Is Dimitri Accusing James McPherson of Plagiarism?

51rbYvhY5RL._SS500_ Well, I guess we shouldn't be surprised that Dimitri Rotov doesn't like James McPherson's new study of Abraham Lincoln as commander-in-chief.  I have to admit that I had anticipated a nauseating analysis of how McPherson fails to understand the nature of the relationship between Lincoln, his generals, and McClellan in particular.  Instead, Rotov accuses McPherson of one form of plagiarism and for appropriating the analytical phrase, "concentration in time" from Archer Jones without attribution.  It's worth reading posts, which can be found here and here.  As for the first claim, readers will find it difficult to judge since Dimitri fails to quote McPherson in full.  Since I have a copy of the book I went through the references in question, but failed to see what was so troubling.  Readers can decide for themselves.  As for the more serious second claim, here is the crux of the argument:

It is not until 1992, when Archer Jones' Civil War Command and Strategy appears that the repeated, wholesale, anachronistic application of "concentration" (attributed to Clausewitz) displaces "simultaneous." Jones again stresses Lincoln's centrality to simultaneous operations and he is relentless in calling simultaneity "concentration in time." "Concentration" is Jones' signature and stamp on Lincoln's involvement in synchronous operations[.]

If the term "concentration in time" does not appear in the primary sources, if the application of this Clausewitzian expression to Lincoln's strategy is unusual and a hallmark of Jones (also Hattaway plus Jones), has not James M. McPherson transgressed?

Perhaps I fail to follow Dimitri's argument, but his charge of plagiarism seems to come down to the assumption that Archer Jones was the first historian/writer to utilize the phrase, "concentration in time" and McPherson fails to reference this in any of his endnotes.  Is that about the size of it?  If this is it than what are we to make of the following letter written by Gen. Beuaregard to Jefferson Davis on February 21, 1865:

Should the enemy advance into North Carolina and towards Charlotte and Salisbury, as is now certain, I earnestly urge a concentration in time of at least thirty-five thousand infantry and artillery at latter point, if possible, to give him battle there and crush him[.]

Consider the following passage written by Cadmus M. Wilcox', which can be found in History of the Mexican War (1892):

The first difficulty anticipated by General Scott was the concentration in time, off the Brazos, of a force large enough to give reasonable hopes of success before the usual period–end of March–of the return of the black vomit to the coast of Mexico.

I did a Google search and found the passage within 3 minutes.  I also found the phrase used in William T. Sherman's memoir.  My guess is that there are plenty more where that came from.  For now it is enough to say that Dimitri's central claim – that Archer Jone coined the phrase – is simply false.  Perhaps Dimitri should investigate as to whether Jones properly attributed the phrase.

Note: A reader reminded me that I failed to make one final point in reference to Dimitri's accusations.  I agree that McPherson should have cited some of the secondary literature on this particular point of "concentration in time."  Keep in mind, however, that there is no bibliography and McPherson cites only a limited number of secondary sources in the endnotes.  The notes are devoted almost entirely to personal and official correspondence.  Finally, I am surprised that Dimitri didn't mention that McPherson cites the work of his buddy, Russell Beattie.  C'mon…McPherson can't be all that bad. (LOL)

19 comments… add one
  • Richard F. Miller Oct 28, 2008 @ 16:42

    Dear Kevin: A closing note (for me, in any event) on this controversy. At bottom, plagiarism, like other types of theft, is a moral matter. The rules exist to give structure to procedures that must be invoked when some type of action is required—usually, termination or expulsion. But having successfully evaded a rule does not relieve one of the charge of plagiarism, only of a manmade definition of the charge. In sum, the theft may remain a theft, although one might have carefully disguised it in paraphrase or in a the reader’s hoped-for ignorance or laziness. Thus are ideas routinely taken without attribution although no “charge” of plagiarism will lie.

    The best of scholars, when dealing with another’s ideas, will attribute, even if vaguely. We have all seen, “The following chapter is indebted to John Smith’s article….” or “the idea of X was first suggested by John Smith in his groundbreaking study….” Not employing these attributions is moral, if not legal, plagiarism. And it is my belief that the rules are a safe harbor only but should not be confused with the offense itself.

