Microhistories-Tactical Studies and Civil War Memory

A reader left a very thoughtful comment to my post on the Gallagher interview in CWTI.  [For the entire comment scroll down to #15.]  I think it is worth asking the questions posed not as a way to criticize the genre, but as a way to better understand its popularity in Civil War circles specifically.

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 disproportionate 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. Is the point of learning to collect knowledge, or is the point of learning to actually do something with that knowledge.

Any thoughts?

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16 comments… add one

  • Eric Wittenberg Jun 11, 2007

    I won’t speak for anyone but me.

    Those tactics ARE WHAT INTEREST ME. That’s why I write about them. And obviously, there are others who find them interesting, too, or people would not buy the books.

    Your reader is entitled to his or her opinion. However, I will respectfully suggest that the study of tactics is more than a collection of useless facts, and I frankly am insulted by the suggestion that it is.

    Eric

  • Eric Wittenberg Jun 11, 2007

    After reading the actual comment, I do find it interesting that the person who wrote is too much of a coward to put his or her name on their work. It’s probably the same coward that sniped at me on your blog previously.

    To the coward: it’s easy to attack someone behind a veil of anonymity. And, because you are a coward, I see no reason to lend any credibility to your words.

    IF you have the guts to come forward and claim your post, then perhaps we can have a dialogue. However, I know you don’t and won’t, so there’s no point.

    And what have you published?

  • Will Hickox Jun 11, 2007

    I think this commenter misinterpreted Eric Wittenberg’s remarks. Mr. Wittenberg did not write that he felt memory and race issues were unimportant and unworthy of study–he merely said that they didn’t interest him and he was leaving them to other people. This is different, in my opinion, than what Gallagher seems to have done (I haven’t read the interview), which was to declare other peoples’ work superfluous and unimportant. If I were to say that I have no interest in medical science and that I’m leaving it to the doctors, it would foolish to interpret this as a push for the abolition of medicine.

    Personally I fail to see the harm done by tactical studies (unless you count the death of trees). Maybe, just maybe, there really is an anti-military bias in the history profession. I don’t recall any negative comments on the thoroughness of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s “A Midwife’s Tale”—and that is a microhistory if anything ever was!

  • Brooks Simpson Jun 12, 2007

    I think that battle studies (this use of the term “micro tactical” to cover episodes ranging from a portion of a campaign to part of an engagement renders the utility of the term problematic) as reconciliation studies may confuse motive with implicit result.

    However, I found the rest of the post a bit misleading and perhaps fueled by a certain animosity that is qualified by the author’s nameless quality. Here’s how it opened:

    — (first quoting Eric)

    “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.”

    That, of course, is not what Eric said.

    Eric freely admits that some things don’t interest him. Once in a while he says something about other dimensions of the conflict that will draw a quick response from me, suggesting his understanding is flawed. Eric’s always been kind in his responses. Not all folks have been as kind, and some go down the road of ranting resentment.

    Eric said he was interested in a certain sort of history. He did not question another sort of history. Eric’s exchange is part of an older one with you, in which you questioned certain aspects of Civil War military history. Let’s be fair to Eric.

  • David Jun 12, 2007

    Kevin,

    It is an interesting phenomenon, and one that somehow speaks to the importance of the Civil War in our national psyche. But I don’t have any real expectation that dissertations on “memory” will ever be able to explain it in satisfactory fashion, however eloquent the effort. About the best we can hope for are interesting discussions.

    Isn’t it enough that people are simply interested in these things? Why does there have to be a “point” to it? What is the point of some local historical society volunteer learning everything there is to know about the history of an old house in town — the genealogy of the past occupants, etc.? What is the point of trying to ferret out the details surrounding the final moments of George Custer? There’s not much we can “do” with that knowledge, but people find it endlessly fascinating nonetheless.

    Speaking of genealogy, I think one reason so many people like to read detailed microhistories and tactical studies is that it provides a glimpse into the experience of our ancestors. They might not have been involved in the specific regiments or actions under study, but these studies give representative testimony of what it was like for so many soldiers.

    These battle studies are often chock full of drama, horror, and breathtaking moments of unmasked humanity. You may as well ask why Hollywood continues to make war movies like Private Ryan, or why series like Band of Brothers are so popular.

    As for the point of learning being “to actually do something with that knowledge,” that’s a worthy sentiment, but on the one hand, it presumes that what we do with theoretical knowledge has meaning, and on the other hand, it presumes that nothing meaningful can be done with certain types of collected knowledge. Maybe we first have to examine the presumptions inherent in your questions before we can answer the questions themselves.

