Response to “Obligatory McPherson Post”

I am finally getting a grip on what is troubling me regarding Rotov’s obsession with McPherson, and more specifically, this so-called “centennial” interpretation of the Civil War. As to the latter, I can report that there is no centennial interpretation out there. I took the time to read old posts on Dimitri’s site (I know, “get a life”, but this is what you do when you are procrastinating finishing a paper that must be delivered next month) and could not find a coherent statement defining the school of thought. What I did find were relatively brief snippets of criticisms about how certain historians interpret McClellan or tend to push specific narrative points such as “Lincoln Finds a General.” But does all of this taken together really constitute a coherent school of thought? I think not. I am assuming that a distinct “school of thought” must contain fundamental or foundational assumptions/principles that distinguish it in the broader historiographic landscape. Examples include the Lost Cause interpretation of the 19th century and the Progressive and Revisionist schools in the 20th century. If there are widely accepted assumptions surrounding the study of the Civil War, they include the relatively new school of social history which takes seriously the view from the ground, including the home front and the common soldier, etc. In addition, Civil War history must acknowledge the crucial role that slavery and African Americans played in the coming of the war and the evolution of the war itself. The problem, as I see it, is the sharp split between popular history which analyzes battles in a vacuum divorced from broader issues and academic history which concentrates on issues away from the battlefield without serious consideration of the military side.

As for criticisms of McPherson the rock star, all I can say is that it is time to move on. In reference to the interviews and excessive adulation it is enough to say that 99.999999% of Americans could care less. The Civil War community, including academic historians, “buffs” preservationists, etc, doesn’t even appear on any meaningful public radar screen. Let’s not turn McPherson’s public image into something it is not: I am confident that he will not be appearing on Entertainment Tonight anytime soon. And if he wants to write a volume on the Navy for the Littlefield series, so be it. George Rable, who is an incredibly talented historian at the University of Alabama, is now writing the volume on religion in the Civil War. I may be wrong, but he has no prior experience researching this topic.

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