Where are the Archival Sources?

-1Three books have been published on the battle of the Crater over the past two years and I have had the opportunity to review all of them.  I reviewed Alan Axelrod’s The Horrid Pit for the Journal of Southern History and my review of John Schmutz’s The Battle of the Crater is forthcoming at H-Net.  Before I left for Amsterdam I was contacted by Civil War Book Review to see if I might be interested in reviewing Richard Slotkin’s new study, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864.  On a personal note, all three books reference one or more of my own publications on the battle, which, of course, is nice to see.

Both Axelrod and Schmutz are heavy on tactical detail, but quite weak on interpretation, which is why I’ve been looking forward to Slotkin’s book since last summer.  The title alone suggests that the issue of race is central in Slotkin’s analysis and a quick read of the preface confirms it:

Above all, the Battle of the Crater is worth a closer look because the flash of its explosion illuminates the centrality of race in the tangle of social and political conflicts that shaped American life as the Civil War approached its climax.  Because of the racial elements, participants would remember this as the most intense and vicious combat of the war, and even the passage of time did not allay the bitterness it engendered.  The animosities exposed on this battlefield were the same passions that would wreck postwar attempts to reconstruct the nation as a multiracial democracy.

I couldn’t agree more with Slotkin’s interpretation of the battle’s importance.  Indeed, much of the focus of this blog and my own scholarship has been devoted to trying to better understand the importance of this battle within the broader narrative of race and memory in America.  Any understanding of the battle’s significance must begin with the wide range of archival sources that show just how important the issue of race was to the men who fought in both Union and Confederate ranks.

It is with this in mind that I perused through Slotkin’s bibliography to find that he does not use any archival sources whatsoever.  He does use a number of reliable published primary sources, but they pale in comparison to the content to be found in the letters, diaries and newspapers publishished in the wake of the battle.  Make no mistake, I am only one chapter in and I am thoroughly looking forward to reading Slotkin’s analysis of the complex racial themes that must be untangled here, but I am disappointed with the range of sources utilized for such a project.

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8 comments… add one
  • Brendan Wolfe Jul 29, 2009 @ 9:31


    My understanding is that the photo on the cover of Slotkin’s book is not of soldiers at Petersburg but of Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps before Fredericksburg in May 1863. Is that your understanding or is this still up for debate?

    • Kevin Levin Jul 29, 2009 @ 9:34


      I’m pretty sure that you are correct. The photo was definitely not taken at Petersburg.

  • Peter Jul 29, 2009 @ 7:34

    It may be germane to mention here that Slotkin is a professor of English and American Studies. What I take your “just do your research” to mean is something along the lines of “we don’t need to theorize a justification for history, but what sets history apart from other disciplines is that historians deal with particular kinds of evidence in particular ways.” In other words, at first glance it may be unfair to criticize Slotkin for falling short of fulfilling the arbitrary conventions of history (unless, of course, he asserts that this is what he is doing).

    • Kevin Levin Jul 29, 2009 @ 9:12


      That is exactly what I mean to say. Historians should not feel as if they need to offer theoretical/epistemological foundations for their work. Historians are notoriously bad in branching off into areas of philosophy of history. That said, I would encourage historians who are interested in the theoretical underpinnings of their discipline to explore how evidence is used in historical studies. At least in keeping the discussion on an empirical level the historian can formulate an understanding of the discipline that is worth defending.

      As for Slotkin’s book I anticipated a fairly sophisticated interpretation of the battle that explored issues that I find important. I still do, but I just hope that at those important interpretive junctures that the analysis is buttressed by the rich source material that is available to historians.

  • Jason Phillips Jul 29, 2009 @ 6:33

    Thanks for the clarification Kevin. I agree with you. If Slotkin frequently poach primary source quotations from other monographs, that’s a problem. As you note, such poaching adds another degree of separation from the original document, thus increasing the likelihood of misquoting it.

    I was curious about your statement because I’m fascinated by our professional fetish for the archive. Historians often instinctively privilege manuscript sources over published ones. Perhaps we assume that the actual diary is somehow closer to the past, but it’s nonsense for us to think that it’s more accurate than a responsibly published version of the same source. Nonetheless, when we scan bibliographies we’re more impressed by a long list of archival sources than by a list of published evidence that’s just as long. I won’t go postmodern on you, but I think this fetish is rooted in positivist notions of scientific objectivity that have been discredited and discarded by every profession but history.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 29, 2009 @ 6:48


      Glad it helped. Rest assured that my concern is with the quality, number, and range of sources and not at all with whether they are published or non-published. I don’t mind saying that I look forward to the day when I don’t have to go into an archive to do research. Put it all Online. Your final thought is quite interesting. I’ve never made the connection between our “fetish” for long lists of archival sources and an outdated notion of objectivity. I think you may have a point. The mistake that historians made at the height of positivism was in thinking that they had to respond to the positivist’s claims that unless an explanation issued in causal laws than one is not really explaining anything. Perhaps historians have not discarded it because they have yet to move beyond the extreme poles of Rankean objectivity and subjectivism. The alternative to positivism never implied the loss of a meaningful notion of truth worth defending. That said, I’ve never really understood the obsession among some historians [consider Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob’s _Telling the Truth for History] for trying to build an epistemological foundation for the study of history. Just do your research. 🙂

  • Jason Phillips Jul 29, 2009 @ 5:26


    I’d like to hear more about the distinction you see between “reliable published primary sources” and unpublished primary sources (or as you call them, archival sources). How are the two qualitatively different? You argue that published evidence “pale[s] in comparison to the content to be found in the letters, diaries and newspapers published in the wake of the battle.” How so and why? Are you talking about specific manuscript collections you know well and wish to have seen in the bibliography or are you stating a general preference for archival sources? I haven’t read Slotkin’s book. I assume he interprets evidence that was written during and immediately after the battle?


    • Kevin Levin Jul 29, 2009 @ 5:43

      Hi Jason,

      Nice to hear from you. Thanks for calling me on this as I should have clarified my point further. I don’t draw a qualitative distinction between published and non-published (archival) sources. What I meant to say is that at first glance the bibliography seems a bit weak on sources that really get at the experiences of the soldiers. Slotkin seems to rely heavily on other secondary sources that utilize the archival sources so perhaps he mined (no pun intended) those to a greater extent. That’s one way of getting at the relevant sources, but in doing so Slotkin must rely on the judgment of others in selecting what to quote. I have no doubt that Slotkin’s analysis will give me much to think about, but there are a number of collections that need to be consulted when dealing with the Crater. Given the amount of time that I’ve spent researching this subject I can’t imagine publishing a book-length study without a large number of the archival collections that I’ve come across. Perhaps he was able to get at the experiences of the men on both sides with the limited range of sources used. Like I said, I’ve only read the first chapter. Hope that helps.

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