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More About Roy, by Roy


A seventh- or eighth-generation Tennessean (the facts are a little fuzzy when you go back that far), I was born in Tullahoma, Tennessee, on March 21, 1950. I like to point out that I share my birthday with Johan Sebastian Bach and the arrival of spring, neither of which I can take any particular credit for. I’m also left-handed, something in which I take perverse, unmerited pride. I grew up mostly in Chattanooga, where my father, the first Roy Morris, was a prominent television and radio personality and an amateur actor of some note. My mother, Margaret Brew Coode Morris, was a stay-at-home mom, which meant of course that she did all the heavy lifting in our household. She was also senior-class poet for her Catholic girl’s school in Nashville, something I only learned many years later. Mother was always the modest one in the family. 


Owing to Dad’s inherently itinerant profession, we moved around a lot when I was young. I attended seven schools in my first seven years of school, meaning I was always the new kid in class. That’s not the worst preparation for a writer, since it tends to make you something of a wary onlooker, but I wouldn’t recommend it for optimum grade-school happiness. I was always a reader, but I think I can date my misty beginnings as a writer to the summer of 1962, when I broke my collarbone (actually a couple of neighborhood dumbasses broke it for me by tripping me from behind with a sheet taken from our clothesline when I wasn’t looking). With nothing else to do—my promising baseball career was temporarily put on hold—I spent the long, hot, un-air-conditioned summer reading. I haven’t stopped since. The New York Yankees have had to proceed without me. 


Like a lot of writers, I began my professional career writing for my hometown 

newspaper, the Chattanooga News-Free Press. I covered everything from presidential visits to fatal car crashes, and I was taught to write clearly and unobtrusively. The city editor at the Free Press, a bearish but secretly sensitive World War II vet named Julius Parker, placed a lot of emphasis on human-interest features, which I scorned at the time as “giant rutabaga stories” owing to the fact that I did, indeed, write a story once about a giant rutabaga. I also wrote stories about a guy who painted his house red, white and blue for the Bicentennial, a proto-nerd who built a NASA-level spaceship in his bedroom, a humble African-American window-washer who serenaded downtown strollers with his own shall we say rudimentary compositions, a famous mystic who somehow did not foresee his own death a few years later in a flash flood, and a series of “desperate man” articles about alcoholics, drug addicts, homeless men, teenage runaways and prostitutes, which were not half-bad, if I do say so myself. When I began covering politics I already had a fair grounding in the vast human potential for idiocy, which my exposure to the Tennessee General Assembly expanded exponentially.  The variety of subjects and experiences 

were good preparation for a young writer, and I have to thank Mr. Parker, however belatedly, for leading a somewhat recalcitrant horse to water. He once called me “a Cadillac in a garage,” which in retrospect was one of the nicest and most perspicacious things anyone has ever said about me.


Growing up in Chattanooga, a direct descendant of Confederate soldiers in the Army of Tennessee, I was drawn unavoidably to the Civil War as a subject. My first magazine article, for Civil War Times Illustrated, was about the Chattanooga Daily Rebel newspaper. Other early articles for CWTI, Military History and Blue and Gray dealt with the local battles of Chickamauga, Chattanooga and Missionary Ridge. I parlayed them into a position as assistant editor at Military History, which was the beginning of three decades as a magazine editor for popular-history magazines. I was founding editor of America’s Civil War, spent ten years as editor of Military Heritage and am currently editor of Civil War Quarterly. In that time I’ve written and edited stories about a lot of wars besides the Civil War, all of which I am glad to 

have avoided personally, even as I remain awed and humbled by the bravery of the men and women who fought in them. 


It has been my privilege to write books about such widely divergent figures as Union general Phil Sheridan, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Tilden, Rutherford B. Hayes, Walt Whitman and Ambrose Bierce. If forced to choose (something no one has felt an irresistible need to make me do, I confess), I would probably say my biography of Ambrose Bierce—Alone in Bad Company—is my best book, although I retain a particular fondness for my book The Better Angel on the self-sacrificial Civil War service of that most remarkable, admirable and lovable man, Walt Whitman. Every one of my books has been about someone vastly more talented, adventurous and accomplished than myself, which is something every other writer I’ve ever known, if compelled to honesty, would have to admit as well. We wouldn’t be writers otherwise, we would be doers, and that is a complete contradiction of terms. In some ways I’m still sitting in the back row of a new classroom, keeping my eyes open and my head down, watching the cool kids up front and yearning, ever yearning, to be one myself.

Contact Roy Morris Jr.
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