Gary W. Gallagher Stirs Up a Hornet’s Nest

It seems as if comments by Gary Gallagher regarding the state of Gettysburg historiography have upset quite a number of people.  Historians and fellow bloggers Eric Wittenberg and J.D. Petruzzi feel singled out based on Gallagher’s assertion that recent studies of Stuart at Gettysburg or other micro-histories of the battle are unnecessary or fail to tell us anything significant.  I haven’t read the interview in which the comment was made nor do I plan on doing so.  To be honest, based on the excerpts from J.D. Petruzzi’s post I can’t even tell if Gallagher has Plenty of Blame in mind because he never mentions a specific title.  I’ve heard Gallagher use that Gettysburg/Stuart line for a couple of years now to make broader points about the field as a whole.  If you are interested in his talk to the Society for Civil War Historians that was mentioned in the interview you can find it reprinted in North and South Magazine (Vol. 4, No. 4 [May 2004]).  In it Gallagher lays out some of the assumptions that drive his thinking on this issue.   Obviously, you don’t have to agree with him, but it goes into the kind of detail that you simply can’t get in an interview. 

What I don’t quite understand is why everyone seems to be getting so bent out of shape about this.  I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me that the last thing we need published right now is another study of Civil War memory.  It’s not the most encouraging comment to hear as I work through the research and writing.  What I usually do (assuming the individual in question is even interested) is explain as clearly as possible why my research is in fact relevant.  And then I move on.  For the life of me I don’t understand why anyone would take a comment like this so personally.  J.D. actually did a fine job of explaining why their book on Stuart’s ride is so important.  The book is selling well and customers seem to be enjoying it and that’s all that matters.  More importantly, the book is getting excellent reviews.

Unfortunately, both Eric Wittenberg’s and J.D.’s posts have unleashed some of the most irrational comments that I’ve seen in some time.  Gallagher’s comments have stirred up the old Amateur v. Professional debate (as if there even is a debate to be had here); others have suggested that his comments are reflective of a deep-seated elitism that infects the academy.  Others commented on Gallagher’s scholarship and another suggested that such comments are inappropriate given the declining interest in the Civil War and history generally.  Here is my favorite comment in response to Eric’s post:

Where does he teach? Why he teaches in the school of the interested as opposed to those schools whose ’students’ take courses in order to fulfill some obligation relative to their major. The person who talks to the devotee has got to mind his ‘p’s and q’s’ because HIS audience knows their business. The professor in some college classroom could tell most of his students that the Wicked Witch of the West took Atlanta and Glinda the Good Witch led the Army of Northern Virginia – and they would neither know nor care whether or not the information was accurate.

And all of this because of one comment about one moment during one battle during the Civil War.  What a world.

CraterThanks for reading this post. Scroll down, leave a comment and join the conversation if you are so inclined. Follow me on Twitter and join the Civil War Memory Facebook group for continuous updates and additional links to newsworthy items from around the interwebs. Stay up to date by subscribing to this blog’s feed. You can also check out my recently published book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.

18 comments… add one

  • J. David Petruzzi Jun 10, 2007

    LOL, Kevin – well, I can speak to the reason why I personally got “stirred up” by his comments. No, Prof. Gallagher didn’t mention my books specifically, but I do think it’s obvious that he’s referencing it in his “two or three recent studies of Stuart in the Gettysburg Campaign” comment. What has disappointed me is that Gallagher knows his status in the CW scholarship world, and that many take his words and opinions as gospel. His comments are very discouraging to folks thinking of pursuing, for instance, a microstudy. Or bringing fresh perspective to a popular topic. Obviously, I and others can simply dismiss Gallagher’s comments, but I believe there does come a time when one so exposed need to be help responsible for their opinions.
    My other problem with his comment is the fact that he has no body of work on which to claim authority to pass judgment on what we “need” and “don’t need.” He’s done no ground-breaking battle or campaign studies himself. How very nice to claim the right to say what should and should not be written, no?
    Anyway, I am at the point where I’m dismissing his comment for a variety of reasons, and moving on. Whatever fallout he garners from his comments are of his own making.
    Maybe I should send him a copy of the book?
    :)
    Best,
    J.D.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 10, 2007

    J.D. — I’m still not quite sure you can take it as a given that Gallagher was referencing your particular study. That said, even if he was I don’t think the comment is anything to get worked up over. You responded to his critique which is what should be expected. I don’t think anything hinges on his so-called “status” within the Civil War community. He is a high profile scholar and speaker, but if people are inclined to take what comes out of his mouth as “gospel” well than so much for those people. This was a special issue on Gettysburg and here we have someone who made a comment about the state of the field. As I pointed out it was a comment based on a more thorough critique of Gettysburg historiography that was published in N&S. My guess is that most readers will scan through the interview and not think anything one way or the other regarding that particular comment. Hopefully, it will give readers a reason to question what kinds of topics have proven to be so popular to consumers of Civil War histories.