  • Kevin Levin Oct 27, 2008 @ 21:23

    Rob, — At one point I suggested that this may have had something to do with the publisher. Again, McPherson makes very few references to secondary sources. I suspect it may have been done with the goal to stay within a certain number of page numbers.

    My problem with Dimitri is not his observation that McPherson failed to cite relevant secondary sources, but with his accusation that this constitutes plagiarism. As you may know he has a history of going after McPherson for just about anything. It is nothing less than strange.

  • Rob Beckman Oct 27, 2008 @ 21:18

    “Carpet bomb with footnotes.” I like that phrase. Professor McPherson is not alone in his sparing application of footnotes. T. Harry Williams, who wrote the major study of Lincoln’s performance as a commander in chief (prior to McPherson’s), committed the same sin. Perhaps it is the subject…

  • Kevin Levin Oct 27, 2008 @ 15:19

    Richard, — Thank you very much for the analysis. Of course, I also agree with you re: our obligation to cite our sources whenever possible.

  • Richard F. Miller Oct 27, 2008 @ 14:22

    Dear Kevin: When it comes to translated works, plagiarism is unusually tricky. Here’s a real time example with v. Clausewitz. The translation of “On War” that I used in my latest tome was translated by Anatol Rapoport and published by Penguin in 1968. However, this was actually a republication from another British imprint from 1908 and translated by one J.J. Graham. Exactly what Mr. Rapoport did and what Mr. Graham did is unclear. Moreover, in the edition I have, the two chapters which famously deal with concentration are translated, “Assembly of Forces in Space,” (Book III, Ch. XI) and “Assembly of Forces in Time,” (Book III, Ch. XII)

    You see the problem. If I were to translate the German to “concentration” rather than “assembly,” I suppose a failure to footnote would constitute inappropriate “borrowing.” But since the German can apparently be translated in several ways (I know a smattering of Yiddish but am not a German speaker) Even if I were to use Rapoport’s translation but insisted on “concentration” rather than “assembling” I would still owe a footnote to v. Clausewitz and maybe one to his translator(s).

    To complicate matters beyond not knowing what translation McPherson or anyone else used (where perhaps some translator did use the word “concentration”) I am also ignorant of what secondary sources might have been used, where perhaps some long ago scholar, writing about v. Clausewitz, simply paraphrased some long ago translation by using “concentrate” rather than “assembling.” This highlights another important issue about plagiarism which has a distinctly moral dimension: putting the formal rules aside (which one ought not to do if the question is whether or not to expel a student or terminate an academic career), scholars should intuitively know when they stray outside of their (usually) narrow expertise, and ought to credit appropriately, if for no other reason than not to mislead the reader into believing that such expressions as “concentration in time”–a smart phrase, indeed–is of their own invention.

    Perfect compliance is impossible as we all assimilate various phrases without being aware of attribution. Many a time have I avoided using a phrase because I suddenly albeit vaguely remembered hearing or reading it from some other source. But utterly unoriginal fellow that I am, I always know when I stray into somebody else’s paradigm. I would rather risk a charge of pedantry than plagiarism, and if I had a motto in these matters it would probably be, “when in doubt, carpet bomb with footnotes.”

    I forget which Civil War general said it (Ha!) but one very memorable quote (and sound advice) was, “In duty there is safety.” We have a duty not to use the other fellow’s work–or ideas, even in paraphrase–unless we credit (blame?) him or her.

  • Kevin Levin Oct 27, 2008 @ 13:23

    Richard, — Thank you very much for taking the time to comment on this issue. No doubt you can tell that I am anything but an expert on Jomini, Clausewitz, etc. and I now see that the examples provided in my response to Dimitri fall short for a number of reasons. I still would like to know if McPherson’s failure to cite Archer Jones as the author of the phrase, “concentration in time” constitutes anything close to plagiarism. Of course, I understand if you would rather steer clear. Thanks again.