    David

  • Kevin Levin Jun 12, 2007

    Eric, — I understand your concern, but there is a very legitimate reason why this was posted anonymously.

    I specifically excerpted this passage from the rest because I am actually intrigued by the question and I think there might be something to it. David gets closest to addressing the issues. The commenter gives a nod to Dimitri’s suggestions as to their importance as does David, but it doesn’t seem as if we’ve gotten any closer to why the Civil War attracts so many of these types of studies. There is no reason to get defensive regarding this question. Perhaps there is something to learn here. A local historical society has many options in uncovering its past and D’s points can also be found in other types of military studies.

  • Eric Wittenberg Jun 12, 2007

    Kevin,

    Obviously, it’s your blog, and you can run your blog as you see fit.

    Having said that, I find it impossible to lend any credence to anyone who doesn’t have the guts to put their name on a public bashing of someone, let alone a gross misinterpretation of my words.

    Cowardice is cowardice, no matter how you slice it.

    Eric

  • Eric Wittenberg Jun 12, 2007

    Kevin,

    By the way, I am not referring to the excerpt in this post. The comment itself, on your first post, is anonymous. That’s the cowardice that I cannot and will not abide.

    Eric

  • Kevin Levin Jun 12, 2007

    Eric, — I understand if you choose not to respond to a certain comment, but we are going to have to agree to disagree on reasons for anonymity. This individual has a very good reason for posting anonymously and that’s all I can say. It has absolutely nothing to do with cowardice in my view. There are plenty of people who blog anonymously and again they do so for very good reasons. Brooks has a point that the anonymity may have steered the comment down too emotional an avenue. That said, I found the questions at the end to be quite interesting and that’s why I allowed it through.

  • J. David Petruzzi Jun 12, 2007

    I think the most important (and most frustrating) aspect of Gallagher’s comments has been pointed out here and in other posts – that Gallagher stepped over the line of sensibility by saying that a certain type of work doesn’t add to our understanding, rather than simply saying it doesn’t interest him. I am always floored when some folks seem to have reached a point where they feel they have some right or obligation to judge an entire genre of scholarship.

    There are many genres that simply don’t interest me. And there are also tactical studies of, say, Gettysburg, that I won’t read simply because they don’t interest me. But I would never suggest that they shouldn’t be pursued or published – as if everyone’s interests should fall in line with mine. But that’s exactly what Gallagher did, and as Dimitri points out in his most recent post, this isn’t the first time Gallagher has done this.

    Eric and I have just crafted a response to Gallagher’s comments, which will be printed by CWT editor Chris Lewis in (we expect) the next issue. We assume that Gallagher will be given the opportunity to respond. Our letter is over 1600 words, and is written respectfully but we mince no words.

    It will be interesting to see how Gallagher responds.

    J.D.

  • Eric Wittenberg Jun 12, 2007

    Kevin,

    You have your opinion. I have mine.

    Mine is that the gutless wonder should have the courage to face me. That won’t change, now or ever.

    And, until that person has the guts to face me, then there is absolutely nothing that that person has to say that means a damned thing to me, or has even the slightest bit of credibility.

    Eric

  • Cash Jun 12, 2007

    Kevin,

    There are many answers to that question, all involving different aspects of it.

    It seems to me that the question can be answered in part by answering another question: What is the individual’s purpose in studying Civil War history? If that purpose is to provide context for today’s situation, perhaps tactical studies take on less importance to the individual. If the individual has an interest in tactics to start with and gets pleasure from studying them, then perhaps tactical studies take on far more importance.

    Additionally, the Civil War is different from other wars in that it took place here, over a wide expanse of the country, there is a very large number of artifacts left from it, and its participants left a very large written record that can be mined. The fact that battlefields remain today that we can walk over while reading firsthand accounts of the actions that took place on those fields is itself a motivation to delve deeper into those accounts, especially when they disagree with each other.

    Then there’s the aspect of solving a mystery. “How did they do that?” can be a compelling question, and people are often driven to seek the answers to compelling questions.

    I’m sure we can think of a number of other answers that serve equally well. Let me add my agreement that the poster misread Eric’s comment. I also didn’t read that he felt your interest had no value.

