Loudoun Historian Entrenched in Love of Civil War

Loudoun Historian Entrenched in Love of Civil War

Aug. 21-28, 2002

Civil War historian Stevan Meserve has 3,000 books on history, two major research projects underway and a part-time job leading tours of Civil War sites.

The Sterling man is afraid he bores people. That’s because history is his favorite subject to talk about, read about and be around.

Meserve acquired his interest in history as soon as he was old enough to understand the English language. He was born in Texas and “raised by the U.S. Air Force,” as he put it since he moved every two years. His father’s ancestors were from New Hampshire and fought in the Union Army, while his mother’s ancestors were from Alabama and fought for the Confederacy. His parents wanted him to say he was a Yankee or a Rebel.

“I wanted to find out what that was about,” Meserve said, adding that his study of the Civil War lead to a study of other historical time periods. “You can’t isolate one piece of history. You can’t understand the Civil War without understanding the Revolutionary War.”

MESERVE KNEW he wanted to do something with history, so in 1975 he earned a bachelor of arts degree in history from Brigham Young University. But after graduating, he went into the printing business to earn his keep and ended up doing freelance history writing on the side. Through the years, Meserve held various jobs, continuing to work as a historian when he had the time. He was the associate editor of “Civil War Magazine” from 1988 to 2000, when he became editor of “Caliber Associates” in Fairfax. In 1989, he and his wife Beth started Freelance Publication Consultants to provide publications for businesses.

“I don’t remember being any other way,” Meserve said when asked when he became a historian. “The Civil War isn’t what I do. It’s what I am.”

Meserve tries to work two hours a day, reading or researching history. For his research, he reads original records, published letters, memoirs, journals and diaries, along with other written materials. He likes to find the little-known facts or “something that has been hidden all these years.”

“It’s like working a puzzle when you find that missing piece and can make sense out of conflicting accounts,” he said.

Meserve compares and contrasts the different accounts, then tries to pull the most plausible account from the various versions of the same incident. “It’s a process of reading and analyzing, then start writing,” he said.

"He's amazing with the talents he has, not just remembering dates and names, he really delves into a story. ... He'll read it, and he will want to know what really happened," said Rebecca Fitzgerald, who met Meserve in the late-1990s when they were both members of the Lanesville Preservation Society. They now are part of the Eastern Loudoun Civil War Roundtable, a group of historians who meet to talk about history and to hear speakers and authors talk on the subject.

“It’s not enough to report what did happen. You want to understand why it happened,” Meserve said.

THE FOCUS of Meserve’s research is on small actions and the experiences of individuals and cavalry groups who fought during the Civil War, rather than on the larger battles. “It’s too often overlooked by writers of history. Most people want to study the big things,” he said.

For example, Meserve chooses the less known stories when he writes for the Civil War page in the Washington Times, such as an early Civil War battle in Dranesville that is “barely a footnote” in most references. In another project, Meserve’s mission is to prove Ball’s Bluff was not the only battle fought in Loudoun. The project involves his first book, which will focus on the county’s history during the Civil War. He also is working on a military biography of Roger Preston Chew, the commander of the 1st Confederate horse artillery battery.

Meserve assists with other book projects, including his current project of compiling tables and statistics for a Civil War Desk Reference for the Library of Congress and providing photo research for “An Illustrated History of the Civil War,” published in 2000.

Meserve continues his interest in history by leading monthly bus tours of the county’s Civil War sites, something he has done for the past three years. “I’m always trying to enhance the tours and come up with new tours,” he said.

THE TOURS include a half-day Guilford tour of eastern Loudoun Civil War sites and three full-day tours, including the Quaker County, the Gaps and the Loudoun Valley tours, all sponsored by the Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum through the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services.

"His programs are the most popular ones offered by the museum. They always fill up," said Eric Larson, curator for the Heritage Farm Museum, which is located in Claude Moore Park in Sterling. "We have people coming up from Richmond to go on his tours."

Larson said Meserve provides notebooks with information on each of the tours for the tour participants.

“I thoroughly enjoy talking about the Civil War,” Meserve said. “I enjoy sharing what I’ve learned about history … showing them something they never saw before.”

Fitzgerald said when Meserve gives a tour, he wants to make sure he can point out the exact place something happened or the exact road someone once used. "I couldn't believe on the level he was with ... the really famous historians," she said. "It's my hope more and more people get to know him for the historian he is."