Monday, April 22, 2013

Author Spotlight, Michael E. Shay

Michael E. Shay presents a complete portrait of this notable American and his many merits in Revered Commander, Maligned General. This long-overdue first full-length biography of General Clarence Edwards opens with his early years in Cleveland, Ohio and his turbulent times at West Point. The book details the crucial roles Edwards filled in staff and field commands for the Army before the outbreak of World War I in 1917: Adjutant-General with General Henry Ware Lawton in the Philippine-American War, first chief of the Bureau of Insular Affairs, and commander of U.S. forces in the Panama Canal Zone. Revered Commander, Maligned General follows Edwards as he forms the famous Yankee Division and leads his men into France. The conflict between Edwards and Pershing is placed in context, illuminating the disputes that led to Edwards being relieved of command.

Q: Why did you write this biography?
This book is a natural outgrowth from my previous two books, both about the 26th (“Yankee”) Division in the First Word War. My paternal grandfather was an original member of the division and served in the 103rd Field Hospital Company all through the war. My first book was about his service and that company in particular. My second book was a history of the Yankee Division in the war, told from the viewpoint of the soldiers themselves. In addition to original archival records, my wife and I scoured New England for first-hand accounts like diaries and letters. We were able to find materials from about 350 soldiers. Maj. Gen. Clarence Edwards formed the division in 1917 and served with it until he was relieved by General Pershing about two weeks before the end of the war. That action alone remains controversial to this day.

Q: Did you find a difference between writing a biography and your other non-fiction works?
Definitely. Writing a biography is all about maintaining the proper balance. It is important not to become so involved in the subject that you lose your perspective. That is not to say that a biographer cannot come to love the subject, but the writer must never forget that the subject is, after all, a human being with all their good points and failings. When it is finished, you hope that the reader comes away satisfied that they have been introduced to a very real and important person.

Q: What did you discover about General Edwards?
Most mentions of Edwards are brief, negative, and refer to his relief by Pershing. He has been referred to as a political general and a failure as a commander. While he may have owed much of his rise to his and his family’s political connections, so did virtually all successful commanders of his generation, including Pershing.  I discovered that, in point of fact, he enjoyed a very long and distinguished military career. Not only was he cited three times for bravery in the Philippine War, he was considered an exceptional administrator. Also, while he often let his mouth run away with him, at the same time, he enjoyed the confidence and friendship of President Taft and other important figures. Most telling was his relationship with those under his command, particularly the men of the Yankee Division, who revered him and affectionately referred to him as “Daddy.”   Edwards was a family man, and lost his only child in 1918, his daughter Bessie, who was in training to be an Army nurse. He deserves to be remembered for his rich and full life, and not for one incident taken out of the context of the whole.

Q: Why do you believe that it is important to write about the American participation in World War I?
During my lifetime, the last veteran of the Civil War died, and just this year, so did Frank Buckles, the last American veteran of World War I. So much continues to be written about the former, but for a variety of reasons, relatively little has been written about the latter. In all of our wars, the bulk of the fighting was, and continues to be, fought by citizen soldiers. The First World War was no exception. The Yankee Division was a National Guard division. Out of the nearly thirty divisions that saw some fighting in France, only about a half dozen were Regular divisions. The rest were either National Guard or National Army (draftees). Of the four divisions that collectively suffered nearly thirty percent of the casualties, two were Regular and two were National Guard. They were referred to as the “Old Reliables,” and the Yankee Division was one of them. It is important that we keep alive the memory of the sacrifice made by these brave men and women. 

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