    The comments in response to your post as well as Eric’s reflect what I believe to be a deep-seated anti-intellectual strain in Civil War culture. Most of the comments had absolutely nothing to do with the content of Gallagher’s statement. Yes, Gallagher perhaps intended to provoke and I do understand that you and Eric might take it as a jab in your direction. However, beyond that there really isn’t much to it other than as a comment on what many people are interested in. Gallagher’s own edited series at UNC Press includes a number of micro-histories so his comment is surely not intended as an indictment of the genre as a whole. Finally, as to your comment re: his qualifications to pontificate on what we need or don’t need in the field I’m not sure that there are any qualifications.

  • J. David Petruzzi Jun 10, 2007

    All very true, Kevin. Maybe there’s a different perspective when you feel a work you’ve done is dismissed out of hand and lumped in with anything of a broad topic – and especially so when it appears that the one doing the criticizing hasn’t even read it.
    I do feel that it merits critical discussion. When Rosie O’Donnell says the US Government blew up the Twin Towers, that merits critical discussion. Gallagher’s comments are not, of course, of not of such importance, but they merit critical discussion.
    I agree with your desire to not see the amateur v. professional quagmire dredged up again. Eric certainly doesn’t want to see it either. This is solely about Gallagher and his comments, whether he be an academic or a dense clod of sod such as myself :)

    By the way, I always count on you, Kevin, to point out why it is that I get bent out of shape at times over such issues. I guess maybe because I’ve been instructed so many times in my life to get bent, I’m starting to take it to heart!

    Have a good one.

    J.D.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 10, 2007

    J.D. — You said: “Maybe there’s a different perspective when you feel a work you’ve done is dismissed out of hand and lumped in with anything of a broad topic[.]“

    I can definitely sympathize with that.

    Best,
    Kevin

  • Eric Wittenberg Jun 10, 2007

    Kevin,

    My issue with it is that he ripped a book he hadn’t read. If he had read it, and then ripped it, I probably wouldn’t have much of a problem with it. However, had he read it, he would not have been able to say that there was nothing new in it, just as JD has pointed out in great detail on his blog.

    You don’t like a book, fine. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. However, at least read the thing before you rip it in print.

    Eric

  • Kevin Levin Jun 10, 2007

    Eric, — As I stated in response to J.D.’s comment I certainly understand where you guys are coming from. That said, I would be more sympathetic if Gallagher had specifically cited your book. You guys are proceeding on the assumption that he did. Given what Gallagher has said about Civil War historiography in the past my guess is that his comment was meant as a broad observation of what dominates the attention of many people.

  • Eric Wittenberg Jun 10, 2007

    Kevin,

    I understand. However, given that there have only been two books published on the subject since Nisbet’s book in 1995, who else could he possibly have been referring to?

    Eric

  • Brooks Simpson Jun 10, 2007

    I can understand why J.D. and Eric are upset. When folks like me are interviewed we have to be aware of how others are going to take our words, regardless of our intent. Jim McPherson got in trouble on this when it came to remarks he made about the SCV. Even I hear the comment made in some quarters that we have enough out there about Grant already (sometimes coupled with the comment that nobody gets him, as if there’s some deep mystery).

