Jerry Maxwell, a Commerce Township resident, has always had a passion for history, especially the Civil War. A nationally recognized history teacher at North Farmington High School, an active member of the Michigan Regimental Civil War Round Table since 1972, and a historical lecturer, Maxwell will now add “author” to his list of titles. His book, “The Perfect Lion: The Life and Death of Confederate Artillerist John Pelham,” will be published on April 28 by the University of Alabama Press, fulfilling a long-held promise to former students to finally write a “good” biography on the Confederate captain.
SCN: You have a book being published this upcoming April entitled “The Perfect Lion: The Life and Death of Confederate Artillerist John Pelham.” Please explain what first inspired you to write this book and why you chose to focus on Pelham. What significant role did he play in the Civil War?
JM: I taught Civil War history in high school for more than 30 years. I had a class called the Civil War, and he was one of my favorite characters. Students liked him. He’s appealing in many ways. He’s a great soldier, a handsome young man. He dies at age 24 halfway through the war. So his life story just appealed to me greatly.
SCN: Why do you feel people will be interested in learning about Pelham?
JM: Women like him because he is handsome and charming and shy and modest. And men like him for the same reason because he is shy and modest. The title of the book, “The Perfect Lion,” is a description that Robert E. Lee laid on him. Robert E. Lee said, “Sitting here across the table he looks like his mouth wouldn’t melt butter” or however he says it. “But on the battlefield he is a perfect lion.” So I thought, “Boy, that would be a nice title.”
And there have been three or four books written on Pelham prior to mine from back in the 1920s, 1950s, 1960s, and I was never satisfied with any of them. To my students I used to say, “You know, here are three biographies on Pelham.” None of them are very good, and my students would say, “Why don’t you write one?” And my answer was, “Someday, I will.” So it kind of led me to him. Plus, he fought under Jeb Stuart. Jeb Stuart is one of my absolute favorite people in the war. And Stuart was a good friend of Stonewall Jackson, who was one of my absolute favorites in the war. So everybody kind of tied together as a team, and it just all fit together for me.
SCN: How does it feel to have your book published?
JM: Oh God. It’s spectacular. I know many people who have written books who have never gotten anything published, and to have people say we will publish it and to have reviewers say really great things about it is thrilling.
SCN: You’ve earned an undergraduate and master’s degree in history and have also spent 32 years teaching history classes at North Farmington High School. Why does history appeal to you?
JM: Oh gosh. I don’t read fiction anymore. I got beyond that stage long ago because I thought man facts are so much better than fiction. Some of these stories you couldn’t make up — they’re just wonderful stories. I love reading any kind of history. Civil War is my No. 1, but I also taught World War II. I taught a class on the Old West, and I just always had a fascination with history.
SCN: In 1995, you were named the Daughters of the American Revolution State of Michigan History Teacher of the Year as well as the Daughters of the American Revolution National History Teacher of the Year. Please describe what this honor meant to you.
JM: Oh wow. Probably the greatest honor I had in teaching was to be wined and dined and just taken to Washington D.C. and introduced. I had to give a speech at Constitutional Hall in front of 3,000 or 4,000 people. My family was there. Can’t describe it. It’s just something that only a handful of people have ever gone through, and I happened to be one of them.
SCN: On your website, it says that you have always been passionate about U.S. history and the Civil War. Would you say that you are the most passionate about the Civil War or do feel more strongly about other topics in U.S. history?
JM: I think the Civil War is my No. 1 passion. I’m reading history all the time. I’m reading two or three books right now that have nothing to do with the Civil War but they’re history books. But that’s my No. 1 passion. I give talks/lectures and have for years since the 1970s. I’ve been giving talks mostly on the Civil War on different subjects at schools, historical groups, Civil War round tables, some in the state, some not in the state. It’s been my livelihood in a way — also just my passion.
SCN: Please describe why the Civil War appeals to you.
JM: Oh gosh, because it’s a time when our nation split and the whole thing about brother fighting brother. I have relatives on both sides of the war so my own family split. And it’s just (that) Civil War people are crazy, and I’m one of them.
