Sunday, September 13, 2009

Interview with Dr. Donald S. Frazier, Part Two

This post marks the conclusion of my interview with Dr. Donald Frazier (pictured to the left) about his new book, Fire in the Cane Field: The Federal Invasion of Louisiana and Texas, January 1861 – January 1863 published by State House Press earlier this year. I hope that you have enjoyed reading the interview, and I’m looking forward to reading your comments on it. Thank you Don for sharing your thoughts with the readers of this blog!

His book may be ordered from or the Texas A&M University Press Consortium.

Next month I am planning to present another interview with a prominent historian of the Trans-Mississippi.

Your book features a number of your own maps. What advice do you have for aspiring mapmakers?

Learn Adobe Illustrator. It’s not a real mystery on how to make maps, you just have to be prepared for a bit of a learning curve. I have drawn more than 2,000 maps for various clients world-wide. I discovered it is easier to turn a historian into a map drawer than an artist into a historian.

Geography and landforms are the canvas upon which history is painted. You understand how humans interact with terrain, and you will have an instinct for what is important to show on a map.

Also, if the place appears in your index, try to make sure at least one map in your book has it located.

You might, if you are working for others, require at least half payment up front. I have really cut down on the number of customers I am working for because of non-payment, partial payment, or other customer-vendor related issues!

Your book also features an unusual number of illustrations such as photographs, period newspaper engravings, etc. Do you have a particular philosophy that you use to help you select illustrations?

Here is one reason I published with State House Press. Since I have a say in how that operation is run, I could have a much more liberal hand in how the book would physically look and feel. I am very proud of the "heft" and weight of the book, the paper quality, design, etc. Typical university presses don't like so many images because it adds to proofing and design costs. My philosophy is, pictures help create a mood and tone for your work, just like in magazine and other print media. You may write brilliantly, but so often you can convey a "feel" better visually, and often slide in additional ancillary information in a good caption that expands on the story without interrupting the narrative. My work will be on shelves (or on Kindles or Sony Book Readers) for a very long time. I want it to be a good representation of what people (sources) are saying about the topic in addition to what I am saying about the topic; illustrations can provide a visual survey of how people were portraying the time and place in question.

I am also happy with the price, which of course is a product of design and editing costs, among other factors. I have had a few retailers and individuals squawk about the $40 price tag. Take a look at They are selling it for $26.00. So, if you are paying full price, you aren't looking very hard! The $40 price allows Amazon to deep discount the book. They look like heroes while protecting their margin. Local retailers could do likewise, they just can't take that leap of faith. In the end, with a typical local retailer only stocking two or three copies of the book, we are just quibbling over a few dollars difference.

The kiss of death is when a university press "short lists" your book. They only offer a 20% discount to retailers as opposed to the typical 43-50%. That means your book won't be on any shelves. State House Press will never do that. They'll pass on a manuscript before they do that.

A student comes to you and wants to know what Civil War Trans-Mississippi related research project they should tackle; what would you advise?

Well . . . I would focus on the nuts and bolts of how these armies are raised, provisioned, how local conditions evolve at the county level, issues relating to desertion and recruitment, etc., etc. I am very curious, for instance, how many beeves were driven from Texas to feed Confederate troops. Most Civil War scholars today think that supplies from the Trans-Mississippi are overstated in their importance. The Federals on the scene suggest otherwise.

Gary Gallagher once told me that the only thing worth studying in the Civil War pertains to Virginia. The Trans-Mississippi was, according to him, "needless violence." Maybe, maybe not. I don't think he's looked hard enough at the evidence to say definitively. It may be that all of the work to really get at a response to this claim is yet to be done!

At any rate, I will let the Gettysburg and Antietam posse continue to shine lights into well-lighted rooms. Meanwhile, you will find me bushwhacking around in the Trans-Mississippi.


  1. Thank you so much for the interview with Don Frazier! We go back longer that probably either one of us would care to say.... I always look forward to seeing him when I can make it to TSHA.

    I hope that some of the indexing work that I'm doing in the Citizens and Business file, and now the Confederate Officers file on will help with "the nuts and bolts of how these armies are raised, provisioned, how local conditions evolve at the county level" piece. I have found several requests for permits to drive cattle east, although at least a couple were only to western Louisiana to sell them to planters. I'd have to recheck dates to see if they were trying to replenish stocks lost or moved as a result of the 1863 campaign.

    I regret to say that I haven't read Fire in the Cane Field yet, despite the fact that our local POW camp picks up some guests as a result of the campaigns there, and despite the fact that we had locals among the Confederate army. I have now put the title on my wish list on Amazon. It's just that for the past year and a half I've been addicted to this project, and it has really curtailed some of my monograph reading.

    Vicki Betts

  2. I immediately thought of your work on the Citizens and Business file when I read Don's comment about finding out about the "nuts and bolts" pertaining to Trans-Mississippi armies. When I have the time to really devote to it, I am planning to subscribe to I certainly appreciate you mentioning the website in one of your postings. Sounds like you will have a lot of catching up to do in regard to your monograph reading!

  3. Actually, Ebsco, the same company that brings you America: History and Life database as well as Academic Search Complete recently purchased the rights to offer to libraries. I don't know exactly what it will look like--something Ebsco-like, or the same as it is now, but in an email last week their sales rep offered our library a free trial. I haven't followed up on that yet, but you might see if your library would be interested in a similar trial. Or you might want to time it until you have a research class that could also use it. Trials often only last about a month. But you know the real problem is that once you get sucked in, the rest of your academic plans just seem to float away! I'm having to force myself into a Rosenwald schools project from the 1920s, just for a change.

    Vicki Betts

  4. Thanks for the information about Ebsco purchasing I happen to serve on my university's library committee, so I'll talk to the director and see about getting the free trial. I certainly want to try in out although I am aware of the potential danger to my schedule!