Gotcha History

Civil War Wives - BerkinI‘m not a fan of what I like to call “gotcha history”. It goes something like this. A book is marketed or reviewed based on the premise that its subject has been ignored or, even worse, suppressed for some nefarious reason. I sort of understand this first example from Carol Berkin who recently published Civil War Wives. The book is published by Knopf, which means that it will be widely available from most major book chains. The challenge for the author is to find a way to frame the book as offering something new among the vast array of Civil War books available. At HNN and with the title, “Why It’s Time to Write Wives into the Story of the Civil War”, Berkin suggests the following:

Thus the story of the civil war era comes down to us as a masculine portrait, its canvass filled with both powerful and ordinary men, free and slave, black and white.Yet, many of the Americans who endured the crises of secession, the brutalities and tragedies of warfare, the joy of success and the sorrow of defeat were wives, mothers, and daughters. For them, these experiences were not the same as for their husbands, fathers and brothers. If we are to understand the significance of the Civil War, if we are to measure its impact on the American psyche and its social landscape, we must listen to the voices of women as well as those of men. We must reconstruct the world of 19th century women with the same care and attention that we have reconstructed the world of men.

From a certain perspective no one can deny that our collective memory of the Civil War leans heavily to the masculine side. Hell, even most of the women I know who are interested in the Civil War are interested in battles and leaders and this is clearly the domain of men. On the other hand, Berkin is no doubt aware that over the past 15-20 years studies of women and gender during the Civil War have increased significantly. It is almost impossible to miss this ever-expanding literature and it has proven to be extremely helpful in uncovering aspects of the past that have for too long gone unstudied. It’s a clever hook, but not one that will resonate with people who have some understanding of recent Civil War historiography.

The other example is from our friend, Richard Williams, who back in 2007 reviewed two books for the Washington Times. Here is an excerpt of a post I wrote in response to his review. This is an example of the second type of gotcha history.

Today Richard Williams reviewed two recent releases that he believes force us to acknowledge that “Southerners have endured two never-ending accusations that, despite their inaccuracy, have made those from the region feel inferior because of their moral implications.” The first title is Bud Hall’s Den of Misery: Indiana’s Civil War Prison (Pelican Press) and the second is Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from the Slave Trade (Ballantine Books)

Williams makes no attempt to analyze the arguments contained in these studies. Rather he is content to frame his comments around a rather vague assumption: “However, with the recent release of two books, the truth finally is available to all who are willing to examine the facts objectively. What makes these two books so compelling is that they were written by Northerners.” It’s hard to know whether Williams is speaking for himself or the general public when it comes to describing these books as uncovering some kind of long-forgotten truth that has been suspended (one assumes) by those with nefarious interests.

In the case of the first title Williams seems completely oblivious to the historiography of Civil War prisons – both North and South. Perhaps he should be reminded of a few titles that explore in detail the conditions in Northern prisons. They include the edited collection Civil War Prisons (Kent State Press) by William B. Hesseltine. The essays go back to the 1950′s and Hesseltine’s own scholarship on the subject dates to the 1930′s. In addition there is Portals to Hell by Lonnie Speer and the newly-released book While in the Hands of the Enemy by Charles W. Sanders, Jr. (LSU Press). It is disingenuous to make claims about an entire area of historiography without any apparent understanding of the relevant literature. The problem is that further reading would detract from Williams’s initial claim that Southerners (and I assume he means white Southerners) have been the victims of a national lie.

Williams applies the same level of analysis to Complicity and seems to revel in the author’s own conviction that they have discovered something new about the history of slavery in the North. He quotes the authors at length:

We have all grown up, attended schools, and worked in Northern states, from Maine to Maryland. We thought we knew our home. We thought we knew our country. We were wrong…. Slavery had long been identified in the national consciousness as a Southern institution. The time to bury that myth is overdue. Slavery is a story about America, all of America. Together, over the lives of millions of enslaved men and women, Northerners and Southerners shook hands and made a country.

These comments fit perfectly into the working assumptions of the reviewer and of course go unquestioned. There is little doubt that the general public assumes that slavery was specific to the South, but that does not in and of itself provide a sufficient reason to conclude that this is a subject that has gone unstudied. Williams emphasizes the book’s focus on New York City, but is he aware that one of the most comprehensive exhibits on the city’s connection to the “peculiar institution” recently opened at the New York Historical Society? There is even a wonderful companion book edited by Ira Berlin that includes a number of first-rate essays.

