By Rick Dapp
When Civil War re-enactors meet in early July to collectively reminisce and channel the participants at the Battle of Gettysburg more than 150 years past, they are, in a way, paying homage not only to those Union and Confederate opponents, but to accounts of the battle as well. One of these accounts, E.J. Stackpole, Jr.’s seminal work, They Met at Gettysburg, has its 60th birthday this year.
Edward James Stackpole, Jr., a highly decorated veteran of WWI and WWII whose decorations included the Distinguished Service Cross, awarded for extreme gallantry and risk of life in combat, as well as the Purple Heart for wounds received, was the embodiment of the citizen soldier, eventually retiring from his career in the military as a lieutenant general with the 28th Infantry, which was given the name “Iron Division” by General of the Armies John J. Pershing during WWI.
Military service notwithstanding, Stackpole managed to create a publishing firm in Harrisburg, begun in 1930 with his brother, Albert – also a highly decorated general – that became synonymous with works of outdoor life and military titles. Stackpole Books, recently sold to Rowan & Littlefield, one of the largest independent book publishers in North America, was one of the premier publishers of military-related titles, including the bestselling Army Officer’s Guide that has now gone through 52 editions. Stackpole Books also became known for its nature series and large list of angling titles. And, despite its reputation for hunting and fishing volumes, it also published fiction by Damon Runyon and John Fante as well as autobiographies by legendary musician Benny Goodman and the equally legendary politician Huey Long.
Originally called Stackpole and Sons and Military Service Publishing Company, the firms merged to become Stackpole Books in 1959. And, as they continued to evolve, they formed Commonwealth Communications, a corporation that acquired various radio and television stations and operated the Telegraph Press on Cameron Street in Harrisburg. It was a media realm whose purview was enlarged by the astounding growth that complemented post WWII America. The company, founded and run by two highly respected military men, was a sure winner.
The publishing business came naturally to the two brothers since their father, E.J. Stackpole, Sr., had laid the firm’s foundation with a solid grounding in publishing. Learning the trade of printing at the McVeytown Journal and with several years as editor and publisher of the Orbisonia Dispatch, Stackpole, Sr. then moved his family to Harrisburg where he became associated with the Harrisburg Telegraph newspaper. With the advent of World War I, his sons, E.J., Jr. and Albert, became Army officers, distinguishing themselves in France before returning to the family business initiated by their father in Harrisburg.
Given his success in the publishing business and as a soldier, E.J. Stackpole, Jr. was in a position to spend some time researching and analyzing military history. He focused on the Civil War, and the results were nothing short of spectacular. During his career, he published They Met at Gettysburg, The Fredericksburg Campaign, Chancellorsville and Sheridan in the Shenandoah. All of these titles were well-received and are considered classics in the genre. However, They Met at Gettysburg is probably his best-known work because of his interpretation of the battle.
Rather than doing simply a blow-by-blow account of the conflict, he focused on the two generals – Robert E. Lee and George G. Meade – and their respective performances there. It’s an interesting perspective. Lee, who is, arguably, the greatest general ever to have graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, versus Meade, a 47-year-old general who had the command of the Union Army of the Potomac dumped into his lap two days before encountering the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at a little town in Adams County, Pennsylvania. Stackpole’s interpretation is classic and certainly influenced such luminaries as Michael Shaara, Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Killer Angels, Shelby Foote, James McPherson and Harry Pfanz.
With disparate career commitments demanding his time, both publishing and military (he was a captain during WWI and remained in the National Guard, serving in WWII and rising to the rank of lieutenant general), it’s not surprising that his account of the Battle of Gettysburg was not published until 1956 when he was 62 years old.
It’s important to note that, during the 1950s, the family publishing business continued to expand and increase its focus on nonfiction books, particularly history and outdoor titles. Among the outdoor books were titles by wilderness expert Bradford Angier, most of which are still in print today. It is no surprise that E.J. Stackpole, Jr.’s efforts were well-received and should not be construed as a vanity by a publisher. However, a previous effort, virtually unknown and something that can be construed as a vanity by a publisher, was the result of a need by his father, E.J. Stackpole, Sr., to express himself in print.
Tales of My Boyhood, a slim, leather-bound volume encompassing only 100 pages, was “Printed For Private Distribution, Nineteen Twenty-one, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania” by Press of the Telegraph Printing Company, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and authored by E.J. Stackpole.
It’s a collection of memories by the senior Stackpole on his formative years in McVeytown and Orbisonia, prior to relocating to Harrisburg. The prose in this autobiographical effort possesses a quaintness that reflects the times and, perhaps, sets the stage for what was to eventually become Stackpole Books: “When I left Orbisonia in January 1883, my earnest conviction was that the larger city (Harrisburg) held greater opportunities. An offer in potential political quarters to make it financially possible for me to obtain ownership of the leading newspaper at Huntingdon with a further pledge to send me to the Legislature were tempting proposals, but grateful for the good will of my friends I still believed that Harrisburg held a more inviting future in my chosen field of work. After almost forty years, I want to make grateful acknowledgement of the fact that Harrisburg has also been good to me.”
Neil McAleer, author of numerous books, including the bestselling biography, Arthur C. Clarke: The Authorized Biography (recently revised and re-released as Sir Arthur C. Clarke: Odyssey of a Visionary) worked for Stackpole Books and offered this observation: “I was an editor at Stackpole in the 1970s after working in publishing in New York and was always somewhat charmed by the old-world atmosphere of the firm. The pace was leisurely, the atmosphere collegial, and the offices old-fashioned in their physical location in the Telegraph Press Building. We were located on the second floor above the pressroom, with a number of specialty magazines occupying the offices down the hall from ours. When the big web press downstairs began a run of something like Prevention or Organic Gardening the entire building would groan slightly and brownout of the lights would occur initially and then return to normal. All in all, it was a wonderful place to work and a delightful experience.”
Stackpole Books moved from the Telegraph Press Building to Mechanicsburg in the early 1990s and continued to publish 90 new titles annually, with a back list of over 1,000 titles. With its purchase by Rowan & Littlefield, it will become an imprint of that publisher and enter a new chapter in its 86-year history. And, Harrisburgers will have to be content with memories and, as they pass the intersection of Cameron and Kelker Streets, perhaps a nod to a remarkable past.
This article appears in the September 2016 issue of Harrisburg Magazine