  • Richard F. Miller Oct 27, 2008 @ 13:16

    As Mr. Rotov has quoted me at some length in a subsequent post on this issue, I thought it would be useful to expand upon my particular difficulties in using specialized terminology anachronistically. First, as a review of the Annual Reports for antebellum West Point make clear, none of von Clausewitz’s writings appear in any assigned course material. Moreover, the earliest English translation of Vom Kriege that I have been able to find was published in London in 1873, (N. Trubner & Co.) Nor in my twenty years as a Civil War historian have I ever found a contemporaneous (1861-1865) reference by any soldier, North or South, to the great Prussian thinker. In sum, it is fair to conclude that Clausewitz may have been relatively unknown, or if known, likely second hand only, and more probably, not even slightly influential.

    Of course, Jomini was well-known to the Civil War generation and often cited, chiefly because his text was the foundation of West Point’s military curriculum. But as a thinker, Jomini is as different from Clausewitz as night from day. Jomini would appeal to Americans, as his work is replete with practical advice on waging war. By contrast, Clausewitz is a military version of his contemporaries, philosophers Hegel, Kant, or Schopenhauer—a brilliant abstractionist who was able to reduce (or elevate) his experience into universal doctrine.

    As a preceding poster correctly notes, there are certainly instances in which Civil War contemporaries would use Clausewitzian phrases such as “concentration in time.” These phrases are not so original as require sourcing to Clausewitz; likewise, their relative unoriginality does not permit one to draw the conclusion that their use signifies any intimacy with Clausewitz’s doctrine. Rather, for those historians who wish to present Civil War tactics and strategy using the Clausewitzian paradigm, it would be far more accurate for them to qualify phrases that only post-bellum acquired their Clausewitzian resonance during the twentieth century by making the appropriate predicate comment, e.g., “as von Clausewitz might have said,” or “as later American tacticians would understand this movement according to von Clausewitz.”

    These details matter because the differences between Jomini and von Clausewitz should not be obscured by historians who trade in the terminology without making full disclosure. And that matters because it leads to a far more interesting question, as yet (to my knowledge) unexplored: Why was Jomini’s work popular and von Clausewitz’s virtually ignored?

  • Kevin Levin Oct 24, 2008 @ 17:34

    Rob, — Once again I thank you for the comment and the lesson on plagiarism. First, Dimitri never states specifically whether he believe McPherson’s reference to “concentration in time” constitutes plagiarism. He definitely hints at which is why the title of my post is framed as a question. My guess is that McPherson is very much aware of Archer Jones’s scholarship concerning Lincoln’s military thought. I will state once again that there are very few references to secondary sources in the endnotes. Perhaps the lack of such references was decided on as a way to minimize their length. I don’t know. It seems to me that for D’s suggestion to go through than, as you say, there must be an intent to steal. That seems highly unlikely given the information currently available.

    At one point in the acknowledgments, McPherson says the following:

    “The large community of Lincoln and Civil War scholars has also enriched my understanding. No single mortal could read all of the books and articles produced by these scholars, but I have read as many as possible and have learned from all of them.”

    Once again, I agree that it would have been better to have cited all the relevant secondary sources, but alas they are lacking. As to whether McPherson intended his referencing to “concentration in time” you will have to ask him. Perhaps Dimitri should have done just that rather than assuming the worst. Than again that has been his approach regarding McPherson and others.

  • Rob Beckman Oct 24, 2008 @ 17:15


    Perhaps you, like the poster named toby, find Mr. Rotov disagreeably abrasive in his approach to McPherson’s work. Perhaps you would find the American Historical Society to be a more impartial arbiter of the issue of Plagiarism. The website is located here:

    From section 2: Shared values of historians (Bolds are from the website, not added by me)

    Honoring the historical record also means leaving a clear trail for subsequent historians to follow. This is why scholarly apparatus in the form of bibliographies and annotations (and associated institutional repositories like libraries, archives, and museums) is so essential to the professional practice of history. Such apparatus is valuable for many reasons. It enables other historians to retrace the steps in an argument to make sure those steps are justified by the sources. Apparatus often evaluates evidence to indicate gaps in the historical record that might cast doubt on a given interpretation. Knowing that trust is ultimately more important than winning a debate for the wrong reasons, professional historians are as interested in defining the limits and uncertainties of their own arguments as they are in persuading others that those arguments are correct. Finally, the trail of evidence left by any single work of history becomes a key starting point for subsequent investigations of the same subject, and thus makes a critical contribution to our collective capacity to ask and answer new questions about the past. For all these reasons, historians pride themselves on the accuracy with which they use and document sources. The sloppier their apparatus, the harder it is for other historians to trust their work.

