“Much Ado About Nothing”: What Gallagher Meant

I stopped by my local bookstore to pick up a Father’s Day gift and I did my best to walk out without the new issue of Civil War Times Illustrated which includes the Gallagher interview.  I made my through it and have to say that it is a pretty good interview.  Without trying to dodge the issue I am just going to say straight out that the reaction to Gallagher’s claims about the importance of recent Gettysburg-tactical studies are way over the top.  I don’t believe he was singling out Eric and J.D. nor do I believe he had any sense that it would be taken as such.  First here is the question and full response:

Questions: You delivered a paper at the Society of Civil War Historians that asked the question: Do we need another book on Gettysburg?  Do we?

Answer: Well, I think that there are some books on Gettysburg we really don’t need.  If you just love Gettysburg and want to know everything about it, then this flood of books that comes out looking at tinier and tinier parts of the battle in greater detail are of interest.  But for most people, those who want to understand the Civil War, or even the war in the East or the Gettysburg campaign, do they need 450 pages on two hours in the Railroad Cut?  I don’t think so.  I just don’t think that this literature takes us any place.  Do we need multiple books about what Lee’s real plan at Gettysburg was?  Or, more recently, I think there have been two, maybe three, new books on Jeb Stuart during the Gettysburg campaign.  I just can’t believe that there is anything new to say about Jeb Stuart during the Gettysburg campaign.  I really believe there is not.  All the arguments have been laid out, pro and con.  All the key documents have been available for a very long time.  So you either pick your John Mosby school that says Stuart was pretty much doing his job, acting within his orders, and even Alan Nolan sort of fits into that, or you go to the other side where it’s Jeb Stuart’s fault.  I think Jeb Stuart didn’t do a good job.  But the notion that there would be a lot that’s new, enough to support new books–and not just one new book but maybe two or three–I just say, stop the madness.

Part of the problem is that Gallagher’s response was pulled out of an interview that focused broadly on Civil War historiography.  At no point does he criticize people who write detailed tactical studies nor does he take a shot at people who buy and read them.  Gallagher was simply making a point about whether certain types of studies add to our interpretive understanding of the campaign.  I tend to agree with Gallagher on this specific point about tactical studies of Gettysburg.  Accumulating more facts and drawing a different conclusion about those facts does not in and of itself constitute a new interpretation.  Approaching a controversy or question from a fundamentally new set of assumptions does.  For instance, when Drew Faust looked at the question of Confederate defeat through the lens of gender she was giving us a new interpretation.  George Rable’s study of Fredericksburg also presents the reader with a different set of of assumptions with which to interpret military history.  We also have a flood of new studies of the impact of battles/campaigns on civilian populations.  Finally, understanding battles/campaigns by analyzing the role of memory is another more recent interpretive trend.  Perhaps Gallagher could have made that point more clearly, but even a cursory glance at what he said should have rendered his meaning intelligible.  I should also point out that at no point does he suggest that microhistories are irrelevant as a genre.  Again, he was making a comment about Gettysburg literature.  You can agree or disagree. 

The readers of J.D.’s and Eric’s blogs who got so emotional about all of this and suggested that Gallagher’s comments were a reflection of elitism would be surprised by a comment made while discussing the pervasiveness of our popular cultural perceptions of Gettysburg:

All of those things coming together have shaped perceptions to a huge degree.  This also shows how irrelevant most academic scholarship is.  You have all this scholarship that’s been coming out since the late 1970s, ’80s and into the early ’90s saying that Gettysburg isn’t that important, but of course that has no impact on the real world.

I wonder if Peter Carmichael (the interviewer) should feel offended by Gallagher’s comments?  Was his scholarship being singled out?

By the way, I met John Hope Franklin this past weekend.

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6 thoughts on ““Much Ado About Nothing”: What Gallagher Meant

  1. J. David Petruzzi

    Kevin,

    Then we will have to agree to disagree. I think it’s abundantly clear that Gallagher did indeed “take shots” at our books and others, and the value of such books on the scholarship. Frankly, I’m mystified that one can see it any other way.

    Rather than you (or anyone else) take valuable time trying to explain what Gallagher “really” meant, let’s let him tell us if he’s so inclined. Our 1700-word response just went to CWT editor Chris Lewis, and we assume that Gallagher will be given the opportunity to respond. Then, once and for all, we’ll see what the heck it was that he means.

    I’ve put a post explaining this on my blog as well today. Until we see Gallagher’s explanation (if we ever do) I think it’s time we all move on.

    J.D.

    Reply
  2. Brooks Simpson

    I have been very careful in not characterizing Gary’s comments, precisely because I have not read the interview in full. I have said what I have to say about these studies, and, frankly, I’ve seen a lot of heated debate, not all of it from J.D. and Eric. I think one can argue the merits and implications of these studies without getting into personalities.

    I’m sure Gary will learn of all this from multiple sources, and then he can reply. I can only speak for myself.

    I do think that when one feels attacked that one may not exercise the same restraint that one may have when one does not feel attacked. Most of us who say “we’d never do that” in fact “do that” when in the same circumstances.

    As for John Hope Franklin … he’s a grand man, isn’t he? He also gave me what I think remains as the biggest professional compliment I ever got when he had me do the Harlan Davidson book, even though I was but a new Ph.D. at the time. For some reason, he knew who I was, and he trusted I’d do a good job. I hope I repaid his confidence.

    Reply
  3. Kevin Levin

    J.D. — I actually don’t need to hear anything more from Gallagher. As I stated in the post I think it’s pretty clear what point he was making. Anyway, I wouldn’t hold your breadth as Gallagher is oblivious to the blogging and magazine worlds. I would be very surprised if he took the time to comment.

    Reply
  4. Craig A. Warren

    I look forward to reading the letter that J.D. and Eric have forwarded to CWT. I can’t help but wonder, however, if the letter includes the nasty personal attacks that J.D. made in the wake of the interview? My guess is that it doesn’t, and that the name “Paris Hilton” won’t appear among the 1,700 words.

    I, for one, believe such attacks added nothing to the debate. But I think it would be hypocritical for those remarks to appear in the blogosphere and *not* in the pages of CWT. I think it is only fair for readers of the magazine to know how *all* parties feel about one another’s scholarship.

    Reply
  5. Kevin Levin

    Craig, — Good point. I wonder whether the aveage reader of CWTI is going to read through this and wonder how Eric and J.D. feel about Gallagher’s comments? As I stated elsewhere, I would have written a well-crafted post in respone to the comments and engaged my readers in a discussion. I probably would have emailed the response to the person in question to see about getting a proper response.

    Reply
  6. Deb Goodrich

    Can’t we all just get along?

    I understand that it’s difficult for Eric and J.D. to read Gary’s words and not take them personally; I’m the most sensitive person on the planet and it doesn’t take much to hurt my feelings, though I don’t believe for a minute that is what Gary intended. That he would be dismissive of another’s scholarship is just not in character. And, I might add, as a proud native of Patrick County I am grateful for any good words about Jeb, so kudos, boys! What I, as a quote, popular historian, unquote, hate about this infighting is that it is exactly that–infighting. We face the dilemma of bringing not the average person, but the above average, intellingent reader to our circle. It takes all of us to bring the Civil War to life and we don’t have time or energy to fight with each other. And bottom line, not enough people care. I work in the world of tourism and history, and look folks, if we don’t engage real people to spend their money in visiting sites, reading books, caring about their past, all our inside fights are for nothing.

    We have bigger fish to fry and more honorable ways to spend our time. Each of you is too valuable to waste your time on what is really a non-issue. Keep up the good work.

    Reply

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