SCN: You’re an active member of the Michigan Regimental Civil War Round Table in addition to being a historical lecturer. You have an upcoming lecture scheduled on Lincoln’s Cronies at the Wixom Historical Society on Thursday, Feb. 3. Can you please give us a brief synopsis about this lecture?
JM: The title is “Lincoln’s Cronies” and I just selected a group of some of Lincoln’s good friends, a variety of different people. All of them obviously with good stories or I wouldn’t have selected them. And I just kind of put a group together to give a talk on them and a little bit how they associated with Lincoln but more of biographical sketches of them.
SCN: You have also given lectures covering topics such as Lincoln’s assassination, Civil War Medicine and Surgery, General Custer, Jeb Stuart, and John Brown. Is any one particular topic your favorite? Please explain which lecture you have given that you’ve enjoyed the most and why.
JM: You know what? I get that question all the time, and my answer is kind of a standard, whatever talk I’m giving that evening, is my favorite. I do like Civil War surgery and medicine because I have a nice collection of Civil War medical equipment. So I show photographs of gory stuff that the audience gasps and so on. And I explain how operations took place in the Civil War, and when you’re showing people the real authentic tools — these are not fake — it excites an audience, whether it’s middle school students or elderly people or whatever it might be.
SCN: In your opinion, who was the most compelling figure during the Civil War and why?
JM: Oh wow, probably Abraham Lincoln because he saved the nation and probably he shouldn’t have. And I say that meaning he probably should have failed but he succeeded. And his life is just one tragedy after another — losing sons, his wife’s family fought for the Confederacy and some of those folks were killed. He’s just a compelling character and man, and probably the greatest American in my opinion that ever lived.
SCN: Of all the battles fought during the Civil War, do you feel one battle played a more pivotal role than any of the others?
JM: I’m going to say Antietam. Reason being it stopped a Confederate invasion of the North, and immediately afterwards Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which pretty much put a label on the war that we are fighting to end slavery. And I think that kept some foreign countries from intervening. So my choice would be Antietam.
SCN: Was there any defined turning point of the war that decided which side would triumph in the end?
JM: Now, I’m going to go to Gettysburg because I think the South could have won that battle and didn’t. And it stopped their invasion of the North, which might have brought England in on the Confederate side, maybe. It’s all speculation. We don’t know what would’ve happened obviously because the South didn’t win that battle. But that might have been the spot where it’s all over for the Confederacy even though they keep fighting for another year, almost two years.
SCN: Why do you think the South lost that battle?
JM: I’m going to tell you they didn’t have Stonewall Jackson. A series of mistakes and blunders and numerous people are to blame on the Confederate side. At the same time, the North deserves tremendous credit for what they did at Gettysburg that they hadn’t done at other battles. I think they just fought that battle the way it should have been fought and consequently won it. (They had) better artillery, more men — all those things — but the North held a position that was almost impregnable for the South.
SCN: 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. What do you feel will be done to acknowledge this important milestone?
JM: I think there will be as there was back for the 100th anniversary in the 1960s, there’ll be a plethora of books published, some good, some bad. Some people will take advantage of the fact that it’s the 150th anniversary. And they will write stuff that will be published and probably shouldn’t be. At the same time there will be a resurgence of interest in the Civil War as there was during the centennial in the 1960s. And some good stuff will come out, some new stuff. We have historians that are still around that know how to write and research. Hopefully, there will be a resurgence in classrooms and lecture tours.
SCN: If you could meet and talk with two people from the Civil War — one from the Union and one from the Confederacy — who would you choose and why?
JM: Can I think about that one for just a second? I haven’t thought about that. Probably Abraham Lincoln from the North because of what I said earlier. I think he would be an astounding person to sit and talk to. Plus you would have some humor. He’s a funny man. You’d have some charm. He was charming and although uneducated, pretty much he could hold his own with anybody. So I would probably choose Lincoln on the one side.
(On the) Confederate side, Robert E. Lee I guess. He was a gentleman, a scholar, a warrior. I liked to ask him a lot of questions like “Why did you do this” or “Why didn’t you do that at a battle?” The only problem with Lee is he was such a gentleman. It’s not that he would hold back the truth, but he might if he disliked someone, he probably wouldn’t tell you that. But I would still like to sit and talk to him.