ONE WRITER’S JOURNEY
A PASSION FOR HISTORY AND ITS RELEVANCE
Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom – BENJAMIN FRANKLIN
My name is Steve Chicoine and my passion is history – studying history, researching history, writing history and speaking on history. I am far more interested in the common man & woman, the forgotten or overlooked to whom we owe so much. Whether dealing with War & Peace or Race, Gender & Class, history helps us to understand life – how we got here and how what happens might impact our future. We also understand what those before us overcame and accomplished so that we honor their memory. It is important to separate myth from reality. The Founding Fathers were not perfect. There are many heroes among the common men & women, but we are all flawed mortals. Those, who study history, have the proper perspective on mankind.
I am the author of a number of scholarly books on history, several books for young readers on the history and culture of foreign lands (with his photographs) and three novels. I also have published a number of scholarly articles in academic journals. I am a long-time member of the Authors Guild (since 1996). I have a number of book projects in various stages, as well as a couple of screenplays. Some of my film work is registered with the Writers Guild of America, West.
I earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois and a graduate degree from Stanford University. Passion for life and intellectual curiosity drive me.
I have done extensive historical research on numerous occasions at the Hoover Institution on War and Peace on the Stanford University campus and at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. I have also worked in such famous institutions as the British National Archives at Kew Gardens, the Russian State Library (formerly, Lenin State Library) in Moscow, the Russian Central State Military Historical Archives in Moscow and the Yad Vashem Archives in Jerusalem.
I have been fascinated by history for as long as I can remember. History provides a sense of identity that is essential. For many years, I interviewed my two beloved grandfathers in order to capture as much as I could about the family history. My Italian grandfather spent nearly a year in Italy in prison for his participation in a human rights demonstration (In the massacre at Roccagorga in January 1913, soldiers shot into the crowd, killing eight and wounding fifty more). When released from prison, he found freedom by leaving home and coming to America. As an immigrant in New York City, my grandfather and others clashed in the streets with the Fascists at a time when many Americans embraced the ideas of Mussolini.
My father’s ancestors were all French-Canadien, dating from the early 1600s (See French-Canadien Ancestors under Early Colonial Era on this website). There are statues in Quebec City of three ancestors and historical monuments to many more across Quebec province. My grandfather’s Canadien heritage was integral to who he was and he passed that on to me. The French voyageur, traveling by canoe into the interior of the continent, epitomized freedom in a time when those in power would never allow such a thing. The grandson of a Dakota homesteader, my grandfather grew up in an immigrant community of French-Canadiens, where they spoke French in the home, at school and in church. I have traveled often to Montreal and the ancestral Richelieu Valley and down the St. Lawrence River to Quebec City. I walked the battlements of the citadel of Quebec and wondered more than once why Montcalm would have moved his troops out onto the Plains of Abraham to engage Wolfe. History would have been altered and the French people in North America free of British rule. Many years later, I received a wonderful letter from Rene Levesque, founder of Parti Québécois (“We must dare to seize for us the entire freedom of Quebec”), in response to my letter encouraging his efforts to establish a free Quebec.
The story of my French-Canadien ancestors as a revisionist history of Canada was the first book I ever wrote. A prominent editor introduced me to a well-regarded literary agent, who represented me, but was unable to get the book published. Sadly, I saw some similar versions of my history appear in print later. I still plan to eventually publish that volume in revised form in the undetermined future.
I devoured books from an early age. I read biographies and histories for young readers in second and third grades. A biography of Andrew Jackson is my earliest memory. Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne were important. My fourth grade teacher loaned me her copy of Homer’s The Iliad, which she later gave me as a present after I finished reading that classic. The volume to this day has a special place in my personal library. My adventures through books ignited in me the fire to travel. I walked the Parthenon, the ruins of the Palace of Knossos on Crete, the Temple of Delphi, Alexander’s city of Merv, crusaders castles in Israel and many more destinations as a result of one teacher’s kindness.
