Charley Mitchell (GVPT ’84) had always been interested in U.S. history, so when he discovered a box of Civil War-era artifacts in his wife’s family’s attic in the early 1980s, he began a 12-year project that would bring history to light.
The Maryland native had majored in political science and history during his undergraduate years at Penn State before returning home to attend graduate school in College Park. Mitchell earned a master’s degree in government and politics, with a focus on Soviet politics, from the University of Maryland in 1984.
“I was interested in human behavior and how people related to each other and their government in a political system, and how they chose to govern themselves” he said of his interest in Soviet politics. “I wanted to examine the relationship between the individual and the state, especially in a totalitarian system during the Cold War.”
Mitchell’s interest in politics prompted him to look for employment on Capitol Hill, either with a nonprofit organization or a member of Congress. However, when he was offered a job in the publishing field, he jumped at the opportunity. He would continue working in publishing for almost 30 years.
After discovering the Civil War artifacts in the attic, Mitchell combined his knowledge of publishing with his interest in history to write a book about Maryland’s involvement in the war and its impact on civilians. Over the years, he conducted research at the Library of Congress and the Maryland Historical Society, among others. He explored the private collections of six families to learn about their ancestors’ experiences in the Civil War.
Mitchell also turned to the University of Maryland for research. He utilized resources in the McKeldin Library as well as the Archives and Manuscripts Department of the university’s Special Collections Library. He received significant help from Professor Leslie Rowland at the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, which was started by the late University of Maryland history professor Ira Berlin and sponsored by the university. It is an excellent resource for the study of slavery, emancipation and Reconstruction, Mitchell said.
When he wasn’t working or coaching his children’s sports teams, Mitchell dedicated his time to writing. He enlisted his father to collect and organize information, and over time the book became his third child, Mitchell said.
In 2007, “Maryland Voices of the Civil War” was published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. Later, the book received the 2009 Founders Award from the American Civil War Museum (formerly the Museum of the Confederacy).
Mitchell did not stop there. While working at publishing company Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, he began another project—a book blending history and travel that includes 16 historical sites in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington, the Potomac Valley and Virginia: “Travels Through American History in the Mid-Atlantic: A Guide for All Ages.”
Mitchell was a freelance travel writer for the Baltimore Sun from 1995-2001, writing on Mid-Atlantic historical sites, and he used many of the documents he gathered from that job for his travel book. He also visited the various historical sites and collected information from park historians, rangers and museum directors.
Mitchell said his favorite aspect of creating this travel book was collaborating with his wife, Betsy, a graphic designer and illustrator, on the maps. “We’d read the chapter manuscripts and discuss what features of each site the maps should include,” he said. The book was published in 2014, also by Johns Hopkins, and in 2016 won the Lowell Thomas Gold Award in the Guidebook category from the Society of American Travel Writers, beating out entries from the likes of the Los Angeles Times, National Geographic and the BBC.
Mitchell now works as Director of Alumni Relations at St. Paul’s School in Brooklandville, MD, his alma mater and that of his brothers and son. He coaches middle school sports teams (which he says is his level of competence) and is a faculty advisor to the school newspaper. He has a small consulting business helping authors negotiate their own contracts with publishers.
Despite his busy schedule, Mitchell hasn’t stopped writing. He is working with Professor Jean H. Baker on a book of essays, “The Civil War in Maryland Reconsidered,” with authors around the country writing on topics related to the state’s Civil War story that have been understudied or neglected.
Despite his many successes throughout a diverse career, Mitchell said that, other than his two kids, he is most proud of his book projects. He considers himself a storyteller, through his narrative nonfiction writing, and is happy he could turn his passion for history and politics into something concrete and informative.
“Read widely, be analytical and follow your passions,” is Mitchell’s advice for students with similar interests. “Study what you want to study, and don’t let anyone tell you the liberal arts or social sciences aren’t important--they are. There will always be a need for people who can communicate effectively with each other and to the public. Especially in today’s political climate, listen to others with an open mind and don’t allow disagreements to become personal. Be an advocate for civility.”