The final few sentences do not disappoint as the reviewer’s own prejudices shine forth: “Complicity is thoroughly researched, heavily footnoted and generously illustrated with dozens of photographs, drawing, maps, charts and documents. Unfortunately, the book has been largely ignored by many in academia and the mainstream media. But perhaps the rest of America will, like the authors, soon admit they were wrong about who should share the blame for slavery.” I assume that according to Williams the book has been ignored by academics because they wish to steer clear of the fact of Northern slavery. As I stand here typing this post I look to my left and notice at least four shelves of books about the history of slavery and race in the North. The books cover the colonial period through the twentieth century. All of them have been published in the last thirty years and most of them are authored by academic historians who teach in Northern schools.

Gotcha history is relatively harmless, but don’t be surprised if you are called out for doing a poor job of it.

24 responses... add one

Good morning Kevin,

I have not read Carol Berkin's new book, but I see nothing wrong with her introductory remarks. The Civil War certainly is understood among the public primarily from a male perspective, and I sense that Professor Berkin has created a synthetic work that integrates the burgeoning scholarship of past decades in order to bring women's Civil War perspective to a wider audience. She is a pioneer in women's history who has mentored many others, and unless she ignores, belittles, or distorts the ideas of others (which I can't imagine her doing), she is merely venturing into the field of popular history, as many have done before her.

Vikki Bynum
Professor of History
Texas State University, San Marcos

Nice to hear from you. I have not read it either, but I am familiar with some of her other books and I've even used shorter readings in my classes. Let me be clear that I have no doubt that the book is worth reading as a synthetic history of women and the Civil War. I was in no way challenging that. I also applaud any serious scholar who tries to bridge the gap between academic and popular history. Of course, she is not the first to do so. To suggest that there is an absence of popular works on women and the Civil War seems to me to be a bit too much. Thanks again.

Having worked in commercial publishing, I know well that “untold story” is a valuable marketing hook—even if the story has been untold only since its last anniversary ten years ago, or even if the story is untold only for people who haven’t bothered to listen.

There’s pressure on authors, agents, editors, marketing and sales people to make that “untold” claim, and it becomes less nuanced all along the way. So “found some new information that adds to the existing picture” becomes “no one has ever heard this story before,” which becomes “upends everything you ever thought you knew!” And given the number of books chasing after the relatively small number of serious history readers, the pressure remains.

It’s notable that all the examples of somewhat overly hyped books in this posting come from commercial presses, not scholarly or non-profit publishers. In one case (Pelican), the press has taken an overt Lost Cause position. As for the recent review, the Washington Times is hardly a bastion of objectivity or scholarship.

Thanks for chiming in on this one given your background. I certainly am not commenting on the scholarship (or lack thereof) that is contained in these books. As I stated in response to Bynum's comment, Prof. Berkin is a first-rate scholar. _Complicity_ has received mixed reviews though the authors' claims and Williams's confirmation of their claims that this has gone unnoticed by scholars is simply false. Pelican Press has no credibility whatsoever and I certainly would not waste my time with anything they publish for the reasons you stated.

I appreciate your effort to raise these questions, Kevin. And Mr. Bell's insights into commercial marketing of books suggest the contradictory nature of popular history. The responsibilities of historians to acknowledge the works that underly their syntheses runs counter to the goals of the big publisher.

Victoria Bynum

My guess is that Berkin includes at least a bibliography and/or endnotes in the book. I just wanted to reiterate that I am not calling into question her scholarship in any way shape or form.

Let's focus on the Berkin book, including the notes and bibliography (they are present). I'd assume, for example, that someone making the claim she makes does so having read Joan Cashin's biography of Varina Davis. She claimed it appeared too late for her to use it, but she was aware of it. She's also aware of Intimate Matters, a book of essays on various Civil War marriages of prominent people. So I'd simply deal with the book, although I have some reservations about it at this time.

I've seen the Berkin book on the bookstore shelves, but have not had a chance to go through it. I thought Cashin's biography was first rate and the essays in _Intimate Matters_ are well worth looking at. But as you well know that is just the tip of the iceberg. How about Elizabeth Varon's bio of Elizabeth Van Lew, Matt Gallman's study on Anna Dickinson, Catherine Clinton on Fanny Kemble, Kate Larson on Harriet Tubman, etc. Just about every aspect of women's history related to the Civil War has been studied.

