By Megan Neary
Ohio-based siblings William and Donna Burtch have written a captivating biography of their ancestor, William Gould “W.G.” Raymond. The book’s cover gives a glimpse into the complexity of Raymond’s life, reading “W.G. The opium-addicted, pistol toting preacher who raised the first Federal African American troops.” The Burtches do a superb job of examining this man’s complexity, his flaws and his virtues, to give the reader a three-dimensional view of Raymond. Raymond’s story and that of his troops have largely fallen through the cracks of history, making it particularly encouraging to see new light shone on these individuals’ contributions to the union.
I had the opportunity to sit down with the Burtches and discuss their work with them. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Megan Neary (MN): How did you learn about this story to begin with?
Donna Burtch (DB): I’ll tell you the real genesis for it was family conversations in Pennsylvania years ago. Our mother and her sister were really close and my aunt, our aunt, had this manuscript of W.G.’s that he wrote in 1892. So we had heard the stories in the conversations with our relatives and in, probably, 1986 we got a copy of the manuscript…. We all read it and thought there’s so much unique stuff around this guy’s life and we would like to know more. Well, you know, life gets in the way, we had careers, I had children, we went through the whole lifespan of what you can do and it takes you off track of writing…. I started doing genealogy, too, maybe ten years ago and [W.G.] was in part of the family tree. So, of course I got some more scoop on him through my ancestry research. … And so, every once in a while, we’d talk about him. Well then, it was right around Thanksgiving we started having conversations…. Our original plan was to try and create a documentary. … The most exciting thing was we were able to see pretty quickly that everything we researched that [W.G.] had talked about in his own notes was true. You know, we were able to pretty early on corroborate this stuff, so that gave us a lot of encouragement to keep going.
William Burtch (WB): We both said one of the best life experiences we’ve had is researching this book and writing it and corroborating it. W.G. Raymond widely fell through the cracks of history … so it’s gratifying that we can bring this man’s story out 160 years later and find a receptive audience for it and we have. It’s remarkable and just makes us feel so glad that we took the time to do it. And it was just an interesting story that kept unfolding for us and amazingly the writing just worked out well. We just divided it up by life stage and then we’d share each other’s writing and by editing between us it became just sort of our voice. Because the risk you run obviously when you co-write something is just that, that you’re going to get two very different voices and it won’t jive, and by doing that we were able to make it essentially one voice. … So, it’s been just a remarkable ride for us.
MN: What was the process like to get it published?
WB: Yeah, it was interesting. We’ve learned a lot. It’s been a real crash course in the publishing industry, which, as you know, has gone through a remarkable, really, sea change over the last few years due to technology and so forth. We wanted to go the traditional publisher route for a variety of reasons, but mostly just for access to a certain distribution. Our motive all along has been to get W.G. Raymond’s story told… so we wanted to go traditional if possible. … So, we knew we’d have to reach out to agents, but, that being said, we knew there were also a small number of publishers that will still look at a manuscript and they tend to be university presses, smaller independent publishers. So, what we did is we covered our bases. We were reaching out to agents, and we were reaching out to those publishers that still accepted manuscripts concurrently and we got encouraging feedback from all those channels. We got some interaction with agents that wanted to read the full manuscript and we responded to those and we had different questions back and forth but there wasn’t anything really concrete happening. We were hopeful, and, at the same time, we got some feedback from traditional publishers, including Kent State University press, that were interested. … Sunbury press, who is a small independent press in Pennsylvania, they specialize in history. Notably, it was baseball history in the beginning. That was their niche. But then they expanded into regular history and biographies and autobiographies and that’s why we had targeted them. And I’ll step back a minute and say that we were very targeted in our approach… we didn’t just shotgun to anybody, and we think that helped us and it was time well-spent. … Our main goal, we always felt like it’s less important how big or how well known the particular publisher, than it is just to get us to have the book in our hands because we knew that we would do a lot of outreach. So, we were excited, and Sunbury, as it turns out, really appreciated the manuscript and that meant a lot to us. We felt that it was important to them and that meant a lot to us. …. We’ve also learned that publicity, as publishers are doing less and less of it, they’re pushing more of it on to the authors, for budget reasons. It’s so competitive, so we’ve had to learn a lot about publicity and outreach and so forth, but it’s been a wonderful experience. We’ve learned a lot and we’re just so happy that we had the opportunity to do this.
