A Conversation with Patrick K. O’Donnell

  • By James A. Percoco
  • June 11, 2024

The historian bring to life the most remarkable Americans you’ve never heard of.

A Conversation with Patrick K. O’Donnell

Patrick K. O’Donnell has carved out a niche for himself by unearthing unknown or forgotten figures from the American narrative and brilliantly telling their stories to a modern audience. True to form, in The Unvanquished: The Untold Story of Lincoln’s Special Forces, the Manhunt for Mosby’s Rangers, and the Shadow War That Forged America’s Special Operations, he weaves a masterful tale from a little-known chapter of history. Here, he turns his attention to the Civil War and — as in Washington’s Immortals and The Indispensables — crafts a sweeping saga of intrigue, suspense, missed opportunities, and risk-taking. I recently had a chance to sit down with the bestselling author.

How did you come to write The Unvanquished?

I’ve been a full-time author of over a dozen books and a historian for over 25 years. In each book I’ve written, the story has found me. I was traveling in Northern Virginia and serendipitously stumbled upon two roadside signs. One marks the site of a hanging tree where Union Jessie Scout (federal scouts who wore Confederate uniforms) Jack Sterry spoke his last words. Through his cunning, he tried to lead the Confederate Army down the wrong road, away from where it was crucially needed. The other placard, pitted with flaked silver paint, memorializes where John Singleton Mosby’s Rangers deployed a mountain howitzer to destroy a federal supply train on May 30, 1863. Curiosity drives me to explore history. The placards inspired me to ask questions and make connections. I knew another book had found me. Both markers proved to be portals into this epic untold story that, every day for seven years, I was excited to get up in the morning and unearth and write about.

Why has this story been overlooked for so long?

The previously untold story of the Union Jessie Scouts is the focus and throughline of this action-packed narrative. These daring and resourceful men earned seven Medals of Honor leading the Union Army to victory and hunting the South’s most dangerous men. However, most of these men never came home to tell their story. The book captures the story of the units they interacted with, including the Confederate Secret Service, a shadowy organization that burned their records at the war’s end.

Why did the covert operations you so richly describe not gain traction in the American military until the late 20th and early 21st centuries?

America has a rich history of irregular warfare and special operations dating back to before the Revolutionary War. However, like a sine curve, American military organizations tend not to retain knowledge and lessons learned and, as a result, tend to reinvent concepts learned in prior generations. In 1941, America did not possess special operations, and the Office of Strategic Services, under the leadership of William “Wild Bill” Donovan, needed to act quickly to get up to speed with their Axis counterparts. Under Donovan’s direction, he ordered scholars within the OSS to mine history from the Scouts, Rangers, and Confederate Secret Service for lessons learned during the Civil War, a modern war, for inspiration. This book tells the story of the units they examined.

You are particularly skilled in bringing to life the verve and drama of combat. What are some of your favorite scenes?

The Unvanquished captures the humanity and inhumanity of a sprawling conflict. Some of my favorite scenes involve the Jessie Scouts infiltrating deep behind Confederate lines — wearing the uniform of their enemies. On countless occasions, they had to talk their way out of a hangman’s noose or shoot their way out. The narrative can pivot from tender moments when these men relive their childhood betting on bullfrogs in a pond to participating in a Confederate cavalry charge against the Union Army. The book paints a variety of pictures, from daring battles on horseback to very sophisticated operations that mirror modern-day events like undermining Northern morale in what many considered a “forever war.” There is also election interference in the form of ballot fraud, writing the campaign platform for Copperhead Democrats, and seeding the press with negative stories to undermine Union morale.

Do you think your experiences as an embedded (and armed) combat historian in Fallujah helped you hone this craft?

Almost my entire life has been consumed by history. Since age 4, I’ve studied military history in tremendous detail. By age 12, I had a library of hundreds of volumes of historical tomes and was dragging my parents to battlefields. I always try to walk the ground I write about. After college, I volunteered my time to construct the first online oral-history project that involved interviewing thousands of veterans from elite and special operations units from WWI to Fallujah. By gaining the trust of men and women who had often never previously talked about their experiences in conflict, I amassed the largest private archive in the world on these exceptional individuals and spent decades conducting research from primary sources in global archives. It is one thing to write about war and another to be in it. I barely survived the battle of Fallujah as a volunteer armed combat historian at the platoon level in special operations and assault units, writing We Were One, which is required on multiple USMC Commandants’ Professional Reading Lists. The three months I spent in Iraq, and the relationships forged in battle, crystallized my writing, tempering it with empathy and objectivity.

You’ve spent your career writing about elite military units. In what ways did the various units you discuss in The Unvanquished foreshadow the elite/special ops units in the American military today?

The men and women I have written about in my books are known for their derring-do, boldness, and innovation. Many crucial stories contained in my work are about ordinary men and women who have risen to the occasion, found themselves astride an inflection point in time, and personally bent or shaped history. In some cases, they personally changed the course of a battle or campaign, or their pioneering efforts impacted doctrine as we know it. These rich lessons are timeless, and the units in The Unvanquished were decades ahead of their time.

You’ve remarked that this is your best book. All of your works have been critical and commercial successes. Why do you think The Unvanquished stands out?

I spent seven years piecing shards of evidence and primary sources to weave together a compelling single narrative in The Unvanquished that merges several storylines. Perhaps that is why multiple reviewers have claimed this is my finest book. Several veterans of clandestine warfare and extreme combat behind enemy lines have expressed similar thoughts. I try to create narratives that put my readers in the saddle or the boots of the soldiers I write about. My film agents at WME feel this book is destined for the screen.

James A. Percoco is history chair at Loudoun School for Advanced Studies in Ashburn, Virginia, and the author of Summers with Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monuments. A member of the National Teachers Hall of Fame, his current book project is Final Words: Discovering America’s Literary Legacy in the Nation’s Graveyards.

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