For award-winning Civil War author and journalist Patricia McNeely, there’s only one thing more exciting than a page-turning novel: a page-turning work of non-fiction.
“People have said, ‘Why don’t you write fiction?’ I tell them, ‘Oh no. This is a whole lot more interesting.’ You couldn’t make this stuff up,” McNeely said.
McNeely, a retired journalist and professor emerita from the University of South Carolina, has authored six books uncovering pieces of our nation’s history.
In her most recent book, Eyewitnesses to General William T. Sherman’s Atrocities in the Civil War, McNeely exposed and pieced together an eyewitness account of someone who was not only there during the burning of Columbia, but who is believed to be the only person in the city that Sherman went out of his way to personally protect.
“I’m calling it investigative history,” McNeely said. “And it’s just like investigative reporting. When I write my books, I feel like I’m interviewing the people I’m writing about.”
McNeely, whose resume was full of professional journalism experience before her bookshelf was full of her own titles, knows a thing or two about interviewing. Ironically, though, when she was first starting out, McNeely never seriously considered journalism. She was originally introduced to the field through her brothers, who worked jobs as paperboys, a job she envied.
“I stumbled into journalism because I was a girl, and I couldn’t have a paper route,” McNeely said.
While she wasn’t allowed to be a paperboy, there was another opening at the paper: In 1958, during her junior year of English studies at Furman University, McNeely began working at The Greenville News as its first female copy boy. She reported, along with fulfilling her copy boy duties, at The News until 1961, the year she met her husband Al McNeely and moved to Columbia. In Columbia, McNeely spent 10 years reporting and editing for the Columbia Record and The State newspapers. Throughout her career, McNeely’s work has won over 40 awards from the South Carolina Press Association.
McNeely’s interest in historical journalism developed when she entered academia in 1976, as a print and broadcast journalism professor for the University of South Carolina, and made it her research focus.
In the last decade or so since she retired from USC, McNeely has taken her critical eye and love of investigative digging to revisit the Civil War era in United States history.
“I kept seeing a disconnect between the Civil War history that I’d read in history books and what I was seeing in the letters and documents in the library,” McNeely said.
McNeely’s books, which work to bridge that divide, are unique in the way that they utilize direct quotes and primary sources to shape the narrative. From confederate reporters to General Sherman himself, McNeely says that she is amazed by the information buried within sources, such as in news articles and personal letters and journals.
“It’s a little bit different than the academic approach,” McNeely said. “I want it to be readable, and I want it to uncover and document developments that haven’t been written about before,” McNeely said. “I’ve been really surprised by how much I’ve been able to find.”
So where is McNeely getting these leads for stories that are over a hundred years old?
Whether it’s for an article or an entire book, McNeely says her process involves finding that one invaluable starting clue that, if you follow it through, will lead to a complete, and usually very interesting, picture.
“That’s what I’ve done on all of [my books]. I’ve just had a nugget of information,” McNeely said.
For example, one day, after a presentation at the Sumter Historical Society, a woman came forward with personal documents from Sherman himself that had apparently been in her family for years. The documents provided a never-before-seen first-hand account of the Columbia burning.
This particularly exciting nugget was the foundation for Sherman’s Atrocities.
Finding these small leads and the process of investigative digging are what encourage McNeely to keep writing books. And as long as she keeps stumbling across little nuggets of potential, she says that she’ll keep following them until the story is told.
McNeely’s other books include Sherman’s Flame and Blame Campaign through Georgia and the Carolinas … and the burning of Columbia; Lincoln, Sherman, Davis and the Lost Confederate Gold; Hand-written Recipes and Memories from America’s First Families; Fighting Words: A Media History of South Carolina; and she is the co-author of Knights of the Quill: Confederate Correspondents and their Civil War Reporting.