Not Everyone is Happy With 2014 Lincoln Prize Winner

GettysburgYesterday the 2014 Lincoln Prize winners were announced. This year the prize was split between Allen Guelzo for his book, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion and Writing the Gettysburg Address by Martin Johnson. I read and thoroughly enjoyed Guelzo’s book, but have not have yet had a chance to read the second. It’s worth pointing out that Guelzo’s book is the first military campaign study to be awarded the prize since George Rable’s Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!, which won in 2003.

Last May I wondered how the Licence Battlefield Guides at Gettysburg and Gettysburg enthusiasts generally would respond to Guelzo’s book. This morning I came across a couple of reactions on social media from two Licensed Guides that are worth sharing.

Is anyone else as outraged as I am? Gettysburg historiography has taken a major step backwards. Has anyone who knows anything about the battle actually read this book? Where is the History Police when you need them?

I don’t know why anyone is surprised by Guelzo getting this prize. His friends and colleagues in academe choose the winners. Guelzo has been cultivating them for years. It’s just business. Ho hum.

A few other comments from the thread caught my eye.

I’ve read it. It is well written but there are numerous problems with it. When you look at the panel that selected it, it is easy to figure out why it won. Johnson’s book, which I thought was excellent, should have been the sole winner of the award.

The only thing new I learned in the entire book was that Krzyżanowski was a first cousin of Chopin. Aside from that, there are 672 pages of my life that I’ll never get back.

I suspect that the same people who have a problem with Guelzo’s book prefer Frank O’Reilly’s Fredericksburg study over Rables’s book. Let me be clear that I have no issue at all with pointing out weaknesses and mistakes in a history book, but I get the sense that there is more at work here than a concern about factual errors.

Please don’t ask me to wade into whether I believe Guelzo deserves the award. I have absolutely no reason not to trust the integrity of the members of the awards panel. As noted above I thought the book was incredibly thought provoking for a number of reasons. With that I want to congratulate the winners of this year’s Lincoln Prize.

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23 thoughts on “Not Everyone is Happy With 2014 Lincoln Prize Winner

  1. James F. Epperson

    Guelzo’s book is on my Nook awaiting the moment when I have the time to delve into it—which may be sooner rather than later now. My understanding is that he is critical of Meade, and he doesn’t usually do military studies; I suspect these are the drivers for the criticism of the award.

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  2. Patrick Young

    O’Reilly’s book was very good. I read Guelzo’s as well and enjoyed it even though I’ve read at least 50 “Gettysburg books.” What book deserved the prize is beyond my competence to judge and I imagine that even without politicking there is a tendency to give award to established “names.”

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      O’Reilly’s book was very good.

      It was indeed.

      I imagine that even without politicking there is a tendency to give award to established “names.”

      It’s an award that scholars give to fellow scholars. That’s always been the case so by design it is confined to a relatively small community.

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  3. Eric Wittenberg

    Kevin,

    I have two responses to your comments. One deals with Guelzo’s book. The other deals with your comments about Rable vs. O’Reilly.

    As a prefatory matter, I think you know that I’m known as a Gettysburg guy, and for good reason. Much of my work focuses on the Gettysburg Campaign. It’s been the primary focus of my work for most of my life.

    I understand why the guides hate that book. For one thing, there are some significant errors in it. For another, some of Guelzo’s conclusions/opinions lack solid evidentiary support. More importantly, the job of the LBG’s is to know the tactics and to know them well. Guelzo’s book is weak on tactics and in the big scheme of things adds little to the body of knowledge on the most written-about campaign of the Civil War. They believe that the book really doesn’t add much.

    While I think it’s a well-written book, I completely agree with their assessment, particularly in that I think that his criticisms of Meade are unduly harsh and not well-supported by the facts. With all due respect to Allen, he’s known as a social historian, particularly of era politics, and I think he’s way outside his area of expertise here.

    Mix in the fact that the school where he teaches gave the award, and that’s a recipe for claims of cronyism. I get it completely.

    Regarding Rable vs. O’Reilly. Frank’s book is pure military history, whereas Rable’s book is more of a social history with little in the way of military details. I am interested in strategy, tactics, and decision-making. Social history holds little interest for me. But at the same time, I realize that there are plenty of people like you, who are much more interested in the social history than in military history, which means that, in the end, it’s the reason why there’s vanilla and chocolate ice cream. Different flavors for different tastes.

    That same analysis probably applies to Guelzo’s book. But given the bent of the LBG’s, and their interests, I completely understand why they don’t care for it.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Eric,

      I appreciate the comment. I’ve said over and over that I am not a Gettysburg expert nor am I particularly interested in detailed battlefield tactics. This is ground that we’ve been over before.