Look, I'd dismiss the HNN piece for what it is. The book is the true test. Berkin is doing something about wives, and in doing so, she'd been better advised to do a little more reading about the husbands as well. There's much more to the story of Julia and Ulysses Grant than she presents, so I come away underwhelmed from that treatment, even if in spots she's put her knowledge of women's history to good use. I'll leave it at that.

Yes, I'm aware of all those books, and heck, I'd point out Peg Lamphier's book about the William Sprague-Kate Chase marriage as one deeply informed by knowledge of the period and the scholarship about American women. That book eluded Berkin's attention.

Kevin and Brooks,

First, I think you are referring to “Intimate Strategies of the Civil War: Military Commanders and Their Wives.”

Second, Kevin, I understand the point of your post, and I think you are right, but specifically there has been little written about Julia Grant. There is one biography that I am aware of, published in 1959, “The General's Wife,” which sort of reads like a novel and is of questionable scholarly value. I must confess I had never heard of Carol Berkin, but when I first heard of this book I immediately pre-ordered it. I have not read the sections on Angelina or Varina, but I have read the section on Julia and I have to say I was a bit disappointed. I am now re-reading it and marking the places I think she is in error or just is misleading in her descriptions.

A couple examples: In the opening paragraph, she describes White Haven as “an elegant showcase” The paragraph leads a reader to envision a Southern plantation style mansion. (Later she calls it a mansion.) Anyone expecting to see a mansion at White Haven, I think would be surprised to find a fairly simple two story farm house.

She writes: “In building White Haven, the Dents had successfully transplanted plantation life to the northern-most outpost of Dixie.” Colonel Dent did not build White Haven, he purchased it.

She states that “the family owned more than a dozen slaves.” The 1850 census shows Colonel Dent owned thirty slaves, though that number fluctuated.

She states that Frederick Dent was Julia's “oldest brother” and that he was stationed at Jefferson Barracks. There were two Dent sons older than Frederick who was not stationed at Jefferson Barracks.

These kinds of errors can be overlooked I suppose, but I'm also troubled by her overall interpretation of Julia. Not that she has Julia entirely wrong, but she seems to indict her for not living up to the more activist Angelina or the more rebellious Varina. She states: “[Julia] never shared Angelina Grimke's insight into the tragedy of bondage or Grimke's sensitivities to its cruelties.” Well, how many southern women were like Grimke? She was rare. In addition, I would question whether Julia's experience with slavery at White Haven, which was essentially a family farm not a large scale plantation, was the same as Grimke's.

There are end-notes, and it seems as though Berkin relies very much on Julia's own Memoirs, without providing additional analysis or context. She also cites “The General's Wife,” Jean Edward Smith's biography of Grant, Grant letters, and little else. She seems to have pretty much taken Julia's writings at face value. I have stated in past comments here that Julia did not actually own any slaves, because her father never legally transferred ownership to her. Berkin misses this completely, along with other points regarding the Dents, the Grants, and slavery in Missouri. Also, I don't think Berkin ever visited White Haven or ever spoke with our site historian, which would have been beneficial to her.

Furthermore, Berkin's statements on the situation in Missouri in early 1861 are extemely simplistic and misleading.

I could go on, but this is already a long post. There has been a lot of praise here for Berkin's scholarly abilities and I trust that she has done good work, but unfortunately, I think she falls short with this one.
We could use a good biography of Julia Grant at White Haven. Maybe having three bios together like Berkin has done with this book is too restricting.

I am anxiously waiting for our site historian to read it, so we can discuss it more fully.

Brooks, you said let's focus on the book. I would very much like to hear your take on Berkin's portrayal of Julia Grant.

Oh yeah, she has Ft. Donelson spelled Donalson. Where are the editors?

Hi, Bob. I think you've been more direct in your comments than I initially chose to be. Berkin simply hasn't done the work she needs to do to offer a credible portrayal of Julia Dent Grant. There are too many factual slips, too many statements that betray a basic lack of knowledge. As you well know, family matters at White Haven were very complex, and I just don't get that in this reading. Several Grant biographers have dealt with critical issues concerning the Grants, and Berkin's ignorant of that work, as her bibliography and notes reveal.

