Levin on McPherson and Rotov

Here are a few older posts which track my comments on both James McPherson and Dimitri Rotov.  Perhaps they will serve to place my most recent post in broader context.   

A Response to Dimtri Rotov – Part 1: November 8, 2005

As I stated in my opening message, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed browsing on a daily basis the blog maintained by Dimitri Rotov. He represents the kind of reader that I easily relate to. We are Civil War enthusiasts who demand intelligent history that continually challenges our central assumptions surrounding the war. Anyone familiar with Dimitri’s site knows that he is especially concerned about our tendency to interpret Gen. George B. McClellan from a naieve and simplistic perspective which ignores the historical context in which he operated. I’ve read most of Ethan Rafuse’s recent study of the general, called McClellan’s War (Indiana University Press, 2005). Rafuse emphasizes "Little Mac’s" Whig background and how that perspective shaped his thinking re: grand strategy. I do not want to get into a debate about whether Mac has been unfairly treated.

I am much more interested in Rotov’s obsession with historians James McPherson, Gary Gallagher, and Stephen Sears, who he claims continue to push a centennial style view of the war. I think this is unfair and looses sight of the way both McPherson and Gallagher have challenged specific assumptions of the war. Both McPherson and Gallagher have emphasized and led the way in encouraging students of the war not to overlook the myriad ways in which the battlefield was connected to the home front. Both historians have also emphasized the importance of slavery and emancipation as both central to understanding the cause of the war and the evolution of the war itself. The emphasis on social history is clearly a positive step; I believe that social histories of the war are by far the most interesting contributions in the last few years. Exactly how many studies of the second day of Gettysburg do we need? Gallagher has challenged the long-standing assumption that Confederate defeat was inevitable. This of course is a central assumption in the Lost Cause interpretation of the war. I can still hear Shelby Foote in his southern drawl argue that the "North fought that war with one hand tied behind its back." He has also encouraged students of the war to acknowledge the ways in which ex-Confederates shaped the earliest histories of the war to serve their own political and perhaps psychological needs.

My point for now is that Rotov goes to far in his criticisms of these historians. I would urge him to be a bit more inclusive given his interest in Civil War historiography.

Another Perspective on McPherson: November 22, 2005

I make it a point to check out Dimitri Rotov’s blog at least once a day. He offers insightful observations about the state of Civil War publishing that any critical reader can appreciate. That said, I cannot for the life of me understand why he is so obsessed with James McPherson. As many of you know McPherson recently retired from Princeton University’s history department; he enjoys continued popularity in Civil War circles for his Pulitzer-Prize winning, Battle Cry of Freedom (BCF) and other studies. Dimitri criticizes BCF because it tends to simplify certain aspects of the military side of the Civil War. As I understand the criticism, the book emphasizes narrative and tends towards ovesimplification (take for example M’s coverage of the recovery of the Lost Orders) as opposed to critical analysis. It is important to keep in mind the origins of this book. It is part of Oxford University Press’s American History Series; each volume provides a concise overview of a specific period in American history and synthesizes as much of the scholarly work in the field as possible. BCF covers the decades leading up to and through the Civil War years and into the beginning of Reconstruction. I agree with Dimitri that at times McPherson shades off into dramatic narrative that gives short thrift to ongoing debates, but keep in mind that before taking on this project his main area of interest was not military history narrowly understood. At the same time the book anticipates more recent histories that attempt to integrate the military side of the war with events off the battlefield. The strongest parts of the book, in my humble opinion, are on the pre-war years.

It is safe to say that McPherson did not anticipate or even look for the kind of popularity that resulted from strong sales. I agree that to a certain extent he has pandered a bit to the more commercial side of the Civil War, but this is not anything to be too concerned about. Various groups are constantly complaining of the "ivory tower" mentality of many historians that confine themselves to writing books and articles for their academic friends and pay little attention to writing for the general public. McPherson’s recent studies of the ideology of soldiers, though not the first, have shed light on an important aspect of the military side of the war. They are written for a wide audience and are analytically driven. Dimitri’s concerns about the so-called "centennial interpretation" that McPherson and others espouse can easily be offest by taking a wider view of McPherson’s scholarship. One way to interpret McPherson’s post-BCF career is an attempt to address the demands of two different constituencies, one popular and the other academic. Yes, recent books such as Antietam: Crossroads of Freedom present a very straight-forward analysis of the military aspects of the campaign. At the same time the book does an excellent job connecting the battlefield to other issues. This aspect of McPherson’s work is very different from the articles published in academic journals such as the American Historical Review and Journal of American History. Here you will find McPherson at his analytical best. Characterizing McPherson’s scholarship as "centennialist" is simply too narrow and fails to take into account the fact that much of his work over the years falls beyond the confines of the years between 1861-1865.

In his most recent post, Dimitri ponders the absence of well-known Civil War scholars who studied under McPherson, though it is not clear why this is important. I think the simple answer to this question is the fact that academia continues to look down on military history. My guess is that McPherson’s students concentrated on some aspect of 19th century history, including slavery, politics, or social history. Take a quick look at the job postings and you will rarely find a school looking specifically for a Civil War scholar. In short, it would be suicidal to go on the job market with a specialization in the Civil War. Cast your net wider and I am sure you would find scores of professional historians who would be more than willing to make public their connection and indebtedness to McPherson. By the way, if you are looking for another McPherson student in Civil War studies, check out John E. Clark Jr’s, Railroads in the Civil War (LSU Press, 2001). Clark teaches history at MPACT Academy and Garrett Morgan Transportation Academy in Paterson, New Jersey.

Response to Obligatory McPherson Post: December 03, 2005

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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