    From a personal point of view, I’m less interested in tactics than I am in the human story, which includes the political and social history. That’s a bit surprising given my profession, but I happen to find the political and social history to be more interesting. That doesn’t mean I don’t get value out of tactical studies, and I think the poster exaggerated a bit when he claimed that a single tactical study doesn’t add to our knowledge. Perhaps he can be persuaded to see them as dimes or quarters instead of pennies. :)

    As to Professor Gallagher’s comments, I understand Eric’s and J.D.’s frustration. Having read Eric’s blog faithfully I know there is definitely new information in the book, but I can also see where Prof. Gallagher may be commenting on the historigraphical balance. I look forward to reading his further comments on the issue, as well as Eric’s and J.D.’s letter.

    Regards,
    Cash

  • Brooks Simpson Jun 12, 2007

    Kevin– In the spirt of your inquiry, let me first stick with the quote you highlighted.

    “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?”

    I don’t see that. These focused studies are for a select audience of people who are very, very interested in battlefield operations. I consult them and engage in such study when I undertake something like a battlefield guide or lead battlefield tours. They serve a purpose, and for that purpose they are very useful.

    Let’s distinguish here for the moment between the study of one clash during a major battle (the fight for Burnside’s Bridge, the Hornet’s Nest at Shiloh, Little Round Top, etc.) and the Stuart’s ride topic, which, frankly, is important to understanding the evolution of the entire Gettysburg campaign. I think the tightly-focused studies have their place. Sometimes, in looking at a small piece of the battle, one finds things that disrupt a larger narrative. Take the dispute over the Lost Order during the Maryland campaign. A great deal has been written about George McClellan based on what people think happened. However, if we find that orders were lost or intercepted a great deal (as was the case, for example, during the Vicksburg campaign and the Confederate offesnive in Virginia in 1862) and that McClellan reacted differently than has been portrayed, well, the story starts to fall apart. One could say that my interest in the story of Grant’s “bender” during the Vicksburg campaign disrupts several narratives and explanations about Grant and alcohol on both sides of the issue. Sometimes little stuff matters because of how we use it, and in no case is my interest in these studies conditioned by some desire to forget. No one familiar with my entire body of work would say that. If your unnamed contributor thinks otherwise, well, let him/her go at it.

    “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.”

    That’s one unnamed person’s perspective. I disagree. Studying such an action in itself does not make one an authority on the Civil War, of course, but it does teach something about the war, including small unit initiative under fire, the importance of recon and intelligence, terrain, and so on. I’ve spent some time in that cut, just like I’ve spent some time at other places on other fields. I confess the area does not give me quite the same feeling that I get at Sanders/Saunders Field at the Wilderness, or the eerie slice of land in the woods at Cold Harbor, or the like, but I can tell afterwards what happened there and how that contributes to my understanding of a rather important battle. I don’t make more of it than is there. But I can tell you that without the fight at the Railroad Cut, the Union position might well have crumbled on July 1, and so no July 2 or 3, no Gettysburg Address, and so on.

    And yes, that terrain has personal meaning for me. I can go to these fields and show my children that their ancestors fought there, and then explain why that’s important. I can show my wife where her ancestor was captured on July 3; I can go to Sheperdstown and see where one of my ancestors first saw action; I can go to Little Round Top and Culp’s Hill and see where my ancestors’ regiments were posted. And I can go to Fredricksburg and quietly wonder what would have happened had there been one more assault, which would have involved the 5th New York, one of the regiments in which one of my ancestors served. I don’t forget what happened there. I remember. I don’t avoid. I confront. I question. How dare anyone say otherwise.

    I can also tell you that if you knew that there were in fact three cuts just west of Gettysburg, and that there was an artillery battery posted on the easternmost of those cuts, that land would not have been rudely and crudely chopped away in the aftermath of a mindless land swap with the local college in which people ignorant of the battle claimed it had no military significance. Wonder what they thought when human remains were found in the area an buried in the National Cemetery. At least let us understand the significance of the ground we then seek to “develop.”

    If the unnamed contributor wanted to make a point about general issues, that would be fine. But I think the rest of the post deserves the attack it’s gotten. I’ll take the risk of identifying myself. I’m willing to stand behind what I say and take the shots in return. Whatever the “good reasons” one might have for being anonymous in this exchange, I think the most understandable one has to do with an unwillingness to place one’s reputation and identity behind what one has to say. That may pass elsewhere, but it shouldn’t here.