      I’ve seen references to various factual errors in the book and I don’t doubt that they are there. It would be great to have a list of the most serious factual errors that seriously hamper broader claims made. I also thought Guelzo’s take on Meade was “unduly harsh” but that’s one of the reasons why I thought it was so interesting. That seems to me something that people can agree to disagree. Given your emphasis on facts, is it fair to ask whether there are any mistakes in any of the books that you’ve written over the years? It’s not meant as a criticism because I suspect that most military history books contain at least one or two.

      Guelzo’s book is weak on tactics and in the big scheme of things adds little to the body of knowledge on the most written-about campaign of the Civil War.

      It might be, but must this be the sole focus when it comes to judging a campaign study that is also meant to be a snapshot of a nation at war in 1863? There is so much more to this campaign than the exact placement of a regiment. A campaign study is about more than tactics. Guelzo beautifully weaves together a number of different themes from the battlefield to the homefront to the respective capitals, etc. I guess it comes down once again to the fact that we disagree about what goes into such a study.

      Thanks again for the comment. Looking forward to finally meeting you next month.

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      1. Eric Wittenberg

        Kevin,

        Sure, we all make mistakes. I’ve been called on them before. Nobody’s perfect. I’m sure that there’s at least one error in your book for the same reason.

        And I didn’t necessarily mean that the errors in Allen’s book knock it down a peg or anything like that. I completely understand about making mistakes and I’m not really focused on that. Rather, I was trying to point out that the LBG’s that I know–and I do know lots of them–are pretty much the ultimate in micro-detail guys. Think about Garry Adelman, as just one example–Garry’s known as the Devil’s Den guy. That his primary focus at Gettysburg. Or my friend Jim Hessler, who published a very good book on Sickles at Gettysburg. It’s not his only interest, but it’s the one he’s best known for because of his book. Because of their micro-detailed approach, they focus in on those little things and magnify them. For them, mistakes are a very big deal for that reason–they’re magnified.

        My complaint is not with the errors. Rather, it’s with drawing conclusions that are not supported by the evidence. That’s probably my legal training coming through, but I deal in evidence and what can be proved. If someone wants to theorize and speculate, fine–say so. Tell me you’re theorizing, and I’m fine with it. What bothers me is theory passed off as fact. And that’s my complaint here.

        As for your final point, you bring me right back to my original point, which is that this is why there is plenty of room for multiple studies of the same campaign. Sometimes, I want chocolate ice cream. Sometimes, I want vanilla. Sometimes, I want both. Personally, I’m glad that there are choices. But I usually choose the books that I choose because they emphasize the things that interest me while downplaying the things that don’t. I completely agree that it’s a well-written narrative. It just happens to emphasize aspects of the campaign that don’t particularly interest me while downplaying the things that do. Consequently, it’s not my first choice of books on the campaign.

        But that does not mean that I don’t offer it as a recommendation when people ask me for recommendations about books on the campaign. I always offer it–along with Sears, Coddington and Trudeau–with an explanation of the approach of each book and let the person decide which flavor of ice cream best suits his or her desires. Doing anything else does not do them–or the authors–justice, and I am never so arrogant as to assume that something that interests me will be equally interesting to someone else and vice versa.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Thanks for the follow up. Absolutely, there are a few factual mistakes in my book.

          Rather, it’s with drawing conclusions that are not supported by the evidence.

          Of course, whether his conclusions are supported by the evidence is open to debate. That is true for any work of history. I find that it is often the case that the most important books in the field are the ones that draw the most attention re: claim and evidence.

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          1. Eric Wittenberg

            And on that final point, we’re in complete agreement. Because of what I do for a day job, I prefer it when people tell me that there are questions about whether there is sufficient evidence rather than just declaring that there is when there is not. Like I said, TELL ME that you’re theorizing and I have absolutely no problem with it.

            Once again, we come back to my ice cream analogy. It’s all about each person’s tastes.

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            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              Once again, we come back to my ice cream analogy. It’s all about each person’s tastes.

              No disagreement there. That said, nothing I’ve heard or read suggests that Guelzo’s book did not deserve this particular award.

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  4. Dan

    >>They believe that the book really doesn’t add much.<<

    One wonders if, at this point, there's ANYTHING that an overall study of the campaign would add. I think the general consensus is that, in its broadest brush strokes, Gettysburg has been done to death; that's why it's fragmenting, if you will, into G'burg address studies, G'burg retreat studies, G'burg microtactical studies, G'burg social history studies, etc., exactly because that sort of specialization allows scholars to say something new.

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  5. William Kerrigan

    I would hope that in 2014 we would be long past the point of seeing military history and social history as approaches that can be separated. I don’t think a good military history can ignore social history aspects of a campaign or a battle. We are not dealing with chess pieces, after all. We are dealing with human beings.

