A Quick Word About Historiography and Popular History

I am charging through T.J. Stiles’s new biography of George Armstrong Custer, which I agreed to review for The Daily Beast. I’ve read his previous biographies of Jesse James and Cornelius Vanderbilt and enjoyed both immensely. It’s always challenging to read a popular Civil War title and those of us immersed in the field know why. We can’t help but judge the author’s grasp of historiography. It’s already happening with Stile’s Custer biography.

I’ve heard from a number of people who are frustrated by the author’s interpretation of George McClellan. Stiles relies very heavily on Stephen Sears’s book on the Peninsula Campaign, Antietam and his biography of McClellan. He also utilizes Richard Slotkin’s recent book on Antietam, which received very mixed reviews. To be fair, Stiles’s grasp of the relevant literature is broader if you take the time to peruse the endnotes, but his understanding of McClellan is certainly weighed down by Sears and Slotkin.

Does it matter? I know some people would prefer to see Ethan Rafuse’s biography utilized more extensively to gauge McClellan or campaign studies by Joseph Harsh and Scott Hartwig, but this arguably tells us more about some of our own interests than it does about the goals of this particular book. The central question for me is whether the depth of the research impacts a crucial point of interpretation.

I don’t see that as of yet in this biography, but I am only about one hundred pages into it. What readers of this book must understand is that Stiles is not writing a military history or even a military biography. He is interested in much broader questions that track how well individuals like Custer, Vanderbilt, and James adapted to or anticipated change on a grand scale during the mid-nineteenth century.

It’s not that ‘this book wasn’t written for us.’ Quite the contrary. We just need to refrain from assuming that our understanding of the historiography is a prerequisite for writing about some aspect of the Civil War. Books by Stephen Sears and Richard Slotkin are legitimate sources even with everything that has followed.

Anyway, that’s all for now. Back to reading.

16 comments add yours

  1. Fill me in, what is wrong with Sears and Stiles? How is rafuse better?

  2. It’s a point I have to make quite regularly to my students when they’re reviewing scholarship: Just because you’ve identified a gap, a (potential) error, a bias, a weak citation, etc, doesn’t mean that you’ve actually got a substantive criticism, unless you can show how it actually affected the argument. Potential problems are not the same thing as actual problems.

    • Just because you’ve identified a gap, a (potential) error, a bias, a weak citation, etc, doesn’t mean that you’ve actually got a substantive criticism, unless you can show how it actually affected the argument. Potential problems are not the same thing as actual problems.

      Couldn’t have said it any better.

  3. Nothing wrong with Sears; Rafuse is an apologia.

    The verdict on GBM is he failed to hold the confidence of his superiors, which is the basic requirement for any soldier, officer or enlisted; without that confidence, there is no way to create success on the battlefield.

    Best,

      • Okay, that’s too harsh (not a pun); Rafuse’s book is a solid biography (haven’t read Rowland yet), but if the point (in terms of why do the book) is to try and answer the question why GBM was a failure as a military commander in 1861-62, the answer is pretty clear – his boss(es) saw him as one, because he was one.

        The reality he was a war Democrat influenced by conservative Whig principles and unwilling to take truly calculated risks isn’t exactly new; he was seen as such at the time

        There’s a school of thought that somehow GBM was treated improperly; in reality, compared to the other three GinCs (Scott, Halleck, and Grant) or the other theater/department/army group equivalent/multi-corps army commanding generals (McDowell, Buell, Grant, Halleck, Pope, Rosecrans, Burnside, Hooker, Meade, Sherman, Thomas, Sheridan, or Ord, he got as many or more bites at the apple as any of them, in terms of resources and opportunities to use them, and a lot more than most, without delivering what he was in his position to accomplish.

        There’s only so long any officer can continue to fail to deliver before his (or her) superiors decide they can do better; and if the response is GBM did the best he could (because of his own shortcomings, or some shortcoming, real or not, in terms of support from the NCE), he should have resigned his commission … and, if he was serious about it, gone into the ranks.

  4. Stiles’s bio of Jesse James is revisionist history at its best. Scholarly yet readable. It changed the way we viewed the war in Missouri and its aftermath. Ethan’s interpretation of McC is likewise revisionism par excellence. Although the Peninsula was a strategic failure (yet filled with tactical successes), the Maryland Campaign was not. I am one historian who would characterize it as a clear-cut victory. (Tom Clemens: feel free to chime in . . . .) @ TF: “The verdict on GBM is he failed to hold the confidence of his superiors, which is the basic requirement for any soldier, officer or enlisted; without that confidence, there is no way to create success on the battlefield.” I thought the basic requirement of a commander was/is to win victories? McClellan was, at worst, a .500 hitter–one loss (Peninsula), one victory (Antietam). Can’t count Second Mananas, since he basically was only a spectator. If you throw in the 1861 (West) Virginia Campaign (which I am loathe to do), McC’s record is two wins, one loss.

