An interview with Jo Blatti, editor

How did you first become interested in the life of A. C. Pickett?

Actually, Pickett introduced himself in a dramatic way. I was at an estate sale in north Arkansas with a friend, mainly visiting in the aisles. My friend pulled a small, worn little book from under a pile of music and children’s stories, handed it to me, and said, “What’s this?” The opening words penciled into the journal are :

Mobile, Ala.
A. C. Pickett’s private journal
Notes of events commencing 11th of June 1846
This day other 6 companies rendezvoused at this place received orders to equip & repair forthwith to the wharf on the steamers
Telegraph & Alabama...

There was only one place troops were likely to be going from the Mobile harbor in June of 1846. I had every reason to believe I was holding a rare document: the journal of a U.S.-Mexican War volunteer. I paid the estate sale staff a ridiculously small sum for the journal, which had not been priced, and started on my quest.

My first thought, of course, was that if Pickett was an Alabama volunteer, my job might be to get the journal back to an Alabama repository. My second was, if I found it in Arkansas, was there a connection to the state? Within days of finding the journal, I located a sketch of A. C. Pickett, documenting his residence in Arkansas from 1859 to 1883, and the existence of his Mexican War diary. Thus began a two-year project of researching his life; transcribing his journal; and writing about his time in Mexico, Alabama, and Arkansas.

What aspects of his character really stand out?

In the journal, Pickett comes across as an observant and curious young man -- hanging around headquarters, visiting campsites, chatting up fellow soldiers in search of information, climbing the rigging of ships to survey the landscape, trying cooked armadillo and pronouncing it okay, and bartering with Mexican civilians for fresh fruits and vegetables. Clearly, he also was self-conscious about creating a record. He is closely attentive to procedures within the military and issues that affect the civilian population. He successfully represents an enlisted man by demonstrating that the man had not been read the orders he was supposed to be following and keeps a running commentary on reimbursement to Mexican civilians.

In this attention to facts and procedures, and the even-handedness with which he outlines various disputes throughout the journal, he seems particularly well-matched to his civilian life as a lawyer. He sometimes shows a sympathy for the underdog—particularly soldiers who appear to be punished unjustly or too harshly. In his descriptions of Mexico and Mexican community life, Pickett often demonstrates complex responses. In a passage describing attendance at a Catholic church service, Pickett notes that the music was beautiful but the ritual off-putting (an interesting observation coming from an Episcopalian, a member of one of the more ritualistic Protestant churches, though he likely would have been “low church”), and he voices a polite concern that some other visiting American troops may have disrupted the service for worshippers. To me, that’s a thought-provoking bundle of ideas.

Did you find any surprises about the U.S.-Mexican War as you worked on the book?

I was really struck by how much this was a U.S. war for acquisition of land and how vigorously it was discussed at the time. Recent comparative scholarship probes this aspect much more than earlier interpretations. Like the subject of Indian removal—to which it is so closely related—the war casts American exceptionalism in a different light.

Lt. Ulysses S. Grant provided an unexpected, but welcome, point of comparison for the Pickett journal and other soldiers’ reminiscences. I knew he had served in Mexico. It turns out that he was posted to some of the same areas.

I was surprised by how much time Pickett and his fellow soldiers spent traveling around Mexico on steamboats and packets. I had expected more overland travel -- not the case at all for his group. However, they did get off boats a lot and march alongside to help negotiate sandbars and low water.

(Note: Other volunteers did march and travel by horseback more.)

How will this book be useful to students of American history?

My aim, as much as possible, was to place the reader in 1846-47. I wanted to present Pickett’s journal itself, of course, but also give a view of :

What things in your background helped as you assembled the book?

What helped most in the beginning was my familiarity with the nineteenth century, north Arkansas sources, and the many handwritten manuscripts I had read for other projects. However, I had to do a lot of digging across the country to find information about A. C. Pickett and his family. For such well-educated people, they left few records in any public or private institutions in states in which they were known to have lived or in archives that subsequently have collected Southern materials. A. C. put my training and experience as a researcher to the test. I’m hoping (against hope?) that the publication of his journal may lead to the discovery of other Pickett manuscript materials.