Historian and author John Maass goes beyond the archives in his study of history, which gives his work a refreshing originality. He brings an element of investigative journalism to the field that is compelling. In his new book George Washington’s Virginia, Maass takes the reader on a tour of George Washington’s life in Virginia, including estates, taverns, lodgings, battle fields and routes related to Washington through his experiences, ownership, and family. The author’s original photographs of various sites and nuanced descriptions he incorporates into the book are evidence of his dedication to a unique approach to writing about American history that involves exploring as many places he writes about as possible. I found his style fascinating enough to drive south on I-95 from New Jersey to Virginia to ask him about his craft, and had the privilege of interviewing him about George Washington’s Virginia in his home town of Alexandria.
Question: “George Washington’s Virginia” is very different than any history book I’ve ever read. Could you describe the format of this book and why you decided to write it that way?
Answer: There are so many biographies of Washington and I would be the last one to do another one of those. I thought I should do a new angle. The book before this one was The Road to Yorktown, which was a campaign study of Cornwallis’s army battling Lafayette’s army in 1781 leading up to the Battle of Yorktown. I went on every road and route they went on, both the British and the Americans. I traveled from the Potomac to Williamsburg and out towards Charlottesville. In the back of that book as an appendix, I describe how you can follow the armies. I thought this would be a good idea for writing about George Washington because he traveled all over the state. He is not just associated with Mount Vernon, Yorktown or Williamsburg. During the French and Indian War he was at Winchester, Shenandoah Valley, Roanoke and Lynchburg. He had landholdings all over Virginia including what is now West Virginia.
There are so many details about him that people don’t know about and because I lived in Virginia since 1977, in five different places, I was amazed at how much people don’t know. This includes how many places he traveled, what he owned, what he did in Virginia. So I decided to do a biographical study focused on the locations Washington is associated with. I wanted the reader to feel like the author was acting as a tour guide.
Question: After reading George Washington’s Virginia I got the impression that you travel a lot as part of your writing process. Is that true?
Answer: I travel to take the pictures I include in my book. I also insist on going to the site if you write about them. You can’t write a battle or campaign without seeing the sites, the rivers they crossed, and the routes they walked. I have often found myself thinking questions like why didn’t the British just sail up the river and raid the settlements or depots in that area? Then you get out there and you realize the river was only fifteen yards across. Maps do not always accurately portray what you are analyzing.
Question: How do you stumble across the leads to these lesser known sites?
Answer: You start by reading the histories. A source may say that the Washington family owned an iron foundry near Fredericksburg, but they don’t tell you where it is. Near Fredericksburg can be anywhere. I start in the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. If it is on the national register it has an application. So I search for the application and it directs you to the exact location.
Other times I will be following a route, like the one from Fredericksburg to Williamsburg Washington took when he was in the Virginia House of Burgess, and I notice a house that looks really old. I would knock on the doors to these houses, tell the residents I am a historian and ask if they mind if I look around or just take a picture of the house. Most people who own a colonial house wants to talk about the history of the house. So I might learn from the owner that George Washington owned 800 acres that this house sits on. He may never have lived in that house, but instead rented it to a relative. I always look for another source to verify these stories.
Question: What were the sites you found most interesting that you included in the book?
Answer: A lot of Washington’s brothers moved to the Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia area. There were sites there that many people don’t know about that were Washington’s brother’s homes. Many of them are still standing. There was one called Hare Wood. It is not open to the public and it is on a very busy road. I did some research on it and not only was it a house associated with Washington, but it turns out that James and Dolly Madison were married in the house.
Question: Did you always know you wanted to be a historian?
Answer: I have always been interested in history. I currently live in Alexandria, Virginia, but I grew up in Lexington, Virginia. That is where Robert E. Lee was president of Washington and Lee University. Stone Wall Jackson is buried there and Robert E. Lee is buried there so it is a very historical town. I got an undergraduate degree in history from Washington and Lee, but then I actually went into the insurance industry. Right ought of college a great starting salary and benefits were attractive, but the shine wore off after several years. No one ever tells you that the biggest influence in your life was your claims adjuster. So I got a master’s degree in history part time, while I was working. A master’s degree is mostly reading and I was reading history anyway. So it was easy and fun, like a hobby. I was about thirty-six or thirty-seven and I thought I was young enough to make a change without jeopardizing my family’s finances so I decided to go to Ohio State for a PhD full time.
Question: What do you currently do for work, aside from writing?
Answer: I work for an entity called the Army Center of Military History. The U.S. Army History Center is the umbrella organization and underneath that comes most U.S. Army museums. The U.S. Army owns over fifty museums across the country and a few overseas. The National Museum of the U.S. Army will be open in about two years in Fort Belvoir. It will be accessible to all people that want to visit. When it opens it is going to have some signature items like a Sherman Tank from World War II, a tank used in World War I, a Bradley fighting vehicle, a Higgins boat from World War II, and various weapons and uniforms.
For the last ten years I worked for a different division of the U.S. Army Center for Military History producing pamphlets on Appomattox, War of 1812, short term projects on religious accommodations for soldiers and other research projects.
Question: You worked as a professor as well?
Answer: Well, I’m an adjunct thesis advisor for Norwich University. They have a great program for getting a masters in military history online. I do one semester of directed readings and then one semester advising on the thesis. It is all online, for which they have a platform where they submit assignments and receive my grades.
Question: What did you do your dissertation on?
Answer: My dissertation was about North Carolina in the American Revolution. It was a detailed study of the politics, the transition from the war to statehood, and why they rejected the Constitution the first time.
Question: Did any of your published works derive from your academic work?
Answer: My master’s thesis was about North Carolina in the French and Indian War. I turned it into my book The French & Indian War in North Carolina. There is a state historic site near Charlotte. They kept asking me to turn my master’s into something, because they needed something to sell on the topic. So I took a lot of the academic stuff out and incorporated a lot of the action, including massacres and stuff the average American wants to read about. I then worked with History Press to publish it. It was not just about North Carolina, but also its troops, which were all over the place.
Question: What are you working on now?
Answer: I’ve got a lot of speaking engagements this fall. Coincidently, Mount Vernon is hosting a conference on places associated with George Washington. They saw my book George Washington’s Virginia and decided to invite me. I’ll be interested to see what other historians have discovered about George Washington. I’ll especially be interested in the Ohio Valley West. He was constantly pursuing land grants in the Ohio Valley. Part of which was from his French and Indian War days when he was involved, not only as a soldier, but as a shareholder in land companies out there.
I also have a new book contract with History Press on the Battle of Guilford Court House in North Carolina in 1781. Nathaniel Greene versus Cornwallis. That should be released in about two and a half years.