    This field is built upon a mutual respect between hard-working scholars of varied backgrounds who want to learn something about American history. It seems to me that instead of deploring the importance of purely military studies (hey, Kevin, isn’t that why the JAH may treat them differently in its reviewing policies?) or sniping at both the authors and the audience for those studies, the unnamed contributor should show how other researchers can set those findings in a broader context and help to shape our understanding of what they did there, why they did it, and what it means for us today.

  • Brooks Simpson Jun 12, 2007

    As for the Here versus There question (and the why this war and not others?) …

    I think one of the major reasons is battlefield preservation, Kevin. I’m not tlaking about now, I’m talking about then. I’ve been to Europe and visited Waterloo, and I can assure you that if you think Gettysburg’s commercialized, so is Waterloo, down to the go-cart track at the center of the Anglo-Allied position. It has it’s own bad wax museum, too.

    Same thing here. I’ve been to Lexington Green, and, frankly, it leaves me cold. Ever been to Bunker Hill? Blah. Even Yorktown’s damned confusing. The only other battlefield that somehow connected with me was Big Hole in Montana, where I thought the presentation was very, very thoughtful and moving in a way that caused one to reflect. I haven’t been to Little Big Horn, but maybe I’ll find the time.

    As for why this war and not others? Heck, we have famous historians saying that the ACW was the pivotal moment in American history. Battles have something to do with wars. Many of us have a personal tie (even if we have to control for that in our own work). Some don’t (I think both Gary Gallagher and you may fit in that area … and point of disclosure, Gary and I are friends). I had ancestors in the Revolution as well, but, frankly, that war as a war does not interest me the same way.

  • David Jun 12, 2007

    Kevin,

    Adding to my comments above – saying that it is enough that people are interested in such studies, and that no other requirements need be met to justify them – I would also point out that the personal attacks on Gallagher are a bit over the top.

    I can understand why, on a personal level, Eric and J.D. would take this as a direct affront, because any way you shake it, Gallagher is saying the work they put into their recent book was ultimately irrelevant. It’s hard to spin that as anything other than an insult. But the subsequent attacks on Gallagher’s work, and calling him the “Paris Hilton” of Civil War scholarship, is just silly.

    I agree it’s more than a little odd for a historian to assert that there can’t be anything new to say on a given subject, since historians frequently make their careers saying new things about subjects that have been exhaustively covered. That’s why I assume he means anything “new” in the sense of something that would dramatically alter our understanding of the events in question.

    His overall point has merit, and I think he qualifies his statement by saying up front that if you love Gettysburg and want to know everything about it, these [micro-history] books will be of interest. But, “for most people,” a book-length treatment of the railroad cut doesn’t inform our understanding of the larger war, or the war in the East, or even of the larger campaign in Pennsylvania.

    I haven’t read Plenty of Blame to Go Around, so cannot comment on whether it alters some conclusions about how Gettysburg unfolded. If Gallagher judged it by its title, then he may assume it serves to counterbalance traditional criticism of Stuart, which is what I imagine he meant by adding to the existing “pro and con.”

    Obviously there were new things to say about Stuart in that campaign, and J.D.’s impassioned rebuttal makes the case. That it contains new material, and more detailed accounts of certain events (Hanover), is enough, to my mind, to make it a worthwhile addition to the literature. But for most people trying to understand the Civil War, micro-focusing on parts of a campaign would probably be more of a distraction than a benefit. And that’s why we would recommend those people read something else.

    All that said, there are many topics about which I don’t care if a particular book alters our big-picture understanding of the war. There are any number of close-up, micro-histories that I would pay good money to own and read, should competent authors ever bring them into print. It will be interesting to see if Gallagher addresses this issue (should CWT print the rebuttal).

    David

  • Kevin Levin Jun 12, 2007

    David, — I agree with the gist of your comment and thanks for taking the time to write such thoughtful responses. As I stated in my most recent post I don’t believe that Gallagher mean to single them out. He was making a point about the literature as a whole and focused on a number of different areas of the historiography.

    If J.D. and Eric feel insulted then what they should have done originally was crafted a post together (which they’ve now done) and posted them on their two sites. That would have engaged their readers. Instead their emotions got the better of them and their posts attracted some absurd responses. The Paris Hilton comment didn’t help, but so be it, we all sometimes go off the deep end.

    A blog is an excellent tool for these kinds of scenarios. In a sense a letter to the editor is absolutely unnecessary. They can make their case much more easily and attract many more people if done in the right way on their blogs.

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