Excerpts from Civil War librarian Don Wesley-Brown's extensive collection that describe Southern views of the time:
  • "There they go, the gay and gallant few -- doomed, the last gathering of the flower of Southern youth, to be killed -- death or worse, prison. They march with as airy a tread as if they still believed the world was all on their side -- and that there were no Yankee bullets for the unwary." -- "A Diary From Dixie," by Mary Chesnut, published 1905.

    "After a battle, one would see a forest of crutches protruding from one wagon and a party of bandaged men in another; then the ambulances would pass, bearing those too ill to endure the drive in the wagon, and more mournful still, the carts carrying the rough boxes which contained the bodies of the slain." -- "Our Women in the War," by The Weekly News and Courier of Charleston, S.C., published 1885.

    "Quietly, she said: `No, my son, your place is not by me; you are needed yonder at the front. Go and avenge your brother, he did his duty to the last. Come son, don't cry any more; you're mother's man, you know."' -- "Confederate Nurse," by Fannie A. Beers, 1888.