    Whatever Gary’s intent, he’s kicked up some dust in this small circle. Actually, I think you are in the same spot as J.D. and Eric. After all, I could say that memory studies have become predictable, and that in certain cases they seem to be aimed at correcting popular misunderstandings of the war that come close to the “us versus them” view of scholars versus audience that you sometimes see. In fact, judging from your posts recently, the reason your study moves things forward is that it focuses on the local: who did the memory of a certain battle function in Virginia politics and among Virginia blacks? We think of atrocities against black troops as a “western” thing, but between the Crater and the POW debate between Grant and Lee in October 1864, there’s obviously more to the story (perhaps white Virginians were not all tnat different). Mahone’s political aspirations and his use of a wartime role to position himself as a third way in Virginia and national politics in the 1880s interests me (much like John Brown Gordon’s willingness to hide his pro-KKK career in later years interests me, to the point that people think Gordon’s a wonderful guy). Memory studies on the national or regional level that focus on the Blight/Goldfield/Brundage dynamic are one story: the Lost Cause military stuff operates on another; but the politics of memory when it comes to individual battles (or to the Union war effort) remains largely unexplored (there are a few exceptions, especially Gettysburg). As wonderful as David Blight’s book was (and we went to grad school together; I’m acknowledged in the book, and we’ve worked together, thus my disclosure of potential conflict-of-interest claims), we don’t do much afterwards if all we do is re-write Blight. Look at the politics of memory when it comes to Reconstruction if you want some real fun.

    I’ve been snubbed in print by folks with an axe to grind, and my attitude has been, don’t get mad, get even … and that good scholarship is the best revenge.

  • Andrew Duppstadt Jun 10, 2007

    This has certainly been an interesting debate/discussion and I’ve enjoyed following it on three different blogs (Kevin, JD, and Eric). I have really enjoyed reading Brooks’ comments above and on a totally unrelated note, I will be attending the AASLH annual meeting in Atlanta in September, where David Blight will be the plenary speaker, as well as a panelist on a separate book discussion of Robert Penn Warren’s “The Legacy of the Civil War.” I can’t wait to meet Dr. Blight and am very much looking forward to the numerous interactions with him.

  • J. David Petruzzi Jun 10, 2007

    Indeed, Brooks – let’s see, next I’m finishing up an 8000 word study on the June 26, 1863 fight between Gordon’s Brigade (with Lige White’s Cavalry) and the 26th PA Emergency Militia (with Bell’s Cavalry). 8000 words of scholarly, in-depth detail on an action that took all of about 15 minutes.

    Ooooo – Gary’s gonna hate that one :)

    J.D.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 10, 2007

    Hi Brooks, — You very clearly stated the way in which I tend to respond to criticisms of the specific sub-field in which I work. I try to show why and how my narrow focus on the Crater and memory is relevant to much broader issues. Most of the time the criticisms are the result of a lack of awareness of the direction of my work or the relevant historiography. Whenever I am in such a position I try to explain what I am doing, which is all I can do. I understand why they are upset and I believe that J.D. made a very good case for their study. Still, whether Gallagher had them in mind is not obvious.

    Eric pointed out that only two books have been published on Stuart and Gettysburg in the past year so he must have them in mind, but that is assuming that GG is even aware of the number. It could simply have been an off the cuff comment about microhistories of Gettysburg. If so, the response should be focused on why they are indeed relevant or necessary.

  • J. David Petruzzi Jun 10, 2007

    To be specific, Kevin – only 2 books have been published on Stuart in the campaign in the last 12 years. Ours is one of them. So, I do think it’s pretty clear that Gallagher was talking about us. I know we differ, but I think there’s no doubt about it. The second one only came out a few months ago.

    J.D.

  • Brooks Simpson Jun 11, 2007

    There are three issues here, and we need to untangle them.

    First, it’s rather easy to find out whether Gary Gallagher was mentioning any specific book or had one in mind. He has an e-mail address, and Pete reads this blog. Sometimes it pays to just ask a direct question. You’ll see over at Civil Warriors that some fellow’s posted what he “assumes” I assume, and you know what they say about assuming. Without the text at hand — the complete text of the entire interview — I think it would be unwise to expand the discussion beyond the comment on Stuart’s ride.

    Second, there is the whole question of “micro-tactical” histories, although I don’t think that a book on Stuart’s ride is a micro-tactical history. It includes detailed studies at the tactical level of various battles, and of course one can point to a number of books, especially about Gettysburg, that take that approach. I don’t happen to have a problem with those types of studies: their significance is not necessarily limited to the event under examination. I’ll blog on what I mean over at Civil Warriors sometime soon.

