To be more specific, why do I suck at writing about the tactical ebb and flow of the Civil War battlefield. I am in the middle of editing chapter 1 of my Crater manuscript and it is proving to be quite difficult. The last draft, and the one that was reviewed at the publisher, included a fairly detailed overview of the battle itself. The ms. reviews came back and suggested that this section ought to be radically revised and the one thing that the reviewers agreed on was that I need only sketch the battle before focusing on the bigger questions of how Union and Confederate soldiers accounted for the presence of United States Colored Troops. I am making some progress, but I am having difficulty trying to figure how much detail is sufficient. It is incredibly depressing to go back and read your own writing and not be able to follow the narrative. I can’t tell you how many units went into the Crater early on in the chapter and never came out. I don’t know know what the hell happened to them.
I’ve been thinking about this difficulty over the past few days. Although I don’t read too many strict military-tactical studies I do have a great deal of respect for those who do it well. I am awed by the ability of some, including Gordon Rhea, Stephen Sears, and Harry Pfanz who are able to track the movements and experiences of large numbers of men on the battlefield and somehow make sense of it all in the form of a narrative that flows and keeps the reader’s attention. This is truly an act of the imagination. The question I have is how much of this is function of an innate cognitive ability to bring together disparate elements into a cohesive whole as opposed to a process involving the organization of notes, outlines, drafts, etc? I assume it is a combination of the two, but perhaps the scales tend to lean in a certain direction. Could it be that it takes a certain visual intelligence to grasp the details of battle in a way which allows for a smooth retelling of the story? Ultimately, I wonder whether I am in the same position as watching Neil Peart of Rush try to swing?
Don’t get me wrong, I love old Rush music and have been known to bang my head against the wall while listening to 2112, but it seems to me that no matter how much Peart practices he will never swing.
I would love to hear how historians go about writing tactical studies of Civil War battles. This would include the organization of notes and charts but I am also interested – perhaps even more so – in the cognitive process involved in translating those detailed notes into narrative. Luckily, I don’t have to worry about this level of detail and the draft looks much better because of it. The chapter is devoted to bigger issues having to do with how soldiers evaluated the battle, although I have provided some tactical detail when it relates directly to those post-battle evaluations. For example, many letters and diaries from Union soldiers blamed their defeat at the Crater on USCTs. They did so for a number of reasons, but across the board they did so because they actually observed these men retreat in the face of Mahone’s mid-morning counterattack. For the reader to understand this, however, they must know that elements of the 4th Division succeeded in advancing furthest beyond the Crater itself, in addition to scattered white units. Unfortunately, many of the letters fail to convey this fact in their rush to blame.
Some of you will be happy to hear that Earl Hess is finishing up a battle history of the Crater which I am looking forward to reading.