I know that, Kevin. I was just concerned that readers less familiar with her name might not be aware that she is a highly-respected scholar. I'm certainly not questioning the point of your post, which raises important issues that concern all historians, popular and academic.

Victoria Bynum

In the portion you quoted Berkin is being very careful not to claim that she is the first to examine the topic. Rather she is making a more modest and I think true claim that this is a topic that is important yet unfamiliar to most Americans.

J. L. Bell correctly points out that a lot of the gotchas come from publishing and marketing. I can live with that. But when an unfair gotcha comes from a reviewer (who after all by being a reviewer is making a claim to know the literature on the topic) that is terrible and a scholarly disservice. Worst of all is when an author makes a gotcha claim of originality that denies the author's very indebtedness to sources listed in the author's own footnotes.

I cannot of course think of an example of the latter . . . perhaps because I am Jonesing for lunch right now . . .

That's probably a fair reading of Berkin, though I wish she would have been a bit more explicit. The sad thing about the Williams review is that he affirms the gotcha claims of the authors of _Complicity_ without any understanding of the relevant historiography. That is pure ignorance.

You would expect anything different from Richard Williams?

I think it unfortunate to pair Berkin with Williams. I also think it unfortunate to give Williams much attention, although there are times I can see why some people do it. I confess that he's easy to ridicule, and easy to corner. Too easy, especially when he does much of the work for you.

Yes, of course, there is no comparison whatsoever. At times I can't resist, but I find it hilarious that Williams once again fails to take responsibility for his own thoughts. Somehow he manages to turn it back to being attacked by elitist/liberal/academics. What a fool. For someone who has never stepped foot on a college campus as student (as far as I can tell) he sure feels comfortable offering commentary about the problems therein. He suffers from the same problem when it comes to scholarly studies of the Civil War since there is no evidence that Williams reads much of anything.

Oh, Richard Williams has his issues, that's for sure. When I suggested that his failure to define my political agenda (despite making all sorts of claims) was an act of cowardice, he proved that he was indeed the coward I thought he was by refusing to post the reply. So much for old Virginia manhood. :)

Richard Williams simply won't be held accountable for what he says, because he fails to substantiate his claims. I've already documented that he's a hypocrite and a fraud, and he nicely documented that he's also a coward. That leaves me with the sense that he's had his fifteen minutes, and it would be best all around not to give him the attention he so desperately craves. Just a suggestion.

Richard will never be held accountable for his views. Either you misunderstood what he wrote or he turns the issue around and goes after something else. Since he doesn't read much of anything by the people he regularly criticizes all he has left is to go after their political views. For Williams, the study of history is a political act and can only be evaluated along ideological lines. There is never any consideration of an actual work of history. Apparently, he doesn't have any clue as to how to go about that.

I should also add that some of the misplaced gotchas simply expose the ignorance of the author. “I grew up in the North and had no idea we had once owned slaves. Coverup!” No, you just didn't do the assigned readings in middle school history class.

I discovered a Civil War ancestor in the past five years who I would have known nothing about except for the internet. The story of my great great grandfather is that he joined a Union regiment late in the war and didn't come back. My great great grandmother, on the other hand, had three children who had lost their father. She declared for a widow's pension with dependents. It wasn't honored until a year and a half after her husband's death when she married her next door neighbor. I've chased down the details of the regiments in which her younger brother served, returning wounded and as a hero with a very substantial pension, and in which her husband and her sister's husband served. They were forty years old and did as they were told until they were too sick to continue. Her sister's husband survived the war and her own husband didn't. The records I've obtained have been for the soldiers, but the person I've gotten to know from the records has been my great great grandmother. Hers is the life that was shaped by the war and it's her influence I can see in the lives of my great grandfather, his step-father, his brother, his sister, his half-brother, his step-brother, his wife, his children, his grandchildren and his great grandchildren. The war created a situation. She responded to it. My whole sense of personal identity has been transformed by recognizing how and why she responded as she did. It was her life that was the center of the drama that the war produced.

This post came at the right time–just a couple of days ago I checked out this book from my college library. It was on the “Featured Books” shelf and it just looked to tempting to pass up :0) Once I finish reading it, Kevin, I can give you a little synopsis of it if you would like that–I know that with your full schedule and even fuller library, you may not get a chance to read this book for a while :0)

I probably will not read this book for a number of reasons, but thanks for the offer. By the way, you should upload an avatar for your profile page. Hope school is going well. :)

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