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    1. Phil LeDuc

      This is a very good point, and it’s one that I believe Gary Gallagher has been making – battlefield and home front are tied together, and to try to isolate one without the other doesn’t do justice to the subject.

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  6. Donald R. Shaffer

    Dear Kevin:

    I haven’t read either book, so I cannot comment on their substance and whether it qualifies Guelzo for the award. Neither do I know who was on the prize committee, so I cannot comment on whatever biases, if any, they brought to the task. Personally, I like Allen Guelzo, and I’ve had a cordial relationship with him, even if we don’t see eye-to-eye politically. He is a top-notch scholar and I respect his work.

    Nonetheless, I can see why this year’s Lincoln Prize has some people at the very least scratching their heads. First, Guelzo has already won the Lincoln Prize twice, which probably shouldn’t matter since every year is a fresh contest (perhaps he is the Daniel Day-Lewis of Civil War Studies), but it does raise questions about to what degree the award committee looked beyond past winners to other people who released award-quality books in 2013 that deserved recognition. Second, since Guelzo is now on the faculty of Gettysburg College, he is now associated at least informally with the institute that awards the prize, which creates the appearance of, if it doesn’t exactly prove, cronyism. Appearances shouldn’t count, but we all know they do, and the Lincoln Prize, which in essence is the top prize in Civil War Studies should be beyond reproach, even on the basis of appearances.

    It also makes me wonder to what extent Peter Carmichael was involved in this decision? I realize he has been on leave for much of the period in question, so maybe he wasn’t following the committee’s work as closely as he might have, but it seems to me that one of the responsibilities of the Director of the Gettysburg Institute, and those under him, should be is to avoid just the sort of appearances which this year’s committee has created. I am not suggesting any malfeasance on PC’s or the Institute’s part, but this year’s Lincoln Prize, in my humble opinion, on the basis of appearances does not reflect well on them.

    In any case, my congratulations to this year’s winners and anyone else under consideration that might have not gotten the recognition they deserved. The prize award process can be unfair and it is certainly imperfect because it is overseen by imperfect human beings, as we all are. It also reminds me why some people I have known, who have won such awards, are dubious about whether they deserved them.

    Best,

    Don Shaffer

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      From the Lincoln Prize website:

      The Prize is supervised and awarded by the five trustees. The Board of Trustees appoints a jury of three historians or qualified specialists each year. The jury will be requested to recommend three finalists and the Board of Trustees is to make a final selection of the winner.

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  7. Al Mackey

    From the website https://www.gettysburg.edu/lincolnprize/index.dot :

    The three-member 2014 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize jury – University of Illinois at Springfield’s Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies Michael Burlingame, 2010 Lincoln Prize-winner for “Abraham Lincoln: A Life”; Washington and Lee University’s Lewis G. John Term Professor of Politics Lucas Morel, author of “Lincoln’s Sacred Effort: Defining Religion’s Role in American Self-Government”; and Assistant Professor of History at the University of Central Florida Barbara Gannon, 2012 Lincoln Prize Honorable Mention for “The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic” – recommended six finalists to the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize Board which makes the final decision.

    In addition to Gilder, Lehrman, Basker and Riggs, the Board includes Gettysburg College Trustees Emeritus James R. Thomas and H. Scott Higgins.

    Neither Pete nor the Civil War Institute appear to have played a role in the selection.

    For what it’s worth, based on the selection process I don’t agree with the charge of appearance of cronyism, since Gettysburg College doesn’t select the winner.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Thanks, Al. I cut and pasted the relevant text from the website, but it doesn’t hurt to reinforce the point that Gettysburg College has nothing to do with it.

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      1. Donald R. Shaffer

        Thanks for the clarification of the process, which is much appreciated. I just want to make it clear I was and I am not making any accusations here, just mentioning that this year’s awardee for the Lincoln Prize creates the potential of a problem of appearances, a problem that remains given the composition of the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize Board, which still includes two persons connected to Guelzo’s institution. I am unaware of any personal connection between Guelzo and James R. Thomas and H. Scott Higgins. No doubt this year’s award was on the up and up, but when the same person wins the award three times, it can begin to get heads scratching. Like I said, prize processes are imperfect, and we should always be humble when such good fortune falls at our feet. Allen Guelzo has always been perfectly down to Earth in my dealings with him, and I once again congratulate him.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          I just want to make it clear I was and I am not making any accusations here, just mentioning that this year’s awardee for the Lincoln Prize creates the potential of a problem of appearances, a problem that remains given the composition of the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize Board, which still includes two persons connected to Guelzo’s institution.

          I didn’t interpret your comment any other way.

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