    The trail of evidence in bibliographies, notes, museum catalogs, databases, and other forms of scholarly apparatus is crucial not just for documenting the primary sources on which a work of history depends, but the secondary sources as well. Practicing history with integrity means acknowledging one’s debts to the work of other historians. To copy the work of another and claim it for one’s own is plagiarism—an act historians abhor. Plagiarism violates the historical record by failing to reveal the secondary sources that have contributed to a given line of argument. It is a form of fraud, and betrays the trust on which the historical profession depends.

    And, under section 4: Plagiarism

    Plagiarism includes more subtle abuses than simply expropriating the exact wording of another author without attribution. Plagiarism can also include the limited borrowing, without sufficient attribution, of another person’s distinctive and significant research findings or interpretations.

    And also from section 4:

    The real penalty for plagiarism is the abhorrence of the community of scholars.

    ***end quotation from website ***

    Mr. Rotov stated that McPherson’s use of the phrase “concentration in time,” was not the original work of Professor McPherson, but instead was from the work of Archer Jones. He quoted and cited the relevant passages, and I will point you to google books for an easily accessed copy of Civil War Command and Strategy by Archer Jones and add that the relevant portion is located on page 100.

    It is clear that Mr. Rotov’s assertion that the appropriation of this key idea by McPherson without the accompanying attribution to it’s originating author, veers close to Plagiarism. Rotov is anything but vague. He copied and pasted the passages from the two works that contained the same idea.

    The only question here is whether McPherson intended his work as a substantial revision of the opinion of Lincoln, or if he means the book to be a summation of the current lines of thought. If it is the latter, and not the former, he is allowed more latitude.

    As someone who has done a fair amount of research on the subject of Lincoln as a commander in chief for my Master’s thesis, I am familiar with the current prevailing opinions of Lincoln’s military thought. I can tell you that there is little in McPherson’s work that is strikingly new. He expands upon some things, such as the idea of “concentration in time,” but does not substantially revise anything that I can as yet discern. Perhaps he was simply summarizing the current thoughts on Lincoln.

  • toby Oct 24, 2008 @ 12:16

    I have read both Archer Jones and James MacPherson and admire the work of both historians.

    I take an occasional look at Rotov’s blog, but find him so arrogant and condescending to other workers in the field that I take everything he says with a large grain of salt.

    P.S. Minor typo in one of the first sentence “constuction” instead of “concentration”?

  • Kevin Levin Oct 24, 2008 @ 5:52

    Rob, — Thanks for taking the time to comment. As I stated at the end of my post, I do think that McPherson should have been more systematic about citing the relevant secondary sources. Again, if you go through the endnotes you will notice that there are very few references to anything beyond official correspondence. It is probably the case that my examples fail to address the issue involved.

    At the same time Dimitri’s (vague) accusations of plagiarism fall way short of the mark. Thanks again.

  • Rob Beckman Oct 23, 2008 @ 23:57

    Kevin- The two terms in question are “concentration in time,” and “concentration in space.” These terms are used to discuss a tactical and strategic concept known as interior lines. If you are in command of an army, and your army holds a position in which it has a semicircular, or even a complete circle-and your enemy occupies a position on the outside of the semicircle or circle, it is defined militarily that your army holds a position of interior lines, while your enemy holds a position of exterior lines. (they are on the exterior of your position) In your army’s position, you hold the advantage of concentration in space, that is, you can rush supplies and reinforcements to any part of your line directly, wheras your opponent will have to send his supplies or reinforcement on a much longer and circular route. This situation was present at Gettysburg, where Lee was forced to attack on exterior lines, while Meade held a position of interior lines.

