Looking for the Obscure

I found Eric Wittenberg’s comments on his latest post to be quite interesting. He expresses frustration with the inordinate amount of attention on Gettysburg and Pickett’s Charge. I agree with Eric that Gettysburg has been pretty much used up as a subject of inquiry given that the standard approach to its study is to assume it was the turning point of the war. Unfortunately, that assumption seduces many into thinking that there is some mystery to solve as to its outcome; the challenge is then to find the turning point of the three-day event. Now while I agree that the battle has been played out let me say that I do not think that analysis of the campaign has been exhausted. One need only read Margaret Creighton’s latest book on Gettysburg’s civilians and African American population. As an alternative to the Gettysburg obsession, Eric offers this research directive:

Personally, I’ve always been drawn to the obscure. The more obscure, the better. Things like Pickett’s Charge hold less than no interest to me. I couldn’t possibly care less about Pickett’s Charge, and if I never heard of it again, I wouldn’t be terribly disappointed. Although Gettysburg has traditionally been my first love, I’ve reached the point where I find the Battle of Chancellorsville more interesting. I’m much more interested in obscure actions such as the Wilson-Kautz Raid, or Sheridan’s Trevilian Raid, or Sterling Price’s 1864 Missouri Raid.

While I understand Eric’s point I would like to hear more about the virtues of obscurity. What exactly is important about an obscure military event in the Civil War like the Wilson-Kautz Raid? I know people here in Charlottesville who can tell me close to every single detail about the small engagement at Rio Hill which led to the capture of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia. When I hear the name Rio Hill I immediately think of the IHOP and an order of pancakes. Yes, I learn about new people, but it seems to me what I learn fails to reveal anything new about the soldiers – same stories and experiences in a different time and place. I sometimes want to ask why it is necessary to know this much detail. How does knowing more detail help me understand better? There is of course the element of local interest and a desire to know the history of one’s backyard, but that only sheds light on a small group. Is there a hope among people who write detailed battle studies of such events that the obscure will eventually become more familiar, and if so is this a worthwhile endeavor? Is this ultimately the same obsession that drives Gettysburg historians, but applied on virgin ground?

I hate leaving you with just questions, but I honestly don’t have any answers. My questions ultimately reflect just how removed I am from the interests of most Civil War enthusiasts. And as I think about it I seem to have grown even more removed from such interests with each passing year. No doubt some of you will conclude that I am just poking at historians like Eric, but I am honestly curious about these questions. Eric is a respected historian who can no doubt shed light on these issues – if he so chooses, of course.

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