MN: It seems like it went pretty quickly.
WB: It was an unusual time. You know, it was covid, we were all trapped at home. Research on the internet is so much easier now; everything fell together. I had lost my wife three years ago in November and it was, this was somewhat of a salvation too, because being alone all the sudden… it just helped me fill the time in a creative way and an engrossing way. And that helped so much with the mourning process as well. It’s just strange everything fell together with the timing so we were able to write it quickly. It’s not a real long book; it’s barely over a hundred pages, but his story, he’s a very interesting man and we didn’t want to fill it with minutia. We wanted the bigger headlines because we had some– he had some pretty big moments and we really wanted to focus on those and let his autobiography, even though it’s 160 years old, speak for itself. …We wanted to focus on the things that fell through the history, that fell through the gaps, so that’s why it’s only one hundred some pages. But we feel like it’s a hundred, hopefully, impactful pages.
DB: The weirdest part of it—I think it’s true for both of us—but in going back 160 years and looking at the dynamics of what Washington D.C. was like and then what the president was like and what these major players were like and then you fast forward 160 years and you realize things haven’t changed very much. Like, the opioid addiction, you know, and WG himself had a ten-year battle with full-blown addition. Race relations … divided country … that was one of our takeaways. It was strange that the story, in many ways, though the backdrop was different, the storylines could be from today’s time.
WB: The risk of a lot of, any history book, really, is is it relevant to today’s reader. Is it providing something new and is it relevant? Can they relate to it? And… it’s just remarkable how the headlines could literally come from today with the challenges we’re facing as a country. …This is very relevant to today and it’s important that people understand, you know, it’s easy to look at any given time and think, wow, things have never been this bad. I mean, the world’s falling apart and that’s why the study of history is so important because it gives perspective and you learn 160 years ago—guess what? We had racial tensions; we had drug addiction; we had an incredibly divided country with people shooting at each other. … You go back, and you say, what lessons can we learn, having dealt with this 160 years ago? How are we dealing with this today? And so, hopefully, that’s resonating with different readers and the feedback we’re getting seems to say that it is. And that makes us feel really good.
DB: There were so many times in WG’s life when things happened, as they do in any of our lives, and it was largely a story of kind of rebuilding and forging on. In some ways, of kind of redemption. So, that was another element that drew me, was his personal challenges
WB: It’s a wonderful thing at this stage of life and there’s a message for your audience, or your readers. I mean, clearly, we’re living proof that’s it’s never too late if the stuff’s in you. It’s just a matter of accessing it and getting it out and that’s the joy of it—it’s discovery every day.
MN: Is there anything else you want to add?
WB: A good part of our story has to do with African Americans enlisting heroically on the streets of Washington D.C., which, at that time, was a wild place. … It was right on the cusp of the north and the south. … It was a very wild town and, as you know, there’s a lot of talk of the 54th, as there should be. The 54th of Massachusetts regiment, which was founded and authorized by the governor of Mass. And the movie, Glory, was made in the late 80s. … That was always my take on African Americans fighting in the civil war, what I sort of saw in the movie, Glory. But, in doing this book, we saw that there’s so much more, so many more stories that, as we said, fell through the cracks. … Importantly, though, were the troops that he [WG] raised in Washington. He got authorization directly from Lincoln to do this (WG did), and he set about raising these troops and recruiting and hundreds came forth. And these had been escaped slaves, freed men, different backgrounds. And they came forth to fight. And they trained on the streets of Washington. And they took terrible jeers and, you know, horrible abuse from the crowd. There were supporters of course, too. But, you know, it was tough. And WG himself almost got shot in the head in a recruiting meeting because people were so opposed to this. And that story is important in a lot of ways because it didn’t obviously have the benefit of dramatic productions and so forth, but it was very real. And these people were very real, and they were signing up, and it was before they had real sponsorship or support from anyone. So, probably, the most rewarding thing for us from this journey is to get their story out there, and to make sure that people are at least aware. As important and heroic as the 54th of Massachusetts were, there are others as well that had heroic stories that just were lost. … If nothing else comes out of this whole thing, you know, we take great comfort in knowing at least we’re getting that part of the story somewhat told.
About the Interviewer: Megan Neary is the co-editor-in-chief of Flyover Country. She is a teacher, writer, and editor living in Columbus, Ohio. Her work has appeared in a variety of literary journals and newspapers.