    Third (and you can see this largely in the comments in various blogs, including Civil Warriors [you'll have to look in the Lincoln document post for it, where you'll see a misrepresentation of what I've said and a determined misreading of my position on another issue]), we have the old snobby and arrogant (but not always informed) professionals versus narrowly obsessed amateurs debate, or academics and non-academics, or whatever. That one promises to be the new Yankees-Red Sox clash, filled with insults and insinuations. Take a deep breath, folks.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 11, 2007

    Brooks, — You are absolutely right that we could end the suspense and contact Gallagher directly. I’ve read Gary’s SMH comments as they appeared in North and South Magazine so I actually think that I do understand what he was getting at. To be honest, however, I am not really interested in whether he had _Plenty of Blame_ in mind although as stated earlier I understand why Eric and J.D. would take offense. Gallagher was probably making the point that he regularly makes which is that the Civil War is bigger than Gettysburg and battles. I’ve made the same types of comments and have received my fair share of hate mail as a result. Most Civil War enthusiasts are interested in battles which is fine, but I understand that Gallagher wants people to take a broader view of the conflict. As an educator he would be irresponsible not to address these tendencies. I just finished reading Cook’s Civil War Centennial study and one of the biggest challenges for CWCC officials after 1961 [Nevins-Robertson era] was in organizing events that went beyond the soldiers on the field.

    As to your second point I will leave the defining of micro-tactical studies to others.

    Your third point is one that I’ve thought a great deal about. The reactions to Eric’s and J.D.’s posts reflect a couple of things. First, they reflect the loyalty of their readers. Eric is very open about his personal life and he also presents his readers with a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into his research. The comments on his blog are in part a reaction to that relationship. If Eric feels insulted then it is no accident that his readers will also feel the same. I am willing to wager that if Eric or J.D. had not said anything that it is unlikely that there would have been this outcry. Such is the nature of the blogosphere. This is not a criticism of Eric’s blog but an observation that may or may not have merit to it. At times I’ve experienced the same type of response. As to the content of many of those comments I simply throw my hands up in the air. Perhaps it’s part of the broader skepticism surrounding academia. Of course it’s absurd. I hear it all the time in response to my own posts and I am a high school teacher, which suggests to me that the source of the problem is us v. them but some kind of anti-intellectualism.

  • Anonymous Jun 11, 2007

    I’d like to draw your attention to this old post of Wittenberg’s, one of the multitude of microtactical versus social/ amateur versus professional posts:

    http://civilwarcavalry.com/?p=160

    “However, as an opening note, it should be pointed out that Kevin and I have fundamentally different interests in the war. From what I’ve divined, Kevin’s primary interest is with the social issues, with a special and definite focus on the issues of race relations. I, on the other hand, am interested in the tactics and strategy, and in dissecting those tactics and strategic decisions to see how they worked out in the field. The social issues don’t interest me much, and I leave those to others. So, with that analytic framework in mind, let’s proceed.”

    What amuses me about this, is that this statement is about the absolute inverse of what Gallagher said. Wittenberg says “your idea of history isn’t interesting to me and has no value.” Now that the shoe is on the other foot, it is a big deal. It strikes me as extremely hypocritical that Wittenberg feels that he can dismiss everything he is not interested in, but then when Gallagher does it, it is an immense personal attack.

    From what I can tell, most of the posts responding to this interview (except yours), are ones of personal hurt and indignation. “How dare he critique what I worked on.” Petruzzi’s comments demonstrate this the most (the repeated “Paris Hilton” accusation, etc). If he stopped to think rationally, it would become clear to him that his claims that Gallagher is not qualified to comment on what is or is not needed means that (a) he himself is not qualified to comment on anything, having published far less than Gallagher; or (b) Absolutely no qualifications at all are needed to comment (because doing scholarship and research does not provide a meaningful cachet). From what I can tell, Gallagher is not qualified to comment because Petruzzi and Wittenberg think he did not like their book.

    Rotov’s response got closest to a meaningful answer, but he doesn’t justify the importance of tactical studies. All of what we learn from a microhistory is axiomatic. “command relationships; friction of war; commander’s intent; weight of alternative outcomes; nearness each individual what-if; modes and habits of important generals” are nearly the same in any battle at any time. Command relationships matter; friction of war occurs, etc. Tactical studies just prove this over and over (like doing the same proof over and over again). I am convinced that tactical studies as a genre add something to our knowledge, but an individual tactical study does not. I see them as pennies; a single cent buys nothing, but you might be able to buy something with 200 cents.

