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The Elting Family
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Colonel John R. Elting (USA Ret):
Master Historian

By Grace Elting Castle

Envision a young boy, not yet old enough to learn to read, sitting mesmerized by pictures of Napoleon and his white horse in the Child’s Book of Knowledge. That book, a gift from his parents, ignited the spark for a lifelong interest that has resulted in Colonel John R. Elting, (USA Ret.) becoming the world’s most recognized authority on the life and battles of France’s most renowned military figure.

Yes, that’s "our" Col. John Elting---past president of our family association, long-time supporter of family projects, that man usually introduced at annual meetings as "the Elting family patriarch."

Such a "patriarch"! While many of us were exhausted after a stimulating October family meeting, our 88 year old Col. John rushed back to his Cornwall on Hudson, NY home to get his beloved wife Ann settled in, and then he was off to Egypt and Syria (modern Israel) to follow the trail of a Napoleonic campaign.

Once described in print as a man who could "map almost any battle (Civil War) from memory and spell out its action in minute-by-minute detail," Col. John has, with Ann by his side for the past 63 years, earned a flawless reputation as historian, writer and consultant. His accomplishments are too numerous to fully enumerate within the confines of our newsletter, so I’ll just offer samples:

After graduating from high school in Billings, MT he earned a B.A in zoology from Leland Stanford University where he was in the ROTC.


He soon began an extensive military career in the final days of the "horse soldier" that culminated with his retirement in 1968 after having earned the Bronze Star, three Commendation Ribbons, a Purple Heart and the Legion of Merit. In his early training, he had been taught military equitation and the functioning of horse-drawn field artillery, equipped with the famous Model 1897 ‘French 75’. "Like Napoleon’s gunners," he says, "I learned something about what horses could do and the problems of caring for them—knowledge unavailable to later motorized and mechanized artillerymen." During his career, he participated in numerous projects including being Deputy Chief, Intelligence Center, J2, Headquarters Far East Command. Though his career spanned World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam, he modestly points out that he "only had combat service in World War II."


An illustrious teaching career took him from Billings, MT High School where he taught biology and English, to Oregon State University to be the ROTC instructor. He earned an M.A in Secondary Education from Colorado State College of Education, and then it was on to such other prestigious campuses as the Armed Forces Information School and the U.S Military Academy (USMA) at West Point, NY, where as an associate professor he became a prolific and respected author.


When Life needed a historical consultant for their Civil War Centennial series of books, the USMA designated Col. John and he was soon deeply immersed in six special series: World War II, Third Reich, Classics of World War II, Echoes of Glory and the Collector’s Library of the Civil War.


Col. John’s vitae lists nearly 20 books of military history that he has edited, authored or co-authored with titles ranging from Military Uniforms in America: Years of Growth, 1796-1851 to The Battles of Saratoga and Battles for Scandinavia. His A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars, published in 1964 was republished this past February.


While at West Point he and Ann happened to visit Washington’s Headquarters at Newburgh and noticed that one of the exhibits had been donated by a Paul Elting. Overhearing their comments about the Elting name, a receptionist suggested they visit New Paltz and they arrived to find the village celebrating Stone House Day! From that accidental discovery of Elting history, he went on to serve several years as president of the BEFA and now cites his most significant contribution to the association as "I kept a roof on the house! Place was in poor shape and deteriorating. With the help of Bob Lasher and David Wiese we took care of a whole range of essential repairs."

When asked what he believes to be his most significant contribution as an historian, Col. John responded, "Having been a professional soldier, with both staff and line experience, and having served during the final days of the ‘horse solder’, I have been able to bring a certain practical understanding to old wars---and have learned how to put this into effective wording."

Today, one need only enter the name John R. Elting on an Internet search engine to learn of his importance in the world of military history and literature. Go to "books on tape.com" and you’ll find his 1988 book Swords Around A Throne available and described as "The definitive story of Napoleon’s Grand Armee by a master historian." Click on "amazon,com" and you’ll find 17 titles ready to be shipped. Go to "british-bookshop.com" and you’ll find Swords Around A Throne with such comments from distinguished historians as "A masterpiece; quite simply, John Elting’s fine book is the best I have ever read on this challenging subject," and "Elting is a master historian."

It was while surfing on the Internet that I found my favorite description of Col. John. In a March 1996 announcement of the Illinois convention of Miniature Wargamers, participants were invited to "come meet and hear this living treasure of military lore."

This talented gentleman is our family’s "living treasure". While the entire world has had the benefit of his incredible knowledge and contributions to history, we have had the added pleasure of his interest, friendship and continual sharing of ideas and information, as well as his interest and on-going support of the Bevier-Elting house and other association projects.

Not one to rest on his laurels, he is rushing to meet publication deadlines, the latest for his Napoleonic Uniforms, Volume III, and contemplating yet another book, perhaps on logistics!

Sadly, "our" Col. John left us in May 2000. We were blessed to have known this gentle man whose quick wit, ready sense of humor, "let's get to the heart of the matter" attitude, and insistence on the correctness of our endeavors, were guiding stars for these many years. Now his light will shine from our fond memories. -GEC

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