We read Caesar’s Gallic Wars in Latin class and I read the historical adventure novels of G. A. Henty on my own. The tragedy of the Roman defeat of the Gauls – some of them, no doubt, my ancestors – made a deep impression on me. On one of my many visits to Rome, I went to see the Tullianum, where Caesar imprisoned Vercingetorix, the Gauls’ magnificent warrior leader, before executing him. I went to honor Vercingetorix. He was the great man, not Caesar.
I once spent the better part of a week traveling the countryside in Normandy. My initial intent was to visit some ancestral sites. I can trace at least one of my lines to Vikings that settled Normandy. I ended up also studying William the Conqueror and the World War II landings and breakout. General George Patton admired and carefully studied William and his use of terrain. I later walked the battlefield in England at Hastings, where William won one of the great battles of history in 1066.
I grew up in Decatur, Illinois, immersed in the Lincoln mystique. His family homesteaded nearby when he was an infant. Lincoln practiced law and tried cases in Decatur at the old log courthouse not far from my home. He delivered his Stump Speech, the remarks which launched his political rise, in Decatur in 1831. The Republicans nominated Lincoln for president at the Wigwam in Decatur’s Central Park in 1860. That deep connection made it an even bigger thrill when I inadvertently came across an original letter signed by Lincoln while doing book research at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Of all the many fine books I have read on Lincoln, the best are Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk and Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural by Ronald C. White Jr.
Freedom is not the right to do what we want, but what we ought. Let us have faith that right makes might and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it – ABRAHAM LINCOLN
Over two thousand Decatur men went off to fight in the Civil War and distinguished themselves in battle. The park near our house was once the field, where these brave men mustered and drilled. A monument flanked by cannons lists the names of those who served. A far more striking monument occupies Central Park in the center of downtown. A wonderful aged patina covers three bronze figures of soldiers, a color bearer proudly holding up a tattered flag with two comrades huddled against him. Decatur’s Greenwood Cemetery, the final resting place of many Union and Confederate soldiers, features a number of fine monuments. One honors The Grand Army of the Republic, a national organization started by Union veterans in Decatur.
I read nearly every book in Decatur’s old Carnegie Library on American history. Books on the Civil War by Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton were the classics of the day and well deserving of their acclaim, even if they pale in comparison to more recent narrative nonfiction approaches to the subject. One of the prized possessions in my personal library is a copy of the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (1960) with text by Catton and lavishly detailed illustrations of birds-eye views of all of the major battlefields. Also among my treasures are volumes from Joseph Altsheler’s Civil War historical fiction series and his Young Trailer series set in the early days of the Kentucky frontier.
My father took the family on numerous trips east and was always willing to foster my passions. We made many trips to historical sights, even obscure ones far off the beaten path, such as The Battle of Fallen Timbers (1794) in Ohio. A long day at Gettysburg National Military Park was memorable and I returned several times, while studying the tactics and actions over decades. The Virginia battlefields were also moving, none more so that the Crater at Petersburg, which still echoes with the cries of the dying and wounded. In more recent years, I have taken two battlefield tours with Ed Bearss, the nation’s pre-eminent military history tour guide. First and Second Manassas will never be the same for me after three days with Ed, his in-depth knowledge of history and tactics exceeded only by his theatrics. An even better Bearss experience was walking the hallowed ground at Chickamauga. As the biographer of JOHN BASIL TURCHIN, who played an important role twice during the battle, Ed’s presentations transported me into the midst of the desperate fighting.
In walking through the small cemetery in Chappell Hill, Texas one day, I was struck by the many Confederate graves, the many different units in which the men served and in the important battles in which they fought. Subsequent research led to my immersion in the subject and my book THE CONFEDERATES OF CHAPPELL HILL, TEXAS. The matter of pro-Union Southerners – those who refused to be coerced to serve a cause that was not theirs – also captured my imagination. Two of our family’s Civil War veterans were Southerners, who distinguished themselves as Union cavalry officers, only to have their exploits overlooked and forgotten in their home states … until now.