    How do you attack an opponent that holds interior lines? By concentrating in time. This means that you attack your opponent’s position at all points, all at once-a coordinated attack that is designed to hold all of the troops in the interior position in place, hoping that some part of your attacking force will gain a breakthrough. Lincoln expressed this in a folksy way by commenting about a plan to “concentrate in space”: “Those not skinning can hold a leg.”

    Archer Jones probably did not coin the phrase, but he probably was the first to apply it to Lincoln’s thinking. As such, his analysis of Lincoln’s thinking constitutes an original idea, and should have been credited by McPherson.

  • Kevin Levin Oct 23, 2008 @ 15:42

    David, — I appreciate the comment. You may in fact be right, but that’s not how I read the two examples that I cite. Now perhaps I was already predisposed to interpret the phrase as a concentration of forces rather than one single force as you suggest. I must say that the use of the phrase in both examples is vague, but I’m not sure that is can be so easily reduced to “in the nick of time.” Thanks again.

  • David Rhoads Oct 23, 2008 @ 14:03


    Although I don’t really want to address the plagiarism question, allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment in regard to a couple of points:

    1. Dimitri does not claim that Archer Jones coined the phrase “concentration in time”–indeed, he says that Jones borrowed both the phrase and the concept, with appropriate attribution, from Clausewitz. Instead, Dimitri claims that Jones was the first historian to apply the concept in an analysis of Lincoln’s conduct of the war.

    2. Neither of the two examples you posted of earlier uses of the phrase “concentration in time” seems to me to be using the phrase in the way that Dimitri says Clausewitz and Jones use it, i.e., to describe the simultaneous advance of two or more forces, disparate in space, against disparate targets, such that the “concentration” is literally one in time only, not in space.

    Beauregard’s use of the phrase clearly does not meet the definition Dimitri suggests because he says explicitly that he wants to concentrate his entire force at the “latter point”–Salisbury–in order to give the enemy battle.

    Similarly, in the passage by Wilcox, he speaks of Scott’s difficulty as one of concentrating a single force in a single place.

    I would suggest that in both the Beauregard and Wilcox examples, the use of the phrase “in time”, although paired directly with the word “concentration”, is logically much more analogous to the phrase “in the nick of time” than it is to the concept Dimitri advances by way of Clausewitz and Jones. In other words, both examples speak to assembling a single force in a single place in sufficient time either to meet the enemy and “give battle there” or to afford a chance of success before the onset of a season prone to disease.

    Thanks and keep up the good work!

    –David Rhoads

  • Rob Wick Oct 23, 2008 @ 12:30


    It’s a shame that James McPherson has no earthly idea who Dimitri is, or he might have an actionable case for libel, given Dimitri’s seemingly flippant use of “evidence” in his accusations.


  • Tim Abbott Oct 23, 2008 @ 11:01

    As your game-playing students might say, Kevin pwned Dimitri!

  • Kevin Levin Oct 23, 2008 @ 6:58

    Ari, — I don’t anticipate any problem for you, but the links and/cash would surely help to solidify this. (LOL)

  • ari Oct 23, 2008 @ 1:56

    Kevin, if you could let me know the best way to stay on your good side — flattery? links? cash payments? — I’d be most grateful. Also, you’re right*, of course: the charge of plagiarism is just silly.

    * See? Flattery. Links and cash are on the way.

  • Michael Lynch Oct 22, 2008 @ 20:57

    Very interesting. I haven’t read McPherson’s book yet, but just from looking at Rotov’s excerpts, it didn’t appear to me that the language itself was close enough to warrant the plagiarism charge. And your findings here make it clear that the “concentration” phrase isn’t original to Jones.

    I disagree with many of Rotov’s assessments of McPherson’s work. Rotov dislikes synthesis, but it seems to me that the size of the Civil War corpus makes synthesis more necessary, not less so. That’s just my opinion.

    Michael Lynch

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