Last month I posted a brief item about a couple of reviews of Karen Abbott’s new book, which took issue with her citations. Both Jonathan Yardley and Ashleigh Whitehead Luskey pointed out that a few passages lacked proper citation or that specific sources deserved further interrogation to support corresponding claims. I was most interested in Ashleigh’s review in The Civil War Monitor, which included a response by the author in the comments section.
I happened to stumble on it this morning and noticed that Ashleigh elaborated on her review. It’s well worth reading and in my view offers a model for what a critical reading of a book should look like. What I like most is that Ashleigh couches her analysis in an appreciation of the author’s goal “to breathe life into the thoughts and feelings of [her] three characters.” Here is just one paragraph from the follow up:
However, there are other instances when again, I (as an academic reader) would have liked to have seen more “source mining”/interrogation to separate facts from Civil War era biases or misperceptions. One example of this instance is on page 201, with reference to the harassing females of Winchester. The citation for this is the New York Times, June 5, 1862. I have no doubt that, like the women of New Orleans, the women of Winchester were indeed a feisty bunch in their occupied town; however, I found myself wondering how many of the things reported by the Times article may have been an exaggeration to make Confederate women look even worse to northern readers. Of course even the letters of a Union soldier in Winchester to his family about such atrocities might also be filled with some exaggerations, but I wish there had been some additional first-person sources to back up these claims, since newspaper coverage on both sides during the war could often be so sensationalized. You note this earlier in the book for the endnotes corresponding to page 34, in which you rightly acknowledge that newspapers on both sides often exaggerated the atrocities committed by the other side, in reference to Confederates’ disfigurement of Union corpses following First Manassas. However, even in this note, the citations are to a couple of newspapers and a book published by a Union soldier in 1864, when bitterness and animosity between North and South was at its climax. I would have liked to have seen additional documentation, that you indeed say exists, that perhaps would not have been so (potentially) tainted by the sensationalist tendencies of newspapers and books written with a purposeful bias or from a “propagandist” perspective.
Ashleigh states up front that her assessment of the book is that of an “academic reader.” To Abbott’s credit she offers a thoughtful response that acknowledges Ashleigh’s critique, but her supplement to the initial review offers something more for the rest of us. Based on the initial review, I have no doubt that Abbott’s book is a thoughtful and well written narrative about the adventures of four women during the Civil War and the broader subject of gender and war. I will likely read it once I have the opportunity, but what Ashleigh’s review supplement reflects is not only a deep understanding of the history, but the critical role that proper training in the interpretation of historical sources plays in shaping the final product.
So, the next time someone asks what skills professional historians bring to the table, show them Ashleigh’s review supplement.