All of my reading and studies of the Civil War led to an interest in the matter of freedom and the matter of the African Americans. I have published several scholarly articles on African American history. Several are included on this website. I have one book project and several other articles researched and waiting to be written. Each of them is an amazing story of courage and perseverance. The best outcome of these efforts was the friendship I developed with Negro League player Jim Freeman, who I featured in my article ONE GLORIOUS SEASON (which is on this website). I have fond memories of sitting in Jim’s basement in Decatur’s Mueller Park neighborhood, listening to Jim laugh as he told me stories of Buck O’Neil and Satchel Paige. “What you thinkin’? You know Satch can’t coach third base!”
The history of the American West – the real history of the American treatment of the native peoples and the forgotten role of the African Americans – fascinated me as I began to uncover the truth. Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was earthshaking. I have one minor article on Native Americans on this website. I uncovered some interesting material on Buffalo soldiers that I need to finish writing up and publish. None of the battlefields out West can compare with the Little Bighorn in Montana. On one visit, I was present on the anniversary of the battle and I was fortunate to witness a reenactment. The Indians participated with great zeal. The tragic stories of such noble men as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph have remained with me for many years. They fought desperately for their freedom, but, in the end, were overcome.
Central Asia in many ways was like the American West; i.e., wide open plains inhabited by fiercely independent and free nomadic peoples skilled at light cavalry warfare. During the nineteenth century, as the Americans conquered the Plains Indians, the Russians conquered Central Asia. I was drawn to the parallels and the colorful history. I followed the exploits of MIKHAIL DMITRIEVICH SKOBELEV, a general of the Russian Imperial Army, across the Central Asian deserts. On my first trip to Central Asia, I visited the ancient cities of Uzbekistan – Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara and Tashkent. On a subsequent journey, I traveled to Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, on that country’s border with Iran. While I delved into the past, I experienced the present. The Turkmen had just the week before torn down Lenin’s statue in Ashgabat’s main square. Had Moscow bureaucrats been more compliant, I would have been there in time to photograph that event. The border with Iran had just been opened and Ashgabat was filled with wild Iranian youth, many of whom seemed hostile. It was an interesting time. I remember a wonderful conversation with a young man in front of the statue of the eighteenth century Turkmen spiritual leader and philosophical poet Makhtumkuli. I had read of Makhtumkuli, recognized his importance and read his poetry. The young Turkmen was amazed that anyone other than a Turkmen knew of the poet or cared about him.
I traveled across China on two month-long trips. One to Xinjiang in China’s Wild West and one to Tibet. The Uighur people in Xinjiang and the Tibetan people in their historic Tibetan homeland struggle to maintain their culture within the P.R.C. I was fortunate to see not only China, but also Xinjiang and Tibet before the hordes of tourists and Han settlers changed everything. Such experiences are never forgotten.
I managed after several days in Ashgabat to convince a guide to take me to Geok Tepe, the site of Skobelev’s greatest victory where he broke the back of the powerful Tekke Turkmen people in 1881. Soviet and, later, Russian authorities had declared the site – famous in Turkmen history (in the same sense as Wounded Knee being famous in the history of the West) – off limits. I persisted in making my way there. Contemporary accounts leave no doubt as to the barbarity of the Russians, pursuing and slaughtering the fleeing Turkmen. The proud Tekke nomads lost their freedom and have never recovered it. My book project on this Russian military figure is covered on this website in the section Other Book Projects Underway.
