ONE WRITER’S JOURNEY A PASSION FOR HISTORY AND ITS RELEVANCE Historian & Author Adventure Traveler & Photographer Always A Traveler, Never A Tourist
My name is Steve Chicoine. Welcome to my new updated website – much expanded from the long-running original at this same address. I am the author of three 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.
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 every book in Decatur’s old Carnegie Library on the Civil War. Books 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
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 the Civil
War veterans on this website distinguished themselves as Union cavalry officers,
only to have their exploits overlooked and forgotten in their home states … until
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 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 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
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.
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
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
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 Lithuanians’ capital. I followed closely each day the events as
Lithuanian men, women and children defiantly resisted. Good prevailed and the
resistance led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. 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 their freedom. That led to 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 and Lithuanian émigrés and
many others. I expect to have that book published this year.
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. It is integral to our survival.
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.
1894 - 1977
1895 - 1989