    • Hi Mark,

      Stiles’s bio of Jesse James is revisionist history at its best. Scholarly yet readable.

      I agree and I think it is the best example of the broader interpretive framework (i.e., tension between the pre- and postwar periods and how well individuals adjusted to it) that Stiles applies.

  5. Mark –

    Only if one is willing to conflate the entire Peninsula campaign (Yorktown/Williamsburg, Hanover/Seven Pines, Seven Days/Oak Grove, Mechanicsville, Gaines’ Mill, Savage’s Station, Glendale, Malvern Hill) , into a single battle; since it was not, and since the campaign was lost and imposed significant opportunity costs on the freedom of action of the US forces in the eastern theater, and led directly to the strategic situation that led to 2nd Manassas, and since it was GBM’s own strategic branchild, than … no.

    In terms of battledfield results, GBM – as a combat cmmander – consistently failed to deliver much of anything, other than an overly politicized albeit usually well-organized field army.

    I am unaware of any senior US commander in the conflict who amassed a similar record of failure as GBM’s, especially given the resources and freedom of action provided to him; given the realties of how and why (for example) Buell and Rosecrans were both relieved (and for that matter, Pope), then GBM got more bites at the apple than any of them.

    Again, compare GBM to the other three GinCs (Scott, Halleck, and Grant) … Or the other theater/department/army group equivalent/multi-corps army commanding generals (McDowell, Buell, Grant, Halleck, Pope, Rosecrans, Burnside, Hooker, Meade, Sherman, Thomas, Sheridan, or Ord).

    GBM got as many or more opportunities as any of them, in terms of resources and opportunities to use them, and a lot more than most, and yet he still did was never able to deliver what he was in his position to accomplish.

    There’s only so long any officer can continue to fail before his (or her) superiors decide they can do better; and if the response is GBM did the best he could (because of his own shortcomings, or some perceived shortcoming, real or not, in terms of support from the NCA), then he should have resigned his commission.

    Shut up and soldier is what is expected from a subordinate, and GBM was, most definitely, subordinate to Lincoln, Cameron, and/or Stanton, and for much of his career, to Scott or Halleck – yet he appears not to have ever understood that…

    Best,

    • Concerning the Peninsula Campaign, you basically agree with me. I called it a strategic loss filled with tactical victories (except Gaines’s Mill). The campaign record still stands: two wins, one loss. Add WV and it’s three wins, one loss. You and I apparently have different definitions about what constitute victories and defeats. (I’m leaving personalities and politics out of the equation at this point.)

      • The point is simply that GBM never delivered on his assignment, and yet got – at least – two opportunities to do so, which is one more than Pope, Buell, Burnside, Hooker, and Rosecrans all received.

        The Peninsula Campaign was GBM’s brainchild, and he failed utterly, and with more resources than any other US commander save Halleck ever got in 1862; likewise, although GBM managed not to lose the Antietam/Maryland Campaign, his victory was less complete than Meade’s a year later – the same result would have occurred in Maryland if the Army of the Potomac had simply remained on the defensive at Antietam, rather than launching repeated completely uncoordinated attacks by corps.

        Not surprising that after Antietam, GBM had lost the confidence of his superiors. The fact he sulked in his tent for the next three years of the war says much, as well.

        Best,

        • Task Force Smith:

          Except for Grant, Sherman and Sheridan, EVERY army commander lost the confidence of the Lincoln administration. Nonetheless, when McClellan was called upon after 2nd Manassas, he delivered–with a newly reorganized Army of the Potomac. I won’t debate you on the merits of McClellan’s tactical plan at Antietam. Too tedious. But, he won. You may have the last word, if you desire.

  6. I read the Vanderbilt biography by Stiles and thought it was very good.

    He was sort of the Donald Trump of his day.

  7. I have enjoyed the back and forth on the successes and failures of the Peninsula Campaign. It brings a thought to mind though and I am curious how everyone else interprets this.

    If McClellan HAD captured Richmond in May/June 1862, what would have happened? My feeling is that the Confederacy would have just continued on. At that point they still had Vicksburg, Chattanooga and Atlanta. The interior of the Confederacy had not been pierced by the March to the Sea and southern soldiers were not deserting in droves due to the drain of the Petersburg siege. Even if Lee’s army could not escape, they would not have been so drained as they found themselves after Appomattox and perhaps would have turned to a guerrilla war in the mountains.

    Bottom line, the capture of Richmond in 1865 came at a perfect time in terms of a low point in southern morale. Had the capture taken place in 1862 when the Confederacy was not been beaten down enough to accept surrender, who knows what ills could have followed.

  8. Losing Virginia, both the Richmond area’s industry and the Shenandoah, would have been a blow even greater, in a relative sense, as the loss of Tennessee the same year. Without the wealth – agriculture, horseflesh, population, etc – of one was bad enough; of both in 1862 raises a real question about whether the rebellion could be sustained.

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