I followed closely Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. I traveled to the Soviet Union to witness the surge of freedom. It was the first of more than twenty trips I made into Russia and what became the former Soviet Union. I had so many wonderful experiences. I traveled to Borodino and studied the ground of that historic battlefield of 1812. I experienced a very emotional tour of the vast cemetery at St. Petersburg with those many, many who died during the 900-day siege Leningrad during World War Two. The monument outside of Moscow, marking the farthest advance of the Germany Army in 1943 was powerful. I visited settlements of native peoples in Siberia and journeyed into the ancient battleground that is the Caucasus. I met with Armenian intellectuals, ate with the working class and came to know street hustlers in the bazaars and rug dealers in the flea markets. I hung out with intellectuals, fine artists and musicians in my many trips into Russia. I had dinner on more than one occasion with KGB generals in the course of doing book research. The Russian soul is deep and nationalism is not limited to their military. I attended the Easter Vigil services (standing for six hours long) at the great Russian monastery of Trinity Lavra at Sergiyev Posad, followed by a several hours-long breakfast with the high priests.
On one occasion, I was invited to an academic institution to see the original manuscript of the autobiography of Avvakum Petrov, one of the most venerated historical figures of Russia. Avvakum (1620-1682) was not a man of power, a czar or a famous soldier or even a nobleman. He was a man of God. He strongly opposed Patriarch Nikon and his reforms of the Russian Orthodox Church intended to align the church with the czar. The state persecuted the opposition, who became known as the Old Believers. Avvakum spent the last fourteen years of his life imprisoned in a pit. There he wrote what many consider to be one of the great masterpieces of Russian literature, first printed in 1861.
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing – Edmund Burke
While experiencing the Soviet Union, I immersed myself in time travel, following the opening days of the Russian Revolution in St. Petersburg through the eyes of the American journalist John Reed, author of Ten Days That Shook The World. Boris Pasternak, more than anyone, showed the impact of the revolution in his book Dr. Zhivago. Forces beyond Zhivago’s control tore apart his life. The Soviets banned the book as it challenged their complete emphasis on the state at the expense of personal freedom.A friend shared with me his most prized family possession: a samizdat copy of Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago. Dissidents in the Soviet Union reproduced illegal books by hand and discretely exchanged them with friends whom they could trust. It was moving to actually hold such a “book.”
I spent considerable time doing business in the oilfields of Siberia. As an historian, I associated Siberia with the Gulag even more than with oil. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago was as horrific a book as any I have ever read. One of history’s forgotten moments of heroism are the Gulag uprisings of 1953. The heroic figures never gave up hope, but lost their lives to the man in a desperate attempt to gain freedom. Among those involved in significant roles in the uprisings were Lithuanians.
I followed with great interest the Lithuanians’ brazen call for independence from the Soviet Union. I was convinced the Soviet Union was going to move to suppress the freedom movement in Lithuania while the eyes of the world were on the Gulf War. I was correct. In early January 1991, Soviet special forces descended on strategic sites in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. I followed closely each day the events as Lithuanian men, women and children protested. Good prevailed and the resistance led to the collapse of Soviet rule. Not long afterwards, I traveled to Lithuania to get a sense of this heroic surge of freedom. That led to some deep friendships and many more trips to meet these people so passionate and fearless in their pursuit of freedom. The result was my first book LITHUANIA: THE NATION THAT WOULD BE FREE.
In time, I began to delve deeper into the period of time that preceded my life, including the greatest conflict in the history of the world – the crusade to defeat fascism and its threat to freedom throughout the world. When I left the corporate world and moved to Minnesota, I was interested to see far less attendance at the national cemetery on national holidays. That inspired me to write OUR HALLOWED GROUND: THE WORLD WAR II VETERANS OF FORT SNELLING NATIONAL CEMETERY. I profiled over eighty veterans. The personal experiences related to that book caused me to do considerably deeper research on a number of related topics on World War II and have generated several more book projects. I only wish I had time to return to the American cemetery at Nettuno (just east of Anzio) in Italy and research such a book. Those buried at Nettuno – 7,861 Americans, who gave their lives in Italy for our freedom – deserve to be remembered and honored. If ever there was a formidable battlefield that I have walked, it was the ground below the Abbey at Monte Cassino. Thousands gave their lives so that we could be free.