    Finally, to try and tie this all together, along with your anti-intellectual point, it may be worth posting the question on your blog as a question of Civil War memory. Why is it that the Civil War attracts so many people to write microhistories and tactical studies (in a way that every other conflict does not)? Even acknowledging factors that make it more probable for someone to write about a Civil War engagement (number of participants, availability of sources, number of engagements, etc), there are a disproprtionate number. Is it a way of providing closure for the war that avoids anything that could possibly relate to today and our lives as we live them? Writing, or reading, 450 pages on the Railroad Cut is a nice way of telling ourselves we have learned something about history and the Civil War. Ultimately though, where does this lead us? It is akin to memorizing the telephone book. You know a lot of facts, but what can you do with all of those facts. It all boils down to the anti-intellectualism. Is the point of learning to collect knowledge, or is the point of learning to actually do something with that knowledge.

    On a sidenote, this last point shows that despite allegations that your work is trivial, it is far easier to make a case for its importance than a tactical study. Last time I checked, race, politics, and memory are still around today. The proper way to conduct a saber charge is not.

  • Eric Wittenberg Jun 12, 2007

    No, anonymous coward, he’s not qualified to critique our work because he obviously didn’t read it. There’s quite a difference.

    Also, you twist and misconstrue my words. I never said that social history has no value. What I said was that it doesn’t interest me. There’s a huge difference, and your anonymous sophistry is damned insulting.

    Have the guts to sign your comment.

    Eric

  • J. David Petruzzi Jun 12, 2007

    I agree with Eric that you need to identify who you are. Cowardice, cowardice.

    And to correct you, my friend – I have published more than Gallagher. Gallagher has one thin book to his credit, and the rest he was only the editor of collections of others work. Beyond my book, I have many articles published in popular magazine over the years. Eric has some 14 books in print and many more articles. So get your facts straight. You’re not only an anonymous coward, you’re also WRONG.

    But how much one has published is no indication of their right to judge others’ work, and that goes to exactly what we’ve been saying. I criticize Gallagher’s presumption to the contrary, and then you criticize me for doing what I don’t think is right to be done. Do you even understand what is going on?

    Include your name on your posts or slink back under your rock.

    J.D.

  • David Rhoads Jun 12, 2007

    First, let me just say that the statement “Gallagher has one thin book to his credit, and the rest he was only the editor of collections of others work,” is incorrect. Gallagher has written a number of books, including a study of Jubal Early and the Lost Cause, a biography of Ramseur, and a couple of books on the Army of Northern Virginia–Lee and His Army in Confederate History (UNC Press 2001); and Lee and His Generals in War and Memory (LSU Press 1998)–among others. Also, each of the volumes in the Civil War Campaigns series Gallagher edits for UNC includes at least one essay authored by him. Moreover, I wouldn’t dismiss out of hand the work involved in some of Gallgher’s editing projects, of which his work on Porter Alexander’s Fighting for the Confederacy in particular represents a signficant contribution to the literature.

    That said, I have to agree with Kevin’s assessment of Gallagher’s quoted comments in his several blog posts. Gallagher, it seems to me, is pretty clearly not asserting that books focusing closely on strategy and tactics should not be published or read (indeed, Gallagher’s own work on such topics belies that notion); rather he is expressing a sense of diminishing returns in the context of Gettysburg studies specifically, both of the battle and the campaign. In fact, Gallagher’s quoted statement is not all that far removed from Eric’s own frequently stated opinion that he would prefer to see new books published on obscure engagements rather than see any more studies of Pickett’s Charge. Both are reasonable positions to take even though not everyone would agree with either.

    Beyond that, Gallagher quite rightly implies that tactical micro-studies of portions of the battle of Gettysburg are not the best vehicle to help the casual reader achieve some general sense of understanding of the Civil War. Again, I think that is a reasonable position to take.

    Finally, I suspect that Gallagher’s use of the Stuart example–a subject after all that has been argued about in ACW literature for well over 100 years now–reflects a desire to see future scholarship address different types of questions that are perhaps not so well-covered rather than a personal attack on Eric’s and J.D.’s book. I can certainly understand why they took umbrage at Gallagher’s remarks, but the Stuart example as Gallagher offers it is clearly generic rather than specific (and I say this as someone who owns a copy of Plenty of Blame to Go Around and found it both well-done and enlightening on a number of points, but who would also concede Gallagher’s point that ultimately you either fall into the Mosby camp on the question of Stuart’s ride or you don’t).

Leave a Comment