World War II was the great crusade to defeat the Nazis and their racist ideology. My excursions in Lithuania led to my discovery of Ona Šimaitė, the Lithuanian librarian who risked her life to save the lives of Jews caught up in the Holocaust. I included a couple of pages on Šimaitė in my book on Lithuania’s fight for indepenence. Subsequent research for a book on Ona Šimaitė resulted in a series of profound encounters and friendships with Holocaust survivors, Lithuanian émigrés and many other fascinating people. I will shape that collective experience into a book some day soon.
In time, I began to delve deeper into the greatest conflict in the history of the world – the crusade to defeat fascism and its threat to freedom and democracy in the world. I have interviewed World War Two veterans for many years. The vastness of Fort Snelling National Cemetery and its many forgotten stories inspired me to research and write OUR HALLOWED GROUND: THE WORLD WAR TWO VETERANS OF FORT SNELLING NATIONAL CEMETERY, which University of Minnesota Press published. That project mushroomed to include Civil War, Indian War and Span Am veterans, WWI doughboys and Korean War veterans. This is not purely military history. The lives of these individuals represents valuable and important community history. That is what I am mining and putting into books.
There is another angle on national cemeteries, which I believe is justified, whether or not I ever get around to it. I have visited the American cemetery at Nettuno in Italy, just east of Anzio. It is very moving to see the graves of 7,861 Americans who gave their lives far from home and lie in rest on another continent. Their lives deserve to be remembered and honored.
Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to not speak. Not to act is to act –
I write because it is my passion. History provides our identity – whether as a nation, a race or a family. An understanding of our nation’s history is essential as a foundation for responsible citizenship. But it is more than that. We study history to honor the past and also to give us a sense of what should be done in the future. Sometimes that means that we must be certain to continue to follow the righteous course set out for us. In other circumstances, history allows us the insight to use our God-given moral sense to not repeat the tragic mistakes of the past. The study of history helps us to understand the complexities of human behavior in difficult circumstances and to critically examine and evaluate for the good of ourselves and of mankind. History is, thus, very important. The understanding of out past is integral to our survival. Few subjects are better suited to learning critical thinking.
I had a long career in Texas as an oil & gas executive, both corporate and as an independent. I later took part in the successful start-up of a technology company. I helped launch a venture selling accessories in the music business. None of that seems so important anymore.
The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance – VIKTOR FRANKL
I have volunteered for many years with various nonprofits, tutoring and mentoring disadvantaged youth. I spent time with the Catholic Day Workers in Houston. I coached Special Olympics basketball for several years, which was an exhilarating experience. I served on the boards of a number of nonprofit organizations. I was a Charter Board member of Tejano Historical Preservation Society in Houston. I was on the Advisory Board of Asia Society Houston for many years. I also served on the Advisory Board of the International Studies Center at University of St. Thomas in Houston. I was a member of an alumni investment committee for Stanford University for fifteen years.
One board position led to my assuming the role of Executive Director for a failing fath-based nonprofit, which addressed racial reconciliation.
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” ISAIAH 6:8
I hustled and pitched my vision and plan and raised more than sufficient funds to resurrect the organization. I expanded programming to address root causes of poverty and empower the underemployed and unemployed in the inner city. I re-organized and moved the organization out of an office building and into an apartment above a café on a busy street in the heart of the city. We greatly expanded the number of sites at which we delivered programming and facilitated hundreds into formal education and careers by teaching goal setting and the importance of a having a plan in place to realize one’s goals of a meaningful career and a successful life. It was an amazing time with too many extraordinary experiences to remember. I later was National Director of Community Programs for a nonprofit.
I find inspiration from such minds as Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, The Dalai Lama and Thomas Merton. However, I look to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, My Lord and Savior, for enlightenment, wisdom and redemption. I am a Christ follower.
I believe that it is important to study the life and words of Jesus to better understand how Jesus might have lived if He had been dealt the hand that you or I have. We are all flawed mortals. Do not judge Christianity by how Christians live, but by how Jesus lived while on this earth.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love serve one another. GALATIANS 5:13
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better,
whether by a healthy child, a garden patch
or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier
because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.